As Daesh (Islamic State) dissipates from the geopolitical theatre in Syria, the focus has shifted to other parts of the country. The Syrian Arab Army, backed by Iran and Russia, have confined the rebel militias to pockets all over Syria. The most significant rebel concentration is near the city of Idlib, where Turkish backed militias and Islamist groups are held up. The war has continued by these parameters, but it has taken a different form. Nearly all of the opposition figures who started the anti-government movement are no longer around, and goals for regime change have vanished as well.
This new phase in the war has little to do with al-Assad, ideology, international law, or even the jihadist groups. Instead, all the actors involved in Syria want geopolitical influence in Syria, which effectively means the dismemberment of the state.
Over the past year, relations between Washington, Ankara, Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus have improved, but the involved nations are divided into a number of camps. On one side is a coalition of Iran, Russia, and the al-Assad government.
On the other is Turkey and the Syrian National Army, which is a coalition of former Free Syrian Army militias and Islamist groups. Meanwhile, Washington has used the Kurdish militias as leverage to bolster its separate voice in the conflict. Considering these lines of division, it is safe to say that the only relation the conflict has to Syria is that it happens to be taking place there. This notion was reinforced by the Pentagon on January 13, when it was revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) seeks to recreate a thirty-thousand border security force in the Kurdish controlled territories in Northern Syria. The official mission is to make sure that DAESH does not gain a physical presence in the region, but in truth, Washington hopes to retain a significant voice in the conflict.
The fact of the matter is that Kurdish militias occupy Syria’s finest agricultural land, and the Kurdish controlled Tabqa Dam along the Euphrates provides half of the country’s energy output. Since the Syrian based Kurdish militias are dependent on the United States, Washington could dispossess Syria of capital and energy resources.
In this context, the plan to strengthen the Kurdish militias ultimately serves the Americans. Once more is that the U.S embedded around two thousand military personnel in the Kurdish-YPG units near Manbij and the Kurdish controlled territories east of the Euphrates River. The purpose behind this was to deter a Turkish, Russian, or Iranian attack on the Syrian Kurds. None of the other external powers wanted to accidentally attack American military personnel which would have given Washington political leverage. By this practice, Washington essentially uses its embedded military personnel as provocative pawns in a game of chess. However, such tactics and the policy concerning a new Kurdish army have created a wedge between Ankara and Washington.
Immediately following the Pentagon announcement, Turkish President Erdogan pledged to strangle such designs. For Turkey, the primary focus is to contain the influence of Kurdish militias as opposed to regime change in Damascus. In this framework, the American border security program is a threat to Turkey’s sovereignty since the ranks of the new border security force would consist of YPG units, which has indisputable ties to the PKK, a widely designated terrorist group that has carried out attacks on Turkey for decades. Turkish policymakers fear that a strengthened YPG presence in Northern Syria could harbor PKK members who seek to launch attacks on Turkish soil.
These concerns are valid in their own right. For instance, the YPG controlled Afrin enclave in Northwest Syria is in close proximity to Turkey’s densely populated regions of Gaziantep and Hatay. Considering the realities on the ground, the government in Ankara does not want the PKK and YPG to gain more ground, which is why the Turks launched Operation Olive Branch on Afrin.
The situation in Afrin is further complicated by the involvement of Moscow. Just as Washington has placed military personnel in the YPG contingents east of the Euphrates, Russia has embedded its units west of the river. While the Kurdish areas east of the Euphrates are under an American influence, the Afrin enclave was a part of the Russian influence. What has changed as of January 2018, is that the Russian military forces have either left Afrin or could have conceded the enclave to Turkey.
Either way, the exit of the Russians has decreased probabilities of existential skirmishes between Turkish and Russian forces, which illustrates that Putin gave Erdogan the ‘green light’ to attack the YPG in Afrin. What incited Moscow to accommodate Ankara to carry this out is unknown, but what is certain is that for the past year, Erdogan and Putin have conducted several talks concerning a political settlement to the conflict in Syria.
As fighting in Syria continues, a number of Russian analysts believe that a military victory in Syria will require years of additional interventions. This is something Putin cannot afford nor does he want to do. The Russians know full well that they do not want to make the same mistakes the Americans made in Iraq and Afghanistan through endless occupations. Over the past two years, Russia has been searching for an exit from Syria without losing its gains on the ground, and it tried to come to an understanding with Washington, but its endeavor failed.
In September 2017, Russia has sought to disengage itself from Syria by negotiating a political settlement to the conflict. These negotiations laid the bedrock for the Astana process where Russia, Turkey, and Iran reached an understanding last year in the capital of Kazakhstan. The parameters of the four de-escalation zones in Syria ceased hostilities for a period of six months, and for a moment, a political settlement looked possible.
As a result of the ongoing talks, the Astana talks shifted the Syrian crisis from military to diplomatic grounds. In anticipation of this, President Putin visited Khmeimim Airbase in Latakia where he proclaimed the imminent retreat of Russian forces. However, as is the case with all coalitions, the more members are involved, the more tedious the political proceedings become.
First, there was an agreement over Turkish forces staying in the Idlib region, and whether the Turkish backed Islamist militias counted as terrorist groups that will continue to be targeted by other powers. Second, the government of Tehran did not agree with the size of the Idlib de-escalation zone.
More to the point, Iran was not really interested in a negotiated stalemate because it sees Syria as an essential part of its geopolitical policy. The Iranians have committed more resources to the Syrian war effort than both the Turks and Russians. For instance, while Moscow showed support in the form of airpower and diplomacy, Iran has mobilized militia fighters to enhance the forces of the Syrian Arab Army. Tehran has also contributed to keeping the Syrian economy afloat through financial means.
Unlike Russian policymakers, Iranian policymakers want a total military victory in Syria regardless of the costs. This divergence in interests is similar to the American-Turkish policies in Syria, and just as Washington and Ankara undermine one another, Tehran has also undermined Moscow’s peace efforts.
More specifically, in early January while the Russians and the Turks were structuring the finer details of the Astana ceasefire, Iranian backed proxies and Assad’s elite forces derailed the peace talks by striking the agreed upon de-escalation zone in Idlib.
At the same time, Turkish backed rebel forces also breached the Astana ceasefire. For instance, Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, which is the most dominant Islamist group in Idlib whose core elements are part of Al-Qaeda, refused to abide by the ceasefire and launched offensive operations on Assad forces near the city of Hama. In the same period, a swarm of unidentified satellite-guided drones attacked a Russian airbase in Syria, which was another breach of the ceasefire. Initially, blame was cast on Turkey, but Putin clarified that the Turks were not the perpetrators. To this day, it is still unclear who was behind the drone attack.
For all of its shortcomings, the Astana ceasefire was the biggest diplomatic breakthrough in the Syrian war since 2011, but the combination of Iran’s recent breach of the ceasefire, the drone attack on the Russian airbase, the American setup of a border force in Northern Syria, and the Turkish operation into Afrin have all reignited the conflict into a new phase of the Syrian war.
The irony of it all was that defeating DAESH was the least difficult part and all the external powers agreed that it was a common enemy, but now that DAESH has dissipated as a conventional fighting force, all the external powers have major geopolitical objectives in Syria. Russia is more concerned about its own reputation in the Middle East, and would prefer the Damascus government to remain independent.
Iran however, wants Assad and the local proxies to remain dependent on Tehran economically and politically. Meanwhile, Turkey wants to keep the Kurdish militias distant from its densely populated areas, and at the same time, Washington wants to use the Kurdish groups as leverage to prevent a single faction from dominating Syria.
The ultimate result is the gradual institutionalization of the defective situation on the ground, which is effectively tearing Syria apart, and as the lines of division are reinforced by the involved powers, a political settlement seems to be an even more distant memory for the Syrian people.