While Paris mourns, opportunity knocks for Assad in Syria

Assad meets French delegates in Damascus following the Paris atrocities. EPA

While so many count their losses after the appalling terrorist attacks on Paris, one man might just be wondering if he’ll find himself on the right side of history. Over the last few days, Bashar al-Assad’s removal from power in Syria has fallen sharply down the list of international priorities.

On November 14, the Syria talks in Vienna recognised the imperative of joint military action against Islamic State, the group that has taken responsibility for the Paris atrocities that have so far killed 129 people. Informal talks between presidents Putin and Obama at the G20 summit in Turkey continued on this theme, while France redoubled its airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria.

These developments have come as the Syrian dictator is on the ascendant. Days before the Paris attacks, his troops scored their first big victory since the Russians intervened in Syria at the end of September. They broke the siege on the Kweires air base in Aleppo province in the north of the country, which had been surrounded by IS for almost two years. Omran al-Zoubi, the Syrian information minister, spoke of defying the “terrorists”, a category that in government rhetoric includes both IS and the other rebel groups against which Assad has been fighting for the past four years.

Syrian troops liberating Kweires base. EPA

Prior to this victory, Assad’s position had looked very weak. The territory the Syrian government controls is down to a strip of land in the west of the country (see rose area in map below). The area still includes Damascus and a few important military bases, but represents only a fraction of the country.

In Assad’s favour, the Western-backed rebel forces are scattered and divided. Their different interests and motivations lack the necessary political identity to build a stable government coalition. One thing the Arab Spring taught us is that a common goal is not always enough to create a stable country – Libya being the obvious example.

So far the only force that has looked capable of achieving strategic military objectives bears the banner of the caliphate: IS’s conquest of Mahin in central Syria earlier this month opened a clear path to the capital, for instance, and deprived the government of important arms depots.

Institute for the Study of War

Shifting sands

So what happens now? The Vienna agreement calls on the warring Syrian parties to start talking by January 1 2016 and reach a ceasefire within six months. They are then to focus on drafting a new constitution with a view to holding elections in 2017 which will be closely monitored and will need to be free and fair.

This is likely to make a lot of difference. The nations involved – the US, UK, Russia, China, Germany and France – agreed to support a “UN-endorsed ceasefire-monitoring mission” to ensure that both Assad’s supporters and those standing in opposition to him abide by it. This means that Russia and China agreed to go in under the UN blue helmets – having always been opposed to such coordinated efforts in the past.

The fact that Russia and the US appear to be setting aside their differences looks massive and should mean the Russians and the NATO states will cooperate. The proposed peace talks would exclude IS, which would still be open to military attacks even after a ceasefire between Assad and the rebels had been put in place. Though the Russians and US still disagree on whether Assad would lead an interim government ahead of the 2017 elections, they are mainly focused on neutralising IS before the situation gets any more critical.

Putin and Obama in talks at the G20 summit in Turkey. EPA

In the weeks ahead, it looks as though Assad loyalists will now try to take the south-western part of the country from the non-IS rebels, perhaps still backed by Russian air raids. This would give the psychological boost of reversing a failed offensive earlier in the year and ensure that Assad’s forces control a continuous strip of land all the way to the Jordanian and Israeli borders. Assad’s other focus will be to secure the city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest. Where the south-west is a battle against the rebels, Aleppo is partly rebel-held and partly the domain of IS. Both battles look more achievable than before, though it could be especially drawn out – city struggles often are.

On the question of dealing with IS as a whole, its troops are well organised and mostly led by trained generals and officials from the former Iraqi army. Assad will need a tailor-made strategy to push them back over the Syrian-Iraqi border. Into this situation come the French IS airstrikes, which have so far concentrated on the city of Raqqa in the central north. They were backed up on Monday, November 16 by US air raids both on Raqqa and in nearby ISIS areas.

With French president, Francois Hollande, declaring his country at war with IS, France’s UK and German allies are now more likely to follow suit. If so, Assad will get more firepower against his enemies – and note that several groups of other moderate Syrian groups have been joining IS, which presents a wider target than IS was a few months ago.

Hollande addressing the French parliament on Monday 16. EPA

The downside for Assad is that he will have to take more account of Western requests for a ceasefire against his non-IS enemies, and then the elections. If he looks more likely to defeat his enemies by military means, his bigger challenge will be to keep control of the country. He will need to gain the support of enough moderate groups by committing to a wide reform of the system and to woo the West by talking tough on IS.

The situation is now so much in flux that it is even harder to see what will happen in Syria than it was before Paris. But Assad has certainly been handed a big opportunity. Whether he can use it to shore up his power base will be one of the big questions in the coming months.