(In collaboration with Baab Al Shams)

The Arab world is facing an awful era, and maybe Syria is the main victim at this time. Since the information from the field are unreliable, it is difficult to predict what will happen during the next months, or whether if the country will maintain its territorial integrity in the future; but analysts predict that the status quo is about to change.

From the start of the Arab Spring, the targets of attacks were always primarily civilians. More than 320,000 Syrians have been killed since 2011, as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported. Of those, civilians account for the highest category within that number at 108,086 – including 7,371 women and 11,493 children. The records of monitoring and documentation centers, such as the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC), show an increase of the government repression in 2015, especially with regard to arbitrary detentions[1], as well the use of torture in detention centers.

Beyond 4 million Syrian refugees have displaced, while more than 12 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. More than 70% of its population now live below the poverty thresold; trade has dropped by 40% in five years, while sectors such as industry, health care and agriculture have been destroyed. It is estimated that Syria will need two to three-decades as period to recover.

As security has collapsed, an informal economy comprising looting, kidnapping, and smuggling has become the main source of income. “The expansion of the war economy in these areas has been particularly fueled by the intra-rebel fight for lucrative resources such as border posts, oil fields, and grain storehouses”, reported the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)[2].

Syrian opposition groups have been deeply divided[3]; in fact, a substantial portion of the fighting has been among them. The conflict in the northeastern region has been particularly fueled by the fight for lucrative resources between different rebel militias. Oil fields and control of territories have been the objective of jihadists groups, Arab tribes, Kurdish militias and local brigades.

Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (ISIS) have been particularly efficient in managing their resources and made significant gains in the country from September 2014 to June 2015. Jabhat al-Nusra played a major role in the seizure of Idlib on 29th March 2015, signaling its continued rise in Syria. This is the biggest anti-Assad victory since the seizure of Raqqa by rebels two years earlier, and they may be about to launch a follow-on campaign against the regime from this consolidated terrain.

At the same time, Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel groups are giving external assistance to other brigades of Syrian rebels that have “liberated” much of southern Daraa and Quneitra provinces, thanks to their support — this military operation could also enable a major operation to “liberate” remaining regime-held terrain south of Damascus. Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra, the most powerful cross-front actor among anti-government forces, is on the rise on several fronts in western Syria, collaborating with rebel forces, and not necessarily with the moderate ones.

According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW)[4], the continued reliance of rebel brigades on Jabhat al-Nusra indicates that the level of “outside support” would be necessary to “transform rebel contingents into an effective and suitable ground partner for the U.S. alliance”. So far, Jabhat al-Nusra’s coercive power over Syrian rebels has jeopardized the United States’ attempt to build a moderate rebel force as a ground partner for the fight. On 30th July, 54 moderate Syrian fighters trained by the United States to fight ISIS have been abducted by Jabhat al-Nusra[5].

The ISW predicts a renewed strength from both jihadists and rebel groups, and according to its calculations, this will lead to additional upheavals across Syria’s previously stalemated battle lines. “The expansion of ISIS’s maneuver campaign into Syria’s central corridor is one potential inflection that could change the course of the war by shattering the Assad regime’s area defense strategy in western Syria. Rebel groups and Jabhat al-Nusra are also positioned to escalate their offensives against the regime in southern and northern Syria, and their aggregate effect may force a contraction of the Syrian Arab Army in the mid-term”.

The “central corridor” refers to Palmyra, an ancient city situated in the central Syrian Desert seized by ISIS on 20th May 2015[6]. The fear now is that ISIS can launch more operations from this territory to Homs or Hama. ISIS is increasingly departing from eastern Syria to engage both regime and rebel forces in western Syria and other areas. This provides ISIS opportunities to inflict exponential damage to the Syrian regime and change the course of the conflict.

Recent developments in military operations have shown powerful capability that rebels could utilize in additional offensives. Reports of a major increase in the deployment of Iranian-sponsored paramilitary forces to Syria appear to confirm that the regime is incapable of maintaining the status quo on its own, according to the ISW.

Until last month, the Syrian moderated rebels have not shown unity behind either a comprehensive military plan or a united political program. The first agreement between leaders of the two largest opposition groups was announced in Brussels on July 2015. The National Coordination Body for Democratic Change and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces reached a common position in order to join forces and push for a political settlement of the Syrian crisis through a transitional government.

The influence of the agreement at this stage of the conflict is questioned by some analysts due to the changes of the status quo last year. Rather than increasing the likelihood of a renewed peace process, rebels are likely to continue fighting for sources and control of territories. This will likely allow jihadist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, to gain even more influence and power.

CRISTINA CASABÓN ANDRÉS
CEO and Co-Founder of Baab Al Shams


 

[1] “Counter-Terrorism Court: a Tool for War Crimes Violations Documentation Center in Syria.” (Special Report on Counter-Terrorism Law No. 19 and the Counter-Terrorism Court in Syria) Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC), April 2015. http://www.vdc-sy.info/pdf/reports/1430186775-English.pdf

[2] Yazigi, Jihad. “Syria’s War Economy.” European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), ECFR/97, April 2014. http://www.ecfr.eu/page/-/ECFR97_SYRIA_BRIEF_AW.pdf

[3] Voutsina, Katerina. “Top Syrian Opposition Groups Reach Accord in Brussels.” The Wall Street Journal, July 25, 2015. http://blogs.wsj.com/brussels/2015/07/25/top-syrian-opposition-groups-reach-accord-in-brussels/

[4] Cafarella, Jennifer, and Christopher Kozak. “Courses of Action in the Syrian Civil War June – December 2015.” Institute for the Study of War, June 12, 2015. http://understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/SYR%20COAs%20Backgrounder.pdf

[5] Shoumali, Karam, Anne Barnard and Eric Schmitt. “Abductions Hurt U.S. Bid to Train Anti-ISIS Rebels in Syria.” The New York Times, July 30, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/31/world/middleeast/us-trained-islamic-state-opponents-reported-kidnapped-in-syria.html?_r=0

[6] “Islamic State Seizes Ancient Palmyra City from Syrian Forces.” BBC, May 21, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-32820857