Once Aleppo falls, Western aid to rebels will dry up – top expert on Syria
Syria’s government troops went from a long siege to a fierce offensive that’s pushing the rebels out of their largest stronghold – Aleppo. Now, the US is set to step up its aid to anti-Assad forces and send more arms into the bloodbath. And while the Syrian army pushes on, the Islamic State is making new advances. But, is the fight for Syria reaching a turning point? Will the war finally come to a close in the foreseeable future? We ask a leading voice on Syria, the director of the University of Oklahoma’s Middle East Studies Center – Joshua Landis.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Director of the Middle East Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma, a leading expert on Syria, Joshua Landis, welcome back to the show. It's always great to have you with us.
Joshua Landis: Pleasure being with you.
SS: Now, Professor Landis, we keep hearing that Aleppo is the key to victory for the Syrian government. Most of Aleppo is already under control of Assad forces. Is that really the case - are we nearing the end of this war?
JL: Well, it's not the end of the war, but it is a very important turning point. Aleppo, of course, is a second-largest city in Syria, it's the last major city that the rebels have a real toehold in. This is comparable, in a sense, to what's going on in Iraq, where Mosul is under attack, the second largest city of Iraq, and the government forces are pushing out rebels who have occupied that city. Of course, in Aleppo, it's a much smaller area, but it's happening much more quickly, the retake of this city. So, this is a dramatic moment and it's going to be a turning point because the rebels, in Aleppo, the moderate rebels that the West was arming and training, the U.S. in particular, had their base in Aleppo. Once Aleppo's retaken, the center of gravity for rebel Syria moves over to the province of Idlib and to the city of Idlib, which is dominated by Al-Nusra and other jihadist groups and salafist islamist groups. The West will not be able to support them in the way that they have the rebels in Aleppo. So that will be a major turning point, it's a big blow for rebel-controlled Syria.
SS: In Aleppo, after years of siege, Assad’s forces are now taking neighbourhood after neighbourhood, with progress every day. Why are the rebels collapsing so quickly, what happened?
JL: The big difference, if we compare it to Mosul once again, the big difference is that rebels in Aleppo are divided, they made an effort to unify under one command, but they couldn't do it, because their differences are too big, separating different militias, there's a lot of bitterness, and so once the regime began to move in, and... panic broke out, and the lack of coordination has been the downfall of the rebels from the beginning of this revolution.
SS: Does it even make sense for Assad to negotiate a final peace with the opposition now, or will it press on for an absolute military victory, emboldened by its success in Aleppo?
JL: Damascus is doing both, in a sense. It is pushing for victory, and I think Damascus and President Bashar Al-Assad has been very clear in saying that he's going to re-conquer the entire Syria. At the same time, negotiations are being carried out with militia leaders from one end of Syria to the other. The regime is interested in trying to develop a mechanism in which militias can put down their arms and the population can be re-incorporated into Syria. So, there's a political aspect to this, but there's a heavy military aspect, as you say.
SS: If Assad decided to start peace talks - who would he be talking to, exactly?
JL: Well, that's... he is presently talking to lots of militia heads. Of course, the more salafist jihadi militias, he intends to kill them or drive them out of Syria. I don't think he wants to have any kind of discussion with the more right-wing militias, the islamist militias. But with many other groups that have taken up arms, there are negotiations going on.
SS: Rebel fighters who are now leaving Aleppo, southern Syria, Hama - they all are heading to Idlib. Is that going to make it a lot harder for the Syrian government forces to advance there once they’re done with Aleppo?
JL: You know, that's a good question and I don't know the answer to it. It could, on one hand, but on the other hand, there may be a collapse of morale amongst rebels and many of these rebels that go to Idlib may eventually find their way in Turkey, if they can and put down their arms and try to leave the battlefield. That, I'm sure, is the hope of the Assad government, but it's unclear. It's possible that they will fight bitterly to preserve a region around Idlib. It depends, also, on the help that they get from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab governments.
SS: Does Assad even have enough resources to take back the Sunni-dominated parts of Syria’s north-west?
JL: I believe he does. It is going to be a long fight, but... Assad has amassed about 50,000 troops in Aleppo. There's a snowball effect to winning like this, because more and more Syrians who either sat on the sidelines or have actually been fighting with the rebels, will decide that their best avenue in the future is to join the Syrian military, to take up arms for Assad and to try and find a way to re-integrate into an Assad-controlled Syria, by joining the military. This will lead, I think, to more and more pressure being put on the rebels, and as rebels become more dispirited and see that they don't have an opportunity to win, there will be defections. So, I think, in the end, it's hard to believe that the militias in Idlib we be able to withstand the full brunt of Assad's army.
SS:From what you're describing, it's a long fight. How long will it take, do you think?
JL: That's a good question. I think that the next battle after Aleppo may not be Idlib, it may be up towards al-Bab, and Assad forces may want to limit the extent to which Turkey is able to move down into Syria, and that would mean moving up to al-Bab, trying to take it before Turkey does, and limiting the amount of area in which Turkey has been arming up Arab rebels in the north.
SS: With the north-west of Syria still under rebel control, and the north-east under ISIS, will Damascus now keep attacking the rebels, or is it going to turn around and take the fight to ISIS after Aleppo - in Palmyra?
JL: Well, it's hard to know. I doubt it will go after ISIS in a big way. They're going to want to limit the amount of territory that ISIS might try to take back as they recently did in Palmyra, but the U.S. is destroying ISIS today. With a large coalition. If one were Assad, it would be logical to allow the Americans to destroy ISIS for some time in the future and then to move in, when less Syrian soldiers will be killed trying to fight ISIS. Let the Americans do most of the killing, and then move in and take the territory. That would make most sense. The immediate danger for Assad is this area in the north, which is controlled by Turkey and other Arab militias. Should Turkey be able to train up a larger army of Arab militias, they could become a permanent impediment to Assad re-conquering all of Syria. He doesn't have to worry so much right now about the rebels in Idlib, because they're mostly Salafist, and it's going to be very difficult for the West to support them. He can corral them, in a sense, and surround them, continue to put pressure on them, but his immediate problem is going to be in the north, because the U.S. is arming up the Syrian Democratic forces, as they call them, and it seems that even just recently, President Obama has authorized arming Arab and Syrian rebels in the north, because he wants to take Raqqa. These are going to be danger points for Assad. He's going to want to take that area first.
SS: So, as you say, President Obama has lifted restrictions on arming U.S. allies in Syria. The decision coming so close to the end of his term, it seems like he’s in a real hurry - what’s the rush for Obama?
JL: I think, he's preparing the ground for the next administration, and these are things, that I'm sure have been debate for some time and he doesn't see any reason not to push them forward today, because if he doesn't do them, President Trump will. The military wants them to be done, this is settling certain disputes that have been argued in the Obama administration in the favor of greater military action, more urgent military action.
SS: So tell me, are we talking anti-air defences, heavy weaponry, artillery?
JL: That, we don't know. I'm sure there will be artillery in there, but mostly it's legalizing what's been going on surreptitiously. So, it just formalizes the process of arming and training the Syrian Democratic forces, as they're called by the U.S., which are in part Kurdish, but there's an Arab elite forces that America wants to build in order to re-take Raqqa, and that's the real focus today of the U.S. administration, and, I think, will be of the Trump administration, which is to destroy the capital of ISIS, Raqqa.
SS: What happens if an American-made anti-air missile shoots down a Russian jet in Syria, is Obama not wary of this kind of crisis?
JL: I think he is and I doubt this will include MANPADS or any kind of surface-to-air missile of any real quality, because ISIS does not have airplanes, they don't need missiles to shoot down ISIS aircraft, and it would be much too dangerous. We've seen already for 5 and a half years, the U.S. has forbidden the use of any... or attempted to forbid the use of ground-to-air missiles that are sophisticated enough to potentially shoot down a jet airliner. The U.S. is very worried that an Israeli plane could be shot down, that this would be used to shoot down Turkish planes, or other planes in the region.
SS: Who exactly does Washington want to arm in Syria - we know that jihadists like the al-Nusra front end up using American weapons earmarked for “moderates”, so does this mean the U.S. actually wants to arm Salafists, or do politicians still believe in some kind of moderate force?
JL: That's a very good question, and as you say, the problem in the past has been that every attempt the U.S. has made to train and equip and provide weaponry to Arab militias, Sunni militias, in Syria, those militias have either been taken over by more salafist and right-wing militias, or they have defected to them, and the flow of weapons has constantly been moving from these more moderate militias towards the Salafist militias, and in many cases, the two have cooperated together fighting on the same front, so it's very difficult to separate the militias that the U.S. wants to arm from the more salafist militias, that you say, that are allied with Al-Qaeda in Syria. This has been the problem. Today, the question is Raqqa. How do you destroy ISIS? The U.S .wanted to arm up the Kurdish, primarily the Kurdish forces, of the Syrian Democratic forces that they have been working with to take and to push back ISIS quite successfully in Northern Syria. The Turks objected furiously to this. Two things went wrong: first, the Kurds have been unsuccessful in trying to surround Raqqa, because they don't really want to do this, if someone else is going to take it. It's Arab territory, they are mostly interested in moving over to Afrin, and secondly, the Turks are having a hard time unifying and developing a strong Arab army that could actually move down to Raqqa and face ISIS. This has put pressure on the U.S. to organize some special forces, as they call it, Syrian Sunni Arab special forces that could take Raqqa and hold it. Now, whether they can actually do that - this will be the fourth different iteration, the fourth attempt to arm and train Sunni rebels, and, perhaps, the fourth time will be lucky, we'll have to see.
SS:The Syrian government forces have been getting help from the Kurdish troops in the fight against ISIS - what do the Kurds expect to get in return for their support of Damascus - and what will they get?
JL: That's a superb question! Of course, the Kurds and Bashar Assad have two very different ambitions. So far, they've been able to be, in a sense, tacit allies, because the rebels and ISIS have separated the two, and so both see the rebels as a greater enemy than the other. On the other hand, the Kurds want a nation, and they want independence or a large degree of autonomy, which would allow them to establish their own state and society along the northern border with Turkey. The Syrian government, of course, is interested in reconquering and taking all of Syria and keeping it together as one. How those two are going to fit together in the end is unclear. Russia already tried to intercede in order to negotiate some kind of autonomy agreement. Assad rejected this effort and said: "no, it's too soon, we're not going to negotiate about it now". Largely, I believe, that's because Assad is weak and he believes that with time, his army is going to get a lot stronger and he'll be in a much better negotiating position. So, the Kurds and Assad have been able to work together in places like Aleppo, but it's going to come down to very difficult negotiations, and perhaps, the enmity of president Erdogan and Turkey for the Kurds will force the Kurds into the arms of Assad and to look for protection against Turkey in Syria, inside, integral to Syria, and this may force them to compromise on the amount of autonomy they're willing to settle for. That, I think, it’s Assad's hope in the future.
SS: Are the Turkish forces really going to leave once they’re done with ISIS, or are they going to stay and we’ll have a potential Turkey-Syria conflict on our hands?
JL: I wish I could answer that question, that's a very important question. Much will depend on the strength of Assad's army coming out of Aleppo, and two, on the extent to which Russia is willing to back up president Assad and his military. It doesn't make sense for the Turks to dig in their heels and go to war against Syria for a tiny little enclave north of Aleppo. On the other, the Turks are going to want to negotiate in exchange for that, and they're going to want to be sure that the Kurds do not get independence, do not unify their different enclaves and are not a permanent, in a sense, safe zone for the PKK in Turkey. That is something that Assad will be able to bargain about with the Turks, perhaps, in an effort to get them out of Syria altogether.
SS: You know, sometimes I think that ISIS is the only force keeping all the others from fighting each other? What do you think? Is the ISIS threat keeping the larger peace between potential enemies, so to speak?
JL: Yes. ISIS is the common glue, it keeps the U.S. from attacking Assad more vigorously, because the U.S. right from almost the beginning of ISIS has been worried that should it undermine Assad too much, ISIS might take Damascus, which would be a very big disaster for the U.S. and this has forced the U.S., in a sense, into a tacit alliance, with Assad. Because it doesn't want ISIS to expand further in Syria.
SS: There's been a lot of talk about Syria's disintegration. What do you think? Does Syria risk being partitioned by the end of the war, with a non-Sunni state on the sea coast, a Sunni state in the north and centre, Kurds near the Turkish borders etc.? Would that be a good outcome of the war?
JL: From the beginning of the Syrian conflict, most Syrians, almost all Syrians said that they did not want to divide Syria, that they want a unified Syria. Mostly, it was foreigners who talked about dividing up, in a same way that it was foreigners who talked about diving up Iraq. Today, we're seeing more and more Syrians favor partition, largely because the rebels are losing today, and they don't want to be pushed out altogether. On the other hand, that's a minority voice. Most Syrians want to see unified Syria. The international community also has stuck by the notion that sovereignty is important, that Middle Eastern borders are important to maintain, that if you fiddle with them in one country, you'll have to open up questions of irredentism all over the Middle East, because, of course, all these borders were drawn after WWI, they are all artificial to a certain extent, and they all separate different ethnic tribal and religious groups in a way that doesn't always make sense. So, I think the international community is determined to try and keep these borders and most Syrians are as well. That will, of course, weigh in the favor of president Assad as he moves forward to retake areas, whether it's from Turkey, or ISIS or other rebels, because the international community will be reluctant to jump forward and try to defend these enclaves by saying: "Yes, we can divide Syria."
SS: Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador, wrote in the New York Times that Washington has a window of opportunity to end the war in Syria - if it works with Russia. Can the U.S. afford to change course abruptly and work with Moscow in Syria - after so many years of doing the opposite?
JL: Well, I think it can work with Russia and it has to work with Russia. Russia is the dominant power in Syria. Russia's not going away, Russia's determined to help Assad reconquer his country. We just heard the ex-Secretary of Defence say the other day in NYT article that "Assad is determined to retake his country and Russia wants that" - so we have to, the U.S. has to come to grips with this fact, and it's not going to oppose it. We saw president Obama, in September, a year ago, when Russia entered into this war, he said very clearly: the U.S. is not going to fight a proxy war with Russia for Syria. That was a very clear statement that, I think, made it very clear to the rebels, that U.S. was not going to come over the hill, the cavalry was not going to come and save them. So, the U.S. has really already come to grips with the fact that it has to work with Russia, and, in a sense, president Obama has tacitly been working with Russia over the last year and a half, in disambiguating the air forces, in a sense, coming up with an agreement over that the U.S. is going to work in east of Syria, where ISIS is, and Russia would work in the rest of Syria. So, there's been a notion that the U.S. is not going to try and drive Russia out of Syria - and that, I think, will only become more official and, in a sense, more embedded as President Trump comes to office.
SS: Well, talking about Trump, I want to get your opinion on that. He says that working with Assad might be needed to solve the Syrian crisis - but his Defence Secretary nominee James Mattis and his advisors may not be so keen. Do you think Trump will follow through on his idea? Will the Pentagon let him?
JL: All think-thanks in Washington are debating this exact question today, and there's tremendous pressure in the U.S., after demonizing Assad's regime and looking at the unfolding of this war for the last five years, it will be very difficult for the U.S. to work with Assad. Probably the best that Assad can expect is a hands-off policy, where the U.S. closes its eyes to matters in Syria and doesn't try to actively undermine Syria. The big question will be sanctions. The U.S. has piled on sanctions, and since 1970s, which really is going to harm any ability for president Assad in the future to rebuild the economy, bring refugees back from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and to begin to feed the Syrian people and rebuild his country. That's going to be a big problem for the U.S. - does it keep on pushing sanctions in order to starve the regime and punish it, or does it allow Assad to rebuild his economy and to bring the Syrians home?
SS: Alright, Professor Landis, thank you very much for this detailed overview of situation in Syria, around Syria. We've been talking to Joshua Landis, a top expert on Syria, Director of the Middle East Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma, discussing the latest developments in the Syrian conflict and if the country is getting anywhere closer to peace. That's it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.
JL: Thank you, Sophie, it's a pleasure.