I and the public know,
What every school child has to learn,
He who has evil done to him,
Will do evil in return.
- H. Auden, 1939
In exchange for six years, five-hundred thousand lives, and the destruction of all things agreeable, Syria has secured its own immolation. The first protests in March 2011, which later turned into armed opposition, were intended to lighten the yoke of Bashar al-Assad’s oppression, but the noble, democratic chorus that initially emerged was counterpointed by shrill cries for jihad and a promulgation of Shari’a.
Only recently has fate, through the tiniest imaginable aperture, shone any pleasant light on Syria’s future. Fighters from one of the YPG’s international brigades, currently leading the siege on Raqqa, have informed this author that the Islamic State is predicted to collapse within two to four months.
The perennial question re-emerges, then: What comes next?
The Syrian civil war endures on several levels, each antagonistic to the other: it is fought locally, fueled regionally, and decided globally.
But, policy made on each warring plane is always shifting and often unintelligible. That is particularly true for the United States. In 2013 the Obama administration green-lighted a CIA effort to train 15,000 rebels, which, according to many analysts, bore some fruit by 2015 as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) made gains against the Assad regime in Idlib, Aleppo, and Latakia, the latter being the heartland of Alawis.
Then came the blowback. Most of these defeats were achieved in alliance with al Qaeda’s affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra—now Tahrir al-Sham—and the then-second largest Islamist group in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham. It is doubtful that any success could have been made without these groups. The program was implemented with America’s traditional intolerance for success, and by June 2017, when it was finally shutdown by President Trump, only a couple dozen rebels remained on the roster. The rest either dropped out or defected to jihadi groups, bringing with them their US-funded weaponry.
In 2014, the US commenced its air campaign in defence of the YPG—now subsumed under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—a paramilitary group regarded as suspect by the FSA and utterly and fully detested by Islamists. The primary targets of the US air force have been the Islamic State and al-Nusra; the latter, however, is perceived by many Western-backed opposition groups as indispensable for the revolution.
Further contradictions abound. The SDF is dominated by the YPG and the YPG is a sister organization of the PKK. The PKK has waged a nearly four-decade-long insurgency against Ankara for its own autonomy in southeastern Turkey, and, as a result, has been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU, and the US. Any serious observer will recognize that the conceptual difference that the US government draws between the SDF and the PKK does not in any way correspond to the fact that these two groups are ontologically the same. Their leaders are PKK, their ideology is PKK, and their chain-of-command is PKK.
Quite surprisingly US support for the Kurds, whether it be in Iraq or Syria, has persisted in spite of the unceasing, squealing protests of its NATO ally, Turkey. In fact, thousands of military advisors are positioned in northern Syria to deter the Turks from invading. One is thus bound to observe that either the US is valuing this enclave as a way to combat radicalism and undermine the Assad regime in the longer run, or it sees the Kurds as leverage over the Turks and the Iranians—or both. This is a query for which there is little evidence to stabilize either answer, as caprice and confusion seem to be the chief driving forces behind US foreign policy in the region.
Russia’s goal is far more straightforward: Assad must win. No soil too stained, no life too valuable, the regime must prevail and at any cost necessary.
Russia’s role was limited to diplomacy for the first three years of the war. Then, as the regime was being routed by a front of the temporarily-united opposition, Russia seized the skies in October 2015 and targeted al Qaeda-linked groups, as well as the occasional Western-backed FSA unit. The most significant defeat to the opposition happened at the siege, and eventual conquest, of Aleppo in December 2016, which took several months and, after four years of back-and-forth fighting, tens of thousands of lives. This forced many fighters to withdraw to the north-western province of Idlib, where the most powerful opposition groups now share, and contest for, power.
Fortunately, there are points of convergence between Russian policy and American policy. Russians are stationed inside Afrin, a Kurdish canton, on the border of “Euphrates Shield,” Turkey-occupied territory, in order to prevent the latter from expanding and developing supply lines with the rebels it arms and finances in Idlib. Russia has also lobbied—with Turkey shutting it down each time—for Kurdish participation in the Astana talks that have been going on since the fall of Aleppo last year. This is consistent with Russia’s attempt to introduce an almost-federalist draft constitution for Syria’s future transition, which would offer communities greater cultural and administrative freedoms independent of Damascus.
The geopolitical significance of Syria is considerable. The governorate of Tartus provides Russia with its only unconditioned naval base in the Mediterranean. Moreover, since former Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat wilfully chose to be under American auspices in 1978-79, and especially after the fall of Afghani President Najibullah in 1992, Syria has remained Russia’s only client state in the region.
Thus it may be easier to understand Russia’s posturing through a Cold War lens. The Soviet Union, for example, became the protectorate of the first Kurdish proto-state in northwestern Iran following the Second World War. It only agreed to withdraw its troops in 1946 after receiving proportionate economic and energy concessions from Iran, the United States, and Britain. It is very possible, then, that Russia will subject its support for the Kurds to the partial or full withdrawal of Iranian and Turkish forces in the country.
Strategically, Syria has always been a reliable, secular client-state for Russia. But, with the infiltration of potentially recalcitrant Iranian and Iranian-backed forces, this enduring alliance may become less feasible. Russia and Iran, allies, but also rivals, will certainly be, in one way or another, using the Kurdish issue to resolve other contradictions in their policy.
Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Egypt (and, recently to a lesser extent, Qatar) form a regional bloc in opposition to the Iranian-Syrian alliance.
The Gulf powers have been among the primary financiers and arms-providers for opposition groups in Syria. The chief goal of this bloc is to dismantle the Alawite-dominated government in Damascus and replace it with a Sunni regime friendly to their regional interests. There are some pundits who suspect that Saudi Arabia is interested in building a pipeline through Mesopotamia and into Anatolia (and from there into Europe). However, even if that is indeed a reason, it is highly doubtful that it is the principal driving force behind the Gulf’s foreign policy decisions.
To build a pipeline to Turkey would require such an immense amount of diplomatic maneuvering and deal-making that the project seems almost impossible. And even if it succeeded, the pipeline would not only have to go through two of the least stable countries in the world—Iraq and Syria—it would have to run through Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurdish territories, always at risk of being upended in times of conflict.
It is better, then, for analysts to view Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy as part of a larger, regional war, with Shi’a on one side and Sunnis on the other. The Kingdom has on-and-off financed several of Lebanon’s media outlets, politicians and even the military to combat the influence of Hezbollah. In Yemen, the Saudis have continued a horribly destructive war against the Houthis under the pretext that they are backed by Iran. And, earlier this year, Riyadh invited, on separate occasions, the company of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, as well as powerful militia leader, Moqtada al-Sadr—both Shi’a. This was clearly a tactic to undermine Tehran’s influence in the country, which has on many occasions resulted in intra-Shi’a wars in Iraq’s south.
Saudi Arabia still clings to the largely outdated “Geneva Communique” issued in 2012, which is interpreted by the West and its allies as a United Nations Security Council authorization to appoint a successor for Assad that will replace his Alawite cabal. But as time lapses, a tenable successor is becoming a more and more remote possibility. The most powerful rebel groups in Idlib, Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, and their respective coalitions, have turned their guns on one another in a bloody conflict that has left Saudi Arabia and Turkey with a weakened, almost non-existent Ahrar al-Sham. This considerably diminishes Saudi Arabia’s purchase over the Higher Negotiations Committee that was established to represent the opposition forces in Geneva and elsewhere.
In short, the only cards that Saudi Arabia can play are those that antagonize both enemies and allies. Idlib is increasingly becoming a hotbed for terrorist and jihadi groups, and has hence become a mutual target for both the West and its rivals. There is some worry that Saudi Arabia and its regional allies will become “spoilers” in the final negotiations once the Islamic State is eliminated, but with firm pressure from President Trump, it is not hard to envisage the Saudis recognizing their defeat and capitulating to an Iranian-backed government in Damascus.
Turkey and Iran
While Turkey and Iran are diametrically opposed to the future status of the regime in Damascus (Iran wants the Alawite cabal to continue running the country whereas Turkey wants a transitional government that divests power into Sunni and non-sectarian forces), both countries are apprehensive about the rise of a Kurdish autonomous region in Rojava, and both countries want to quicken the demise of ISIS. And now that the Kurds in Iraq have held their referendum and are approaching the potential of a unilateral declaration of independence, Iran and Turkey have all the more reason to work side-by-side to effect their foreign policy goals in Syria.
Alongside the Gulf states, Turkey has been among Ahrar al-Sham’s and the FSA’s largest arms suppliers and financiers. After the collapse of talks between Ankara and the PKK in 2015, Turkey feared that the latter would use northern Syria as a launching pad for its insurgency, and has since taken a far more aggressive tilt against the YPG forces. This policy reached its apex in August 2016 when it launched operation “Euphrates Shield” to push back ISIS fighters off its border and ensure the three Kurdish cantons remained asunder. Although Ankara has announced that this operation has ended, Turkish forces still remain in the area and continue to provide cover for FSA units in the area.
Iran’s intervention has been far more pervasive and without it Assad’s regime would have likely already fallen. Its foreign policy in Syria is managed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a sort of “deep state” military force that has grown immensely powerful over the years. In 2012/2013, the IRGC played a significant role in the creation of the National Defense Forces (NDF), a militia group fielding upwards of 100,000 men, Shia and non-Shia alike, to bolster regime forces.
In addition to the 2,000-3,000 advisors placed throughout the regime’s military ranks, Iran has funnelled refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq to join militias and help fight the Islamic State, as well as other Sunni groups, to ostensibly protect Shi’a religious monuments. Furthermore, the penetration of Hezbollah into Syria out of Lebanon is by no means independent of the foreign policy goals of Iran, which is the militant group’s largest and most resolute backer, extending as far back as the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Strategically, Iran, similar to Russia, wants to keep Assad in power. It fears the disintegration of government institutions as well as the secession of Kurds in the north. These may be properly noted as Iran’s “redlines.” If the Kurds break away, Iranian Kurds will feel empowered to re-commence their own struggle for autonomy or independence. And if the state’s institutions break down, or if there is a federal constitution that gives local groups regional power, that will, in Iran’s eyes, provide a vehicle for extremists to retain power.
In short, the IRGC is committed to destroying the Islamic State, ensuring the status quo, and preserving its own foothold in the country.
Since the outset of the war, there has been a seemingly infinite proliferation of non-state actors contesting for power, often times with diverging interests.
Hezbollah – Hezbollah intervened in 2013 to protect the regime’s interests in southern and western Lebanon. It is also attempting to consolidate its power around the Golan Heights, opening up another front with Israel in the next war. Israel and the US perceive this not only as an unacceptable threat but also another way by which Iran has sought to improve its geopolitical stead across the Middle East.
Regime and pro-regime militias – the objective of the regime and its local allies is obvious: the destruction of the Islamic State, the retention of autocratic power, and the end to extremism across the nation. As has been shown, the regime will do anything necessary to reach this point.
The People’s Protection Units/Democratic Union Party (YPG/PYD) – the Kurds in the north declared a “federal democratic system” in 2016. The region is governed by the PKK’s Marxist-Leninist ideology. Although many Kurds were reluctant to ally with an “imperial power” like the United States, the YPG has been the most effective non-state force in Syria against the Islamic State. It is currently squeezing IS in Raqqa, its former de facto capital, and is attempting to seize as much territory as possible in the Deir ez Zor governorate in order to increase its leverage in the post-war negotiations.
Tahrir al-Sham – Tahrir al-Sham is the latest manifestation of Fatah Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s dog in the Syrian fight. Recently, it has consolidated its grip on Idlib province and has decimated Ahrar al-Sham and its allies in a bitter internecine war among opposition groups. In general, the group’s intention is not to use Idlib as a base for terrorist attacks against the West, but there are elements within this group that certainly have a different opinion on the matter.
Ahrar al-Sham – Ahrar al-Sham has been the leading militia group and has formed several different coalitions with other opposition forces across north-eastern Syria. Currently, it is located primarily in Idlib, but as a consequence of its infighting with Tahrir al-Sham, many analysts suspect the significance of this group has waned without any prospect of it waxing.
Free Syrian Army – the Free Syrian Army is a disparate, fragmented group that is composed of local militias, some with secular leanings and others that are more Islamist. Many of its units are scattered in cantons across the country and it is not certain which of these groups will remain by the time the fighting ultimately stops. Since its founding in 2011, it has suffered several leadership failures, defections, and betrayals. And because of its standing in the eyes of the West, the Assad regime recognizes that its negotiating position in the post-war talks will be limited to the extent the FSA retains power.
Southern Front – The Southern Front is a Western-backed alliance that receives its supplies through Jordan. It has managed a relatively peaceful arrangement in the southern regions of Syria—due to both Russian and American efforts—and this group will likely contribute to the negotiations that follow after the fall of radical jihadi groups.
Every assessment of the Syrian civil war is liable to being contradicted by future, unexpected events. The conflict is an unpredictable and vicious contest between dozens, if not hundreds, of different state and non-state actors vying for power, each with their own conception of what the future of Syria should hold. Ceasefires are never armistices, and lulls in combat are merely periods for rearming and preparing for the next fight. Nevertheless, here are a few predictions of what the final negotiations might entail.
Since most actors realize on both sides that the Assad regime is here to stay, it is likely that his ousting will no longer be a requirement for Western powers (this has not been made official, which may indicate a negotiating tactic rather than policy). And although local forces detest such an outcome, without external backing, their fighting power is limited in the face of the Russian-Iranian-Syrian alliance’s military strength. Moreover, the chief concern of Western powers, particularly the United States, is no longer regime change in Damascus, but the destruction of the Islamic State and all of its terrorist infrastructure.
The only result that approximates a compromise equidistant to each major party’s demands is a kind of federal system that provides additional rights to local citizens, as well as a democratic system that would attempt to check the power of the Assad government. Russia has given some support to this idea, and on several occasions has entreated its negotiating partners to provide a seat for the Kurds at the negotiating table (rebuffed by Turkey each time).
What’s more, the militant forces in Idlib are still quite powerful, as are the forces in the southern governorates that border Jordan and the Golan Heights. During the Astana talks between September 14 and 15, Turkey, Iran, and Russia agreed to ceasefire and de-escalation zones across Idlib, in addition to previous agreements in the south. This gives credence to the prediction that these groups are here to stay, only to be fully de-mobilized through a negotiated settlement.
And, at this point, the Rojava project seems to be a foregone conclusion. It is militarily strong, absent of religious extremism, and currently backed by both the Russians (who are positioned in the Afrin canton) and the Americans. The Iranian and Turkish desire to crush this enclave is therefore unlikely to succeed. Instead, it is probable that the Kurds will achieve a similar autonomy as those in northern Iraq, thereby paving the way to secession sometime in the future.
In short: Assad will retain his power. Governorates will be invested with greater administrative functions. Rojava will always be under threat but will nevertheless continue to exist. And, last but not least, whatever emerges from the Syrian civil war will constitute the new proxies for the regional and global powers, without much chance of being spared the geopolitical contest that has defined international relations from time immemorial.