Is the Assad Regime Switching Gears?

Several recent events in Syria suggest that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies are changing their strategy to focus on retaking more land from the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in concert with harassment bombing of opposition-held territories in western Syria. By focusing on retaking territory from ISIS, the Assad regime hopes to regain international legitimacy and force the United States (and other countries that back the opposition) into an uneasy position: direct or indirect support for the regime in its fight against ISIS, thereby undermining calls for the regime to step aside and reducing condemnations of the regime’s indiscriminate targeting of civilians.

Three events suggest this change in strategy. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on June 7 that regime forces had moved against ISIS in Tabqa as part of a campaign that began on June 2 to recapture the self-declared ISIS capital of Raqqa. The city of Tabqa is strategically important because it sits on a crossroads linking three provinces: Raqqa, Aleppo, and Hama. Capturing Tabqa would position the regime 40 km away from Raqqa city, allowing it to sever supply lines and isolate ISIS in northern Aleppo. So far, the regime has largely avoided fighting the extremist group—preferring instead a live-and-let-live strategy and at times even coordinating with it. Assad’s June 7 speech, in which he promised to retake “every inch” of Syria, also points to this increased shift toward engaging ISIS. Lastly, in the wake of the breakdown in the cessation of hostilities, Russia’s resumption of full-scale bombing of Aleppo city frees Assad’s forces to engage ISIS units elsewhere. 

The regime’s live-and-let-live approach to ISIS began to change when regime forces, dominated by foreign fighters (including Hezbollah and Russian militias), decided to retake Palmyra from ISIS fighters in March 2016. During that time, Russian bombardment of opposition-held territory—predominantly in Aleppo—helped the regime lay a near full siege to the city, surrounding it on three sides and bombing the main access road to rebel held eastern Aleppo. With opposition forces pinned down, Assad appears satisfied that he has succeeded in containing the rebel threat.

Going after ISIS now is an attempt to rebuild the regime’s legitimacy as it demonstrates that its priorities align with the international fight against extremism. It also forces the United States and the anti-ISIS coalition into implicit support for the Syrian regime. International coalition air strikes against ISIS military resources, oil pipelines, and ISIS fighters in Syria weakened ISIS enough for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to recapture territory From ISIS in northern Syria, but also allowed regime forces and its allies to move against the group. The continued international efforts to uproot ISIS and only rhetorical efforts to hinder its war against the opposition only reinforce Assad’s claim that he can retake every last inch of Syria. The race to uproot ISIS from Raqqa will become a deciding factor in the battle for legitimacy: if the regime can take credit for driving ISIS out of its self-declared capital, it would cast itself as an international hero against terrorism.

Russia and Iran appear to fully support this strategy. As Russia drags out the negotiation process as much as possible, it helps the regime shape the military reality in Syria. Regaining lost territory, consolidating its grip on current territories, and fighting ISIS all put the regime in a better bargaining position—and the nationalist opposition in a less tenable one. The political and economic benefits of recapturing lost territory—especially if it can reclaim oil fields, gas wells, and farmland—will further strengthen the Assad’s claim that only he can lead Syria’s reconstruction. For many of the same reasons, Iran will also support the regime’s efforts to fight ISIS, with the added reason that if ISIS were also driven out of Iraq, Iran would regain the overland route to ship supplies to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The regime is under pressure to retake territory from ISIS before any competing forces (whether the SDF or opposition forces) rob him of the opportunity. In the brief lull in violence following the February 26 cessation of hostilities, opposition forces gained ground against ISIS in the Aleppo countryside, showing their commitment to fighting ISIS over the regime’s preferred apathy. If internationally backed forces retake the territory from ISIS, it puts the regime in an awkward position where it has to attack internationally backed forces to reunite Syria. 

Some outstanding questions on the matter remain. How far is the regime able to go against ISIS? Assad’s speech on reclaiming all of Syria falls flat in the face of the lack of military capacity to hold the entire country, particularly given his reliance on external support and foreign fighters. The Palmyra operation only had a token contingent of regime forces and those same foreign forces are likely leading the charge in Tabqa. It seems unlikely that Russian troops and Hezbollah would support the regime indefinitely. On the flip side, will ISIS coordinate its withdrawal from certain territories and allow the regime’s advance? The extremist group realizes its predicament and may opt for a managed retreat, allowing it to fight another day.

 Assad’s latest speech and military push suggests a strategic shift prioritizing ISIS. No longer is the opposition the biggest threat to the regime. With Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and a motley crew of other foreign fighters providing support, the regime feels that it has neutralized the opposition threat and can turn its attention to regaining lost territory. The end goal of this war is not simply to crush the opposition, but to regain international legitimacy to ensure that Assad can ignore calls to step down and no future internationally backed efforts to topple the regime emerge.

Hossam Abouzahr is the editor of SyriaSource. Tarek Radwan is a nonresident fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: Photo: A Syrian national flag flutters next to the Islamic State's slogan at a roundabout where executions were carried out by ISIS militants in the city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria in this April 1, 2016 file photo. Reuters / Omar Sanadiki