The Syrian Conflict: 02 April 2018

 

Bottom Line up Front

 

Extremist Opposition Forces

  • It is likely that al-Qaeda will regain a foothold in Idlib, expanding Tanzim Hurras al-Deen (THD)’s breadth of influence in north-west Syria significantly within the next three months.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)

  • It is likely that there will be an increased ISIS insurgency in east Damascus Suburbs along with north-east Syria, from April 2018 until the end of June 2018.

Non-Extremist Opposition Forces

  • It is likely that the United States will pull out of the Iran Nuclear deal leading to more support on opposition forces to ensure Iranian influence is diminished Syria.

The Kurds

  • It is likely that Turkey/FSA will invade Manbij within the next three weeks unless the US makes substantive commitments to YPG force reduction and power sharing (co-governance) in the Manbij region. It is very likely that such an invasion would primarily consist of FSA forces.

Domestic pro-Assad Forces

  • As Eastern Ghouta has all but fallen under Assad and pro-government forces, it is almost certain that Assad will begin to regain Idlib province in the north—bringing increased clashes between government and Turkish forces.

Foreign pro-Assad Forces

  • It is almost certain Iran will tighten their grip on Syria and show the international community their resolve for maintaining their influence in the region for the foreseeable future.

Russia

  • It is very likely that Russia will continue to maintain a presence in Syria even as the government continues to succeed in regaining control over rebel-held areas, because of the benefits they gain by keeping an open air base and naval ports and by having Assad continue to be a strong ally. It is very likely that Russia will have a strong presence in Syria for the next couple of years, even as the government continues to regain control.

Extremist Opposition Forces

 

        It is likely that al-Qaeda will regain a foothold in Idlib, expanding Tanzim Hurras al-Deen (THD)’s breadth of influence in north-west Syria significantly within the next three months.

On February 27th, THD (Guardians of Religion Organization) was founded in a merger between multiple Salafi-Jihadi groups, including Jaysh al-Badiya, Jaysh al-Malahim, and Jund al-Sharia along with five other groups. Though al Qaeda core hasn’t officially recognized the group, its leadership structure includes many al Qaeda veterans like Abu Humam al-Shami, Abu Julaybib, Sami al-Uraydi—all of whom have pledged bay’ah to al Qaeda and have left their previous groups due to this oath of loyalty. Since THD’s formation, the two largest Syrian Salafi-Jihadi opposition groups, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Jabhat Tahrir al-Suriya (JTS), have been in a bloody turf war over the greater Idlib province. As of April 1st, 2018, HTS and JTS have agreed to a ceasefire, but damages sustained from the infighting have been detrimental to the groups’ capabilities. These losses along with the current influx of Salafi-Jihadi fighters that have been displaced from Eastern Ghouta (mostly Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman members) will likely contribute to the instability in Idlib that has been present since the fall of HTS as the dominant group in the region. These factors provide a fertile ground for THD to recruit from the disenfranchised HTS, Jaysh al-Islam, Faylaq al-Rahman and JTS fighters,which will very likely allow THD to grow exponentially within the next three months.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)

 

        It is likely that there will be an increased ISIS insurgency in east Damascus Suburbs along with north-east Syria, from April 2018 until the end of June 2018.

Despite ISIS’ loss of territory since 2016, the Sunni extremist group remains a lethal insurgency because of the Assad regime’s strategic avoidance, and with the Kurds’ manpower being diverted to fight the Turkish forces. Also, during summer months, especially during Ramadan, Islamists groups are most active. Ramadan this year begins May 15 and ends June 14, very likely making this month the most dangerous.

To present international community with a binary choice, the Assad Regime, has been almost exclusively attacking non-extremist opposition while letting ISIS fester. This has been most evident in Damascus suburbs where the Assad regime has destroyed much of the non-extremist forces in Ghouta, allowing an ISIS resurgence in the eastern Damascus suburbs, even allowing ISIS to take the Al Qadam district.

After Turkey’s military encroachment into Syria, the Kurds’, forces have been diverted from fighting ISIS to fighting Turkey. The Kurds’ forces have been spread so much that the Pentagon has declared an operational pause in North East Syria. Over the last two months, there have been over 170 Kurds killed by ISIS in Syria, indicating their increasing lethality.

Non-Extremist Opposition Forces

 

        It is likely that the United States will pull out of the Iran Nuclear deal, leading to more support for opposition forces to ensure Iranian influence is diminished Syria.

As opposition forces continue to push against the Assad regime, Saudi Arabia and Israel fight to extinguish Iranian influence within Assad regime and Shi’a militias. United States’ forces continue to support the Kurds and are in negotiations concerning aid to support Saudi Arabia.

The Assad regime controls a significant amount of territory in Syria, largely due to Iran’s support. This support is likely to lead to countries, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, to reach out for more support. There is a likely opportunity for the United States to increase support against Iranian influence in the region as their relationships with Saudi Arabia are flourishing. President Trump and Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s meeting in March 2018 showed similar outlooks on Iran.

 

The Kurds

        It is likely that Turkey/FSA will invade Manbij within the next three weeks unless the US makes substantive commitments to YPG force reduction and power sharing (co-governance) in the Manbij region. It is very likely that such an invasion would primarily consist of FSA forces.

In summary, there are strong indicators (e.g., declarations) of Turkey/FSA’s intention to invade, and it is likely in Turkey/FSA’s interests to invade. For numerous months, Erdogan and the Turkish government overall have stated that they would “rid Manbij of terrorists” and that “Turkey will not hesitate to take the initiative [in Manbij].” Pro-Erdogan media has reported that over 10,000 FSA troops are ready to invade Manbij. The primary reason why Turkey would not invade Manbij currently is that doing so would risk conflict with America (their NATO ally) since the US has troops stationed in the region—and thus that Turkey would prefer diplomacy instead of invasion. However: 1) diplomacy has so far been unsuccessful in achieving Turkey’s goals; 2) Turkey reasonably may expect the US forces to standby (or retreat) rather than engaging—or Turkey may expect that there are too few US soldiers to effectively resist an FSA invasion; 3) the risks are outweighed by Turkey’s incentives to capture Manbij, such as eliminating a foothold of the YPG/SDF and galvanizing domestic political support.

Somewhat alternatively, analysts have suggested that Turkey/FSA could attempt to support an Arab/Turkish “uprising” (insurgency) in the Manbij region. This approach is less likely mainly because it would likely take weeks to organize and may not be much more effective, but when considering that Manbij appears to be surrounded by majority-Arab villages and that pro-Turkish/FSA demonstrations have taken place in other regions such as Tel Rifaat and al-Bab (regarding Tadif), it is a possibility worth noting. If adopted, it would likely enable more pressure or even violence against US forces with less culpability on the part of Turkey/FSA.

 

Domestic pro-Assad Forces

 

        As Eastern Ghouta has all but fallen under Assad and pro-government forces, it is almost certain that Assad will begin to regain Idlib province in the north—bringing increased clashes between government and Turkish forces.

Government forces have successfully taken control of almost all of the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta from various rebel groups. The town of Douma is the only hold-out, though government evacuations of civilians and some rebels began this morning (April 2nd). Like previous evacuations from Eastern Ghouta, these busses carrying civilians and rebels are headed to Idlib province in the north-western area of Syria–an area that is currently largely controlled by Turkish forces. Now that the Damascus suburbs are now solidly in government control, it is likely that Assad forces will grow bolder in their future movements, as they no longer have to worry about rebel threat in the capital.

Two days ago (March 31st), Russian forces began heavily shelling south-west Idlib province, an area long under Turkish control and home to most of the refugees—civilian and rebel—from Eastern Ghouta.

The heavy Russian bombardment and large rebel presence in the region mean that it is likely that government forces are preparing to attempt to regain the region. This will be a much harder fight, though, as the Turkish military has long controlled the region. However, should Turkey shift its focus towards Manbij province, where US and Kurdish forces are the predominant presence, it is likely that Idlib will take the place of secondary importance, giving Assad forces a good opportunity to strike.

 

Foreign pro-Assad Forces

 

        It is almost certain Iran will tighten their grip on Syria and show the international community their resolve for maintaining their influence in the region for the foreseeable future.

Iran has placed their military advisers across Syria and continued their support to not only Hezbollah but other Shia militias in the conflict. Iran has also shown resolve against Turkey’s involvement, not only condemning it politically but allowing Iranian backed militias to go and fight against Turkish forces.

Although tensions between Hezbollah and Israel have been rising, it is unlikely that an overt conflict will occur between them within the next year. Tensions have been rising between these two forces due to the buildup of Hezbollah in Syria close to the Israeli border. However, given their strategic partnership with Iran, it is unlikely that Hezbollah will make a move towards over military action against Israel without Iranian permission.

 

Russia

 

        It is very likely that Russia will continue to maintain a presence in Syria even as the government continues to succeed in regaining control over rebel-held areas, because of the benefits they gain by keeping an open air base and naval ports and by having Assad continue to be a strong ally. It is very likely that Russia will have a strong presence in Syria for the next couple of years, even as the government continues to regain control.  

As Assad continues to regain control over once rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, it is apparent that Russia does not intend to leave Syria any time soon, even though they have fulfilled their goals of returning most of the rebel strongholds to the Assad regime. Rebels have begun evacuating Eastern Ghouta, after a deal brokered by Russia, where they agreed to lay down arms in return for safe passage for them and their families into Idlib. Russia has succeeded in helping the Assad regime regain almost full control over the country, but it is very likely Russia will not be leaving the area. It is very likely that if Assad regains full control of Syria, Russia will continue to have a presence in the area due to the strategic benefits they gain from their air base and naval ports located in Syria, specifically their air base in Latakia, as it continues to be important strategically for them throughout the entire Middle East and the trade lines that would continue to stay open to their naval ports. They will also very likely continue to have a presence in the area because Syria is a strong ally for Russia, and helps Russia show their commitment to opposing the West.