Syria: Too Fragile to Ignore
Military Outcomes, External Influence and European Options
SWP Comment 2019/C 07, February 2019, 4 Pages
For the last eight years, almost all geopolitical, ideological, and sectarian conflicts of the Middle East have converged in Syria. Syria is not at peace today, but the government of Bashar al-Assad – with more than a little help from Russia and Iran – has won the war against the armed anti-regime opposition. The political opposition is largely marginalized. The Arab states are about to normalize their relations with the government in Damascus. Russia and Iran are the main external power brokers. The US military withdrawal from Syria will also reduce its political influence. The European Union and its member states will have to come up with a policy of their own to deal with the new reality in Syria. For Europe, Syria is too close – and too fragile – to ignore.
Diplomats love to reiterate that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria. Although this is true, there have been undeniable military outcomes, most notably the defeat of the main opposition and rebel groups. The Islamic State (also referred to as ISIS or Daesh) has also lost almost all the territory it had controlled in the country, but it remains a veritable terrorist force. Some areas are still outside government control: The so-called Idlib de-escalation zone in the north has survived thanks to a Turkish-Russian arrangement but is likely to return to the government sooner or later, probably gradually rather than as a result of a major offensive. This is particularly so since Turkish-backed rebels have been defeated and most of the area has been conquered by “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” (HTS) – a rebel alliance led by the former Nusra Front, a Syrian offshoot of al-Qaeda that is seen internationally as being fair game in the fight against terrorism. Turkey has no strategic interest in helping this group to control the area. Ankara seems intent, though, to maintain its hold and that of its own Syrian allies over a strip of territory between the Turkish province of Hatay and the Euphrates River.
The territory east of the Euphrates is still – as of the time of writing – controlled by the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the dominant force within the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces. Without the support of US troops, however, the PYD will not be able to maintain its semi-autonomy in this area. For the PYD, it does not matter much whether the US drawdown comes quickly or happen slowly. They have learned that the US presence is finite, whereas the Syrian state and Turkey are not going away. Given the choice of facing a Turkish invasion or seeking an arrangement with the government in Damascus, the Kurdish group will certainly opt for the latter by trying to secure some form of meaningful decentralization and an integration of its own militia into the state’s armed forces. Most likely, therefore, Damascus will reestablish control over the cities and oil fields in the east and over the Syrian-Iraqi border within the next couple of months. Discussions between the United States, Turkey, and others about a “security zone” along the eastern part of the Turkish-Syrian border have, so far, not produced any tangible outcomes. Russia has a strong interest in seeing Syrian state authority return to this area, and Turkey needs Russia’s consent if it wants to maintain its hold over Syrian territory west of the Euphrates. We can therefore assume that direct Turkish control in the region east of the river will be restricted, at most, to a narrow strip of land. Most likely, Syrian government troops will move close to the border, and there will be some presence by Russian troops to provide against unintended incidents. … to read more load the .pdf