Will the Syrian Opposition Reach Damascus Soon?
Repercussions of Recent Military Developments in Syria
On May 27, 2015, only eight days after its announcement the freeing of al-Mastouma city in Idlib’s Countryside, “al-Fath Army” announces the freeing of the Areha, the second big city in the province of Idlib. “al-Fath Army” is an umbrella of several Syrian opposition factions that fighting against al-Assad Regime in Syria.
Prior to that, the factions were able to evacuate Syrian regime forces from the city of Idlib, the governorate’s capital, on March 28, 2015. The city centre constituted an isolated land under the control of regime forces yet encircled by revolutionary brigades and areas. On April 25, 2015, the brigades claimed control over Jissr al-Shoghour close to Idlib city and located on the line dividing coastal areas, where regime loyalists are concentrated, and the internal areas of the governorate of Idlib, which became a stronghold for brigades and organisations fighting the Syrian regime and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) at the same time.
In the meantime, battles against the Assad regime continued in al-Ghab Plain in the midlands of Syria, and the southern front in Deraa was not less intense than the northern front. Revolutionary factions in Deraa managed to counter a massive offensive by the regime, and its allies, including Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards, on April 20, 2015. The attack aimed to regain control over some important and strategic cities in the south of Syria; however, they suffered heavy losses and did not achieve their goal. Large battles had started days before at al-Qalamoun front, in the mountains between Syria and Lebanon.
This was accompanied by several sudden deaths of a number of regime personnel, such as head of political security Lt. General Rustum Ghazala. Others were removed such as Brigadier Hafez Makhlouf, Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, and head of capital security, and Lt. General Rafiq Shihada, Head of Military Intelligence.
A majority of Syrians believe that the sudden deaths and removals reflect an internal liquidation process resulting from bloody conflicts within the ranks of the regime itself. This has given the impression that the Syrian regime is crumbling from within, and that its collapse is in sight.
These events pushed many towards optimism with regards to the fall of Damascus in the hands of armed opposition, and they also pushed many to provide wild analyses of the repercussions of these advancements. However, would these battles really lead revolutionaries to celebrate victory in Damascus in the near future?
There is no doubt the recent developments in Syria are very important when it comes to the future map of the region, especially after a period of stagnation that lasted for two years and that extended to the regime and its allies. Nonetheless, those achievements are due to several factors, including and most importantly:
The accumulation of experiences and achievements on the side of Syrian revolutionary armed brigades, in addition to the escalation of financial and human losses on the side of the regime and its allies over the past years,
The current international and regional situation, where neighbouring countries have taken the lead in reconsidering their fronts, which creates an opportunity to arrive at political understandings later.
Followers of the battles in North Syria cannot fail to notice that it works towards pushing the regime from pocket areas largely under opposition control, and stops at the borders of Latakia’s mountains, where the majority of regime loyalists remain. Any agreement or political solution will necessitate the separation of conflicting parties beforehand. This cannot happen in areas where both parties are intertwined, such as the north and the middle of Syria. This has lead regional countries supporting the Syrian opposition to take the lead again, aiming to collaborate to limit the Iranian stronghold in Syria, on the one hand, and on the other hand to push for a political solution and create opportunities ending or calming the war. President Obama’s statements, in his last interview with journalist Thomas Freidman, could have been an implicit stimulus for regional countries to move forward in order to protect their interests. These parties have realised that the lack of coordination between them has disadvantaged the Syrian opposition, and allowed Iran a large margin of flexibility to expand in Syria. Therefore, the lack of collaboration and coordination between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar will result in them completely losing their influence inside Syria, for the benefit of Iran. The lack of coordination would double the cost of any intervention to limit the Iranian influence inside Syria in the future.
However, this initiative is still faced with opposition by the US, which is not supportive of opposition forces controlling multi-sectarian areas in fear of sectarian strife. Additionally, the US also opposes any mass offensive on Damascus, which can lead to the breakdown of the regime militarily. The US vision seeks to find commonalities that can guarantee the transfer of power from al-Assad to another person or to a transitional body that can stop Islamist brigades from taking control over state institutions. The guarantee for this vision is preserving what is left of the army and security apparatus, which can be restructured. Therefore, the US administration is keen on preserving the status quo for two more years until a solution of sorts arises, and also until the transfer of the Syrian file to the next US administration after Obama leaves the White House. It is clear that Obama’s administration is interested in leaving with a legacy of re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba and Iran. The administration is also keen on leaving with a legacy of withdrawing its soldiers from conflict areas and not getting involved in any new wars.
The absence of the Shite element, such as Shite fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan and Revolutionary Guards, and Hezbollah, etc., among the dead and al-Assad regime prisoners, from the battles over Idlib and Jissr al-Shoghour is also worth noting. This component has been the major element of regime-affiliated fighters in the battles in Aleppo in the past. It is still the main component in the battles in the south in Damascus Countryside and Deraa. This shows that there is an implicit understanding, or at least a mutual awareness, of the boundaries of regional control inside Syria. It is no longer feasible for Iran to invest more efforts and incur more costs to maintain geographical areas close to the Turkish borders. On the other hand, the strategic locations for its strongholds are limited to coastal areas, Damascus and the line connecting them both with Lebanon. This prompts the belief that the events will lead to a new map that redraws the distribution of power in Syria within the coming period of time, and that will become clearer in the future and can be anticipated as follows:
Areas under revolutionaries’ control in the northwest of Syria spread out between the Syrian coast and ISIS-controlled areas. These areas will come under the control of Syrian armed brigades.
Areas under ISIS control in the northeast of Syria will be the responsibility of the coalition forces in the coming few years, to deter them from expanding, after realising the difficulty in terminating ISIS without relative political stability in Syria and Iraq.
The Syrian coast, Homs and Damascus will be areas for the regime and its allies, and political opposition’s desire to entre these areas militarily will constitute a major disagreement with many International powers.
The south, between Damascus and the Jordanian borders, will be a rebel-held area under Saudi and Jordanian supervision.
In the meantime, consultation meetings are taking place in Geneva to discuss the horizon of possible political solutions. Also, a conference for the Syrian opposition is being prepared to take place in Saudi Arabia aiming to revive and reactivate the opposition’s political power abroad. This comes especially after its marginalisation over the past two years, due to its inability to influence and affect the situation on the ground, and its failure to offer added value in presenting the Syrian Revolution internationally. The internal disputes within the Syrian opposition, and regional disputes between countries supporting the opposition, exhausted the already feeble political bodies produced by the opposition. Some informed sources revealed that countries supporting the Syrian opposition are keen on empowering the Coalition through including major military factions under its umbrella, such as Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham and Soqour al-Sham. The same sources confirmed that leaders of these factions received proposals with regards to uniting with the Coalition. Some are also talking about establishing a new opposition body to achieve this goal.
The materialisation of this proposition will increase the possibility of counting on the Syrian opposition, which proved to be highly effective in fighting ISIS at the beginning of 2014, and proved its ability to counter regime forces with the support of a regional cover.
As a conclusion, the arrival of armed opposition to Damascus does not seem in sight or possible in the near future. In addition to that, several major countries are opposed to this idea, due to their vision with regards to the possible solution to the Syrian crisis. In case that happens, it will be the result of unexpected developments related to the breakdown of the Syrian regime or its allies from within. In case the US-Iranian nuclear deal is agreed, it will lead to large flows of money entering into the Iranian treasury. This will, in turn, lead to the prolonging of the conflict for several years to come. Nonetheless, there is still hope that diplomatic negotiations within the coming period will result in agreements that do not necessarily end the war, but that at least guarantee relative calm and stability in areas under the control of armed revolutionary factions. This calm and stability can restore life in these areas.
Surely today, the Syria we knew before 2011 is gone and will never come back, but the Syria we wish for still needs a long time to emerge.