As the Syrian civil war continues to rage in its fourth year, the conflict will experience today one of its most significant milestones to date. The event in question is not foreign intervention, that oft-discussed but increasingly unlikely scenario, nor is it an end to the violence, which is as far away as ever.
It is the Syrian election, a process that now features multiple candidates for the first time but is in reality closer to a triumphal celebration for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a testament to the durability of his regime.
While wide swathes of the country remain outside government control, regime forces and their allies have reversed the steady downward trend they were experiencing through 2012 and have since gone on the offensive in key areas. Damascus and its allies established a clear set of strategic priorities to focus on in the months leading up to the June election, and they have eagerly pursued them in order to establish their preferred environment for the event. The Syrian military is far from strong enough to retake all the territory it has lost, but it is capable of making significant progress in areas where it chooses to concentrate its forces and firepower, as recent months have shown.
The Syrian government’s military strategy over the past several months has consisted of three major campaigns encompassing two strategic priorities 1) securing the country’s three largest cities, and 2) cutting rebel supply lines from Lebanon.
The first of these campaigns has centred on squeezing rebels near the capital, Damascus, through sealing the border with Lebanon. This process began in April last year with the Hezbollah-led campaign to capture the border town of Qusayr. It was revived briefly in November before troops were diverted by rebel activity near Damascus, but resumed in full in February.
The Syrian army and its allies heavily bombarded the rebel stronghold of Yabrud for several weeks before capturing it in a whirlwind operation, spurring a swift advance that saw them secure nearly the entire region by the end of April.
The Qalamoun offensive was part of a wider operation to secure the suburbs of Damascus. Syrian troops cut rebel supply lines to western and eastern suburbs in early 2013, and followed that with a sweeping advance through insurgent-controlled districts in the city’s southern environs that fall. The notorious army tactic of ‘starvation until submission’ proved ruthlessly effective, leading to a series of local truces in several other rebel-held areas.
Opposition forces active in East Ghouta, a wide swath east of the capital that was the site of the August 2013 chemical weapons attack, were already under strain, having been encircled and besieged for over a year. With the fall of Qalamoun and the severing of their last supply lines, their position is now more dire than ever.
The second area of regime concern has been the central city of Homs, Syria’s third largest, as well as the province of the same name. Homs holds immense strategic and symbolic importance: not only does it lie astride the key supply route between Damascus and the regime stronghold of the coast, it also served as an epicentre for the initial 2011 uprising, with some dubbing it the ‘capital of the revolution’.
It had thusly been the target of the first massive military crackdown of the war, and the rebels within had been subjected to shelling, starvation and occasional army incursions ever since. With the election upcoming, the regime stepped up efforts to definitively secure the city. The first stage of this was the capture of the final rebel bastions in the west of the province, capturing the historic Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, sealing the northern Lebanese border and freeing up fighters for the final assault on the rebel-held Old City of Homs. This began in early April and quickly exposed the weakness of insurgent positions that had been sapped by years of bombardment and defections.
Within weeks, the exhausted rebels agreed to an unprecedented truce that saw the remaining 2,000 fighters evacuated from the city to rebel-held areas north of it by May 9th. As civilians streamed back into the devastated city, the Syrian regime basked in the glory of its most decisive victory to date.
The third area of army focus has proven more difficult. The northern city of Aleppo is the country’s largest and was, prior to 2011, its economic capital. During the uprising’s initial stages, its population remained largely supportive of the government, and opposition activity there was limited prior to a major rebel offensive on the city in July 2012. Rebels captured around 40% of the city in the assault and the situation there quickly settled into a stalemate, with overstretched army forces unable to push back decisively and advances by both sides tempered due to the dense urban environment.
Regime troops faced further difficulties related to the sheer size of the city and manpower thus required to hold it, while its remoteness from the government’s core strongholds in central and western Syria made supply difficult. Rebels exploited this in August 2013, capturing the town of Khanasser and cutting the last army overland supply line to the city.
The army countered this by sending a large convoy to recapture the area in October, which then pressed northwards to relieve the besieged Aleppo airport. As rebels broke into open conflict with one another in January 2014, regime forces drove further north around the city’s eastern flank, with the aim of linking up with troops holding out at the Aleppo central prison and cutting supply lines into the rebel-held east of the city.
The former was achieved on May 22 with the aid of some 7,000 troops recently freed up from the conclusion of the Homs battle, giving the government another major propaganda victory after relieving the year-long siege and leaving regime troops poised to encircle rebel forces in East Aleppo. Some analysts have described opposition forces in Aleppo as ‘being on life support’; while I would not go that far (yet), their position is precarious and improvement seems unlikely.
Given the developments detailed above, the regime’s military position heading into the election is quite strong, having eclipsed pure stabilization and outpacing opposition gains more every month. This is not to say there have not been some setbacks: rebels experienced abortive success during an offensive on the Armenian city of Kesab on the Turkish border in March, as well as recently capturing the sizeable northern town of Khan Shaykhun.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to argue that as elections approach, Assad’s position looks more assured than ever. Rebel groups have been fighting each other in the north for months, but now they are engaged in full-scale warfare in the country’s east and have recently experienced internecine clashes that threaten to escalate in the south as well. Politically speaking, the massive turnout by Syrians abroad for early voting in the election is extremely encouraging for the regime, and even its opponents admit that were the elections free and fair, Assad would still triumph.
With a fresh mandate and buoyed confidence to be gleaned from an impending electoral victory, the view from atop the throne of bones in Damascus is rosy indeed.
The Campaign for Homs and Aleppo (Institute for the Study of War, January 2014) http://www.understandingwar.org/report/campaign-homs-and-aleppo
The Fall of Yabroud and the Campaign for the Lebanese Border (Institute for the Study of War, March 26, 2014) http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/fall-yabroud-and-campaign-lebanese-border
Seven things Assad has done to seize the momentum in Syria: http://news.nationalpost.com/2014/05/10/seven-things-assad-has-done-to-seize-the-momentum-in-syria/
Neil Hauer is a Master of Arts candidate in the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (EURUS) at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. His primary research interests lie in the Syrian Civil War, Russian-Middle East relations, the Caucasus, and ethnic and sectarian conflict. He is the author of the column Towards Southern Shores, which focuses on Russian-Syrian relations and can be found at http://russia-eastern-republic.com/middle-east. He can be found on Twitter at http://twitter.com/NeilPHauer.