Last stand of the Syrian rebellion?

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Image: Bakr AlKasem (all rights reserved, used with permission)

Analysis article from the summer 2019 issue of Middle East Solidarity magazine. Download a pdf or order a print copy here.

The Assad regime’s brutal assault on Idlib and Hama may bring temporary military victory, says Abdulsalam Dallal, but the massacres it is committing will not be forgotten.

Syria is back in the news. The Assad regime and its allies including Russia launched a massive military campaign on the northern Hama countryside and Idlib province in May, targeting residential areas and hospitals, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes and take shelter in olive tree fields. Most news agencies have already warned that a humanitarian disaster could take place if the offensive does not stop. The regime seeks to justify the offensive using “anti-terrorist” propaganda. However, we must remember that this has been the regime’s narrative since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 2011.

Throughout the past eight years, the regime and its allies have managed the conflict and alternating periods of direct targeting of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other rebel factions with long periods of siege warfare which froze the frontlines. The regime has consistently exercised collective punishment of civilians by siege and bombardment. Many of the Syrian regime’s supporters in the media repeatedly complained that the “social incubators” of the opposition were as dangerous as the militants, offering a pretext to justify the killing of civilians. However, in order to spare itself and its allies costly battles on the ground, the regime has sometimes attempted to find local political solutions. They launched the so-called “national reconciliation” protocol, through which the opposition surrendered terrain to the Assad army and its allies.

This “reconciliation with the regime” took place in the southern city of Dera’a and the towns of the Damascus countryside, following months of siege and bombardment of these areas which exhausted the civilian population and pressurised the opposition fighters to accept this solution. This tactic was adopted after a first experiment in mid-2016 during the siege of Aleppo. However, the regime would later forcibly recruit those fighters to its army so they would serve as cannon fodder on other frontlines. Moreover, the Assad regime started detaining and torturing opposition members who were wanted by one or other security service for political dissent. This worried civilians in other areas of Syria which witnessed siege and bombardment.

Second, the regime offered those who do not want to come to its areas or reconcile with the regime the option of “evacuation.” In reality this meant mass evictions to areas of northern Syria still under the control of the opposition: the northern and eastern countryside of Aleppo and the Idlib governorate. The evacuation of civilians and combatants to northern Syria was a crucial part of the Assad regime’s conflict management policy. It was synchronized with the Astana peace talks which took place in January 2017. The Astana talks entailed freezing the frontlines and evicting civilians and combatants and their families to northern Syria, as the regime and its allies realized that granting safe passage to large numbers of opposition fighters and civilians to northern Syria, would allow the regime to take back control and claim victory in major cities like Aleppo and Damascus and its suburbs.

The concentration of armed opposition factions in one geographical area then led them to exhaust themselves with infighting over resources and ideological differences. Hayet Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) fought its way to hegemony over most of the Idlib governorate. As the battles against the regime stopped, funding for armed opposition factions dried up. The role of HTS in the area is used to mislead international audiences into believing that terrorists are in control of Idlib, thus ensuring diplomatic silence over the regime’s massacres of civilians. However, the recent offensive of northern Hama countryside must not only be read with the light of the regime’s aim of smothering the revolution and finishing it off. It is also a way to divert its own supporters’ attention back towards a military victory.

It comes after Assad’s supporters posted video clips and wrote on social media criticizing the government’s inability to meet the needs of the population living under its control such as cooking gas, transportation and heating fuel. The Assad regime also wanted to get rid of some embarrassing allies – Iranian-backed militias – by exhausting them in battles against veteran opposition ground forces with little choice but to fight for their lives. The regime may take military control over the last strongholds of the Opposition in northern Hama and Idlib.

However, the massacres which it is committing will not be soon forgotten, and neither will the revolution that saw the people rise up and say no to Assad. The reaction to the recent killing in Idlib, of Abdelbasset Sarout, a wellknown revolutionary figure and former goal-keeper in the Syrian national football team, indicates that memories of the revolution are still alive. Tributes poured out in regimecontrolled areas like Latakia, Homs and Daraa, where thousands anonymously grieved for the “Keeper of the Revolution,” alongside those from opposition areas.

Abdulsalam Dallal is a PhD student researching the political economy of NGOs in northern Syria

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