The regime of longtime Syrian strongman Bashar Assad is struggling at levels unseen during the nation’s 4-year-old civil war, ramping up pressure on allies Iran and Russia to either abandon or double down on their support for the Syrian leader, U.S. intelligence officials say.
While world headlines focus on the push for a nuclear accord between the West and Iran, Syria’s civil war is approaching what several officials described to The Washington Times as a “tipping point,” with various jihadi forces gaining ground against Mr. Assad’s government forces in several parts of the nation.
As the prospect grows that Damascus could fall to the Islamic State or another extremist faction — or some combustible combination of the two — officials say the hope is that Moscow and Tehran might suddenly open to Washington’s yearslong attempt to assemble a “moderate opposition” against Mr. Assad.
“Iran and Russia face tough decisions on continuing to invest in a regime that is fraying,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Times on the condition of anonymity. “The time will soon come when those supporting the regime will face a choice between continuing to stand by Assad and risk defeat, or tossing Assad overboard in order to strike a deal with the moderate opposition to prevent a direct threat to Damascus from the Islamic State.”
Perhaps reflecting growing concern about Syria’s stability, Russian President Vladimir Putin held a surprise personal meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem at the Kremlin, where he reportedly pressed Damascus to ally with other Middle Eastern governments in the fight against the Islamic State, the violent jihadi movement that has seized large swaths of Syria and neighboring Iraq.
While insisting that Moscow remained a supporter of the Assad government, Mr. Putin said his contacts with other powers in the Middle East, including Syrian adversaries in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, now “show that everyone wants to contribute to fight this evil,” he said, referring to Islamic State militants.
Many U.S. analysts say the Obama administration’s hopes of building up moderate forces, not the Islamic State, to fight Mr. Assad’s government are too optimistic and that Washington’s leverage — with Russia, Iran or the various jihadi groups now dominating the war — is limited at best.
“I just don’t think there’s about to be a recalculation by the Russians and the Iranians,” said Joshua Landis, a longtime Syria analyst who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “They’re going to hang on and hope Assad gets through this without collapsing so they’ll have a piece of the pie at whatever negotiating table may one day come to the fore.
“The standard American goal is they would like to reach some kind of balance where Assad feels the need to negotiate and leave Syria, but he’s not going to leave. It’s just not going to happen,” said Mr. Landis. “The trouble is that there are so many moving parts to this war and the U.S. has almost no leverage at this point.
“We have U.S. [Central] Command working out of Jordan with influence over some militias in southern Syria, we’re bombing Islamic State targets and we have good relations with Kurds, but beyond that, we don’t have much skin in the game that can truly influence things on the ground,” he said.
Training mission stumbles
After months of delays and vetting, Obama administration officials revealed in May a program for training a “moderate opposition” force in Syria to defend their towns from the Islamist movements expanding in Syria, but the early returns have been meager. An Associated Press survey found that the U.S. military’s program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels has been working with fewer than 100 volunteer fighters, far short of the 5,400 goal, and not a single recruit has completed the training program.
“If al Qaeda or the Islamic State ends up becoming an important player in Damascus, we’re going to have to stand by and accept it,” said Mr. Landis. “This would be very bad for the U.S. because it means one of the great capitals in the Middle East will be in the hands of these radicals.”
While fighters for the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, are engaged in pitched battles against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria’s northeast, the greater challenge for Syria’s military at the moment is being posed by a separate coalition of jihadi groups to the nation’s west known as Jaish al Fateh, or “Conquest Army” in Arabic.
At the heart of the coalition are the Nusra Front — al Qaeda’s main affiliate in Syria — and Ahrar al Sham, which prior to aligning with the Nusra Front, was widely regarded as among the most powerful non-Islamic State jihadi militias operating in Syria.
Mr. Landis contends that Jaish al Fateh’s emergence during recent months has only complicated the Obama administration’s attempt to influence the situation on the ground.
A key part of the problem, he said, is that the coalition is being funded and armed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey — three Middle East powers that stand with the Obama administration’s call for Mr. Assad to be overthrown but have different views of how to make it happen.
“Jaish al Fateh is so antithetical to American principles because al Qaeda is a part of it that we can’t touch it,” Mr. Landis said. “So what we’re doing is standing around with our hands in our pockets while Turkey and Qatar and the Saudis arm and fund this thing and America doesn’t know if they want it to win or not.”
That being said, the group’s seizure of several cities and towns during recent months appears to be bolstering U.S. intelligence officials’ claims that the Syrian military and Mr. Assad are on their last legs and that the war is approaching a “tipping point.”
“Assad’s fortunes continue to dim against the backdrop of advances across Syria by ISIL, Nusra and the moderate opposition,” said one of the officials who spoke with The Times. “His ability to continue weathering a multifront war, its economic and human toll, and the strain the conflict is placing on the regime’s key allies underscore the perils Assad faces.”
It’s unclear how Russia and Iran may respond. According to the official, Tehran and Moscow are “unlikely to abandon Syria to the clutches of hard-line extremist groups.”
But that does not necessarily mean either is about to jump behind the Obama administration’s attempt to build a moderate rebel army in Syria.
In just one more complication for a tangled and bloody standoff, Turkish newspapers and analysts say there is increasing talk in Ankara that President Recep Tayyip Erodogan is preparing to take his forces off the sidelines in the Syria fight, in large part in reaction to recent battlefield successes by Kurdish forces against the Islamic State that have revived talk of a Kurdish homeland along the Syrian-Turkish border.