Ground to a halt

US involvement is called upon to move beyond a Syrian stalemate.

Syrian tank 521 (photo credit: ABDALGHNE KAROOF)
Syrian tank 521
(photo credit: ABDALGHNE KAROOF)
It’s been twenty months since the Syrian people rose up against the regime of Bashar Assad. During this time, large swathes of land in northwestern Syria have fallen out of government control. Aleppo, the country’s largest city and economic pillar, is a war zone divided between the two sides, and the regime’s overall hold is steadily eroding. However, Assad is still very much in the fight, leading many to conclude that the war in Syria is far from over.
The basic dynamic of the Syrian uprising has been evident for a while. The regime lacks the manpower to retake and hold all the rebellious hotspots around the country. This has led to the loss of the entire countryside in the northwest, on the border with Turkey. Assad has compensated for his lack of manpower by using airpower and field artillery to extend his reach. This tactic is intended to inflict as much damage as possible on rebel positions and their hosting environment. It does nothing, however, to help recapture lost ground.
Moreover, the rebels recently took control of the strategic town of Ma’arrat al-Nu’man, which sits at the intersection of Syria’s two major highways linking Aleppo to Latakia and Damascus. The loss of Ma’arrat al- Nu’man greatly reduces the regime’s ability to reinforce its troops in Aleppo. The rebels’ anti-tank capabilities have also improved, rendering the highways leading to Aleppo prime ambush grounds against the regime’s tanks and armored convoys.
Still, the rebels have struggled against the regime’s heavier firepower. Assad’s forces have been relentlessly pounding Ma’arrat al-Nu’man from the air—an indicator of its strategic importance. Even though they have recently had more success shooting down attack helicopters, the rebels have not been able to secure portable anti-aircraft systems and surface-to-air missiles in great numbers. They tried to make up for this by attacking air force bases near Idlib and Aleppo. Clearly, however, the regime’s air power and field artillery remain their greatest challenge.
Nevertheless, the rebels have been able to take advantage of the regime’s weaknesses. As Assad has had to reallocate his limited resources to fight further east, for example in Deir Ezzour, rebel groups have begun to make inroads into the coastal mountains near Latakia, where reportedly a number of small Alawite villages have fallen into rebel hands. This development, along with mounting casualties among Alawite soldiers and officers, may be contributing to rising discontent in the Alawite community. The first visible sign of this was the recent tension in Assad’s hometown of Qardaha, where Muhammad Assad, a leader of the paramilitary shabiha gangs, was wounded in a shootout between members of leading Alawite families.
If this trend continues, it could pose a serious challenge to Assad and to his ability to ensure cohesive Alawite support crucial for his survival.
Tensions are also rising in the critical Kurdish community. There, the aggressive policies of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – the Syrian affiliate of the anti-Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – have caused friction with the other Kurdish parties, aligned with Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani.
The rise of the PKK affiliate in the Kurdish areas has obvious regional repercussions. Turkey, for instance, views this development with great concern, especially given the apparent alliance of convenience between the PKK and Iran.
The Iranian outreach to the PKK is but one example of how Iran has marshaled all available assets to prop up Assad and pressure common adversaries. Indeed, in the battle for Syria, Iran has gone all in. It has publicly acknowledged that Qods Force operatives were active on the ground in Syria. It has also used Iraq to transfer weapons and funnel money to the Syrian regime. And last but not least, its Hezbollah proxy is deeply involved in military operations on the side of the regime, especially in the Homs region near the Lebanon border, where it has suffered many casualties.
Iran’s involvement in Syria and pressure on Turkey – to say nothing of Assad’s shelling of Turkish villages and shooting down of a Turkish F-4 jet in June – underscores the importance of the Syrian battleground for the regional balance of power. While such high stakes would normally call for closer international engagement, both Tehran and Damascus have seen throughout the conflict that the US is effectively not in the game of power politics in the region. Indeed, the Obama administration resisted Turkish pleas to take a more assertive approach. And while Tehran marshals all its assets in support of its regional ally, Washington has essentially left its friends out on their own.
The void left by America’s absence has opened the door for Russian and Iranian assertiveness on Assad’s behalf. US allies in the region continue to call on Washington to assume its traditional leadership role, since they recognize what’s at stake in Syria: a chance to deal a severe blow to the Iranian alliance network. And they publicly acknowledge that until the US takes the lead, the current destabilizing dynamic in Syria is set to continue.
Tony Badran, an expert on Syria, Lebanon and Hezbollah, is a research fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.