Although a cease-fire, however imperfect, is currently in force, indications of an upcoming conflict have become evident among the ranks of the regime’s allies, and between the regime and the opposition. Elements of a cold war between Russia and Iran have begun to emerge over “useful Syria,” as Bashar Assad refers to parts of the country. Iran has established somewhat of a shadow regime in numerous institutions, undermining both the Syrian government and Russian efforts to guarantee a cease-fire. Iran’s most significant tools, far from any central authority in Damascus, are the National Defense Force militia. These are made up of poor, marginalized and unemployed people, who gain wealth and influence by joining the NDF for salaries often higher than Syrian army regulars.
Iran then recruited Shiite militias from several other countries into Syria to fight alongside the regime’s troops. Most notable among these are Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, which Iran supplies with weapons, ammunition and funds. In turn, these militias recruited young Syrian men into their ranks, preventing them from joining the Syrian military, weakening the regime’s central authority, and strengthening Iran’s influence in Syria.
Iran purchased a large amount of real estate, especially in Damascus. Though these are high-risk investments, they have less so given the regime advances and opposition surrenders in the surrounding countryside. Iran also sought to increase the number of Shiite holy sites in Damascus and Homs, an attempt that was accompanied by clear demographic change in Syria.
The conflict between Russia and Iran became clear on the second day of the evacuation of Aleppo. Militias stopped a convoy that included civilians and soldiers who were leaving the city. They verbally abused those in the convoy and killed several people in it to pressure Turkey and Russia into including the Shiite villages of Kufreya and Al-Foua in the evacuation agreement. In the end, about 1,500 people were evacuated from the two Shiite villages.
The battle of Wadi Barada, which houses much of Damascus’ water reserves, also demonstrates Tehran’s influence, and the tensions between Russia and Iran. According to opposition fighters, Shiite militias – particularly Lebanese Hezbollah – played a leading role in the assault and incursion of the Wadi Barada region, even though this was a violation of the Russian-negotiated cease-fire. Opposition fighters claim that the regime is unable to keep Hezbollah in check, and that this has caused negotiations to fail again and again. If Iran is not satisfied, it could ruin any agreement reached in the upcoming negotiations.
Outside of the Iranian-Russian tensions, new battles have started in the countryside of Aleppo. These may become more wide-reaching, as the regime has started to advance toward Al-Bab against Daesh (ISIS), hoping to reach the city before Turkish or opposition forces do to cut them off from the main highway leading south and east from Al-Bab.
Additionally, regime needs to secure the west, northwest and southwest areas of Aleppo city, as no buffer zone exists between it and the opposition forces in Aleppo countryside. Controlling the countryside of Aleppo requires massive military action. It would need to take control of more relatively high hills, which it could then use to launch its next advance. Such military action would require three main axes of advance:
THE SOUTHERN AXISThis axis of advance includes three component axes:
The first axis of advance starts from the armaments battalion, and moves westward to Khan Tuman and Al-Qalaajiya. These two areas have a relatively high elevation, and overlook the Damascus-Aleppo highway. If the regime reaches this area, it can pressure the Rashidin area directly west of Aleppo city, from which the second battle to break the siege of Aleppo was launched.
The second axis of advance starts from Al-Sabqiyya and Shughaydila and moves toward Khalsa, Zitan, Zerbeh, and Birnah, also arriving at the Damascus-Aleppo autostrade.
The third axis of advance starts from the villages of Al-Hader and Al-Tililat and moves toward Jabal al-Iss and the ICARDA plateau, arriving at the Damascus-Aleppo highway.
In taking this territory, the regime would secure the southern countryside that borders the city of Aleppo for more than 20 kilometers, and take control of several hills of high elevation, such as Khalsa, Jabal al-Iss and Khan Tuman, all the way to the Damascus-Aleppo highway, controlling them for 25 km of the international road.
It is important to mention that these areas are ones that seized at the end of 2015. The regime, with support from Shiite militias, started a huge military action to control the southern Aleppo countryside, until opposition forces launched a counterattack and regained several areas: Jabal al-Iss in April 2016 and Khalsa village, Zitan and Birnah in June 2016. Earlier in 2016 opposition forces also took control of the villages of Al-Qarasi, Al-Qalaajiya and Marata, as well as the town of Al-Humayra, and reserves of Khan Tuman, Tal Mahrouqat, the hill of Al-Qarasi and the air defense battalion in the area around Khan Tuman.
THE WESTERN AXISThis axis of advance includes three component axes:
The first axis of advance starts from Dahiyet al-Assad, until the 1070 Apartments district, toward Rashidin Fourth, which is the regime’s gateway to the western countryside and the area of Khan al-Assal. The Rashidin area is a suburb of Aleppo, and held huge, sturdy buildings. The front line has become weak due to the heavy shelling the area has suffered, especially recently, when the battle to break the siege started from the Rashidin area and moved toward Dahiyet al-Assad.
The second axis of advance starts from the cardboard factory and sawmill in Menian, which are both located in the middle of the front line to the west of the city, and moves west toward the village of Mansoura. The third axis of advance starts from Zahra artillery and moves toward Fifth Rashidin and the Scientific Research Center.
Toward this end, the regime would secure the western front of the city at a distance of more than 10km.
THE NORTHWESTERN AXISThis axis of advance includes two component axes:
The Al-Tamoura axis, toward Jabal Anadan. The Shoehna axis, toward Jabal Maaret al-Artiq.
Taking these two fronts will allow the regime to set up outposts over the Ma’arit al-Artiq-Babis road. This is the only road to the villages of Huraytan, Anadan, Kafr Hamra, Maaret al-Artiq, Hayan and Bayanoun (which will be within the range of fire). This would force the opposition to withdraw from these villages or be at risk of open bombardment and siege from the regime.
These three main axes will prove to be the most difficult for the regime, because the terrain in these areas favors the revolutionaries, who will be in a defensive position. If the regime is victorious, however, it will have secured the city of Aleppo, eliminated any potential threat from the opposition, and moved the battle to areas the regime has not reached since 2012.
As far as battles that opposition groups might launch, if the cease-fire collapses they will be limited to three areas: Hama, the coast and Aleppo.
Aleppo would be the least likely, especially since the opposition’s withdrawal and the failure of the second battle to break the siege, which attempted to penetrate the city’s fortifications from the southern and southwestern sides.
Meanwhile, it would be possible to start a battle that advances from the northern countryside of Hama to free the city of Hama, by taking control of the city of Souran and the village of Maardes, both of which are located on the Damascus – Aleppo international road.
The greatest challenge will be gaining control of Jabal Zayn al-Abidin, which is next to the city. At the mountain’s summit is a modern military base, built in late 2012, and there are also many artillery and mortars stationed there. Another possibility is a battle on Syria’s coast for the control of several mountains, to get closer to the border city of Kessab, and to lighten the pressure on Turkmen Mountain.
These are all possibilities for battles that could happen if the cease-fire collapses. Russia and Turkey are currently working to make the cease-fire succeed, but many forces in Syria, particularly Assad’s regime and Iran, would benefit more from the battles continuing as they have, than by abiding by the cease-fire.
Abdullah Almousa is a researcher and military analyst with four years of experience. Currently, he works as a manager for Hooz. He previously worked as a field officer for international organizations in Syria. This commentary is published by permission from the Atlantic Council and can be accessed at: www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/front-lines-to-watch-for-upcoming-battles-in-syria.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 11, 2017, on page 7.