With the approach of the Syrian revolution’s sixth anniversary, the fourth Geneva negotiations seem to be closer to a mockery than a solution given the military developments. We must ask ourselves, once again, what the reasons behind the crisis’ intractability thus far.
Perhaps the military aspect of the conflict in Syria would have ended years ago if it weren’t for the direct intervention of regional and international forces. One of the most prominent admissions of this may be the statement Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov issued last month regarding Damascus being only two or three weeks away from being toppled before Moscow’s intervention.
If this had happened and the Syrian capital had fallen under opposition control, then negotiations regarding the overthrow, ousting and prosecuting the president would have been easier. However, this did not happen. Contrary to the situation in Libya, where the military intervention by the NATO, led by France, rescued Benghazi, the revolution capital in March 2011, the intervention of Iran and Russia, as well as non-governmental armed organisations (Sunni and Shia) from Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, rescued Bashar Al-Assad numerous times.
However, rescuing the head of the regime does not necessarily mean the rescue of the regime itself, as Al-Assad’s forces lost over 100,000 individuals, a similar number of wounded and paralysed, and tens of thousands of pro-revolution fighters. All of these losses were suffered by an army consisting of 320,000 soldiers in 2010. Hence, Al-Assad is depending on more than 120,000 soldiers and fighters from foreign countries and militias to control less than 25 per cent of Syria’s territories. Regardless of the definition of the term “regime” in political science, this does not apply to the military entities controlling parts of Damascus, the coast, and other provinces. In other words, the revolution broke Al-Assad’s regime militarily without any aerial support in its favour.
The revolutionary factions have grown close to military victory numerous times in the past six years. The first time was in July 2012 when the rebels stormed Damascus and took control of over six southern and eastern neighbourhoods, as well as attacking the regime’s national security building, resulting in the death of Al-Assad’s senior military officials, including foreign minister Dawoud Rajiha, deputy foreign minister Assef Shawkat, director of the National Security Bureau of the Regional Command Hisham Ikhtiyar, and chief of crisis operations Hasan Turkumani (this military/security authority was the highest authority combatting the revolution).
This was followed by the rebels’ progress in the northwestern part of the country, specifically in Aleppo, Homs and Idlib, but this progression ended in late 2012 and early 2013, with the escalation of the direct Iranian military intervention, along with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other non-Syrian armed organisations.
The revolution forces pushed the pro-Assad forces to the verge of military defeat once again in July 2015 when the opposition forces gradually gained control of the strongholds of the regime’s remnants along the coast in the suburbs of Latakia. Two months later, on 14 September 2015, the opposition forces from Duma and Ghouta came close to isolating Al-Assad’s forces in Damascus from the northern part of the country by taking control of strategic hills overlooking the capital and hindering the international motorway. However, Russia’s military intervention and air raids during the same month stalled this progression.
Comparatively, the military performance and capabilities of the Syrian revolution is much better than other similar cases of rebellion against colonialism, tyranny, or both, including the Libyan revolution and the revolutionary forces loyal to the republicans in Spain in the 1930s. However, the dilemma that lies in transforming this enormous military effort into diplomatic and political gains that bring the revolution closer to achieving its goals. The failure to do so has led to an interesting combination of facts, variables and new alliances.
At the end of 2016, there were five military alliances working inside Syria with contradicting goals: Al-Assad’s forces and allies, the opposition forces with Arab leaderships (with various ethnicities and doctrines), opposition forces with Kurdish leaderships (also with various ethnicities and doctrines), Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front and the Syrian wing of Al-Qaeda) and Daesh. The goals of the latter two, despite fighting Al-Assad forces, contradict the revolution’s goals both secretly and publically.
These five alliances have not only fought each other, but also fought within themselves. This includes clashes between Al-Assad’s forces and its affiliated militias, as well as clashes between Daesh’s units. With the Turkish-Russian ceasefire initiative and the Astana negotiations in February, the level of tension and “repositioning” between the opposition forces and Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham, especially in Idlib, the opposition’s stronghold that is full of displaced Syrians and Al-Assad’s victims and that is targeted relentlessly by air raids carried out by various international parties, increased.
On the back of such developments, Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham integrated with four local organisations active in northern Syria, namely the Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki Movement, Liwa Al-Haqq (the Truth Brigade), Jaysh Al-Sunna, and Jabhat Ansar Al-Din under the alliance Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. This alliance attracted a number of factions from the Ahrar Al-Sham movement, which some have estimated make up a quarter of the movement’s forces in northern Syria. This includes former head of Ahrar Al-Sham, Hesham Al-Sheikh, who is the current leader of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham.
Almost at the same time, five other military formations, most importantly Suqour Al-Sham Brigade, Jaysh Al-Islam (the Idlib wing), and Levant Front (Jabhat Al-Shamiyah) joined Ahrar Al-Sham in order to avoid joining Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham or taking control of its resources. The new head of the Ahrar Al-Sham alliance is Ali Al-Omar.
These developments in the opposition structures reflect the calculations of the balances of power and survival more than ideological similarities. Some believe that integration and repositioning is a tactic to reduce the danger of drone bombings and aerial assassinations (especially in the case of Fatah Al-Sham/Al-Nusra front) or to reduce the potential of one faction joining another by force (in the case of the Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki Movement, and others). While the Al-Ahrar alliance sees the need to accept parallel paths of diplomatic and military work against Al-Assad the Tahrir alliance believes military work alone is enough to eliminate the regime’s remnants and expel the foreign forces loyal to the regime.
The vision of both sides reflects the strategic impasses experienced by most armed revolutionary forces in modern days. Some have overcome the impasses while others have failed to do so. Al-Ahrar’s main impasse is represented by the inability to invest military gains in diplomatic negotiations and this is due to the lack of a central military leadership and an ideology that adopts sectarian aspects. It is also due to the fact that the other factions with military weight have not agreed to accept both paths and the lack of clear plans for the medium and long-terms.
As for the Tahrir alliance, it has a much bigger problem. Disregarding the classification of its hitting force (Fatah Al-Sham/Nusra Front formerly) as a terrorist organisations (some countries may negotiate, agree, reconcile and ally with terrorists if they have enough military force and political flexibility, as we have seen in the past) and disregarding the fact that their military capabilities do not match their aspirations (as surprises could happen and other parties that are militarily weak and internationally shunned have been victorious before) and disregarding its ideological and sectarian extremism and rejection of most revolutionary forces, and Syrians in general, the Tahrir alliance’s problem is basically the lack of an executable strategy.
One of the basic rules of a strategy, according to prominent German strategist, General Carl von Clausewitz, is that war is a tool of politics and military efforts must serve the political goal, or else the effort itself will become “the noise before defeat” according to a strategist from another continent and century, Chinese General Sun Tzu.
In light of the conflicting priorities and goals amongst the regional forces, the almost absence of serious guarantees and commitments to a ceasefire, and the regime remnants’ desire to thwart any change process, even if it is gradually reformative, the opposition, including its right and left wings, need to rethink their strategy, resources and internal conflicts. This is because it is very likely, given the current variables and data, that there will unfortunately be another round of open war in the revolution’s sixth year.