No end in sight to Syria’s de facto partition
It is unfortunate that almost all players involved in the complex Syrian crisis appear to have given up on efforts to resuscitate a political process aimed at ending seven years of civil war. Whether it is Geneva, Astana or Sochi, the paths that were supposed to lead toward a comprehensive and peaceful settlement are now deadlocked. Instead, Syria has become a furnace feeding many conflagrations involving players with conflicting agendas; raising the possibility of high-risk clashes.Two months after Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch, its forces, along with fighters of the Free Syrian Army, have finally overtaken Afrin, the Kurdish enclave close to the Syrian-Turkish border. But the Turkish victory came at a hefty price. It was not the quick military conquest that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had promised. Furthermore, it appears that fighters belonging to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) chose to evacuate the city and fall back toward Manbij, which is under US protection.
Turkey’s goal is to push deep into the heart of the autonomous Syrian Kurdish region. That means crossing the Euphrates and venturing into US-occupied territory. Russia had allowed Turkey to take Afrin, but Erdogan will have to consider his next step carefully. He would not want to find himself fighting US forces east of the Euphrates — something that Moscow, Iran and the Syrian regime would not mind happening.
Meanwhile, US objectives in Syria remain ambiguous. Its presence in the country’s northeastern region is said to aim at preventing Iranian expansion, in addition to fighting radical groups. It needs Syria’s Kurds to ensure its control, but so far it has done little to support the YPG in its battle against Turkey. One thing is clear: The US presence east of the Euphrates is spoiling Russia’s gains in Syria and delaying a decisive victory by the regime.
The stage is becoming overcrowded and what was once a war between clients and proxies is now shifting to possible direct confrontation between key powers.
In Eastern Ghouta, government forces are making headway in the midst of international failure to stop the carnage. Moscow and Damascus are determined to clear this strategic region of rebel forces no matter the price. But allegations of the use of chemical agents as well as the indiscriminate bombing of civilians have drawn out threats of military action by the US, Britain and France. Russia warned last week that the US was about to launch cruise missiles from its ships in the Mediterranean against Syrian government targets. It vowed to retaliate. It is now a battle of wills between US President Donald Trump and Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.
Meanwhile, Israel and Jordan are keeping a close eye on developments in southern Syria. The de-escalation zone, which includes parts of Qunaitra, Daraa and Sweida, was agreed to by Jordan, Russia and the US last July. It is now being tested. Syrian government jets struck rebel-held areas in Daraa last week for the first time since the tripartite agreement was reached. There are fears that, following Eastern Ghouta, the Syrian army and its allies may head south. For Israel, the presence of pro-Iran militias close to its borders represents a direct security challenge. But, since Syria downed an Israeli fighter jet last month, there has been chatter about a massive Israeli strike being prepared targeting either Syria or Lebanon, or both.
For Jordan, defense of its northern borders with Syria is a matter of top national security. A collapse of the truce in southern Syria could trigger a new wave of refugees and force moderate rebel groups to align themselves with more radical ones. Like Israel, Jordan will not tolerate the presence of pro-Iran militias close to its borders.
The alliance between Russia, Iran and Turkey could tumble as each player seeks to extend and solidify its gains in Syria. Frontlines are too close for comfort and in many cases they change on a daily basis. It is difficult to determine when confrontations might erupt either by accident or through a deliberate and hasty action. The Syrian stage is becoming overcrowded and what was once a war between clients and proxies is now shifting to possible direct confrontation between key powers.
As relations between Russia and the US worsen, threatening a return to the Cold War era, Syria will increasingly feature as the main stage for an East-West power struggle. And if the US withdraws from the Iran nuclear deal in May, the possibility of an open war between the two would rise dramatically.
It is unfortunate that no diplomatic recourse is available right now. Allowing the Syrian wound to fester will prove to be irresponsible for all parties concerned. No single player can force its own agenda in Syria without threatening the objectives of other players. In the meantime, each key player will seek to maintain and manage its area of influence for as long as possible, thus cementing a de facto partition of Syria.
- Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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