FPI Bulletin: In Syria, Armed Opposition Advances but Assad Endures

May 15, 2015

Recent gains by armed opposition forces have rekindled the hope that Bashar al-Assad’s brutal dictatorship is coming to an end in Syria. In reality, while neither Assad nor the armed opposition is yet capable of defeating the other, their enduring battle is destroying Syria, destabilizing the region, and driving thousands to join ISIS and al-Qaeda. Had President Obama moved swiftly to train and equip moderate opposition forces, they could now exploit Assad’s weakness. Instead, the initiative now belongs to Islamist forces and Assad’s backers in Tehran. Despite these setbacks, there is yet an opportunity for the United States to act to protect the Syrian people and lay the foundation for a positive outcome.

Moderates and Islamists Fight Together

This spring, a new coalition of opposition fighters assaulted the regime’s forces in Idlib province in northwest Syria, where they ultimately captured the provincial capital, also named Idlib. It is only the second provincial capital to fall to opposition forces, the first being ar-Raqqa, now held by ISIS. The fall of Idlib reflects improved cooperation among Syrian opposition groups, increased assistance from outside forces, and a diminished regime presence in the area. 

In Foreign Policy, Charles Lister of the Brookings Institution observes, “the recent [Idlib] offensive brought together many groups holding very different ideologies,” including “U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades, to moderate and conservative Syrian Islamists, to al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and several independent jihadist factions.” This coalition now calls itself the Army of Conquest.

This coalition on the ground reflects newfound cooperation among their foreign sponsors, primarily Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, who have reconciled after years of backing competing opposition groups. Lister reports quiet American approval of this new arrangement, despite the prominent role of Islamist forces. Rebel commanders told him that “the U.S.-led operations room in southern Turkey…appears to have dramatically increased its level of assistance and provision of intelligence to vetted groups in recent weeks.”

Finally, the success of the opposition speaks to the Assad’s regime’s inability to reinforce its positions in Idlib. According to a recent report by Christopher Kozak of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), by mid-2014, “The Assad regime had deprioritized its positions in northwestern Syria” and had “forfeited most of Idlib Province to opposition fighters.”

Assad Weak but Enduring

While acknowledging setbacks, Assad continues to implement a strategy that combines defense of key population centers with a war of attrition against his adversaries. According to Kozak, Assad’s preference for defensive operations forces the opposition into “long-running siege operations for minimal investment of regime manpower.” Even so, the regime is hurting. Lister notes that the Syrian Army has been reduced from an initial strength of approximately 300,000 troops to a 2014 estimate of 150,000-175,000 men. In addition, Assad appears to rely “on a small but loyal core of elite forces” that are being “continually redirect[ed]…against emergent threats in a reactive manner.”

According to Kozak, the regime now relies on “a constellation of regular and irregular forces” to make up for these shortfalls.  This includes 60,000-100,000 regime loyalists in paramilitary groups and militias to help hold territory and key supply routes; some 7,000-8,000 Iran-backed Shiite foreign fighters drawn predominately from Hezbollah but also including Iraqi Shia militias; and as many as a “few hundred” members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to provide “intelligence, paramilitary training, and senior-level advisory support to the Assad regime” and also “IRGC trainers directly embedded with pro-regime forces.” 

Chemical Weapons Return

Assad also continues to employ chemical weapons, despite his 2013 agreement to hand over his arsenal in order to avert U.S. airstrikes. Kozak explains that Assad has continued to use chemical weapons “to set the conditions for ground offensives against opposition strongholds or prevent opposition advances in areas where the regime cannot deploy large amounts of ground forces.”  The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reports “compelling confirmation” that chlorine—often used for industrial purposes, but nonetheless lethal and prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Syria is a party—was used “systematically and repeatedly” in attacks in Syria. In all, the Assad regime stands accused of launching nearly 40 chemical attacks since the 2013 agreement. 

Furthermore, the New York Times reports that “traces of banned toxic chemicals” were found “in at least three military locations in Syria.” Assad had agreed to hand over these chemicals, including sarin, ricin, and VX, under its 2013 agreement.  A Western diplomat told the Times,  “the strong suspicion is they [the regime] are retaining stockpiles which are being held back…This, and the open defiance in using prohibited chlorine bombs, is indicative of bad faith from the beginning.” Reporters Josh Rogin and Eli Lake of Bloomberg View add that the OPCW informed the Obama administration of its findings early this year, but the President has not yet decided how to respond.

Ending America’s Paralysis

The Obama administration remains paralyzed by an internal debate about whether it can defeat ISIS while Assad remains in power. Thus it continues to resist measures to strengthen the opposition, especially the establishment of a no-fly zone for Assad’s air force and a safe zone on the ground for the opposition. While professing support for the moderate opposition, the pace and scale of the U.S. training effort remains deficient.

A no-fly zone would protect the Syrian people from the regime’s relentless bombing of civilian targets, yet the administration weakly protests that it would be too difficult to establish one. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently testified that establishing a no fly zone in Syria would be “a difficult thing to contemplate…and challenging” and even described the establishment and enforcement of these safe zones as “a major combat mission.”

However, Christopher Harmer from the Institute for the Study of War has illustrated how the United States could neutralize the Assad regime’s air power with a limited strike using stand-off air and naval assets.  This “could be accomplished with no U.S. military personnel entering Syrian airspace or territory, at relatively small cost.” In hopes of pushing the administration to reconsider its stance, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce and Ranking Member Eliot Engel have submitted a measure that would require from the executive branch “a report to assess the effectiveness and operational requirements of establishing a no-fly zone in Syria.”

The creation of a safe zone on the ground, adjacent to the Turkish border, would complement a no-fly zone in the air. According to Ambassador Dennis Ross, who served as senior director for Middle Eastern affairs in the Obama White House, establishing a safe zone is vital because “Nothing would do more to change the realities on the ground in Syria. It could provide a place for the roughly 6 million people displaced in Syria to go and respond to a humanitarian imperative; it could revitalize a more secular Syrian opposition by giving them a base to develop in Syria.”  More importantly, Ross writes, “it would show that time is running out for Assad and affect both the Russian and Iranian calculus about the value of looking for a real political process to settle the conflict.”

The consequences of the Syrian conflict are staggering—more than 220,000 killed, 11.5 million refugees, a devastated nation, destabilized region, and the rise of ISIS.   Unless and until the United States takes the action necessary to bolster a moderate Syrian opposition, the conflict will remain at a deadly standstill. 

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