The Syrian Conflict: 05 March 2018

 

Bottom Line up Front

  • It is almost certain that Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham will lose its status as the largest opposition group and its dominant influence in Idlib within the next two months. This will likely lead to further in-fighting between opposition forces that will cripple the opposition in Idlib.
  • ISIS will very likely continue to lose their already depleting territorial success in Western Syria near the Iraqi border and in midwest Syria east of Deir ez Zor and Al Quirayya, forcing them to resort to increased insurgent tactics.
  • It is very likely that Israel will continue to engage in kinetic strikes, beyond the Golan Heights, in the Syrian war, due to the recent escalating tensions with Iran, within the next year.
  • It is likely that YPG forces will continue to gradually retreat towards Afrin city, losing Jinderes city within two weeks. However, if the YPG does not retreat from Afrin city and Olive Branch forces try to capture it, it is likely that Olive Branch forces will face significantly greater resistance/costs than they faced in other areas of Afrin.
  • It is very likely that the Assad regime will continue to not honor the 30-day UNSC ceasefire in Ghouta, as both it, its Russian allies and local rebel groups have already broken the agreement only days after it was voted in.
  • It is very likely that Iran will become the most influential outside actor in the Syrian conflict within the next two years. Russia will likely start downsizing their direct involvement in Syria within the next two years.

 

 

Extremist Opposition Forces

    

        It is almost certain that Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham will lose its status as the largest opposition group and its influence in Idlib within the next two months. This will likely lead to further in-fighting between opposition forces that will cripple the opposition in Idlib.

Since Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s (HTS) formation in January 2017, it has been the leading opposition front in Idlib against the pro-Assad forces. Though the formal al-Qaeda affiliate has been dominant in its efforts, it has faced a severe backlash from other Salafi-Jihadi opposition forces in the region—most notably from Ahrar al-Sham (AS) and Nour al-Din al-Zinki (Zinki). On February 18th , 2018, AS and Zinki formally merged to create Jabhat Tahrir al-Syria (JTS). Shortly after its creation, JTS declared war on HTS. Since then, HTS has lost over 36 towns in the Idlib Province and sources indicate HTS’ leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, has fled the front lines to the Latakia mountains. These losses follow a recent trend of disdain towards HTS from other opposition groups and the local Syrians. This public scorn has resulted in more than four HTS factions defecting to join JTS. These drivers indicate the feeble state of HTS within Syria, which has been struggling for support since its severance from al-Qaeda core in December 2017.

 

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)

      

        ISIS will very likely continue to lose their already depleting territorial success in Western Syria near the Iraqi border and in midwest Syria east of Deir ez Zor and Al Quirayya, forcing them to resort to increased insurgent tactics.

This is due to the continuing tactical success of the U.S. and coalition forces and the Assad regime’s forces, their consistent push, has knocked ISIS back near the Iraqi border.

ISIS’ territorial claims have decreased precipitously since their peak in January 2015. Their caliphate stretched from just outside of Baghdad to near Aleppo, making their “state” roughly the size of Britain. Now ISIS’ territory is limited to near the Iraqi border and east of Dier ez Zor and Al Quirayya. ISIS’ recent and drastic losses began in 2017 and have steadily continued, making it very likely that ISIS will continue to lose their territory in Syria.

ISIS’ desperation is evident with their propaganda outlet, Dabiq, depicting female fighters taking arms, contrary to their previous stance, forbidding female fighters. ISIS has slowly rolled back restrictions on female Jihadists, now allowing them making it very likely that this call to arms, is a move of desperation, and the result of it will be a very likely increased attempts in insurgent operations in western Syria, done by both men and women. Due to ISIS’ depleted state, an insurgency is one of the few ways they can actively resist the Assad regime, making an attempted increase very likely.

 

Non-Extremist Opposition Forces

       

        It is very likely that Israel will continue to engage in kinetic strikes, beyond the Golan Heights, in the Syrian war, due to the recent escalating tensions with Iran, within the next year.

On February 10, 2018, an Iranian drone was found within Israeli airspace over Golan Heights causing Israeli to strike 12 Syrian and Iran targets. Tensions between Israel and Iran escalated starting after a drone near Israeli Airspace flown by Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, in 2017 was detected by Israel. Israel a year ago, and recently explained to their people and the media that Israel will act against Iran if they violate the country’s sovereignty or act as a security threat. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response to Iran’s drone found in Israeli airspace didn’t just act militarily but also threatened to become an active participant in the Syrian War. Netanyahu expressed that if the U.S doesn’t compromise with Iran to ensure the Nuclear deal remains intact. The humanitarian aid Israel offers presently could lead to Israel joining opposition forces to ensure that Iran couldn’t gain any more power or influence within the Middle East.

 

The Kurds

      

        It is likely that YPG forces will continue to gradually retreat towards Afrin city, losing Jinderes city within two weeks. However, if the YPG does not retreat from Afrin city and Olive Branch forces try to capture it, it is likely that Olive Branch forces will face significantly greater resistance/costs than they faced in other areas of Afrin.

The FSA/TSK has not yet conducted serious, block-by-block urban warfare against the YPG: in the few captured places of comparatively medium/high population density (e.g. Bulbul, Raju), the YPG appears to have primarily retreated rather than having been primarily eliminated. Additionally, even accepting Turkey’s (very likely inflated) claims of more than 2,500 militants “neutralized” would suggest that roughly 70% of YPG forces have not been “neutralized.” Furthermore, risks of excessive civilian casualties in Afrin city would likely lead to moderate restraints on Turkish/FSA operations such as air and artillery strikes—which have been a crucial factor in Turkish strategy/successes. Thus, the Olive Branch dominance thus far is not a strong indicator of future success.

Turkish-FSA relations have an unlikely chance of notably deteriorating over the next two months. If deterioration occurs, cooperation/operations would likely continue overall, but less effectively. In general, militia clusters such as the FSA can be difficult to work with, but tensions appear particularly likely for Turkey given the potential for conflicting goals, such as how the FSA has expressed desires to capture cities such as Tel Rifat, but Turkey does not consider this a primary objective, and Russia may seek to prevent allowing such pressure on the pro-Assad forces in Aleppo.

 

Domestic pro-Assad Forces

 

        It is highly likely that the Assad regime will continue to not honor the 30 day UNSC ceasefire in Ghouta, as both it, its Russian allies, and local rebel groups have already broken the agreement only days after it was voted in.

In the Damascus Governorate in southwestern Syria, Assad forces, along with their Russian allies, have ruthlessly shelled the region of Eastern Ghouta and its surrounding areas. Ghouta is one of the last rebel-controlled areas in Syria, with most of it being under control of Jaish al-Islam. The region has been under siege by government forces since 2013, but on February 19th, the Assad regime and Russia began a relentless bombing campaign that has already killed more than 500, damaged or destroyed six hospitals, and left 400,000 others trapped in the city. On February 25th, the UN Security Council, including Russia, unanimously demanded a ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta to allow humanitarian aid to enter the city. Assad has not honored the ceasefire, with four civilians killed on Tuesday by Syrian ground forces and continued aerial bombardment. The Assad regime has also used chlorine gas, provided by North Korea, on its citizens in Eastern Ghouta. This, as well as the relentless aerial bombardments, has lead the UN Human Rights Chief to declare that Assad has been implicated in war crimes.

 

Foreign pro-Assad Forces

 

        It is very likely that Iran will become the most influential outside actor in the Syrian conflict within the next two years. Russia will likely start downsizing their direct involvement in Syria within the next two years.

Iran has continued building permanent military facilities causing rising tension with Israel, they have also reinforced the Kurds to help fight Turkey back to their borders. Their reaction to Turkey and willingness to fight with Israel indicates their resolve to maintain a foothold in Syria is remains steadfast. Russia has changed its stance from being outspoken and willing to have a conflict with coalition forces to more diplomatic options since Turkey launched operation Olive Branch. This would indicate that Russia has seen Turkey’s involvement as an opportunity to reevaluate the depth of their own involvement in the Syrian conflict.