Militant Islamist fighters parade on military vehicles along the streets of Raqqa after capturing territory in neighbouring Iraq.
(photo credit: REUTERS/KNESSET)
If Islamic State and al-Qaida’s Nusra Front lose control of their strongholds in Syria, Bashar Assad’s army will likely supply the boots on the ground to supplant them, with help from Russian air strikes and Iranian and Hezbollah forces.
The US-led air strikes and occasional special forces missions to take out high quality targets are not enough to break these terrorist groups’ hold on territory.
And the failure of US-trained rebel forces means that besides the Kurds, no other party has the forces to take on Islamic State and Nusra Front on the ground.
“Today, only two militaries are in a position to take the eastern province of Deir al-Zor that borders Iraq or Raqqa. They are the US-backed Kurdish forces and the Syrian Army,” Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
The Democratic Unity Party (PYD), the main political organization in Syria’s Kurdish-administrated areas, is demanding recognition for their autonomous enclave in exchange for expending the blood necessary to take either Arab city, Raqqa or Deir al-Zor, explained Landis.
The PYD is backed by the US in fighting Islamic State. The fragile cease-fire between the Syrian regime and the rebels does not include Islamic State or the Nusra Front.
“Assad spoke about taking both cities recently, but his ability to do so will depend on Russian support and the threat posed by rebel militias in the western region of Idlib and eastern Aleppo. They are supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey and have been resuming their attacks on Assad forces,” continued Landis.
Therefore, he said, if these rebel forces abandon the cease-fire completely, Assad will be forced to concentrate his forces instead back in the west of the country, the Syrian heartland.
“So long as the Kurds do not take further Islamic State held cities, Assad need be in no rush to retake them. The US is holding down Islamic State and degrading its forces and economy,” said Landis.
“Thus, the longer the Syrian Army holds off retaking the region, the fewer of their soldiers will be killed in retaking it,” he said, adding, “Military logic suggests going slow and allowing the coalition to further destroy Islamic State.”
The Syria expert points out that despite US abhorrence of the Assad regime, it finds itself in what is in practical terms an alliance with it.
“The refusal of the US to embrace Assad over Islamic State leads to odd battlefield alliances,” he said, noting that when Islamic State was attacking Palmyra last year, the US refrained from attacking the group’s convoys and fighters that remained massed on the outskirts of the ancient city.
And when Syrian forces recently retook Palmyra, US forces did not attack either side in the battle.
In effect, President Barack Obama “is allowing both sides to kill each other without overtly taking sides.”
“Although the US insists it is prioritizing the fight against Islamic State, its efforts are limited by the refusal to help Assad forces retake Syrian territory,” Landis concluded.
Joel Parker, a researcher on Syria at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, told the Post the Syria-Russia-Iran axis’s operations have quickly evolved into a much more sophisticated campaign than what we saw in Zabadani last summer, located near Damascus and the border with Lebanon.
“What happened there was that a small group of Syrian rebels and others joined with them in a mountain town surrounded on every side by allies of the regime. Nevertheless, Hezbollah forces and the regime could not fully liberate the town from the rebels, or at least not quickly,” said Parker.
Since them, Russian support has put the momentum back on the regime’s side, making a critical difference.
He points out that the struggle against the Islamic State seems to be going well now, “but it isn’t clear whether the group has any cards up its sleeves. For instance, what kind of tunnels they have and whether they are still able to move supplies around.”
In addition, the Turkish government’s current focus on countering the Kurds and supporting allied rebel groups means that “as long as the Assad regime is seen as fighting Islamic State and the rebels are seen as having lost the major battle against Assad, things are going to continue to go well for the regime, even if there are setbacks.”