Sectarianism and conflict in Syria

New academic article for Third World Quarterly, Volume 36, Issue 2, 2015

By Christopher Phillips


This article challenges the sectarian narrative of Syria’s current civil war, which relies on several false assumptions about the nature of political identity. It first questions how sectarian the uprising and civil war actually are, suggesting that the conflict is ‘semi-sectarian’, given the multiple other fault lines of contention, notably class, ideology and other non-sect, sub-state ties. It then draws on the theoretical debates between primordialists, ethno-symbolists and modernists to historicise political identity development in Syria. In doing so, it reasserts the modernist case, emphasising how political identities in Syria, both national and sectarian, have developed in a complex interrelated manner in the modern era and how the recent violent mobilisation of sectarian identity is the result of long- and short-term structural, economic, socio-cultural and political factors rather than unchanging ancient animosities. Of these, the most vital remain structural changes and elite reactions to them, with the prospect of state collapse in Syria’s future the most likely cause of a descent into further sectarian chaos.

For full article, see here.

Syria, 4 Years On: What is Left of Assad’s State is Eroding from Within

By Christopher Phillips, Chatham House, 9 March 2015

Both literally and figuratively, the regime is mortgaging the future in a desperate attempt to survive. 

After four years of unrest and war, the Syrian state is eroding. This is most obvious in the north and eastern regions where the Assad regime has been pushed out and local militia and committees, including Islamic State (IS), have struggled to fill the vacuum. But the densely populated rump still in regime hands, stretching from Lattakia in the coastal northwest, via the now-recaptured city of Homs and the capital Damascus, to Suwaida in the south has been severely weakened by the war and the government’s increasingly desperate lengths to win it. Even a victory, whatever that now means, will leave a hollowed-out entity facing existential economic, security and social problems.


The economy in regime-controlled Syria is on life support. Having lost control of 50 per cent of its territory, a third of its population, its oil fields and the trade routes to Iraq and Turkey, the regime has virtually no income and is instead dependent on billions of dollars worth of loans and aid from Russia and Iran. Even if the regime survives, the costs of any rebuild in the war-ravaged resource-poor country would be further crippled were Moscow or Tehran, currently suffering low oil prices, ever to call in its debts. Syrian economist Jihad Yazigi has noted that this financial support is mostly spent on the war effort rather than infrastructure or increasing salaries with inflation. The regime is even cutting subsidies and raising taxes in an effort to keep the war going.


Syria’s security structure has also been undermined by Assad’s war strategy. While Iran helped the regime restructure its depleted military and security forces, this brought with it considerable Iranian oversight. The true extent of influence by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani remains unknown, but many charge that he, assisted by Hezbollah, now leads the regime’s war effort. To combat its significant manpower shortages the regime, with strong Iranian encouragement, has allowed foreign Shia militia and newly-formed or refashioned domestic militia to supplement its forces. Such groups have considerable autonomy in some areas, setting up their own check points and collecting protection money. Some domestic Shia and Alawi militia are reportedly receiving independent ideological training by Hezbollah. Such ‘militia-ization’ will be difficult to reverse and undermines the regime’s monopoly on violence, a key feature of a viable state.


The short-term risk for Assad is that the measures taken to stay in power will cause what is left of his state to implode. Already there have been grumblings among Assad’s largely loyal Alawi community. Small protest groups (mostly online) have denounced the high number of Alawi military deaths or the continued opulence of Assad’s cronies despite their hardship. However, with the regime successfully painting the civil war as an existential threat to Syria’s minorities, and the rise of IS seemingly justifying that characterization, as long as Assad’s supporters feel under threat, such grumbling seems unlikely to spill over into outright rebellion.

The bigger question is where this will leave the Syrian state if and when the war eventually ends. Even if the regime wins or, at least, is able to pacify enough of Rump Syria to claim ‘victory’, Assad’s state will likely be weak, under-resourced, heavily in debt, lacking a monopoly on violence and with an increasingly resentful population that has sacrificed a lot in blood and treasure for Assad’s small ruling clique.

This expert comment is part of the Chatham House spotlight Four Years On: The Costs of War in Syria.

– See more at:

Syria: The view from Moscow

Published by Middle East Eye, 9th December 2014

A weaker economy and the domestic threat of ISIS may limit some tools available to Russia, but are unlikely to alter Moscow’s overall view and strategy in Syria

Of all the states involved in the Syria crisis, Russia has arguably been the most insulated from its fallout. Western states and their regional allies have been frustrated as their policies to topple President Bashar al-Assad repeatedly fail, while threatening jihadists such as ISIS have thrived in the chaos. Refugees have flooded Syria’s neighbours. Even Assad’s other ally, Iran, has seen its hard-earned regional reputation shattered. In contrast, the costs to Moscow have been limited.

However, the conflict’s echoes are finally being felt. In early December, Islamist gunmen fought Russian forces in Grozny, killing 20, prompting fears of ISIS-inspired violence in the northern Caucasus. The oil price has plummeted to $65, partly the result of Saudi Arabian machinations to punish both Iran and Russia. This is 35 percent below the Kremlin’s budgeted price and, along with western sanctions over Ukraine and the tumbling value of the Ruble, looks set to cripple Russia’s economy. However, contrary to some claims, this seems unlikely to prompt any major reconsideration of President Vladimir Putin’s Syria policy.

It is important to understand the view of Syria from Moscow. At the beginning of the crisis, Western analysts mistakenly believed Putin’s support was about preserving Russia’s interests in Syria: a tiny naval installation in Tartous and a modest arms market. Yet such material interests are, in reality, marginal. Instead, Putin sees Syria primarily through a geo-strategic lens. While Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have all taken leading roles in the campaign against Assad, Russia sees the West and particularly the US as chief instigator.

Russia felt betrayed for endorsing (by abstention) a humanitarian UN resolution on Libya in 2011 that was then used by NATO to topple Gaddafi, and believes the US has the same goal in Syria. The “humiliation” over Libya is strongly felt, and Putin is determined to draw a line to prevent any more western-led regime changes. The principle of defending state sovereignty is widely touted among Russian analysts, not least for self-preservation: many fear that Moscow might be the eventual target if regime change gains momentum. Recent sanctions over Ukraine only reinforce this siege mentality.

While geo-strategic factors have led Russian Syria policy, regional and domestic factors have also been a concern. Putin’s risked the ire of Assad’s Gulf and Turkish enemies, with repeated UN vetoes in support of Syria and a constant supply of arms, even causing his ambassador to Qatar to be assaulted in Doha in 2012. Yet he has not been insensitive to regional concerns. Vitaly Naumkin, director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at Moscow State University, notes how Israeli objections deterred Moscow from supplying Syria with S-300 missiles, while bridges have been rebuilt with the Gulf since the 2012 low. Indeed, as one British diplomat recently noted to me, Moscow has earned a grudging respect in the Gulf for consistency, contrasted with the perceived unreliability of the West. Moreover, Russia has been careful to maintain its thriving trade with Turkey despite differences over Syria.

Domestically, Putin’s determination to support Syria increased when protests unexpectedly erupted in Moscow in December 2011, prompting fears that Assad’s fall might embolden opposition at home. These have diminished as Putin’s popularity has increased, particularly after the annexation of Crimea, but other domestic issues remain salient. These include the concerns of the influential Orthodox Church over the fate of Syria’s Christians, persecuted by some of Assad’s opponents. Another is jihadism: 14 percent of Russia’s population is Muslim and Moscow has long been worried about the potential for radicals within the Syrian opposition to inspire domestic Islamist violence, particularly in the troubled spots of the north Caucasus. The rise of ISIS confirms what Moscow has long said to the West: backing Assad’s opponents will lead to state collapse and jihadism.

However, the ISIS campaign seems more likely to move the West towards Russia’s position on Syria than vice versa. Moscow has long favoured a negotiated solution with Syria’s “sovereign government” playing the leading role. Indeed, Putin’s envoy Mikhail Bogdanov recently proposed a Moscow conference between the Syrian regime and the opposition as a first step towards a return to the Geneva II negotiation process, abandoned in February. Though Putin has little personal liking for the Syrian President, quipping once that he spent more time in Paris than in Moscow, the West’s “Assad must go” precondition for talks is a non-starter, as it effectively endorses regime change. The calls by some in the West to accommodate Assad’s role and cooperate with him against ISIS only seems to vindicate Moscow’s approach.

Until this expected point of Western concession is reached, while Russia’s economic troubles may place greater limits on financial support for Syria, they are unlikely to alter overall strategy. A recent refusal to grant Damascus a $1bn in requested credit may hurt Assad, especially as his other patron, Iran, is also struggling economically. However, Putin’s determination to avoid a western “victory” in Syria thus far suggests that, were the regime close to economic collapse, the necessary funds would be found. As suggested by his recent State of the Nation address, he is willing to put the Russian economy through plenty of strain before contemplating changing course.

For nearly four years, Russia’s Syria policy has not been too costly for Moscow. It has successfully prevented what it saw as Western-led regime change in Damascus, while weathering any damage to its regional reputation. In 2015, a weaker economy and the domestic threat of ISIS may limit some of the tools available, but are unlikely to alter Moscow’s overall view and strategy in Syria. In that sense, the latest developments simply mean that Russia is finally joining the other states involved in the Syria crisis: pursuing a costly policy, yet still unwilling to compromise.

Syria’s Civil War: The Regional Dimension

On 17th October 2014 I took part in Rethink Rebuild‘s conference on the Syria crisis in Manchester. As the first speaker on this second panel, I argue that understanding regional context is key to understanding Syria’s civil war. While Bashar al-Assad’s violent response to peaceful protest may have begun the war, it has been exacerbated and shaped by regional factors. Many of these have their roots in the long term impact of the 2003 Iraq War.

For the first panel, see here.

The Plight of Syria’s Refugees is Another Security Crisis in the Making

Chatham House Expert Comment

By Christopher Phillips and Neil Quilliam

If the objective of Western policy is to prevent fall-out from the Syrian conflict leading to a direct terrorist threat to their countries, then policy-makers would do well to consider the significant economic, social, educational and security challenges a refugee crisis presents, to both the host nations and the international community. 

Although Syria’s civil war remains in the headlines, largely thanks to Islamic State (IS), Syrian refugees have dropped on the policy priority list. Given the protracted nature of the Syria conflict, refugee communities will likely remain a fixture in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Host governments, communities, international donors and refugees themselves need to move from short-term emergency planning to long-term development. However, neglecting the needs of Syria’s refugees and failing to help neighbouring host countries and communities accommodate their long term presence will store problems for the future.

While most Turks, Jordanians and Lebanese initially welcomed the refugees, the number of refugees (3.1 million and counting) and the long-term nature of the crisis means that, unless addressed, tensions between host and refugee communities will rise, as competition over resources intensifies.

The longer the refugees stay the more Ankara and Amman will be pressured by their own populations to move all Syrians into camps; a move believed by host communities to remove the threat to local jobs. However, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) warn against this strongly, discourage further camp building and urge that refugees be given the right to work. They argue that experience from other long-term crises has taught that integrating refugees into host economies not only helps retain critical skills and experience, but over time improves relations with hosts, as their contribution is viewed an asset rather than a burden.

In 2013 UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, estimated that up to 80 per cent of Syrian refugees of school age in Lebanon were not in school, and many INGOs fear of a ‘lost generation’ of refugees growing up across the region without access to education. Not only will this limit their ability to help rebuild Syria if and when they return after the war, it also increases the chances of radicalization by militant groups. Again, INGOs cite other examples, including amongst Palestinian and Afghani refugees, where the neglect of pressing education, social and economic issues over time has led to a permissive environment that supports militarization. With jihadism and sectarianism on the rise, it is a serious security risk, as well as a neglect of basic rights to leave so many young men and women disenfranchised.

A sustained international effort is required if Syria’s refugees are to be given the chance to contribute towards host communities and eventually prepare for return. In the immediate term, donors should increase their support for UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP). The under-funded WFP recently cut support for Syria’s refugees. Cash payments for refugees in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq have been halved and the calorific value of food bundles reduced to 825 calories a day. In the meantime, UNHCR has reported receipt of only 51 per cent of the $3.7 billion needed to support Syria’s 3.1 million refugees this year.

Saudi Arabia, a regional economic giant that has sent funds and weapons into the civil war, has contributed only $2.9 million to UNHCR in 2014. While the UK and US have spent more than most, their outlay in 2014 still pales compared to the $1.1 billion the Pentagon has spent on ‘destroying and degrading’ IS since June. Similarly, Western states need to revisit their policies on taking Syrian refugees. 100,000 have declared asylum in EU countries and a handful have been resettled, but this is a drop in the ocean compared to Syria’s neighbours. Unless Europe revises its approach, the number of refugees seeking illegal entry will continue; already 3,000 have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year.

The failure to address these problems could leave Syria’s refugee communities posing not only a threat to regional stability, but also Western capitals. Few Western policy-makers saw the Arab Spring coming, nor were they prepared for the emergence of IS. This time, there can be no excuse for not seeing it coming.

The Syria and its Neighbours Policy Initiative is a major multi-year research and convening project focusing on the long-term impact of the conflict on Syria’s immediate neighbours, which aims to support a coordinated and holistic policy response.


Obama: Realistic or Rudderless on Syria?

By Christopher Phillips, Published in Middle East Eye, 16 August 2014

US airstrikes strikes against Islamic State in Iraq this month have inevitably revived the long-running debate over Obama’s Syria policy.

Hawkish commentators leapt on an interview by Hillary Clinton where she appeared to blame IS’s rise on the president’s refusal to arm Syria’s secular rebels in 2012, saying it, “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”

Supporters of Obama responded, as did the president in his own interview, by dismissing such views as “fantasy”.

Aside from the usual political point scoring, these two reactions reflect a wider contest already waging among Washington commentators to define Obama’s foreign policy legacy, and his Syria stance is key. One sees the president’s approach as realistic, the other as rudderless.

The rudderless camp boasts not only the usual neo-cons, but also many who have served the administration, including the former ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford and former special advisor for transition in Syria, Fred Hof.

Hof attacked Obama’s recent interview saying his Syria policy showed, “no evidence of an existing plan or overall strategy.”

Lack of leadership is a common criticism, portraying the president as reactive, without clear goals other than a general aversion to military action. Many add that the primary concern is how actions play in the domestic news cycle.

Obama is painted as aloof and high-minded, seeking advice only from those who reinforce his opinions and dismissing experienced views from the State Department and elsewhere. A small inner circle of close advisors, notably Ben Rhodes, Susan Rice and Denis McDonough, instead determines policy.

To critics, Obama’s approach to Syria is a catalogue of reactive errors. By mid-2011, Obama was convinced, as were most advisors and the state department, that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad would be swept away by the Arab Spring, and so publically called on him to step down.

However, this was not followed up by a clear plan of how Assad’s fall would be achieved, beyond ineffective economic sanctions, condemning rhetoric and diplomatic support for the opposition.

Then-CIA director David Petraeus, supported by Clinton and others, drew up a plan to arm and train the mostly secular rebel militias, but Obama refused. Instead, other actors – notably Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and a host of private donors from the Gulf – armed the rebels, often encouraging Islamist leaning fighters. This weakened the secularists, diminished US influence over the rebels, and created the vacuum that Clinton claims IS filled. 

Obama then exacerbated matters by backing away from a proposed airstrike of Syria in August 2013 after Assad had crossed Obama’s self-declared “red line” of using chemical weapons. By accepting a Russian plan that removed Assad’s WMD peacefully, Obama showed a caution that emboldened Assad and further convinced the armed rebels that Washington was not coming to help, accelerating the attraction of radicals like IS.

However, Obama’s supporters who view his policies as realistic refute this view.  While they accept that the White House made errors, notably the assumption that Assad would fall quickly, since then it has responded intelligently. The rebels – who Obama himself characterises as, “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” – would never have defeated a well-armed state backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Any major armaments plan would likely have sucked the US further into an unwinnable conflict and various academic studies have shown that the Syrian conflict

Syria resembles the kind of classic civil war that research suggests external intervention only prolongs, rather than resolves.

Recognising that the US has never held much sway in Syria, unlike Egypt and Iraq, Obama has instead sought to contain the conflict’s fallout. If read in this way, his policies have been relatively successful.

As Steven Simon, Obama’s former National Security Council senior director for the Middle East, wrote: “US strategy is working well enough, to the extent that it entails staying out of asymmetric engagements in a civil war in a country where American interests are limited.”

Obama has acted when he deems US interests are threatened, and when he believes he can actually achieve a positive result. The rebels have received enough support to survive, including a recent proposed extra $500 mn in training and equipment, but not enough to drag the US in further.

From this perspective, the chemical weapons red line policy actually worked. Obama, who has historically opposed WMD proliferation, succeeded in using the threat of force to remove chemical weapons from the conflict.

Supporters also dismiss notions that Obama didn’t widely consult experts. The problem, insiders argue, is that those calling for more intervention in Syria never presented the president with a satisfactory plan. There was too much ambiguity over the potential radicalisation of armed rebels, the response of Iran and Russia, and mission creep. There was a full and open discussion, which the experts calling for more intervention in Syria lost. Many of these defeated experts now lead the rudderless camp.

At the heart of the debate are two contrasting worldviews. The ‘realistic’ camp is conscious of the limits on US Middle East policy, still reeling from George W. Bush’s failed attempts to remake the region at huge costs in blood and treasure. This has prompted a narrow reading of US priorities and interests, and Syria does not qualify. They would reject the pejorative ‘declinist’ label, but broadly agree with the idea of an increasingly unstable and dangerous multi-polar world and favour offshore balancing over direct intervention. They may question whether any single ‘grand strategy’ is even possible.

In contrast, the ‘rudderless’ camp draws from a US national security establishment that, according to Michael Glennon is, “still committed to trying to run the world”. While they also reject the grand ambitions of Bush, their view of US national interests is much wider. Intervention in Syria is a way of landing a blow to Iran, supporting long-term regional allies and, more recently, defeating the regional jihadist ambitions of IS.

The strikes on IS in Iraq can therefore be read in these two different ways, pointing to different conclusions as to Obama’s future Syria policy. To the rudderless camp, Obama has finally realised the danger of IS. Having blundered in underestimating them in June, he now sees the physical and ideological threat they pose. A strike on their positions in Syria will surely soon follow.

From the realistic camp, no such Syria attack will come. Obama hit IS with very specific and narrow goals, stated as protecting the Yezidis, US personnel already on the ground and Kurdish allies in Erbil. Moreover, it was at the invitation of the Kurdish and Iraqi governments. This fits in with the idea of acting only when US interests are genuinely threatened and when a limited set of goals can realistically be achieved.

No such parallel exists for attacking IS’s positions in Syria: there are no US personnel on the ground and no invitation from the loathed Assad government. Any such strike would require a redefinition of US interests around the wider threat of IS that Obama’s opponents are clamoring for.

However, unless IS suddenly steps up its anti-US activity from Syria, such an attack would not fit the realistic approach his supporters insist he has followed all along. Indeed, it truly would fit the description of a rudderless president.


Understanding Syria’s four-front war

By Christopher Phillips

Middle East Eye, 5 August 2014

Syria’s civil conflict has evolved into a four-front war involving a fight between Islamic State and Damascus, between IS and mainstream rebels, another between the rebels and Assad – and finally one between IS and Syria’s Kurdish militias

As the world media has been preoccupied with the Gaza conflict, Syria has just had the bloodiest week of its civil war. Some 1,700 were killed in seven days, with a renewed push from Islamic State (IS) accounting for much of the violence.

Confident after its victories in Iraq and deploying newly looted military hardware, IS’s sudden charge and the reaction to it in Syria and outside, has tilted the conflict on its axis, challenging various assumptions and shifting dynamics. Increasingly, we can talk about a war being fought on four overlapping fronts by four groupings of actors: the Assad government, IS, the mainstream rebels and the Kurds.

The first front is between IS and President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Assad facilitated IS’ rise by cynically releasing jihadists from prison to radicalize the opposition and then deliberately avoiding military confrontation. Its growth has helped him. IS alarmed the West, prompting some to suggest a rapprochement with Damascus is the least bad option; it terrified his own population, reinforcing the government’s message that it was their only defense; and it physically attacked his enemies in the mainstream rebels while avoiding his own troops. Any implicit alliance was shattered this month, however, when IS stormed three separate government targets in Homs, Raqqa and Hassakeh, killing hundreds of government troops, then gruesomely videoing their heads on spikes afterwards.

Such heavy losses have rocked Assad’s domestic supporters, provoking rare outrage and criticism on social media. Most accept the government’s characterization of all the opposition as sectarian jihadists and many, especially Alawis, have sent thousands to die to defeat them.

IS seem the most brutal of all, especially to another core constituent, Syria’s Christians who have been aghast at the recent expulsion of their coreligionists from Mosul. Yet these defeats challenge the government’s ability to actually defend its supporters. Assad’s forces are actually weaker as a result of the IS attack in Iraq, as many of the Iraqi Shiite militia who had fought for him returned to defend their homes. However, he cannot afford to isolate his base, and a more concerted campaign against IS can be expected, stretching his resources thinner. This was seen already when one lost area, the Shaar gas field in Homs, was retaken.

Assad misread Syria’s second front, the war between IS and the mainstream rebels. He assumed that IS would finish off the weakened rebels before turning on him. True, IS has recently conquered many rebel territories, pushing Jubhat al-Nusra out of Deir es-Zur and making inroads into the Aleppo countryside, but it is no longer playing Assad’s game. As it expands and occupies more land, it requires further troops and an acquiescent local population. While it still seeks military victories over rival rebel groups, it also wants to woo their fighters. Similarly, according to the Delma Institute’s Hassan Hassan, it is making more effort to win hearts and minds in the regions it conquers. Turning its guns on Assad achieves both goals: countering any former accusations that it was the government’s ally and presenting itself as the best route to its overthrow.

On the other side, the mainstream rebels seem as divided as ever. While they temporarily united to push IS out of the north in January, the various militia and fiefdoms continue to compete for territory and resources. The Washington Post noted how the US’ closest ally, Harakat Hazm clashed with Ahrar as-Sham over control of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing last week. Despite Western attempts to paint these rebels as “moderate” the reality is that most are, more accurately “non-IS Islamists”, with Jubhat al-Nusra an al-Qaeda affiliate. Given how fluid allegiance to rebel militia has been, there is a real chance that idealistic young fighters impressed by IS’ momentum could peel away.

This is increasingly likely as the rebels face defeat in Syria’s third front, the war between themselves and Assad. By ignoring IS, Assad has focused on recapturing Aleppo. He has replicated the brutal tactics used to recapture Homs in March: depopulating hostile districts with barrel bombs before moving on the rebel fighters remaining.

Retaking Syria’s second city would allow Assad to declare the war won, even if much of rural Syria remains out of his control, and would certainly cripple the rebels. This decline and IS’ surge has prompted urgency in Washington, and the familiar calls to “arm the rebels” are heard again, with some proposing the rebels could be trained to simultaneously resist Assad and IS.

This is fanciful. IS defeated Iraq’s national army within days and there is no reason to suggest an uncoordinated collection of feuding militia could rapidly overcome three years of disunity to do better. Even if they could unite, the resources proposed are too few. President Obama has authorized $500m to train and arm rebels, but this won’t appear until 2015 and the covert weaponry delivered so far is restricted to eight small carefully vetted groups, having limited impact.

Moreover, after the MH17 disaster in Ukraine, there is even less appetite from the White House to deliver the anti-aircraft MANPADS that hawks demand. More positively, after three years of backing rival rebel groups, the IS crises seems to have sobered Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and stronger coordination may follow. These efforts may prove enough to keep the mainstream rebels in the field, probably around Deraa and Idleb, and may even prevent too many fighters switching to IS. However, it is unlikely they can form a realistic rival to IS and the increased support will probably come too late to prevent Assad’s march on Aleppo.

Changes have also come on Syria’s fourth and least reported front: the battle between IS and Syria’s Kurdish militia. The Kurdish militias, led by the PYD – the PKK’s Syrian wing – have used the Syrian civil war to carve out autonomous regions, clashing with IS in the process. July saw intense fighting over the PYD-controlled border town of Ain al-Arab / Kobani, prompting a radical new position from Turkey.

Fearful of Kurdish nationalism, Turkey had previously opposed the PYD closing its border to prevent any support from the PKK. In contrast it allegedly turned a blind eye to those supporting IS. However, the IS attacks into Iraq prompted a U-turn. With Ankara now realizing the size of the IS threat and fearful that Ain al-Arab would give it a launch pad into Turkey, the border was opened prompting a stream of 1000 PKK fighters into Syria to help the PYD hold off the advance. While Kurdish-IS clashes will likely continue, the emergence of a united PYD-PKK military force is a new dynamic. Ironically it may provide Turkey with a much-needed IS buffer, but it also increases the likelihood of an autonomous Kurdish Syrian region becoming a reality.

Despite these changing dynamics, none of the four groupings looks likely to win outright. Assad might take Aleppo, but he will face increased public pressure to take on IS, stretching his limited military resources. The mainstream rebels may be facing imminent defeat, but they probably have enough external support to remain in the field.

Syria’s Kurds now have PKK support, but that remains subject to Turkish border policy. Even IS, seemingly in the ascendency, must manage the shift from invader to occupier, and win over enough fighters and civilians to continue its march west. IS’ recent charge may have shifted, dissolved or solidified the Syrian civil war’s fronts and actors, but it seems more likely to perpetuate the conflict further rather than hurry its end.