By Fatima Ayub
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
Six years into the Syrian civil war, the reign and security of President Bashar-ul-Assad’s regime is secured – but it is increasingly viewed as a facade for it is said to lack the strategic premise for reuniting the country. The sharply differing interests of Russia, USA and the contesting neighborhood of Turkey, Iran and Iraq, and the local concerns of a myriad array of pro-regime irregular militias and a vast array of minorities within, are the decisive factors fueling the conflict — not the decisions of the country’s own divided rulers. This impacts the calculus of the “regime” side in the war, in determining its strategy in the conflict – and its aftermath.
The recent strategic military gains by the Syrian Democratic forces (SDF) and Arab/Kurd militias backed by the US led coalition ousted IS control from provinces and cities like Raqqa, Southern Alleppo, breaking years long siege in some of the IS’ most pertinent strongholds in Syria. Russian air and military support has also propelled the Assad regime-backed Syrian army to lead interventions into Deir Azor, advancing on multiple campaigns and fronts since September last year in powerful, intensive raids that have allowed the army to liberate some 90 towns in the past month. The end for ISIS is imminent – Lieutenant General Alexander Lapin, head of the Russian contingent in Syria stated that only 15% of Syrian territory now remains under control of extremist IS groups. The IS has found itself significantly weakened, pushed back several miles east and across the Euphrates banks.
While it was unprecedented that international players from opposing ends such as the US and Russia could spearhead joint, cohesive victories against the deeply entrenched strongholds of IS, without resorting to the high risk of inadvertent political infighting themselves, the military campaigns were seen by many as only a stepping stone to the real challenge that awaits Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
It is important to note the backdrop of said challenge; what essentially prolonged the conflict were the initial years of Western approach to Syrian uprising and civilian protests, with a myopic view that the Assad regime would fall in a short span of time. These hopes flickered as Assad tightened his grip, reined in Islamist opponents but sought to broaden his power base beyond minority sects. He promoted Sunnis to power and restored ties to Aleppo – a Sunni majority stronghold with which relations had been tense since the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s. Thus, the advent of IS too was seen in the light that once Assad was removed from power, a long-term vision and result-oriented pragmatism could be invoked later to work toward genuinely helping to solve the conflict.