As part of its policy to strike at extremist groups inside Syria, the U.S. has targeted the Islamic State (ISIS) and the al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Shortly after launching his own strikes on ISIS-held territory, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad downplayed the effectiveness of the U.S.-led campaign, saying it had done little to stop ISIS from gaining ground in Syria.
“‘The regime hopes to benefit politically from the airstrikes against ISIS by offering itself as the only viable ally on the ground with the ability to take on ISIS,” said Yezid Sayigh , senior associate at Carnegie’s Middle East Center.
Sayigh spoke to Syria Deeply about the conflict dynamics, as the two groups under attack, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, fight each other and the Assad regime.
Syria Deeply: Over the past few months Jabhat al-Nusra has built up its military presence and expelled moderate groups from their strongholds in northwestern Syria. What seems to be Jabhat al-Nusra’s strategy? What is it aiming to do?
Sayigh : It’s positioning itself in anticipation of what happens in the next period. On the one hand, everyone assumes that sooner or later the Islamic State will resume offensive action and that it might try and regain its foothold in opposition territory, among populations that are generally supportive of the opposition. Jabhat al-Nusra wants to be in a position to either confront this, or to be partners if there is potential for a strong partnership [between the two].
Jabhat al-Nusra seems to be using the opportunity to build itself up as a credible political, military and governing actor. Since early summer, Jabhat al-Nusra has been taking on the regime and spearheading attacks on regime positions in northern Hama province, the Qunietra and northern Houran areas, and building pressure up near the Lebanese border and Qalamoun.
It’s also trying to promote an image of itself in opposition areas, especially in the northwestern Idlib province, as protecting people from extortion, thieves and protection rackets. A week ago it went into Rastan in Homs province and took it over within a day, claiming it arrested a number of people accused of criminality, and then pulled out again the next day. They are clearly trying to project themselves as almost a state actor to the local audience.
Syria Deeply: Have the U.S.-led strikes on Syria brought ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra closer into alignment? What are their shared interests?
Sayigh :There has been speculation about that, but no hard evidence. The two are clearly in competition for the part of the Syrian population or opposition that leans towards Salafist or more militant Salafist ideology.
On the one side, it seems very unlikely that they are going to start cooperating or partnering. The two still seem publicly to oppose each other quite literally. At the same time, Jabhat al-Nusra is not as centralized as the Islamist State. The Jabhat al-Nusra commander in the south is visibly and publicly more hostile and hawkish towards the Islamic State because he and his men were kicked out of the eastern province of Deir Ezzor by the Islamic State by force. Whereas in the northwest, the attitude of Jabhat al-Nusra towards the Islamic State and the moderate opposition is far milder.
There is a risk that Jabhat al-Nusra will lose breakaway factions at some point, presumably those that might defect to ISIS. The challenge for Jabhat al-Nusra is to maintain enough ideological credibility towards its own rank and file, which means that it can’t be seen to be too moderate, but on the other hand it has to show it’s not as brutal as the Islamic State in order to gain the hearts and minds of the Syrian people.
Syria Deeply: In what ways is the Assad regime vulnerable to ISIS? Are last week’s regime airstrikes a sign that it now feels directly threatened by the group’s influence?
Sayigh :The regime airstrikes against ISIS are mainly motivated by an attempt to look good in the eyes of the international coalition, and as a serious and viable partner in the war against ISIS. It shouldn’t be seen as a direct response to any particular threat because it’s not as if the regime didn’t already have immediate threats to respond to.
The regime is vulnerable to ISIS. It’s facing an ISIS threat around the gas field east of Homs, and is already under pressure in Deir Ezzor. When it targets ISIS elsewhere, like Raqqa, it’s more for a demonstrative effect with the obvious audience being the U.S.-led coalition.
ISIS might be too stretched to do anything against the regime, but if ISIS were to advance where regime defenses could give way and where they are shallow, it might actually reach some vulnerable areas like the eastern and northern side of Hama reef that could cut off the regime forces in Aleppo and allow the Islamic State to reconnect with opposition-held areas and populations. ISIS could also go south towards Qalamoun where the regime is already having a hard time fighting the rebels.
The regime definitely has vulnerabilities. My feeling is that the regime is increasingly running out of manpower reserves and finances to keep chasing all these threats. But the question is whether the regime’s weaknesses will be put to the test.
Syria Deeply: Do you think the Assad regime is gaining momentum, benefitting from the coalition strikes?
Sayigh : Anything that weakens or deters the Islamic State allows the regime time to regroup and rebuild its forces. The regime has reached out to clans in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor to try and build a private militia, in order to at least defend its existing positions and maybe retake some ground.
More important however is that the regime hopes to benefit politically from the airstrikes against ISIS by offering itself as the only viable ally on the ground with the ability to take on ISIS. It’s very interesting that in his recent interview with a western outlet, Assad emphasized that the strikes had done very little on the ground and that very little could be done without boots on the ground. Although he didn’t spell it out, there was a very clear hint that it’s the Assad regime that has that presence on the ground, and therefore obviously the coalition needs to talk to the regime. That’s what the regime has been trying to sell since last July.
The Assad regime does benefit from the strikes, but the real benefit is only if the U.S. accepts that line and does come to the conclusion that it has to somehow be in alignment with Assad, at least tactically, to face the Islamic State.
If I’m right that Jabhat al-Nusra is rising, than we may be in a position within a few months where we it will look like we are left with only three main armed forces on the ground in Syria: Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State and the Assad regime, with a rump presence for various more moderate rebel factions that are tolerated by Jabhat al-Nusra in its areas. That’s of course keeping aside the Kurdish areas, which in a way aren’t relative to this balance of power issue.
If things evolve in that direction, it may start to look more attractive for some to deal with the Assad regime, because clearly the U.S. and its allies are not going to deal with Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State directly.
It’s a gamble. The regime may pull it off, but I don’t think the regime will get what it wants in terms of some sort of political deal or more tangible alliance or realignment.
Syria Deeply: You’ve said that as the U.S.-led coalition confronts the Islamic State, there is a rare opportunity to try to get the Syrian regime and rebels to stop fighting each other. What did you mean by that? How could it work?
Sayigh :There are various ideas circulating around, including [U.N. Special Envoy] Staffan De Mistura’s freeze zone in Aleppo. I’ve argued for a broader overall truce between the two sides, where the two sides would unilaterally observe truces that are separate but implemented in parallel. They would be achieved without direct negotiation because both sides won’t do that, and without any political preconditions or concessions because they won’t give them.
Whatever the proposal, the assumption is that the Syrian opposition is not in good shape and is under pressure. It needs a respite and therefore might be more amenable to a some sort of truce or freeze.
At the same time, the Assad regime, despite exuding confidence in public, is facing stretched resources. It’s getting less financial support, finding it harder to get manpower, and it too is in a position where it needs to protect itself.
The fact that both sides have their own real self-interest, not on behalf of the other side, means they have good reason to seek a pause.
At the same time, externally, the moment of opportunity with Iran and the U.S. backing the same side in Iraq and opposed to the same enemy in ISIS (which also involves to a varying degrees the Saudis, Qataris, and the Turks) might mean that the outside parties might exert pressure, or not block at least, efforts by their local Syrian partners to move towards a truce or a freeze.
This is a long shot, and the likelihood of success is probably very low, but it’s a moment that offers itself and therefore it behooves all parties that want a shift with the situation in Syria to do something with this opportunity.