“If Ukraine constitutes Russia’s eastern defensive wall against Europe, Syria…is part of Moscow’s southern flank,” wrote Robert Fisk in The Independent. He sees Russia’s support for ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych as a signal to Syria’s President Bashar al Assad that he can count on steadfast backing from Moscow. The conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page called Ukraine “a casualty of the Mr. Obama’s failure to enforce his ‘red line’ on Syria.”
Arab analysts agree.
“The US dithering, noncommittal stances and the fear of abandonment do not instill confidence in the Obama administration…what we see in Ukraine today confirms that and conjures bewilderment as we witness the cost of inaction, spreading from Syria to Ukraine,” says Abdullah Al Shayji in Gulf News. In contrast, Russia has been stable in its pro-Assad stance; Al Monitor concludes that policy is now on “auto-pilot.”
Ultimately, the dynamics in Ukraine may be more clarifying than they are consequential: they show how quickly and briskly Russia can move to shape and maintain conditions in its favor. The US and Europe, on the other hand, have shown they have less support to offer and a flaccid political will on acts of military intervention.
That being the case, with no counterbalance to Russia’s hand in Syria, certain trends are clear to continue.
In relative terms, Assad is gaining ground and winning terrain – not sufficient to outright win the war, but enough to shore up his confidence and political calculus. The strategy of localized ceasefires, which the Associated Press analyzed in detail, has been a regime win; it neutralized some rebel areas around Damascus and saved Assad’s Army the energy of having to fight them. For rebel neighborhoods, it’s been an act of desperation, more than reconciliation.
“It’s a submission strategy,” said one rebel in the besieged neighborhood of Mleiha. “The people are tired. They will do anything to let in food.”
Meanwhile, the battlefield stands to get even messier. This week the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an ultra-extremist al- Qaida offshoot, became the pointed target of other Islamist rebel groups after being accused of killing Abu Khaled al-Suri, an al-Qaida emissary. Jabhat al Nusra, now the most prominent al- Qaida affiliate in Syria, issues an ultimatum saying ISIS should submit to clerical arbitration or be expelled from Syria.
Inter-rebel fighting intensified around that point; among the shifts, ISIS was reportedly driven from Azaz, a strategic town three miles from the Turkish border. Pulling back from Azaz and from Aleppo, ISIS consolidated its position in Raqqa, a city it has largely controlled since April 2013. Raqqa has become the de facto ISIS capital; the real-life worst nightmare for many Syrians and a boost to Assad’s argument toward being a more attractive alternative to rebel rule. We’ve covered the impact of ISIS rule on Raqqa’s women and civilians,, now subject to the rules of a conservative Islamic emirate. The city’s Christians communities have also been made to pay a special tax, officially for their protection.
Even while jihadi groups antagonize the people and fight against each other, they remain the stronger and more organized force as compared to their moderate counterparts. This week Ben Hubbard and Karam Shoumali of the New York Times covered how the US-backed Supreme Military Council is in chaos. It comes as the regime sets its sights on the rebel stronghold of Yabroud, reportedly planning a new assault with the help of Hezbollah.
In a stunning photo that went viral this week, a sea of beleaguered people lined up for food in the Yarmouk refugee camp. Filippo Grandi, the head of UNRWA, likened it to “the appearance of ghosts….they can hardly speak. I tried to speak to many of them, and they all tell the same stories of complete deprivation.”The BBC’s Lyse Doucet collected scenes and stories from the ground.