Can Assad (and Putin) reconquer all Syria?
This week's recapture of the Wadi Barada enclave outside Damascus by the Bashar Assad regime's forces points to a deft strategy by the regime and its Russian backers. The valley had been excluded from the supposed "ceasefire" because of the presence there of a small number of fighters from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—the former Nusra Front, which was officially excluded from the ceasefire. This means, effectively, the ceasefire not only doesn't apply to ex-Nusra, but also does not apply to any forces that have (often of necessity) allied with ex-Nusra—or even that just happen to be near ex-Nusra and not actively fighting them. This strategy seems to have had the desired effect. Nusra's former ally, Ahrar al-Sham, is now reported to have turned on Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, sparking an internal civil war within rebel-held areas of Idlib governorate. (Al Jazeera, Feb. 2; Al Jazeera, Jan. 29)
The rebels—even the Islamist ones like Ahrar al-Sham—have already been maneuvered into fighting the regime's enemies rather than the regime, for the moment at least. This brings us a step closer to the regime's (and Vladimir Putin's) apparent aim of turning those areas controlled by Nusra or ISIS into kill zones where nobody is safe.
The pressures on the rebels to accept this are evident. Turkey has traditionally been the strongest backer of the Syrian rebels and most intransigent opponent of Assad. Since entering into its deal with Russia, Turkey's position has flipped almost entirely. Ankara's deputy prime minister Mehmet Simsek, speaking at the Russian-sponsored peace talks in Kazakhstan, now says it is no longer "realistic" to insist on a solution to the Syrian conflict that excludes Assad. (RFE/RL, Jan.21)
And then there is the question of the Kurds. At the insistence (we may assume) of both Ankara and Damascus, no Kurdish representatives were invited to the Kazakhstan talks. But as they were underway, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in Moscow with leaders of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), ruling party of Syria's Kurdish autonomous zone. Reports indicate Lavrov attempted to sell the PYD a deal that would entail a new constitution for Syria, restricting the power of the presidency and devolving many powers to parliament and a new "Assembly of Regions." Under the draft, the president would serve for seven years with no option for a second consecutive term. (Al Monitor, Jan. 29)
In other words, the pay-off for a decentralized federal model in which the Kurds can keep their autonomous zone is to be war criminal Assad rewarded with another seven years in power. With an option to renew after another seven years with a groomed proxy at the helm.
Organizations of Syria's civil resistance issued a statement on the Kazakhstan meeting, placing some hope in the peace talks and noting that they were endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 2336. But the statement demanded greater transparency in the talks, in order for them to "be a prelude to a credible political process that will lead to the realization of the Syrian people's aspirations in freedom, justice and dignity."
Amid all this, the US has been dramatically stepping up air-strikes on ISIS-held territory along the Syrian border in Iraq since Donald Trump's inauguration—resulting in the killing of civilian farmers and nomads as well as ISIS militans, of course. Pan-Arab daily al-Araby al-Jadeed reported that "more than 50 air raids were carried out by international coalition forces during the past eight days on desert border areas, on cities and areas located on the Euphrates river." It added that "these raids killed more than 40 civilians in IS-held areas. Most of the victims are nomads and villagers." (Middle East Eye, Feb. 5)
This would appear to be an effort to cut ISIS forces within Iraq off from "Islamic State" territory in Syria—and to reconstitute the border, which had become essentially fictional under ISIS control.
The defeat of ISIS and Nusra are certainly outcomes to be welcomed—as would be the survival of the Kurdish autonomous zone. But if these are concomitant with an international effort to back Assad in his pledge to reconquer all Syria and extend the life of his dictatorship, the whole thing could fall apart. Syria's rebels and civil resistance, even betrayed and isolated as they currently are, are unlikely to accept this—and still have enough power to be deal-breakers.