In a fourth round of talks on 4 May, 2017, the nations overseeing the Astana negotiations (Turkey, Russia, and Iran) arrived at a “de-escalation” agreement to establish safe zones in Syria.
This development came as military factions were severely weakened over an uninterrupted two-year period of violent and asymmetric clashes in all parts of Aleppo. To end the siege of Aleppo, two rebel led battles to break the siege on the city were waged and failed; leading to the city’s evacuation and its fall to regime forces and their allies. This came after battles in the countryside of southern Aleppo allowed the regime to approach the Damascus-Aleppo highway. Additionally, al-Nusra Front reduced the numbers of Free Syrian Army and Ahrar al-Sham forces.
The “de-escalation” agreement allowed the Syrian regime forces to advance towards the Syrian desert, which was under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh), and intervene strategically between Homs, Raqqa, Aleppo, Deir Ezzor, and Hama governorates. Regime forces arrived at Deir Ezzor city and its surrounding countryside, where it exploited the deadlock with opposition factions along its fronts.
Al-Nusra Front maintained its previous position to not accept a truce agreement with regime forces and accused various factions of treason for participating in Astana and Geneva talks. After Astana’s sixth round in September 2017, Russia proposed a “demilitarized” zone in the al-Ashayer region south of Idlib. It also announced the formation of the al-Ashayer Forces under the command of Ahmed Darwish, a member of the People’s Council and leader of the Abu Dali region. Considered one of the nation’s most important commercial areas, the region has a trade route that connects the regime and opposition-held areas in Idlib and its surrounding countryside. Different forces on the ground from both al-Nusra Front and the regime’s militias use this route, which would explain the previous calm in this strategic region.
Following the Russian proposal, it was leaked that leaders from Al-Nusra Front went to Abu Dali to negotiate with the Russians on the establishment of a “demilitarized” zone in this region; east of the Hejaz railway in both the eastern Hama countryside and southern Idlib countryside.
These leaks shook up al-Nusra Front and the organization launched an offensive against the village of Abu Dali in the eastern Hama countryside on 6 October 2017 and took control of the town and several others nearby. No strategy to this battle was in place, other than al-Julani wanting to engage his elements in a battle after the leaks, and violate the gradual ceasefire agreement under the de-escalation agreement. It resulted in a military disaster. Al-Nusra Front’s leadership pushes its elite fighters into increasingly quixotic battles. At the civilian level, the regime air force has begun to assault several cities and villages without targeting al-Nusra Front’s headquarters and bases. This comes in addition to a noticeable rise in the prices of basic necessities and fuel, which used to enter the liberated regions via the Abu Dali route and cannot be imported from Turkey.
Likewise, it is necessary to point out that the al-Nusra Front launched the attack only three days after the conclusion of the Astana Conference, wherein it was decided to include Idlib in the de-escalation zones. This truly torpedoed the agreement, since the only two parties to reject de-escalation zones, including in Idlib, were al-Nusra and the regime and its allies.
On 9 October 2017, the Syrian regime opened the road to ISIS, which surrounded Uqayribat (east of Salamiyah), towards the region of Rahjan, which is under al-Nusra Front’s control. ISIS forces were able to take control over nearly fifteen villages in one day due to its surprise attacks on al-Nusra Front bases and headquarters in the region. This caused al-Nusra’s forces to be split between the Abu Dali and Rahjan battles.
In early December 2017, regime forces began a military campaign with the supposed goal of reclaiming control over Abu Dali. However, it was clear later that the goal went much further than that. Regime forces reclaimed Abu Dali, completed its northward advance towards Abu al-Duhur Military Airport, took control of dozens of villages, and then arrived in Sinjar on 7 January of this year. At the same time, they launched two attacks, one from al-Saan towards Rahjan, and the other from Khanasir towards Abu al-Duhur military airport. A new battle is also expected to begin soon in al-Hadher in the southern Aleppo countryside towards the south in the direction of Abu al-Duhur military airport and likely key areas near it; which will transform the region into besieged or semi-besieged pockets. Consequently, factions and citizens are expected to flee from this area, which contains hundreds of villages, leading to a humanitarian crisis. The first hints of this disaster began to actually appear when regime forces bomb the rear of various fronts. This resulted in several civilian casualties with people fleeing toward the Idlib, the border, and camps; which are unable to accommodate the current population in addition to newly displaced people.
During these battles in which the al-Nusra Front violated the “de-escalation” agreement through their attacks on Abu Dali, it is remarkable that al-Nusra did not press its forces to defend this villages that had fallen to regime forces in a quick series. Defense therefore fell to local groups which did try to defend their villages. Similarly, al-Nusra, as the dominant force in this important region, did not construct any defensive fortifications to confront regime forces. This only goes to reinforce the viewpoint that the meeting between al-Nusra and Russian leaders that took place several months previously in Abu Dali resulted in an agreement between the two sides to surrender the region east of the Hejaz railway to the regime’s forces without resistance. And this is what actually happened.
Aside from the other viewpoint discussed that al-Nusra Front surrendered this region to regime forces as part of an unannounced regional or international agreement, it must be kept in mind that al-Nusra Front is the most effective functioning administration among the parties concerned in Syrian affairs. Additionally, there is speculation as to how much area may be controlled by regime forces in this area. It may not just be limited to the demilitarized zone (east of the Hejaz railway), but rather may extend to the Damascus-Aleppo highway.
Regime forces are currently far from the Abu al-Duhur Military Airport, nearly 15 km (9.3 miles) from the Sinjar front, about the same distance from the al-Hadher front, and nearly 30 km (18.6 miles) from al-Rashadia, west of al-Hadher.
If regime forces attacked the key cities of al-Hadher and al-Rashadia, it will advance to Abu al-Duhur military airport faster than before. The very small groups trying to defend the region will have to split their forces among three fronts.
In military and humanitarian terms, events on the ground have continued to develop specifically in both Idlib and Ghouta, increasing the likelihood of the de-escalation agreement deteriorating and failing. Likewise, it has become clear that Turkey does not intend to eliminate the al-Nusra Front, and that Russia cannot keep its commitment to hold the Assad regime accountable.
Additionaly, the internal dispute between al-Nusra Front and other jihadist organizations in the region, as well as the emergence of ISIS into the region, is likely encourage the emergence of another new jihadist organization. These combined conditions are likely to further erode the de-escalation agreement. However, there will also be more lethal infighting, because al-Julani, who has worked for years to consolidate his control, will not be content to share control over Idlib.
The fate of the opposition remains uncertain due to the weak military capabilities of different factions to adequately confront attacks by the regime, propped up by Russia and Iran, and due to the divided interests of Turkey and Saudi Arabia towards the opposition. It is highly expected the Russians will consolidate control over the political solution. The Russians are expected to continue to promote the Sochi track at the expense of the Geneva track, as the credible avenue for the international community, in addition to the regional and international acceptance of it. This could result in a the opposition’s acceptance of the Russian vision for a final solution in Syria at the Moscow platform. The solution could include formal reforms like amending the constitution, creating a national united governance, and allow Bashar al-Assad to run as president in future elections.
Abdullah Almousa is a researcher and military analyst with four years of experience. Currently, he works as a manager for Hooz. He previously worked as a field officer for international organizations in Syria.