The United Nations (UN) envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, predicted that the coming months will be crucial for the conflict he has been trying to resolve for the past three years. If there are no surprises down the road, the next rounds of the Astana and Geneva talks are expected in September, paving the way for “real substantive” talks in October. That optimism primarily rests on the premise that the United States and Russia will continue to cooperate despite the dark clouds overshadowing their increasingly difficult bilateral relationship. The recent local and regional developments signal that Syria is entering a new phase where major powers are coming to terms with a compromise that the Syrians themselves still consider elusive.
The “de-escalation zones,” or “quiet zones” as a UN official recently described them, are the bedrock of that growing sense of optimism. The nationwide ceasefire agreement signed last May in Astana created four geographic areas covering eight out of Syria’s 14 provinces. While Russia, Turkey, and Iran are acting as guarantors for that agreement, Washington and Moscow are ultimately finalizing the parameters of postwar Syria.
Spheres of Influence
Whatever the agreements and arrangements in Syria today, they arguably set the stage for dividing Syria into three spheres of influence. First is the Damascus province, which includes the western provinces (Tartous, Latakia, and Hama), al-Sweida province in the southeast, and the northern parts of Homs province. These are primarily under the influence of the Syrian regime, Russia, and Iran. The opposition groups hold relatively small territories in that sphere of influence, including the northern outskirts of Homs and eastern Ghouta near Damascus. The Syrian regime is paving the way for an assault on Ghouta; however, the ceasefire agreement reached on August 18 between Moscow and the “Faylaq al-Rahman” corps complicates that objective.
The second sphere of influence comprises the northeastern provinces of al-Hasakah and Raqqa, which are controlled by Kurdish forces under US influence, while the southern provinces of Deraa and Quneitra are run by Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups under Jordanian and US influence. Finally, the third is the northwestern province of Idlib, which is run by Islamists and has recently become the wild card of the Syrian conflict.
It is important to note that Russian military police units have deployed checkpoints and observation posts in eastern Ghouta, Quneitra, and the northern outskirts of Homs, but no agreement has been reached yet in Idlib.
Crucial Areas in the Syrian War
Out of these spheres of influence, three geographical areas will be crucial to watch and will most probably decide how the Syrian war will end.
- Southern Syria: Deraa and Quneitra
The ceasefire deal reached in June was meant to calm US, Jordanian, and Israeli concerns by dissociating southwestern Syria from the Astana process and subsequently attempting to keep Iran away from the Jordanian border and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
While the Syrian armed opposition groups in southern Syria have led a rather stable front under the guidance of the Amman-based Military Operations Command (MOC), they are known to have scattered units with no hierarchical command and structure. Since the US-Russia deal in southern Syria, these groups came under external pressure to coalesce, most notably after the United States cut off arms and supplies to Syrian rebels last July and Jordan’s pressures to end the clandestine program supporting the “Southern Front.” The ultimate objective of the MOC is to have fewer armed coalitions that can effectively implement the US-Russia deal and allow the return of Syrian refugees from Jordan.
Among the new groups that emerged recently, the “Southern Coalition” was formed (AR)1 on August 16 after a merger between “al-Ababil Army” and the “Syrian Rebels Front – first infantry division.” The formation of the new coalition, which operates in northern Deraa and the outskirts of Quneitra, may become a significant factor in the south where the “National Front for the Liberation of Syria” was established (AR) in July and is steadily growing; even smaller groups from Idlib, Hama, and Deir Ezzor are joining ranks.
These two newest coalitions came to join two major ones that were already in operation: the “Southern Forces,” formed in February by military officers who defected from the Syrian regime, and the “Revolution Army,” created in December 2016 by civilian-led groups that are not as closely aligned with US forces. Some of them, such as the “al-Yarmouk Army,” had previous disagreements with the MOC, which led to the suspension of their funding and military assistance. There is also an attempt to establish local councils that can run these southern areas and potentially play a key role in securing the return of Syrian refugees from Jordan.
As part of the US-Russian agreement, both Hezbollah and the Syrian regime recently withdrew from Deraa and there are talks to reopen the Nassib border crossing under the Syrian regime’s control. If the FSA refuses to give up control of the Nassib crossing to the Syrian regime, will there be US-Jordanian pressure to concede, or will Amman decide to open another crossing from al-Sweida, in an area under the control of the Syrian regime?
There are tactical differences between the MOC and the armed groups affiliated with the FSA, as well as among the FSA groups themselves. The “Army of Free Tribes,” backed by Jordan, withdrew (AR) unilaterally and abruptly earlier this month from the northern outskirts of al-Sweida to the Jordanian border. A few days later, it launched an operation to regain the lost territory without any coordination with other FSA groups. If the regime and opposition groups refuse a process of reconciliation, or at least to coexist in areas like al-Sweida, it will be hard to see any long-term impact for the US-Russia deal in southern Syria.
- The Syrian Desert: The Battle for Deir Ezzor
Deir Ezzor is one of the last battlefields that will ultimately decide the balance of power in postwar Syria. The US plan to fight the so-called Islamic State (IS) and sustain influence over the long run is facing two major obstacles: 1) Iran’s determination to have a supply line from Tehran to Beirut via the Iraqi-Syrian border that runs through Deir Ezzor; and 2) the difficult relations between US forces and the armed opposition groups operating in that area.
The US forces and armed groups like the “Revolutionary Commando Army” and “Lions of the East” are active in two military bases in the area, al-Tanf and al-Zakaf, which are just 70 kilometers apart. However, the United States hopes to launch the offensive against IS in Deir Ezzor from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-controlled town of al-Shadadi, south of al-Hasaka province.
But tactical differences continue to prevent the launch of that operation. US forces have been in talks with the “Revolutionary Commando Army” (Maghaweer al-Thawra) to lead the battle as long as the group can secure widespread local support for carrying out that operation. One of the obstacles is the competitive relationship between the “Revolutionary Army,” under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Muhannad al-Talaa, and the “Lions of the East,” led by Tlas Salameh. Washington is more supportive of the “Revolutionary Army” and has recently seized control of the weapons it has provided to “Lions of the East” and “Forces of Martyr Ahmad al-Abdo” because they reportedly (AR) insisted on fighting the Syrian regime instead of IS. Last July, the “Brigade of al-Qaryatayn Martyrs” left (AR) al-Tanf base with their weapons to fight the Syrian regime without notifying US forces, which led to a confidence crisis between the two. Now the brigade has been allowed to return to al-Tanf and continues cooperation with the United States; however, relations will most probably remain difficult.
The main contentious point is whether to launch the Deir Ezzor offensive from the Syrian desert (the badiyah) or from northern Syria. While US forces believe that launching the operation should be from al-Hasaka, FSA-affiliated armed groups want to launch the offensive from al-Tanf on the Iraqi-Syrian border, which means fighting the Syrian regime before reaching IS. The ambitious plan of the “Revolutionary Army” aims to build on that operation to become the nucleus of a new Syrian army that can stretch its control to other parts of the country. However, if they accept the US plan, the “Revolutionary Army” units will have to fly over and land in SDF-controlled areas to launch the attack, which means they will have no home advantage and they will have to strike a deal with SDF to host them.
The disagreements between Kurdish and Arab forces revolve around who leads the battle. The “Revolutionary Army” asked (AR) for total control of the Deir Ezzor offensive from al-Hasaka, which the SDF will likely not accept. For that same reason, the SDF also pushed away (AR)—from the Raqqa battle—the “Syrian elite forces” affiliated with Syria’s Tomorrow Movement led by Ahmad al-Jarba, the former president of the opposition’s Syrian National Council.
Meanwhile, the Syrian regime and its allies are better positioned to launch the Deir Ezzor offensive from multiple fronts and are gradually advancing with Russian air support. Syrian troops are surrounding the province from the south, just 70 kilometers away from the city of al-Boukamal on the border with Iraq. Most importantly, on August 12 they seized control of al-Sukhna in the eastern outskirts of Homs, which is a key area for entering the city of Deir Ezzor.
- The Northern Front: Chaos in Idlib
Located along the border with Turkey, Idlib was the first province the opposition fully seized from the regime. In July, the al-Qaeda-affiliated coalition, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, whose main group is Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra), seized the headquarters of the Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sham to become the major force in Idlib that also controls the Turkish border. That turning point ended the large coalition between those two groups, under the banner of “Jaysh al-Fateh,” which drove the Syrian regime out of Idlib in 2015.
There are multiple views on how to address that development, including calls for Russian or Turkish intervention. Idlib is becoming a hub for extremists; most recently, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group that was operating at the Lebanese-Syrian border was sent to Idlib after a deal with Hezbollah. A US official warned of “grave” consequences” if al-Qaeda dominated the province and hinted in a veiled threat that “it would be difficult for the United States to convince the international parties not to take the necessary military measures.”
While a Turkish incursion might be problematic and could ultimately lead to a confrontation with the SDF, a Russian campaign of intensive air strikes on Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham means Idlib would go under the Syrian regime’s control after a bloody and difficult ground battle. The scenario of having US air support with SDF forces on the ground is unlikely; this is because US forces might not have an appetite for such a costly intervention. Obviously, Turkey will have an aggressive reaction to such a move and has hinted recently that it might have to intervene in Idlib to protect its own interests. With no agreement on Idlib, Washington and Moscow might opt to retain the status quo for now while carrying out airstrikes and covert operations against al-Qaeda-affiliated groups.
Dealing with Idlib separately from addressing what happens in Raqqa after ISIL will be counterproductive. Turkish-Iranian military coordination is increasing and there are talks that Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara might have a common approach to cut the road on any US-SDF role in Idlib. Meanwhile, Turkey has amassed troops near Afrin, and Ankara hinted that the Turkish-backed FSA might join the operation against the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Russia halted its airstrikes over Idlib, arguing that it is part of the Astana process; however, Moscow seems to be laying the groundwork for an intervention. Idlib is where external powers are keen to settle their differences, whether the Saudi-Qatari rift, US-Turkish tensions, or Kurdish-Turkish enmity.
US Options and the Way Forward in Syria
What happens in these three key areas will have implications for the peace talks expected next October. While there is no path forward yet for a political solution in Syria, the external powers are attempting to force a new status quo on the ground. The Syrian regime is simply not ready to compromise and the Syrian political opposition abroad is unable to force its own agenda. The High Negotiations Committee and the two opposition groups of Moscow and Egypt met in Riyadh August 22 to try to unite the opposition delegation to the Geneva talks. These leaders are still stuck in the debate about priorities and whether Syrian President Bashar Assad should stay or leave, while decisions are being made on the ground in Syria. De Mistura’s optimism might be warranted on the military level, in lowering the levels of violence and managing the tensions; however, an escalation of violence remains a possibility, whether in Idlib, Deir Ezzor, or eastern Ghouta.
The US strategy remains ambiguous, to say the least. Once the Raqqa battle is concluded, the role of SDF in fighting IS will also come to an end. A US bet on having the SDF play a role beyond Kurdish areas is controversial and might backfire since using it launch an operation in Deir Ezzor would create tensions with Sunni rebels as well as Ankara. The Syrian rebels from southern Syria have no geographical access to Deir Ezzor while Iran and the Syrian regime are positioning themselves and waiting for a Russian signal to advance in the badiyah. The US side believes that the battle of Deir Ezzor should come only after concluding the one in Raqqa, and it is becoming impossible to beat the Syrian regime and its allies in the race for Deir Ezzor without a confrontation. Meanwhile, the groups affiliated with the FSA in southern Syria feel restrained by the United States and compelled to cope with the agreements between Washington and Moscow to continue receiving US aid and training.
It was noteworthy what the SDF spokesperson said on August 17 about US strategic interests in northern Syria lasting for decades; it seemed more wishful thinking than an informed statement. Washington must level with its allies in Syria that it might not be fully involved, whether in the short or long term. The United States also needs to have a preemptive approach in dealing with Idlib before the city falls apart at the hands of extremists; otherwise, it will face the same scenario as the Aleppo battle in 2016. Washington seems to have no vision of what will come after liberating Syria from IS and to be content with the gains made so far. As the stakeholders of the Syrian conflict grapple with dividing the pie, Syrians will have tough decisions to make in the months ahead.
1 Source is in Arabic.