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The Syrian rebellion enters its endgame

Syrian rebel in Aleppo, Syria [File photo]
Syrian rebel in Aleppo, Syria [File photo]

Credible reports centred on the collapse of Ahrar Al-Sham in north-west Syria point toward an important shift in the six-year Syrian rebellion. The group was widely regarded as the largest and most potent non-jihadi element of the Syrian rebellion. By definition, therefore, its collapse is a key indicator of jihadist domination in that part of Syria.

The term “jihadi” in this context refers to groups whose outlook is either internationalist or whose activities are not purely focused on changing the ruling system in Syria. Whilst Ahrar Al-Sham is widely regarded as a Salafist group, crucially it has no consistent or institutionalised links to international militant organisations. By contrast, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which has displaced Ahrar Al-Sham in Idlib province, has strong ideological and organisational links to Al-Qaeda.

The jihadist ascendance in Idlib province and the eclipse of Ahrar Al-Sham coincides with the broader collapse of rebel groups in the south and around Damascus. Taken together, these developments spell the end of a credible armed opposition to the Syrian government.

More importantly, these developments are generating shifts at the geopolitical level. Whilst greater Russian and American cooperation in Syria has been underway for months and predates the collapse of Ahrar Al-Sham, the ascendance of jihadists in Idlib is likely to elicit tacit US approval of a Russian-led assault on the province. Turkey and Iran also appear to be moving toward some serious cooperation.

Members of opponent groups attack Assad Regime's bases located at a hill on the border between Latakia and Idlib in Syria on 10 October, 2016 [Beha El Halebi/Anadolu Agency]

Members of opponent groups attack Assad Regime’s bases located at a hill on the border between Latakia and Idlib in Syria on 10 October, 2016 [Beha El Halebi/Anadolu Agency]

The coming assault on Idlib

Not surprisingly the takeover of Idlib province by HTS, formerly known as the Nusra Front, has touched off speculation about the increasing likelihood of a Russian-led assault on the province. After all, HTS (despite its denials) is linked organically to Al-Qaeda and as a consequence it is blacklisted as a terrorist group by much of the international community.

The collapse of Ahrar Al-Sham and allied groups decreases US sensitivity to a massive Russian-coordinated military assault on Idlib, similar to the operation to retake eastern Aleppo late last year. The fall of Idlib would have profound symbolic significance in so far as the province is the last major redoubt of anti-Assad forces.

Symbolism aside, the real shift has taken place already, as evidenced by the collapse of rebel groups across Syrian battlefields. In the south, notwithstanding a fresh rebel offensive in Suwayda province, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies are on the offensive and poised to retake the full extent of the border with Jordan.

Read: Extremist group consolidates control of Idlib province

Meanwhile, around Damascus a series of de-escalation zones has consolidated an earlier pattern of rebel collapse and retreat. However, in an apparent violation of Russian-sponsored deconfliction agreements, the Syrian army has again gone on the offensive in the areas to the east of Damascus with a view to retaking the Jobar district and the town of Ain Tarma. Once Jobar falls the SAA is expected to press home its advantage by moving on Eastern Ghouta. The fall of the latter will spell the definitive end of the rebellion in the Damascus region.

On the basis of the current trajectory, the SAA and its allies will be in a position to launch a major offensive against Idlib possibly as soon as the end of this year. Whilst the offensive against Idlib is likely to be the last major military engagement of the Syrian conflict (at least in terms of the conflict between the regime and non-Kurdish and non-Daesh rebels), it is also likely to prove to be one of its fiercest and costliest. To that end, the offensive will require clear Russian direction, and by extension a degree of US acquiescence.

Geopolitical shifts   

As expected, the endgame of the Syrian conflict is intensifying international involvement, rebalancing rivalries and cooperation and even introducing new players to the landscape. For example, Egypt appears to be playing an active role in conflict resolution, as demonstrated by its alleged role in negotiating deconfliction agreements in Eastern Ghouta and the northern neighbourhoods of Homs.

More importantly, the new-found spirit of cooperation between Iran and Turkey is likely to shape the post-conflict landscape in Syria’s northern regions. Previously at odds over Syria, the visit of the chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, Major-General Mohammad Bagheri to Turkey is a clear sign of a significant shift in the two states’ approach to some aspects of the Syrian conflict. There is speculation that this visit was centred on devising a common strategy to contain the ambitions of Syrian Kurdish groups and, more broadly, Kurdish irredentism across the region. Of particular note is a potential quid pro quo agreement whereby Iran persuades its ally in Damascus to move against US-aligned YPG rebels in the north, whilst Turkey applies pressure on Iraqi Kurds to hold off on an independence referendum.

Read: Kurds moving firmly towards independence referendum, says Barzani

Conflict between the SAA and the YPG is a distinct possibility once Daesh is defeated in eastern Syria. The potential for conflict is increased by the fact that there are two largely separate offensives against Daesh-held territory in the east, one spearheaded by the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa and a larger operation in Deir az-Zor province led by the SAA and its allies.

Once Idlib is retaken from HTS, the focus of the Syrian conflict is likely to shift onto the future of the YPG and the sizeable territory under its control. It will take the combined diplomatic weight and skills of Turkey, Iran, the US and Russia to contain the centrifugal dynamics flowing from an SAA-YPG conflict.

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  • D T

    Excellent analysis however before the Idlib operation it seems more vital for the Syrian Government to finish with the rebels and ISIS pocket in Daraa Governorate. Opening the trade routes with Jordan is depriving from Israel a precious tool for pressure against Damascus is more high priority than the remote Idlib Governorate. There the Turkish backed rebels are under the patronage of Russias pressure to Turkey and practically they will remain idle in the near future.
    However after the Syrian Elite Forces finish with the South and East they will more than free to move in vast numbers towards idleb and using multiple attacking sides to deminish the rebels in a short perior of time and with minimun casualties.

    • Lasse Riise

      In the long run, evil plans to restore the Assad tyrrany in Syria will fail. History has proven that such futile efforts always fails in the end. The lomger the stubborn dictator resists, the more bloody his end will be. Meanwhile, the tormented Syrian people will have to suffer under the abuse comitted by a criminal regime.

      • D T

        The above was a comment about the tactical situation which quickly evolved in achieving its final objective in the east provinces which is the capture of Deir Ezzor city and province.
        As for the Assad regime in total we have to understand that the army (with allies of course) in the ground is the Syrian Army and syrian conscripts taking their choice to defend their country against the caliphate parody and against other peripheral powers who with their proxy militias try to divide the country simply because they cannot stand to watch a progressive multicultural Syria of the past years comparing to their Middle Ages Kingdoms of the Gulf where opressions is silenced with dinars or rials……
        History teach us that regimes, governments and ways of rule change in time to time, what is worth to notice in Assad case however is that he will be already eclipsed from Syria(as Qaddafi did in a matter of days) if the people didnt fight for him and support his rule.
        No government is ideal and he never claim that he is unmistacable, but the majestike in his government and rule is that he is able to handle politics in national and international level pretty well.This by definition lead us to support, like it or not, that Syria today is governed by its elite, its most capable politicians who of course are not comparable to the Mubarak or Qaddafi situations.
        As for Assad rule its there from 1973, there are countries in the world that they did not have so far the chance of a democratic rule(altogether) lasting for so many years in total, so lets be careful when we call upon history to support our case because simply we might get dissapointed a little bit.

  • outer_rl

    The non-Jihadi rebels collapsed in 2012. Ahrar Al-Sham are sectarian fundamentalists who are explicitly committed to creating a caliphate, and who have been on/off allied to al-Qaeda groups. They absolutely are jihadis.

  • I support a free Kurdistan, perhaps that could serve as a stable bulwark against extremism in the region!