by Derek Davison
The Syrian civil war is at something of a crossroads. With the Syrian government having secured the area around Damascus its attention now seems to be turning to both Idlib province in northwestern Syria and Daraa province in southwestern Syria, both still held by rebels. Meanwhile, a conflict is brewing in northern and eastern Syria between two U.S. allies: the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces and Turkey. To get a sense of where the conflict stands now and where it might be heading, LobeLog spoke recently with University of Oklahoma professor Joshua Landis, who has been covering the war from its Arab Spring origins at his Syria Comment blog. Below is an edited transcript of our discussion.
LobeLog: Now that the Syrian government and allied forces have consolidated areas around Damascus, Homs, and Hama it seems the war has reached a fork in the road. At this point, there remain three large areas of the country still outside Bashar al-Assad’s control: Idlib province, southwestern Syria (primarily Daraa province), and the areas in northern and eastern Syria controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces and Turkey. His military has been dropping leaflets on the southwest warning rebels to surrender or face attack [NOTE: after this interview was completed it began shelling towns in the region], but recently we’ve seen an uptick in airstrikes, possibly Russian, in Idlib. Talk about the state of the war and where you think Assad will turn his attention next.
Joshua Landis: Assad has won the major battle against the uprising. There’s no real organized, armed opposition in Syria anymore. There are these pockets that you talk about, these “deconfliction zones” that are being protected by outside powers. There’s Daraa, which Israel and the United States have told Assad not to attempt to take back although it looks as though he’s going to push in that direction. There’s Idlib, which Turkey is trying to protect.
Idlib was one of the poorer regions of Syria. It was a Muslim Brotherhood and rather Salafi place before the revolution. Now it’s become a dumping ground for all of the defeated rebel forces that have been pushed out of the various rebel pockets. They’ve all been pushed into Idlib, and it’s become this very unhappy collecting point. Today we’re seeing lots of violence there internally, between militias that are vying for supremacy. But also, Turkey is protecting Idlib. Turkey does not want it to be conquered, because in doing so Assad would push tens of thousands of militia fighters into Turkey. That will make the refugee problem much more difficult for Turkey and saddle Turkey with up to 100,000 hardened rebel fighters, many of whom have links to al-Qaeda.
This gives Turkey a lot of incentive to take Idlib province and try to set up a satellite statelet that can act as a holding province for these rebels. That’s going to be a real sore spot for the United States, which doesn’t want to see al-Qaeda survive in Idlib and have a safe haven to plot potentially against the U.S. and European countries. But the Turkish government doesn’t want them in Turkey, and it wants to see some gains from its Syrian adventure, which so far has brought nothing but pain, expense, and refugees into Turkey. It’s set up shop in Afrin, north of Aleppo, and in the Jarabulus region, and it looks like Turkey intends to retain that area. It’s sponsoring rebel groups there that were previously sponsored by the U.S., and that’s unlikely to go away any time soon.
So, which region is Assad going to attack first? He’s threatened to attack Daraa, but he’s also bombing Idlib. I think he’s following a two-pronged movement and is testing both regions to see where is the least amount of resistance and where he can make the easiest progress.
LL: What, in your view, is the long-term U.S. plan in Syria? There’s been a lot of talk about containing Iranian ambitions, much of it driven by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Is that where the U.S. and Europe are heading?
JL: Clearly Netanyahu’s goal is to rally the international community around the goal of physically destroying any attempt by the Iranians to establish a permanent military presence in Syria. I think Israel can do that. It can kill Iranians without much criticism from the rest of the world. Assad and the Iranians will complain, but it’s not clear that they can do much about it. And Israel has shown that it can attack anything that appears to be an Iranian base with ease.
Israel wants Syria to remain weak. The civil war has opened up a lot of potential for advances on Israel’s northern border. It’s destabilized that border, but at the same time it’s weakened Assad tremendously. He’s no longer a military threat to Israel, and the militias that are now along the border also don’t pose a threat. Even if they have links to the Islamic State or al-Qaeda they’re small and have no missile capabilities or other advanced military technology. Israel would like to be able to preserve those gains and consolidate its control over the Golan. It’s now pressing the United States to follow up on its Jerusalem recognition by recognizing the Golan as Israeli territory.
It looks like the Europeans will be happy to embrace this. They want to see Syria extremely weak, they’re very unhappy with Assad, and if they’re not embracing the “roll back Iran” strategy it doesn’t seem like they’re able to resist it very much. This has also become U.S. strategy. The U.S. has closed off all of the major highways out of Syria to the east. International trade for Syria has been blocked off and sanctions tightened. The U.S. is dead set against international organizations playing any role in Syrian redevelopment so the U.S. can continue to strangle Syria and keep it extremely poor. You might argue that this is bad from a counterterrorism perspective because it will create more instability, but I think the U.S. is willing to pay that price because it won’t hurt the U.S. directly.
LL: Talk about the situation in northern and eastern Syria. The SDF, functioning as a U.S. proxy, controls much of this area but is being pressured by Turkey. How strong a hold does the SDF have over this region and what is the U.S. plan for this part of the country?
JL: The U.S. now holds about 30 percent of Syria through its proxies, the group that is called the Syrian Democratic Forces but is really led by the Kurds, with some Arab assistance. That’s a big mess too, because the region is majority Kurdish but has a large Arab minority, and the Arabs and Kurds do not like each other. They have diametrically opposed political and national ambitions. The Kurds want a state, Rojava, and they’re on their way to becoming like the Kurds in northern Iraq. The Arabs feel like they’re going to be displaced. They’ve been long-time rivals.
In many ways, the ethnic problems in this region flared up in 2004 in what’s called the “Kurdish Intifada,” and that came the day after the U.S. signed off on the Iraqi constitution that gave a large measure of independence to Iraq’s Kurds. The Kurds of Syria were jubilant, hoping that this was a sign of President Bush’s “forward freedom” strategy that would reach into Syria. Clashes between Arabs and Kurds led to riots that spread throughout the region, and dozens of people were killed. That’s the backdrop to Arab-Kurdish relations in the region. They’ve been vying for control for decades, and neither sees the other as having a legitimate claim.
The U.S. has gotten itself sunk into a real trouble spot. It’s the most underdeveloped and ignored region of Syria, yet it has great riches—it has oil, it has a good agricultural foundation, and it has water. All of those things give it some potential, but the United States doesn’t know what it wants to do with the region. On the one hand, it says it wants to stay there for the long haul, meaning make a state out of it—and they’re building an army to undergird that. On the other hand, President Trump says he wants to get out of there soon, and he’s refusing to spend money to rebuild the place. So Raqqa lies in ruins, there are many unhappy people because their homes have been destroyed and nobody is going to reconstruct them. There is no legal basis for a separate state, so it can’t bring in foreign investment.
LL: What do you make of the “roadmap” that the U.S. and Turkey recently negotiated for Manbij? Is the U.S. preparing to jettison its SDF allies in order to improve relations with Turkey, and should the Kurds be worried about that possibility? Will that affect their relationship with Assad?
JL: The Kurds are very worried, and they have good reason to be. The deal over Manbij, in which the U.S. turned on the Kurds and demanded that they leave Manbij after claiming only months ago that they would never do this, is a very bad sign for the Kurds. Washington’s refusal to pay for any kind of reconstruction in Raqqa is a very bad sign for the Kurds. America’s willingness to go along with Turkey’s ethnic cleansing campaign in Afrin, where it’s turning a Kurdish-dominated region into an Arab rebel-dominated one, is a very bad sign for the Kurds.
That doesn’t mean that the Kurdish situation is lost. There are many people in Washington who like the Kurds, see the Kurds as America’s only true ally in the region, believe that Turkey is a lost cause—that it’s becoming dictatorial and increasingly Islamist. They see doubling down on the Kurds as a smart Washington strategy that will give them leverage, and that it’s the Kurds who will help roll back Iran. But many others in Washington are unconvinced. They believe that Turkey is still irreplaceable and that the Kurds are a weak reed upon which to build a policy in the region. They believe that Washington should improve its relations with Turkey by throwing the Kurds under the bus to a certain degree. On top of this is Trump’s desire to get out of Syria. We don’t know how serious that desire is, but it’s in the back of many people’s minds.
I think what the Turks are counting on is that the Kurds are incapable of nation-building at this time. They don’t have the money, the friends, or the internal development to become a power. Therefore, if Turkey keeps up the pressure, the U.S. will cave. Because the U.S. is doing nothing to help the Kurds build a viable nation, and ultimately northern Syria is going to turn into a quagmire for the U.S., involving ethnic infighting, tribal disagreements, and real dissatisfaction because there’s no reconstruction going on.
Assad, of course, wants the Kurds’ efforts to fail so they’ll have to come to him, and he’d be very happy to see the U.S. stab the Kurds in the back because then they’ll have nowhere to turn but to Assad. So this is just going to keep up the pressure, it’s going to make the costs extremely high for the U.S. to help the Kurds, and I think eventually Washington will forget its initial love affair with the Kurds and throw them under the bus.
Turkey’s goal is to expand the Manbij model, which calls for getting rid of the SDF and says that the political future of every city and town in northern Syria should be determined by the ethnic composition of its population. While Kurds may be the majority in big parts of northern Syria, there are many other parts where they’re not. If that logic takes hold, it means Turkey can go in with a cookie cutter and begin to force the SDF out of all kinds of places, like Raqqa. That will undermine Kurdish rule, undermine U.S. promises, and cause ethnic infighting, which will slowly unravel the political status quo.
LL: Is there a way for the SDF and Assad to co-exist? Can they reach some kind of accord?
JL: It’s possible, primarily because Assad needs the Kurds, and ultimately the Kurds need Assad. There has always been a tacit alliance between the Kurds and the Assad government, based on the fact that both of them dislike the Salafi-inflected Arab population of eastern Syria, which is very anti-minority. So Assad needs the Kurds to help rule the north, and the Kurds need Assad to keep the Sunni Arab chauvinism from becoming a dominant force in the east. The Kurds can include themselves in the “minority strategy” that Assad has pursued.
Now, it’s an unhappy alliance, because Assad’s outward ideology is Arabism. The Baath Party is predicated on Arab chauvinism and nationalism, which condemns the Kurds to second-class citizenship. What Assad has to do now is make it all about Syria. He’s tried to counter the rebels by proclaiming himself the champion of secularism. His opponents insist that he’s anything but secular, but Assad’s assurance that he will not discriminate against any religious or ethnic group is appealing to minorities who fear an Islamist takeover and don’t want Sharia law.
So the Kurds have a place in Syria—in theory. The problem is that nobody trusts the Assad government, and nobody trusts that any deal it hammers out will be respected. Assad is a centralizer. He sees any form of federalism as an externally organized plot against the Syrian nation—and to a certain degree he’s correct, because there are a lot of people in Washington who want to use federalism as the sharp end of a spear that will ultimately dislodge the Assad government.
Assad doesn’t like to recognize agreements that tie his hands and limit his authority, and that’s what the Kurds want. They want a federalist system that allows them to build a proto-state, in the same way that the Kurds of northern Iraq have been building a proto-state. Assad fears that if he does that, Syrian Kurds will do just what the Iraqi Kurds did, which is to hold an independence referendum and try to break away—which is what many Kurds want to do. How do you give them the beginnings of an independent state without having that actually lead to independence? That’s Assad’s conundrum. It’s going to be very hard for them to come to an agreement.
LL: Is there a scenario wherein we could see direct conflict between the Assad government and Turkey over northern Syria? Would Russia try to prevent that in order to preserve its relations with both parties?
JL: There’s definitely a scenario, and in fact there’s already a conflict there. Syria’s bombing of rebel groups in Idlib is a low-grade conflict between Syria and Turkey, because Turkey in a sense is claiming Idlib province. They’ve now set up over 10 observer posts in the province, manned by Turkish soldiers equipped with Turkish hardware, and they could become defensive positions opposing a Syrian assault on the province. Turkey will see any attempt by Syria to reimpose control over Idlib as a hostile act, but Assad has made it extremely clear that he intends to take that province back. So there’s an impending conflict at some level. Who’s going to blink, where Russia stands, we don’t know.
LL: What’s the long-term future of the remaining insurgent groups, many of whom are on the more Islamist end of the spectrum like the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, the formerly al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra)? Will they surrender? Go underground and shift to a more guerrilla-type insurgency? Plot attacks against the West?
JL: Right now they’re in chaos and trying to deal with internal problems, and you can see this in the fact that tens of people are being assassinated every month in Idlib. Who’s assassinating them? We don’t know. Fingers are being pointed at IS and at the Turkish government. Many of the victims are coming from HTS, and it could be that the Turkish government is trying to assassinate the leadership in order to weaken more radical groups and leave the more malleable groups, like Ahrar al-Sham, in a position where they can collaborate with Turkey. Or it could be that Assad has sent agents into the province. But for the time being, the violence inherent in these groups is being directed toward intramural killing.
The big question is whether Turkey can impose its vision on Idlib, which would be to turn much of the province into a satrap and ultimately Turkify it. They’ve done this previously, with Turkey’s Hatay province, which used to be the Syrian province of Alexandretta under the post-World War I French Mandate but was ceded to Turkey in 1938. That region has been very successfully Turkified, even though many of its inhabitants were originally Arab. Today they speak Turkish—Arabic is something that the older generations know—and by and large the inhabitants see themselves as part of a Turkish family. The province’s Alawite minority and other inhabitants are unhappy and feel that they have not been given their full rights, but by and large it works. And some people are arguing, on that basis, that perhaps the best future for Idlib province is to become part of Turkey—though of course that would create a lot of new difficulties, and Assad is determined not to see it happen.
This creates problems for the United States, because the Salafist groups that survive in Idlib will continue to have a life. They’ll be able to plot against the West if that’s what they want to do—there’s plenty of indication that some of them do want to do that—and to continue to preach an extremely anti-Western ideology. HTS and some other groups glorify Osama bin Laden and promote a Salafi-jihadist ideology that is very threatening to the West.
The question is the degree to which Turkey is willing to clamp down on those groups and arrest the leadership. That could be negotiated between Turkey and the United States, though the United States doesn’t trust Turkey very much these days to do that kind of thing. The alternative is to have Assad’s military sweep through the province after bombing the living daylights out of it, as it’s done in other regions, and create a massive refugee flow into Turkey—which the West doesn’t want, because some percentage of those refugees will end up in Europe. So, the Europeans may go along with allowing Turkey to rule this region even though it violates international law.
IS could potentially make a comeback because Syria is a failed state, and if there’s one thing we know about IS and al-Qaeda it’s that they look for failed states where there’s no central government. Their only hope for a comeback is these chaotic, ungoverned regions. And so long as the United States is promoting regime change in Syria, this is going to continue to be a tumultuous and ungoverned region. We’re not sure exactly what the U.S. is promoting in Syria, but all the talk coming out of Washington reflects an effort to squeeze Syria politically, economically, diplomatically, and militarily in order to unseat Assad and replace him with a government that’s going to be pro-West and anti-Iran. This hasn’t been clearly set in stone, but the strategy that’s emerging seems to be a pro-Israel, “roll back Iran” strategy.