What will 2016 bring for the Syrian Civil War? Although it impossible to predict the conflict’s outcome, it has stretched on long enough for a general trajectory to be anticipated, and sadly this year is unlikely to be a regional game-changer.
Assad, in all probability, will not fall this year. Earlier during the conflict, he staged what was effectively a tactical withdrawal from most of the country into an Alawite stronghold rump. Located in the west, its main cities are Damascus, Latakia and Hama. With his limited reliable forces (Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed Shia and Alawite militias), this is more easily defendable than the larger Sunni heartland in the country’s centre and east.
Having said that though, this Alawite rump proved somewhat vulnerable, as was seen by last year’s Jaish el-Fatah (Army of Conquest) offensive. JeF is an Islamist rebel bloc backed by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Combining Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood-style groups, it fights the Syrian regime, Hezbollah and the Islamic State. Its most important faction is the Salafi Ahrar e-Sham, and it previously contained Jabhat al Nusra (Al Qaeda of Syria), but they split in October 2015. JeF is currently one of, if not the most singularly effective rebel coalitions operating in Syria.
In the summer of 2015, JeF launched a westward offensive towards the Alawite heartland. It would have likely achieved success, had Russia not initiated its own military intervention. As such, this element of the Civil War has come to somewhat of a stalemate: the rump remains safe with Russian support, and JeF lack the strength to take it and collapse the regime. Although JeF’s backers could pour more money and arms into the organisation, Russia could simply respond in turn by escalating the support its own military leviathan provides the regime.
If 2014 was Islamic State’s year, 2015 was when its decline began. This trend can be expected to continue this year, too. The Islamic State is remarkable in how it has united Iran, Russia and the West (the UK, US and France) in one front dedicated to its degrading and destruction. Last year saw a gradual reduction in the territory it holds in both Syria and Iraq in the aftermath of successful rebel and Kurdish offensives. This trend can be expected to continue, but not with significant momentum. As Ramadi and Tikrit have fallen, so too will Mosul and Raqqa, but in all probability not this year.
Aware of its own weaknesses and diminishing prospects, Islamic State is likely to focus outwards in an attempt to divert attention from this fact. The most likely form these actions will take is “spectacular” terrorist attacks in the West. More attacks on the lines of November 2015’s atrocities in Paris will be attempted, but are likely to vary in success. They will also serve as a tactic in the Islamic State’s strategy to eclipse Al Qaeda as the world’s leading Sunni Jihadi group. Al Qaeda may respond by launching their own attacks against the West, similar to the Charlie Hebdo shootings of January 2015.
Of all of Syria’s warring factions, the Kurds are set to gain the most in the coming year. They are gradually becoming more recognised as the region’s most effective anti-Islamic State fighting force, and as such can anticipate receiving more Western support. The symbiotic relationship between the Syrian YPG and Turkish PKK which is classified as a terrorist entity by the US and EU may cause some complications. However, this has not prevented the West providing air cover for the YPG’s operations, i.e. retaking Kobane from the Islamic State.
Daniel J Levy