Baathist Riposte: How the Regime Came back in the Syrian Civil War in 2014

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) —

In the course of 2014, two major trends, long since visible in the Syrian civil war, were strengthened.

First, the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad continued to assert control over most urban areas along the trunk roads of the west of the country. Damascus, Homs, Hama, Latakia and part of Aleppo were all in government hands. The regime was able to fight off all attempts of the forces in the countryside to take these urban areas, expelling the rebels from Homs and fighting off an attack on Latakia. It had help in these campaigns from Lebanon’s Hizballah and help with strategy from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Some of these urban areas have swollen with refugee populations from the countryside, so that Hama, for instance, has doubled to about 2 million. It is about the size of Damascus. Homs is probably at least a million. If the regime also has a million people in Aleppo and 2.2 million Alawites in and around Latakia, I figure it has at least 10 million or so out of Syria’s in-country population of 20 million (there are 3 million expatriates). It has the urban half of the country.

Second, secular and ‘moderate’ fundamentalist forces decisively lost out in the countryside to extremists, whether al-Qaeda (the Support Front or Jabhat al-Nusra) or Daesh (the Arabic acronym for what we call ISIS or ISIL). Al-Qaeda took territory to the west of Aleppo away from Free Syrian Army units. Daesh consolidated its hold on Raqqah Province and extended its sway into Iraq last June. The Saudi-backed Islamic Front, which hived off from the Free Syrian Army, became more Salafi and anti-democratic over time. There are no substantial credible secular or moderate military forces on the rebel side any more.

This latter truth is a problem for the USA, which maintains a fiction that its 2014 bombing raids against Daesh and al-Qaeda do not help the regime but rather the moderate rebels.

They help the regime.

For more detail, follow the blog Syria Comment of Joshua Landis and his associates.

Let me embed here a map from Thomas van Linge, which shows the state of play at the end of 2014. The red is the regime, the yellow the Kurds, the dark gray is the al-Qaeda ofshoots– Daesh (ISIL or ISIS), and al-Qaeda (the Support Front or Jabhat al-Nusra). The dark green is what’s left of the Syrian Revolutionary Front, which itself became more fundamentalist before collapsing this fall in the face of an al-Qaeda onslaught.

Note that although the red looks like a fraction of the country, it encompasses the major, concentrated urban areas and so probably contains at least half the country’s population.

And here is a timeline (h/t to the BBC and other hyperlinked sources).

2014 January-February

When the Bashar al-Assad government refuses to discuss the idea of a transitional government, the Geneva peace talks collapse.

Syrian authorities in Hama relax their curfew and allow people to come out and shop and socialize at night. Hama, which lies just north of Homs, has been in regime hands since fall 2011. It has swollen to some 2 million inhabitants, as refugees have flooded in from the countryside (where rebel forces continue to operate).

March

Yabroud, a rebel stronghold next to the border with Lebanon, falls to a joint operation of the Syrian Army and Lebanon’s Hizbullah Shiite militia.

The regime takes a key outpost above the northwestern port of Latakia and repulses an attack on this largely Alawite regime stronghold by al-Qaeda and Daesh.

The Syria Brigades (Failaq Suriya) is formed by 19 ‘moderate’ Muslim fundamentalist rebel groups in contrast to the ‘Islamic Front’ which is backed by Saudi Arabia.

April

The Saudi-backed ‘Islamic Front’ announces that it no longer believes in democracy or holding elections, raising the question of why the West should care whether it wins or loses. It is entrenched in western Aleppo.

May

In an Iran-brokered deal, hundreds of rebels leave the city of Homs, ending 3 years of defiance of the Baath government in the city.

June

Daesh coordinates with Mosul and other Iraqi cities in the Sunni north and west to throw off the largely Shiite army and Baghdad government. Daesh declares a ‘Caliphate’ from Mosul to Aleppo, recalling the statelet of the medieval ruler Imad al-Din Zangi.

August

Daesh fighters take Tabqa airbase away from the regime, killing and humiliating Syrian Army troops and consolidating their hold on Raqqa Province. Only the far northern Kurdish enclave of Kobane holds out against them for the rest of the year.

September

President Barack Obama, alarmed at the potential collapse of Iraqi Kurdistan at Daesh hands, intervenes in Iraq and Syria from the air. The BBC says, “Forces from the United States and five Arab countries launch combined air strikes against militants in and around Aleppo and Raqqa.”

Obama gets Congressional backing for these air strikes.

He also announces a plan to train a new rebel force in Syria that would fight both the al-Assad regime and Daesh. Critics note that this step would take many years and was not entirely plausible as a strategy.

But Obama allegedly avoids bombing regime targets in Damascus for fear of angering Iran at a time when he is trying to do a nuclear deal with Tehran, and at a time where he needs Iranian backing for Baghdad.

October

Jabhat al-Nusra (the Support Front), an al-Qaeda affiliate, takes much of Idlib province in the north from the ‘moderate’ fundamentalist Syrian Revolutionary Front, as the region’s population decides that al-Qaeda has more chance against the regime than the Free Syrian Army. The FSA has more or less collapsed, with Support Front/ al-Qaeda, Daesh and the Saudi-backed Islamic Front holding most of rebel-held territory.

December

Al-Qaeda and its allies take two government military bases in south Idlib province, consolidating their control over that province.

The 500-strong Assoud al-Islam based north of Homs collapses, with 400 fighters defecting after the leadership declared allegiance to Daesh. This development suggests that Daesh is not as popular in the west as it is in the east, and in the former an affiliation with it is a liability.

The US Congress in its omnibus spending bill removes the $300 million for training the secular or ‘moderate’ Free Syria Army, leaving US strategy in tatters.

At the end of the year, Daesh seems contained, and it lost the Yezidi Kurdish area of Mt. Shinjar, with the Peshmerga fighters from Iraqi Kurdistan cutting off the supply line between al-Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. Al-Qaeda or the Support Front took new territory not from the regime for the most part but from the Free Syrian Army.

The regime is allegedly readying an Aleppo campaign. If it succeeded, it is hard to see how the rebels could ever hope to use their weak, poor base in the country side to conquer Syria’s major cities, most of which are now under regime control.

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11 Responses

  1. Eric

    You completely ignored the Southern Front. They’re more powerful than local Islamist/jihadi militias + making gains on Damascus.

  2. A key turning point for the U.S. was when they did not engage Syria with air strikes in late 2013 when alleged proof of poison gas use was declared.

    The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) was recognized by most of the world, including the U.S., as the Syrian government-in-exile but the failure of the Obama administration to take decisive military action against the Baathists in Damascus led to most constituent brigades of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – who owes its allegiance to the SNC – to defect to the Islamic Front or other groups.

    The suspension of military aid to the FSA following the Islamic Front’s seizure of an a arms depot that had been under FSA control was yet another policy failure of the U.S. State Department that had damaged American interests in Syria – as more defections occurred based upon the perception that the U.S. had soured on the FSA.

    Another fiasco was the Secretary of State John Kerry’s insistence that the SNC attend the Geneva II conference – which not only resulted in the Islamic Front declaring the attendees traitors – but also caused the Syrian National Council to withdraw from the Syrian National Coalition in January 2014. Geneva II accomplished next to nothing.

    The dissension and disarray among the Syrian rebel groups resulted in ISIS gaining a foothold in Syria and expanding it over 2014.

    The FSA has its strongest positions near Deraa in the south but overall its influence has been declining within Syria since the end of 2013. The refusal of the U.S. to supply MANPADS to the FSA has resulted in the FSA being virtually defenseless against the Syrian Air Force – despite the fact ISIS has anti-aircraft missiles it can use against Syrian government warplanes.

    The Baathist regime in Damascus has welcomed the U.S. Air Force strikes against ISIS and offered to form a military alliance with the U.S. to fight ISIS while expressing a desire to suppress terror activities in the region.

    The Obama administration can be blamed for much of the failures of the FSA and the surge in Baathist control over Syrian population centers.

    • Mark, the US actually invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003 and 8 years later did not leave it in a better condition. The idea that US intervention in Syria could have made a significant difference is daft. These wars are fought in alleyways at a micro level that befuddle superpowers.

      • Many, if not most, foreign policy observers have opined that the U.S. has no compelling interest (e.g. petroleum exports) to become involved in the Syrian uprising, however, that being said, there exists a clear trail that the U.S. intelligence community left suggesting covert involvement in fomenting the rebellion of anti-Assad elements dating back to at least 2006.

        Having stirred up the opposition to the Baathists, America has been seen by some as to having a certain obligation to the Syrian people to try to resolve this deadly conflict.

        • Mark,
          the taint of possible CIA influence can cause fighters to not affiliate or associate with a fighting force, an administrative body or an umbrella organization, or cause them to leave such an organization if they already belong.

          Some fighters joined a CIA-organized group, unaware of who put it together and funded it.
          When they were told rumors of the provenance, rather than wait to find out if the rumors were true, they simply abandoned that original group and joined one they thought had more authentic credentials.

          You can guess who I think is a CIA-backed group.
          That must come up from time to time on the Landis site.
          .

      • Dr. Cole,
        it is my sense that the US Army and USMC did pretty well in Iraq at the tactical level, in alleyways at a micro level. Small US combat units almost always prevailed.

        Sure, we lost, and Ambassador Crocker signed a surrender contract as the rep of Prez GW Bush on 18 Dec 2008.
        I chalk that up to two fatal errors:
        *** employing Mercenaries, which forever turned the Iraqi people against us (regardless of how many puppets we were paying off;) and
        *** surprisingly incompetent leadership, from the Brigades all the way up to the CINC. Our Army has managed, since around 2002, to “ethnically cleanse” competence completely out of the General officer’s corps.
        Don’t believe Tom Ricks’ assessment; he’s a fan-boy of silver-tongued brown-nosers.
        .

        • I’ve talked to lots of vets who were in Iraq. They never controlled things in the alleyways or at least not very long. Most of them did not even know the language or whether a religious building was Sunni or Shiite.

    • The Syrian National Coalition may have been recognized by most of the world, including the U.S. but if its constituent brigades defected to the Islamic Front because the US would not bomb Syria or give it MANPADS suggests Syrian allegiance to the SNC was very low. Once it was seen it could not gather Western support, this front organisation was abandoned and the rebels went back to the militas which truly shared their goals.

      • “…….Syrian allegiance to the SNC was very low……”

        In a nutshell, yes. Most brigades had been very independent and under the control of a charismatic leader or leaders. The defecting units reportedly did so due to dissatisfaction with the SNC rather than the FSA.

        The constituent brigades that had previously under the control of the FSA’s governing body, the Supreme Military Council, were highly autonomous and remain so even under the umbrella of the “Islamic Front” which does little more than coordinate the independent brigades and assist in distributing supplies.

        Western diplomats met Islamic Front representatives at the Ankara Conference several months ago, but they decided to eschew aid from the West and instead have relied financially upon donations from Persian Gulf states – including Saudi Arabia.

        The Syrian National Coalition was recently rebuffed as a potential interlocutor in a Russian-sponsored peace parley:

        link to kdvr.com

  3. So where is the plan?
    The battle is now between Baathists and extremists. Bombing the extremists helps the Baathists – so does the West destroy the extremists to allow a regime takeover of territory? Seems extremely doubtful the moderates can step up.
    A possibility is a full-scale US invasion and occupation – although given the consequences of the Iraq fiasco, that seems unlikely to succeed.
    The worst plan may be to continue with the idea of arming the opponents and giving them the hope of eventual intervention. That may drag this war on for years or decades and it must be faced that a civil war like this is far worse than a Baathist dictatorship.

    • I disagree, Steerpike.

      For some parties,
      prolonging the civil war is the preferred result.

      The USA has pursued just such a course in other situations, even going as far as to arm both sides of a conflict so as to wear down both sides.

      Such a course is terrible for the civilian population, but their welfare may not concern the folks that work to keep this conflict churning.
      .

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