Posted by Joshua on Friday, December 26th, 2014
2014 Roundup and 2015 Predictions
By Aron Lund
December 25, 2014 for Syria Comment
Lots of things happened in 2014, but the single most important development was the rise of the Islamic State as an independent actor in Syria and as a global bogeyman, shifting the terms of Western and Arab Syria debate. The split between the Islamic State and the rest of the rebels in Syria has changed dynamics within the Syrian opposition and forced other rebels back into the Western/Gulfie fold. It’s also slowly but surely alienating Jabhat al-Nosra from the rebel mainstream. The end result is a somewhat clearer bloc formation but also an overall weakening of the anti-Assad side, particularly the non-jihadi rebels in the north.
Even more, the IS capture of Mosul in June, which threatened to bring down the Iraqi state–already rotting from the inside–has changed the international and regional dynamics. Now we have a US-led international military intervention in both countries, with mission creep in one or more directions being almost inevitable over time. And with all eyes on the Islamic State, Western media/political debate are increasingly beginning to describe the Syrian war as a counter-terrorism issue and have lost track of the fundamentals in a rather worrying way. This might seem like good news for Bashar, and it is – but so far not good enough to rehabilitate his regime politically or make it strong enough to claw back the parts of Syria that it lost. We’ll see how this develops. (The US is already flying air support for the Syrian Arab Army in Deir al-Zor, but it’s not something we’re supposed to talk about.)
In 2015, there are a few things to watch, including of course the Aleppo situation and the UN freeze, the international aerial campaign and whether it will burst the Islamic State bubble or not, the various international realignments, and the (lack of) efforts to contain Lebanon’s northeastern meltdown. But if I were to point to one single factor that gets nowhere near the attention it deserves and that could suddenly turn Syria upside down, it’s the regime’s fraying base: finances, infrastructure, and perhaps manpower.
The fuel crisis and other internal systemic failures are growing and may at some point become unmanageable. It’s winter now and that’s of course part of the reason, but it seems more profound than that. From the looks of it, Bashar has simply run out of money and the infrastructure has deteriorated too far over four years of war. In addition, the IS is currently hitting key energy nodes like the Shaer fields and the US bombings in the east are sapping overall fuel supply. Iranian and Russian supplies are what has kept the regime afloat so far, but now their own economies are under terrific strain, due to the plunging oil price and sanctions. International humanitarian aid is not keeping up with rising needs either, and donor fatigue is already a major problem – 2015 will undoubtedly be worse. So, will the pressure ease up or not? If not, how long can this go on without something breaking?
Related to this, there’s an increasing number of reports about the dire manpower situation on the regime side. There are reports of the SAA rounding up young men in regime territory, renewed enforcement of travel bans for military-age males, and rumors of a general mobilization that – even if false – reflect a genuine concern. Why is this becoming an issue now? One reason is probably that Assad has trouble paying his footsoldiers, or that Iran and others aren’t chipping in in the same way they used to. Another is that Iraqi Shia militias have drifted back across the border to fight the Islamic State in their homeland since June. Another is that Bashar will need more people than he currently has to sustain an increasingly ambitious military posture: he wants to secure gains in Damascus/Homs, hold the fort in Hama and Deraa and the northwest, and also tip the scales in Aleppo. More fundamentally, the militiafication of the regime seems to have advanced to a point where it’s having trouble shifting forces around according to military needs. Even if Assad has tens of thousands of available reserves on paper, many of them are now essentially village guards and sectarian/tribal militias that won’t go voluntarily to fight outside their home areas and that would in many cases be fairly useless if compelled to do so.
To be clear, the regime remains at an advantage in purely military terms and seems to be within reach of a breakthrough in Aleppo – that’s a potential game-changer. And Bashar continues to reap the benefits of fighting an opposition so venal and dysfunctional that no one wants to help it to power anymore – except maybe Erdogan. That remains his trump card. But if Bashar was betting that time is on his side, it’s really not and this must surely affect regime calculations, now that the UN freeze plan, the rise of the Islamic State, and other international dynamics are starting to offer new political horizons.
editor of Syria in Crisis