Sequence.

Can Bashar al-Assad win the Syrian Civil War?  The answer depends on definitions.  What does “win” mean?  What does “Syria” mean?

Aleppo and Palmyra are two ancient cities in Syria.[1]  One of them is today a major population center and the other is a mere tourist trap.  If Syria were at peace, the distinction wouldn’t matter.  Both would be income-streams.  However, Syria is at war and the distinction does matter.   The Syrian government of dictator Bashar  al-Assad has concentrated its military forces and received important foreign assistance —Russian air-power and Iranian fighters—to capture the rebel-held eastern sections of Aleppo, the population center.  In the meantime, he has yielded territory to ISIS forces around Palmyra, the tourist trap.  Probably to be able to claim that the regime was fighting ISIS, the Syrian army recaptured Palmyra in March 2016.  However, they didn’t put in the resources to hold it.  In mid-December 2016, while the Syrians and their allies concentrated on the capture of Eastern Aleppo, ISIS forces managed to retake the city.

How should we interpret this mixed outcome?  The main point to take away is that Aleppo matters to the Assad regime, but Palmyra—and most other ISIS-held territory–doesn’t matter to the Assad regime.  The regime has been most threatened by the rebellion in the much more heavily-populated western parts of the country.  Rebels there have received support from Sunni Arab countries.  In contrast, ISIS holds vast swathes of the less densely populated—and less important –eastern parts of the country.   Moreover, ever since its invasion of western Iraq, ISIS has been targeted by the Americans, the Kurds, and the Iraqis.  The Syrian Army has been at war for a very long time.  Both its current manpower and its ability to recruit new soldiers are close to exhaustion.  Russian aircraft and Iranian troops abruptly have dragged the regime out of a dire situation.  Why would the hard-pressed Assad regime devote scarce resources to the lesser enemy when other countries are willing to do the work?

Now Eastern Aleppo has fallen to the regime.  What further action will the regime take after this costly victory?  Wishful thinking abounds.  One conspiracy theory holds that the Assad regime sand-bagged the defense of Palmyra so that ISIS jihadis would appear in the news to distract the ADHD-prone Western media from the brutal final assault on Aleppo.  One Egyptian diplomat speculated that “unless the regime opens up negotiations with the opposition in finding a proper reconciliation, the guerrilla warfare will spread all over the place.”  The U.S. government urged the Syrians and Russians to divert their energies from pursuing final victory over the rebels in Aleppo to resisting ISIS in an inconsequential place.

More practically, the Assad regime may concentrate on consolidating its victory in western Syria.  It seems wise to anticipate a further flood of refugees into Turkey and—soon thereafter—into Greece.  Then, the regime, and the Russians and Iranians, will contemplate what further action to take.  Will they really want to embark on a costly new offensive to retake desert wastelands?  Will they want to imperial their existing substantial gains in order to fight ISIS?  Will they leave ISIS to the Americans and their allies?  Will they decide to wipe out the remnants of resistance in western Syria, then turn to dealing with the Syrian Kurds?  Given the alliance between the Russians and the Shi’ites of Iran and Iraq, all parties may be willing to sit and wait for a time before deciding the fate of ISIS.

So, “Syria” may mean western Syria and “win” may mean a localized victory followed by a period of watchful waiting.  Then, a new round in the unraveling of Sykes-Picot Agreement.  First one thing, then another thing.  Sequence.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Assad’s Choice: Fight Rebels but Cede to Islamic State,” WSJ, 16 December 2016.

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