How Bashar al-Assad’s Regime Came Back in the Syrian Civil War in 2014

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This post originally ran on Juan Cole’s Web page.

In the course of 2014, two major trends, long since visible in the Syrian civil war, were strengthened.

First, the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad continued to assert control over most urban areas along the trunk roads of the west of the country.  Damascus, Homs, Hama, Latakia and part of Aleppo were all in government hands.  The regime was able to fight off all attempts of the forces in the countryside to take these urban areas, expelling the rebels from Homs and fighting off an attack on Latakia.  It had help in these campaigns from Lebanon’s Hizballah and help with strategy from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.  Some of these urban areas have swollen with refugee populations from the countryside, so that Hama, for instance, has doubled to about 2 million.  It is about the size of Damascus.  Homs is probably at least a million.  If the regime also has a million people in Aleppo and 2.2 million Alawites in and around Latakia, I figure it has at least 10 million or so out of Syria’s in-country population of 20 million (there are 3 million expatriates).  It has the urban half of the country.

Second, secular and ‘moderate’ fundamentalist forces decisively lost out in the countryside to extremists, whether al-Qaeda (the Support Front or Jabhat al-Nusra) or Daesh (the Arabic acronym for what we call ISIS or ISIL).  Al-Qaeda took territory to the west of Aleppo away from Free Syrian Army units.  Daesh consolidated its hold on Raqqah Province and extended its sway into Iraq last June.  The Saudi-backed Islamic Front, which hived off from the Free Syrian Army, became more Salafi and anti-democratic over time.  There are no substantial credible secular or moderate military forces on the rebel side any more.

This latter truth is a problem for the USA, which maintains a fiction that its 2014 bombing raids against Daesh and al-Qaeda do not help the regime but rather the moderate rebels.

They help the regime.

For more detail, follow the blog Syria Comment of Joshua Landis and his associates.

Let me embed here a map from Thomas van Linge, which shows the state of play at the end of 2014.  The red is the regime, the yellow the Kurds, the dark gray is the al-Qaeda ofshoots– Daesh (ISIL or ISIS), and al-Qaeda (the Support Front or Jabhat al-Nusra).  The dark green is what’s left of the Syrian Revolutionary Front, which itself became more fundamentalist before collapsing this fall in the face of an al-Qaeda onslaught.

Note that although the red looks like a fraction of the country, it encompasses the major, concentrated urban areas and so probably contains at least half the country’s population.

And here is a timeline (h/t to the BBC and other hyperlinked sources).

2014 January-February

When the Bashar al-Assad government refuses to discuss the idea of a transitional government, the Geneva peace talks collapse.

Syrian authorities in Hama relax their curfew and allow people to come out and shop and socialize at night.  Hama, which lies just north of Homs, has been in regime hands since fall 2011.  It has swollen to some 2 million inhabitants, as refugees have flooded in from the countryside (where rebel forces continue to operate).

March

Yabroud, a rebel stronghold next to the border with Lebanon, falls to a joint operation of the Syrian Army and Lebanon’s Hizbullah Shiite militia.

The regime takes a key outpost above the northwestern port of Latakia and repulses an attack on this largely Alawite regime stronghold by al-Qaeda and Daesh.

The Syria Brigades (Failaq Suriya) is formed by 19 ‘moderate’ Muslim fundamentalist rebel groups in contrast to the ‘Islamic Front’ which is backed by Saudi Arabia.

April

The Saudi-backed ‘Islamic Front’ announces that it no longer believes in democracy or holding elections, raising the question of why the West should care whether it wins or loses.  It is entrenched in western Aleppo.

May

In an Iran-brokered deal, hundreds of rebels leave the city of Homs, ending 3 years of defiance of the Baath government in the city.

June

Daesh coordinates with Mosul and other Iraqi cities in the Sunni north and west to throw off the largely Shiite army and Baghdad government.  Daesh declares a ‘Caliphate’ from Mosul to Aleppo, recalling the statelet of the medieval ruler Imad al-Din Zangi.

August   –

Daesh fighters take Tabqa airbase away from the regime, killing and humiliating Syrian Army troops and consolidating their hold on Raqqa Province.  Only the far northern Kurdish enclave of Kobane holds out against them for the rest of the year.

September

President Barack Obama, alarmed at the potential collapse of Iraqi Kurdistan at Daesh hands, intervenes in Iraq and Syria from the air.  The BBC says, “Forces from the United States and five Arab countries launch combined air strikes against militants in and around Aleppo and Raqqa.”

Obama gets Congressional backing for these air strikes.

He also announces a plan to train a new rebel force in Syria that would fight both the al-Assad regime and Daesh.  Critics note that this step would take many years and was not entirely plausible as a strategy.

But Obama allegedly avoids bombing regime targets in Damascus for fear of angering Iran at a time when he is trying to do a nuclear deal with Tehran, and at a time where he needs Iranian backing for Baghdad.

October

Jabhat al-Nusra (the Support Front), an al-Qaeda affiliate, takes much of Idlib province in the north from the ‘moderate’ fundamentalist Syrian Revolutionary Front, as the region’s population decides that al-Qaeda has more chance against the regime than the Free Syrian Army.  The FSA has more or less collapsed, with Support Front/ al-Qaeda, Daesh and the Saudi-backed Islamic Front holding most of rebel-held territory.

December

Al-Qaeda and its allies take two government military bases in south Idlib province, consolidating their control over that province.

The 500-strong Assoud al-Islam based north of Homs collapses, with 400 fighters defecting after the leadership declared allegiance to Daesh.  This development suggests that Daesh is not as popular in the west as it is in the east, and in the former an affiliation with it is a liability.

The US Congress in its omnibus spending bill removes the $300 million for training the secular or ‘moderate’ Free Syria Army, leaving US strategy in tatters.

At the end of the year, Daesh seems contained, and it lost the Yezidi Kurdish area of Mt. Shinjar, with the Peshmerga fighters from Iraqi Kurdistan cutting off the supply line between al-Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.  Al-Qaeda or the Support Front took new territory not from the regime for the most part but from the Free Syrian Army.

The regime is allegedly readying an Aleppo campaign.  If it succeeded, it is hard to see how the rebels could ever hope to use their weak, poor base in the country side to conquer Syria’s major cities, most of which are now under regime control.

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