The Syrian conflict’s new phase
Free Syrian Army fighters step on a picture of President Assad, whose forces—and options—are shrinking. (AFP photo)
It has become apparent that the areas held by Syrian president Bashar Assad’s forces are rapidly shrinking. As Assad concentrates his forces in Damascus and Aleppo, he is ceding territory elsewhere. With this territorial contraction, he is creating a faultline separating two entrenched camps engaged in an essentially static war. In other words, Assad is drawing a larger, Syrian version of Lebanon’s famous Green Line.
The first priority for the embattled Syrian despot is to keep the fighting outside the Alawite coastal mountains. In addition, the counteroffensive in Damascus made clear that Assad intends to hold on to the capital – or parts thereof – for as long as possible, before falling back to an Alawite stronghold. Control of the capital sustains the pretense that the regime remains the legitimate government, and not merely a sectarian militia.
As for Aleppo, its significance for Assad differs from that of Damascus. Aleppo is the country’s economic hub and a bastion of pro-regime industrialists and businessmen. Retaining the city means safeguarding the alliance with these important social groups. However, with the level of destruction being visited on the city – as the regime employs air power as well as artillery and mortar fire – the notion of restoring normal economic activity to the city anytime soon is fanciful, especially as the Free Syrian Army has proven it can penetrate and operate in the heart of Aleppo for an extended period of time.
The regime’s objective in Aleppo is likely something more basic at this juncture. As Assad has been forced to redeploy his limited troops, he has had to abandon even more areas in the nearby Idlib countryside. The merging of these areas with the major urban center of Aleppo, and its surroundings, would give the rebels a contiguous swath of territory that is at once bordering a friendly Turkey as well as overlooking a strategic access point into the Alawite coastal mountains leading all the way to main port city of Latakia.
In order to ensure the security of this Alawite enclave, Assad must conduct his battles in buffer areas, where he can keep his enemies bogged down and incapable of advancing westward. This is precisely what the regime has been doing in the central plains. In certain areas north of Hama, for example, it has pushed as much to the east as it could in order to disrupt rebel logistical lines.
The Aleppo battle, then, is important in terms of halting the rebels’ momentum and their ability to advance westward. For Assad, therefore, controlling even parts of Aleppo is significant for maintaining a disruptive presence at a critical junction in the north.
By delineating the contracted areas under his grip, Assad is drawing a de facto Green Line, which not only separates regime-held strongholds from rebel territory, but also marks where the two camps will primarily do battle. In the urban setting of Aleppo, and possibly down the road in Damascus, this would mean an effective division of the city into pro- and anti-regime neighborhoods, much like Beirut during the civil war.
For even if Damascus and Aleppo were ultimately penetrated and their neighborhoods divided between the warring sides, resulting in a stalemate, that would still serve Assad’s purposes, especially since both cities lie outside the Alawite enclave. The regime would continue its use of air power and artillery fire, striking at opposition strongholds from a distance, keeping the battles away from the Alawite areas.
As the likelihood of Assad reimposing his writ on all of Syria is virtually nil, at this point, securing an Alawite redoubt and forcing a protracted stalemate represent the best possible outcomes for the regime and its Iranian patrons. Assad might even calculate that if he manages to hold out for a few years – and Russia’s Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, recently expressed his belief that the conflict could indeed last as long as the Lebanese civil war – he could expect a negotiated settlement that takes into consideration the new facts on the ground. From the Iranians’ perspective, both options would preserve their foothold in Syria.
With the fighting now having reached Damascus and Aleppo, the conflict has entered a new phase. However, if the Lebanese war has taught us anything, this new phase is likely one of many more to come.