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While no one's watching. The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict loosens constraints on Bashar al-Assad

The beginning of a new war in the Gaza Strip triggered a surge of violence in other regions of the Middle East. The army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its Russian allies have resumed large-scale military operations against rebels, apparently intending to deprive the opposition of its last stronghold.

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Content
  • The splendors and miseries of the Alawites

  • Escalation of violence

  • Dividing the Syrian pie: a history

  • Kurds stand alone

  • Whose is Idlib?

A new chapter of the Syrian civil war, which has been ongoing since 2012, unfolded on October 5, 2023, just two days shy of the devastating HAMAS attack on Israel. That day was marked by a ceremony at the military academy in Homs, where graduates were awarded diplomas and officer insignias. A city square was filled with hundreds of Bashar al-Assad’s army’s potential commanders and their families, who gathered to rejoice in this occasion.

As the festivities hit their zenith, a rain of grenades and makeshift bombs fell upon the crowd. This was the work of the Syrian opposition, who launched a large-scale drone attack on the widely publicized gathering. It's reported that the unprecedented attack claimed the lives of between 80 to 120 people, with several hundred more left injured. This all took place in a city that has been considered secure for several years, situated hundreds of kilometers away from the front line.

It is evident that the attack originated from territory marked on maps as controlled by the government army. This suggests that within Assad's stronghold, opposition forces persist, showcasing their capacity for extensive and audacious operations. These operations are doubly impactful for Assad since they target the regime's primary support—his co-religionists, the Alawites, and, to a lesser extent, representatives of other religious minorities, notably Ismailis and Christians.

The splendors and miseries of the Alawites

In Syria, where 70 to 80% of the population adheres to Sunni Islam, the officer corps of the army and intelligence services traditionally arises from religious minorities. Assad harbors mistrust toward Sunnis, limiting their access not only to military education but also to command positions. Almost exclusively, significant roles are occupied by Alawites, aligning with Assad's distinct preference.

Assad harbors mistrust toward Sunnis, limiting their access not only to military education but also to command positions

Becoming an Alawite is impossible; one can only be born into it—conversion to this faith is not allowed. It is a closed religious sect noticeably distinct from traditional Islam. For instance, Alawites have no dietary restrictions, consume wine, do not attend mosques, believe in the transmigration of souls, and observe Christian and pre-Islamic Middle Eastern holidays.

For centuries, they were genuine outcasts in the Islamic world—dwelling in remote mountainous regions in Syria, separate from followers of other religions. Islamic rulers prohibited them from marrying Muslim women, touching food meant for non-Alawites, settling in villages and cities where Muslims lived, and they were scarcely employed—only in the most arduous or filthy jobs. Alawites endured genuine poverty for centuries.

Everything changed after World War I when France gained control of Syria. The French swiftly recognized in these persecuted sectarians their allies in pacifying the turbulent Middle Eastern territory. It was from this community that they began to form the local army and bureaucratic corps. Later, after the departure of the French, one of the officers they had educated—an Alawite named Hafez al-Assad—seized power. Implicitly but evidently to all, he elevated his co-religionists to a privileged caste within Syrian society.

The same situation persisted under his son and successor, Bashar, who assumed leadership in 2000. The apparatus of the Syrian state consists mainly of his co-religionists; they occupy the majority of general positions, Alawites lead the intelligence agencies, and they oversee prisons for political detainees. This community forms the bedrock of the entire ruling apparatus of the country.

The mass killing of newly commissioned Alawite officers and their parents was a challenge that the president had to decisively address. We can only speculate about the initial retaliation plan devised by Syrian generals and their Russian counterparts, but it likely did not involve the extensive, multi-day bombardment of territories still under rebel control. Not because Assad and his Moscow allies suddenly developed compassion, but because excessive cruelty toward their fellow citizens could jeopardize the recently initiated normalization of Syrian authorities' relations with the rest of the world.

Excessive cruelty toward their fellow citizens could jeopardize the recently initiated normalization of Syrian authorities' relations with the rest of the world

Syria only returned to the Arab League this year after more than a decade-long hiatus, following Bashar al-Assad's disproportionately cruel response to peaceful protests in 2011-2012. Foreign diplomats began to return to Damascus, and investments from wealthy Gulf countries started pouring in. All of this could have been overshadowed had the world's major media outlets started reporting on Assad's army's bloody raids on rebel territories. However, they remained silent—after October 7, the world's attention was focused on Israel and the Gaza Strip, where a new war was beginning. The world was not watching Assad, and he took advantage of this.

Escalation of violence

According to the White Helmets organization, whose volunteers substitute for rescuers and paramedics in rebel-controlled territories, there were 194 attacks by the Syrian army and its Russian allies on facilities located in the Idlib province in just the first half of October. On October 24, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the head of the Independent International Commission on Investigation of Events in the Syrian Arab Republic, acknowledged that such an escalation of violence had not been observed in the country for the past four years—since 2019 when the main ISIS forces were defeated, and Syrian fronts more or less stabilized.

A few days later, the UN reported that the casualties from missile and bomb strikes among the civilian population had reached at least 70 people, with no fewer than 338 injured. Additionally, 120,000 people were forced to leave their homes to escape the bombings. Though calling those structures “homes” is a stretch.

Out of the 4.5 million residents of the Idlib province, approximately half of which remains under the control of the Syrian opposition, about a million live in refugee tent camps. These camps bore the brunt of Syrian and Russian airstrikes. It is in these camps, devoid of solid structures where people have no means to seek refuge in basements or at least behind the walls of houses, that the majority of those included in the civilian casualty statistics lost their lives.

Furthermore, Russians and Syrian government forces have systematically targeted hospitals, schools, and other essential civilian infrastructure. As reported by the aforementioned White Helmets, they employ incendiary munitions during air raids and missile strikes, a flagrant violation of international conventions that prohibit such use in residential areas. These attacks persist without relent.

Russians and Syrian government forces have systematically targeted hospitals, schools, and other essential civilian infrastructure

Dividing the Syrian pie: a history

Syria is no longer a unified state governed by a single authority. Approximately 60% of the country's territory is under the control of Assad and his allies—Russians, Iranians, Hezbollah militants from Lebanon, and other Shiite factions. In the northeast, political and military power lies in the hands of the Kurds. This same territory houses U.S. military bases established during Barack Obama's presidency to counter ISIS.

The ongoing activity of ISIS, which still maintains control over several rural areas and launches incursions into Kurdish territories, justifies the continuation of the U.S. military mission in Syria. Along the northern border, there are several pockets controlled by Turkish military forces. Only in a small area between the Turkish-occupied territory and the region controlled by Assad's forces does the government of the moderate rebels persist. These rebels received substantial support from the Western world and wealthy Arab countries in 2012 but fell short of winning in the seemingly endless Syrian war. Now, they only hold a portion of the Idlib province, likely with Turkish assistance.

Idlib, 2023
Idlib, 2023

In 2019-2020, the Syrian army, along with its Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese allies, attempted to reclaim Idlib. The government forces' advance was halted only after direct intervention by the Turkish army. Presumably, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, deciding to send troops to Idlib and conduct airstrikes on Syrian territory, aimed to maintain a buffer zone between the part of Syria under Ankara's control and the portion still loyal to Assad. To a large extent, he succeeded.

The government army ousted rebels from several areas but couldn't solidify its success. In the spring of 2020, the offensive stalled, and Erdogan negotiated a ceasefire with Putin. With Putin—because Erdogan has no official relations with Assad. Diplomatic ties between the countries were severed in 2012, after Ankara supported the rebels at the onset of the war.

Now, Assad's forces have an opportunity to reclaim Idlib, which could ultimately signify a victory in the war. By capturing Idlib, the Syrian army would gain the ability to advance into territories directly controlled by Turkey. Kurdish formations, which have resisted Turkish invasion for several years, might align with the Syrian army in this scenario.

Assad's forces have an opportunity to reclaim Idlib, which could ultimately signify a victory in the war

Erdogan deployed the army to neighboring Syria under the pretext of establishing a safe zone along the Turkish border. The purported goal was to protect Syrians fleeing the war and prevent the spread of hostilities into Turkish territory. However, even NATO allies doubted these statements, rightly suspecting that Erdogan, who unequivocally supported the rebels, intended to assist them in achieving victory in the war. Simultaneously, he aimed to eliminate groups striving to create an independent Kurdistan across predominantly Kurdish regions in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey.

The Turkish army, which entered Syria in 2016, is primarily engaged in a war against Kurdish factions. The success of this war varies—Turks and their Syrian proxies control some border territories, but significantly expanding the occupation zone has proven challenging.

Kurds stand alone

Kurds, supported and armed by the United States, played a pivotal role in defeating ISIS. Presently, they govern vast territories once ruled by the self-proclaimed caliphate, attempting to establish a unique administrative system based on local councils. They introduce mandatory quotas in these councils for women and representatives of national and religious minorities, often facing resistance from conservative representatives of Arab tribes who find themselves under Kurdish rule.

In the spring, Arabs attempted to proclaim a quasi-state in the Kurdish rear, particularly in the economically critical area near the city of Deir ez-Zor, where Syria's largest oil fields are located. This led to armed clashes between Arabs and Kurds, resulting in casualties on both sides and the arrest of popular Arab leaders behind the independence declaration.

Arabs increasingly express feelings of occupation within Kurdish autonomy, officially called the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. They even draw parallels between the new authorities and ISIS representatives, as both imposed their rules without considering the traditions and values of the local population. Interestingly, ISIS periodically attempts to seize parts of the autonomy, refusing to abandon its plans for a caliphate.

ISIS refuses to abandon its plans for a caliphate

However, the primary threat to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria still comes from the Turks, especially as they are currently conducting a retaliatory operation on Kurdish territories following the bombing in Ankara on October 1 by a Kurdish suicide terrorist. In this attack, only the perpetrator died, but two police officers sustained serious injuries. In response, Turkish authorities pledged to crush the infrastructure of groups they believed were involved in the attack.

In this standoff with the Turks, the Kurds will have to rely solely on themselves, as the Americans are not willing to risk souring relations with their Turkish NATO allies over Kurds who have already played their role in defeating ISIS. Additionally, relying on Assad's army is not an option. The real relationship between the Assad government and the Kurdish administration can be described as “wait-and-see neutrality”: the sides are not openly at war with each other, but there is no particular enthusiasm between them.

Over the years, the Syrian government has sent conflicting signals to the Kurds, at times promising to legislatively establish their autonomy in exchange for military assistance and at other times stating that it is not ready to make even minor concessions. However, in the Middle East, contradictions do not surprise anyone—unexpected alliances emerge, and the strongest bonds break without apparent reason. Everyone is trying to outplay each other.

Whose is Idlib?

So, the Assad regime is simultaneously inciting Arabs in the northeast to revolt against the Kurds through its intelligence network, dropping hints to the Kurds about its willingness to discuss broad autonomy, and openly negotiating in Moscow with the Turkish defense minister, who officially leads the military of the country hostile to Damascus. The main goal of all this activity is to regain control over as much territory in Syria as possible. It is not excluded that soon Assad will again consider the possibility of an alliance with the Kurds, whom he did not consider his citizens before the war, labeling them as illegal migrants from Iraq and Turkey.

However, this will only happen if Idlib falls. And that is by no means guaranteed. Yes, the Syrian army and Russian aviation are currently indiscriminately targeting civilian infrastructure, clearly intending to replicate their success in Aleppo, which was taken in 2016 after over four years of blockade and constant bombardment, resulting in the deaths of more than twenty thousand peaceful residents. But times have changed significantly since then.

The Russian military group in Syria, whose contribution to crushing the rebels in Aleppo (and destroying hospitals and schools) was enormous, has diminished significantly. Putin sent his soldiers and officers to die for the slagheaps near Ukrainian Avdiivka, which he preferred over the ruins of Syrian Idlib. The Wagner Group, whose fighters engaged in suicidal assaults on rebel strongholds and managed to establish themselves in the north of Aleppo, no longer exists.

Putin preferred the slagheaps near Ukrainian Avdiivka over the ruins of Syrian Idlib

After nearly twelve years of relentless warfare, the Syrian army finds itself in a state of profound weakness, struggling to recover from losses that grow increasingly challenging to replenish. The military equipment of the regime's army is worn out, and the absence of viable replacements is glaring—Russia, engaged in the conflict with Ukraine, is hemorrhaging tanks and armored vehicles at a rate surpassing its production capacity. The frontlines bear witness to a proliferation of antiquated, rusted remnants, underscoring Moscow's limited capacity to assist Assad. Meanwhile, Hezbollah in Lebanon directs its efforts towards fortifying the border with Israel, displaying a reluctance to extend its footprint in Syria. Furthermore, as the United States intensifies its military presence in the region, Iran is unlikely to substantially reinforce its Syrian contingent, prioritizing its own security over commitments in Syria.

This doesn't mean that Assad's plans to retake Idlib are predestined to fail. After all, if the outcome of battles could be foreseen in advance, wars would never start. However, there is a very high probability that the last stronghold of the Syrian opposition will endure. It will endure at the cost of new civilian casualties, the destruction of villages and urban neighborhoods, and possibly the loss of some territories. None of the parties in this endless war has the ability to quickly and decisively end it. But no one intends to surrender.

Assad does have more flexibility now, with the world paying closer attention to the Gaza Strip than to Idlib. Moreover, the Syrian dictator can always argue that he is not doing anything on his territory that Israel has not done on Palestinian land. However, these newfound liberties are constrained by years of exhaustive combat and reliance on old, long-worn weapons.

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