As a Scenario for the End of the War in Syria Emerges, another is Brewing for a Bigger War
The war is dead. Long live the war! In Syria, the various parties that have fought and won against ISIS have barely taken their seats at the conference table to discuss the 'peace'. But another and possibly bigger war is brewing in the background. Iranian leaders, ahead of the summit in Sochi with Russia and Turkey - preceded by a meeting between Putin and Assad on November 21 – send the message that the war against the Caliphate is over and won. Thus, the influence zone partition games can begin. Russia is moving quickly to prevent the Americans from getting ahead of themselves.
The Russians are in charge. The Russians are the ones who, having taken a direct military role alongside Damascus in 2015, have done most to defeat ISIS and perhaps, more importantly, the other rebel forces. The Turks will want to ensure that they can maintain a military presence in northern Syria to watch over Kurdish separatist ambitions. Israel keeps the Golan and Iran wants to ensure their Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut axis is strengthened. This is the part
which Israelis, Americans and Saudis will find problematic; and this is where the next war could begin.
Russia will agree to what guarantees stability, but its interests do not coincide entirely with Tehran. Russia appears to have received the White House's go-ahead over Syria's integrity. President Trump agrees with Putin that Syria should not split up into parts, which would compromise the already delicate regional equilibrium. After all, it was ISIS, which was trying to re-draw the region's map, scrapping the Sykes-Picot agreement. Obama's administration, the Saudis, Qataris and even the Turks for a while, seemed to go along with that plan. But a remarkable Russian diplomatic machine has managed to overcome Syria's total collapse. In many ways, a ‘Libya outcome’ is
seen as far worse, than the political stability point of view.
But, the Russians have their demands. They insist on rapid stability based on compromise. They have learned from the Americans' mistakes - and perhaps those of the Soviet Union - in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus, they see the need for the winning forces not to act too greedily. The Americans failed in Iraq because they dismantled the Baath and the Iraqi army, forcing them into hiding and resistance (ISIS was one of the products of this policy). By compromising with some of the opposition groups, especially the Kurds, Bashar al-Asad could have a better chance of weaving a 'peace' through incentives rather than encouraging the opposition to remain in the shadows, seeking to carve out their own zones of influence. Russia will keep its bases in Syria at Latakia and Tartous. That was always one of the goals of its intervention. As for the Americans, it will be more difficult for them to remain in Iraq while Trump remains hostile to Iran, branding it as the main terrorist sponsor in the Middle East. That's where the next casus belli will be found. Indeed, as Syria can find a renewed stability, the regional context is a 'fire hazard'.
The Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia heading that group, are feeling marginalized and humiliated. They backed and encouraged the war against Asad (and Hezbollah, Iran). They might get some stale leftovers, not even scraps, should there be UN negotiations, but these will only highlight their failure to achieve any tangible goal. Thus, the Saudis will emerge from this war, plotting the next one as they have on successive occasions since the Revolution that put Shiite religious leaders in charge in Iran in 1979. Moreover, the Saudis have already been embarrassed by their inability to win against the rebel Houthis in Yemen, backed by Hezbollah and Iran.
Putin’s diplomatic chess managed to secure Turkey’s backing for the Russian plan. Erdogan betrayed the Gulf Arabs. Putin must have persuaded the Turkish president that he would be better off by advancing an Ataturk-style nationalist leadership, than a Sunni confessional one. Putin has wrestled Turkey away from the NATO camp to side with Russia, Iran and in fact, Asad’s Syria. Putin will be eager for Asad to maintain his end of the bargain – which was surely discussed at the Sochi meeting between the two presidents. But, regional tensions are brewing and they’re not far off. Lebanese President Michel Aoun has already put Lebanese troops on alert, while Hezbollah has been on alert throughout the Syrian war, indeed militarily involved in much of it. As for the Saudis, they have played a card, apparently holding Hariri hostage in Riyadh. They used Hariri to send a mafia-like warning to the Iranians and the Lebanese, that they could unravel the agreement that holds Lebanon together, at a moment's notice. Saad Hariri has Saudi citizenship, Saudi bank accounts and properties
and teenage sons in Saudi schools. He is 'corruptible'. In this rather cynical and gloomy painting, the arms manufacturers and dealers are the ones who are smiling.
The Russians Have Thwarted American Plans
Days after the Russians decided to play the protagonist in helping the Syrian government regain control of the territory in October 2015, then US President Barack Obama made
one of his biggest miscalculations. Still feigning ignorance about the American and the West’s own responsibilities in escalating the Syrian rebellion to the point of regional war, Obama warned Putin and Asad that "any Iranian or Russian attempt to rescue Assad and pacify the population is going to end up in a quagmire and it will not work." It was an expression of schadenfreude. Obama was hoping the Russians would find Syria as hard as the Americans found Iraq, after the first few victories in 2003. But, in November 21, 22, the heads of state of Syria, Russia, Turkey and Iran have met in Sochi discussing the post-ISIS Syria and the plan to eliminate, not only what’s left of the ISIS fighters, but also the other Islamist groups fighting in northern Syria, in the Idlib region. These include the ranks of the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, which has rebranded itself to al-Nusra and then even more recently rebranded to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or HTS, for short. It’s hostile to ISIS, but of course friendly to its parent,
The Americans and the Gulf States could never have predicted that Russia and Iran – not to mention Turkey – have been determined to re-stabilize Syria, keeping President al-Asad and the Baath Party in charge. The Americans will watch and wonder why they haven’t been able to achieve as much in Afghanistan, or even Iraq. If Obama was the one who made the wrong prediction about the outcome of Russia’s intervention, Trump’s America will be able to watch powerless, from a distance.
A hug between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Asad in Sochi might serve as the image that marks the end of the Syrian war. On November 22, Putin, Erdogan and Iran’s Hassan Rohani will have shaped the future of Syria. They will do so while resistance pockets remain against the regime in Damascus
and in various parts of the country. But, by now none of the enclaves that remain under rebel control represents a threat to Asad’s leadership. They are no longer getting the weapons and manpower through the Turkish corridors to fuel their battles, as in the early years of the conflict. Moreover, the Kremlin while keeping the White House informed, has left America largely out of the picture in Syria. Trump may not be getting many compliments at home, but he deserves praise for stopping the CIA operation supporting non- jihadist rebels, but even more for learning when to steer the United States clear of a well-crafted peace process. Obama’s administration deserves considerable blame for aiding and abetting the Syrian conflict along with the Saudi and Gulf ‘allies’. The Americans did target Islamic State, but they also created the conditions for its emergence and spread. One day some brilliant political scientist might even manage to argue that the roots of the US’ Russiagate hysteria, are to be found in a desire to punish Putin for having thwarted America’s plans for the Middle East.
The Kurds Are the Keystone for Peace in Syria
The Russian air force arrived in Syria at the end of August in 2015. It was the crucial factor in shifting the course of the war in Asad’s favor, even more than did the Iranians. Russia has also protected Syria diplomatically at the UN Security Council, rescuing Asad from various attempts to accuse him of war crimes and from dubious efforts to blame the Syrian regime for at least two chemical weapon attacks (or accidents as
writer Seymour Hersh suggests). Fragmentation, radicalization, and the abandonment
by international ‘sponsors’ have all contributed to reducing the rebels' chances of defeating the Bashar al-Asad regime. To make the victory last, the government is not wasting time. Russia demands a quick resolution and while a precise idea of post-conflict Syria is still distant, the efforts to design it are underway. Russia, more than Iran, will play the dominant role in this project. Their visions differ. The Russians have secured Turkey’s support. But, they have also secured an agreement with the Kurds. Thus, while Iran might prefer a restoration of the pre-March 2011 status quo, the Russians will encourage Damascus to offer the YPG Kurds either more autonomy, or at least more political power within a more democratic framework (perhaps such as
exists in Iraq now), or both.
Just as in Iraq, much of the merit of defeating the Islamic State in northern Syria must go to the Arab-Kurdish militia known as Syrian Democratic Forces. Kurdish fighters, even their women, have dominated this fight from every point of view. The SDF are essentially what was earlier known as the YPG, or the military arm of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which liberated Kobane. The SDF control the ‘Rojava’, a vast region of northeastern Syria, which could serve as the basis for an independent Syrian Kurdistan. There is much to commend it. The YPG/SDF’s affiliation to the PKK Kurdish nationalists operating in Turkey is what persuaded Erdogan to focus on what happens within his borders, more than that which the Saudis worry about.
Turkey considers the YPG as terrorists no less than it does the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been fighting Ankara for decades. Without securing a strong deal for the Kurds in northern Syria, Asad risks inviting the Turks to engage them in harsh fighting, the moment the situation allows it. For now, Erdogan has decided it’s better to leave Bashar al-Asad in charge. It’s worth remembering that the initial protests in Syria in the first half of 2011 got a major boost when Erdogan decided to back the opposition. It was Erdogan also, who would eventually facilitate the transfer of weapons, including from a broken Libya, and manpower from ‘all-over,’ that fed the various militias, including ISIS. Persuading Erdogan to move to the Russian – and therefore pro-Asad camp was one of Moscow’s main diplomatic and strategic accomplishments. Putin is trying to play a mediation role among the main actors. That means Syria (as Russia has already) must recognize the importance that the Kurds of the SDF/PYD and related armed forces (YPG) have played.
Of course, the Kurds have also represented a threat to Damascus, which insists
that it will return to rule, all across Syria. Russia and Iran don’t disagree with this goal. They may disagree on the means to achieve it, however. Moreover, this is where Putin’s diplomacy with Trump may have been most helpful. The United States have used the SDF as its main weapon against ISIS on the ground, just as it used the ‘Peshmerga’ in Iraq. Russia feared that the White House would use the Kurds to put on pressure to undermine the Syrian regime. Putin has pursued the achievement of a delicate balance to manage the spread of SDF’s post-war ambitions, as well as those of Ankara and Washington. Putin will have insisted that Asad abide by this agreement which is one of the main aspects, if not the keystone, of a lasting peace in Syria in the next few years. As for ISIS, also al-Qaida (aka al-Nusra and its other namesakes, see below), or what’s left of them, the fight has become murkier.
The various foreign powers, which have fought against ISIS and other Islamists – until not long ago known as ‘moderate rebels’ ie not foreign volunteer ‘jihadists’ - in Syria, will be vying to secure areas of influence. The risk is that ISIS, no longer a ‘State’, will be fragmented but not fully defeated. To this effect, the BBC reported that the American backed Syrian Kurdish fighters made a deal with some 4,000-armed ISIS fighters to leave Raqqa. The Americans allegedly asked the Russians not to attack the fleeing ISIS combatants and their families as they move to the next combat zone. Syria is still home to the tensions and ambitions of super and regional powers. The settling of the peace will, perhaps, expose them. But, this raises the risk that another chapter in the Shiite-Sunni war could yet be written. Still, if Damascus can manage the Kurdish file, it must attempt a new political experiment, allowing for the YPG to manage the ‘democratic’ and Kurdish Rojava to function autonomously if need be – or as part of a more democratic confederation, if Asad is feeling ambitious. The Russians might be able to secure, in turn, for the Syrian Kurds to dilute or sever their ties and hopes on an alliance with the United States. The example of Iraqi Kurdistan – though logically concluded – might help. The Americans given a straight choice, backed the central government in Baghdad at the expense of Kurdish nationalist aspirations, to pursue a greater chance for stability.
Relative Autonomy vs Total Control: Russia vs. Iran
The Russians with only 5,000 or so troops deployed, have played a direct role in assisting the Syrian government. Unlike the Americans and their NATO allies, who insist on calling their military forces assisting the Iraqis as ‘advisors’, Russia has fully acknowledged its military involvement. This has helped thwart Americans from being tempted to increase their interference in Syria. The Russians have also patiently woven a diplomatic net to contain various regional ambitions, especially Turkey’s, in Syria. Therefore, they have gained the necessary intelligence about what, and with whom should be done about it directly. Above all they have a clear idea of plausible scenarios that would allow the regime to consolidate and stabilize its power to reduce the risk of a conflict resuming. Moscow, to this effect, has also held intense talks and negotiations with the very forces that wanted the demise of the Asad regime. Russia has negotiated, accordingly, the formation of various de-escalation areas with the United States, the Kurds, Turkey as well as Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
If there is a potential source of friction ‘among the allies’, it’s between Russia and Iran. The Iranians may prefer to support the Syrian State as it is, or as it was before the revolt began in 2011. But, the Iranians, for as strong their military engagement against the rebels (and ISIS in particular) has been, they have played a less direct political role. Perhaps, Iran may have even preferred to support through some of the pro-Asad Alawi militias, a kind of Hezbollah, weakening the central government in favor of more targeted control of its interests. But, Asad and especially the Russians have seen to it that this won’t happen. Moscow has worked with all the parties that have fought against ISIS, keeping an ‘open mind’ about their own future role in post-war Syria.
The Russians want to ensure stability first. The Iranians may expect Damascus to regain total control faster. But, to reduce the risk of a resurgence of fighting, the Russian plan might work better. Therefore, as much as Damascus must be prepared to allow the Kurds enough autonomy - within a Syrian State that looks more like a
confederation than it did before the war began in 2011 – it should extend the same to other areas. Iran wants to ensure unrestricted access and passage for its influence, ‘moral’ and material, to its main regional ally: Hezbollah. Given the situation that’s brewing because of the yet unexplained resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hariri, whilst in Saudi Arabia, the Iranians may have a point. The Syrians may ultimately seek, if not achieve, a compromise between the Russian and Iranian positions. President Bashar al-Asad is aware he’s still in power thanks largely to President Putin’s intervention. He also understands that if Russia has come to his aid, concessions will be made.
The most important task will be to rebuild the institutions, possibly making them stronger than before and flexible enough to absorb dissenting views, such as to discourage opposition interests to take up arms. It would not be unwise to allow some the so-called ‘moderate rebels’ – who are Sunni Islamists and offshoots of the same Muslim Brotherhood, that staged a rebellion in 1980-82 – a voice in the future Syrian parliament. As for the Kurds, Asad will have little choice but to go along with the Russian vision to allow a high degree of autonomy within a united Syria. Asad might also borrow from the Algerian model of reconciliation after its civil war in the 1990’s. The government favored re-integration and pardoning of those rebels who surrendered and who were not identified as responsible for atrocities.
Integration of Militias in Regular Forces and De-Escalation Zones
The various Syrian militia members, as opposed to the many foreigners in the militias should be reinstated in the regular armed forces insofar as it’s possible. That will be hard. Having relied on its most ardent supporters, the core support around Asad has generated a ‘false’ or incomplete picture of support. The loyalists have rallied around their President, fueling the sensation that there’s no opposition. Or, rather, that the only opposition is the violent one that wants to overthrow the government. In a post war scenario, the Asad leadership will face a bigger leadership challenge than during the war. There won’t be any Russian or even Iranian help to help reestablishing constructive relations with the rebels and returning refugees; especially, as many of the Ba’ath Party officials and generals backing Asad, will be demanding retribution.
The Russian solution is better in that it allows for Asad to pursue his internal rebuilding undisturbed by outside interests. The Russians may even have secured an American non-intervention guarantee – along with the backing of Syria’s neighbors such as Jordan - in setting up de-escalation zones while gradually allowing Asad to regain control. Russia has also maintained close ties to Israel throughout the past few years, managing to persuade the Syrians to avoid retaliating to the many Israeli air force provocations. If Israel does make a move, it probably won’t be in Syria; it will always aim against Lebanon first – especially a weakened Lebanon without as such, a key
parliamentary figure in office, as the resigning Prime Minister Hariri, who may or may not have revoked his resignation, an ongoing matter, if indeed it was made under duress The Russians will want to secure Syria quickly while support for the mission in Syria remains. The Iranians, at first glance, may have more incentives to remain and turn events in their favor, but Tehran as well must take public support for the war at home into consideration, particularly as the region is bristling with the Saudi- Iranian face-off. Iran, despite the Islamist pretentions of its government, remains a deeply nationalist country,
long predating Islam. Many people consider themselves Iranian first and
foremost, rather than ‘Muslim’ or ‘Shiite’. They too, therefore, are eager for Syria to start sewing-up the wounds. As for the other big player, Turkey, it may take issue with the Russian plan because it leaves the YPG Kurds – allies of the dreaded PKK in Turkey – in a position of greater autonomy. But, Putin would hardly have backed a ‘confederation’ solution for Syria, without receiving a green light from Erdogan.
Turkey could continue to play a deceptive role. It was the very nation that allowed the jihadists to travel along the ‘holy war highway’, while exploiting cargos of contraband oil, from Syria. But, at worst, the Turks may decide to err on the side of Asad should future strains spill into conflict again, given that the Syrians could use a more independent Kurdish region as a bargaining chip. Turkey will be reluctant to support rebellions, which could result in Rojava making more meaningful alliances with the PKK. As for the Gulf powers, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, now protagonists in a diplomatic crisis of their own, they have backed ISIS with the goal of eliminating the Asad regime and push back Iranian influence. They have failed miserably and will have no direct role to play in Syria’s reconstruction. But, their wealth, knack and willingness for mischief remains. They can play political games through Lebanon as the Hariri resignation has shown.
Damascus has shown it too, knows how to play Machiavellian games. Bashar al-Asad’s father Hafez was a master of regional manipulation. But, the son has reached effective deals even with rebel Islamists, possibly those claiming allegiance to al-Qaida. This has happened around the oil wells near Deir Ezzor. The rebels have been allowed to reach Idlib, near the Turkish border, which now serves as de-escalation zone for some 40,000 fighters. In this area, we could expect the Turks to establish a presence, to secure a buffer zone between itself and a more autonomous Kurdish Rojava.
Near Rojava, the region of Idlib is dominated by what’s left of the mishmash of armed rebels Al Qaeda surrogates etc;–
and the so-called ‘moderates’ who until early in 2017 dominated Eastern Aleppo and earlier much more, as well. These include rebels that the U.S. and others openly supported. But, none any longer have the strength to muster attacks that could threaten Asad’s forces, defended by Iranian backed militias. But, more than continued fighting, Russia will encourage Asad to seek truce agreements, perhaps even those that offer partial autonomy, to accelerate stabilization, although Damascus clearly wants and expects full reunification. One of the rebel groups that will likely fall outside of any agreements is Tahrir al-Sham (the renamed al- Nusra, itself the renamed al-Qaida, so with ‘an al Qaida high command,’ outside the country). On August 18, 2017 in Geneva, all rebel groups - excluding Tahrir Al-Sham - signed the ceasefire agreement for the de-escalation in eastern Ghouta. The other rebel groups agreed to cease all hostilities, including attacks on government troops and civilians.
In a similar situation, it is undeniable that the Syrian government legitimately wants to restore security around the capital. As agreed with Russia, it will focus military efforts only on the most radical rebels, those who are too radical
or foreign, to reintegrate into the future Syria. Independent de-escalation zones might emerge, to avoid having to fight the rebels that have received backing from Amman. These would include areas south from Quneitra to Daraa along a large part of the Jordanian border (in the hands of several rebel formations and local tribes), all of which are backed by Amman. The idea would be to allow them to remain partly beyond the regime’s control in the context of decentralization of the State, federal or semi-federal. Such an arrangement would keep Damascus from exercising power in remote and antagonistic areas, even if it would nominally keep control.
Damascus's leadership would have the opportunity to rebuild its institutions, greatly weakened by the conflict and today influenced by individual personalities and informal power groups. The army and the security forces would be able to reconstruct their primary position within the regime, by absorbing or eliminating the numerous militias that would or could otherwise continue to operate in hiding. The decentralized zones, if left in the hands of the current local ‘committees’ would, in turn, help promote conditions that would allow many opponents to lay down their weapons without fear of reprisals. Many refugees who were adversely affected by the regime would feel more comfortable returning to "safe areas". The main problem of this solution is the still strong presence, despite recent divisions, of radical groups such as Tahrir al-Sham in the north and the southwest. No real decentralization can be done without the eradication of jihadist militias first.
Syria must change if it wants to grow and leave the monstrous war (it was hardly a civil one, under any definition). It was imposed by reactionary forces in the region and their strange alliances with a revived Western imperialism. If Syria changes, perhaps the Middle East will improve. If it doesn’t, Syria and the region remain at risk, because Syria, as it was in Babylonian, Greek, Roman, early Islamic, Ottoman and post-Ottoman times remains the crossroads of the entire region, where interests and ambitions have long intersected.