Syria news right now is all about the peace process that is set to start on Friday in Geneva, Switzerland, despite its limited chances of success. But even as they talk, the parties continue to fight and the Russian-Iranian military intervention continues to wear down Syrian rebels. On September 30, the Russian Air Force dropped its first bombs in Syria. The government of Iran joined in by raising an expeditionary corps of Iranian, Iraqi, and Afghan Shia Islamists for the front south of Aleppo.
In a recent article for Vice News, the American freelance writer and Syria expert Sam Heller notes a flurry of desperate-sounding calls for outside support from rebels in northwestern Syria. Though most frontlines have held with little or limited change, four months of relentless Russian bombardment and offensives by the Syrian Arab Army and its Shia allies seem to have left the insurgents exhausted.
A Slow Strengthening of Assad’s Hand
In early December, I tried to evaluate the extent of government progress in a post on Syria in Crisis. As far as I could tell, it was clear then that Assad stabilized his positions, but overall progress seemed underwhelming and the picture was mixed. We would have to wait and see.
Since then, however, the wind has continued to blow Assad’s way. General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently noted that “the regime is in a better place now” compared to before the intervention. Indeed, after four months, the effects of the concerted Russian-Iranian-Syrian campaign have begun to surface.
In southern Syria, the Jordanian government and its allies have restrained the Syrian militant groups they support through the so called Military Operations Center, whether out of a lack of confidence in their abilities or as part of an understanding with Moscow. There are now rumors that Russia is seeking to negotiate a ceasefire directly with Jordan and, perhaps, one or several other states. Recently, a new round of intra-rebel fighting began, further weakening Assad’s southern opponents, even as the government moved to recapture the city of Sheikh Miskeen. While there hasn’t yet been a clear breakthrough, Assad is certainly on the offensive in southern Syria.
The situation has been more fluid in the rebel-dominated north, where the Syrian government, Iran, and Russia are expending the bulk of their efforts. The pro-Assad coalition has not managed to reverse the defeats of spring 2015, when it lost Idlib, Jisr al-Shughur, and Ariha in rapid succession. But even so, the army has made considerable progress in the northwest. The insurgents have been driven from the Sunni-populated northern highlands of Latakia Governorate by a combination of the Syrian Arab Army, its National Defense Forces militia, and local Alawite levies. Meanwhile, Iran-backed Shia Islamists have carved out a ballooning enclave south of Aleppo and are now threatening to to envelop Aleppo from the west, where the insurgency faces severe structural problems. Meanwhile, a Syrian Arab Army group further east has pushed into territory held by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, just as a Kurdish force moved in from the other side. Both sides seem to be positioning themselves to gain from the weakening of the Islamic State in Aleppo.
Escalating across multiple fronts has certainly been taxing for the government, but it seems to have exhausted insurgent forces even more. As they suffer Syrian and Russian bombardment from above and seek to fend off enemy attacks on all fronts, the rebels in northern Syria are starting to show serious signs of strain.
The War in Northern Latakia
For maps of the area, click here.
The pro-government offensive in northern Latakia was a slow affair, passing over difficult mountain terrain. Many of these areas had been under the control of a coalition of local Sunni rebels and foreign jihadis for two or three years, giving them ample time to dig in, seed the ground with landmines, and develop defensive plans. While the government was able to draw on Alawite volunteers from the southern ranges of the mountain, it still lacked a large ground force. Instead, the army decided to rely on overwhelming firepower, including modern artillery systems recently provided to them by their Russian ally, such as the TOS 1A launcher. By systematically showering Latakia’s forested mountainsides and peasant hamlets with airstrikes and rocket barrages, they made it almost impossible for their enemy to maintain fixed positions.
For the first couple of months, the advances were slow and unimpressive. But mountain by mountain, the army and its militia allies managed to shoot their way up onto the high ground overlooking Salma, a village that has served as an anchor for rebel control in northern Latakia since 2012. After three months of punishing bombardment and slow retreat, the rebels were in no position to mount an effective defense. On January 12, the Syrian Arab Army’s General Command announced that it had captured Salma and after that, opposition defenses crumbled.
On January 21, the army seized the hamlet of Khan al-Jouz, north of Salma, thereby assuming control over the M4 highway intersection that connected the rebel strongholds of Jebel Turkman with Jisr al-Shughur in Idlib Governorate. This threatened to isolate the remaining defenders, who apparently decided to pull out and flee toward Jisr al-Shughur while there was still time. Within three days, the army had captured Rabiah, sealing their control over Jebel Turkman.
Resistance remains in the Jabal Akrad area east of Rabiah and the heavily forested mountains in this region may allow for guerrilla resistance and sabotage operations. But for all intents and purposes, three years of rebel dominance in the northern Latakia Governorate have come to an end. As a reporter on the state-owned Ikhbariya television channel put it, speaking live from the scene in Rabiah, the government can now “advance into the countryside of Jisr al-Shughur and unify the fronts of the northern Latakia countryside and the central sector.”
If it sounds like bad news for Syrian rebels, that’s because it is.
Too Much to Manage?
Rebel leaders in northern Latakia have attributed the collapse in Salma to a “lack of available fighters,” according to comments gathered by the pro-opposition news site Syria Direct. “We requested many times that the other brigades send reinforcements to the Latakia coast front,” a spokesman for the powerful Ahrar al-Sham faction told the site. But no such reinforcements arrived, he complained, because northern rebels “are giving priority to the Aleppo front because of the importance of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.”
Similar views were heard from Muslim al-Shishani, the Chechen leader of a small faction of jihadi foreign fighters. In a video statement translated into Arabic, he complained bitterly about how Salma’s defenders had been let down by rebels in the neighboring governorates. “It is as if we are cut off from other areas in Syria, because only very few Mujahideen came to aid us.” Explaining that local brigades had lost much of their strength in the intra-jihadi split with the Islamic State in 2013-2014, he complained that fighters in the Idlib Governorate seemed to simply ignore the plight of their brothers in northern Latakia.
That’s a bit unfair. The insurgents in Idlib are smarting from four months of Russian-Syrian airstrikes and juggling three or four hot fronts at once; they can hardly spare any men for other areas. According to a person involved with ground-level monitoring of the Syrian insurgency, it is not because there aren’t enough willing recruits or men under arms (which is a problem for the government). Rather, it’s because the opposition’s considerable manpower reservoir is too dispersed and weakly led to coordinate across several fronts. Only a few of the better-organized big groups, as well as ideological jihadis of all shapes and sizes, tend to move to where the enemy is—and those groups have already got their hands full. The bulk of available fighters remains tied down in tiny Free Syrian Army grouplets that have little ability or motivation to go on missions outside their home town.
Calling for Foreign Fighters
This inability to concentrate fighters where it matters has pushed some rebel commanders to call for reinforcements of another kind.
In late December, the dominant Islamist coalition in Idlib, known as Jaish al-Fath, called for Sunni volunteer fighters from abroad. Islamist clerics including the Saudi jihadi Abdullah al-Moheisini, an influential figure in Jaish al-Fath, have even decreed that joining the war in Syria is fard ain, an Islamic term meaning that it is an individual duty incumbent on every able-bodied Muslim man. For Moheisini, Syria is the main front in a defensive battle against a creeping Iranian-led takeover of Sunni territory. “Either we stop the Shia attack or we will cry and regret it later, as we did over Iraq and Lebanon,” he says, “and tomorrow Syria.”
A Controversial Call to Arms
Moheisini’s view of the conflict in Syria as a mandatory holy war is evidently not shared by many of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, since at most a few thousand foreigners have opted to volunteer alongside Jaish al-Fath. Indeed, as Sam Heller’s interviews with Syrian dissidents make clear, the new call for foreign fighters is controversial even among anti-Assad Syrians. “Ha, as if we need more al-Qaeda,” scoffed a journalist working in rebel-held territories.
Even though one of its chief components is the al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front, Jaish al-Fath had not previously called for non-Syrians to join the battle. The Nusra Front was busily recruiting foreigners into its own ranks, but the other members of the coalition were anxious to avoid any association with international terrorism. But now, after taking one blow after another from Russia, Iran, and Assad, Jaish al-Fath has thrown caution to the wind.
This led to the swift defection of Faylaq al-Sham, a Muslim Brotherhood proxy that co-founded Jaish al-Fath nearly a year ago. Faylaq al-Sham has not formally raised the foreign fighters issue as a reason for leaving Jaish al-Fath—rather, it mumbled something about having urgent business in Aleppo—but it seems obvious, considering the Brotherhood’s strategic decision to court mainstream support and its deep-rooted fear of ending up on a terrorism blacklist.
This is the worst possible time for intra-rebel conflict in northern Syria. When skirmishes erupted in Salqin between the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, which is the other main group in Jaish al-Fath, it sent shivers down the spine of many opposition backers. But the conflict was quickly contained.
It’s not all dark for the Syrian opposition. As long as internal disagreements do not get in the way of military cooperation, the rebels of Idlib will remain a formidable force. With a steady flow of Saudi, Qatari, Turkish, and American support coming in across the Turkish border, Assad has his work cut out for him if he tries to move east from Latakia. And though the Syrian president is gaining ground now, many uncertainties remain regarding the government’s capacity and cohesion. The state apparatus is exhausted from five years of conflict and Assad’s forces have been on the offensive for four months without interruption. If the army is forced to slow down and catch its breath, the rebels may find time to regroup—and maybe their foreign backers will increase arms deliveries once the Geneva process gets stuck?
Well, maybe. But right now, Syrian rebels are in trouble.