Syria is a Chessboard — and Outside Powers Will Decide Who Wins and Loses

The town of Al-Hrak in Dar’a Governorate after shelling by Assad’s forces and Russia. (Via @Dannymakisyria/Twitter)

In April of this year, several European Union and United Nations officials implored the warring parties of Syria to restart western-backed negotiations to end the 7-year-long Syrian Civil War. The EU’s high representative for foreign policy, Frederica Mogherini, pleaded with them to think of Syria’s beleaguered population amid the seemingly never-ending onslaught of violence.

“Syria is not a chessboard,” Mogherini said. “It’s not a geopolitical game. Syria belongs to the Syrian people. And the Syrian people have to decide themselves about the future of their country.”

Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

For years now, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s victory in the Syrian Civil War has been all but assured. While much of the world was busy watching the rise of the Islamic State in eastern Syria and western Iraq since 2014, Assad has been able to brutally chip away at the patchwork of rebel forces that have been opposing his regime since 2011 with vital help from Russia’s air force, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

Today there are only two pockets in Syria that remain under rebel control — the governorate of Idlib in the country’s northwest, and parts of Dara’a, Quneitra, and Sweida Governorates in the southwest near the borders with Israel and Jordan. But last week, the Syrian army under Assad touched off a final, large-scale offensive against the factions in the southwest that could spell the end of the resistance there, potentially sending thousands of refugees fleeing into neighboring Jordan. The offensive so far has moved swiftly and effectively — but at the end of the day, very little of its success has been up to Assad himself. Just like nearly everything in Syria in 2018, a Syrian government victory in the southwest will be almost entirely the result of Russian, Israeli, American, and Iranian geopolitical maneuvering, as each of these players hold large enough stakes in the area’s future to steer Assad and his adversaries toward outcomes that benefit their own interests over those of the local Syrians themselves.

To varying degrees, these 4 powers, in addition to Turkey which is occupying parts of Syria’s north, will be the ones who ultimately decide what a post-war Syria will look like, who will benefit the most, and where Assad himself will fit in. Russia in particular is emerging as the primary arbiter in Syrian politics, and has so far been the most successful of these states in advancing its agenda in the region. Taking a closer look at what we know about the southwest offensive so far will show exactly how these countries have been able to flex their muscle in Syria, and what that means for what will come next in the conflict.

A Tangled Web of Interests Leaves Syria’s Rebels Helpless

Having extinguished nearly every other pocket of rebel control in Syria, it seemed logical that Bashar al-Assad’s army would eventually turn to southwest Syria. One reason his forces had waited so long before launching an offensive in the area was that, according to the Washington Post, the territories around Dara’a were part of a ceasefire agreement negotiated by Jordan, Russia, and the US in mid-2017 that aimed to “de-escalate” the conflict between Assad and the rebels in the area. Dara’a and the surrounding countryside have a symbolic significance for both Assad and the rebels — it was here that the Syrian Revolution itself began in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring. Lots has changed since then though, and the rebels in the governorate — who range from officially secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters to jihadist militants — have long been disorganized and poorly equipped. But ahead of the recent southwest offensive, this vast array of groups in the area has managed to coalesce around a united command aimed at resisting Assad’s advances and coordinating regional defense.

Given the rebels’ entrenchment and the US-backed ceasefire deal, Assad took a calculated risk by moving against the groups in southwest Syria. In order for his offensive to have a serious impact, Assad needed military help from his allies Russia and Iran, which was problematic because Russia was one of the parties that had negotiated the de-escalation agreement in the first place. In addition, Iran’s presence in southern Syria had so far been met with Patriot missiles and anti-aircraft rockets from Israel, and a full-scale war between the two remains a real possibility. If Assad’s risk was to pay off, he knew he would need some degree of help from both powers.

So far, it looks like he has gotten what he wants. A few days after the offensive began, the Russian air force joined its Syrian counterpart and has been raining bombs non-stop on key rebel-occupied towns in the Dara’a area. According to some reports, Iran’s forces have also stepped in despite Israel’s recent military counter-measures, even though Russia had previously claimed to have convinced it to pull back from the Israeli-Syrian border. Iran has reportedly been attempting to get around Israel’s gaze in the region by disguising its soldiers in Syrian army fatigues, but has failed to avoid a fresh wave of Israeli bombardments targeting its depots near Damascus. Before it became involved, Russia had only agreed to the de-escalation agreement because it and Assad had other, more pressing military concerns. But now, with the rebels nearly routed, Russia saw no reason to continue honoring the de-escalation zone and loosed its air force on the rebel enclave.

In doing so Russia, and to a limited degree Iran, have now all but guaranteed Assad’s victory over the rebels in the southwest. The offensive fits neatly into each country’s regional agenda, and both hope a strong position for Assad vis-à-vis the rebels will allow them to retain power in post-war Syria by incorporating it into their spheres of influence and setting up permanent military bases there. And even though the US and Israel oppose Russia and Iran, both have seemingly abandoned Syria’s rebels and have implicitly accepted Assad’s victory in the civil war. Israel has been perfectly content with allowing Russia and Assad to do as they please in Syria so long as Iran is not involved, and the US has made it clear that it is not interested in investing any financial or military effort to support the rebels in southwest Syria. Earlier this year the administration of President Donald Trump halted a CIA program to assist rebels in the area, and although the State Department chided Russia and Assad for its advances in the de-escalation zone, US officials indicated that the rebels should not expect any military assistance from America.

It comes as no surprise then that the Assad coalition has been handing the rebels defeat after defeat in the campaign. Several days ago, Syrian regime tanks entered the strategic town of Busra al-Harir, and opposition casualties and surrenders are mounting. It seems that despite their best efforts, the rebels are staring defeat in the face.

The Great Power Game for Post-War Syria

Bashar al-Assad alone could never have defeated the various rebel factions alone, either in the southwest or elsewhere. His army’s success across Syria has been almost completely dictated by the level of support he and rebel factions have respectively received, and the powerful effect of Russian involvement is painfully evident in places like the Dara’a area.

But whereas Assad benefited from the geopolitical ambitions of the major powers in the southwest, they have stung him in other parts of the country. The only other rebel holdout besides the southwest lies in the northwest, in Idlib Governorate. Yet unlike in the southwest Russia and Assad so far have not embarked upon a full-on assault there, despite engaging numerous brutal bombardments and attacks on the area. The reason why is simple — Turkey has stepped up to defend the rebels. After invading northern Syria and opening a corridor between it and the rebel province last year, the Turks have sent their own forces into Idlib, meaning that any Assad attack on the rebels there would risk drawing it into conflict with Turkey. The Turks of course didn’t do this out of altruism, but rather to uphold a deal reached between it, Iran, and Russia, and also to create a bulwark against the Syrian Kurds nearby. The Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, allegedly has ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey has considered a terrorist organization for decades. But not only has Turkey entered the fray on behalf of the rebels, but it has also started setting up a sphere of influence along the northern Syrian border where both Turkish and Syrian businesses have begun post-war reconstruction and development. Early this year, the Turks engaged directly with the YPG for the first time by invading the Kurdish canton of Afrin with the rebels’ help, incorporating it into their growing zone of occupation.

The Kurds for their part have been spared total annihilation at the hands of the Turkish army because of a major factor that the rebels were unable to gain in the southwest — the vital assistance of the US military. Ever since ISIS tore through northern Iraq and Syria in 2014, the US has been providing the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with air support, training, and funding in order to help the SDF in their fight against the Islamic State. ISIS’s defeat in Syria is the only goal the US has fully articulated and followed through on in the country, and in propping up the SDF, they have helped the Kurds capture a massive swath of northeastern Syria that stretches from the former ISIS capital of Raqqa on the Euphrates River all the way to the Turkish border.

Assad has made it clear that he desperately wants the SDF-controlled territories to fall back into his fold. He recently told the Kremlin-affiliated Russian channel RT that he would be open to negotiations with the US-backed SDF, but did not rule out retaking their territory by force and possibly engaging with American troops if necessary. The Syrian Kurds hope at the very least to create an autonomous zone in northern Syria similar to the one that currently exists in Iraqi Kurdistan just across the border. But their bargaining power, and the capacity for Assad to impose his will on them, depends on how long the US will continue to support the SDF even after ISIS is completely vanquished in the country, and on how much self-government the Turks will be willing to tolerate.

Turkey, unlike the US which has only limited ally networks and interests in Syria, is an enviable position. Along with Russia and Iran, it has a seat at the table at the Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan that have been taking place since 2017. These talks, which aim to include both the rebel factions and the Assad government, replaced the rather fruitless UN-led talks in Geneva, Switzerland that had aimed to reach a settlement to the Syrian war for almost six years, and have already resulted in several game-changing deals between the three participating powers. Unlike those at Geneva, these talks are led by Russia, and as a result have created conditions that allow it to dominate the politics of the Syrian battlefield.

When all is said and done, the other two participants will surely not walk away from these talks empty-handed — Iran’s military engagement on the ground guarantee it a permanent, if not all-encompassing, presence in post-war Syria, and Turkey has entrenched itself in northern Syria to such a degree that it will surely continue to guide post-war reconstruction and dominate local politics in the area for years to come. Israel and the US, who have more limited ambitions and a much more smaller say in the peace process, will also likely achieve their ends through brute force alone — Israel will be able to use its military cover to force Iran out of southern Syria, and the US will defeat ISIS and establish a firm footing for the Syrian Kurds.

What will happen after that is anyone’s guess. Will the Kurds be able to hold onto their hard-won autonomy? Will the rebels in Idlib escape annihilation or assimilation by a post-war Assad government? Will a political solution of any kind ever be reached?

Whatever happens, one thing seems certain — Syrian citizens will ultimately be left in the dark, and the cold realities of a multi-polar, post-liberal world will allow the 5 great powers alone to decide the fate of their war-torn country.

Freelance writer/reporter constantly in transit. Middle East & Eastern Europe | National Security | Foreign Affairs

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