Did you think the war in Syria (which is now coming up on its six year anniversary) was set to wind down now that, thanks largely to Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad has managed to retake Aleppo?
Neither did I. Indeed, last month’s effort to evacuate what remained of the opposition in what was once the country’s largest city was repeatedly stymied by mutual distrust that manifested itself in volleys of gunfire, shelling, and airstrikes.
Assad now says he’s ready to “negotiate everything” with the rebels this month at a meeting arranged by Russia and Turkey. The talks are set to be held in Kazakhstan, although as of Monday, the opposition had reportedly failed to RSVP citing alleged violations of a delicate cease-fire orchestrated by Ankara and Moscow.
The bottom line – as I’ve said repeatedly – is that Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah will not allow the Assad regime to lose control of “useful Syria.” The preservation of Tehran’s precious “Shiite crescent” and the integrity of Moscow’s naval base at Tartus and airbase in Latakia depend on keeping Assad in power.
At the same time, the Saudis, Qatar, and Turkey aren’t going to give up support for Sunni opposition elements any time soon. Indeed, if the US bows to public pressure and tries to save face by devoting all of its efforts to aiding the Kurdish YPG (rather than the various Sunni rebel groups operating throughout the country), Riyadh, Doha, and Ankara may be forced to devote even more resources to the fight.
With all of that in mind, consider the following color and map from Stratfor, whose commentary sheds a bit more light on the future course of the war.
It is tempting to think the Syrian civil war will end in 2017, now that forces loyal to Bashar al Assad have retaken the critical city of Aleppo. Indeed, they now control a few major cities and have the luxury of consolidating the gains they have made. But the conflict will not end, at least not in 2017. The loyalists are simply pulled in too many directions to achieve a decisive victory. In addition to holding their territory in the north, they must now try to clear the rebels located between Aleppo and Damascus and around Damascus itself. They will also be drawn to areas held by the Islamic State in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, where their comrades are currently besieged. Retaking territory in the energy belt around Palmyra will be a priority too. Put differently, there is still a lot work left for them to do, and any number of things can shift the balance of power in such a conflict-ridden country.
The constraints on the loyalists, however, are but one factor preventing the conflict’s resolution. In 2017, the presence of foreign powers will also complicate the Syrian battlefield, much as it has in years past. The United States will adapt its strategy in Syria, favoring one that more selectively aids specific groups in the fight against the Islamic State rather than those fighting the al Assad government. Washington will, for example, continue to back Kurdish forces but will curb support for rebels in Idlib. The consequences of which will be threefold. First, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia will have to increase their support for the rebels, including the more radical ones, the United States has forsaken. Second, their support will give radical elements room to thrive, as will the reduced oversight associated with Washington’s disengagement. Third, Russia will be able to cooperate more tactically with the United States and its allies as it tries to exact concessions, including the easing of sanctions, in a broader negotiation with Washington.
And meanwhile, in the skies above the war-torn wasteland, we’re apparently just one aerial fender bender away from World War III…
The skies above Syria are an international incident waiting to happen, according to American pilots. It is an unprecedented situation in which for months U.S. and Russian jets have crowded the same airspace fighting parallel wars, with American pilots bombing Islamic State worried about colliding with Russian pilots bombing rebels trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Russian warplanes, which also attack Islamic State targets, are still flying daily over Syria despite the recent cease-fire in Moscow’s campaign against the anti-Assad forces, according to the U.S. Air Force.
The U.S. and Russian militaries have a year-old air safety agreement, but American pilots still find themselves having close calls with Russian aviators either unaware of the rules of the road, or unable or unwilling to follow them consistently.
“Rarely, if ever, do they respond verbally,” said Brig. Gen. Charles Corcoran, commander of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, who flies combat missions in a stealth fighter. “Rarely, if ever, do they move. We get out of the way. We don’t know what they can see or not see, and we don’t want them running into one of us.”
What could go wrong?