As the world’s focus remains firmly fixed on the Kurdish enclave of Kobani, under assault for three weeks now by a relentless and determined Islamic State (IS) force despite airstrikes by the US-led coalition, other significant events on the Syrian battlefield have largely gone unnoticed. As the Syrian army, backed by various local and foreign militias, makes significant gains in both Damascus and Aleppo, the question being raised is whether President Bashar al-Assad is the ultimate beneficiary of the coalition's campaign against IS and other jihadist groups.
The short answer is yes. The long answer is, as always with the Syrian conflict, complicated. The regional anti-IS campaign is steadily gaining momentum, with Syria’s powerful northern neighbor under enormous pressure to join. Turkey’s involvement is crucial if the campaign is to have any chance at success, but Ankara's anxiety over empowering the Kurdistan Workers Party-linked Kurdish rebels battling IS, including in Kobani, as well as preconditions to establish border buffer areas and no-fly zones with the ultimate goal of ousting Assad likely mean Turkey will remain an ineffectual and reluctant ally.
Turkey is frustrated, and rightfully so, that it is expected to provide the much-needed "boots on the ground" when other key players in the coalition have refused to do so, prompting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to go on an anti-Western tirade. Caught between a rock and a hard place, whatever decisions the Turkish leadership takes now will have a profound impact on the future of the whole region and the dynamics of the conflicts reshaping it.
This Turkish turmoil greatly complicates the already muddled picture of the Syrian conflict, and that’s just fine as far as Damascus is concerned. Greater global scrutiny and alarm at the rise of jihadist groups in Syria and the roles some US allies and key supporters of the Syrian opposition may have played in that is translating into tighter border controls and severe restrictions on the flow of men, funds and weapons that have fueled the Syrian conflict for so long.
Indirectly, the "moderate" rebels, or to whomever that distinction actually implies on the ground, are being steadily suffocated and deprived of the necessary oxygen to keep their war against the regime alive. Furthermore, in a harsh rebuke, neither they nor the umbrella opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Coalition, has been invited to the 21-nation IS war conference, a clear signal that they are no longer considered relevant, with plans afoot to replace them by a rebel force built from scratch.
Ready to take advantage of all this has been the ever-resourceful and opportunistic Syrian leadership, launching wide-scale ground assaults in Damascus and Aleppo, as well as unprecedented aerial bombing of rebel positions. The London-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights counted 40 sorties in one day.
In Damascus, regime forces have been making inroads into rebel-held areas of Ghouta, especially in the strategic Ain Tarma area and Jobar, which has been pounded by airstrikes. In Aleppo, the target again seems to be to pressure civilians as much as it is to gain strategic military advantage. In this war, the dirty tactic of targeting civilians, directly and indirectly, is a longstanding one, employed liberally by all the warring camps.
Regime forces pushed into the strategically vital Handarat area, taking Handarat town as well as surrounding villages and threatening the Handarat refugee camp, the real prize there. Handarat had been a loyalist Palestinian refugee camp until it was overrun by rebel forces as they pushed to consolidate their grip on Aleppo city in late 2012. In fact, many members of the pro-regime Al-Quds Brigades hail from Handarat and have been active in the fighting that has raged east of Aleppo city around the airport, as well as this latest push to retake the camp.
Should the regime manage to capture the camp, it would cut off the last supply route linking rebel-held east Aleppo city with the rebel-dominated countryside, effectively choking off both groups of rebels and the civilians still living there, thought to number around 200,000. This would be a devastating blow to the rebel movement in Aleppo, likely marking the beginning of the end for them. Crucially — and this is one of the major conundrums of the Syrian conflict — a Chechen-dominated jihadist group, Jaish al-Muhajreen (Army of Emigrants), fighting on the Handarat front, has been receiving assistance from the US-backed and -armed Hazem Movement, which has used TOW missiles to take out regime armor.
Meanwhile, in the southern Aleppo countryside, Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist group, launched its own campaign, dubbed Za’eer al-Ahrar (Roar of the Free), to take the strategically vital defense factories, which not only produce ammunition for the Syrian regime, but the notorious barrel bombs as well. The helicopters that drop them take off from there. The defense factories overlook the strategic town of Sfireh, and taking them would cut off the only supply route to regime forces in Aleppo as well as to the civilian population in the west of the city. Ahrar al-Sham managed to take some nearby villages, but its campaign proved to be abortive, its fighters' gains were quickly reversed.
The dire circumstances of the rebels have been further compounded by IS’ slow push to the north, toward their stronghold towns of Marea and Azaz. For now, the IS effort is muted, but will no doubt pick up when the group is finished with Kobani. Should this happen, it is unclear whether the coalition will provide the rebels with air support as it is now doing for the beleaguered Kurds. What is clear, however, is that Aleppo’s rebels are hoping desperately that the fight for Kobani will drag on indefinitely, as a victory or even a rout by IS there would likely see the jihadists next turn their attention to them.
All indications are that the Syrian regime is currently benefiting from military action against IS, but as circumstances change and new objectives arise, it may well find itself in the crosshairs and potentially on the receiving end of those same coalition bombs.