Syria: Caught between the regime and the 'Islamic State'

Syria: Caught between the regime and the 'Islamic State'
The stalemate between the regime and the opposition continued in 2014, but the rise of the Islamic State group could change everything in the years to come.
5 min read
03 Jan, 2015
No respite for trapped Syrian civilians in 2014 [Getty]

The stalemate between Syria's ruling regime and the variety of forces opposed to it was largely unchanged in 2014, and there is no indication that either side is close to "winning" the conflict.

The year in Syria started with significant military and political events. On the military front, a large-scale confrontation took place between armed opposition factions and the Islamic State group (IS, formerly ISIS) on 3 January, after IS attacked the city of al-Atareb and the Bab al-Hawa border crossing - the main supply route for opposition forces in the north of Syria.

Many opposition factions took part in the battle, and they successfully expelled the IS from many areas, isolating the group in several pockets in Raqqa and the countryside east of Aleppo.

The battle was a serious attempt on the part of the opposition to defeat IS, but it also reflected a regional desire for IS to be defeated and its Syrian territory reduced ahead of the Geneva II conference - to block any attempts made by the regime to use the rise of the IS to its advantage in the negotiations.

Direct negotiations

The regime's policy of 'starvation or submission' proved successful in many opposition-held areas in the suburbs of Damascus.

The international community this past year successfully pressured both sides to negotiate directly for the first time.

But the Geneva II conference failed to achieve a breakthrough after two rounds of negotiations. It also failed to launch any form of political process that could lead to a transitional governing authority. International powers, however, refused to admit the failure of their initiative.

The regime attempted to consolidate its military position by isolating the armed opposition in the countryside away from the cities, vital infrastructure and major transportation routes. The regime imposed a siege on the Eastern Ghouta region around Damascus after it had retaken nearby Mleiha on 14 August 2014.

The regime's policy of "starvation or submission" proved to be successful in many opposition-held areas in the suburbs of Damascus, and led to truces and reconciliation agreements in Yarmouk Camp, Babilla, al-Hajar al-Aswad, al-Madamiya, al-Qadam and al-Assali.

In Homs, a deal facilitated by Iran between the Islamic Front group and the regime led to dozens of opposition fighters leaving the city on 7 May, after a 700-day siege.

The administration of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad held presidential elections on 3 June. Unsurprisingly, Assad won with 90 percent of the vote. The election results did not change the international position towards the Syrian regime, but they did extinguish the last glimmer of hope for a political resolution to the conflict.

The frustration reportedly pushed the UN special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, to resign from his position on 31 May. Staffan de Mistura replaced him on 11 June.

Military defeats, political infighting

The Syrian opposition's military forces suffered a series of defeats in the first half of 2014 and only achieved limited victories in Khan Sheikhoun, Daraa and areas of western Aleppo.

The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) became a burden to the Syrian revolution, rife with internal power struggles. These rifts came to the fore as the coalition's former leader, Ahmad al-Jarba, decided to take part in the Geneva II conference without SNC agreement - which led to the withdrawal of 40 members from the coalition.

They later returned after electoral compromises were made between Jarba and Mustafa al-Sabbagh, which led to the election of Hadi al-Bahra as head of the coalition on 9 June.

Other problems within the SNC included the dissolution of the Free Syrian Army's General Staff and its replacement with another body, and the power struggle between Ahmed Toma's interim government and the SNC, which resulted in a vote of no confidence against the interim government. Toma was re-elected on 15 October.

Limiting the influence of IS was the armed opposition's most prominent achievement in the first half of the year. Although it briefly appeared as if the IS would not be able to operate in Syria for long, the group used its subsequent victories in Iraq - including the capture of Mosul on 10 June - and the huge financial and military resources it gained control of there to expand in Syria.

The Islamic State group subsequently took control of Deir ez-Zour and for the first time controlled a continuous stretch of territory reaching between Syria and Iraq.

The armed group removed the borders between the two countries in the area under their control and, on 29 June, the group's spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani announced the formation of the Islamic "caliphate" and the appointment of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as its self-styled "caliph".

International airstrikes

The IS used its victories in Iraq after the capture of Mosul and the huge financial and military resources it gained control of to expand in Syria.

The rise of the IS group and the expansion of its territory forced the United States to change strategy and intervene militarily at the head of an international alliance that included European and Arab countries.

However, the international alliance's airstrikes in Syria, staring on 23 September, not only targeted the IS, but also reportedly hit positions of the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and the Ansar al-Din Front - which raised serious questions about the goals of the alliance.

Though the airstrikes have undoubtedly done a great deal of damage, they have not halted the advance of IS in Syria and Iraq. IS has been able to score significant victories against opposition forces in the Aleppo countryside and against the Kurdish People's Protection Units in Kobane.

The IS group was also able to make gains against Syrian regime forces, taking control of the 17th Division's base near Raqqa on 25 June, followed by the 93rd Division's base in Raqqa on 8 August, the Tabqa airbase on 27 August, and laying siege to Deir ez-Zour airport in early December.

During 2014, the Syrian revolution was caught between the dual tyrannies of the regime and the IS group. The year also revealed international indifference to one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the 21st century.

However, in the last quarter of 2014, Syrian rebels were able to achieve military victories in the south of Syria and the Idlib countryside.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.