After Daraa, will Assad reconquer all of Syria?

After Daraa, will Assad reconquer all of Syria?
7 min read
10 July, 2018
Analysis: Tens of thousands of rebels remain in Idlib, Kurds hold several territories and US troops are also active in the north, notes Paul Iddon.
Daraa has been dubbed the cradle of the revolution (Getty)
In February 2016, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vowed to reconquer "every inch" of Syria from the various opponents of his rule.

He was promptly rebuked by Vitaly Churkin, then-Russian ambassador to the United Nations, who said he should not forget that Russian military and diplomatic assistance to his regime was decisive in turning the tide of the war in his favour - and he should therefore "take account of that" by respecting diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the war.

Nevertheless, Assad repeated the same pledge in June 2016. Now, just over two years later, Churkin is deceased and the Russian military is helping Assad's forces reconquer southern Syria's Daraa region - the so-called cradle of the Syrian uprising in 2011.

An estimated 320,000 Syrians have been displaced in the past two weeks and were denied refuge in Jordan, which is already hosting more than a million Syrian refugees. A Russian-brokered ceasefire has largely brought an end to the all-out fighting, in which the hopelessly outgunned rebels have essentially surrendered their weapons and territory.

Russian support previously proved crucial in enabling Assad to reconquer the city of Aleppo in late 2016 and the East Ghouta district earlier this year. Both those battles killed thousands, displaced hundreds of thousands more, and destroyed large urban areas. To Assad this was a worthy sacrifice to achieve his goal.

Following Daraa, reconquering "every inch of Syria" will largely consist of taking the northwest province of Idlib, which is largely controlled by the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, and the country's eastern provinces, which are primarily controlled by the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who, with US backing, captured them from the Islamic State group in various offensives since late 2014.

"Once the Daraa operation begins to wind down, Assad will move his elite troops up toward Idlib," Professor Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told The New Arab. "But the north will be a very different battle."

To bring the whole of the country under his heel, Assad "will want to push the tens of thousands of rebel soldiers who have collected in Idlib province into Turkey, along with their families".

"Turkey will not accept this," added Landis. "Already Turkey has set up over 10 'observation' posts in Idlib that are manned with Turkish soldiers and heavy equipment."
Turkey was given a free hand in Afrin [a northwestern Kurdish-held enclave] in return for promising to make sure that regime forces were not attacked from Idlib

Ultimately, Landis anticipates Russia playing "a crucial role" when it comes to "negotiating an agreement" between the Syrian and Turkish militaries in Idlib, while "Assad will probe and push to see how much land in Idlib province he can retake".

Timur Akhmetov, a Middle East researcher for the Russian International Affairs Council, pointed out that both Ankara and Moscow maintain an "official agreement concerning Idlib".

"Turkey was given a free hand in Afrin [a northwestern Kurdish-held enclave] in return for promising to make sure that regime forces were not attacked from Idlib," Akhmetov told The New Arab. "The main issue for Russia is the security of its military assets in [neighbouring] Latakia province."

The Russians believe that HTS needs to be eliminated in Idlib, adding that, along with the Islamic State group the jihadists have been excluded from ceasefire agreements, given its origins as Al-Qaeda's Syrian offshoot.

"So, there is always a reasonable pretext to start an operation in Idlib." 

However, he pointed out, the Russians have recently begun withdrawing substantial numbers of its military aircraft and personnel from Syria - it's unclear if this will amount to a permanent drawdown or simply another rotation of forces - possibly indicating that "the SAA [Syrian Arab Army] will be more involved in any operations in Idlib".


Akhmetov also noted that one hotly debated issue in Turkey revolves around a serious concern that the country will become swamped by refugees following any major regime assault on Idlib - a realistic fear considering how quickly more than 300,000 people were just displaced in Daraa.

Just last month, the UN's humanitarian agency warned "we may have not seen the worst of the crisis" in Syria yet, adding that regime and Russian airstrikes on Idlib could see "two and a half million people becoming displaced more and more toward the border of Turkey".

Erdogan's allies in the MHP party are also firm on returning Syrians back to Syria, Akhmetov noted.

He anticipates that Idlib's future "will involve Turkey-controlled zones in Afrin and the Turkish-controlled areas captured in Operation Euphrates Shield".

"I think Turkey will be given guarantees that there would be no serious waves of refugees and the Turkish government will be given some preferential trade rights in Idlib and Aleppo when reconstruction starts," he concluded.

Kyle Orton, an independent Middle East analyst, argues that the "de-escalation zones", ostensibly designed to bring an end to the Syrian conflict through a series of local truces - agreed to by Iran, Russia and Turkey under the Astana Process - have amounted to "a Russian-orchestrated construct to help sequence the pro-Assad coalition's war in Syria".

"Once the Daraa zone is liquidated - as the other zones in northern Rif, Homs and Ghouta already have been - it will leave Idlib as the logical next target," Orton told The New Arab.

He added that the presence of the Turkish military in Idlib will complicate the Syrian efforts both militarily, "since it's not clear that the Turks couldn't resist a regime coalition attack on Idlib, albeit at considerable cost", and politically, "because the Russians want to retain their relationship with the Turks to work towards the ultimate aim of detaching Turkey from NATO".
That said, Russia cannot control the Iranian-led pro-Assad forces on the ground, and Iran and Assad have a maximalist strategic vision for how the war ends, with every inch of territory back under regime control

Ultimately, a Russian-backed regime offensive which kills Turkish soldiers and triggers a destabilising influx of refugees into Turkey "would reverse much of what Moscow has achieved since 2016".

"That said, Russia cannot control the Iranian-led pro-Assad forces on the ground, and Iran and Assad have a maximalist strategic vision for how the war ends, with every inch of territory back under regime control," he elaborated.

Kurdish groups had controlled Afrin, Kobane and Jazira cantons until Turkish troops and allied Syria militias seized Afrin. Thousands of Turkish troops and Syrian rebels remain in Idlib, while US troops are also active in the north, particularly in and around Manbij

Aside from Idlib, the only other area outside of Syrian regime control is, of course, the Syrian Kurdish-held territories and the other SDF-controlled areas. Landis does not anticipate Assad launching an offensive against the region while US troops retain a presence here, pointing out that "the US has shown that it will strike back violently".

In the few instances whereby the regime has attacked the SDF, the US military has responded swiftly. It shot down a Syrian bomber near the town of Tabqa last summer and a varety of US military aircraft promptly bushwhacked hundreds of pro-regime forces in Deir az-Zour early last February when they attacked an SDF headquarters there.

Assad has said he might take military action against Kurdish-held territories, in his May 31 interview with Russia Today, regardless of whether or not the Americans retain a presence there. Nevertheless, he also said his regime was open to negotiations with the group.

"Talks have been underway between the Kurdish leadership in north Syria and the Syrian government not only about oil sharing, but also about possible political arrangements in the case of US troops departing," said Landis. "In both Qamishli and Hasakah, the Kurdish YPG [People's Protection Units] has taken down posters of [PKK leader Abdullah] Ocalan. This suggests that the two sides are trying to work out a roadmap for reunification.

"The Russians believe that the US will pull out of north Syria in the coming year or so," he concluded.

Orton also estimates that such an attack is "unlikely for now", since Assad and his backers "are trying to bring the SDF back into the fold".

He concluded by pointing out that the Syrian Kurds "never severed connections with the regime".

"Its entire governance model is deeply integrated with what remains of the state, and the regime coalition's efforts to bring the Kurds into some kind of political accord have been assisted by the US strongly signalling that it is heading for the exit, which would leave the Kurds alone to face Turkey."

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon