Since the outset of the Syrian conflict, internationally condemned and brutal siege tactics have been utilized by the Assad regime. While much of the media attention has focused on the brutality of these methods, they have done little to stop Assad from resorting to them. Five years into the conflict, multiple FSA bastions have fallen victim to these tactics; at this writing, Eastern Ghouta is confronted with similar tactics. The same indicators as Aleppo and Deraa are present in Ghouta: siege economies controlled by warlord-like FSA and SAA commanders; price gouging of supplies routed for the besieged zones; regular bombardments; and, destruction of infrastructure. Much discussion has concentrated on the operational and tactical aspects of Syrian siege tactics. Overall strategy is oft neglected, if it is considered at all.
The most infamous and fiercest battles throughout the Syrian civil war have been fought over the objective of either breaking or enabling sieges around large urban centres. The main focus in the crucial battle for Aleppo, considered by many to be the deciding factor in the war, was the fighting over the infamous Castello Road—the final supply line for FSA forces in the area. With this line closed, the SAA maintained their chokehold, and with the support of Russian airstrikes, simply waited. In late November 2016, the SAA finally attacked. Swathes of FSA territory, rubble strewn environments extremely unfavourable for offence, crumbled in days, shocking observers. The gruelling urban combat and effective FSA resistance that was to be expected (as displayed in the multiple battles over the artillery base and ‘3000 apartments project’) simply was not there.
Similar tactics have been witnessed in multiple urban settings across all sides, whether it be ISIS, the FSA, or the SAA. It simply seems that the SAA has mastered them and possesses the capabilities to pull it off, as demonstrated by the outcomes of the siege of Homs and the siege of Darayya. These tactics are favourable for the diminished and battered Assad forces who have lost, at least, over 100,000 men since the outset of the war, including foreign militia fighters.
But what does this mean for the actual outcome of the war and the strategy for a path forward? Throughout 2014-2015, many policy makers and analysts believed the FSA could win the war; but, considering the present situation on the ground, Assad has most assuredly won the war. Given the preponderance of airpower in the conflict and the increased control of the major highways in Syria, SAA forces are able unilaterally engage in attrition where they please. We will likely see this pattern continue until every FSA pocket is crushed, or they finally surrender. Next will be East Ghouta, then Dumayr, and finally Tabilsah.
The outliers are the Daraa and Al Tanf pockets due to their geographic situation—they are border towns. Despite this, once pro-Assad forces are finished clearing ISIS forces out of the Deir-ez-Zor area, they will likely wheel about and concentrate on these FSA areas. The race against the Kurds for Deir-Ez-Zor and the oil fields in the East demonstrated two things. First, their ability to maintain the sieges of the FSA areas while committing significant forces to a multi-pronged offensive. Second, their ability to transport and concentrate large forces despite enduring many years of combat.
In regards to the first point, it remains unclear whether this is because SAA forces posses the requisite capabilities or the FSA forces have seriously atrophied. Regardless, due to relative power, it no longer matters. The SAA will be able to concentrate forces on FSA pockets one by one as they maintain their status quo around the other pockets.
As for the second point, despite the severe losses, there is still an active and capable force to act as a nutcracker for Assad. These forces begun a long and hard fight for Palmyra, proceeded across the desert and broke the siege. The other component of these forces raced the SDF down the Euphrates while clearing villages and towns of ISIS. These are not easy tasks.
So let us put the pieces together. Siege tactics, as demonstrated, work. Assad possesses the heavy weaponry to utilize them. There is no significant backlash to their indiscriminate use, despite the horrific consequences this imposes on populations. Assad possesses the holding and storming forces necessary to break pockets of rebel resistance. A combination of these factors makes the outcome quite evident: the final days of the Syrian civil war will be a one-sided series of sieges until only Idlib is left.
The major international players in the civil war will likely ignore these actions. Russia, Turkey and Iran, have met to coordinate peace arrangements without FSA representation, who were in Saudi Arabia, claiming their traditional position of there being no solution until Assad is removed. This statement, combined with another round of Geneva talks which will likely go nowhere, will probably act as the trigger to start these sieges. Past precedent indicates a number of de-escalation zones will likely be designated. These zones will be around the remaining pockets but will only be upheld to provide Assad forces with enough time to rest and re-equip. Then they will crush a pocket, see if the FSA are willing to surrender in peace talks, rinse, repeat.