Severing the Islamic State’s Supply Lines
Editor’s Note: Stratfor closely monitors conflict zones from a geopolitical perspective. What is perhaps the most volatile conflict today can be found in the territories of Iraq and Syria that are controlled by the Islamic State. Though these areas are cartographically distinct, they are functionally linked: Sunni tribal structures, rebel operations, Kurdish interests, external influences and the suzerainty of the Islamic State bind them together as a single, coherent theater.
The Islamic State capitalized on the chaos of the Syrian civil war and the inadequacy of Iraqi security forces to take over a large swath of the Middle East. After making some impressive gains, including the taking of the Iraqi city of Mosul, the Islamic State has lost some momentum, and an array of opponents have aligned against it. Nonetheless, the group is uniquely resilient and remains extremely dangerous and unpredictable.
In addition to examining the combatants inside the Syria-Iraq battlespace, Stratfor also tracks the political machinations, negotiations and goals of those outside the battlespace, including Iran, Russia, the Gulf monarchies and the United States. For the first time, in one place, Stratfor is providing routine updates covering the gains, losses and extent of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate.
Rebels from the Free Syrian Army and from various Islamist groups recently defeated an offensive conducted by loyalist forces backed by Iran and Russia in Hama province. Rebels have since launched a counteroffensive, during which they seized important territory in the northern part of the province, including the town of Morek. In light of their losses, loyalists are now marshaling their forces in the city of Hama to repel further rebel advances.
The events in Hama province are revelatory, for they show the limits of Russian and Iranian support. Critical though that support may be, it is not robust enough to comprehensively turn the tide in favor of forces loyal to the President Bashar al Assad. Russia is primarily providing air support and materiel, but it is not providing what the loyalists need most: reliable manpower. Iran has helped to establish the National Defense Forces as an auxiliary force and has dispatched several Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps units and third-country militia forces, but even these cannot replace the tens of thousands of troops the regime has already lost.
It is little surprise, then, that the success of the loyalists has been uneven at best. They have pushed rebels back in places in southern Aleppo province, but they have been less successful in the provinces of Latakia and Homs. Clearly, the swift victory pro-government forces had hoped would accompany increased foreign backing is not in the offing.
The rebels’ success in Hama will pressure Russia and Iran to commit even more forces to the conflict. Moscow and Tehran will probably give in to this pressure — even if outright victory is not possible, improving the lot of loyalist soldiers improves their bargaining positions if and when powers convene to negotiate a settlement. Indeed, Russia has already increased its presence in Syria from 2,000 personnel to 4,000. It has also established three forward operating bases beyond its airfield in Latakia, has sent additional surface-to-air missile systems, and has increasingly involved its own artillery units in support of the loyalists.
But therein lies the inherent danger of mission creep. Given how dim the prospects are for negotiating a settlement to the conflict, Russia and Iran could find themselves involved in a difficult war without a clear end in sight.