Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1298, (2 - 8 June 2016)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1298, (2 - 8 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

War of attrition in Syria

The Syrian conflict is no longer about different sides trying to take over each other’s territory. Instead, it has become a war of attrition, writes Scott Lucas

Al-Ahram Weekly

Months after Russia spectacularly entered the Syrian conflict, the Islamic State (IS) group is still thumbing its nose at both Moscow and the regime led, in murderous fashion, by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

On 23 May, the group detonated between seven and nine car and suicide bombs in the coastal cities of Jableh and Tartous, killing about 150 people and wounding more than 225. The targets included bus stations, power stations and a hospital.

The co-ordinated attacks, the first of their kind in Al-Assad’s heartland provinces on the Mediterranean coast, conveyed a deadly message: despite the loss of Palmyra in central Syria in late March, and the offensive threatening the IS-held city of Fallujah in Iraq, IS can still strike at the core of the Al-Assad regime.

That message has far wider implications. Since Russia began its military intervention in the country in September 2015, the Al-Assad regime and Moscow, along with Iran and Hizbullah, have been trying to present a position of strength against their principal opponents, the rebel factions that have challenged Damascus since 2011 and long before IS became one of their main enemies.

Yet despite thousands of bombings and ground offensives across the country, the Al-Assad-Russia-Iran-Hizbullah campaign has yet to make a significant breakthrough. Now the IS bombings have revived the fears that prompted the Russian intervention in the first place: that Al-Assad and the Syrian military are not able to protect what remains of the Syrian population in regime-controlled areas.

Only two months before these attacks, the Al-Assad regime and Russia appeared to have turned a corner in Syria’s five-year conflict. While the rebels had not been defeated, their advances had been contained, and some territory had been reclaimed from them. The Syrian military, alongside Hizbullah and Iranian-led units, had won a symbolic victory with the recapture of Palmyra and its archaeological site from IS.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sought an endgame. With the defence line apparently secured from Damascus to Homs to Latakia, Putin announced the withdrawal of some Russian warplanes. Moscow would concentrate on a political settlement that would secure the regime, if not Al-Assad himself, through talks in Geneva, he said.

Meanwhile, Russia’s remaining forces could attack IS and the jihadists of Jabhat Al-Nusra, both of which were excluded from a 27 February “cessation of hostilities” agreement brokered by Russia and the US.

But Moscow soon faced an unexpected challenge. Perhaps buoyed up by the propaganda around the “victory” in Palmyra, Al-Assad said he would not leave power in the foreseeable future. Even before the Geneva talks reconvened, he rejected a transitional governing authority, the centrepiece of international proposals since 2012.

Al-Assad’s rejection of these proposals, which effectively consigned the Geneva process to oblivion, was soon followed by worse news from the battlefield. Citing continued attacks by the regime, rebels and Jabhat Al-Nusra forces struck back near the city of Aleppo.

Throughout April, they seized much of the territory lost since September, including towns on the Aleppo-to-Damascus highway. Of equal importance, they inflicted significant casualties on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Iranian-led Iraqi and the Afghan militia that had taken over the fight from Al-Assad’s forces around one of the country’s largest cities.

Russian and Syrian warplanes responded with intense bombing campaigns, reducing the “cessation of hostilities” agreement to a diplomatic farce. They killed hundreds of civilians in and near Aleppo and destroyed hospitals and other vital facilities but failed to regain the initiative on the ground. While the pro-Al-Assad forces, including the Iranians, suffered more losses, the rebels and Jabhat Al-Nusra captured villages in the Hama and northern Homs provinces.

Meanwhile, IS was causing further trouble elsewhere. Striking back near Palmyra, it took two major gas fields, tightening its grip on Syria’s energy production. In the east of the country, it attacked Al-Assad forces in Deir Ezzor, briefly holding key positions as both sides suffered heavy casualties.

The pro-Al-Assad forces finally got their first good news since Palmyra when the Syrian military and Hizbullah seized part of the eastern Ghouta area near Damascus. Yet, paradoxically, even this victory laid bare the steep obstacles in the way of Moscow and the Al-Assad regime. The Ghouta advance was only possible because the rebel defences were weakened by in-fighting and Hizbullah had redeployed its fighters from fronts in northern and central Syria.

While Al-Assad’s supporters celebrated, the lesson was clear: the best hope for the regime is to secure its core area, pushing back the rebels near Damascus and maintaining the line to Homs and the Mediterranean. Any idea that it can regain control of all of Syria, or even most of it, is an illusion.

Now even that best hope has been shaken by the IS bombings. The reaction on the ground has been telling: angry residents reportedly attacked some of the more than 500,000 displaced Syrians near Jableh and Tartous, and tents were burned, injuring refugees. The governor of Tartous Province pleaded for calm, begging people not to “attack our guests [as] terrorists are not among them”.

The Al-Assad regime clumsily tried to leverage the attacks for political advantage, blaming the leading rebel faction Ahrar Al-Sham for the attacks, only for IS to claim responsibility. The Kremlin cautiously said that the bombings showed the need for “vigorous steps to continue the negotiation process”, even though that process is currently dormant.

IS is not going to take over the Latakia and Tartous provinces, and nor are Syria’s rebels. But that’s not the point. This conflict is no longer about different sides trying to take over each other’s territories. Instead, it has become a war of attrition, with opponents wearing each other down until they give up proclamations of legitimacy and hopes of eventual victory.

The massive intervention by Russia, Iran and Hizbullah was meant to speed up that attrition, forcing the Syrian opposition and rebels into capitulation at the negotiating table. Yet, despite the deaths of thousands of civilians, their offensive has failed, both on the battlefield and in the diplomatic arena.

All the while, Al-Assad continues his metamorphosis into a ghostly Wizard of Oz-like figure. His military is now dependent on foreign forces, and his stay in office is sustained by the grudging acceptance of Russia and the more forthright backing of Iran.

And with IS now targeting sites a short distance from Al-Assad’s home in Latakia Province, he will be struggling to maintain his professed self-image as the protector of the Syrian people.


The writer is a professor at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

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