By Patrick BAHZAD
While most of the recent military action has taken place in the north-western corner of the country, with both government and rebel forces (ISIS included) making some moves, the "Southern Front" has remained largely calm in comparison. This could change dramatically very soon. The trend has been there for a few days already, with Russian airstrikes having substantially increased, SAA and allied troops being positioned and a number of rebel strongholds in Eastern Ghouta (Damascus) as well as in Quneitra (close to Israeli occupied Golan) coming under attack.
The dynamics of the current campaign are still the same. The R+5 remains in the driving seat all over the "battlefield" and is basically free to pick the areas it wants to target. Rebel groups have to adjust to the tempo and initiative being seized by their opponents. So far, they were able to withstand the pressure they have been put under, even though they lost substantial territory South-West of Aleppo, as well as in Gbab plain (south-west of Idlib) and in their strategic positions in Jabal al-Akrad.
They managed however to stage small counter-attacks in the Hama salient, and more importantly along the government LOC into Aleppo. This second operation seems to have been at least coordinated with ISIS, as there was a simultaneous push onto various points of this road coming from JaN (which controls areas west of this line of communication) and from ISIS (attacking from the East). The disruptions caused by these attacks were only temporary however, and it is highly unlikely that either group expected to take over this LOC for more than a few hours or days.
Last but not least, ISIS also counter-attacked East of Aleppo, where R+5 units made substantial gains towards Kuweires airbase in recent days. The scale of the ISIS counter-attack, for which they took significant casualties, is not linked to interdicting access to this airport. More importantly, ISIS' main supply line – the highway linking Mosul to Aleppo and then to the Turkish border – runs right through this area. That is why the most obvious reason for this ISIS operation was to loosen the grip of the R+5 on their main LOC.
And while the area involved is small in size, any development there has potentially serious implications for the "Islamic State". The predicted outcome of the ongoing operation remains unchanged: R+5 should be able to seize Kuweires airbase, thereby possibly cutting off or disrupting ISIS' LOC. To achieve this operational goal however, a steady Russian air support will be necessary, even once the airbase is reached. In other words, the announced uptake in RuAF sorties has to materialize on the ground.
The overall tactical and strategic picture thus remains unchanged. R+5 action still generates rebel reaction, which shows the balance has not definitely tipped in favour of the government offensive. Again, as previously stated, the attrition and depletion of resources (both manpower and equipment), as well as the effects of the current fighting on both sides' morale, are the unknowns that would allow us to solve the timeline question. In that regard, it might be significant to know that yet another "front" is about to open in the South of Syria.
Several indicators point to a possible operation being launched there pretty soon by the R+5. Up until now, combat operations in this area had not reached the intensity witnessed in the north-west of the country, despite serious fighting with groups such as "Jaish al-Islam" in Eastern Ghouta, or against rebel pockets in the area close to Israeli occupied Golan (Quneitra). The recent uptake in Russian airstrikes however, combined with the agreement that was reached with Jordan last week, considerably changes the picture on the ground.
The focal point of such an operation is likely to be the Southern city of Daraa, where the first peaceful anti-Assad demonstrations took place in March 2011. A lot has changed since then, and rebel groups have controlled most of this area for some time now, largely due to the proximity of the Jordanian border. In the event of of an R+5 offensive, it seems that the Jordanians have agreed to pull-out those groups and units they still have enough influence on – question mark about how many will follow their master's voice there – and set them up in "refugee" camps located on Jordanian territory, after some triage done by Jordanian authorities in the border areas to Syria.
Now of course, some of the groups involved might rather chose to side with more radical factions that did not operate under the Jordanian umbrella, but this would mean that they would be on their own from now on, and would have to find themselves other sponsors to carry on fighting. The most powerful non "FSA" coalition operating in southern Syria is the "Islamic Front". Although this is an umbrella organisation with various groups involved, its southern branch largely consists of "Jaish al-Islam", a radical Salafi outfit. The other groups that are nominally part of this coalition have most of their manpower in the North and West of the country and will not be able to offer much help in the battle for Eastern Ghouta and Daraa.
Practically, this means that any "FSA" or Jordanian sponsored group that would join the Salafis would actually relinquish control over weapons' supplies to groups backed by money coming from the Gulf. They would lose any operational autonomy and would basically become junior partners to "Jaish al-Islam". How many will go down this road remains to be seen, but any of them should expect to get stuck between a Jordanian border that will prove much more difficult to slip through and a government offensive backed by RuAF strikes that could prove overwhelming and brutal.
Overall, the forecast for the strategic outcome of the campaign still depends on the R+5, which have most cards in hand. They dictate the pace and time of operations, gradually expanding their scope and intensity, and will probably decide where to push harder based on tactical information on their adversaries' weaknesses. Considering the overall picture, it still very much looks like they aim for a large military victory in north-western Syria (Hama, Latakia, Idlib and Aleppo), while "clear and hold" operations will be launched in various other areas, depending on the balance of power on the ground. In that regard, the "southern front" could be one of those areas where large operations of this type might start very soon.
All this of course does not preclude the outcome of the current round of diplomatic talks, but the Russians – who are in charge of R+5 in those negotiations – will certainly adopt a strategy similar to the one they used in relation to Eastern Ukraine, meaning they will go for a negotiated settlement if it suits their interests, but they will most definitely revert to decisive military action, if they feel they need to push their agenda.