Syria’s five-year-old war is reaching a turning point. In the north and west, ISIS is on the back foot. Its territory is declining, as it is in Iraq.
But as with Iraq, the defeat of ISIS is likely to create new conflict over what comes next.
The north-eastern Syrian city of Aleppo has since 2012 been divided between the city’s west, held by the regime of beleaguered dictator Bashar al-Assad, and its east, held by a fractious coalition of predominantly Islamist rebel groups.
Previously Syria’s largest city, Aleppo has been the location of some of the worst violence of the war: both sides have used siege tactics and artillery bombardments that target civilians. The regime has air power at its disposal, so most civilian casualties have been in the rebel-held east.
But both regime and rebels sides have shown scant regard for civilians’ safety or for international law that is supposed to regulate warfare: such as rules prohibiting the routine torture and execution of prisoners of war.
For four years, the fighting in Aleppo, despite its intensity, has consisted of offensives and counteroffensives that have left the military balance unchanged. It has been an extremely violent war of attrition.
However, since November 25, a government offensive has driven the rebels from at least half the territory they controlled in Aleppo.
Since the regime’s suppression of the 2011 uprising evolved into a multi-sided civil war, Syria has become a slaughterhouse. About half the population has been displaced: with about 4 million leaving Syria to become refugees and 7 million fleeing to different parts of Syria.
By 2015, life expectancy had dropped from 70 to 55. In February, the Syrian Centre for Policy Research (SCPR) estimated the death toll at 470,000: of which 400,000 were directly killed, while the remaining 70,000 died because of lack of adequate health services and medicine, food, clean water, sanitation and proper housing.
Millions have been injured and the damage to homes, infrastructure and livelihoods is immeasurable.
Most of the combatants, both Syrian and foreign, are ostensibly fighting ISIS. In reality, these forces have other agendas.
The main battlefield opponent of ISIS is the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The largest parts of this left-wing military coalition are the People’s Defence Units (YPG) and Women’s Defence Units (YPJ), which are based in the Kurdish community. SDF operations routinely have air support from the US-led coalition of Western powers carrying out airstrikes in Syria.
Since September last year, Russia has been conducting its own airstrikes in Syria.
Syria under Assad was Russia’s closest ally in the Middle East, and Russian airstrikes are part of the regime’s military operations. The rebel militias in east Aleppo are regular targets of Russian airstrikes, which have taken a high civilian toll.
The regime has its own air force that is less militarily effective but, because of its crude and indiscriminate ordinance, has killed a higher number of non-combatants.
Currently in Syria, there are at least four claimants to governmental authority, but the number of local and foreign actors in the conflict is higher.
Firstly, there is the regime. A dynastic totalitarian police state before 2011, since the uprising it has lost territorial control over much the country. Its armed forces have become dependent on paramilitary militias, Iranian forces and Iranian-recruited paramilitaries, fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement and, most importantly, Russian air power.
Secondly, there is the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), a collection of squabbling exiled politicians that is recognised by most Western powers as the legitimate government of Syria.
In theory, the SNC is represented inside by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and allied “moderate” Islamist rebels. In reality these forces are numerous independent fighting units, in shifting alliances, sometimes fighting each other and all having a contemptuous disregard for SNC directives.
The West gave arms to some FSA groups mostly through the West’s allies in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. These states all have their own ambitions, not always coinciding with those of their Western imperialist sponsors, or with each other.
They also have their own, Sunni Islamist fundamentalist, ideologies and support to rebels from, or channelled through, these states went to groups that these states had an ideological affinity to and would serve their interests.
The conflict also attracted Sunni extremists from around the world. Many of these groups are anti-Western and the Western establishment’s designation of “moderate” Islamist applies to those groups that are perceived as pro-Western.
Out of this Sunni Islamist milieu came the third claimant to governmental authority: ISIS. While its ambitions to form a global Caliphate are fantastical, since early 2014 it carved out a contiguous territory in Iraq and Syria, although this is now shrinking in both countries.
Its support of worldwide terrorism and enthusiastic advertising of its own atrocities makes ISIS the perfect pretext for any power wishing to intervene in Syria or Iraq.
The fourth governing entity is the Democratic Federation of North Syria-Rojava/Syrian Democratic Council (MSD). Its armed forces are the SDF. It originated in the 2012 revolution in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) which took advantage of the withdrawal of regime forces from the region to defend Aleppo and the capital, Damascus.
The SDF is unique among the groups fighting in Syria because it is accountable to democratic civilian authority. The Rojava Revolution created a unique form of democratic self-administration that emphasises women’s liberation, grassroots democracy, ecological and humanist socialism, religious tolerance and ethnic inclusion. These ideals have enabled it to broaden its appeal beyond the Kurdish population in which it originated.
The Rojava Revolution was extremely threatening to the authoritarian Turkish regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This is due to its ideological links not only to the guerrilla and civil resistance in Bakur (Turkish Kurdistan) but to the Turkish democratic left, such as the People’s Democratic Party, whose parliamentarians have recently been arrested en masse by Erdoğan’s regime.
Erdoğan was initially interested in the Syrian conflict due to a desire to influence a post-Assad regime. Now, crushing the Kurdish-led revolutionary movement is his key objective.
This explains Turkish support for various Islamist groups, including ISIS, and Turkish support explains the rapid growth of ISIS after late 2013.
The uneasy alliance between the SDF and the US-led coalition began after the siege of Kobanê in 2014. The US appeared happy, at first, to offer platitudes while watching ISIS crush Kobanê, intending to only move in afterwards to fight ISIS. Such a cynical agenda, however, was thwarted by the resistance of the YPJ and YPG — leaving the US little option but to cooperate with the main force successfully battling ISIS.
The SDF, for its part, has needed to counter Turkish-supplied firepower. The US was not willing to lift the blockade of Rojava (imposed from Iraq, as well as Turkey), remove the SDF’s allies from the list of terrorist organisations or enable the SDF to procure heavy weapons, but has offered the SDF air support.
While this alliance has persisted on the military level, politically the Western powers have continued to diplomatically recognise the SNC and exclude the MSD from international talks on Syria.
Erdoğan initially tried to force the US to break the alliance in favour of Turkey’s SNC-affiliated proxies by provoking a conflict with Russia, shooting down a Russian plane in November last year. However, the US does not want a full-scale war with Russia.
In June, the SDF was close to achieving its objective of liberating the whole of Rojava from ISIS — and with it control of most of Syria’s border with Turkey. Erdoğan changed tactics and sought a rapprochement with Assad and Russia.
On August 12, the SDF liberated the town of Manbij, after two months of heavy fighting. Their next target was the border town of Jarabalus.
However, after Assad regime forces diverted the SDF with attacks in the east of Rojava, Turkish forces occupied Jarabalus in August. They were joined by Syrian auxiliaries under the FSA/SNC banner. Some of these Syrian fighters were from Turkish-backed groups in Aleppo, others were recruited from refugee camps in Turkey.
Jarabalus was taken with barely a shot fired, suggesting an orderly withdrawal by ISIS. There have been allegations that former ISIS fighters simply changed uniforms and joined the Turkish army’s FSA auxiliaries.
The US, unsettled by Erdoğan’s overtures to Putin, gave the green light and provided air support to Turkey.
On November 5, the SDF announced the start of a US-supported campaign to reach Raqqa. At the same time, both Turkish forces and the SDF have both been advancing on the strategically important ISIS-held town of al-Bab. Turkish warplanes have bombed SDF-controlled territory around Manbij and in Efrin, killing civilians.
Al-Bab is strategically important to SDF attempts to unite Rojava, and to Turkish forces trying to stop them. It also controls access to Aleppo. On November 30, Russian news outlet Sputnik said that Syrian government forces were also advancing on the town.
Turkish attempts to redeploy their proxies from Aleppo to Rojava may have been a factor in the government forces’ rapid advances in the city. Hawar News Agency reported on November 29 that some fighters from Turkish-backed armed groups in Aleppo were complaining that they had been sacrificed to Assad by a secret Turkey-Russia deal.
Meanwhile in Aleppo, the Kurdish-majority neighbourhood of Sheikh Maqsoud has received over 10,000 refugees from other parts of the city in the past week. The area has been controlled by the YPJ and YPG since 2012, and frequently attacked by SNC-aligned forces, and less frequently by regime forces.
The neighbourhood has been under siege and received no supplies since September last year. Local authorities are therefore struggling to deal with the nutritional, medical and other needs of the refugees and have appealed for international assistance, Hawar News Agency reported on December 1.
On December 4 Hawar News Agency reported that some East Aleppo neighbourhoods had been liberated by YPJ and YPG forces, whose “engineering teams [were] clearing the region from mines and … hundreds of these neighbourhoods’ residents have started coming back to their houses.
“Most people returning home have been displaced few days ago to the neighbourhood of Sheikh Maqsoud escaping the SNC armed affiliates [and] the Baathist regime shelling on their regions.”
Hawar News Agency said that the YPG and YPJ had responded to “the appeals of its residents, and liberated the neighbourhoods, and today refugees began returning to their houses.”