The Shape of Syria to Come

World Politics Review, 13.08.2018
Aron Lund, escritor e investigador sueco del Century Foundation

A Syrian national flag with the picture of the President Bashar Assad hangs at an army checkpoint in the town of Douma (AP photo by Hassan Ammar).

After seven years of war in Syria, the endgame is here. All major frontlines have been frozen by foreign intervention, and military action now hinges on externally brokered political deals. The result could be a de facto division of the country.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed forces spent the past two years taking out isolated rebel strongholds, like Eastern Aleppo and Ghouta. Recently, they recaptured the area along the border with Jordan and territory near the Golan Heights—but at that point, they ran out of low-hanging fruit.

The sight of Russian diplomats shuttling between Israelis, Syrians, Iranians and Americans to ease Assad’s return to the 1967 cease-fire line in the Golan was a sign of things to come. Israel finally relented, accepting a Russian-monitored restoration of the pre-2011 status quo, but it’s not clear things will be as easy in the rest of Syria, where the three remaining areas outside Assad’s control are shielded by soldiers from NATO member states and wrapped up in complex diplomacy.

The smallest area still outside state control is Tanf. In this 55-kilometer bubble around a border crossing with Iraq, a few hundred U.S. forces and allied Syrian rebels remain, ostensibly to hunt remnants of the Islamic State.

Russia has agreed not to challenge the American presence at Tanf, but what the United States wants to do with the place is unclear. Tanf has lost most of its relevance as the fight against the Islamic State has wound down, but a strong strand of thought in Washington wants the U.S. military to hang on to this pocket of territory simply to spite Damascus, Moscow and Tehran. As long as the White House can convince itself that this is money well spent, for one strategic reason or another, Tanf will remain outside central government control.

In northeastern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, have set up a semi-independent, socialist entity fighting the Islamic State, backed by some 2,000 American soldiers. The SDF is made up of Kurds, Arabs and Syriacs, but it is not-so-secretly controlled by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, an arch-foe of Turkey. Over the past few years, U.S. envoys have struggled to dissuade the Turks—who are about as comfortable with a PKK stronghold on their southern border as the United States was with Soviet missiles in Cuba—from attacking.

The U.S. deployment doesn’t just keep the Turks out, it also prevents Assad’s forces from entering SDF-controlled areas. But the fact that U.S. President Donald Trump keeps saying he wants to bring the troops home has spooked the SDF’s leaders. They have no air force, no armor, no viable economy and no powerful friends apart from the United States. Left alone, they couldn’t fend off Assad or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Of the two, however, they prefer Assad. Senior SDF representatives recently visited Damascus to propose a system of decentralized rule in Syria, integration of SDF units into the Syrian army, and an end to anti-Kurdish discrimination by the government. Assad won’t accept genuine power-sharing, but he may be willing to satisfy some of the SDF’s less intrusive demands and fudge others, while offering protection against Turkey. In return, the SDF would be asked to show America the door and hand Assad the keys.

That sort of plot twist might seem like a good fit with Trump’s desire to leave Syria, but U.S. policymakers are also wary of a jihadist resurgence and unenthusiastic about public humiliation at the hands of Damascus. Unless or until Trump says otherwise, some combination of inertia and ideology is likely to keep the United States engaged in northeastern Syria, making it off-limits to Assad.

Meanwhile, Syria’s northwest is dominated by Turkey, as part of the Russian-Turkish-Iranian Astana Process that seeks to resolve or freeze the conflict on terms favorable to those three nations. But Turkey can’t operate safely in the northwest without Russian cooperation.

In the summer of 2016, Erdogan sent his army into the city of al-Bab outside Aleppo, supporting a Syrian rebel coalition. Two years later, Turkish forces seized the nearby Kurdish enclave of Afrin. Moscow facilitated both interventions, allowing Erdogan to carve out a border enclave as long as his rebel clients did not attack the Syrian government. It’s a good deal for Russia, since it makes a key member of NATO dependent on Moscow.

Assad seems less enthusiastic, having watched with dismay as al-Bab and Afrin mutate into Turkish dependencies: Electricity is now wired in over the border, Turkish is taught in schools, Ankara pays rebel salaries, Turks oversee police and local administration, and public squares are named after Erdogan instead of Assad.

South of Afrin in Idlib, the last remaining province in Syria outside of the regime’s control, Turkish influence is more diluted. Erdogan has been trying to change that, but Idlib is a hard nut to crack. The area is larger than Afrin and al-Bab combined, and has absorbed hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians, many under so-called evacuation deals that have transferred populations from besieged areas near Damascus, Aleppo and other former rebel strongholds. U.N. officials warn that an attack could trigger a mass exodus. Even so, the presence of al-Qaida-inspired jihadists in Idlib is seen as unacceptable far outside the pro-Assad camp.

Between October and May, some 1,300 Turkish soldiers built a dozen outposts on the edges of the province, after Russia and Iran green-lighted a plan hatched in Astana to freeze fighting between rebels and the regime while Ankara tries to put more palatable, Turkey-friendly Islamists in charge. For Erdogan, keeping Idlib calm is about preventing a refugee crisis; Turkey already hosts 3.5 million Syrians. Fearing that Assad is about to pivot north, Turkish officials are now signaling to Moscow that attacking Idlib would cross a “red line” and violate the terms of the Astana accord.

Moscow wants Idlib’s jihadists gone, especially after a string of drone attacks on the nearby Russian air base, south of Latakia. But the Russians also have strong incentives to uphold the Astana-brokered status quo. They know Assad can survive without Idlib, Afrin or al-Bab, and Russian diplomats see no pressing reason to end a stalemate where both sides compete for Moscow’s favor. A large-scale offensive on Idlib would be “out of the question,” Russia’s special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, said on July 31, contradicting his Syrian counterpart.

These Turkish-Russian understandings put Assad in a tough spot. His army would have trouble retaking Idlib without Russian support, and forcing the Kremlin to pick sides would not necessarily work out in his favor.

Still, Russia might want to throw Assad a bone, and there’s a lot of gray area between total reconquest and doing nothing. Russia could very well support an attack on outlying areas like the strategically located town of Jisr al-Shughour, south of the Turkish border, or others near Aleppo. If the fallout seems manageable, that kind of limited offensive could even be acceptable to Turkey, as the coming days may reveal.

With Syrian tanks rolling north and tensions mounting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is heading to Ankara this week. What he ends up agreeing to with his Turkish counterpart will help determine many of these outcomes in Syria. Some pieces of Idlib may be handed over to Assad, but if Russia then decides to put its thumb on the scale in Turkey’s favor, large parts of Syria’s northwest could be out of Assad’s reach for the foreseeable future.

It wouldn’t be a clean end to the war, but does Moscow really need that? From Moldova to South Ossetia and eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin has a habit of letting messy situations linger to its advantage. As seen in Cyprus, Turkey is also no stranger to the concept of endless interim solutions.

Seven years in, the Syrian war is no longer a struggle over Assad’s regime and his future, but over the shape of the country he will continue to rule. The fate of the areas that still elude his control is now in the hands of foreigners.

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