Nothing certain in Syria

Bassel Oudat , Tuesday 9 Jan 2018

With the rising star of Russia in the region and the demise of the Islamic State group, nothing is certain about the fate of Syria as it enters an eighth year of civil war.

File Photo; A bombed out town in Syria (AP)

Syria has provided a textbook example of the rise and fall of regional and international plans throughout this year. The current situation is immensely complicated, and many countries from the Middle East and the rest of the world have become part of its intricate web since the conflict started in early 2011.

The country has seen shocking reversals and ups and downs that have driven many political analysts to argue that international political decisions on Syria have themselves become unbalanced.

The Syrian conflict has ceased to be one fought on local terms, being one between a totalitarian regime and an opposition seeking democracy, and instead other players have entered the arena, together with various cross-border organisations.

The country has become an arena for competition and settling scores, a venue for proxy wars, a playing field to experiment with strategies and weapons and a hub for national and factional plans.

The past seven years have seen the rise and fall of many groups. With the Syrian Revolution, beginning in early 2011, the influence of the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA), founded by defecting officers from the country’s armed forces hostile to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, grew and eventually numbered in the tens of thousands.

The FSA could have succeeded in changing the situation on the ground had it received international support. But its influence receded after fighters from the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group entered Syria and fought the FSA instead of the Al-Assad regime.

The FSA saw its influence hit rock bottom when Russia interfered militarily in Syria in late 2015 with the help of Iranian-backed militias.

At first, the international community regarded the opposition as the true representative of the Syrian people engaged in fighting against a vicious regime. However, slowly opposition influence diminished because of a lack of political experience and of political or military support.

Some of its members sought personal gain over national interests, while others were pressured into accepting positions close to the regime.

Following two years of military intervention to save the Syrian regime, Russia is now in control of the military and political decisions made in Damascus. It has three air and naval bases in the country, together with thousands of troops on the ground.

Russian military police control a number of areas of the country, and they have forbidden the regime from interfering in the affairs of these zones.

Through its intervention in Syria, Russia has achieved part of its dream to regain some of the power of the former Soviet Union and to pose as an important world power through its control of a significant portion of the Middle East.

Russia’s position in Syria has allowed it to gain leverage with the US and European powers, notably on issues such as the US- Polish missile shield, the Ukraine and the situation in the Balkans. However, its newfound strength in Syria has been largely due to US indifference to the region, and Russia would not be able to retain its position were the US to decide to exert its power in the region.

The US also has military bases in northern and southern Syria. Its Syrian Kurdish allies control most of the northern part of the country, and its allies in the opposition control much of the south.

Jordan is a US ally and hosts some US military bases. Turkey is a former ally that could easily be reacquired. This is without mentioning Israel and its military and political ties to the US.

As a result, the rise of Russia in Syria depends on the US. Changes in the balance of power, especially given Russia’s moves to ally itself with Iran, seem likely, and Russia’s new moves will not be accepted by the US.

This year also saw the fall of the IS terrorist group, which first appeared in 2013. The group was defeated in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, which it had claimed as its capital, and it was also beaten in the eastern region of Deir Al-Zor, where communication between IS fighters in Syria and Iraq was cut.

The quick demise of IS in Syria raised many questions. The Kurdish militias that took command of Raqqa with US aerial backing did so without fighting any IS fighters. Despite the fact that IS militants were allegedly present in their thousands in the city, it seemed as if they had suddenly disappeared.

With the help of Iraqi and Iranian-supported Lebanese militias and extensive Russian aerial bombing campaigns, Syrian regime forces were also able to take control of Deir Al-Zor. IS again disappeared from the city, raising questions as to the group’s real size and fighting numbers.

It appears that all the parties were exaggerating the group’s power and size to justify their use of violence. However, another version of IS could still emerge because of the ongoing war in Syria together with the presence of regime militias and of the Iranian-backed Shia guerrillas from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan who were responsible for many massacres and helped build up the Russian pressure on the opposition.

New groups that could emerge could be more violent even than IS, threatening the future of Syria if a political solution is not found.

Regarding the Syrian Kurds, three years ago these wanted to annex three regions in the north of Syria to form their own federal state. They were supported by fellow Kurds from Iraq and Turkey and used US military assistance to seize villages where there had never been any Kurdish presence and displace their residents.

The Kurds refused to ally with the opposition, preferring instead to cooperate with the Syrian regime, Iran, Russia and finally the US. Such changes in Kurdish alliances were in the name of fulfilling the dream of a “Western Kurdistan”, the name of the Kurdish state the Kurds wanted to see in northern Syria.

The Kurds changed the names of the villages and towns they occupied in northern Syria, displacing villagers and erasing towns in a bid to change the Arab identity of these places in their pursuit of the Kurdish state they wanted to build with the US on their side.

But US statements have been disappointing to the Kurds, and these have made it clear that the US-Kurdish alliance is temporary. This has led the Syrian Kurds to realise that the major powers will not accept their independence. Their fate is tied to that of the rest of Syria, within which they may be able to set up an autonomously administered area within a federal system.

Finally, the Kurds have come to realise that US military assistance is designed to further US, not Kurdish, aims. Syria’s Kurds, after dropping the idea of independence, are now demanding a constitution that preserves their rights within a united Syria.

Other players on the Syrian battlefield have maintained their positions throughout the year, waiting on decisions by the US that will decide their futures. In the meantime, Syria’s political and military opposition stumbles, then rises again with Gulf or European aid, only to fall back once again as a result of Russian pressure and US indifference.

The Syrian regime advances militarily when it receives Russian assistance, and then falls back when Moscow decides to cut its aid. The regime rejects political solutions, only to submit to them under Russian pressure.

Syria will remain in its current uncertain state until there is a binding agreement accepted by the major powers. These include the US and Russia on the international level, the regional powers of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the local forces from the regime and the opposition that have been relying on them.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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