Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are making progress around the country’s two main cities, Aleppo and Damascus. Even though his government also suffered several setbacks during spring and summer, the net gains are very significant—not in terms of square kilometers won, but with regard to the strategic importance of the territory recaptured.
Many observers seemed to assume that the pendulum had now swung back in favor of the rebels. With Russian and Iranian backing, Assad made serious progress in January and February, but then, after a shaky cessation of hostilities negotiated by Russia and the United States, the regime’s military offensives seemed to fade. The opposition took heart from rumors of Russian-Iranian disagreements over their alliance with Assad, reports about massive arms deliveries to the rebels during the ceasefire, and claims that select opposition groups had been supplied with air-defense weapons. Whether such weapons were indeed distributed or not, a number of government jets and helicopters have recently crashed or been damaged.
Setbacks on Several Fronts
The Syrian government has indeed lost territory on several fronts. The self-proclaimed Islamic State, a Sunni extremist group that fights both Assad and other insurgents, thwarted the army’s ambition to expand further from Palmyra, which was seized in a Russian-backed offensive in March. Jihadi raids on the army’s flanks drew troops deeper into the desert, forcing them to man outposts and conduct clearing operations instead of concentrating their forces. The government also lost important gas infrastructure around the Shaer fields, and has still not managed to retake it. All the while, the Islamic State attacks continued to destabilize the isolated government enclave in Deir Ezzor, which Assad’s army has fought to keep for several years.
South of Aleppo, a joint offensive by non-Islamic State jihadists and mainstream Sunni rebels had slowly eaten away at a bulge of rural territory that Iranian-backed Shia militias had expanded last winter. The rebels seized Khan Touman and the high ground of Jabal Eiss, which had been intended to serve as jump-off points for offensives into Aleppo and Idlib. Government forces were also retreated from positions they had recently seized in the mountains of northern Latakia governorate, being pushed out of a pocket of useful high ground around Kinsibba.
In June, too, an army offensive toward the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates—which would have positioned Assad’s forces to profit from an unexpected weakening of the Islamic State at it was attacked by rival Kurdish forces—turned into a complete fiasco. After seizing a long stretch of desert road, the pro-government militia that was supposed to spearhead the offensive suddenly folded and fled back to government-held regions in the west. Although military officials in charge presented it as a tactical retreat, the affair seemed to illustrate the slow withering of central command-and-control capabilities in Assad’s forces. As militias and foreign troops take over more and more of the army’s responsibilities, his commanders are being forced to herd militia commanders and minor warlords into attaining the same objectives, not always successfully. It also raised the issue of Assad’s over-reliance on his foreign backers, since the retreating troops blamed Russia for failing to provide enough air support.
These signs of weakness came against a backdrop of disagreement over strategy and the distribution of resources among Assad’s allies. In mid-March, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he would withdraw some of his forces from Syria. While this was mostly for show and much of the Russian Air Force remained active, it fed talk of Assad being under pressure and of Russian-Iranian disagreements.
However, despite their somewhat diverging goals, Russia and Iran have sought to coordinate their efforts in Syria, reinforcing each others’ interventions in order to best support Assad. In June, there were signs that something was in the works. Airstrikes picked up speed around Aleppo, and troops began pouring into the city. While their exact purpose wasn’t clear, they “certainly didn’t come to picnic,” as a military source put it to a Lebanese reporter in early June. Pro-Assad media now spoke openly of the impending launch of a “broad military offensive.”
On June 9, the defense ministers of Syria, Iran, and Russia met in Tehran to coordinate their views on the war, the truce, and the political talks in Geneva. The three countries agreed to form a permanent contact group to harmonize their political and military approaches, and the Iran- and Assad-friendly Lebanese daily al-Akhbar claimed that new offensives would now be launched in Aleppo and Deir Ezzor. High-level contacts continued to multiply. On June 18, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made a surprise visit to Syria to meet with Assad. A week later, Syrians, Russians, and Iranians jointly made their move in Aleppo.
Cutting Access to Aleppo
When the offensive began on June 25, after a string of probing attacks, Russia was already days into a campaign of massive aerial bombardments in the Aleppo region. Iran had dispatched military advisors and Shia Islamist fighters from the pro-Iranian Lebanese group Hezbollah to shore up government lines in the city, while Assad threw some of his best troops into the fight.
By July 7, the pro-Assad forces had seized new territory in the Mallah farmlands, located along the northwestern approaches to Aleppo. This allowed them to fire directly on the so-called Castello Road, named after a nearby restaurant. Simultaneously, government forces attacked from the other side of the road, pushing into the densely built-up Bani Zeid-Liramoun area, which had been under relentless bombardment for nearly two weeks.
Assad’s forces had already seized the other main rebel supply route, through the northern Azaz Corridor, in February. By shutting down the Castello Road, the government has thus cut the last supply line into rebel-held Aleppo. Unless the pro-government forces are pushed back from Mallah and other areas around Castello Road, the rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo will be at the government’s mercy. “Currently nobody can get in or out of Aleppo,” a leader of an Aleppo-based rebel group told Reuters. Though opposition forces have counter-attacked furiously over the past few days, both in the Mallah area and inside Aleppo city, they have so far been unable to dislodge the pro-regime forces.
A full siege of eastern Aleppo could have terrible consequences for the remaining civilian population, which, although much reduced in comparison to what it was before the war, is believed to be larger than that of any area previously placed under siege by the government. The Syrian government has often used sieges to deprive civilians of food and medicine, in order to force pro-rebel communities to accept unfavorable ceasefires. Many now assume that the same course of action will be followed in Aleppo and prices in the city have already shot up, as residents and merchants begin to stockpile basic necessities.
Slow but Steady Army Advances in Damascus
In Damascus, too, Assad’s forces have been making slow progress. West of the capital, the rebel-held satellite town of Darayya—which has long been under siege and suffered from a lack of food and fuel—is being squeezed by the army, which has moved slowly to peel away rebel-controlled territory from its perimeter. If Darayya falls or is forced to conclude a truce, that will mean the regime has cleared the rebels out of every area of significance in western Damascus.
A deal is also being negotiated in southern Damascus, where the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk is jointly controlled by al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the Islamic State. According to the pro-government Damascus daily al-Watan, the jihadi factions will be allowed to evacuate to northern Syria along with those civilians who prefer to go with them. The camp will then be handed over to the army and Palestinian militias, in order for it to be jointly administered by the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Syrian government. A similar deal was negotiated half a year ago, but it was frozen after the death of the influential rebel leader Zahran Alloush on December 25, and never revived. Should the jihadi rebels evacuate the camp this time, the Syrian government will have rid themselves of the main threat to the southern suburbs of the capital.
That leaves the enclave of rebel-held territory in the east, an area known as the Eastern Ghouta. It is one of Syria’s most heavily militarized opposition areas and has long been seen to pose a strategic threat to Assad’s hold on the capital. The enclave, which has been contained by a government siege since 2013, was long dominated by Alloush’s Islam Army, but his death shook things up. In late March, battles erupted between the Islam Army and the other two main factions of the enclave, Failaq al-Rahman, which espouses a nationalist-Islamic rhetoric and uses Free Syrian Army symbols, and the Fustat Army, which is a coalition between the Nusra Front and a non-ideological local faction. The infighting split the Eastern Ghouta between the rebel factions, weakened its defenses, and allowed the Syrian government to focus their fire on one group at the time. Since then, Assad’s forces have broken off the entire southern part of the Ghouta enclave, perhaps a quarter of its territory. It is the most serious setback to the insurgency in the Damascus area in years and the rebels are still losing territory, as government troops dig into Islam Army-held territory on the enclave’s eastern boundary.
Making Progress Where It Counts
Whether or not Bashar al-Assad controls the farmlands and mountainsides of Kinsebba or Jabal Eiss will not change the course of the war. But insofar as Assad can imagine a road to military victory, it certainly passes through Damascus and Aleppo. These are pivotal battlefields. If at some point the Syrian president manages to isolate and finally neutralize the opposition in Aleppo city and in the East Ghouta, like he did with the rebel stronghold in Homs in spring 2014, he will have robbed the opposition of its most important assets. The rebels would be reduced to controlling bombed-out rural zones and a few provincial towns such as Idlib, severely undercutting their claim to national relevance. These are places that could still serve as bases for a potent insurgency, but they are also places that Assad can live without, even in the long term, while he focuses on strengthening his hand in more economically and politically valuable parts of Syria.
What has long looked like a lame duck insurgency, which continues to fight but has no real hope of achieving its political objectives, would at that point look more like a lost cause. It is not realistic to imagine that Western, Turkish, or Arab funders of the insurgency would want to relaunch a contest for the major cities if the opposition is rooted out from them in the way it was from Homs. Instead, such a defeat would be likely to prompt a rethinking of strategies in regional and Western capitals and, in some of them, an admission of defeat.
Even that would be unlikely to end the fighting in Syria. The insurgency is certainly dependent on foreign backing, but it is at its root a domestic affair. Thousands of rebels would continue fighting, even if they were forced to go underground in areas now under government control. The jihadi-held areas in the east would continue to pose a problem, and the powerful Kurdish areas in the north, which are now effectively autonomous, would certainly resist a full regime restoration.
The Assad government seems too inflexible to opt for a strategy of political decentralization, power-sharing, or appeasement, and it is almost certainly too weak, illegitimate, and economically depleted to go for a complete military victory. Yet, continued military advances in Aleppo and Damascus could very well change the dynamics of the conflict and the way that the world, or some of it, interacts with Assad. For the Syrian president and his allies, ensuring the incapacity and failure of the mainstream opposition is a goal worth fighting for—it’s not a full victory or even a guarantee of regime survival, but the closest thing on offer.