Every year since the revolution began has been the most painful and difficult year for the Syrian people.
2014 was no exception.
The first Friday protest and major rebel offensive of the year was aimed squarely at the so-called Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL, or pejoratively, Daesh). Daesh spent the better part of 2013 opportunistically taking over rebel towns and eliminating Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders and brigades until it was the single most powerful actor from Deir Ezzor governate in the east to Aleppo governate in the west. Each act of aggression was framed by ISIS as a local dispute or misunderstanding gone awry to camouflage its true, malicious intent. As Daesh gained strength at the FSA’s expense throughout 2013, it grew confident enough to begin beheading commanders of Islamists brigades. Eight months of steadily more heinous acts by Daesh in 2013 produced an equal but opposite reaction from rebel and civilian freedom fighters at the start of 2014 in a ferocious and chaotic series of protests and rebel offensives against Daesh all over northern Syria. In retaliation, ISIS nearly assassinated Raed Fares, the genius behind Kafranbel’s viciously witty banners.
This close quarters combat against ISIS was more intense than anything the rebels experienced fighting the regime and they suffered staggering losses. The One-ness Brigade (Liwa’ al-Tawhid) lost 500 men in two months of fighting Daesh compared to 1,500 lost in two years fighting the regime. One official from the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant (Harakat Ahrar al-Sham Al Islami, or popularly, Ahrar al-Sham) noted: “prior to [rebel-IS fighting in] January, IS had conducted eight car bombings in nine months against the regime. Since [then], they have carried out 60 such bombings against rebels and against the people.”
The rebels fired the opening shots of the war on ISIS that would grow to entangle Syrian Kurdish forces, regional powers, and eventually the U.S. government, transforming what was a two-sided one-front revolutionary war between the rebels and the regime into a three-sided two-front revolutionary war between the rebels, the regime, and ISIS. This development, in turn, set in motion a series of events that resulted in U.S. airstrikes not only against Daesh but against Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and made a four-sided, three-front war for the rebels all but inevitable.
The results of this revolution within the revolution against ISIS were as follows:
- Daesh was forced out of Aleppo city and Idlib governate while the rebels were expelled from al-Raqqa governate and much of Aleppo governate by Daesh.
- ISIS remained in pockets of Qalamoun and collaborated with rebel forces without incident until the end of the year.
- ISIS briefly fought FSA brigades in its capital al-Raqqa city before expelling them.
- Daesh expelled Jabhat al-Nusra and most rebels from Deir Ezzor governate. The remaining rebels split into two camps: the White Shroud stayed behind to wage guerrilla warfare against ISIS and the FSA remnants fought under ISIS control.
Although Daesh’s territorial reach was reduced by the rebel onslaught, its power grew due to its newly unilateral hegemony over a territorially contiguous area stretching from Anbar province in Iraq to the outskirts of Aleppo’s suburbs. Daesh’s then seized massive amounts of American heavy weaponry from Iraq’s military and declared itself a Caliphate in the summer. With American howitzers in its arsenal, ISIS seized the regime’s remaining bases in al-Raqqa governate — Division 17, Brigade 93, and al-Taqba airbase. Installations largely ignored by the rebels due to their military weakness and organizational shortcomings fell after Daesh’s short, vigorous, and bloody assaults. Unlike the rebels, Daesh are singularly united, well-organized, and well-led.
First Cracks in the Regime Camp
This brief interruption of the unspoken détente between the revolution’s two arch enemies — the regime and Daesh — during the summer came as a rude awakening for the rump regime’s popular base. Loyalists who rallied to Bashar al-Assad’s defense in the name of fighting extremism suddenly discovered that extremism had become militarily insurmountable thanks to Assad’s misleadership. This realization ledt o contradictions between Assad’s sect, the Alawites, and ‘their’ regime for the first time in the revolution.
During the summer, regime supporters organized a sit-in in Damascus’ main square to pressure the regime to negotiate with rebels for their captured family members. In the fall, they organized strikes and protests against fuel price hikes wrought on by the regime’s slow but irreversible economic disintegration. After more than 160 captured regime soldiers from al-Taqba airbase were marched into the middle of the desert in their underwear and savagely executed by ISIS, pro-regime activists launched a social media campaign called ‘Where Are They?’ since the regime inexplicably hailed its troops for “successfully reassembling after evacuating the airport.” Five of these activists were arrested. Regime supporters raged against the re-appointment of Fahd Jassem al-Freij as defense minister after Assad’s sham ‘re-election’ and circulated memes on social media denouncing the “minister of death.”
Pro-regime Alawite demonstrators in Homs city hijacked the slogans of the 2011 protesters to demand the resignation of the governor after two carbombs killed a slew of schoolchildren. Eager to avoid a repeat of Daraa 2011, Assad avoided using lethal force against the demonstrators and sacked local security officials instead. He also reportedly sacked generals to punish them for losses to rebels in Quneitra governate, allegedly leading to friction within the ruling families when his cousin, Hafez Makhlouf, objected. Whatever the truth of these rumors, Makhlouf was fired from his position as a top security official and fled to Belarus — but not before removing Bashar’s picture from his WhatsApp profile.
Despite these first cracks in the post-revolution regime, the war on ISIS cost the (northern) rebels militarily far more than it cost the regime. The regime took full advantage of this, halting and reversing the northern rebels’ spring and summer gains in Hama governate, ending a rebel effort to liberate Aleppo prison, and nearly encircling rebel-held Aleppo to impose a starvation siege.
Disunity Persists, But Not Without a Fight
As the revolution’s fourth anniversary approaches, disunity continues to prevail at all levels of the opposition — from the grassroots and armed brigades to the exiles and their so-called interim government as well as within and between these components.
The 50,000-strong Islamic Front alliance’s initial reaction to the rebel war on ISIS was divided. The front’s One-ness Brigade threw itself into battle against Daesh in January while fellow front member Ahrar al-Sham held back and sought mediation instead despite the fact that it was the torture and beheading of one of their commanders by Daesh that triggered the war on ISIS in the first place. Not until August did the front’s Army of Islam (Jaysh al-Islam) led by Zahran Alloush declare war on Daesh and purge them from the suburbs of Damascus.
If the Islamic Front’s response in the war on ISIS was somewhat disjointed and temporally uneven, the response of the 60,000-strong FSA was even less coherent, varying by brigade, battalion, and locality. The Revolutionaries of Raqqa Brigade (Liwa’ Thuwar Raqqa) — at that time an affiliate of Jabhat al-Nusra — declared war on ISIS in Daesh’s capital, al-Raqqa city. For this, they were expelled physically from the city by ISIS and politically from Jabhat al-Nusra for declaring an unsanctioned war in the group’s name and fled to the Kurdish area of northern Syria where they found refuge with the Kurdish People’s Protection Forces (YPG). Former construction worker Jamal Marouf spearheaded the formation of an anti-ISIS FSA coalition called the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF) that drove ISIS out of Idlib governate and later picked up southern affiliates in Daraa and Quneitra governates. In Aleppo, the force fighting and expelling Daesh (aside from elements of the Islamic Front) was a freshly formed FSA alliance called Army of Holy Warriors (Jaysh al-Mujahideen). In Qalamoun, there was no rebel war on ISIS until December when Daesh demanded that its erstwhile allies — the FSA, Islamic Front, and Jabhat al-Nusra — pledge allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a bid to expand his territory into eastern Syria on the Lebanese border. In Deir Ezzor governate, rebel forces fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra were physically sandwiched between ISIS to their east and the regime to their west, cut off from their Turkish supply lines and deep inside Daesh’s territory. After very bloody fighting, Daesh crushed and expelled them both and suppressed a subsequent tribal uprising during the summer by executing up to 700 men, women, and children.
The rebel war on ISIS prompted the Islamist rebels to clarify their own political aims and aspirations in opposition to the aims and aspirations of Daesh since both claimed to be fight for the same goal: the creation of a state governed by Islamic law. Hassan Abboud, the founder of Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic Front’s top political officer, took up this task and issued a document known as the Revolutionary Covenant that affirmed human rights and the rule of law, explicitly rejected “radicalism” and “fundamentalism” in matters of religion, clarified that the struggle in Syria was not an unending transnational jihad, and never mentioned Islamic law. The last of these was a huge political concession for a hardline salafist like the late Abboud but the document was meant to reflect the consensus among revolutionary forces about their common aims rather than the author’s standpoint. The covenant was signed by the Islamic Front alliance, the Army of Holy Warriors, independent Islamist rebel groups, and was endorsed by the weekly Friday protests on May 23, 2014.
Hassan Abboud reading the Revolutionary Covenant
Like almost every rebel unity effort to date, the covenant spurred new divisions. Zahran Alloush objected so strenuously to the covenant that he temporarily suspended his Army of Islam’s participation in the Islamic Front. Unsurprisingly, Jabhat al-Nusra forcefully rejected the covenant on the grounds that it was ‘secular‘ and insisted that, “in Islam, apostates deserve only the sword.”
This midyear dispute marked the beginning of growing frictions between Jabhat al-Nusra and rebel factions (both secular and Islamist) that intensified with ebbs and flows throughout the year.
In mid July, Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani released an audio message announcing their plan to establish an Islamic emirate. Within a week, moderate rebel factions SRF, the Steadfastness Movement (Harakat Hazm), 13th Division, 101st Division, the Chargers Brigade (now renamed the 1st Coastal Division), and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement (Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki) suspended military cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra after it withdrew forces defending Aleppo to fight the FSA for territory in Idlib. Cooperation resumed among these factions in the ensuing weeks, but it was followed by more serious fighting in the fall and winter when Jabhat al-Nusra went to war with SRF and the Steadfastness Movement in Idlib and Aleppo governates. In August, Jabhat al-Nusra withdrew from the Islamic court of Aleppo run by multiple Islamist factions and set up its own Islamic court. Shortly thereafter, Jabhat al-Nusra’s court sentenced a man to be punished by public lashing for allegedly “cursing religion” and subsequently set up courts of their own all over Idlib to hand down Islamic punishments known as hudud in an effort to compete with ISIS on ISIS’s terms.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s increasingly schizophrenic, Jekyll-and-Hyde behavior was stimulated by two trends in this year of Syria’s revolutionary war, both of which squeezed the Al-Qaeda affiliate but from opposite directions: the outbreak of war on ISIS and escalating U.S. intervention. Jabhat al-Nusra lost millions of dollars in monthly income for its operations once ISIS expelled them from the oil-rich governate of Deir Ezzor in June. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s subsequent declaration of a Caliphate further hobbled the group as Daesh attracted the lion’s share of funds, recruits, and credibility from the transnational jihadist movement. To replace lost income, regain credibility in the movement, and re-establish a safe haven for themselves, Jabhat al-Nusra decided to build its emirate in liberated Idlib, the governate where the regime has been all but eliminated and in which ISIS has no presence. But free Idlib already had a dominant faction — SRF, led by Jamal Marouf. Fortunately for Jabhat al-Nusra, Marouf was never popular to begin with and earned his reputation as a corrupt, brutal, and self-interested opportunist who spent more time collecting weapons and money from abroad and pilfering and extorting from Idlib residents than fighting the regime. Much of SRF north never evolved beyond apolitical warlordism, losing whatever popular support they gained by fighting ISIS and becoming easy targets for Jabhat al-Nusra.
Just as the U.S. coupled its airstrikes on ISIS with attacks on Jabhat al-Nusra, Jabhat al-Nusra’s attack on the despised Marouf-led SRF was coupled with carbombs and assassinations targeting the leaders of the Steadfastness Movement, the strongest U.S.-backed FSA group and one that has never been accused by anyone of corruption or dishonorable behavior. Overtly attacking the worst U.S.-backed rebel group in the name of ‘fighting corruption’ while surreptitiously attacking the best U.S.-backed rebel group pre-empted the emergence of any rebel alliance in defense of either target.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s drive to destroy first the SRF, then Steadfastness Movement, and eventually every Western-backed FSA group one at a time region by region faces two obstacles: increasing U.S. support for said groups and rebel solidarity across the secular-Islamist divide. The newly formed Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) may end up serving as that bridge, functioning as a defensive secular-Islamist rebel alliance against Jabhat al-Nusra much as the Islamic Front functioned as a defensive Islamist rebel alliance against ISIS although neither was designed primarily with that aim in mind.
RCC is an ambitious bottom-up, grassroots attempt to unite the rebels militarily, politically, and legally by building up a united, non-factional rebel army to back a united, non-factional court system to slowly replace the faction-dominated (and politicized) ad hoc legal system that now exists in liberated areas. RCC’s goal of developing a single, uniform legal framework for liberated areas based on a compromise between Islamic religious law (sharia) and the Unified Arab Code would codify in jurisprudence the political spectrum of revolutionary and opposition groups (who range in outlook from secular liberalism to salafist conservativism). The unified institutions tasked with administering this new legal order are to be built partially out of the existing factions, with each participating faction contributing hundreds of fighters and funds to the united force, and an effort aimed at recruiting unaffiliated/independent Syrians.
By relying on participating factions instead of the patronage of foreign states, the RCC hopes to avoid the rivalries and competing agendas of Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia that helped cripple the main political opposition umbrella groups, the defunct Syrian National Council and its successor, the Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (Etilaf) whose interim government-in-exile acts as the conduit for millions of dollars in Western aid to reach local governance councils and institutions.
At least 70 rebel factions took part in the months-long process of negotiations to create the RCC. Jabhat al-Nusra was invited but declined to participate since it would be boxed in by rebel consensus on issues such as safeguarding minority sects and the prohibition of one faction creating, running, and unilaterally controlling its own court system. The southern SRF did not sign onto the RCC initiative and the Southern Front FSA coalition’s mutual defense pact barred their participation, guaranteeing that the body resulting from the RCC conference would be disproportionately made up of northern rebels. After the conference, the Steadfastness Movement withdrew from the RCC on the grounds that its leadership was dominated by Islamists even though Islamist rebels outnumber non-Islamist rebels in the north; furthermore, withdrawing from the body only made the problem of Islamist preponderance worse.
Despite these shortcomings, the fact remains that the RCC is the broadest, most representative, most inclusive rebel body to date. If the RCC succeeds in gradually building up non/multi-factional judicial and military institutions, these will inevitably clash with Jabhat al-Nusra’s proto-emirate.
And events are already moving in that direction with or without the RCC.
Fighting between Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham recently erupted in Idlib after the latter defended people protesting against Jabhat al-Nusra. Tensions continue to escalate between the two over the issue of hudud punishments applied by Jabhat al-Nusra’s courts and in its statement opposing Jabhat al-Nusra’s emirate plan, the Islamic Front’s argued that “carrying out the hudud could not be achieved by a single group.” If (or when) a four-sided, three-front war by the rebels against the regime, ISIS, and Jabhat al-Nusra breaks out, it will likely start in Idlib.
Another serious manifestation of rebel disunity was the response to the regime’s use of starvation as a weapon to induce neighborhoods to surrender once large-scale chemical warfare became politically impossible after the gassacre in Ghouta in fall of 2013. As starvation stared them and their children in the face, pro-revolution communities often became bitterly divided between those who refused to give in and those broken by desperation. Some areas like Ghouta resisted while others cracked and agreed to the regime’s humiliating conditions, gaining little other than an end to fighting and enough food to narrowly avoid dying immediately. Each starvation-induced truce freed up regime forces to concentrate on crushing more stubborn areas. What was ‘good’ for one community came at another’s expense and the law of the jungle of every neighborhood for itself prevailed over revolutionary solidarity.
These medieval divide-and-conquer tactics subdued many areas around the regime’s Damascus nerve center (although polls show unwavering opposition to Assad among residents) and paved the way for a major symbolic victory for the regime in Homs city. After holding out in two neighborhoods for more than two years under heavy bombardment with little more than weeds and courage to sustain themselves, civilians fled the imposition of starvation in January during Geneva 2. Once they were gone, 2,000 rebels agreed to evacuate in May in exchange for safe passage out of the city and a prisoner swap. They escaped from what was ultimately a hopeless battle and lived to fight another day in al-Rastan north of the city even as the siege of al-Waer in Homs continued.
On the political side, Etilaf won a few diplomatic victories despite its debilitating internal divides:
- At Geneva 2, Etilaf presented a united and credible front against a hysterical and unserious regime delegation.
- Secured the delivery of heavy anti-tank weapons known as TOWs to rebels on the ground in exchange for attending Geneva 2.
- The U.N. Security Council voted to deliver aid to Syrian civilians via rebel-held border crossings after intense lobbying by Etilaf. This broke the regime’s monopoly over international aid procurement and delivery. Over 100,000 Syrians inside the country now receive food and humanitarian supplies on a regular basis through these crossings.
Unfortunately, these successes were the exception. As a rule, Etilaf remained polarized, factional, and dysfunctional. The RCC is as much an effort to make up for Etilaf’s shortcomings as it is an attempt to unite the badly divided rebels.
Escalating U.S. Intervention and Its Contradictions
The last and perhaps most important trend in the war this year was ever-greater U.S. intervention. Beginning in January at Geneva 2 where the U.S. succeeded in pushing the opposition into talks with the regime, U.S. intervention deepened throughout the year and reached a crescendo with airstrikes on ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Ahrar al-Sham. The most significant aspect of this intervention was the covert program to fund moderate rebel groups vetted by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and arm them with American-made TOWs from Saudi Arabia’s stockpile.
Only after the regime delegation failed to even consider a post-Assad transition did the U.S. Congress authorize and finance the provisioning of TOWs and other heavy weapons to the FSA in a secret vote. Two Military Operations Centers (MOCs) were established to oversee the process, one in Jordan to supply the southern rebels and one in Turkey to supply the northern rebels. Under the program, rebel commanders request munitions for specific operations and receive no more than one dozen TOWs at a time. Conditions for receiving these heavy weapons include returning every spent casing and filming every missile firing. These onerous measures minimize the risk of these weapons being sold to or captured by unapproved groups such as Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Islamic Front. (It was the front’s seizure of a warehouse filled American munitions late in 2013 that led the U.S. to abandon arming rebel factions indirectly through the FSA’s Supreme Military Council in favor of working directly with vetted brigades.)
At first, only a handful of factions received TOWs as a test of the program’s feasibility but that number grew to some three dozen as vetted moderate rebel factions passed the test with flying colors. The overall number of TOWs shipped steadily grew from month to month and by year’s end, moderate rebels scored 335 hits, had 32 misses, and lost custody of their TOWs to extremists in only two known cases.
The TOWs program was an unqualified success both from the standpoint of the U.S. and the FSA. Rebel gains against the regime in Quneitra, Daraa, and Idlib governates throughout the year would not have occurred without these heavy weapons.
While vetted moderate rebel factions enjoyed growing military support from the U.S. and its allies, unapproved groups like the Islamic Front were deprived of heavy anti-tank weapons. Washington and Riyadh successfully corralled the member states of the ‘Friends of Syria‘ alliance to stop backing rival rebel groups as proxies because this created chaos as rebels spent years switching their allegiances and even their ideologies as they continually chased foreign support from one source to another. Instead, the Friends of Syria alliance — operating together through the two MOCs — undertook a unified, centralized, coherent, and orderly effort to arm and support a few select groups. As part of this effort, Kuwait amended lax laws that allowed private funds to be collected and directed independently of the government to rebel groups and terrorist organizations like Jabhat al-Nusra. The Islamic Front was the main loser of these moves to rein in independent rebel fund-raising (although Qatar continues to fund and arm the front) and the alliance lost ground around Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs while the One-ness Brigade split in two. By the end of the year, the beleaguered Islamic Front in Aleppo created a joint command called the Levant Front (al-Jabha al-Shamiya) with the Fastaqim Kama Umirta Gathering, the Asala wa-Tanmiya Front, and two participants in the TOWs program, Army of Holy Warriors and Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement in a last ditch effort to prevent the regime from completing its encirclement of the city.
Escalating U.S. support for some rebels and not others is not without negative consequences for the revolution, however. For starters, the exemption of the Assad regime from the U.S. air campaign’s target list led to the ubiquitous but false perception among supporters of the revolution that the U.S. and Assad are allies and coordinating with one another militarily. This popular myth makes it nearly indefensible to be part of or support a U.S.-backed rebel group. Then there were the airstrikes on homes of civilians and the infrastructure they depend on like the electric grid, oil refineries, granaries, and even USAID-funded projects. Lastly, by attacking Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham in northern Syria, the U.S. sparked a conflict that U.S.-backed factions like SRF and Steadfastness Movement were ill-prepared to fight much less win.
These actions demonstrate that the U.S. is pursuing its interests in Syria and not the interests of the revolution. The U.S. priority is to destroy ISIS not depose Assad while the FSA’s priority is to depose Assad not destroy Daesh since he is butchering far more Syrians (although the overall civilian death rate has declined with the onset of the U.S. air campaign).
This contradiction between sharply conflicting priorities within partially aligned interests finds expression in the fact that U.S. aid to the rebels is constantly increasing and at the same time is never enough. The U.S. provides “just enough [weapons] to keep the fighting going, but not enough to win” observed FSA General Secretary Ammar al-Wawi before he was killed by Daesh. The Obama administration’s 2011-2013 policy of depriving the FSA of heavy arms to facilitate a military stalemate and a negotiated settlement had the entirely predictable and perverse effect of strengthening the influence of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS over the rebels due to their military ferocity and organizational prowess. For example, the fall of Taftanaz airbase in 2012, Menagh airbase in 2013, and Hamidiyah and Wadi al-Dayf bases in 2014 would not have been possible without the participation of either group. Al-Qaeda shrewdly exploited the rebels’ Western-engineered military weakness by designing Jabhat al-Nusra as a force-multiplier whose unmatched capabilities make its participation in any serious operation against the vastly better-armed Assad regime a matter of military necessity.
Effectively combating both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra now requires that the U.S. and its regional allies do just the opposite of what they did in 2011-2013: build up, arm, assist, and support the FSA as not only a military but also a political counterweight to them that, in turn, will require protection from Assad’s air and artillery attacks in the coming 2-3 years if the FSA is to act as Washington’s boots on the ground and end ISIS’s occupation of northern and eastern Syria. The strategic logic of the war on ISIS that led to a U.S. policy reversal on building up the FSA’s capabilities in 2014 and will lead to a tougher anti-Assad policy in the future is the same logic that led the U.S. to abandon its hostile attitude toward the socialist-led YPG in favor of arming YPG and even launching airstrikes on ISIS targets chosen by YPG.
The more deeply the U.S. becomes involved in the war, the more contradictions in U.S. policy and interests will have to be resolved one way or another to avoid mission failure in the war on ISIS. The strategic cacaphony of simultaneously pursuing a grand bargain with Iran and a negotiated settlement that forces Iran’s client Assad to step down in Syria while building up the FSA to smash and displace Daesh but not touch Assad is increasingly untenable. Eventually the FSA will be in the same position as the Kobane YPG is today, calling in tactical airstrikes against ISIS targets once the rebuilt FSA is ready to launch clear, hold, and build campaigns to oust Daesh from northern and eastern Syria. Until that day comes, the FSA will continue to provide intelligence for U.S. strategic rather than tactical bombing of ISIS targets.
Principal Trends of 2014
- Dynamic stalemate as fronts and sides multiply.
- Disunity in the regime camp driven by losses to ISIS despite battlefield gains against the rebels.
- Crippling disunity persists among rebel/opposition forces.
- Escalating U.S. intervention.
Of the year’s main trends, ever-greater U.S. involvement in the war will prove to be the game-changer in the long run, the trend that drives the development of all the other trends in the coming years.
One of the few advantages the rebels enjoy over the regime is that Iran and Russia together cannot out-spend and out-arm Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, and the U.S. combined in Syria unless the latter allow it. This is especially true when oil prices hover around $65 a barrel which neither Iran nor Russia can afford. Russia recently rebuffed the regime’s request for $3 billion in credit and Iranian intervention can no longer significantly increase for economic reasons.
By contrast, the U.S. is only beginning to put its unmatched national power onto the scales of the Syrian stalemate. Regime losses during 2014 in Quneitra, Idlib, and Daraa are only a taste of the losses to come the longer Assad clings to power. Even if the regime accomplishes its core strategic objectives by re-taking Aleppo and securing the Damascus suburbs in 2015, like its previous victories in Qusayr, Yabroud, and Homs city, the rebels will be displaced rather than destroyed and the end result will be the same — the war will grind on and the regime will be ground down. 2015 will see increased funding for the TOWs program and the separate U.S.-led program to train and equip a 5,000-man moderate rebel force created from scratch has been extended until the end of 2016. The latter is the first installment in a plan that will eventually create a force whose end strength will be 12,000-15,000. So while the manpower and resources available to the rebels will slowly grow over the next few years, the manpower and resources available to the regime will not grow commensurately (in all likelihood both will either stagnate or decline). Since neither side is self-financing or self-sustaining, shifts in the level of support provided by each side’s foreign backers are critical to the war’s ultimate outcome which will be a stalemate of undetermined form.
Conclusion: Contours of the Endgame Have Yet to Emerge
Victory in the war on ISIS requires sustainable political settlements in both Iraq and Syria. Just as ousting sectarian autocrat-in-the-making Nouri al-Maliki was the catalyst for such a settlement to start gaining traction in Iraq, so too will ousting the murderous Bashar al-Assad be a necessary step to end a revolutionary war that has killed over 200,000 Syrians and displaced one-half of the population.
And that is where the similarity ends.
The Iraqi state is a pseudo-democracy characterized by sectarian death squads and ethnic militias ruling semi-autonomous enclaves that are united by a parliament where these groups struggle against and compromise with one another. The Syrian state is a fascist killing machine characterized by its inability to tolerate dissent even among the three ruling families as demonstrated by the fates of Rifaat al-Assad, Assef Shawkat, and Hafez Makhlouf. In short, the Syrian regime has no mechanism for politics, no space for the kind of politicking that will probably allow Baghdad to muddle through the ISIS crisis.
Ending the armed struggle in Syria without the complete destruction of the regime’s repressive apparatus will mean for the revolution a return to the unarmed struggle in extremely unfavorable conditions and with an opposition/rebel movement that has yet to reach political maturity. And yet the military victory of one side over the other is impossible — no side in the war has the manpower (nor the popular support that ultimately underpins manpower) to secure control of the whole country. While the pre-2011 political order will never return, what will ultimately replace the old, partially-but-mostly overthrown arrangements, what mostly-new political superstructures and class relations will prevail instead is now being decided by the force of arms.
The regime and the revolution will both survive the war, but at the cost of their internal transformations. The longer Assad stays in power, the smaller and less economically viable his remaining territory will be and the weaker his authority there, as the fascist state his father built degenerates further and further into an endless array of local and regional militias. Rebel and opposition forces are more united than ever before but this simply means they have outgrown their localism for regionalism. This is a step forward. However, outgrowing the opposition’s ingrained parochial political culture to create a single national operations room to coordinate all military operations and campaigns across the country and forge the unified political leadership necessary to reach a sustainable negotiated settlement with the regime (what is left of it) to end the war is unfortunately still many years away at best.
Of all the 2011 uprisings, the Syrian revolution has the tragic distinction of delivering the least thoroughgoing social and political change compared to the number of lives lost, the scale of wanton destruction, and the traumatization of an entire generation of people. Responsibility for this state of affairs lies not with the unavoidably naïve and politically inexperienced demonstrators who took to the streets in early 2011 demanding freedom and dignity but with the regime and its supporters whose slogan from the first day of protest was: “Assad or we burn the country.” The consequences of burning the country to save one man’s freakishly long neck is finally catching up with Assad and his supporters who are increasingly trapped in interminable dilemmas of their own making.