The summer of 2015 was unbearably hot in Syria. Politically and otherwise. As scorching heat burned the Syrian Desert, the political circle in Damascus was looking into a very bleak future. Islamic State had just captured the historic city of Palmyra and had cashed in on the momentum to capture the nearby Assyrian town of Al Qaryatayn as well. The road connecting capital Damascus to Aleppo was firmly in rebels’ and Al Qaeda terrorists’ hands whereas a section of Damascus' suburbs was getting horribly out of control.
While this was happening, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia decided to join their efforts and supply rebels and terrorists alike with sophisticated weapons. The capital and the province of Idleb and the adjoining cities fell quickly.
With the buffer zone gone, the ingress into Latakia was swift. In the eastern province of Deir az Zor, the capital and the vital airbase was under siege for years. The loss of Palmyra and Easy Homs meant that the noose got further tightened.
Sitting at the Presidential House in Damascus, President Bashar al Assad must have thought that situation had turned hopelessly dire. With over 70 active fronts all over Syria, the Syrian Arab Army was stretched thin and the shortage of man-power was apparent.
The withdrawal of Iraqi Shiite militia back to Iraq following the rampaging victories by Islamic State there meant that the already stretched manpower was going to dwindle further. In the confines of war rooms, desperate measures were being planned. Sources confirm that there was extreme pressure to withdraw forces from those areas that were far-flung and difficult to hold on to. This would have gone counter to the regime’s initial strategy of ‘Force at Every Corner.’ But there were not many options left.
Enters Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Qasim Soleimani. The rest, as they say, is history. Qasim Soleimani made frantic visits to and from Moscow to convince an already half-convinced Russia to assist its only ally in the Middle East. Initially a tad sceptical, President Putin gave a go ahead. In the six months or so that followed the Russian intervention, the Syrian Arab Army has regained the momentum and achieved long term strategic and political gains.
The strategic gains were immense. The Islamic State was not only defeated in Eastern Aleppo and Eastern Homs, even big ticket names such as Palmyra and Al Qaryatayn were liberated as well.
The Al Qaeda linked Al Nusra Front and Ahrar as Sham were defeated in the mountains of Latakia and as many as 80 sites were recaptured from them. Meanwhile, special operation by Hezbollah in coordination with the Syrian Arab Army not only lifted the siege of the Shia villages of Al Zahra and Nubol, it also cut the rebel supply line in Aleppo from the border city of Azaz, which is used by Erdogan regime to prop up rebels as well as internationally designated terrorists.
The political gains were no less immense. On one hand, the effectiveness of the Russian campaign both in destroying the oil infrastructure of the Islamic State as well as in substantially limiting the tactical outreach of the group raised question over the effectiveness of the US-led campaign in the last year and a half; on the other hand, it exposed the doublespeak of the so-called Free Syrian Army in seeking political settlement on one hand and then aligning with the Al Qaeda linked Al Nusra and Ahrar as Sham on another.
“The US-led coalition has failed in attaining goals to defeat ISIS, not just because it cannot lead a coordinated military effort in air, land and sea in Syria, but also because it lacks legality and because the member states of the coalition have diverging interests. But I think the US interest as well has to be called into question. I mean: does the US want to defeat ISIS? I would argue very strongly based on what we’ve seen in the last year that the US is not interested in defeating ISIS. The US is interested in perhaps controlling ISIS’ movements, so that it helps to create a geopolitical imbalance on the ground that will provide the US government and its allies leverage at the negotiating table. So they don’t want ISIS to take over all of Syria [because] that poses threats to allies in the region. They don’t want ISIS and other terrorist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar as Sham, and others, and the various coalitions they have formed to lose ground, because at the end of the day, the only pressure there are going to be able to apply on the Syrian government and its allies is through what is happening on the ground. And they need something; they need advantage on the ground that they can take with them to the negotiating table,” says geopolitics expert Sharmine Narwani, who specialises in Middle Eastern Affairs.
The recent gains also mean that Assad’s hand has strengthened in negotiations with rebel factions. Russian imposed ceasefire has held in some of the areas while the rebels have collaborated openly with Al Nusra in others, and in fact have made use of the ceasefire to capture a strategic hilltop in Southern Syria taking the Syrian Arab Army defenders by surprise.
This has clearly not gone down well with either Moscow or Damascus and it appears that the Syrian regime is now preparing for a final showdown at least in Aleppo.
Sources close to TSI have suggested several manoeuvres that the Syrian Arab Army and its allies from Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militia might make in days to come. From Hezbollah’s point of view, the thrust will be towards Aleppo’s border with the rebel held Idleb. They will likely start a campaign to reach the regime-held Shiite towns of Fuah and Kafraya, which have been under siege for several months now following the fall of the city of Idleb.
The frontline forces are situated around 30 kilometres from these towns at the time of writing of this report. A second, comparatively smaller offensive will also be mounted to sever the last supply route of rebels inside the city of Aleppo, leading to its capitulation, as previously done in Homs and other cities in the south.
A subsequent attack on the Islamic State-held territories in East Aleppo will also be in offing. But this will only start after the aforementioned manoeuvre. This will include the capture of Islamic State’s bastions of al-Bab or Deir Hafer. This will also open the route towards the Islamic State capital of ar-Raqqah.
Both these manoeuvre will be a political win-win situation for the Government as these will not be violations of the ceasefire on their part but will leave US and allies embarrassed because of the involvement of Brigade 13, an FSA component, with Al Qaeda linked Al Nusra. The US and allies give financial, armed and political support to all the factions of the FSA.
“None of the NATO-backed ‘opposition’ groups managed to show a credible face. Second, and more importantly, the US and Russia kept talking and actually developed another de-escalation plan. It is not conclusive but it is encouraging. The ‘moderate rebel’ masks are down, we now know who they are: the internationally proscribed terrorist group Jabhat al Nusra (al Qaeda in Syria) and its long term Salafist allies Jaysh al Islam (the Army of Islam) and Ahrar as Sham. The latter two are the remnants of the Syrian Salafist groups. In northern Syria, they are also welded together by Turkey and the Saudis into the very non-moderate-sounding Jaysh al Fatah,” says Professor Tim Anderson, an internationally known expert on the Syrian crisis.
Meanwhile, all the speculation regarding Iran or Hezbollah changing their position on Syria turned out to be a figment of imagination from the fertile minds of the western press. There were articles and commentaries pertaining to whether President Rouhani would withdraw some of Iran’s support to Syria or whether Hezbollah would face a growing resentment from its core group of Shiites for its over involvement in Syria. Nothing like that ever happened. If anything, both Tehran and Syed Nasrallah doubled down for Assad and stand rock solid behind the regime. Not only has Iran continued to provide fighters and advisors from Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to help fight battle in Syria, it has also recently sent its elite 65th Airborne Paratroopers to the Southern Aleppo Front, which is waiting for a massive battle even as this report goes to print.
However, this is not to say that everything is going smooth for Assad and his allies. The Islamic State has been pushed back but it has not been sufficiently crushed yet. It still possesses stunning capabilities to mount shock and awe attacks both in Syria and Iraq and is here for the long haul. The Syrian Arab Army still has to fight at multiple fronts against a myriad group of rebels and terrorist organisations. There is no sign that either the US or its Sunni allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are pulling out from the mess. If anything, in the face of failure, they have decided to escalate the situation even further. None of this will lead to normalisation in Syria. However, the shadow of doom that was hanging over the Assad regime has passed. Make no mistake, he’s here for the long haul.