The Syrian Civil War: Political and Military State of Play
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With the armed phase of the Syrian revolution now in its 34th month, a great deal has changed since protests first erupted in March 2011. More than 130,000 people have been killed, the United Nations has now stopped counting due to the dearth of reliable information. Both the political and military aspects of the conflict have always been complex, but the nature of that complexity has changed as each of the conflict’s parties reevaluate their positions as the civil war drags on.
With the second round of peace talks now completed in the Swiss city of Geneva and dynamics on the ground shifting as Syrian rebel forces battle the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and moderate rebel forces restructure, now is an opportune time to assess the interests and capabilities of the main players.
Russia: Second only to Iran, Russia is Syria’s chief backer and a powerful one at that. Russia’s UN Security Council veto protects Assad from UN interference and Russia’s continued sale of advanced weapons and conventional small-arms and light weapons (SALWs) protects Assad from the comparatively poorly-armed opposition rebelling against him. Russia’s overlapping interests with other countries, including the United States, also forestalls large-scale external action against Assad that could damage relations with the former superpower.
Russia happily incurs international opprobrium for backing Assad so that it can preserve access to its last remote naval base in Tartus, which remains a symbol of Russia’s global reach; discourage external interference in a country’s internal affairs; and, most importantly, remain a counterweight to U.S. hegemony in the Middle East. The last two reasons mean Moscow will not quickly abandon its long-term alliance with the Assad family even if the Syrian opposition could guarantee good military relations with Russia after Assad’s fall.
United States: Initially, the United States wanted the fall of Assad because Syria’s Sunni majority had demonstrated peacefully for his removal and because Assad’s end would have degraded Iran’s ability to support Hezbollah against a key U.S. ally, Israel. When Assad’s violent repression of protests led Sunnis to form local defense militias to fight against the regime, the United States was unwilling to arm the rebels with the anti-aircraft weapons they needed to stand a chance of defeating the Assad regime, fearing such weapons would fall into the hands of Sunni extremists. The United States was also unwilling to directly attack Assad’s forces because of Russian objections and because the American public does not want another war in the Middle East. The only thing that could have provoked an American attack—Assad’s use of chemical weapons—was neutralized when Assad agreed to a Russian proposal to turn over the weapons.
With chemical weapons off the table, Assad’s external opposition in disarray, Islamists dominating the insurgency, and an American public unhappy with foreign wars, the Obama administration feels it has few options other than taking steps to prevent the civil war from destabilizing Syria’s neighbors and harming U.S. security. Thus, the administration’s greatest immediate concerns are the refugees in surrounding countries and the large number of foreigners fighting in Syria under the banner of jihadi groups that have endorsed Al-Qaeda’s war on the United States. In a stroke of remarkable irony, it is now distinctly possible that the United States would be willing to work with the Assad government on these two issues if the war drags on interminably.
Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia: Assad’s three greatest regional foes—Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia—are divided according to their taste in proxies. Saudi Arabia favors more nationalist-minded groups, perhaps because members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1990s and the jihadis in the 2000s challenged the royal family’s rule. Saudi has thus supported the rise of Syrian tribal figure Ahmad Jarba within the Syrian National Coalition and backs the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), led by a non-Islamist in northwest Syria. Together with the United States, Saudi is also the principal backer of the Free Syrian Army/Supreme Military Council (SMC), which is at least less Islamist than the other major rebel coalitions in Syria. Turkey and Qatar have preferred regionally minded Islamist proxies because they are well organized and because there is a minimal risk of blowback. (Turkey is ruled by a moderate Islamist and Qatar has co-opted the strongest regional Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood). Qatar and Turkey have worked together to bolster the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s sway over the external opposition, which has waned despite the two countries’ best efforts. On the battlefield, Turkey appears to have turned a blind eye to Sunni jihadis gaining access to northern Syria while Qatar is widely alleged to have supported conservative Salafi Islamist militias united under the Islamic Front.
All three countries hoped for a swift end to Assad’s rule and were disappointed when the United States failed to bring it about by arming the rebels or attacking the regime after it used chemical weapons. Turkey and Qatar remain committed to Assad’s downfall, but they have not severed their ties with Iran, suggesting the two countries are hedging their bets in case Assad hangs on. Saudi Arabia meanwhile is locked in a regional cold war with Iran and appears unwilling to compromise on Syria. It now appears Saudi Arabia and Qatar want to unite their rebel clients under a single organized banner.
Iran: Syria is Iran’s principal strategic ally in the region because the country is crucial for resupplying Iran’s proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon, which serves as an important deterrent against Israeli military action against Iran. Because the Assad family has protected these supply routes, Iran is unlikely to entertain the possibility that any non-Assad Syrian entity will do the same.
Iran has demonstrated the seriousness of its commitment to sustaining the Assad regime by helping provide cut-price fuel and weapons and deploying members of its armed forces, including the special Quds Force, to train Syrian paramilitaries and coordinate military operations against the rebels. Iran also likely encouraged Hezbollah’s very public entry into the war on the side of the Alawi regime, even at the expense of Hezbollah’s regional reputation as a defender of Sunni Arabs.
Assad government: The Syrian government is militarily and politically stronger than its opponents. The U.S. reversal in September 2013 of its threat of punitive strikes in favor of the signing of an agreement to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles awarded President Assad diplomatic leverage to play for time and stymie a peace accord. Unless the balance of power changes, Assad will continue to be defended on the international stage by Russia and draw military and financial sustenance from Iran. With such an advantageous position, the regime’s delegation at Geneva played it slow to ensure the opposition got little of any benefit from attending.
Militarily, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is backed by the increasingly professionalized paramilitary National Defense Force (NDF) and a myriad of domestic and foreign Shia militias. The government forces have perfected the ancient art of block, siege, and bombard, thereby literally starving civilians to death and killing dozens of others with artillery and the now infamous and increasingly destructive barrel bomb. The Assad government confidently encourages the fracturing of its opposition through direct and indirect means. But, without the NDF, Hezbollah, and the abundance of Shia militias, the SAA simply could not be in the position of relative advantage that it is in today.
Pro-government militias: In the early stages of the Syrian conflict, activist and media reports attributed armed thug-like attacks to so-called Shabiha militias—armed gangs of Alawite and sometimes Shia thugs whose ordinarily criminal objectives had been given a more political foundation. While this certainly continues, often with the alleged knowledge or direction of localized security force personnel, more strategically valuable sectarian-based armed organizations have emerged since early 2013.
An assessment of the Syrian military’s performance in 2012 revealed that the SAA lacked the numerical and command capacity to sustain effective operations in multiple domestic theaters. Beginning in mid-to-late 2012, the SAA—with apparent training and coordinating assistance from the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps—began merging existing “popular committee” local protection militias into an organized, trained, and salaried paramilitary force, the National Defense Force (NDF). Since then, the NDF has become a critical part of the Syrian military structure, usually used to hold seized ground and to bolster coordinated offensives.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah has played a prominent role in the conflict since mid-2012 and has put the regime in an advantageous position. The deployment of Hezbollah special forces’ units to direct and lead an SAA offensive on Al-Qusayr in May and June 2013 demonstrated the value of a force that has placed a considerable emphasis on urban warfare training in recent years. Equally valuable to the SAA is the increasingly large conglomeration of Shia militias, many of which can be linked back to pre-existing organizations in Iraq, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, the Promised Day Brigades, and the Badr Organization. These forces have expanded in terms of manpower and geographic spread over the last 9-12 months and appear to enjoy solid sources of funding.
External Opposition: The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) is the main body representing various factions of the Syrian opposition outside Syria. Internal infighting between rival groups has structurally weakened the organization. The infighting came to a head on 18 January 2014 when a third of its members boycotted a vote to attend the Geneva II talks. One of the SNC’s main components, the Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council, withdrew from the coalition as a consequence. The infighting is a result of conflicts among the factions’ regional backers or irreconcilable differences over the future of Syria. The SNC also suffers from a near-total lack of support among the major Islamist groups fighting inside Syria, while more moderate and nationalist factions appear for now to be sitting on the fence with regards to taking a stance on the SNC.
Free Syrian Army (FSA) / Supreme Military Council (SMC): The FSA has not represented a distinct military organization for a long time now. Today, the FSA name represents more of a brand or umbrella with which primarily nationalist and often secular groups associate themselves. The SMC, meanwhile, presents itself as a coherent structure with organized local, provincial, and national components led externally by Selim Idriss. The command structure, however, has not proven itself nationally and Idriss has been more of a distributor of military aid than a commander. The SMC has some strong links with units adjacent to the southern border with Jordan and northern border with Turkey but groups on the ground frequently act militarily on their own according to local dynamics.
The SMC suffered a debilitating blow when the rival Islamic Front was established on 22 November 2013. Three of the new Front’s seven signatory groups (Liwa al-Tawhid, Suqor al-Sham, and Jaish al-Islam) previously comprised a considerable portion of the SMC’s military force, especially in northern Syria. The defection almost certainly prompted other SMC forces in Idlib and Aleppo to form their own supergroups loosely under the SMC’s banner several weeks later: the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and Jaish al-Mujahideen, respectively. Both are suspicious of the Islamic Front (Jaish al-Mujahideen less so) and vehemently anti-ISIS. More recently on 14 February, 49 small, localized groups in southern Syria formed the Southern Front, which reportedly maintains links to the SMC-linked ‘Operations Room’ (manned by military and intelligence representatives from all 11 Friends of Syria member states) in Jordan’s capital Amman.
Moderate forces consolidating under several regional fronts–all with apparent links to external SMC-linked leadership and organizations–suggests the SMC’s external state patrons, especially Saudi Arabia, seek to re-energize the organization. The firing of SMC leader Salim Idriss late on 16 February, widely perceived as ineffective, and his replacement with a key Southern Front commander, Abdul-Illah al-Bashir (the current head of Al-Quneitra Governorate’s Military Council), is further evidence that a move is afoot to strengthen the SMC. The appointment of al-Bashir prioritizes southern forces over those previously more associated with Idriss in the north and points towards a long-rumored desire by external supporters of the opposition to encourage a concerted push from the south towards Damascus.
Islamic Front (IF): The Islamic Front represents the singly most powerful opposition military organization in Syria, with an estimated 50,000-60,000 fighters operating in 13 of Syria’s 14 governorates. The IF’s political charter calls for an Islamic state in Syria governed by sharia law, but is vague regarding the specifics of what this would actually entail. While all seven constituent groups within the IF are certainly Islamist, they in fact represent a relatively broad spectrum. One group, Liwa al-Haq, has effectively fused localized units in Homs that range ideologically from hardline Salafism to moderate Sufism, while Ahrar al-Sham is avowedly Salafist, coordinates intensely with Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, and has a senior Al-Qaeda member in its leadership who supposedly has had personal ties to both Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.
This makes the IF an organization to watch very closely in the coming months. Its sheer military might makes it an absolutely critical player for Syria’s opposition as a whole. Any opposition policy that ignores the Islamic Front or is opposed to it will almost certainly fail on the ground. However, the IF has not yet managed to merge all seven component group structures into one single organization. In January divisions were already evident in the Front’s conflicting public statements. Differences also appeared among the IF’s component groups over whether to publically acknowledge and defend clashes with ISIS, thereby suggesting the breadth of ideologies within the IF could in fact be a weakness.
Jabhat al-Nusra (JN): JN is Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria and an actor of significant strategic importance within Syria’s armed opposition. Despite its admitted links to Al-Qaeda, JN has since mid-to-late 2012 demonstrated a remarkable level of pragmatism in religious, political, and military matters. Its military forces consistently demonstrate levels of professionalism and effective command and control superior to that of comparatively moderate groups. While JN represents a numerically smaller organization than most members of the IF, its fighters often represent something more akin to special forces, taking a key frontline role in offensive operations. Because the group fights effectively and does not seek to dominate the opposition, it has healthy relations with all Syrian rebel groups from moderate to Salafist. JN’s widespread provision of social services to the civilian population through its Qism al-Aghatha (or Department of Relief) and avoidance of incurring civilian casualties in areas hostile to Assad has meant the group enjoys a surprising level of popular support.
JN has established a concrete presence in Syria and will continue to play a notable role in the conflict. JN has also expanded operations into Lebanon, through a wing of the group that identifies itself simply as Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon, which cooperates closely with the Al-Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades. JN arguably represents Al-Qaeda’s most valuable asset and as such, will continue to receive financial backing from private donors abroad to sustain it into the long-term.
Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS): Since its emergence as an active armed entity in Syria in late April/early May 2013, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham focused on acquiring and consolidating territorial control in eastern and northern Syria, particularly in regions bordering Iraq and Turkey. As this proceeded, ISIS began establishing outposts further into Syria’s interior in Hama, Homs, and areas of the Damascus countryside, most notably in the Qalamoun and in Eastern Ghouta. As its influence expanded and confidence rose, ISIS began imposing its harsh behavioral codes and kidnapped, imprisoned, and sometimes executed its opponents. Public beheadings became common, as most importantly, did incidents of ISIS violence against other rebel groups.
Since other Islamist groups turned on ISIS in early January 2014 because of its bad behavior, ISIS has lost territory in northern Syria but consolidated its rule over a series of key municipalities it previously controlled with others. ISIS has retained control of Al-Raqqa city (the only governorate capital the government does not control), several key municipalities in northern Aleppo, and large portions of Al-Raqqa countryside and portions of southern Al-Hasakah. The group has also retaliated by carrying out vehicle and person-borne suicide bombings targeting critical Islamic Front, SRF, and Jaish al-Mujahideen facilities, checkpoints, and leadership figures. Although the intensity of such retaliatory attacks may fluctuate over time, they are unlikely to stop altogether. Despite Al-Qaeda’s total disavowal of any links to ISIS, the group remains a militarily effective organization with reliable sources of funding. Although increasingly isolated in Syria, ISIS is likely to remain strong in Al-Raqqa governorate and northern and eastern Aleppo, unless the Islamic Front decides to mount a costly offensive against it. The other rebel groups will not be able to effectively confront the Syrian government forces as long as ISIS remains on their flank.
That said, increasing levels of hostility between ISIS and JN will prove decisive in determining the future of ISIS in Syria. JN retains considerable popular support on the ground amongst both civilians and other rebel groups, which could badly damage ISIS should JN-ISIS clashes expand into a more regional or even national campaign.
The array and motives of the parties involved in the Syrian conflict may seem bewildering, but in many ways the early days of the Syrian civil war were more complex. Many of the actors’ motives were opaque and the armed forces on both sides were inchoate, which made them pliant. Today, the interests and form of the belligerents are clearer. But, clarity in this case is not a cause for optimism that the conflict will end swiftly. What could once be shaped and molded is less likely to bend now.
Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) is a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
Will McCants (@will_mccants) is director of the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World.
Photo credit: abdullatif anis