The Syrian regime and its allies did not hesitate to use military force to suppress the popular uprising that began in March 2011, nor have they hesitated to obstruct the negotiations taking place in Geneva under the umbrella of the United Nations to reach a political solution that would end the crises affecting the Middle East and the world – including the refugee crisis and cross-border terrorism.
This comes amidst declining US and coalition support for the Syrian opposition, the prioritization of the fight against terrorism represented by the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, the ongoing fragmentation of the Syrian opposition, and its components’ inability to agree on a unified vision for the future of Syria.
The regime is attempting to play on the international margins, especially among its main supporters, Russia and Iran. While it may be leaning towards Tehran, whose designs are tied to the long-term survival of President Bashar al-Assad and a number of other leaders in the army and security apparatus; it knows full well that Moscow entered Syria with several objectives, including securing its place within the international community. But the Kremlin is also looking to take advantage of the global community’s need to limit the influence and interference of Iranian militias inside Syria’s state apparatus, in return for a trade-off on other outstanding issues with the EU and the US, in particular those revolving around Ukraine and natural gas.
After having paid large sums to support him, particularly in matters related to the military operations that led to the retreat of the armed opposition away from Damascus, Assad seeks to leverage Moscow’s need for him at the present time by rejecting any agreement in which power is shared with the opposition, according to the Geneva Communique or UN Security Council Resolution 2254, particularly under the current circumstances when the opposition is beset by division.
Eliminating the Opposition and Becoming a Partner in the Fight against Terrorism
The regime is exploiting the support provided by Tehran and Moscow, in the form of money, weapons, and men, to achieve important military victories at the expense of the Syrian opposition, which receives support from Turkey, the Arab Gulf states, the European Union, and the United States. The success of regime forces in expanding their control over the entirety of Aleppo in December 2016 was the culmination of their growing strength in recent years, giving the regime hope of returning to the international community and once again controlling all of Syria.
The regime recently seized the opportunity to reach the outskirts of the Euphrates River for the first time since 2013. Its forces reached the western outskirts of Manbij in an agreement with the YPG dominated US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to prevent Syrian opposition forces, supported by Turkey in the “Euphrates Shield” zone, from advancing towards the city.
In order to present itself as an international partner in the fight against terrorism, the regime has recently taken advantage of the “de-escalation” agreement signed by the guarantor states Russia, Iran, and Turkey in the Kazakh capital of Astana. The signed agreement was in the presence of the regime and opposition delegations and established four de-escalation zones in Syria. This agreement allows the regime to make use of a large portion of its troops in preparation for a new battle and opening the way to Islamic State-controlled Deir Ezzor in the east; which contains significant oil, gas, and water resources including the largest gas plant in the Middle East, the Conoco plant. At his press conference from Damascus, Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Al-Muallem, announced that, “the primary goal of the country’s forces is to go to Deir Ezzor,” which would seemingly come with the goal of connecting the Damascus-Baghdad highway.
Forced Displacement and Demographic Change
In the vicinity of Damascus, the regime has adopted a military tactic that differs from those used in its battles elsewhere in Syria that focused on dividing and preventing communication between opposition areas to relieve pressure on itself in the capital, and over time creating fully-enclosed areas under siege.
After years of siege and shelling, targeting health facilities and preventing relief teams/first responders from providing humanitarian and medical aid, the regime began signing so-called “reconciliation agreements” with representatives of these areas, demanding that opposition fighters hand over their weapons in exchange for the Syrian government’s guarantee that they can remain, while transferring anyone who rejects to the agreement to Idlib or Turkish-controlled areas in northern Syria.
As a result, the regime has been able to empty a large number of areas around Damascus and Homs, a corridor for Hezbollah, linking Lebanon to Syria, the most recent being the al-Waer district in Homs and the Damascus suburbs of Tishreen, Qaboun, and Barzeh. In doing so, the regime seeks to replace the residents of these areas with families loyal to it in order to ensure its security and stability.
A Cautious Understanding with the Kurds
After convincing the United States to support their fight against the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Kurds have become a de facto power in northern Syria. The Syrian regime has welcomed this new reality and dealt with the Kurds cautiously, courting Kurdish leadership and building a network of common interests in order to isolate the Syrian armed opposition and exclude it from any role in the future of Syria, particularly in light of its intransigence towards fighting the regime rather than reasoning with it to find a political solution in accordance with UN resolutions.
The regime has crafted a number of understandings with the Kurds on the basis of partnership rather than animosity, through which the authority of the state and its institutions have been maintained in those areas far from Damascus that still fly the flag of the regime and recognize the legitimacy of its existence. Pledging to continue paying the salaries of employees working in public institutions, the regime has given the Kurds the freedom to partition and manage their areas as a type of administrative decentralization to which the ethnic minorities that make up the majority of northeast Syria aspire. The regime also allowed them to speak Kurdish (which was previously forbidden) and integrate it as the primary language in schools.
Blocking Negotiations until Elections can be Reached
The regime sees its participation in the Geneva negotiations as an opportunity to restore credibility lost on the international stage and to emerge as the reasonable party, taking full advantage of Moscow, its most powerful ally, over the course of these negotiations in light of the US retreat. At the same time, the regime is carrying out radical reforms within the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, spearheaded by President Bashar al-Assad since 2000. The party led the country since 1963 and these reforms have affected all of the party’s leading figures, known as the “old guard.” Newspapers loyal to the regime indicate other changes, even those affecting the party slogan, from “unity, freedom, socialism” to “one nation, bearing an eternal message.”
Observers believe that by making such a move, Assad is preparing for a possible election battle, particularly as Moscow insists that he remain in power during the transition period in which parliamentary and presidential elections will take place, giving him the right to participate in any future elections.
Ghaith al-Ahmad works as a journalist for The New Arab. He previously worked as a media coordinator for the Syrian Red Crescent in Deir Ezzor.