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Jun 5, 2015 | 09:00 GMT

9 mins read

Outside Powers Weigh Their Options in Syria

Outside Powers Weigh the Stakes in Syria
(MAHMUD AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images)

Forecast

  • After losing much of the east to Islamic State and Kurdish rebels, the Syrian government could lose the north as Turkey and Qatar strengthen rebel forces there.
  • Iran will give Damascus the support needed to secure approaches to its strongholds in the capital and along the coast. 
  • Russia will try to diversify its relationships in Syria as President Bashar al Assad's hold on power weakens, but it will not cut ties with the Alawite government.
  • Russia will try to use the Syrian government's vulnerabilities to shape a negotiation that will attract the United States' attention, but its efforts to craft a sustainable power-sharing agreement in Damascus will fail. 
  • As al Assad's forces pull back to anchor themselves in Damascus and along the coast, the United States could increase the intensity of its air campaign against the Islamic State in Syria. However, it will lack a reliable ground force to complement the air campaign as regional players and rebels set their sights on al Assad.

A survey of the Syrian battlefield quickly reveals that the Syrian government is under enormous stress. Loyalist forces are clinging to the Alawite-concentrated coastal region and the core of Damascus as the approaches to both strongholds are looking more precarious. In the north, the rebels have all but taken Idlib province and are increasingly threatening the government's hold on Aleppo. In the critical central corridor, the rebels look set to advance on the government-held Hama from the north while the long-isolated rebel pocket north of Homs has become increasingly active. Furthermore, the rebels in Daraa and Quneitra continue to push up from the south toward Damascus. Meanwhile, the Islamic State is staging powerful attacks against government forces to the east of the Homs-Hama corridor after having consolidated its gains in the eastern desert.

It would be an exaggeration to say the government is cornered, but Syrian President Bashar al Assad and his troops are most certainly on the defensive and in danger of losing northern Syria. A confluence of more assertive external sponsorship, the distracting spread of Islamic State activity and a willingness among increasingly competent rebel factions to set aside their ideological differences and focus on the fight against al Assad have all led to the government's current predicament. Syrian Alawite and Hezbollah morale has plunged dramatically as momentum has risen among the rebels. In the coastal Alawite stronghold of Tartus, locals used to profess their loyalty for al Assad with the chant, "Al Assad, or we set the country on fire." Now, the proliferating mothers of the martyrs bitterly chant, "God willing, we will witness the funeral of your sons," in reference to the sons of the president.

Damascus Looks for Outside Support

In the government's time of need, it can only look to two key sources of external support: Iran and Russia. Iran understands the criticality of sustaining a friendly government in Damascus and a lifeline to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Financial aid from Iran still appears to be flowing into Syria, along with advisers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and various Shiite militia reinforcements who are deploying across the country to the front lines in Daraa, Aleppo, Hama, Latakia and more recently Idlib, where the government is preparing a counterattack. Retaking Idlib will be a critical step toward the government's goal of securing the coast, though its success is not assured.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah is sounding the alarm over a pocket of Jabhat al-Nusra militants in the outskirts of the Sunni town of Arsal in northeastern Lebanon, across from the Qalamoun Mountains. Hezbollah had previously flushed out these rebels to safeguard a corridor through Damascus and Homs to the Syrian coast. Hezbollah is steadily being drawn into more pressing battlefronts across Syria. At the same time, the organization is consolidating its hold on western Qalamoun by attempting to secure Zabadani while struggling to compel a weak, unmotivated and divided Lebanese army to extricate the politically delicate Arsal rebel pocket on Hezbollah's behalf. Unable to rely on the army to do the job, Hezbollah will carry out the Arsal operation, which will in turn raise the risk of sectarian violence in Lebanon.

Russia does not appear to be as willing as Iran and its proxies to make grand sacrifices for the Syrian government. In the past several days, Stratfor has received indications from Russian contacts in the region that Moscow's stance regarding Syria is changing and that Russia could withdraw, or at least start restricting, military support for the Syrian government. Iranians can compensate for a reduction in Russian technicians and planners in Syria, but a critical component of Russian support is the supply of spare parts to the Syrian air force. A Stratfor source signaled that the Kremlin believes the Syrian government's fight is futile and that it is time to start creating distance between itself and al Assad. An extensive report published May 31 in the Saudi-owned and anti-al Assad media outlet Asharq Al-Awsat elaborated on this sentiment. Citing its own sources, the report claimed Russia had withdrawn some 100 senior diplomatic and technical officials, many of whom worked at the main operations center in Damascus and were involved in conducting military strategy.

However, this is only part of the story. Russian leaders can see the battlefield as plainly as anyone else can. The Islamic State remains a formidable force and a powerful inspiration to Chechen jihadists that could wreak havoc back home in Russia. At the same time, radical Islamist fighters have spearheaded the major rebel push in the north while moderate forces struggle to maintain their relevance in the fight. In giving up on the government, Russia would be assuming that there are other actors to work with in preserving Russia's interests of maintaining a military foothold on the Mediterranean, some level of influence in the region's sectarian battlespace and the means to counterbalance jihadists who would carry their ambitions back to the northern Caucasus. At the moment, Russia has no such alternative.

Russia lacks the option to give up entirely on the Alawite government. But that does not mean Moscow will decline the chance to turn the Syrian conundrum into an opportunity when it comes to Russia's relationship with the United States. Washington can see the battlefield momentum lies with an array of radical Islamists who will demonize the United States along with the Syrian government. Though the United States is working more closely with regional players Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan in selectively sponsoring Syrian rebel factions, it cannot effectively channel the direction of the fight against the Islamic State when that goal is competing with the aim of toppling Iran's ally in Damascus and strangling Hezbollah in Lebanon — a tantalizing prospect for the Sunni powers of the region.

Russia's Motivations in Syria

Just as Russia swooped in with an exit strategy for the United States in 2013 when it presented a plan to destroy Syria's chemical weapons, it is now trying to draw the United States into a political settlement on Syria that will preserve an Alawite-heavy government, even if al Assad does not lead it. To that end, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who owns the Syria file in the Kremlin, has been trying to organize a Geneva conference that would include both Sunni regional players and Iran to work toward a power-sharing agreement.

The plan will not work, though. The Syrian civil war has devolved to a point where outside powers will have enormous difficulty in trying to impose a political reality on the deeply fractured country. Russia and Iran have some leverage with the Syrian government when it comes to drawing it toward a negotiation, but no one effectively speaks for the radical rebel factions that are most relevant on the battlefield. The United States and Russia may believe the fight is going too far in Syria, but there is little indication that the Turks, Qataris and Saudis are growing uncomfortable with its trajectory. On the contrary, their political designs for Syria are only now taking shape as the country's northern belt rapidly slips from Alawite hands. Though the region's Sunni powers do not have strong influence over Jabhat al-Nusra, it nonetheless will be important to see if Russia gets Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar to bring Islamist coalition Ahrar al-Sham to the negotiating table in the days and weeks ahead.

The Syrian government will double down on securing the approaches to its strongholds in Damascus and along the coast, holding out for an opportunity to thrust northward again toward Aleppo. Meanwhile, Turkey and Qatar will work on reinforcing the rebels' hold in the north while Saudi Arabia and Jordan continue to fuel the rebellion from the south. Russia will try to recast itself as a more neutral player in the conflict by spreading the message that it is distancing itself from the Syrian government while seeking out new partners. However, Moscow cannot afford to completely cut ties with the Alawites while it lacks a credible alternative. Moreover, a complete severing of ties between Moscow and the Syrian government would manifest in deep discord between Iran and Russia because Iran would be left alone to preserve the government in Damascus. So far, there are no signs that Iran is reacting to a fundamental shift in Russia's position on Syria.

The question, then, is how long the United States can remain in limbo, supporting nominally moderate rebel factions without actually controlling the direction of the insurgency. The United States' core interest in Syria is to contain the Islamic State, not to impose government change and be left with the messy aftermath of the transition. There is still room for the United States to significantly escalate its air campaign in Syria. If the Syrian government is forced to fall back to its core positions, abandoning most of the north and east, the United States will have to worry less about being perceived as providing air cover to government forces as its air campaign targets Islamic State positions. Stratfor will be watching for shifts in the U.S. military strategy in this direction. Still, any strategy to defeat the Islamic State on U.S. terms requires a reliable ground force to complement a heavier air campaign — a goal that remains elusive.

Lead Analyst: Reva Bhalla

Production Editor: Robin Blackburn

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