After several weeks of fighting that resulted in some of the heaviest casualties in Syria’s conflict, the Syrian army said it had retaken the Shaar gas field near Palmyra – one of the country’s largest – from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The battle and its heavy losses raised questions about the army’s state of preparedness against the Sunni militant group; fueled by spoils from its June offensive in Iraq, ISIS has marched steadily across eastern Syria and into the country’s Kurdish areas. Analysts have said it now intends to attack key regime assets in an effort to consolidate the amount of territory under its control.
We asked Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and Aram Nerguizian, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to weigh in on the state of the Syrian army and how it can respond to the challenge from ISIS.
Syria Deeply: What is the state of the Syrian army?
Joshua Landis: In Damascus, ISIS has gone to war with the Islamic Front in the Ghouta area and has been squeezed out of Ghouta, and is now trying to open a new front in Qalamoun, the range of mountains near Lebanon that the Syrian army just took back.
The Syrian army can’t take all its men out of Qalamoun at this point – they have to be vigilant. They are facing pressure in Palmyra, where this month ISIS took the Shaar gas field and killed well over 100 Syrian soldiers. Others have [since] disappeared. Then ISIS has been taking villages around Aleppo. So even as the army threatens to take Aleppo and is besieging parts of the city, ISIS is threatening to come back and fight them again there.
Then ISIS is surrounding air bases and military bases in Deir Ezzor and other strongholds. So overall, the regime has been very badly mauled by ISIS. And it’s not something they were prepared for or expecting.
The regime’s strategy was to ignore ISIS and allow it to take over the east in the hopes it would horrify and spook the West into supporting Assad. But now that ISIS has gotten its feet on the ground and consolidated its hold, it’s become a real danger in a way the other militias never were.
The Syrian army will eventually defeat ISIS, because they’re a real army, and because most of the world is spooked by ISIS. ISIS has taken the logic of the Syrian army, which is a sectarian logic, and a take-no-prisoners logic that you have to destroy your enemy, which the Syrian army embraced early on.
The Syrian army is very stretched. It’s essentially a weak army, it has a limited number of well-trained troops, it has pretty basic equipment and it has spent the last three years rebuilding itself. It’s been doing that with a lot of help from Iran and Hezbollah, and from Russia.
It’s been able to rebuild in large part because it’s had a central command and such incompetent opponents who’ve been fragmented and fought among themselves and haven’t been able to convince their international backers to really back them. ISIS seems to know how to fight and has a real plan, and captured the imagination of many Sunni Arabs. How long that romance will last, I don’t know. Because many are horrified by it as well.
Syria Deeply: How is the army faring and what are they facing, now that they’ve taken so many losses in the fight with ISIS?
Aram Nerguizian: People seem to be forgetting what we’ve learned over the last couple of years, which is that there’s no done deal. Everyone [on the ground] is adapting to changing circumstances.
Hezbollah is caught on two fronts, working with the Syrian [regime] but also really accelerating their clear-hold operations in Qalamoun. And we’re getting confirmation that Hezbollah is much more active in Iraq, in a training role [to help troops combat ISIS].
The fundamental reality between the Assad regime and ISIS does not seem to have shifted. One hand [of ISIS] still fights the regime on the battlefield, and the other is still involved in a transactional dynamic in regards to the regime’s need for energy and oil. It needs to expand its oil [business] for currency reserves to pay off the young fighters it’s recruiting.
Some things have shifted, but so far you’ve seen a fair amount of strategic caution [against the regime] on ISIS’s part. I don’t see them making a dramatic advance westward anytime soon. It’s not surprising that there’s been a rise in attrition rates against Assad’s forces. It’s the non-ISIS, non-regime factions that have the most to be concerned about in all this. They’re being sandwiched between the two, and eventually they’ll have to choose [a side].
ISIS never really saw the regime as its main threat. It’s always what’s over the horizon, namely what Iran and their allies in Iraq could come up with in terms of weakening and dislodging ISIS in Iraq – and the effect that could have in Syria.
For the Assad regime, the calculus remains the same. They’ve been doing a balancing act since the late 1970s, where the idea is to always show Syrian relevance in international affairs as the alternative to whatever else is out there.
They’re still playing by those rules. Even with attrition rates against ISIS [rising], the regime is still saying, “we’re the alternative, we’re the guys you ned to work with.” If I were within the ISIS brain trust, I’d be concerned with Assad up to a point – the regime can bring pressure from the western front – but I’d always have to be mindful of what the dynamics are with Iraq. Namely, would there ever be a scenario where the U.S. gets involved in Iraq, and what would happen to ISIS if its opponents get it together in terms of how they engage the local tribes, and so forth.