by: ARON LUND – Carnegie Endowment , MARCH 31, 2016
Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on March 27 retook the desert city of Palmyra, which had been lost to the self-proclaimed Islamic State in May 2015. Its loss came at a difficult time for Assad, whose exhausted and overstretched army waslosing territory on several fronts while the decaying economy in government-controlled areas was threatening to undo his regime from within. Given Palmyra’s location at the center of valuable gas fields and position as a nexus of major transportation routes in Syria’s eastern deserts, its loss compounded Assad’s problems. The government found itself with an expanded eastern frontline, with the Islamic State burrowing into the Qalamoun mountains, north of Damascus, and the Badiya region, where central Syria’s fertile plains around Homs and Hama fade into the desert.
A reversal of fortunes began on September 30, 2015, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his country’s air force into action in Syria. Since the end of 2015, Assad has significantly improved his position in western Syria—where he is fighting other rebel and jihadi forces—and made limited advances against the Islamic State near Aleppo. The current push—which came after a truce with mainstream rebel factions—began on February 27 and marked the first major push east. Shortly after that Putin announced a somewhat disingenuous withdrawal from Syria on March 14.
Not only has Assad’s advance into Palmyra redrawn Syria’s military battlefield, but it also looks likely to accelerate the shift of its politics.
A CHANGE IN TONE
Palmyra is home to some of the most splendid Roman ruins in the world—including Rome. Since 1980, it has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Its loss to the Islamic State, which went on an iconoclastic rampage against its ancient temples, was a shock to people around the world, including many who otherwise take little interest in Syria. As much as one may argue that humans should matter more than buildings, the symbolic affront to our common history was felt by many.
Expelling the jihadists from Palmyra was therefore certain to gain Assad a measure of international goodwill. His allies were predictably enthusiastic. Putin called to congratulate right away, and in a message to Assad the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, praised the Syrians’ dedication to “cleansing territory occupied by terrorists.” But this time, Assad did not just receive congratulations from the nations fighting alongside his own forces. The symbolic value of Palmyra is so great, and disgust with the Islamic State so profound, that not even his enemies found it an appropriate time to launch into their rote condemnations. John Kirby, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, even called it a “good thing,” although he would not go so far as to congratulate the Syrian government.
Since then, Assad has been trying to tap into this rare outpouring of global support. When UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pronounced the world “encouraged and fortunate” that the Syrian government had ousted the jihadists, he quickly fired off athank-you letter and invited the UN to assist with restoring Palmyra’s ruins. Russiahas already made the seemingly innocuous suggestion that Western governments could perhaps help with mine-clearing operations in Palmyra, in order to repopulate and restore the city—and, in so doing, end the international isolation of Assad. It is part of Russia’s overarching strategy of integrating Assad’s government into the anti-jihadist efforts led by the United States, thus killing two birds with one stone; a plan that seems to be moving along fairly well.
WHERE NEXT FOR ASSAD?
Bashar al-Assad’s main interests are in the northwest of the country, where he needs to lock down control over Aleppo. At the moment, however, he is prevented from doing that by the February 27 truce. It has held up surprisingly well—which testifies to the dedication of both the United States and Russia, as co-sponsors of the truce—but it is built on brittle foundations and might very well break down.
Until then, fighting has been greatly reduced. In these regions, the government is instead focusing on neutralizing rebel territory by striking local reconciliation deals with village elders and clan leaders. This aims to undercut the truly irreconcilable rebel factions and pave the way for bringing these areas back into Assad’s orbit. Such a process is taking place right now northeast of Hama, which would help shore up the government supply line to Aleppo and strengthen his hand in the Badiya region.
Even as the government speaks with local leaders, there is still some skirmishing with rebels. But for Assad, large-scale offensives seem to be out of the question until the truce is over—and that’s not entirely up to him. It seems unlikely that he could have captured Palmyra without strong backing from the Russian government, which contributed much of the military hardware, claims to have taken a direct role in planning the offensive, and says it flew 500 sorties against jihadi targets in Palmyra in the twenty days preceding its fall. As long as Putin says the Russian Air Force will focus on the east, Assad will probably follow his lead.
As anyone following the Syrian conflict knows, a great deal can change quickly and unpredictably. But if we assume that the truce holds for some time, and no other exceptional circumstances arise, we can identify three target areas that will, whether simultaneously or in succession, be of primary interest to the Syrian government.
TARGET ONE: THE EASTERN DESERTS
(As you read on, please consult this map for an approximate sense of the geographical zones of control in Syria.)
First of all, Assad will want to continue to seize ground in the eastern deserts. This includes territory around Palmyra itself, but also some rearguard operations in certain areas. For example, the jihadist-held town of al-Qaryatain is now virtually cut off from Islamic State territory and will probably fall soon. Eliminating these Islamic State pockets would in turn free up additional forces for other tasks.
Then, Assad is likely to move east. Having pocketed Palmyra, he will want to regain control over the gas fields that, in terms of administration and infrastructure, belong to the city. Once he has started that drive, the next logical step is the small town of Sukhna, half-way to Deir Ezzor, which fell at the same time as Palmyra. After breaking back into Sukhna, Assad will ultimately want to reopen a supply route to the city of Deir Ezzor on the Euphrates, without which he can never hope to regain control over eastern Syria, its oil resources, and the Iraqi border. Throughout the war, he has spent enormous resources to preserve a foothold in Deir Ezzor’s mostly hostile environment, dispatching some of his top commanders there and supplying the city with a costly air bridge. Contrary to wishful Western thinking about Assad‘s readiness to divide or share Syria with his opponents, this ferocious determination to keep his eastern outpost always seemed to confirm his determination to dominate all of Syria. Assad himself is very explicit about it: “After liberating Palmyra it is necessary to move into the nearby regions which lead to the eastern parts of the country, for example, Deir Ezzor,” he said in a recent interview.
But how feasible is that? Even with Russian support, it is a tremendous undertaking and the Islamic State will view an assault on the Euphrates region as an existential threat, bringing all it can muster to its defense. Some are skeptical. “It’s an open question whether or not the Syrian army is going to be able to push any further to the east,” according to a spokesperson of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, who spoke to Reuters. “They are stretched fairly thin and they still have a significant number of forces tied up in Palmyra.”
A wildcard option would of course be for Assad to complement a push on Sukhna with a breakout attack from Deir Ezzor itself, but the city’s defenses are depleted and the area is difficult to resupply quickly due to the Islamic State’s ability to threaten the local airport.
TARGET TWO: CLEANING UP THE BADIYA
Another attractive option for Assad would be to use the truce and the fall of Palmyra to move into the countryside east of Hama and Homs, particularly near the Ismaili city of Salamiyah. The Islamic State’s presence in this region has been growing steadily and must be dealt with at some point, even though it does not present an immediate threat after taking out Palmyra.
Excising the jihadi enclave east of Salamiyah will also help Assad if or when the truce with the rebels further west breaks down. By demonstrating his dominance over the Badiya, Assad shores up the Aleppo supply line, strengthens the army’s standing in the eastern Hama-Idlib countryside (where, as you will recall, he is trying to implement ceasefire deals with local clan leaders), and frees up troops for other duties.
TARGET THREE: THE EASTERN ALEPPO REGION
The most interesting scenario, however, is a push east from Aleppo. After reestablishing a supply line to the Kweiris Airport late last year and cutting off the rebels of the Azaz Corridor from Aleppo City in February, Assad is well-placed to gain from the Islamic State’s coming misfortunes.
From the Kweiris bulge east of Aleppo, he can lunge for al-Bab, which is one of the Islamic State’s key administrative centers, and for Deir Hafer, which connects the eastern Aleppo countryside to the Aleppo–Raqqa road. From Deir Hafer, he can move toward Maskana to close the gap between Aleppo and Lake Assad, effectively cutting the Islamic State in two and depriving Raqqa of access to the outside world through Turkish border smugglers. This would be a devastating blow to the group, hobbling its economy and reducing the flow of foreign jihadi volunteers. After that, Assad could consolidate control and begin reclaiming the northeastern countryside. At some point, he might even push toward Manbij, the other Islamic State center in the area—assuming his Kurdish semi-allies will not try to grab it for themselves.
An interesting twist to this scenario would be for Assad to also move east from Khanaser and Ithriya, which are located on the Hama–Aleppo supply route. There have been signs of a government buildup in this area, and if a major offensive is launched, it could function as a southern prong to the Deir Hafer–Maskana axis, hitting the Islamic State from two sides simultaneously. (Here too, it would be helpful if the Salamiyah region has been dealt with first.)
Last but not least, a successful offensive in the eastern Aleppo region would make the Syrian army the top contender for taking Raqqa, the so-called capital of the Islamic State, as well as the electricity-producing Tabqa Dam on the southern end of Lake Assad. Currently, Raqqa is threatened from the north by the Kurds, who burst out ofKobane last spring with the help of American air support. If Assad moves east to take the road along Lake Assad, and perhaps also north from Palmyra and Sukhna, the Islamic State will be in real trouble.
In line with the Russian stratagem to rehabilitate Assad internationally, it would also bring U.S. strategy in Syria to a tipping point. With the Syrian army in sole control of the road to Raqqa, the U.S. president would have no other option than to coordinate his efforts with Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, marking the symbolic end offive years of regime change efforts by the United States.