Bashar Assad’s Big Push to Recover His Eastern Border

With Western-backed forces closing in on Mosul and Raqqa, Syria’s dictator can take advantage of the Islamic State’s weakness.

A billboard of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, July 4, 2010
A billboard of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, July 4, 2010 (Wojtek Ogrodowczyk)

Bashar al-Assad hadn’t had control of his Iraqi frontier for years. It’s a major headache; it’s allowed Sunni rebels to supply themselves from Anbar, a favorable route for Gulf states hoping to keep the war going.

It’s also allowed the Islamic State to slide supplies from its shrinking Iraqi domains to its shrunken Syrian ones.

The Islamic State famously demolished the literal border wall between the two countries. That was right after they blitzed across it to capture Mosul in June 2014.

Now Assad’s Iranian and Iraqi allies are hoping to rebuild the border and thereby secure the regime they’ve fought so hard to preserve.

From Reuters:

Syrian rebels say the United States and its allies are sending them more arms to try to fend off a new push into the southeast by Iran-backed militias aiming to open an overland supply route between Iraq and Syria.

The stakes are high as Iran seeks to secure its influence from Tehran to Beirut in a “Shiite crescent” of Iranian influence through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, where Sunni Arab states have lost out in power struggles with Iran.

The Iraqi-Syrian border already has a checkered history of security. It’s a long, sparse landscape full of Bedouin and smugglers used to crossing it at will. The Americans, for all their efforts, could not secure it during the occupation of Iraq from 2003-11. When the civil war began in Syria in 2011, it made sense that these wildlands would be some of the first to slip from government control.

Going on the offensive

Yet despite the quick loss, Assadist forces have held half of the city of Deir ez-Zor on the Euphrates River for the entire war.

For years, it was less a base of operations and more a symbol of Assad’s aspirations to one day reconquer his Iraqi frontier. Once under siege by the Free Syrian Army, the Assadist garrison is surrounded by the Islamic State.

But with the fall of Aleppo last year — and the reported deployment of up to 4,500 Russian troops — Assad’s allies feel ready to go on the offensive on the “softer” territories of the opposition. The frontier makes a lot of sense; empty of cities but strategic as a supply route, to retake the old eastern border posts will make it look like Assad is on his way to governing Syria once more.

Post-Islamic State Syria

This is all part of the post-IS world the Assadist axis and their many enemy factions are building. The Kurds are now closing in on Raqqa, the capital of the dying caliphate. Mosul is nearly fallen. That will driven IS back underground and into a few hamlets, where it may wither and die after such massive propaganda defeats.

That leaves the field to an array of forces. The Assadist axis — of Iran, Russia and Assad himself — has straightforward hopes of restoring order across the ruinscape of Syria. Yet the Turkish army is making a home in northern Syria, where it schemes to keep the Syrian Kurds from growing as powerful as their Iraqi counterparts.

The Americans’ anti-IS war could readily morph into an anti-Assad one should relations with Russia sour further; the United States bombed an Assadist militia in an overlooked attack in May. The American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a combination of Arab and Kurdish Sunnis, is the most effective successor to the defunct Free Syrian Army and they may be content with a fiefdom in the north and along the Euphrates River.

That leaves the Gulf-state backed Idlib Province rebels, who are mostly ruled by Al Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra.

Compared to IS, Jabhat al-Nusra is a saint, keeping their barbarities on site and not exporting terror abroad. Yet should IS collapse, they will feel pressure from its survivors to adopt some of the failed caliphate’s more extreme tactics.

As of now, the Assadists do not seem prepared to take on Idlib, though it must surely be the next target once the eastern frontier is secured and the Islamic State is ground to dust.

Partition

Yet the outlines of a fractured Syria are now clearly emerging. Idlib might be the domain of the Gulf states’ allies. Northern Syria will be split between Turkish allies and Kurdish secessionists. Meanwhile, the rest of the country, from Aleppo to Daraa, would be allowed to largely slip back into Damascus’ rule.

This won’t be quite the replication of Lebanon, where the factions agreed to set up a weak central government while retaining the subtle capacity for a second civil war. It will be a Syrian solution for a Syrian geopolitical conundrum, a cross between the unending war on the fractured state of Saddam Hussein as great powers imposed conditions on Iraq and the all-politics-is-local quasi-partitioning of Lebanon.

As the Americans gear up for a larger role in the war, all the other factions will seek to turn down the heat. Perhaps Assad may yet visit the Iraqi border one day.

This article originally appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, May 30, 2017.