by Gregory Aftandilian
Although uncertainties abound regarding the future of Syria, various players are maneuvering to consolidate and enhance their positions there, or at least to hedge their bets. Alliances such as those between Iran and Russia now appear to be on shaky ground as each country pursues its own interests. Israel and Turkey continue to intervene militarily in Syria, but they seem to accept the notion that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is likely to remain in power. It is apparent that the Syrian regime itself is removing security officials who have been accused of human rights abuses, perhaps in an effort to improve its image. Meanwhile, the Syrian Kurds are trying to preserve their autonomous entity in the northeast amid fears that their position will become increasingly vulnerable as the United States draws down its troops.
US policy at this point is hard to pin down. On the one hand, President Donald Trump has made some tough statements against the Syrian-Russian offensive in Idlib province, the last remaining rebel stronghold in the country. On the other hand, Trump has once again emphasized his desire to leave Syria soon since the so-called Islamic State (IS) has lost its self-declared caliphate. Washington continues to support, at least on paper, the problematic Geneva talks of 2012 aimed at bringing about a political solution between the regime and the opposition, but this failed process has been overtaken by the Astana talks (supported by Russia, Iran, and Turkey) that are focused on changes to the Syrian constitution, which would presumably pave the way for a political settlement. Without a more active US diplomatic role, it is hard to see how Washington will be a major player in Syria’s future—though non-involvement may well be Trump’s true intention.
The Stalled Idlib Offensive
The Kurdish-controlled areas of the northeast notwithstanding, most of Syria, except for Idlib province in the northwest, came under the control of the Assad regime by the end of 2018. In a September 2017 “de-escalation” deal worked out between Russia and Turkey, this province was to be a safe haven for Syrian rebels as well as civilians who had fled there from other parts of the country (thus increasing the province’s population to three million), while committing all sides to isolating and combating extremist groups. A subsequent deal made in Sochi, Russia, a year later specified measures to clear terrorist groups from a demilitarized zone inside Idlib. It is noteworthy that Turkey, which has troops in this province, failed to move against these groups; further, most of the province—since January 2019—has been under the control of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, the successor to Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate). These factors gave the Assad regime and Russia an excuse to mount an offensive in Idlib this past spring.
After making considerable gains—and terrorizing the civilian population in the process through barrel bombs and air strikes—in the initial weeks of an operation that included the regime retaking 18 towns and villages, the offensive stalled by early June. This was because Turkish-supported rebel groups launched a counter-offensive, as did HTS militants. In addition, Syrian regime ground troops reportedly suffered from the fact that they included former rebels who were reluctant to fire on their former comrades. Retaking Idlib remains Assad’s goal, but the operation is now likely to be done through what one analyst calls a “war of attrition” instead of an all-out offensive. Bombings, however, have continued, even on health facilities in Idlib, causing UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock to issue a warning in mid-July to both Russia and Syria that the “carnage must stop.”
Back to Astana
In the meantime, diplomatic efforts are underway to resume negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan, in early August between the Assad government and representatives of the Syrian opposition and civil society activists. The Astana process has been supported by Russia, Iran, and Turkey, even though these countries are not always in sync on Syria’s future. Negotiations have been stymied on the makeup of the civil society actors as well as on the Assad government’s reluctance to discuss changes to the Syrian constitution. Although the former issue seems to have been resolved, discussions regarding the constitution remain highly contentious. Not only does Assad reject the idea of entering a process that could ultimately weaken his power, but the opposition believes there must be a cease-fire in Idlib before there can be negotiations about a constitutional committee and genuine political transition. One opposition spokesman said it was impossible to talk about the positive intentions of Russia and the Assad regime “after all the crimes committed in our country.”
Ironically, UN officials are trying to mediate between these various factions even though the Astana talks are technically outside the purview of the Geneva track—a process that the United Nations has officially sponsored to try to resolve the Syrian crisis but which has witnessed one failure after another. The fact that UN officials are assisting in the Astana talks shows that the center of gravity is in the hands of Russia, Turkey, and Iran and not the broader international community.
Sharper Russian-Iranian Differences
Although Russia and Iran have been the main outside players supporting the Assad regime against its enemies and continue to cooperate to some extent—for example, they share access to the Syrian military Tiyas Air Base (T-4), about 100 miles northeast of Damascus—signs of fracture in their alliance have surfaced in the past year. There have been reports of clashes between pro-Iranian militias and Russian-supported armed groups inside Syria, and Russia has reportedly compelled Assad to sack some pro-Iranian Syrian officers.
Moreover, through a de-confliction agreement with the Israelis, Russia has not interfered with scores of Israeli air attacks on Iranian and pro-Iranian military targets in Syria that have taken place in the past few years. A June 2019 meeting in Israel between Israeli security officials, US National Security Advisor John Bolton, and Russian security officials must have been very worrisome to Iran. Although no agreement came out of the meeting, the fact that much of the discussion reportedly focused on Iran’s role in Syria was undoubtedly of great concern to Tehran.
Other than their tactical differences on Syria, Russia and Iran have strategic outlooks that are not in congruence. Russia sees Syria as its gateway to the broader Middle East. It wants to be a major playerin the region once again and believes its commitment to the Syrian government— even though it was controversial in the Arab world—demonstrated it can come to the aid of an ally. In addition, Russia wants to preserve its longstanding Mediterranean naval base in Tartous as well as its new Humaymim Air Base, both in Syria’s Latakia province, and does not want another power like Iran to be a rival in the country. Furthermore, by reasserting itself in the Middle East, Russia wants to maintain friendly ties with a number of other countries. Putin, for example, has held many meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the past several years and has received high-ranking Saudi officials in Moscow. When Arab allies of the United States, like Egypt, believe that Washington is not being reliable, Putin has shown he is ready to step into the breach.
Iran, on the other hand, sees its alliance with Syria as a way to disrupt Saudi hegemony in the broader region as well as to show the Shia community, and nominally Shia groups (the Syrian regime is dominated by the Alawi sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam), that it can come to their aid against what it sees as Saudi Sunni intervention. Moreover, Syria has long been a conduit for Iran’s assistance to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran demonstrated its fealty to the Syrian regime by bringing Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers to fight in the civil war and by facilitating the transportation of Shia fighters from as far away as Afghanistan and Pakistan to Syria.
However, Russian-Iranian tensions have not yet reached the point where there is an actual breach between the two. Putin still wants to maintain friendly ties to Tehran to take advantage of US-Iranian tensions, and he has no intention of “forcing” Iran out of Syria, as both Israel and the United States want. After Bolton stated at the three-way meeting in Israel that Iranian forces are “a problem in Syria,” his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, weighed in by saying: “Any attempts to make Tehran look like the main threat to global security, to put it in the same basket as [the Islamic State] or any other terror group are unacceptable.”
As for Israel, Netanyahu has stated repeatedly that he will not accept a long-term Iranian military presence in Syria and has been concerned about pro-Iranian militias operating near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. However, hopes that his friendship with Putin will lead Russia to force Iran out of Syria seem to be wishful thinking.
The Syrian Regime Hopes to Rehabilitate Itself
In the meantime, there have been some interesting developments within the Syrian regime. In early July, Assad forced the retirement of Maj. Gen. Jamil Hassan, the powerful head of Air Force Intelligence, as well as the heads of other security agencies. No reason was given for these shake-ups, but they could relate to either the stalled government offensive in Idlib or Assad’s desire to fire high-ranking officials who have been sanctioned by the international community. Hassan has been implicated in numerous atrocities against civilians, and both France and Germany have issued arrest warrants for him. By shedding these officials, Assad may believe it will hasten his reintegration into the Arab and broader worlds. There has already been talk within the Arab League about readmitting Syria (though this has not occurred yet), and with Assad appearing to have “won” the civil war, neighboring countries such as Israel, Jordan, and Turkey seem to have grudgingly accepted the idea that he is there to stay.
Uncertainty in Syria’s Northeast
Part of Turkey’s disinclination to go after extremists in Idlib province may be because its main concern is Syria’s northeast region, where the Kurds have established their own autonomous government. Ankara remains strongly opposed to this entity because of alleged links between the Syrian Kurds and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, which it considers a terrorist organization. The Syrian Kurds have been protected by the United States, which saw them as the most reliable fighters against the Islamic State, but now that Washington is drawing down its forces from about 2,000 to no more than 400, the Kurds are justifiably worried that they will be targeted by their more powerful neighbor to the north.
Washington has leaned on its European allies to make up for its drawdown of troops, but it has been only partially successful. Britain and France said they would increase their troop presence by a mere 10-15 percent, while Germany said it would not send any ground troops to Syria. Although some analysts have suggested that this modest increase in British and French troops might deter a Turkish invasion, the Kurds are using their leverage with the Europeans to compel them to stay—by threatening to release hundreds of IS fighters, many from European countries, whom they are holding in detention facilities. The Kurds are also in talks with the Syrian government about allowing Syrian government troops to patrol the northern border with Turkey in exchange for Damascus recognizing their autonomy, but it is unclear if such an agreement will be reached.
The Confused American Policy
Trump continues to send mixed signals on Syria. In early June, he sharply criticized the Syrian regime and Russia for the offensive in Idlib that he described as “indiscriminately killing many innocent civilians” and ordered them to stop the “butchery.” But at the G20 summit in mid-July, Trump stated that because the Islamic State’s caliphate has been destroyed, “we’re rapidly pulling out of Syria.” He went on to say, “Syria can handle their own problems—along with Iran, along with Russia, along with Iraq, along with Turkey. We’re 7,000 miles away.”
This statement appears to be a complete abdication of any US role going forward. Whether it reflects actual policy is uncertain. Moreover, it comes in the wake of Bolton’s trip to Israel to discuss the Syrian issue and the rising US tensions with Iran, which include not only developments near the Strait of Hormuz but also US statements about Iran’s “malign” activities in the Arab region, making Trump’s mid-July statement even more perplexing. Furthermore, how can any of the players in the conflict take the United States seriously, like Trump’s comments about Idlib, when he seems to want to wash his hands of the Syrian crisis?
But perhaps that was Trump’s plan from the beginning. His only interest in Syria was to be the anti-Obama (hence the short-lived US strikes in 2017 when Syria’s regime used chemical weapons against Khan Sheikhoun) and to defeat the Islamic State. However, if Trump wants to restore US credibility, he needs to speak more about the plight of the long-suffering Syrian people and seriously insert himself in diplomatic efforts that are aimed at bringing about a political solution. Granted, this is hard to do, especially now because of rising tensions between the United States and Turkey over Ankara’s decision to deploy the Russian S-400 air defense system, and between Washington and Tehran over a range of issues, particularly pertaining to Arabian Gulf oil security. However, without a US role, it is likely that Russia will set the agenda and pursue policies in Syria that may not be in line with US interests or help to bring millions of Syrian refugees back to their country, where they can rebuild their shattered lives.