Assad’s military momentum

TSG IntelBrief: On February 2, Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air support, continued a major push to cut rebel supply lines north of Aleppo. On top of recent successes against the rebels elsewhere, it appears that President Assad is determined to maintain military momentum even while peace talks stutter along in Geneva. In fact, given the opposition demand for a ceasefire against civilians—as called for by Security Council resolution 2254 (2015) adopted in mid-December—Assad’s actions appear calculated to bring the peace talks to a halt.

This is understandable for Assad, but unfortunate for Syria. Opposition groups have come a long way towards agreeing to a common position since the last attempt to hold talks in early 2014, and their representatives are far more likely to be able to implement an agreement now. The previous talks suffered from a disconnect between the political opposition around the table and the fighters on the ground, as well as from disagreements surrounding objectives. Efforts by Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia—aided by the United States—have brought the majority of rebel groups together as the High Negotiations Committee (HNC). And although the alliance is fragile—and the extent to which it also represents Ahrar al-Sham, a key element of the opposition, remains unclear—the HNC has more credibility than any opposition alliance that has emerged previously.

The so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN) are expressly excluded from the HNC, as they are from the peace talks. Ahrar al-Sham, though a deeply conservative Islamist group that was originally seen as a sister organization to JaN, has steadily distanced itself from the global aspirations of al-Qaeda towards a strictly nationalist platform with no stated ambition beyond Syria. This has created divisions among its supporters and led to the assassinations of its leaders, but the group has nonetheless survived as a major force. JaN has tried repeatedly to merge with Ahrar al-Sham before it drifts too far away, but recent talks collapsed when JaN agreed to change its name, but not to abandon its affiliation to al-Qaeda. Tensions between the two groups have risen as a result and have led to armed clashes. JaN now faces an impending split as pressure builds to relax its hard line. [Continue reading…]

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