Earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin shocked the world by announcing that the country’s campaign in Syria would come to an end. Almost immediately Russia began withdrawing at least some of its planes and troops from Syria, claiming that its mission in the country has been accomplished.
Notwithstanding the fact that both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra still command tens of thousands of fighters within Syria, the Russian intervention did have some effect. The Assad regime’s position was greatly bolstered, and with Russian assistance managed to take back key areas from rebel groups in Latakia and Aleppo Province. Critically, regime forces supported by the SDF managed to completely cut off rebel held areas of Aleppo City from the north of Aleppo Province, reducing their ability to bring in supplies from Turkey.
However, with Russia’s decisive support now leaving, what can we envisage for the future development of the Syrian Civil War?
Regime standstill against rebels
The first major change that will likely be seen is that ground forces loyal to the Assad regime will slow in their advances and eventually grind to a halt. While Russia has supplied these forces with new artillery and tanks, they are unlikely to be able to continue large advances without the close air support of Russian aircraft. As well, clear skies will enable the rebels to reorganize into larger fighting groups without the fear of being interdicted by air strikes.
Beyond the balance of power on the ground, the political situation in Syria makes a stalemate more likely. Fighting in most areas is still only patchy due to the partial ceasefire which went into effect last month, and neither side so-far seems willing to engage in any large-scale assaults which could jeopardize this situation. In addition, with Russian military support reduced, there will likely be little tolerance by Russia for aggressive regime pushes that might put the ceasefire agreement at risk.
ISIS collapse continues, SDF ascendant
Outside of the frontlines between the regime and rebels, the situation will be very different. More than a year of constant Coalition bombardment has taken its toll on ISIS positions, and the group continues to lose more and more land. In the North it is losing large amounts of territory to the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), while further south regime-aligned troops are pushing to retake Palmyra.
In the coming months we can expect to see a continuation of this collapse of ISIS in Syria, as the group begins to withdraw back to Raqqa, the capital of its so-called Caliphate. This will allow the SDF, likely to link Afrin with Kobane and Cizire cantons, to form a ‘Federal Northern Syria’ which would have significant bargaining power in any final peace agreement post-ISIS. Furthermore, FSA groups backed by the US like the New Syrian Army may continue their attacks in southwestern Syria and, should they gain enough fighters, they may be able to establish a more moderate Sunni force in southern Deir Ez-Zour province. Alternatively, a regime breakout from Deir Ez-Zour city could see this area rapidly retaken by pro-Government forces.
In the wider context of the war, the primary wild card remains the actions of the international community. Should Russia concede and attempt to remove Assad (but not his regime), a political solution to much of the conflict could be forthcoming. However, should this not occur, the war will likely drag on. The coming weeks and months will hopefully give some indication on the direction of these negotiations and provide grounds for a more nuanced understanding of what a post-war Syria will look like.