THE SYRIAN CIVIL War, which has raged for over three years, is now quietly and out of the limelight, moving towards its endgame. As Iraq has fallen apart and the Israel/Gaza conflict has erupted, the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS), the extreme hardline militant group, has seized control of large parts of eastern Syria. Using weaponry captured in Iraq like tanks and artillery, it has mounted a large offensive against other moderate rebel groups and the Kurdish enclaves in Syria’s north. IS has also captured some territory from the Syrian regime.
For its part, the regime has launched airstrikes against IS but has mostly focused its efforts on pushing back the moderate opposition around the cities of Aleppo and Homs.
This appears to be the next phase of the conflict, the moderate rebels being squeezed simultaneously by IS and the regime forces. The moderate rebels are the weakest and least unified of all the factions in Syria and represent the easiest pickings in terms of territory and resources. The Assad regime has more than likely given up retaking control of the east of Syria, which is the Sunni heartland and the natural support base for IS. It will instead likely focus on crushing the remaining moderate rebels in western Syria and consolidating its hold over the south and west. This region is home to most of Syria’s Shia and Christian citizens, who make more natural regime supporters, particularly in the face of the Islamic State’s brutality and extremism.
The Kurdish enclave in the north of Syria, with its own army, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) has held out against IS attacks, and with the support of fellow Kurds in Iraq and Turkey will continue to do so. The Kurdish regions in Syria may lose the occasional border town but they will hold their own as an autonomous entity with de-facto independence. The parallel conflicts between the separate Kurdish governments in Iraq and Syria with the Islamic State will act to integrate the two regions and administrations. This process will only increase the calls for a unified, independent Kurdistan, creating tension and maybe conflict with Turkey.
A Syrian woman and her daughter, who fled their home due to fighting between the Syrian army and the rebels, take refuge at Bab Al-Salameh border crossing, hoping to cross to one of the refugee camps in Turkey, near Azaz, Syria. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
Assad will likely emerge from this conflict
The Islamic State and the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad have emerged as the big winners in Syria after three years of carnage. Contrary to all the hopeful predictions and demands of the world powers after Assad’s brutal suppression of peaceful protests back in 2011, it now looks like he will hang on to power with the help of Iran, Hezbollah and rebel infighting. While his country may have been reduced in size, he will retain control of his heartlands in the south and west, and over the most of Syria’s major cities and population centres. It is now very likely that a country calling itself Syria and ruled by Assad will emerge from this conflict, reduced in size and devastated by war but very much alive.
The fate of the “Caliphate” proclaimed by the Islamic State is harder to predict. Internal tensions between different Sunni groupings and tribes, particularly with IS and also with each other may tear the new entity apart, and see parts of Syria and Iraq descend into faction fighting. Under this scenario a concerted effort by the Shia regimes in Baghdad and Damascus could retake much if not all of the territory lost to IS over the last year. If on the other hand IS manages to make the Caliphate stay together, a unified Sunni front under their command could see them capture even more territory in Syria and Iraq, and maybe expand their operations to other countries in the region.
Non-IS aligned rebels
The clear losers in this situation are the non-IS aligned rebels in Syria. Both the regime and IS will focus on capturing their remaining territory and resources. Both have separate centres of power, and so can afford to focus less attention on each other while they work to pick off weak rebel positions. The exception to this will be in the next few weeks as IS seeks to drive the regime from its last positions in eastern Syria and consolidate its hold.
Once it has established its base however, it will more than likely focus on expanding its territory at the expense of the fragmented opposition. Likewise the regime will take advantage of fractures in the rebel ranks and the distraction of IS to retake Homs and Aleppo among other sites.
The endgame in Syria is approaching. The conflict still has a way to go, but its final outcome is starting to take shape, mostly through the advances made by IS and the resurgent Assad regime.
Niall McGlynn is a graduate in history and science from Trinity College Dublin. He has written articles on Irish and global affairs for Trinity News, and blogs on both with his brothers at http://lazyhermes.blogspot.ie/ and tweets at @NiallMcGlynn1.