On its current trajectory, with no military or diplomatic breakthrough on the horizon, the Syrian war will likely worsen while metastasizing into a regional conflict, according to a new report from the International Crisis Group.
None of the warring factions are capable of an all-out military victory in a war that is rapidly fueling the growth of violent extremism in the region. Analysts say that both the regime and the various armed opposition groups are too invested in their current courses to break the status quo and make the concessions necessary to achieve a political resolution.
“We have to look beyond the dynamics on the ground for progress toward any type of resolution,” says Noah Bonsey, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group and an author of the report.
In it, he argues that regional powers are best positioned to shape the course of events inside Syria. For a solution to take hold, all parties in the conflict will need to accept and address what are now inescapable realities: Bashar Assad cannot rule a post-war Syria; Iran’s influence in the Levant cannot be eliminated.
Bonsey spoke to us about the findings of report and what it will take for all sides to makes the necessary concessions to end a “conflict whose human cost and transborder radicalising capacity are increasing at a devastating rate.”
Syria Deeply: What is the state of the Syrian government forces today? How have their assets changed over the course of this conflict?
Bonsey: In the past few months, we’ve seen the regime lose ground in Idlib and Deraa provinces, which are outside its core areas of control. However, it remains in relatively stable control of most of its core priority areas from Damascus to the coast.
The losses are a reflection primarily of the regime’s unsolvable manpower problem. Its attrition rate is quite high and it can’t replace the forces it loses, which inevitably means that the regime is growing more dependent on non-Syrian foreign fighters provided by its allies to fill some of the gaps created by its own high attrition rate.
We’ve seen a heavy investment by the regime’s allies between the coast and Damascus, which has helped the regime maintain solid control in its core areas.
However, the regime and its allies aren’t willing and able to commit the same level of resources – particularly manpower – everywhere. In areas that are lower priorities, such as Idlib and, to some extent, eastern Deraa, we’ve seen the regime much less able to defend what it currently holds. It’s a trend that’s been going on for a while, but in the last couple defeats we’ve seen the cumulative effect of that manpower problem.
In theory at least, the regime and its allies likely have the resources necessary to prevent rebels from gaining ground within those core areas [from Damascus to the coast] at this stage in the conflict. However we have seen some surprises – it was surprising how quickly Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib fell, given that it’s a town of significant strategic value due to its location
We can expect that it will become much more difficult for the rebels to gain ground if and when they attempt to push into core regime areas, like Damascus and the coast. However, there are places outside those areas where the rebels could continue to gain traction.
Syria Deeply: Are we heading towards a military stalemate? How can we avoid the continuation of the status quo in Syria?
Bonsey: I wouldn’t call what we have now a stalemate. We are seeing rebel advances like in Idlib, but that momentum is unlikely to continue to core regime areas.
The bottom line is that neither side is really capable of a full military victory in this war unless the other sides’ backers capitulate and cut support to their Syrian allies, which is highly unlikely.
We need to get to the bottom line of identifying the components of a political resolution, otherwise the fighting will continue in one form or another. Even in the relatively unlikely scenario that rebel advances continue at a rate beyond what we expect and we see the regime start to crumble, there would still be a collection of regime remnants and pro-regime militias – some of them non-Syrian forces – remaining as players on the ground who would probably continue to fight. We have to look beyond the dynamics on the ground for progress toward any type of resolution. We need to get to the core geopolitical issues.
Syria Deeply: You say the the principal non-Western state backers of each side are limited by different sets of blinders. What are they? What is the nature of their support for groups inside Syria?
Bonsey: Iran, the principle backer of the regime, is investing an ever-increasing level of resources toward keeping Assad in power, including financial resources as well as boots on the ground. This growing investment is unsustainable in the long run: it is simply too costly, and Iran is already viewed as an occupying force in Syria by a large percentage of Syrians – a perception that will only grow with time.
Iran appears to base its strategy on the incorrect assumption that the opposition’s backers will capitulate– in particular the U.S., out of fear of growing jihadi power. The theory is that fear of ISIS will lead the US and, ultimately, its regional allies to cut support to the armed opposition and accept a resolution that keeps Assad in power. In this reading, Iran’s rising level of investment is less problematic, because it is only a matter of time before the other side’s backers give up.
In reality, however, the opposition’s backers are very unlikely to capitulate. For them, the price of maintaining the status quo is less than the political price of capitulation.
On the opposition side, there are backers who agree that they want to see Assad go, but have not agreed to much beyond that. We’ve seen very poor co-ordination among them from the beginning of the conflict, which has undermined the political and military effectiveness of the opposition. The chaotic rebel scene on the ground has also created space for jihadi groups to grow.
It’s been a strategic failure on behalf of the opposition’s backers not to better co-ordinate their support towards empowering responsible, credible opposition actors on the ground and encouraging them to coalesce, and isolating the more extreme actors, particularly the transnational jihadi groups.
The opposition’s backers have a lot of leverage between them that they could apply towards shifting the intra-rebel balance of power in favor of mainstream groups. They haven’t co-ordinated enough to combine that leverage and generate that positive shift.
They’ve been reluctant to prioritize shared strategic objectives over tactical disagreements. That might be shifting now as we’ve seen an improvement in the Saudi/Turkish relationship, but it’s too early to say where that will lead.
Syria Deeply: With Geneva II stalled and none of the relevant military or political initiatives gaining momentum, what are the conditions needed to start a political process to end the conflict?
Bonsey: At the most basic level, the regime’s backers need to understand that there is no way for Assad to rule a post-war Syria and that there is no way to end this war with him still in power. On the opposition side, the level of Iranian weight on the ground is such that the Syrian war is not going to be the battlefield in which Iranian influence in the Levant is defeated.
If we are going to have a political resolution in the foreseeable future, it is going to entail a Syria that is not directly aligned with either regional axis. The Iranians are not going to be able to keep Syria within their resistance axis.
On the other hand, given the level of Iranian influence on the ground, it’s not realistic for the Turks, Qataris and Saudis to expect a resolution that is going to completely end Iranian influence in Syria and place Syria within a Turkish or Saudi-led axis.h or Saudi-led axis.