Escalation in Syria: The Government Offensives


In recent weeks the Syria War has undergone developments that have kept it firmly in the international news. The most recent is the brutal escalation of the government assault on Eastern Ghouta, which has resulted in the UN Security Council calling for a ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid. Prior to this the government had also begun its military offensive against the opposition area of Idlib Province in the north-west. Two additional developments have been the Turkish incursion into Afrin, a Kurdish held territory in northern Syria, and a series of airstrikes on Syrian air defences by Israel after one of its jets was shot down after striking Iranian targets within Syria. This week we look at the Syrian government offensives.

The Assad regime is currently focused on one goal and this is the elimination of any remaining opposition as quickly as possible while it has a military ascendency over an opposition that is disparate and divided. The latter is comprised of a spectrum of armed groups that include moderates, Islamists and jihadists, the bare minimum by which the opposition can be understood. The Syrian government presents these, not surprisingly, as ‘terrorists’, which it has done consistently since the protests of 2011 that it put down so brutally that some of its own military defected and joined an emerging uprising. While the situation in Syria in early 2018 is very different from that of 2011 the central incompatibility of the Syrian War remains: the future governance of Syria and who should be in charge. Where there has been change is in the nature of that future government. In 2011 there had been a call for a more representative state but this has changed to one where the moderates in the opposition want a representative state without Assad are opposed to the Islamists and jihadists who have a more religious bent towards governance. It is one reason why opposition groups are battling each other while they confront the regime and Western governments are reluctant to provide blanket support for the opposition against the regime. While the moderates have limited backing from the Western powers in the UN Security Council these same powers have no interest in backing Islamist groups and abhor the jihadists. If Syrians outside of the Kurdish areas actually had a choice in the matter of who governs them, which they most certainly do not, then they would be faced with choosing between a secular and dictatorial regime, a weakened and reduced secular moderate opposition, and Islamists who want to implement sharia law and envisage an Islamic Syrian state. It is not much of a choice.

The endgame pursued by the Assad regime is currently being seen in the battles for Eastern Ghouta and Idlib Province where punishing air and artillery assaults were escalated in preparation for ground assaults. Eastern Ghouta is a target as part of it is in Damascus and government forces have been trying to take this back for years. The presence of opposition groups in Damascus ensures that the battle will continue as governments are loathe to negotiate with rebels while their capital is under threat or part of it occupied. The Assad regime cannot claim to be in control of Syria while rebels are able to hold parts of the capital and lob rockets in the government held areas. Nor can it countenance the existence of an area such as that of Idlib Province, which is effectively an opposition stronghold. This is despite the fact that some of the fighters in Idlib are there as a result of previous deals whereby besieged populations were exchanged in deals between the government and opposition groups. It is notable that Eastern Ghouta and Idlib Province are both areas that were designated as ‘de-escalation zones’ after conferences in the Kazakhstan capital Astana led by Russia, Turkey and Iran. The current situation clearly marks this out as a failure and the three lead countries in this mediation exercise are all heavily involved in the fighting in Syria.

When the current offensives by the Assad regime are seen in the context of attempting to close out the war with the opposition while it has military dominance the reasons for its refusal to heed calls for ceasefires by the UN and humanitarian organisations becomes clear. Prior to intervention by Iran and Russia government forces had struggled against the uprising and the government had lost a significant amount of territory. Much of this has been taken back while a significant portion is held by the Syrian Kurds who are more amenable to Assad’s rule provided he grants them autonomy (they are also backed by the United States). The government is balancing the risk of international opprobrium and intervention with the consequences of not pushing forward and reclaiming territory. Given that it has the protection of its Russian ally in the UN Security Council and has military support from its allies it sees the risk of intervention against it as low. This is not guaranteed to be the case in the future but the government is more likely to base its decision making on the fact that it is winning as opposed to potential outcomes such as a major intervention against it that is unlikely to happen.

None of the above guarantees that the Assad regime will have quick victories, or that it won’t face a protracted insurgency outside of the larger cities in the future (the latter is in fact very likely). What is likely to happen in the immediate future is that the punishing assaults on Eastern Ghouta and Idlib Province will continue at the expense of civilian lives and infrastructure while the outside world prevaricates and restricts itself to limited intervention at most.

Next week: Turkey and Israel in Syria.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.


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