The Syrian civil war continues, with all rival parties remaining entrenched in their respective fragile territorial holdings and political positions. Recent gains by Assad’s forces in Aleppo may mark a watershed moment for the regime, but territorial advances in Syria have constantly proven tenuous, with regular counterattacks re-establishing the status quo. The ability of Assad to ever regain control of all of Syria is questionable. Syria’s future is bleak and uncertain, and 2017 may be the year that the nation is truly undone.
Syria’s brutal war now approaches its sixth year with no clear end in site, and the once tenuous position of the dictatorial regime of Bashar al Assad now appears firmly entrenched in whatever political outcome the future holds. The recent capture of the ancient city of Aleppo by militia troops loyal to Assad has been taken by many as a turning point in the conflict, however the reality is that the Syrian government is unlikely to ever fully recapture what remains of that shattered nation.
Despite the support of Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a militias, the Assad alliance has struggled to regain ground in any meaningful sense beyond the core areas populated by the Alawite and other ethnic groups. Assad’s primary ally, Russia, has found itself increasingly bogged down in what was initially lauded as a brief and decisive campaign, with as many as 15,000 troops now deployed in support of the regime. Through 2016, the ability of Russia’s state budget to sustain the Syrian campaign appeared increasingly questionable, and it seemed likely that Moscow would be forced in the near future to choose between defending a much-loathed dictator, or focusing on defending its own lands against the threat of NATO looming on its Western borders. The U.S. election of Donald Trump may now herald a retraction of sanctions against Russia in early to mid-2017, which in turn will bring economic relief to Russia’s cash-starved government and allow Moscow to sustain its Syrian expedition, and by extension the Syrian government.
Beyond a potential easing of sanctions, Trump has suggested that he is more open to a diplomatic solution with Russia and Assad than his predecessor, and as such Russia may a significantly freer hand in the conflict. Given repeated allegations of war crimes leveled at Russian and Syrian forces and the inhumanity of the recent Aleppo campaign, the concept of an unchecked Syrian alliance is a deeply chilling prospect.
Trump has also frequently criticized the U.S. government’s program of arming rebel forces in Syria, and as such the mixture of opposition forces facing the Assad alliance could find themselves logistically starved early in 2017, allowing further regime advances into the areas of Northern Syria that have already borne the brunt of a vicious war. The ongoing collapse of the Islamic State could also allow the further expansion of Syrian government forces, provided that they avoid further strategic blunders such as their recent defeat by Jihadi forces in Palmyra.
Despite these opportunities now facing Assad, the Syrian Arab Army has been truly shattered by several years of conflict, placing hard manpower limits on his regime. Syrian Army victories are more often than not the work of informal militias loyal to the state, with only a husk of a regular army remaining alive and in post. The recapture of the whole of pre-war Syria by forces loyal to the government is now an impossible prospect, and the cartographic concept of Sykes-Picot Syria now belongs to the historians.
While a full and lasting ceasefire remains unlikely to materialize and persist next year, it is possible that attempts at generating a peace deal may make 2017 the year that Syria begins the process of officially balkanizing into as many as four separate states, if not more. The Kurdish Rojava region has consolidated itself throughout the war, and may now potentially enjoy a Turkish-military buffer between Rojava and the Assad state should the deal to withdraw east of the River Euphrates sustain a Turkish-Kurdish peace along this front. This buffer will make it unlikely for Assad to turn his attention on a region which has largely sat out the war in relative peace.
With Turkish forces now firmly entrenched in the Manbij gap in support of Sunni-Turkmen forces, this area is also unlikely to rejoin the Assad-led state, although this will be highly dependent on Turkey’s ability to sustain military operations in the region following the 2016 post-coup purge of its Air Force and Army, and subsequent manpower and capability stresses.
Northern Syria will continue to experience the bulk of Syria’s fighting throughout 2017 given the multitude of entrenched competing factions in this theatre, and given the fragmented nature of the opposition forces it is highly unlikely that they will consolidate their efforts enough to repel the advancing regime forces. As such, independence for the “Free Syrian Army” regions of the country is a distant and unlikely prospect.
The true tragedy of the war’s distant resolution is that the regime of the Assad family remains in solidly place, and is likely to linger in what remains of the coastal and capital territories of Syria. What began as simple street protests against the optimistic backdrop of the Arab Spring has deteriorated into a parade of violence as a brutal regime clings on to power, notably at the expense of the people it is morally obligated to lead and protect. While Assad will not win the war, the biggest failure is that he also will not lose it.
The dream of the Arab Spring has truly died, and Aleppo is its grave.
Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence officer turned private sector Geopolitical Intelligence Analyst who specialises in the Middle East and North Africa region.