The fall of Eastern Ghouta and Deraa to forces loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad over the past few months represent a crowning success for Moscow’s low-cost Syria policy. In less than three years, Russian military support to the previously beleaguered Assad regime has allowed the latter to reclaim over 60 percent of the country’s territory using a dual local and regional phased approach. Russia has repeatedly created de-escalation zones that froze large geographic regions, allowing the regime to focus its limited resources on specific areas. In parallel, it established a “peace process” in Astana that divided the opposition, but more importantly co-opted regional powers such as Turkey and Israel by increasing their stakes in the Syrian geopolitical game. Moscow’s savvy war management strategy played an instrumental role in insuring military successes in Aleppo, Homs, and more recently Eastern Ghouta and Deraa.
At the local level, Moscow has aimed at undermining the opposition by dealing decisive military blows to rebel strongholds, isolating them geographically and cutting them off from their regional backers. It has followed this with localized ceasefires, which helped the regime reallocate its limited military ground resources to the next front. This approach was first seen in the fall of Aleppo in December 2016. The city’s capture led to the mass eviction of rebel groups, mostly to Idlib in northern Syria, which made the remaining population of Aleppo more uniformly favorable toward the regime.
Once localized ceasefires were established, the regime could regroup its forces and start separate regional offensives. The regime’s first such endeavor after Aleppo was to recapture eastern Syria from the Islamic State, which was faltering under U.S. coalition strikes. Its forces advanced to Sukhna via Palmyra before moving further north to the province of Deir Ezzor in an attempt to grab as much strategic territory as possible in the northeast, which is rich in water, oil, and gas.
Three months after the regime announced victory over the Islamic State in November 2017, Syrian regime forces launched a fresh ground and air offensive in February 2018 against rebel positions in the besieged enclave of Eastern Ghouta, which subsequently fell to regime forces in April. This was soon followed by the establishment of “reconciliation committees” made up of locals whose job is to encourage rebels in the area to surrender and turn over their weapons. These committees sometimes also helped the regime militarily: Opposition website Enab Baladi reported in April that Assad forces supported one committee affiliated with Sheikh Bassam Dafda, a prominent local pro-regime figure, which helped the regime besiege the Eastern Ghouta neighborhood of Ain Tarma.
Similar processes of forcing reconciliation were used to hasten the fall of other rebel areas in southern Syria. Since the start of 2017, the regime—with Russian support—increased local reconciliation efforts, notably seen in the southern villages of Kafr Hawr, Bayt Tayma, Bayt Saber, and Bayt Jinn. Fighters who refuse the terms set by the reconciliation committees are required to leave the area, usually departing for Idlib. Rebel fighters who accept the reconciliation agreement undergo taswiyat al-wad‘ (“regularizing one’s situation”), negotiating terms of surrender with the reconciliation committees. In the case of the Hermon Regiment, which had formerly fought as part of the Free Syrian Army, this process even led to their integration into Syrian military intelligence forces fighting Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. The same reconciliation process was similarly applied in July in Bosra al-Sham, which led to the city’s fall.
In parallel to its local campaigns, Russia has pushed a regional peace process to include the regime’s allies and co-opt other powers that had been supporting select rebel groups. The 2017 Astana peace process provided a framework for creating the local de-escalation zones and aimed at ending all hostilities between the regime and the opposition. This not only allowed the regime to phase the takeover of rebel areas, but also created deep divisions within an already fragmented opposition, which accused each other of treason.
Russia included Turkey and Iran, the regime’s main backer, at the negotiation table. Turkey had aided select rebel groups and given them a military and financial lifeline to other regional backers such as the United Kingdom, France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, but had not yet had a direct stake in the peace process. This motivated Iran and Turkey to reach a separate agreement with Russia in May 2017 to establish no-fly zones closed to U.S coalition jets, including over parts of the provinces of Idlib, Homs, Deraa, and Quneitra, as well as over Eastern Ghouta.
Having been given a role in the Astana process, Turkey moved closer to Russia and Iran, which indicated they were willing to comply with Turkey’s concerns that formalizing the autonomous, Kurdish-run Democratic Federation of Northern Syria would allow the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to launch cross-border attacks. The rapprochement, which had started with the fall of Aleppo, has continued—as seen with Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch against Afrin, which coincided with the onslaught on Eastern Ghouta in February. The reduction of Turkey’s support dealt another blow to the insurgency and reflected the regional dimension of Russian phased approach.
Russia was also determined to secure Syria’s southern border. Israel, which was wary of Iranian expansion, had struck over 100 Iran-backed targets across Syria as of August 2017, which Moscow condemned as a “gross violation of Syrian sovereignty” but otherwise tolerated. And after Iranian officials threatened retaliation for the increase in Israeli strikes in early 2018, the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force launched a rocket attack from Syria against Israel on May 9. Yet as the regime focused its offensive on Deraa in June 2018, Israel and Russia reportedly reached an agreement to greenlight Israeli strikes on Iran-backed groups in Syria. Russia also suggested keeping these groups at least 100 kilometers (62 miles) away from the Israel–Syria border so that Israel would be less likely to launch attacks against them. The offensive on southern Syria was also preceded by U.S.–Russian–Jordanian talks, which persuaded Jordan to decrease its support to the rebels.
Russia seems to have succeeded in securing a semblance of peace in regime areas and freezing conflict in the northern and southern border areas. Moscow will likely use its phased approach to capture Idlib next. Indeed, despite Russia’s nominal commitment to the de-escalation plan, its air force has already been conducting widespread bombings over Idlib, which ramped up in February after rebels shot down a Russian warplane and killed its pilot. Moscow and the regime argue they are targeting jihadi groups known to be widely present in the north, but many rebels from Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta have also fled to Idlib.
While capturing Idlib will take more time given the multitude of rebel and jihadi groups, Russia’s regional and local war management strategy has shown success. An attack in northern Syria risks reigniting fighting between Kurds and pro-Turkish forces, but Russia can manage this particular conflict by negotiating the regime’s return there, which would assuage Ankara’s concerns by spelling an end to the independent Kurdish government in the region. For instance, pro-regime forces in northeastern Syria are in direct competition with the U.S.-led coalition, which backs the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.
Balancing Israeli concerns with Iranian ambitions along Syria’s southern border could be trickier. Israel demanded on July 23 that Iran not be allowed any military foothold in Syria, and that Russia remove all long-range missiles, including shutting down any Syrian factories producing precision-guided missiles. Russia will be hard-pressed to accommodate Israel’s demands in Syria using diplomatic means alone, given that Iran has become adept at creating proxies and consolidating their power over areas it considers of strategic importance—as seen in Lebanon and now in Syria as well.
Mona Alami is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and an associate fellow at the King Faysal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. Follow her on Twitter @monaalami.