- An imminent US-backed offensive on Islamic State-controlled Raqqa marks an inflection point in the Syrian civil war, as various rebel factions compete for influence in territory retaken from IS and foreign intervention in the conflict deepens.
- Despite the anticipated fall of Raqqa, the threat from jihadist groups in Syria will remain critical and both IS and al-Qaeda will retain the capacity to mount conventional and suicide operations nationwide.
- Anti-government factions will also struggle to make major progress without a significant expansion in external support, while pro-government forces are expected to make only incremental gains against rebel strongholds in areas like Idlib and Daraa as they remain too weak to regain full control over the entire country.
Growing divisions between various factions in the Syrian civil war underline the extent to which foreign intervention has increased the complexity of the conflict in the past six months. Deepening foreign intervention, principally by the US, Russia, Iran and Turkey, has seen external actors expand their role in the civil war, helping to prolong and fragment an already complex battlefield. The complicated nature of the conflict was demonstrated by fighting in March between different US-backed allies in Manbij, when Washington had to deploy special forces to prevent an attack on Kurdish militia by rival Turkish-backed forces. Russian and Syrian forces also deployed to Manbij under a separate deal with Kurdish forces, negotiated without US input, to prevent further attacks by Turkish proxies in the area. A number of Kurdish and Arab rebel factions are also expected to participate in the imminent US-led assault on Raqqa, which Kurdish forces said on 17 March would commence at the start of April, despite Turkish opposition to their participation in the offensive.
The unprecedented US deployment followed competition between Syrian and Turkish forces over al-Bab in Aleppo province, and came amid worsening tensions between Washington and Ankara over the role of Kurdish forces, which Turkey views as terrorists and the US sees as a key ally in Syria. Although less severe, divisions have also been seen in the alliance between Russia and Iran, as demonstrated by Iran-backed militias’ attempts to frustrate a Moscow and Ankara-backed deal to evacuate rebels from Aleppo in late 2016. Russia’s investment in the creation of loyalist Syrian military units, such as the 5th Corps established in November 2016, reflects its efforts to counter the powerful influence of Iran-backed militias.
This competition reflects the degree to which various actors, while unified by their opposition to certain groups, possess conflicting agendas that could form the basis of future conflict. These divisions, especially within the US-led coalition, have become increasingly apparent in recent weeks amid mounting IS losses. The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) includes Arab and Kurdish fighters, but many of the Arab groups are suspicious of ties between Kurds and the Syrian government, which they oppose. Without greater US intervention, infighting among US allies in northern Syria is likely to intensify as they manoeuvre for influence in territory where IS has retreated. This is likely to manifest as an increasingly volatile situation that may challenge existing alliances and pressure the US to expand its role in the conflict. Despite the deployment of hundreds of US marines in March to support the assault on Raqqa, the surprise deployment of Syrian and Russian forces to Manbij alongside persistent fissures within the US-led coalition suggests that Washington lacks an effective plan to maintain stability in the region post-IS.
IS, Al-Qaeda threat
Complicating the situation further, the wider civil war in Syria will persist indefinitely even after Raqqa is cleared of IS. Despite intensifying pressure on Raqqa, IS retains territorial strongholds, including in much of eastern Syria’s Deir el-Zor province and parts of Homs, which will permit it to conduct offensive operations there and in other parts of the country. In response to losses in both Iraq and Syria since late 2016, IS has reportedly redeployed forces and increased its activity in Syria’s Badia desert region and in the Damascus region.
The integration of al-Qaeda affiliates in the rebel movement will create further challenges for the US-led coalition in targeting jihadist groups. Al-Qaeda’s main offshoot in Syria has repeatedly distanced itself from the core group led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, most notably in July 2016 when al-Nusrah Front claimed to have broken ties with al-Qaeda to form Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, and again in January when Jabhat Fatah al-Sham merged with other local factions to form Tahrir al-Sham. Al-Qaeda in Syria possesses significant military capabilities and has a strong base of local support. The group has also benefitted from recent developments, including major losses suffered by its chief rivals in Aleppo and elsewhere. This integration of al-Qaeda networks into the wider Syrian opposition, which has become more radicalised as moderate factions have been weakened, will make the group difficult for US-led coalition forces to effectively target in the future.
Outlook for wider civil conflict
The election of President Donald Trump, who indicated in November 2016 that he favoured ending support to the opposition and working with Russia and Syria to defeat IS, has removed any prospects of the West adopting a more decisive role in supporting the anti-Assad opposition. Although Gulf States have previously indicated that they would deploy ground forces as part of a US-led effort in Syria, it is unlikely that the current US administration would support any diversion of resources away from fighting IS, thus limiting any dividends for anti-Assad rebels. Concerns about the radicalisation of the opposition and the ongoing Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which has drained valuable Arab political and military resources, will limit the appetite of Gulf powers, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for greatly expanding support to the opposition.
In the absence of more significant external support for rebels, the Assad government will retain the momentum in the conflict, which it owes to stepped-up support from Iran and Russia. However, severe manpower shortages and a badly damaged economy will continue to constrain the government’s offensive capabilities, suggesting the government is likely to make only incremental gains against major opposition strongholds in Idlib and Daraa. The fall of Palmyra to IS in December 2016 is clear evidence of critical deficiencies among pro-government forces, who were unable to prevent the fall of the eastern city while simultaneously pressing their assault on Aleppo. These vulnerabilities mean the government’s consolidation of its gains will be slow, and will leave government-held territory exposed to the threat of both conventional and unconventional attack, as evidenced by a series of coordinated suicide attacks in Damascus and Homs since January. Given the gaps in government defences and the resilience of the armed opposition, population centres in western Syria will remain vulnerable to attack, as evidenced by a major surprise offensive by moderate Free Syrian Army factions and Islamists, including Tahrir al-Sham, that saw opposition forces advance to within 2 km of the Old City of Damascus on 19 March. High levels of violence will persist in and around opposition-held territory, especially in the south and northwest.
Moreover, the government is extremely vulnerable to any shift in external support. The strength of the Syrian armed forces is estimated to have been halved from the pre-conflict number of around 300,000 personnel, of which only a third can be deployed reliably according to some estimates. As a result, the government has become militarily dependent on Russia, Iran, affiliated proxy forces and irregular militias, while also heavily reliant on Russia and Iranian aid to prop up the economy, which the IMF estimated last year had contracted by 60 percent since 2010. This has provided Russia and Iran with significant leverage to force the government into a political compromise with its opponents, though neither side has demonstrated a genuine interest in forcing the regime to make significant concessions in peace negotiations. The prospect of some wider détente between the US and Russia under Trump had raised the possibility of diplomatic progress on Syria, however this scenario appears less plausible amid wider uncertainty over US foreign policy and the president’s appointment of a number of top advisors suspicious of Moscow.