What Does Assad’s Southwestern Offensive Mean for the Future of Syria?
In recent weeks, the Bashar al-Assad regime has launched an offensive, backed by Russian airstrikes, to recapture opposition-held territory in southwestern Syria. The fighting is centered in Daraa Province, near the Jordanian border, and in the nearby province of Quneitra to the west, which borders the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Not surprisingly, the Assad regime is publicly portraying this as a fight against extremist elements, even though reports indicate that the bulk of fighters in this area are members of the Free Syrian Army — a coalition of moderate religious and secular fighters. The jihadist elements in this area are small in number (likely no more than a thousand or so) and are not especially influential in local life or governance. In fact, the local Islamic State affiliate, which is concentrated in Daraa’s far southwestern corner, has spent most of the past year fighting with other opposition groups rather than the regime.
The United States, Russia, and Jordan had agreed last year to designate Daraa as a de-escalation zone to prevent fighting in the sensitive area along the border with Israel and Jordan, and to help limit the fighting throughout the region. The agreement’s guarantors reportedly hoped the accord would also the highlight potential for cooperation among external actors involved in the conflict, create space for political cooperation among Syria’s internal actors, and eventually trigger the expulsion of extremist elements located there. The agreement had largely held for most of the past year, but is now in tatters as the regime’s military offensive unfolds.
What does Assad’s latest campaign tell us about the future of the conflict? Is this battle, as some experts have opined, the beginning of the end of the Syrian civil war?
Given the correlation of forces and Moscow’s provision of close air support, the regime is likely to regain control of this territory within the next few weeks — reports indicate that many rebel elements are already suing for peace — but at a high cost in civilian lives. There are reports that the regime’s use of barrel bombs and airstrikes on residential neighborhoods and hospitals have produced hundreds of wounded and killed. Expect more such reports in the coming weeks, especially if the fighting on the ground bogs down.
Assad’s offensive is also triggering a new wave of refugees, with initial U.N. reports indicating that more than 320,000 civilians have been displaced by the fighting, with more than 60,000 initially heading towards Jordan. This is especially problematic: Jordan already hosts more than a million Syrian refugees, and only last month experienced a wave of country-wide protests stemming from frustration with government-proposed reforms meant to jumpstart the lagging economy. Amman last week announced that it will not accept a new inflow of refugees. If that decision holds, and most of the refugees opt not to permanently return to their homes even after local ceasefire deals are reached, it will raise serious humanitarian concerns about the fate of those displaced . Israel is also taking steps to prevent refugees from crossing its border, so those fleeing the fighting now have no viable escape route.
The fact that there has been no obvious cost to the Assad regime for ignoring the de-escalation zone agreement in the south, even as Russia supports Damascus’ military campaign, sends an ominous message about the likelihood that other ceasefire agreements will hold. In fact, Assad’s behavior suggests that he now believes the outright military victory that he has long proclaimed as his goal is now within his reach. So, while Assad may express a willingness to sign additional ceasefire arrangements in the coming months, it should be clear by now that he will only honor those deals as long as they are convenient.
Once Assad prevails in the southwest, he will likely turn his attention to Idlib Province in northwestern Syria, home to many (probably numbering in the low thousands) of the most extreme al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters left in Syria. Idlib is also home to more than two million civilians, including more than one million children. The fight for Idlib is likely to be especially vicious given the difficult terrain, the presence of combat-hardened extremists, and the regime’s history of using chemical weapons there. It’s also worth noting that just as the fighting in southwestern Syria is triggering a new wave of refugees, we should brace ourselves for an even larger movement of refugees once the fight for Idlib begins in earnest.
The fate of Idlib, meanwhile, will also be complicated by Turkey’s keen interest in the province — it has established several observation posts there as part of the Astana diplomatic process — and Ankara’s recognition that many of the refugees that would flee stepped up fighting in Idlib would head toward Turkey’s border. However, Turkey’s ground presence in the area is quite limited, and they are also well aware of the presence of the most extreme jihadist elements in Idlib, so it’s unlikely, in my view, that the Erdogan government will be a major stumbling block to Assad’s effort to retake the province. It’s also worth noting that an all-out assault by the regime on Idlib would complicate Russia’s overarching diplomatic strategy for Syria. But make no mistake, the Assad regime is determined to eventually reassert its control over the province, and is unlikely to be dissuaded for long from launching a large-scale offensive there.
Only after Idlib is secure, probably sometime next year, will Assad finally turn his attention to the east and begin his campaign to regain control of the large swaths of territory now in Kurdish hands. Regaining this territory, which includes the bulk of the country’s critical oil resources, will be key to Assad’s pledge to recapture every inch of Syria, and his eventual efforts to try to rebuild Syria’s devastated infrastructure. This phase of the conflict will also implicate Turkey’s interests, as Ankara appears determined to establish a contiguous line of control in Syria, from Afrin in the west through Manbij in the east — as part of its broader effort to thwart Kurdish separatist ambitions.
Is it likely, then, that the Daraa offensive heralds the final stage of the war? No, not really. Rather, it seems poised to be a stage that will demonstrate yet again Assad’s determination to stay in power and eventually reassert his writ over the entire country. It will be a stage that will once again highlight Russia’s hypocritical strategy of promoting negotiations even as it participates in the regime’s maximalist military campaign. It will be a stage marked by Iran’s effort to maintain its strong presence on the ground in Syria, even if it bows to Russian pressure to temporarily relocate its forces away from Israel’s border. And it will be yet another stage that will crystalize the Kurds’ dependence on external military support in the face of what’s likely to be a multi-pronged campaign against the group at some point late next year.
Assad’s southern offensive is unlikely to do little more than usher in yet another bloody year ahead in Syria. And while it would be understandable if war-weary Western policymakers wanted to turn away and look for an exit from this crisis — which is a decision, by the way, that Putin would likely welcome — that would be a mistake. For if there is ever to be an enduring resolution to this war it will require a combination of several factors. First, it will demand a full measure of Western diplomatic creativity and engagement, including, as a starting point, a final agreement between America and its allies on Assad’s ultimate fate. Can Washington and its partners live with Assad staying in power for the foreseeable future? And if not, what’s an acceptable and achievable “plan B”?
Second, Washington will need to skillfully leverage its continuing military influence in eastern Syria in future settlement talks, both to ensure protection for its Kurdish allies, and to enable some form of enduring U.S.-led military campaign to combat jihadist remnants in eastern Syria and western Iraq. Past behavior clearly indicates that the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies want to avoid a direct military clash with the small number of U.S. forces stationed in Syria, and recognize that sustained U.S. military support to the Kurds would greatly complicate Assad’s aim to regain control of Kurdish-held territory. So, U.S. policymakers would be wise to use this leverage carefully in upcoming talks with the Russians. Third, a final resolution will require targeted (and significant) Western financial and humanitarian assistance to help rebuild shattered communities near the Iraqi border. The Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers can’t afford to rebuild these areas, and absent U.S. and Western engagement these areas will remain susceptible to the appeal and influence of extremist groups. It is impossible to imagine a stable Iraq if its border region with Syria becomes once again a safe haven for al-Qaeda and is home to the Islamic State.
After seven plus years of fighting and almost unimaginable human suffering, any acceptable resolution to Syria’s war will still require steady and consistent engagement from Washington to ensure that when it finally ends, it ends in a manner that eases civilian suffering, protects America’s allies on the ground, and inoculates vulnerable local populations from the appeal of extremists. Without that engagement, Washington and our allies may be helpless as others plant the seeds for a future conflict.
Michael P. Dempsey is the national intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a fellowship sponsored by the U.S. government. He served as the former acting director of national intelligence. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
Image: Syrian Arab News Agency