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War on Syria’s Rebels Continues in Plain Sight

Although the cease-fire in Syria has ostensibly held for the past two weeks, pro-government forces and Russian warplanes have continued to target rebel groups across the country, violations that clarify Bashar al-Assad’s strategy and the trajectory for the peace talks in Geneva.

Written by Faysal Itani & Hossam Abouzahr Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

It has been two weeks since a U.S.-Russia brokered cessation of hostilities in Syria came into effect. Many analysts, including these authors, were skeptical about its prospects, due to the agreement’s terms and the regime’s perceived interests. Skeptics expected the regime and its allies to exploit a clause allowing attacks on the al-Qaida affiliate Nusra Front, using it as cover for continuing the air campaign on non-jihadist opposition groups. There is substantial evidence, however, that something rather different is happening. Even as overall violence is greatly reduced, regime forces are openly bombing and in some cases launching ground operations to capture key rebel territory, without making any pretense of attacking the Nusra Front. This behavior offers some insight into long-term regime plans, and highlights how little leverage outside powers including the United States will have in shaping the new status quo in Syria.

The Syria Campaign established the Syria Cease-fire Monitor to monitor military operations and report alleged violations during the cessation of hostilities. It compiles data from multiple local sources including the Syrian Civil Defense, the Syrian Network for Human Rights and local coordination committees in opposition-held territory. The standard caveats about the reliability of reporting from the Syrian war zone apply. Nevertheless, the Syrian Cease-fire Monitor seems to be the best open-source monitoring effort on cease-fire violations, covering geography, weapons used and casualties inflicted and identifying violators and whether they had aimed to capture ground.

The Syria Cease-fire Monitor reported 111 violations as of March 9 – almost all perpetrated by regime or Russian forces. Attacks mostly targeted insurgent territory in Homs, Hama, Idlib, Latakia, Aleppo, Damascus and Daraa. Airstrikes and ground operations in Idlib very likely targeted the Nusra Front, but the regime and Russia also attacked opposition territory in which the Nusra Front had little or no presence. The clearest examples were attacks on a large, encircled opposition pocket in southern Hama and northern Homs provinces. The rebel territory, including cities such as Rastan and al-Hawla, straddles the critical M5 highway, which connects regime-controlled Homs and Hama cities. Since the cease-fire started, the regime and Russia have been trying to break up the rebel pocket, in order to eliminate a point from which the opposition can launch attacks against regime territory. To that end, they have reportedly attacked Hirbnafsah in Hama province at least 10 times, launching around 100 airstrikes and three ground offensives to capture the town. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights and local civil defense groups, the Nusra Front has no presence in Hirbnafsah (which supports the authors’ understanding of which rebel groups are present there). That would make these regime operations clear violations of the cease-fire terms, going beyond sporadic bombings to include ground assaults.

Cease-fire violations by the regime are concentrated in, but not exclusive to, northern Syria. They have also been reported in Daraa, southern Syria, and the critical, rebel-held Damascus suburbs. These include shelling, sniping and what appear to be regular, albeit limited regime ground assaults against Jaish al-Islam, a Damascus-based Islamist group that is a party to the cease-fire. That said, airstrikes have been far more common in the north. Violations in the south are more likely to take the form of artillery shelling and small arms fighting, reflecting greater regime emphasis on the north and/or recognition that these latter violations are harder for the international community to detect.

These violations help clarify both the regime’s strategy and the trajectory of peace negotiations. While sporadic fighting is likely during any cease-fire, the frequency, scale and specific form of violations in Syria reveal that the war there continues. The regime and its allies are fighting to shape the geography of the conflict, toward one or all of these ends: First, it may be seeking greater leverage and to negotiate (or refuse to negotiate) from a position of strength in upcoming peace talks. Second, the regime may want to deprive the insurgents in turn of using critical territory in the regime heartland as bargaining chips in talks. Third, the regime may simply assume or plan that there will be no meaningful negotiations anyway. If so, then it is merely trying to secure the integrity, borders and supply lines of a rump regime state based in Damascus and northwestern Syria, which would align with Russia’s apparent desired end state in Syria.

Finally, the violations highlight the international community’s inability to enforce the cease-fire, or impose meaningful penalties for clear breeches by the regime coalition. In one example of how blatant these are, residents of Jaish al Islam-controlled Douma reported that the Syrian Air Force dropped leaflets that read: “In your areas, there are armed groups including men who are foreign to you and who might have brought killing, destruction and tragedies upon you. The Syrian Arab Army will continue to fight against those who have caused all this devastation until they leave your areas.” This was an open admission of the regime’s intent to continue fighting at least party to the cease-fire agreement. The opposition’s foreign backers do not appear to have taken any meaningful action in response.

Cease-fire violations are inevitable in a country awash with arms and hundreds of fighting groups. What is happening in Syria, however, is actually a lower-grade continuation of the war itself and its defining characters, including the gap in military capabilities and international support between the regime and opposition. These are not grounds for a tenable negotiated settlement. Rather, they carve a path to either regime victory or, perhaps more likely, a de-facto partition of Syria, in which the regime and its allies take what they deem important and leave the rest for another day.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

This article was originally published by the Atlantic Council and is reprinted here with permission.

Top image: Smoke rises after a barrel bomb was thrown from a helicopter, hitting a rebel position during heavy fighting between troops loyal to president Bashar al-Assad and opposition fighter in the Idlib province on Sept. 19, 2013. (AP Photo)

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