Jennifer Cafarella is the senior intelligence planner at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C., where she was, previously, a Syria analyst. In her position, she is responsible for shaping and overseeing the development of ISW’s detailed plans and recommendations on how to achieve U.S. objectives against enemies and adversaries and in conflict zones. Cafarella has written on and researched various opposition groups in Syria, particularly focusing on the Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, and its military capabilities, modes of governance, and long-term strategic vision. Diwan interviewed her on January 11 to get an update on the situation in Syria, amid regime offensives in the East Ghouta and Idlib governorate.
Michael Young: Who do you think was behind the recent mystery drone bombings of the Russian Hmeimim airbase in Syria?
Jennifer Cafarella: Al-Qaeda is the most likely suspect. Al Qaeda-linked groups have experimented with drone technology against pro-regime forces in Hama governorate and likely have the engineering capability to develop these devices. Al-Qaeda retains numerous military positions to the northeast and east of the Russian airbase, from which it could have staged the attacks. Russia has claimed the drones came from a village named Muwazarra in southern Idlib governorate, where Al-Qaeda linked groups dominate militarily.
MY: Two major battles have either started in Syria or are about to—one in the East Ghouta, near Damascus, a second in Idlib governorate. How do you predict that the military dynamics will play out in each of these areas, and weren’t both supposed to be de-escalation zones?
JC: Pro-regime forces are indeed violating both de-escalation zones. The United States should learn the appropriate lessons and adjust our expectations in southern Syria accordingly: pro-regime forces will escalate there, too, as soon as it suits them.
Pro-regime forces reportedly seized the Abu al-Duhour airbase in eastern Idlib governorate, which provides them with a more defensible front line on the eastern outskirts of Idlib. They may be willing to halt there until the planned diplomatic talks in Sochi, Russia, on January 29.
The Turks are attempting to leverage military and diplomatic pressure to block further pro-regime operations into Idlib governorate. While we don’t know if Turkey supported the attacks on the Russian airbase, Ankara is exploiting the resulting costs and risks to Russian forces to demand a halt to operations in Idlib. It is also exploiting European fears of a new migrant flow to rally European support to compel Russia to halt operations.
A de-escalation is less likely around Damascus. Pro-regime forces have been grinding down rebel resistance in isolated pockets around the capital for years. The horrific conditions of starvation in the East Ghouta are typical of the regime’s strategy of leveraging the cover of de-escalation agreements to implement a “siege and starve” program. Pro-regime forces face less international pressure near Damascus, where their campaign does not immediately generate outflows of refugees toward Turkey or Jordan.
MY: It appears that the Assad regime wants a military outcome to avoid making political concessions to its foes, whereas there are signs that the Russians want military advances to be accompanied by a political solution. How will this disconnect ultimately play out?
JC: The Russians are more concerned than Syrian President Bashar al-Assad about reaching a notional diplomatic settlement to the war that allows them to claim victory and gains international acceptance. Neither Russia nor Assad intends to grant meaningful concessions to the Syrian opposition that would actually weaken the Syrian regime. Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks a diplomatic deal that he can use to claim to be the peacemaker in Syria. Assad would accept a deal that preserves his regime, and is therefore willing to support the process so long as it continues to protect him. Assad applies constraints on how far the Russians can go in order to get a diplomatic deal that Putin can tout. He has refused Russian efforts to explore concessions such as detainee releases, for example. The only meaningful tension between them is on the margins. Both Russia and Assad seek to improve the Syrian regime’s military position in order to maximize Assad’s ability to reconstitute his regime. Their military operations will continue under the guise of countering terrorism (which has always been an Assad charade), regardless of the outcome of the diplomatic process.
MY: Another tension point is the area near the Golan Heights, where Israel has warned that Iran is trying to establish itself. Where is this likely to lead?
JC: Israel will most likely continue to manage this escalation in the near term. Israeli airstrikes will continue to target Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies in Syria in order to disrupt supply lines, deny high end transfers of weapons, and deter Iran from building up its presence along the Golan Heights beyond a level that Israel views as tolerable. Israel’s campaign will likely succeed in the near term, because Iran is unlikely to pursue a direct escalation with Israel under current conditions.
Israel needs U.S. help to reduce Iran’s strength in Syria. However, the U.S. is not currently pursuing a strategy to contain and reduce the overall strength of Iran’s proxy network in Syria and its infiltration into regime structures. The Israelis cannot expect the U.S. to solve its Iran problem in Syria in the near term. Washington’s policy will continue to afford Tehran a strategic opportunity to embed its proxies in Syria and cultivate Syrian cutouts that can remain even if Iran is ultimately forced to withdraw its foreign proxies.
MY: Is there a realistic endgame to the Syrian conflict?
JC: Not at present. Jihadi groups, including Al-Qaeda and remnants of the Islamic State, retain both the intent and capability to keep this war raging for years. Assad still cannot impose his own control over the country, because he is completely dependent on significant military support from Iran and Russia. Therefore, he is not in fact sovereign. His ability to take and hold terrain depends on how much military expense Iran and Russia are willing and able to sustain. Jihadis will try to maximize the cost of fighting in Syria in order to exploit this vulnerability and could even retake terrain. The Syrian conflict is on a trajectory to continue to expand during 2018.