Syrian Army’s Advances Spell Bad News for ISIS and Rebels, But Damascus Should Be Cautious in Its Optimism

A handout photo made available by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (C) as he arrives to perform the Eid al-Adha prayer at the Bilal Mosque in the Qara region of the Damascus countryside, Syria, 01 September 2017. (Photo: SANA HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Syrian army and its allies entered Islamic State’s last main stronghold in the country, the city of al-Mayadeen in Deir el-Zor province. The latest advances confined jihadists and rebels to less than 10 per cent of Syrian territory, according to Russian media. Damascus repeatedly expressed its optimism over winning the war – but what happens after?


“With support from Russian aviation, government forces entered Mayadin and took control of several buildings in the western flank of the town,” Iranian Press TV quoted Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), as saying on Friday.

Upon entering the city, Syrian army destroyed an arms depot, a communications headquarters, a command center and several vehicles equipped with heavy machine guns, Press TV reported.

Deir el-Zor was the last large ISIS-held territory in Syria – the group is currently losing it to separate offensives by the Syrian government and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

According to SOHR, intense clashes are currently taking place on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, where government forces and its allies carried out hundreds or airstrikes, reportedly killing numerous civilians attempting to flee the area.

Strong Offensive Against Rebels

At the same time, Syrian government is waging several offensives against rebel held enclaves around the city of Aleppo, in the provinces of Eastern Ghouta, Hama and Al-Quneitra.

Clashes were also reported near the Al-Dorriyeh town in the northern countryside of Idlib, along the Turkish – Syrian border, where Turkish border guards opened fire on rebels’ positions. Syrian army reopened fronts in rebel-held Idlib and Hama provinces in late September, in a response to Islamist hardline rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s (HTS) offensive.

HTS, which rules much of the Idlib province, attempted to break down the ceasefire in the region agreed by Russia, Turkey and Iran in Astana, Kazakhstan, mid-September. According to the agreement, Turkish army is currently gearing up to deploy troops inside Idlib, which has been under intense airstrikes for the past two weeks.

The latest developments spell trouble for Syrian rebels – while Turkey still nominally supports moderate faction Free Syrian Army, by signing ceasefire deal, Ankara broke away from its previously non-negotiable opposition to Bashar al-Assad and acknowledged his authority. Turkey is seeking to establish its political stronghold in Syria, and many believe that the new ceasefire agreement effectively mapped out zones of Russian, Iranian and Turkish influence in the country.

Volunteers of the white helmets prepare for bombings by taking cover in a basement, in rebel-held Douma, Syria, 06 October 2017. (Photo: MOHAMMED BADRA/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

In practice, the agreement proved to render the concept of ceasefire meaningless, given that some of the most intense clashes are happening right inside the de-escalation zones, designed to pacify the rebel forces before retaking their territories.

De-escalation zones agreed in Astana include Idlib, Eastern Ghouta, northern countryside of Homs province, and the southern front stretching from Syrian-Jordanian border to the countryside of Suwaida in the Druze Mountains, including the town of Al Quneitra.

Save for some of the latest clashes, the southern front has been relatively quiet – mostly because rebels, financially and logistically dependent on Jordan, pulled out of it without much hassle.

Allies Abandoning Rebels

In August, Hezbolah’s media unit Al Manar reported the Syrian army and its allies seized all checkpoints and posts in the province of Suwaida bordering with Jordan.

The southwestern region in Syria bordering Jordan and Israel had been mainly under control of rebel groups backed by Western and Arab states, but one of them, Jaish al-Ashair, suddenly pulled back.

Soon, Arab news network, Elam al-Harbri, said that Ahmad Abdu and Jeish al-Soud al-Sharqiyeh groups had left southern province of Badia, withdrawing to Jordan.

This week, Reuters reported that Syrian rebels are under strong pressure from Jordan to hand control of Nasib border crossing to the government. Some rebel groups present in the area were weakened by previous pullouts, including Free Syrian Army, which categorically opposes giving legitimacy to Bashar al-Assad.

Jordanian soldiers on top of military vehicles keep watch near the informal Rugban refugee camp at the Jordan-Syria border point of Al-Rugban area, northeast of Jordan, 14 March 2017. (Photo: JAMAL NASRALLAH/EPA/REX/Shutterstock)

According to Reuters report, Jordan proposed that rebels secure the road to Nasib, while a civil administration from Damascus would run the crossing, giving the rebels a portion of the customs fees as part of the deal.

While it may sound good, rebels are concerned that compromises with Damascus would lead to losing of local support. “The presence of any regime employee is like restoring legitimacy to a worn-out regime against which the Syrian people rose up,” Adham al Karad, FSA rebel commander told the news agency.

Jordan could simply open other land crossings into government-held territories, strangling rebels’ economy, but for now, it is refraining from it. While the closure of Nasib crossing seriously harmed Jordanian economy, large number of refugees additionally strained its infrastructural and financial capacities.

Syrian refugees wait in front of UN-operated medical clinic on the Jordanian-side of the border with Syria, near the informal al-Rugban refugee camp area, northeast of Jordan, 14 March 2017. (Photo: JAMAL NASRALLAH/EPA/REX/Shutterstock)

Rebels’ opposition to cooperation with Damascus may also be a lesson learned from other rebels’ experiences in de-escalation zones. Ultimately, Assad’s government has made it repeatedly clear that it intends to reassert its authority in the entire Syria.

For now, the status quo is rebels’ chosen option, but Jordan, as one of their strongest allies, is growing weary of increasing foreign influence in its neighborhood.

Saudi Arabia also came quickly to terms with the new situation. In early September, Russian Foreign Ministaer Sergei Lavrov visited Jeddah – signaling that Riyadh saw Moscow as its ticket to influential future role in Syria, and relationship further soared with a set of deals signed on Thursday in Moscow.

Saudi Arabia is currently spearheading the efforts to unite opposition which would take part in both Astana and Geneva peace process, as it seems it is swiftly backtracking from the battlefield.

Trouble on the Horizon

Despite the situation tipping in favor of Bashar al-Assad, and Russian reports that government forces control more than 90% of Syrian territory, some analysts warn that Damascus should be more cautious in its optimism.

Past Friday, ISIS forces managed to cut their way through regime troops and stormed government-held town of Qaryatayn in the Homs province, Syria Direct reported.

The report notes that this scenario doesn’t seem impossible if one takes into account that large swaths of liberated territory are “sparsely populated, difficult-to-police stretches of land in central and eastern Syria”.

A man looks at an injured boy receiving medical attention at a hospital, in rebel-held Douma, Syria, 06 October 2017. At least six died and 35 were injured after bombings allegedly by forces loyal to the Syrian government on Douma and Mesraba. (Photo: MOHAMMED BADRA/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

“Control isn’t just simply occupying an area. You have to be able to re-establish your governance. That is the real challenge for them,” Scott Lucas, professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham, told Syria Direct.

This spells trouble for Syrian regime – despite the tentative acceptance it received even in the Western political circles which once fiercely rejected it.

Syrian regime lost its legitimacy in the eyes of Syrian citizens, and Bashar al-Assad will hardly ever have peace as long as he is in Damascus. He may have counted on fragmented opposition and rebels to lose their battle before it began, and this is what won him a war, among other things.

But this deep division and scattered insurgencies all over the ruins of Syria might turn out to be Assad’s kryptonite once he thinks he is finally safe in the dynastic presidential seat.

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