Assad is underestimating the obstacles to victory
It is indisputable that the Syrian war has turned decidedly in President Bashar Assad’s favor. Nonetheless, his claim last week that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is “the only problem left” in terms of his repeated vow to retake the whole country is overly optimistic. There are three major regions that stand in the way of his goal, and the Kurdish-dominated, US-backed SDF is present in only one of them (albeit the largest).
The SDF controls a swath of territory in the north and northeast that comprises about a third of Syria. But the southwest of the country, bordering Jordan and Israel, is held by the Southern Front alliance, and the northeast is controlled by rebel and Turkish forces.
Each of these regions poses different challenges to Assad’s goal of total conquest. Though not insurmountable, they are significant, and his chances of overcoming them depend on the actions and reactions of foreign powers.
Last week, Syria’s foreign minister said Damascus seeks to recapture the southwest, which is covered by a cease-fire deal brokered last year by the US, Russia and Jordan. In addition, Syrian aircraft dropped leaflets telling rebels in the area to lay down their weapons or face an offensive.
But the Syrian regime’s success in the southwest will depend largely on two factors: Whether the US makes good on its warning of “firm and appropriate measures” against any cease-fire violation, and whether a report by Saudi news site Elaph of indirect negotiations between Israel and Iran in Jordan are accurate.
Unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, US President Donald Trump has militarily confronted the Assad regime and its allied ground forces on various occasions. But Trump has also cut funding to the southern rebels, so his commitment to their defense is questionable. Meanwhile, Jordan has largely turned its back on the Southern Front in its quest to mend ties with Damascus.
Elaph reported that Iran pledged to stay out of fighting in southwest Syria, while Israel said it would not intervene in battles near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights or the border with Jordan as long as Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias are not involved.
The report, while unconfirmed, is lent credence by last week’s statement by Moscow — a key ally of Assad and Tehran — that only his forces should be present along Syria’s southern borders, and by Reuters reporting that Iran backs Russia’s efforts in that regard.
The absence of help from foreign ground forces in an offensive in the southwest would complicate the task facing Assad’s forces. But with Russian air support a certainty, and barring a significant intervention from the US or Israel, eventual victory against the rebels is likely. Such a calculation by the Southern Front may push it, or groups within the alliance, to negotiate rather than resist.
Last week, Assad threatened force against the SDF if it does not negotiate a handover of the territory it controls. Though the SDF is a formidable force, its ability and willingness to stand its ground against the Assad regime and its allies depends largely on US military support.
Given the mixed signals from Washington about how long it plans to keep American forces in SDF-held territory, such support — particularly in the medium to long term — is questionable.
While Washington has provided significant backing to the SDF, and has defended it militarily against the Assad regime and its allies, Damascus is probably banking on Trump making good on his statement in March that the US will withdraw from Syria “very soon.”
The Syrian war is far from over, and Assad's road to victory is paved with variables over which he has little or no control. If he truly believes the SDF is the only thing standing in his way, he is headed for disappointment.
Such a withdrawal would probably trigger parallel offensives against the SDF by Damascus and its allies on one hand, and by Turkish and Syrian rebel forces on the other. The resulting scramble, which the SDF could not successfully resist, could resemble that which occurred between the group and the Assad regime against Daesh in eastern Syria.
But even a willingness to negotiate would not necessarily spare the SDF. A hubristic Assad, aware of the precariousness of the group’s position, may be in no mood to offer significant concessions. But the SDF has gained too much in terms of territory and political autonomy to give that up for nothing. However, major concessions by Assad to the Kurds might trigger an offensive against the SDF by Turkey and allied Syrian rebels.
Indeed, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly vowed to continue a military campaign that has dislodged Kurdish forces from the Syrian canton of Afrin, threatening to extend it all the way to the border with Iraq. Like Assad, all that is stopping Ankara is a US military presence whose longevity is in doubt.
That brings us to the third major region outside Assad’s control: The northwest, held by Syrian rebel forces backed by Turkey’s powerful military, which has a considerable ground presence and has set up a dozen observation posts to monitor the “de-escalation zone” in Idlib governorate.
During its Afrin offensive, Turkey’s military repelled Damascus-allied forces trying to support Kurdish fighters, suggesting that Ankara would do so again in any future face-off in northern Syria. Therefore Assad could retake territory held by Ankara-backed rebels only if Turkey withdraws from Syria. This is an eventuality, but Erdogan has given no indication that it will happen any time soon.
There are two likely scenarios for a Turkish withdrawal: Under a deal brokered by Russia — which enjoys good relations with Ankara and Damascus, and has leverage over both — after the two other major regions are dealt with; or via a change of leadership in Turkey, whose main political opposition favors normalizing ties with the Assad regime.
But Turkey’s elections this month are unlikely deliver an opposition victory. And while Moscow would probably offer Ankara guarantees against certain Syrian-Kurdish ambitions, Erdogan may view rebel proxies as more reliable in that regard than Assad.
Although Turkey’s involvement in Syria is limited to rolling back Kurdish gains rather than threatening the Assad regime, there is still no love lost between Ankara and Damascus, despite the normalization of Russian-Turkish ties.
Assad may be banking — correctly — that his allies are in it for the long haul, longer than his opponents’ foreign backers. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah this week said as much about their forces’ presence in Syria; so time would seem to be on Assad’s side.
But the war is far from over, and his road to victory is paved with variables over which he has little or no control. If he truly believes the SDF is the only thing standing in his way, he is headed for disappointment.
• Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and commentator on Arab affairs.