YoungDiplomats analysts are not only examining the combatants inside the Syria-Iraq battlespace, YoungDiplomats also tracks the political machinations, negotiations and goals of those outside the battlespace, including Iran, Russia, the Gulf monarchies and the United States. For the first time, in one place, YoungDiplomats is providing monthly updates covering the gains, losses and extent of the Islamic State's so-called caliphate.
January 2015 :Syria
As Syrian rebels and loyalist forces continue to fight each other, the Islamic State is using the opportunity to make its own advances on the Syrian battlefield. Over the past few days, the group reportedly has managed to breach loyalist lines in southern Aleppo, penetrating the critical city of al-Safira and seizing a number of areas within it. Though the latest reports have yet to be confirmed, it is clear that the Islamic State has already seized considerable territory in the surrounding area, which is vital to the Syrian government's logistical lines.
So far, the group has gained control of approximately 10 loyalist checkpoints along the crucial supply line running from Hama through Salamiyeh, Ithriyah and Khanaser to Aleppo. Damascus and its allies have been forced to temporarily halt most of their offensive operations in Aleppo province as they scramble to secure the threatened corridor. The situation, already troubling for Syrian President Bashar al Assad, has only worsened with the rumors of the Islamic State's advances in al-Safira. If true, the group's latest push could threaten to cut supplies off from the large number of loyalist troops in Aleppo province. Though the troops could still receive deliveries flown in by aircraft, the loss of overland supply routes would be a heavy blow.
The Islamic State's advances also highlight a broader reality of the Syrian civil war: As the rebels and loyalists continue to devote the bulk of their resources to fighting each other, the Islamic State will have the chance to take advantage of weaknesses in both fronts. For instance, in the initial stages of the Syrian government's latest offensive campaign, rebel forces weakened their lines of contact with the Islamic State to send reinforcements to Hama, Idlib and southern Aleppo. This decision enabled the Islamic State to push forward and take considerable territory in northern Aleppo province. Similarly, loyalist troops have focused the bulk of their attention on launching offensive operations against the country's rebels, giving the Islamic State the opportunity to advance against weakly held loyalist positions.
Ultimately, al Assad's troops cannot allow their only supply line into Aleppo province to be closed off. If they did, they would risk the gradual weakening of their northern forces, dooming hopes of turning the tide of battle in their favor with the intervention of Russian troops. Their push to relieve besieged loyalist forces in Kweiris air base would also become much less significant if those troops were to be besieged once again within a larger loyalist pocket. Thus, reopening the supply lines into Aleppo will likely become the government's highest priority. Whether it is able to reopen those lines within a few days or its efforts stall in the face of the Islamic State's determined resistance will make the difference between temporary setback and potential catastrophe.
Russia, for its part, is maneuvering to negotiate a beneficial exit from the conflict. One of Moscow's primary strategies in pursuit of this goal was to divide the rebel landscape by raising the possibility of holding talks with the Free Syrian Army. The Russians even attempted to differentiate between Free Syrian Army units, appearing more conciliatory toward the Southern Front than the units Moscow is actively bombing in the country's north. Ultimately, Russia hopes to include some rebel groups in a deal with the al Assad government that favors the loyalist forces, undermining the remaining hard-line rebel groups in northern Syria. So far, though, the rebels have refused to let themselves be played by the Russians. The Southern Front has stood firm, saying it will negotiate with Moscow only if it ceases hostilities against all Free Syrian Army units.
In Syria, the Loyalist Offensive launched in October is About to end
The Syrian government's long-expected offensive against the country's rebel forces has begun. Since October loyalist troops advanced against rebel-held positions in northern Hama with the support of numerous Russian airstrikes as well as both rocket and tube artillery fire. Initial reports from the battlefield suggest that the rebels, primarily the Free Syrian Army, are putting up an effective defense in spite of heavy shelling. The rebels' liberal use of improvised explosive devices and anti-tank guided missiles has taken a heavy toll on loyalist armor; several reports say rebels destroyed 17 armored fighting vehicles on the first day of the fight, and combat footage has confirmed the destruction of at least nine vehicles.
Despite the initial setback, the loyalists' Russian-backed offensive has only just begun. Already there have been heavy airstrikes in the Al-Ghab plain, signaling the spread of the offensive to other areas of Hama. Loyalists are also preparing to assault the northern Homs pocket and to push toward the Kweiris air base, where several allied groups are still engaged in fighting with Islamic State forces.