LAST CHAPTER OF THE SYRIAN CONFLICT HAS NOT YET BEEN WRITTEN
At the end of 2017, it seemed as if the reconstruction in Syria was about to start. The Syrian government of Bashar al-Asad pulled off what at the beginning of the Syrian conflict looked impossible - to stay in power. Seven years after the first protests in Dara’a turned into an armed insurrection, Bashar remains president. He has survived ISIS, al-Qaida - and its variations such as al-Nusra - the Turks, the Americans, the Saudis and Qataris. But his biggest challenge is about to start. Few remember that before the conflict began, Syria and Israel had launched a series of Turkish-brokered talks between 2008 and 2010 aimed at resolving the Golan Heights issue. Now, facing the prospect of a Syria stabilizing under Asad’s banner, Israel feels more threatened than at any point in the conflict.
As Robert Fisk noted last September, ‘the unthinkable’ - Bashar al-Asad's forces winning the war had happened. The Syrian army, backed by its Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies, had managed to win back almost all the areas that the rebel/terrorists from ISIS, al-Nusra and Fatah al-Sham were occupying. It was an utter humiliation for the West, which has never stopped repeating the ‘Asad must go’ mantra. The Syrian army managed to break the siege that ISIS imposed for three years over Deir Ezzor. But there are inter-related problems:
1. The Syrian army and Hezbollah’s victories mean that they have become the most experienced fighting force in the region. They have fighting militias in urban settings using a variety of tactics. They have also enhanced their ability to work together as allies, mastering the art of coordination. In other words, if Israel attacks Hezbollah or Syria at a point in the near future, they will face a fiercer and more capable enemy than they did when they suffered a humiliating ‘draw’ in July 2006.
2. Because of the Syrian-Hezbollah’s army’s greater proven ability, the West is even more determined to overthrow the al-Asad government. The conflict in Syria may have left death and destruction but it has strengthened the loyalties around the presidency and the Ba’ath Party. Without foreign armies, intent on carving out zones of influence and security to advance improbable imperial goals - such as Turkey, or protecting a regional ally’s superiority –such as the USA with Israel and Saudi Arabia - the Syrian government would be able to shut down any remaining resistance and make federalist arrangements with the Kurds in the so-called ‘Rojava’.
Divide et Impera
This scenario, which would spare the Syrian people suffering more deprivation, does not suit the ‘divide and rule’ policy that the West, Israel, Turkey and its Gulf allies were exercising in Syria. This is the key to understanding what comes next. Syria’s biggest enemy is the determination of Washington and its vassals to obstruct the Syrian leadership at every turn in Ghouta. The global mainstream media have started to paint Ghouta in the familiar colours seen during the Syrian and Russian advance to liberate Aleppo. Meanwhile, Erdogan wants to get something out of his ‘investment’ in the Syrian conflict. He wants to grab parts of northern Syria around Afrin (and Iskanderun/Hatay). These are areas, which, apart from their Kurdish interests, have long been a source of tension between Ankara and Damascus.
As for Israel, if at the start of the Syrian conflict it played neutral. That is no longer the case. Tel Aviv has chosen to get rid of Asad. Israel has conducted frequent raids into Syrian territory and bombed government bases. They have also encouraged, financed and medically assisted the most extreme Islamist elements in Syria. There are no doubts that Netanyahu, President Donald Trump, and Obama before him, President Macron of France and UK Prime Minister Theresa May were convinced Asad would not emerge alive out of the Syrian war. It should be stressed that it wasn’t a civil war). When, a few months ago, Asad appeared not only to have survived, but to have mobilized a reconstruction process in key areas of the capital and other cities, these same western leaders insisted on resolute retaliation to unravel Syria all over again. Moreover, there’s the issue of the Iraqi – now Shiite dominated army – having also become more experienced. The Israelis and their allies now worry about the battle-hardened Shiite crescent from Tehran to Beirut via Baghdad and Damascus.
In this scenario, Asad, has no choice but to continue fighting. As for Russia, it has an election on March 18. Should President Vladimir Putin win, as many expect, it is more than plausible that he will order a reinforcement of Russian armed forces in Syria. Not doing so would leave Asad’s forces to the wolves. While, the downing of an Israeli F-16 shows that Syria is now better able to defend itself, Netanyahu – who is dealing with a corruption investigation recommending his arrest – is itching to teach Damascus a lesson. Meanwhile, in Kurdistan, Asad and Putin have achieved a working alliance with the Kurds in the Rojava area, whom Erdogan accuses of being allies of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey has not hesitated to attack the government loyalist troops sent to support the Kurds. Still, Erdogan would have to think twice before taking on Russian troops. Similarly, Israel will not hesitate attacking Syria’s allies along the Golan border while encouraging and arming the various Islamist forces. But, the presence of Russian troops would make such actions more daunting.
Israel Helps the Jihadists
The Israeli paper Ha’aretz noted that dozens of Islamists in Syria have admitted to benefiting from significantly greater Israeli aid in the past months. Israel has armed as many as seven different groups. Tel Aviv is replacing the United States which, for the time being, appears to have cut back its involvement in southern Syria. Ha’aretz reports that, in January, the Trump administration closed the CIA operations centre in Amman, the Jordanian capital, which coordinated aid to rebel organizations in southern Syria. Doing so, left thousands of rebels, who had relied on US financial support, unable to challenge the Syrian government forces. Now, it’s Israel – and it’s not taking any steps to deny the reports – that is sending weapons, ammunition and money to buy more armaments.
Russia is the only world power, which can boast good relations with all the parties involved in the Syrian conflict – even Saudi Arabia. Moscow’s only enemy in the Middle East is Washington. The facts are clear. Russia and the United States have been engaging in a new ‘cold war’ and Syria has served as its first major battleground. The Israeli involvement has shattered any pretence that the Syrian conflict had ever been a civil war with democracy as its goal. It was and remains a proxy war, whose rebel protagonists were aided and financed by the United States (now Israel), Gulf Arabs, Turks and others. The Kurds were the only ones who were fighting for their own political reasons, and the only ones with whom the Syrian government can expect to reach a compromise.
The Kurds have become Damascus main partners, if not allies, in Syria. This explains why Asad has deployed troops to protect them: there’s a political deal to pursue. That’s more than can be said for the Islamist rebels around Ghouta. In that respect, it’s unclear what goals Israel is pursuing by helping them. Does it want to inflict the Asad regime a deadly blow? Or is it merely containing the Syrian troops, keeping them busy putting out ‘fires’ in multiple directions? Certainly, before 2013, Israel had adopted a more neutral stance concerning Syria. But, now, the regime change, from Netanyahu’s perspective, has become essential. Leaving Asad in power means inviting more aid from Iran and Hezbollah. Therefore, Israel has every reason – from its perspective – to intensify its efforts in favor of the jihadists. There’s nothing surprising or unprecedented about this. It’s the old ‘divide et impera’ (divide and rule) ploy that Israel used so successfully in the 1980s. Then it was to build up Hamas as a more Islamic than nationalist Palestinian movement, to counter the influence of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) or Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which was blatantly secular. As for the militias, they’re desperate enough to seek aid from anyone who will give it.
It’s clear that the intruder, which has rekindled the Syrian conflict is Israel. Netanyahu will continue trying to boycott the fragile peace that the United States and Russia had achieved. Placing more Iranian Pasdaran in key areas of near the Israeli borders will only invite more Israeli actions. Leaving them out, will make it easier for Tel Aviv to arm the rebels. Israel is the biggest challenge that Asad must face now.
Erdogan, Asad and the Kurds
Then there’s Turkey. It was Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, during the Obama administration, who encouraged Erdogan to pave the 'jihadist' highway of rebels to fight Asad's government. When, the Russians and Syrians thwarted his plans to take over a piece of Syria (maybe even Aleppo and certainly the Idlib area), Erdogan found himself with the prospect of a Kurdish enclave at his southern border. The Asad-Erdogan match is the other factor, interfering with the restoration of Syria. However, the dynamic between Syria and Turkey is fundamentally to the one between Syria and Israel. Simply put, there’s nothing stopping Ankara and Damascus from engaging in negotiations. Indeed, by pushing his troops toward Afrin – seemingly to back the Kurdish forces – Asad may be aiming to secure a last minute negotiation. Given that Tehran, Moscow and Damascus are all intent on preserving the current government and Syria intact – with room for a federalist union – the Kurds are pawns to be sacrificed in reaching a comprehensive accord that would see Erdogan acknowledge Asad’s rule.
This is something the Turkish President has categorically refused to do – so far. In addition, both Putin and Rohani will be putting pressure on Erdogan to hold back. Naturally, they would work together – including the Kurds – to achieve a compromise. Erdogan might be the only one who can afford the risk to his political future. Elections are in 2019. But he only has a limited period. He cannot risk allowing Afrin and the YPG becoming a Turkish version of Vietnam or Afghanistan. Tehran and Moscow, for their part, want to focus on the economic and national reconstruction of Syria. Turkey has little to fear from NATO. It’s a key member of the Atlantic alliance; and at a time, when the Russo-American relations are comparable to those of the worst days of the Cold War, Erdogan knows he can count on non-interference – if not outright support – for his campaign in northern Syria.
Erdogan may have acted arrogantly but he’s a practical leader at times. He knows that to limit Turkish losses with an eye to his political future, he must take the advice he had from Putin and Rohani at their trilateral meeting in Istanbul in 2017. The situation in Ghouta could be tougher than in Aleppo and Deir Ezzor but Erdogan and Asad have sufficient motivation to agree about the Kurds.
As for ISIS, its leader al-Baghdadi has been injured but never killed. ISIS is on the way out. It will probably disperse and continue to be a nuisance in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. What’s clear now, however, is that ISIS was never the most important problem. It could have been managed and defeated, had the Syrians not spread their forces across so many different enemies and battlefields, each representing the proxy interests of global and regional powers. ISIS, unlike the Kurds and the other formations, was largely made up of foreign fighters. Once they lost their Caliphate (the Islamic State) they lost their appeal to would-be jihadists. They also lost any reason for their existence. Its fighters’ main concern is getting out alive and avoiding capture. They have no stake in Syria’s political future. But, they could play a role by serving Israel’s purposes and disrupting Syria’s ‘renaissance’.