Nearly a year after Trump bombed Syria, al-Assad and Russia extend control

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Syrian war limps along at the margins. It is over where it matters but continues in key demographic pockets. The two most significant are East Ghouta near the al-Assad-held capital of Damascus and the province of Idlib in the northwest of the country. East Ghouta probably has some 380,000 people, who are under siege from the regime because the suburb is controlled by rebels. Idlib province probably has about 1.5 million people, i.e. it is similar to Maine or New Hampshire.

The supporters of the rebels in these remaining pockets include Turkey and the Gulf states, and perhaps France and some other European countries (but not the EU as a whole and especially not the Czech Republic).

Despite Trump’s one-off firing of missiles at the Shuayrat base near Khan Shikhoun over the regime’s use of chemical weapons last spring, the US appears to have ceded Syria or at least the populated West Syria portion, to Russia. Most of the rebel guerrilla forces have signed up for the Salafi or hard line Muslim fundamentalist ideological line, making them unsympathetic to a Western audience. Some have had relationships with terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda (to the distress of Gulf patrons, who tried to get them to cut that out). Many of the actual residents of Idlib, however, are just Sunni small town or farming families, not very ideological, who don’t deserve death from the skies because some guerrillas have taken over their area.

The Syrian war is over as a matter of sheer military strategy. There is no viable pathway for the rebels to overthrow the Damascus government. Supported by Lebanon’s Hizbullah, Iraqi Shiite militias, and Afghan cannon fodder Shanghaied by Iran on the ground and by the Russian Aerospace Forces in the air, the Syrian Arab Army has reasserted itself in much of the country, even if weakly.

The only real question is whether the regime will simply reconquer East Ghouta and Idlib, or whether these holdouts can get a better deal than that. The Russians keep holding out the prospect of a better deal in their negotiations with the rebels. The al-Assad regime seems intent on reconquest.

A cease fire was supposedly reached with East Ghouta last fall and it was designated a ‘de-escalation zone’ by Russia, Turkey and al-Assad. But fighting continues. East Ghouta is dominated by Saudi Arabia’s proxy, the Jaysh al-Islam or Army of Islam, hard line fundamentalists who have threatened to massacre Shiites and impose a Wahhabi-like government on Syria, akin to that in Saudi Arabia. Regime shelling and bombing of rebel positions in East Ghouta for the past two weeks is indiscriminate. The Syrian Arab Army and its allies take no care to avoid civilian casualties. Hence they have been killing about 7 children, women and noncombatant men every day for the past two weeks. The Syrian government is within its rights to fight rebels near the capital according to international law. It isn’t within its rights to hit bakeries while ordinary folk are buying bread. This tactic of total war, also used by the Saudis in Yemen and by the Israelis in Gaza, really must be fought by those hoping for a world of laws.

Idlib is also a deescalation zone. It is dominated by Salafi fundamentalists grouped in the Syrian Conquest Front, composed mainly of the old Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate, now branded the Council for Syrian Liberation, and the Freemen of Syria, also Salafis but representing themselves as more flexible. Nusra/Council have asserted themselves politically, virtually dismantling the other groups, and, Nabih Bulos of the LA Times reports, giving rise to charges that they have deeply weakened the province’s defenses. Turkey and the Gulf have tried to put a security umbrella over Idlib to forestall a frontal regime conquest of the sort al-Assad undertook in east Aleppo.

But one corner of Idlib province has a road running through it from the largest Syrian city, Aleppo, down to the capital of Damascus, and the regime wants that road open. So the Syrian Arab Army and its auxiliaries have attacked the Idlib rebels holding a military base near the road, and reportedly are holding part of the base, which they had lost to the rebels in 2015.

The wider Idlib offensive isn’t just about the base or the Aleppo-Damascus road; rather it appears that al-Assad intends to mop up and take Idlib entirely. Pro-Damascus forces have taken hundreds of square miles recently, sparking an exodus of 130,000 new refugees toward the Turkish border (rugged, frigid territory this time of year).

Turkey is furious about the reneging on the de-escalation zone pledge. Russian air craft have taken damage at their base in neighboring Latakia province from rebel drones, giving them a reason to want to clear out the nearby rebels.

It would be better if there were a negotiated end to the war in which the regime felt that it had to make some concessions with regard to its Stalinist one party state form of rule. The Syrian government tortured 10,000 prisoners to death and documented it with photographs that leaked. It is a horrible regime and guilty of crimes against humanity. That it should come back full force from the popular challenge mounted to its Draconian rule is unfortunate.

But, Syria seems headed in the direction of Algeria, another authoritarian state that survived an attempt at revolution and then a civil war. Of course Algeria has oil. But Syria gets billions in strategic rent. Apparently these authoritarian oligarchies can limp along, despite having been weakened, for decades.

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Related video:

Al Jazeera English: “Turkey: Iran, Russia should adhere to Syria ceasefire”

16 Responses

  1. So Israel and the US got their behinds kicked. Assad is still there, and it looks like the training the US/Israel/Saudi Arabia gave the rebels, was a waste of our tax payer money.
    Let’s take a good look at our record – Afghanistan is very unstable, and the Taliban still rules, Iraq is unstable, no democracy, and suicide bombers galore, and Syria was a dead loss, from all angles.
    We are paying trillions of dollars for our failure, and unnecessary wars.
    How about stopping the madness, and focusing on building our infrastructure, and bailing Puerto Rico out?
    As for Trump, despite him knowing more than all he Generals, he is clueless, and already a failure.

    • “So Israel and the U.S. got their behinds kicked….”

      Israels interests have been advanced by the civil war in several ways.

      Firstly, the conflict has pinned down Hezbollah to an extent that it cannot focus on Israel as the primary foe to risk an actual conflict with the Zionist state.

      Secondly, Hezbollah has lost over 1,000 fighters killed in action during the civil war and is using war materiel that could otherwise be deployed against Israel in a future conflict.

      Thirdly, Syrian rebels, particularly the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front fighters, have debriefed Israeli security personnel during gratuitous medical treatment rendered in Israel on events occurring within Syria that have intelligence value.

      Fourthly, the Syrian rebels have essentially neutralized the Syrian Arab Army as an external threat to Israel due the vast military resources that must be expended by the Syrian government to fight rebel forces.

      The State of Israel is not sustaining any serious military losses or financial depletions due to the ongoing Syrian Civil War – the conflict has been a plus to their interests.

  2. don’t you find contradictory these two statements: “Some have had relationships with terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda (to the distress of Gulf patrons, who tried to get them to cut that out)” and “Idlib is also a deescalation zone. It is dominated by Salafi fundamentalists grouped in the Syrian Conquest Front, composed mainly of the old Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate”?
    The fact is that the “rebels” in Syria are by and large close to Al Qaida in ideology and often branches of Al Qaida, and that the West has supported them, with help from the Gulf theocracies.

  3. This tactic of total war, also used by the Saudis in Yemen and by the Israelis in Gaza, really must be fought by those hoping for a world of laws. The only basis for the establishment of a world of laws is the uniform acceptance of them and adherence to them. All of them. They are table d’hôte not à la carte. Defying any one of them invalidates the entire system. When the system is invalidated it leaves everyone to decide that their interests supersede the law . Israel and its supporters actually use this to justify it’s defiance by arguing that it is being singled out while many states behave worse, a bit like saying: What’s the point of cleaning the bathroom when the kitchen is such a mess.

    • I agree. In addition, international law is meaningless without consequences for those states which violate a law. There has been zero consequence (punishment) for Bush and the USA after the illegal invasion of Iraq where hundreds of thousands of innocent lives were lost. Instead the USA is experiencing a boom time. I had hoped that at least Bush wouldn’t be re-elected in 2004, but he easily won the election. And enjoys a luxurious retirement today while Iraq continues to burn. International law has been shown to be meaningless. No wonder Assad behaves as he does. No consequence if a few poor farmers are blown to bits.

  4. “It would be better if there were a negotiated end to the war in which the regime felt that it had to make some concessions with regard to its Stalinist one party state form of rule. The Syrian government tortured 10,000 prisoners to death and documented it with photographs that leaked. It is a horrible regime and guilty of crimes against humanity. That it should come back full force from the popular challenge mounted to its Draconian rule is unfortunate.”

    Our government, the US government, engaged in precursors to the war crimes that al-Assad inflicted upon his own people. The Bush administration practiced extraordinary rendition in which individuals were tortured in Syria. Such practices continued under the Obama administration (thankfully, with less frequency). If human rights mean anything at all to us, then the human rights abuses that are inflicted using our taxes are of primary importance.

  5. “East Ghouta is dominated by Saudi Arabia’s proxy, the Jaysh al-Islam or Army of Islam, hard line fundamentalists who have threatened to massacre Shiites and impose a Wahhabi-like government on Syria, akin to that in Saudi Arabia.”
    Is it possible that these fanatics are holding the civilians of East Ghouta hostage for their own ideological purposes?

      • Do Syrians see Al Qaida-dominated rebels and Saudi Arabia’s proxys as their local militia and prefer them to the Syrian Arab Army? If so, do you see this as an Idlib-specific phenomenon? I am asking because similar things were said about East Aleppo, and now we are seeing pictures of the city being rebuilt and people celebrating Christmas.

        • depends on which Syrians you ask. Those in East Aleppo happy with the regime back are happy. Tens of thousands ran away to Idlib to avoid al-Assad’s goons.

        • “…..we are seeing pictures of ……..people celebrating Christmas.”

          Syrian Christians – for the most part Eastern Orthodox – have generally been a key bloc of support for the Assad regime. President Assad and his wife have visited churches during Christmas festivities.

          Syrian Christians have seen the Baathists as protecting their free exercise of their religion and view Salafist rebels as endangering their existence if the Baathists lost power to rebel forces.

          That said, most Syrian Christians disapprove of Assad’s repressive internal policies and there are, in fact, substantial numbers who have openly supported the Free Syrian Army trying to overthrow the Baathists in Damascus.

  6. Juan, You forgot to mention the US when You talk about bombing of civilian towns, villages and other locations. If You recall, We have a long History of such Policies dating back to Dresden in WW11, Korea, Vietnam, need I go further? As for Torture, Our record speaks for It-Self. This doesn’t justify Al-Assad but it does bring whats going on there into perspective. As for supporting Repressive Governments, We’re second to none, that’s Our Foreign Policy. I also suspect that if We had a rogue State within Our Country, Our Government would use any and all Military means to rein it in, including bombing Cities. We need to clean Our Own house before We criticize Others. Our ongoing Wars are killing many more than Syria and the refugee problem intensified after We sent Military aid and assistance to the Terror groups in Syria.

  7. It seems to me that one of the primary goals of the US, UK, Israel and Saudi (GCC) was to eliminate how Iran uses Iraq and Syria as a pathway towards Lebanon and to the Mediterranean. If the US or its proxies control eastern Syria, won’t the US coalition have achieved this goal?

  8. My understanding is that the De-escalation agreements contain a proviso that they do not apply in areas controlled by al-Qaeda & associates, ie HTS & friends. So while Idlib province might be covered in general, those areas of Idlib province under HTS control are not. After vicious rebel infighting, HTS now controls large areas of the province- hence the SAA attacks.

  9. I remember a Syrian in a camp in Europe trying to get his family out of Syria. He said climate change destroyed their ability to feed themselves. When they went to Assad they got nothing beyond violence I add. Notice in Yemen multiple fatal viruses are killing the people while the bombs fall. How brutal and immoral are these military attacks done as proxy wars with no concern about what lives in the carnage.

  10. “………..[i]t is over where it matters but continues in key demographic pockets.”

    This article does not mention – nor has the media focused on – the Daraa Governorate, which south of Damascus, in which one million Syrians reside in which a Syrian Arab Army offensive commencing in June of 2017 with Hezbollah, Iranian and Russian support was largely repulsed by the Free Syrian Army despite intense air strikes, napalm bombings, and artillery barrages by pro-Assad forces.

    The Israel Air Force conducted its own bombings in that governorate, killling pro-ISIS fighters, and targeting Hezbollah and Baathist regime arms depots.

    In December of 2017, FSA units scored victories against the Syrian Arab Army in the governorate, recapturing key facilities.

    The Free Syrian Army originated in Daraa in 2011 when Syrian Arab Army units turned their weapons against their own army in support of anti-Assad demonstrators who were being fired upon by army units loyal to the Baathist government.

    The rebels holding Daraa have broad popular support in that region due to prior mismanagement of water resources and security force abuses by the Baathist regime.

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