Syrian conflict headed in dangerous new direction

Syrian conflict headed in dangerous new direction

Despite intermittent ceasefires, a number of factors suggest that the Syrian conflict is heading into a dangerous new direction for the West and the opposition forces.

Fighting continues to rage in Aleppo despite the regime saying it would extend the truce another 48 hours and the US and Russia trying to revive the Syrian peace process. International observers hope the ceasefire, which began at 1am local time on Tuesday, can revive the faltering Geneva peace process, which was dashed when opposition forces claimed the government’s repeated violations, including the targeting of civilians, made an agreement untenable.

But a number of worrying developments mean a lull in violence will likely be temporary as the conflict heads in a dangerous new direction. These developments – which include the regime’s campaign to capture Aleppo, the rise of the al-Nusra Front, and the continued limited involvement from the US – portend a grim future for the conflict.

Although an eventual government recapture of Aleppo could signal a political agreement of sorts, it will almost certainly be on terms favourable to Assad. For the West, whose stance on Assad has softened, that might offer an underwhelming end to a war that has spiralled out of its control. But for Syrian opposition and its numerous allies in the region, it would be a crushing blow.

Fighting in Aleppo likely to increase

While the Syrian uprising began in the southern city of Deraa, the northern city of Aleppo has seen some of the conflict’s fiercest fighting since rebels pushed to take the city in 2012. The offensive was aimed at establishing an alternative capital to rival Damascus. Since then, the city has been roughly divided between Assad’s forces, focused in the west, and the rebels, who control parts of the east.

In February, however, the Syrian regime, with the help of Russian airstrikes and Iranian and Hezbollah ground forces, began ramping up its campaign to recapture Aleppo, leading to hundreds of deaths. Despite ceasefires and an ongoing peace process in Geneva, Assad will likely continue his campaign given Aleppo’s strategic importance.  

Knowing he can’t reclaim all of Syria, President Assad has moved to confine rebel forces by cutting their supply lines between the borders and the interior, including Turkey in the north. Retaking Aleppo and isolating opposition forces this way would leave them even more fragmented. Disconnected from one another, the regime could then negotiate ceasefires with different factions on an ad hoc basis while wielding the most influence over a possible long-term political agreement.

In addition, “liberating” Aleppo would also boost Assad’s popular legitimacy. Syria’s President still enjoys the support of a majority and boasts control of the major cities of Hama, Homs and Damascus. A win in Aleppo would deal a major blow to the alternative project. Equally, a resounding victory in Aleppo might convince the rebels that the opportunity to topple Assad has passed, forcing them to accept a far more realistic political solution.  

Given this, violence will intensify as Assad tries to retake Aleppo. Should he seize and hold onto Aleppo, moreover, the conflict would swing so far into the government’s favour that a political solution might eventuate. ‘The war,’ a US defence official told The Daily Beast, would be ‘essentially over’.

Al-Nusra benefits from a weakened opposition

One group that has capitalised on the faltering peace talks has been the al-Nusra Front. Having assumed a leading role in capturing northern Idlib from Basher al-Assad’s regime between March and June 2015, the group has waged campaigns in Hama and Latakia.

It now has set its sights Aleppo, a city it was forced to flee after a resounding defeat by ISIS in mid-2014.     

Unrestrained by any truce, the group has made a notable return to Aleppo in recent weeks. Over the weekend, in fact, al-Nusra claimed it had killed dozens of pro-government fighters while capturing Khan Touman in southern Aleppo, opening a vital supply line between Aleppo and Idlib, its headquarters an hour’s drive north; the government has since hit back with airstrikes. It has now reasserted itself on the battlefield and poses a credible threat to the regime in parts of Aleppo’s south.  

Of particular concern for the West, meanwhile, are reports that al-Nusra plants to create an emirate in Idlib by the end of 2016. In January, al-Nusra failed to convince rival Sunni factions to merge. But with other opposition forces now facing unprecedented challenges amidst a seven-month Russian onslaught, the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, urged the rebels to unite in speech entitled “Go Forth to the Levant”, released on Sunday. He dismissed rumours of a possible rift between al-Qaeda and the al-Nusra Front.

With al-Nusra gaining momentum, its goal of establishing an emirate might soon be achieved. That would have grave consequences for the other opposition forces, who would have to back the powerful emirate, or run up against it. For now, they have rejected al-Nusra’s overtures. Yet faced with fighting the powerful group – with upwards of 15,000-20,000 fighters – while being targeted by Russian and regime airstrikes, they might have little choice. Finally, with the so-called moderates being squeezed out — as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been by the rise of ISIS in the east — a political solution to the crisis would become even more improbable.

US involvement will remain limited

These alarming developments come at a time when US influence has waned ahead of a presidential election in November. Even with a possible humanitarian crisis looming, in which 400,000 people might be forced to flee Aleppo, President Obama has resisted deepening US involvement in a conflict that has badly damaged his presidential legacy.

Instead, Washington is relying on diplomatic measures including unilateral ceasefire agreements with Russia and the resumption of peace talks in Geneva. Yet this is a dangerous gamble given that the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, says Moscow’s influence over Damascus is limited and the Geneva talks remain stillborn. Moreover, the US refuses to give material support to the rebels, despite the CIA identifying more than 50 separate FSA they could arm. With moderate groups suffering heavy losses in Aleppo, this could favour the al-Nusra Front, who have grown in strength and confidence of late and are selling themselves as the most credible force resisting Assad and the botched agreements.  

Still, a new president will focus on domestic issues instead of wading into a complex and seemingly unwinnable foreign conflict, despite hawkish rhetoric from presumptive nominees Clinton and Trump. That means greater US involvement – and a possible political solution – is unlikely until at least 2017, when the facts on the ground might have changed irreversibly. After six years, the conflict is quickly running away from the West and the opposition forces.

About Author

Andrew Manners

Mr Manners currently resides in the United Kingdom, where he works in a number of research roles in property, global politics, and international law. He has previously worked as a Research Analyst at Future Directions International, a Perth-based think-tank in Australia, where he focused on issues relating to East Africa and Indonesia. His commentary and and analysis has been featured on ABC News, ABC Radio National and Sky News, while his security studies articles have been cited in academic journals. More recently, he completed a Master's degree in Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding from Durham University. His recent research projects include a conflict studies trip to Lebanon, where he interviewed senior members of Hezbollah, and a policy initiative for Durham Law school focusing on the role of legal norms in international conflict negotiations.