Can Assad Truly Assert His Control over Syria?

Despite its defeat, the so-called Islamic State (IS) seems to have paradoxically helped the process of dividing Syria into different areas of control which will complicate the Syrian regime’s plans for total sway over the country. In the absence of a common enemy—which IS represented—new fractures in war-time alliances have emerged quickly. A salient example is the seeming fraying of the Russia-Iran axis after Israel’s campaign to break it, a development that has started to shape the trajectory of the civil war. Israel’s defense minister Avigdor Lieberman boasted of the success of his meetings in Moscow last May, while Iranian officials stated that Tehran supports Russian efforts to bring southern Syria under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The fragmented Syrian landscape will likely obstruct the regime’s full recovery of territorial control over Syria

From his side, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated his understanding of Israel’s concerns about the deployment of Iran-supported Shia militias near the Israeli border and convinced Tel Aviv that the Syrian regime should receive a green light to take over control of southern Syria, as a response. Still, however, Russia’s position as the power broker in Syria remains precarious given that a large swath of territory in northern Syria is under control of the US-led coalition, and Turkey’s efforts to assemble the opposition under the new Syrian National Army are firm. On the other hand, Damascus is demanding that the United States withdraw its forces from the al-Tanf military base in the southeast and from areas in the northeast.

This fragmented landscape and the Assad regime’s weak position vis-à-vis Russia and Iran will likely cause a compartmentalization of Damascus’s strategic plans and, hence, obstruct the regime’s full recovery of territorial control over Syria, for the following reasons:

  1. It is in Russia’s interest to capitalize on its increased leverage and therefore to pursue a political bargain for Syria’s future—including a potential summit between Putin and US President Donald Trump—instead of providing a blank check to Damascus for its risky military campaign. It was Moscow’s pressure that finally pushed the Assad regime to send a list of the government’s delegation to the UN-backed constitutional committee, which will review the current Syrian constitution and propose new amendments.
  2. The Syrian regime is highly dependent on life support from Iran. Tehran’s recent withdrawal of its allied militias from Daraa in the south signals the Damascus-Tehran mutual understanding: that Iran will restrain itself in southern Syria, where the Assad regime needs to enhance its authority without eliciting a reprisal from Israel. In return, Iran’s economic and social influence will be allowed to flourish in the country.

Tehran prefers making tactical concessions to Damascus in the short-term to ensure a long-term, multifaceted engagement

Full territorial control by the Syrian government is also unlikely because of the complexities in the eastern front, where the Assad regime has initiated transactional oil deals with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Arab-majority towns, while threatening American troops that support the YPG. Such efforts to find a modus vivendi is the new reality on the ground in Syria, leading the country closer to partition.

Complexities in the Southern Front

The complexities in southern Syria deserve close scrutiny to shed light on why the Syrian civil war may not be over in the foreseeable future. After capturing the rebel Eastern Ghouta enclave, the Assad regime has turned its attention to the southern front, specifically Daraa province, where the first Syrian uprising began in 2011. This is also the area currently designated a de-escalation zone under the Astana, Kazakhstan, agreements. Recently, there were warning messages that the United States and Israel were “taking firm and appropriate measures” aimed to discourage Damascus from launching a military offensive, which may embolden Hezbollah and pro-Iran militias in the Israeli border region. Russia-Israel talks now present an opportunity for Damascus to initiate a military campaign without the fear of retribution, as the Assad regime appears to be persuading Tehran to withdraw troops from Daraa and the Israeli border.

Iran’s retreat, however, is by no means a long-term commitment—and the relocation of its forces will hardly satisfy Israel, as Netanyahu vowed to target Iran “anywhere in Syria.” Instead, in the face of increasing pressure, Tehran prefers making tactical concessions to Damascus in the short-term to ensure a long-term, multifaceted engagement that will help it shape Syria’s future within an overall strategic plan. Iranian companies have already started to benefit from lucrative government contracts in the construction and energy sectors. Increasing control over the Iraqi-Syrian border also means financial openings to take advantage of the transit of energy imports and construction materials. Beyond economics, Iran also has sought to increase its social footprint in Syria. Among a dozen civic associations in the mold of Hezbollah’s charity foundations is Jihad al-Binaa. Having gained experience in the reconstruction of southern Beirut following the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, the group now undertakes large projects in rebuilding infrastructure in Aleppo and operates locally as an aid organization there. Moreover, Iran has been actively supporting demographic change in the valleys from Damascus to Lebanon, helping Shia families settle in areas where Sunni families have been pushed out.

Without Iran’s military support in the southern front, the Assad regime may have difficulty in defeating rebels in Daraa, as recruitment for the Syrian army has become an almost impossible mission. Hence, the regime is likely to turn to Russia to persuade the rebels to accept an evacuation deal in return for safety patrols by Russia’s Sunni Muslim police forces. Russia has employed a novel approach in the evacuation from Eastern Ghouta with North Caucasian military police who have publicly expressed their Muslim identity with performances of prayer rites, aiming to gain the sympathy of locals. In the case that rebels choose resistance, however, Damascus would face difficulties as Russia prefers avoiding a strong air campaign that may lead to mass civilian casualties—as well as Israeli nervousness.

Washington would do well to be ready to manage a potentially fragmented Syria.

While the Assad regime’s priority is to recapture all Syrian territory, Moscow’s priority has now turned to opening up the political negotiation process. Russia has already accomplished its strategic main goals in the Syrian war including 1) preserving its naval bases in Latakia and Tartus as well as the Humaymim Air Base, 2) eliminating the North Caucasian jihadists joining IS, and 3) boosting Russia’s prestige and credibility in international politics. Thus, in facing the complexities in northern and eastern Syria beyond the southern front, Russia will likely pursue conflict de-escalation rather than undertake further military adventures and financial burdens that would risk jeopardizing its current position. Moscow’s strategy of frozen conflict in Ukraine supports the idea that Russia may seek to play conflict management at a relatively low cost.

Complexities in the Northern and Eastern Fronts

Emboldened by its consolidation of power, Damascus continues to repeat calls for American troop withdrawals from Syrian territory. Yet, with the United States’ termination of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposition of harsh sanctions, Washington has set the stage for a long-term commitment to eastern Syria to push back Iran’s efforts to establish land routes to the Mediterranean Sea. Further complicating Damascus’s calculus, Turkey has deepened its influence in northwestern Syria following its Afrin military operation against the YPG, the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Understanding the challenges, the regime appears to seek a modus vivendi with the Kurds. Most recently, in a rare visit to Kurdish-controlled Qamishli, a delegation from Syria’s “tolerated” opposition highlighted that Assad’s warning was against American troops, not Syrian Kurds; therefore, a negotiable road map would be possible. The YPG has already reached some financial deals with Damascus, including sharing oil revenues in Hasaka province and selling crude oil from oilfields in the Arab-majority Deir Ezzor region, in return for refined fuel. The fact that the YPG would resist giving up its economic profits from the Arab territory it controls in eastern Syria is a ticking bomb, one that could exacerbate ongoing Kurdish-Arab tensions and, therefore, ruin US stability efforts in the post-IS era.

Moreover, the single largest rebel pocket in Idlib province—with a population over two and a half million—remains the greatest challenge to the Assad regime. Turkey has further invested in the Idlib region with the hope of marginalizing al-Qaeda fighters and unifying the moderate opposition for better representation in political negotiations. Already troubled with the burden of hosting three million Syrian refugees, Ankara is deeply fearful about mass migration to the Turkish border in the case of a military offensive by Damascus on Idlib. In the past few months, the opposition groups close to Turkey have merged under two major blocks, the Syrian Liberation Front and the National Liberation Front. The Turkish government aims to bring them together under one umbrella called the Syrian National Army, which would enable Ankara to have more influence over Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)—formerly Jabhat al-Nusra. Turkey’s efforts to marginalize al-Qaeda operatives have led to internal fights and killings in the past year, and finally a split within HTS in recent weeks. Many of the al-Qaeda loyalists have now coalesced around a new group, Tanzim Hurras al-Din. Despite the fact that al-Qaeda has no more than 3,000 fighters in Idlib, the terror group’s resentment against Turkey grows strong—a looming threat for Ankara.

The United States should not treat eastern Syria as a military outpost against Iran.

At the ire of Damascus, Turkey’s deep engagement in Idlib has been tolerated by Russia. The Assad regime sent a strong message to Ankara by shelling Turkish troops as a response to Turkey’s formation of a new military observation post in Latakia, which Damascus claims is a violation of the Astana agreement. The Turkish military has already established 12 outposts circling Idlib, from western Aleppo to northern Hama, and began installing cellular towers. Turkey aims to deter the Syrian regime’s assault on Idlib and the potential mass migration from the city. In this regard, the Russian policy toward Idlib’s future will be a critical factor. Thus far, Moscow has benefited from the tensions between Turkey and US-allied Syrian Kurds in order to drive a wedge in Ankara-Washington relations; therefore, Russia has allowed the Turkish government to operate in northwestern Syria. Turkey is disturbed by the Trump Administration’s recent decision to cut all funding to programs in northwestern Syria—including counterterrorism, civil society building, local governance, education, and media—and to allocate the funds to Kurdish zones in the eastern Euphrates.

Washington Has Responsibilities

A potential summit between Trump and Putin would hardly help to understand—let alone resolve—the complexities of the conflict in Syria. In line with its anti-Iran policy, the Trump Administration understandably seeks to exploit the crack in relations between Russia and Iran. To implement an effective policy on the ground, however, Washington will need to make a strategic choice about its long-term commitment to Syria. On the one hand, the White House appears indifferent regarding the urgent need for reconstruction in the post-IS Raqqa; on the other, the Trump Administration is taking steps to increase its military commitment to Syria as a containment policy toward Tehran. Such inconsistency would invite not only confusion for the coalition partners, but it would also endanger the American security architecture in post-IS Syria.

Washington would do well to be ready to manage a potentially fragmented Syria. The Assad regime currently controls more than half the country and about 50-65 percent of its total population. The regime’s grip, however, is still precarious due to weak institutional capacity and heavy reliance on foreign fighters. The fact that the region where US troops operate is the one most productive in agriculture and oil-extraction necessitates a genuine American investment in the economic sector and local people’s well-being; otherwise, the US presence will soon be interpreted as a ruthless foreign occupation. In other words, the United States should not treat eastern Syria as a military outpost against Iran; without long-term investment in local prosperity, such a militaristic focus would surely backfire. Further, both the Assad regime and Turkey exploit Kurdish-Arab tensions in the region. Thus, in the new fragmented Syria, Washington’s mediation efforts between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds will be critical—and may be addressed only with a consistent strategy having a long-term vision.

Mustafa Gurbuz is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Mustafa and read his previous publications click here

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