Two coordinated surprise offensives by Syrian rebels last week have rattled the Damascus regime and threatened to derail the start of the fifth round of political talks in Geneva.
An alliance of rebel groups fighting under the banner of Tahrir Al-Sham had managed to launch lightening raids against government-held areas in the heart of the capital and in north Hama, scoring quick gains before Russian aircraft intervened forcing a shaky stalemate. The Damascus offensive was preceded by two car suicide-bombings that killed scores of civilians, according to the regime.
What came as a shock for many is the fact that Tahrir Al-Sham Headquarters, which is controlled mainly by Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham (formerly the Al-Nusra Front), is emerging as a major force on the ground and is able to wage operations that stretch from Idlib to Hama and from Damascus to Daraa.
The group has teamed up with another rebel faction, Failaq Al-Rahman, which is part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham is on top of the list of terrorist organizations, along with Daesh, and is not represented in the Astana and Geneva talks.
Despite Russian aerial intervention, along with Shiite militia back-up of government forces on the ground, fighting is continuing. At one stage rebel fighters were able to create a corridor connecting Jobar and Al-Qaboun districts of Damascus, cutting off government forces and closing in on the heart of the capital. They later retreated but not before underlining their ability to engage regime forces at the doorsteps of President Bashar Assad’s palace.
Following the fall of Aleppo last December and the ensuing unsteady cease-fire, the rules of engagement appear to have changed.
These coordinated offensives also revealed the vulnerability of government forces, which are fighting on multiple fronts and can hardly maintain their supply routes. Without aerial cover these forces, suffering from fatigue and low morale, are rarely a match for battle-hardened rebel fighters. After more than six years, the map of Syria resembles a mosaic of many bits and pieces of areas changing hands on almost weekly basis.
The timing of the two offensives is also intriguing. It came less than a week before the launch of a fifth round of Geneva talks; one that is supposed to address four key issues including terrorism and political transition. The regime’s envoy used the incident to point out that so-called moderate rebel groups were now fighting along terrorist organizations. Bashar Ja’afari insisted that talks should focus primarily on confronting terrorism ahead of anything else. If the offensives were aimed at derailing or damaging the Geneva talks they almost succeeded.
Turkey and the Gulf
The regime accused Turkey and Gulf countries of bankrolling the latest rebel offensive. While there is no evidence to support this, it is certainly possible that some powers, like Turkey, would want to improve their bargaining position on Syria. Ankara’s role in Syria has become critical since it supported an FSA incursion into the north that was finally stopped at the outskirts of Manbij two weeks ago.
Ankara is disenchanted with Washington’s backing of largely Syrian Kurdish militias, which will constitute the bulk of a military force, supported by the coalition that is closing in on Raqqa, the capital of Daesh in Syria. Adding to Turkey’s anxiety is the apparent warming up between Moscow and Syrian Kurds in the Afrin area near Aleppo, where Russia has deployed ground troops.
The offensives in Damascus and Hama could also be interpreted as an additional form of pressure on the regime to embrace the political process and take it more seriously. While neither Russia nor Iran will allow Damascus to fall, the fact that Jobar and Al-Qaboun remain in the hands of rebels until now must be a cause of great concern to the regime.
Another possible scenario is that certain powers want to rehabilitate Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham — the group dropped the Al-Nusra Front name and appeared to sever ties with Al-Qaeda last year — and introduce Tahrir Al-Sham as a new player. The new Sunni alliance has presented itself not only as a fierce enemy of Daesh, but also of Iran-backed militias. With American troops now on the ground in northern Syria, Washington is reviewing its medium- and long-term objectives. One of these objectives is to undercut Iran’s influence in both Syria and Iraq, something that most Arab countries eagerly support.
As the Geneva talks drag on, and they will for some time before any meaningful outcome emerges, the balance of power on the ground will continue to sway back and forth but red lines will not be crossed. Following the fall of Aleppo last December and the ensuing unsteady cease-fire, the rules of engagement appear to have changed.
Players will not be allowed to extend their territorial gains any further, while Washington and Moscow search for a mutually acceptable formula in Syria that is bound to redraw the geopolitical map of this region and beyond.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.