During his election campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly said that he considers the fight against the Islamic State (IS) to be America’s biggest challenge in the Middle East, not the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. He made it clear that he was willing to cooperate with Russia to meet this challenge. At the same time, we will only really be able to speculate on the possibility of a new ‘meeting on the Elbe River’ between the US and Russia, this time somewhere on the Euphrates River, after the new president has taken office. Yet the assumptions about such a possibility themselves are impacting on the nature of military operations in the region and the behaviour of those involved, allowing certain predictions to be made.
Despite all of its fanatical persistence, the defeat of IS is a foregone conclusion given the current balance of power. So as well as fierce fighting in the theatre of war, there is also another battle unfolding beneath the surface, and that battle is for who will have future control over the vast territories in Syria and Iraq liberated from IS. The ultimate beneficiary of the war may be whoever manages to tear off the biggest piece of the prize. IS has not yet been completely finished off, but its hide is already being divided up to the accompaniment of growing differences between all those involved in the process.
For example, serious differences between NATO allies Turkey and the US are increasingly coming into sharp focus. The conflict between the pro-Turkish Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the pro-American Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), composed largely of Kurds, for control over the northern province of Aleppo and the right to lead the assault on the IS capital of Raqqa is at risk of turning into a full-scale war. The White House has explicitly demanded that Turkey give up its solo advance to the city, while Erdogan is possibly bluffing when he talks of the probable severing of strategic relations with Washington if the latter does not stop flirting with the Kurds, and even when he talks of Ankara’s accession to the SCO.
That said, however, the total amount of grievances that Turkey has accumulated against America, including on the most sensitive issues, is really rather substantial. The situation is compounded by Turkey and America’s guests in Syria themselves, who are far from reliable. Among other things, the head of the FSA has stated that instead of Raqqa, he is going to attack the part of Aleppo being blocked by the government. The Kurds in the SDF, meanwhile, are taking their time to withdraw to the east of the Euphrates River, as requested by US Vice President Joe Biden, and clearly have no desire to storm the heavily fortified city of Raqqa.
In these circumstances, the situation is looking up for the government’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies. At present, along with considerable progress in eastern and southern Aleppo in the last few days, the SAA is building up its forces close to the Kuweires Military Airbase for a subsequent advance on the city of Al-Bab and the isolation of IS in northern Aleppo. This will stop opposition groups representing the interests of foreign powers advancing deeper into Syria. The SAA will also become a buffer that will prevent a possible bloody confrontation between them.
Yet it seems that separate clashes between government forces and opposition fighters, especially from the FSA, will not be completely avoided. It is unlikely that opponents of the regime will receive support for this from their mentors overseas, however. Given the relatively difficult situation he is in, it does not look like Erdogan is ready to sever relations with Moscow again. Especially as he has, in fact, already been ‘allowed’ to achieve several important strategic objectives in northern Syria to ensure Turkey’s national security.
Concerned about the not altogether successful progress of the operation to liberate Mosul, Washington also has no interest in significantly escalating its military presence in Syria. The pro-US Kurds will not start entering into clashes with the SAA on their own outside of their own ethnic territory, since the fate of many Kurdish enclaves that lie outside of their main territory, such as Afrin and the Aleppo quarter known as Sheikh Maksoud, depends on the government. Washington and Ankara could even breath a sigh of relief, since the appearance of the SAA in northern Aleppo is the only thing capable of overcoming the current stalemate there. Yet it is likely that the main attack against IS by government forces will not follow here, but further south.
While the world’s attention has been focused on the situation in Aleppo, equally important events are taking place in the Greater Damascus region that could have a fundamental impact on the entire course of the war in Syria. Throughout the civil war, the Syrian capital has been protected by up to half of the national army’s most combat-ready units. After all, if even a few thousand fighters suddenly burst onto the streets of the capital, they could cause a lot of trouble.
In recent months and even days, thanks to a flexible combination of continuous military pressure and peaceful diplomacy, the government has managed to take back control of significant areas on the outskirts of the capital that were previously in the hands of jihadists. A series of enclaves have been liberated to the west of Damascus in the sensitive region of Western Ghouta. In the recently surrendered town of Khan al-Shih, for example, 3,700 soldiers from the 4th Mechanised Division and the 7th Tank Division immediately became available to be deployed to other parts of the front. What was once a vast territory controlled by fighters in Eastern Ghouta is getting smaller all the time. It is highly probable that it will be possible to put the squeeze on it under the same conditions as the western suburbs (the authorities in Damascus allowed those willing to go to Idlib to take their personal weapons with them).
There are around 1,500 IS militants in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the south of the capital who remain implacable. It is worth noting that the government has ‘generously’ given them 30 days to surrender. It seems that this deadline indirectly refers to the time frames for further operations in this part of the country set by Syria’s military and political leadership – to completely secure Damascus and free up the forces located there for extensive strategic operations by the end of the year. It is likely that this group will number at least 25-30,000 soldiers and that it will be given the primary objective of defeating IS in Syria. Following the liberation of eastern Aleppo, the units active in and around the city will most likely be primarily involved in cleaning up Idlib province.
Thus the SAA will find itself in a situation where it is able to solve its main problem – a lack of soldiers and trained military professionals. This is evidenced by the 4,000 junior officers who recently joined the army immediately upon finishing their training at the Homs Military Academy. Despite all the vicissitudes of the war, this reserve force, capable of strengthening the army considerably, has protected itself so far and has not been used. Everything points to the fact that by the end of January, the SAA, together with its allies and Russian Aerospace Forces, will be fully ready to move from fighting mostly jihadists in the centre of the country to a general offensive on IS positions.
It seems reasonable that the main focus of this offensive is not even Raqqa, but through Palmyra to the centre of the homonymous Deir ez-Zor province situated on the Euphrates River. In this city nearly 150 km away from Palmyra, the government garrison, numbering more than 2,500, has been under siege for more three years. Relieving the garrison has both a moral and a strategic importance, since it is through Deir ez-Zor that IS militants in Syria and Iraq make contact with each other. Separating them will not just help defeat them one by one, but will also prevent the extremely dangerous movement of defeated IS militants from Mosul to Syria.
Damascus will also be ready to address these challenges alone within the time frame specified. The issue is the cost and the heavy death toll that the country may once again have to deal with. So if the new US administration headed by Donald Trump actually does decide to take an active part in the operation to destroy the Islamic quasi-state once and for all, then it is completely possible that this would be agreed to.
Why shouldn’t the Russian advisers to the Syrian army and the US advisers to the Iraqi army actually hold a ‘friendly meeting’ on the banks of the Euphrates River? It would be a pretty good start to building more civilised relations between the two countries, which is essentially what America voted for. Trump recently appointed Lieutenant General Michael Flynn to be his new National Security Adviser, for example, and judging by everything that is known about him, he is perfectly capable of doing something like this.
And those who say that Donald Trump may demand too high a price from the Russians for his willingness to cooperate with Moscow in Syria are wrong. He needs it just as much as them, if not more. The speedy defeat of IS right at the beginning of his first term in office, despite all the prophecies, could easily shut up Trump’s many critics and seriously strengthen his position. And if Moscow, Damascus and Washington cooperate, such an outcome is completely possible. Hopefully Trump understands this and has enough strength to overcome any possible resistance among that part of the American elite prejudiced against him.