By Jacob Shapiro
Just six months ago, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had been left for dead. According to various reports, half of the Syrian army had either defected or been destroyed. Rebels in northwest Syria were advancing on the Alawite coastal stronghold, directly threatening majority Alawite territory in Latakia. The Islamic State was blowing up historical monuments in Palmyra, and there were fears that IS’s dream of taking over Damascus could become a reality. The Syrian civil war had become a war of attrition, and eventually Assad would either have to give himself up or suffer the same fate as Moammar Gadhafi.
Since Russia began carrying out airstrikes against Syrian rebels in September, the situation on the ground has changed. The Assad regime is not yet safe, but it has made significant gains in recent months. If one looks at the world from Assad’s perspective, survival no longer has to be the sole goal. For Assad and his allies, it is not hubris to begin thinking in terms of victory.
For Assad, victory in the Syrian civil war consists of satisfying three military objectives. The first, and most important, is the security of the Alawite homeland along the Mediterranean coast. This hilly territory stretches from south of Tartus, where the Russians maintain a naval base, to north of Latakia. From 1920 to 1936, this territory was officially called the Alawite State, one of five states the French created to administer Syria. In size, the land where Alawites are the majority population in Syria is slightly smaller than present-day Lebanon. For the Assad regime, maintaining a close relationship with Hezbollah and thereby projecting Syrian influence into Lebanon is also an important part of securing the Alawite territory.
The second objective is maintaining control over the territory connecting Damascus and Aleppo, which also includes Hama and Homs. Control of this territory is critical for two reasons. First, it provides strategic depth for the Alawite region. Without control of these population centers, the Alawites would have a precarious hold on a state smaller in size than Israel. Second, this is one of the two areas in Syria where Sunni Arabs make up the majority of the population – the other being the fertile banks of of the Euphrates River, which are now claimed by the Islamic State. The Syrian civil war has in many respects become a tribal, ethnic and sectarian conflict. But many Sunni Arabs still fight on the side of the Assad regime, either out of loyalty to the Syrian state, or because the regime is still providing basic services throughout most of this territory. The alternatives are also underwhelming: fractured and squabbling secular rebels, “moderate” Islamist groups like Ahrar al-Sham and the more radical Syrian al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Islamic State. Control over this area cannot be imposed solely through military might, though that is the first step; the Sunni Arabs living in Aleppo, Homs, Hama and Damascus must also identify their prosperity and security with the regime’s.
The third objective is securing the strategic depth necessary to defend this core territory from would-be attackers, be they Islamic State fighters or the Turks. This necessitates the creation of a buffer area between Syrian government forces and their enemies, which may force Assad to relinquish control of some land to another group, such as the Kurds. Assad gave his first address to the Syrian people in over a year on July 26, 2015. In that speech, he said, “concern for our soldiers forces us to let go of some areas.” At the time, Assad forces were on the retreat outside of the northwestern city of Idlib. But the portions of territory Assad can live without are not in Idlib or Aleppo province. The expendable parts of Syria from Assad’s perspective are currently controlled by the Syrian Kurds and by the Islamic State.
Creating a Buffer Zone
In July 2012, Assad evacuated his forces from much of northern Syria, turning control over to the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG. There is a de facto non-aggression pact in effect between Assad and the Syrian Kurds. The main objective of the Syrian Kurds is to link their territory in northeastern Syria with the majority Kurdish population in Afrin, a region northwest of Aleppo. Standing in the way of this goal are Islamic State forces, Syrian rebel forces and a watchful Turkey. The Syrian Kurds have no interest in venturing further south into Aleppo or Idlib. If the Syrian Kurds were to achieve the creation of a contiguous Rojava, or Western Kurdistan, much of Syria’s border with Turkey would become a border with a much friendlier entity from Assad’s perspective.
The Syrian Kurds are not only neutral towards Assad. They have engendered the goodwill of the United States both for their willingness to attack Islamic State positions in northeastern Syria and their success in doing so. The existence of an even tacitly U.S.-supported entity between Syria and Turkey would represent a significant buffer for Assad from his sworn enemies in Turkey.
Clashes between the Assad regime and the Islamic State have occurred but have been more limited than the Assad regime’s battle with rebel forces. This is in part due to where Assad and IS forces are located – as we have examined previously, taking control of much of the territory currently held by pro-Assad forces is not in IS’s interest. Pro-Assad forces have battled the Islamic State around Aleppo and Assad does not want IS to become strong enough to expand the territory of its “caliphate.” But the mere existence of the Islamic State gives Assad a much needed modicum of global legitimacy. All Assad must do to justify support of his government is point to the budding totalitarian regime that his forces are fighting against. Therefore, although Assad needs to ensure that the Islamic State cannot threaten the Syrian core, he also has an interest in seeing IS continue to pose enough of a threat that the Western world will see his regime as a better alternative to IS.
To be sure, losing this territory in eastern Syria would represent a significant loss for the Syria Assad inherited from his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000. The land held by the Syrian Kurds accounted for more than 20 percent of Syria’s total wheat production before the civil war began. Syria’s oil production pre-2011 was modest relative to some of the other regional heavyweights but still accounted for nearly 25 percent of total state revenue. Now, much of the region where this oil is located is in the hands of the Kurds or IS. But these resources are ultimately luxuries. For Assad, the real key to securing Syria’s future is achieving the three objectives mentioned above.
Assad’s Recent Gains
Recent developments in Syria indicate that Assad is making progress on each of these objectives. The governor of Turkey’s Kilis border province said on Feb. 6 that up to 35,000 Syrian refugees had gathered in the town of Azaz in a span of 48 hours, doubling the size of the town, and that up to 70,000 more could be on the way. The U.N. said 20,000 refugees were waiting in the cold at the nearby Bab al-Salama border crossing, which was closed by Turkish authorities. Meanwhile, 140 miles to the west, Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority said 2,000 Turkmen refugees from Syria crossed into Turkish territory on Feb. 6 alone. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said more than 5,000 Turkmens had fled to Turkey in the last week. The movements of these refugees are the result of twin Assad regime offensives, backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
The first of these offensives is in northwest Syria, where the Assad regime has been pushing against opposition forces since Nov. 19, 2015. This is the same region where Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on Nov. 24. At the time, we noted that Turkey did not shoot down the plane because Russia violated its airspace for 17 seconds. Rather, the order had been given in advance because Russian support was allowing the Assad regime to take control of this strategic area. Assad regime forces have successfully pushed rebels back and are ready to begin staging an attack on Jisr al-Shughour, a small rebel-held city in western Idlib. The Alawite-majority region is more secure than it has been at any point in the last six months, and all signs point towards pro-Assad forces continuing to press their advantage to drive the rebels back.
The second offensive has been a multi-pronged effort to take back Aleppo and has been ongoing since Oct. 15, 2015. Here, forces loyal to Assad and backed by Russian air support have made slow but methodical gains. The IS siege of Kuweires air base ended in November and the Syrian air force has been flying sorties out of the air base since Dec. 15. In addition, the Russians have deployed hundreds of personnel and air defense systems to the base in the past week. South of Aleppo, Assad regime forces have fought the Syrian al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and have pushed forward over 10 miles, most recently taking the town of Khan Tuman. North of Aleppo, forces loyal to Assad fought their way to the besieged towns of Nubl and Zahraa on Feb. 3. This puts these forces in control of crucial supply lines for the rebels between their forces battling Aleppo and Turkey. There is still a great deal of hard fighting ahead for pro-Assad forces to take Aleppo and then move on to Idlib and the Jabhat al-Nusra and rebel strongholds, but their prospects in the region have improved.
Assad then has made progress in achieving all the military objectives necessary for securing Syria’s future. The last thing that must be considered is the state of the Syrian army itself. Syrian security sources have told multiple Western news outlets that there are 25 pro-Assad militias active in Syria right now, with between 150,000 and 200,000 fighters. These numbers are likely inflated, but the largest of these militias is the National Defense Force, reportedly trained by the Iranians and numbering as many as 100,000 fighters from different sects. There are also several Shiite militias, made up of Shiite volunteers trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, which have stabilized Assad’s ranks.
These fighters, along with the support of the Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah, are what have turned the tide for Assad. But Assad is also thinking in terms of how to integrate these militias into the state’s apparatus. A report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace indicated that in December 2014, Assad decreed that 50 percent of government jobs would be given to family members of those who died fighting for the regime in the security forces and the militias. The Syrian army was already dominated by the Alawites, but integrating new fighters into that structure as pro-Assad forces enjoy more successes will be important.
Looming large over Assad are a few potential arrestors. His forces must continue to subdue rebels in Aleppo and Idlib. The Islamic State has proved a resilient foe and may possess sufficient strength to make subduing the group in Syrian core territories extremely difficult. All the while, Assad must re-establish both political and military power for his regime.
But none of these challenges for Assad are bigger than the shadow cast by Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been an opponent of the Assad regime from the beginning of the conflict. Indeed, Turkey has been an enemy of the Assad family for decades. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia want to see the Iranian-backed Assad regime fall; neither want to return to the pre-Arab Spring days of Iran projecting an arc of Shiite influence from Tehran all the way to the Mediterranean coast. Turkey has supported the rebels with equipment, money and training. But Russia’s intervention in the conflict has rendered that support ineffective.
There are numerous challenges for Turkey if it were to intervene directly in Syria. A low-level insurgency of Turkish Kurds continues in southeastern Turkey. The United States would not look kindly on Turkey crossing into territory held by the Syrian Kurds, who have continued to press against the Islamic State in eastern Syria with Western support. The Turks would not be welcomed with open arms – Syrian Arabs, no matter their allegiance, are not interested in trading an Alawite master for a Turkish one.
But Turkey has the requisite military strength to take on Assad’s forces and to deal them a crippling blow. Turkey also has the backing of the United States and can use the threat of the Islamic State as ample reason to cross into Syrian territory. Russia has turned the tide in many respects for Assad – but Russia’s deployment in Syria is relatively limited. Turkey can bring much greater force to bear in the region if it wants. And Turkey sees in Assad not just a non-Sunni nuisance. It sees an aggressive actor on its southern border, backed by Russia and Iran. For Turkey, Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war is not just about propping up Assad: it’s a direct Russian challenge to Turkish power. Assad then must walk a delicate line. He needs Russian support to win the war – but he cannot afford a situation in which Turkey feels sufficiently threatened to the point that it intervenes directly in the conflict on the side of the rebels. Building buffer zones on the border and boosting its legitimacy by fighting against IS are both ways of addressing this strategic problem.
Bashar al-Assad was never supposed to be in this situation. He was not the heir apparent – he attended graduate school in London for ophthalmology. Fate, however, is indifferent to such things. In 1994, his older brother Bassel al-Assad died. Bashar then returned home and was groomed to take over for his father, Hafez al-Assad. When protests begin in Syria in 2011, Bashar cracked down on the protestors, but not as hard as his father would have. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Islamists in Syria, including many associated with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, staged guerilla attacks throughout the country, even attempting to assassinate Hafez. Hafez responded in 1982 by sending the Syrian army to Hama, one of the focal points of the resistance to his rule, razing the city and massacring somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 people.
Henry Kissinger said the following of Hafez al-Assad: “Assad never lost his aplomb. He negotiated daringly and tenaciously like a riverboat gambler to make sure that he exacted the last sliver of available concessions. I once told him that I had seen negotiators who deliberately moved themselves to the edge of a precipice to show that they had no further margin of maneuver. I had even known negotiators who put one foot over the edge, in effect threatening their own suicide. He was the only one who would actually jump off the precipice, hoping that on his way down he could break his fall by grabbing a tree he knew to be there.”
Whoever Bashar al-Assad was when the Syrian civil war began, he was always his father’s son. Assad has resisted every outside pressure to surrender, from U.S. airstrikes to Turkish troops massing on his border. When the hour was grim and rebel forces seemed poised to invade the Alawite homeland, Assad was defiant and his forces rallied. Assad’s allies have now come to his aid, and while the diplomats argue in Geneva and other cities, his forces are making the kinds of gains that will allow his regime to endure. Assad still faces many challenges, but one can’t help but wonder if Assad threw himself off the precipice only to have grabbed a tree and regained his footing on the way down.