Who is to be Syria’s master?

Who is to be Syria’s master?

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From the very beginning, the conflict in Syria has been about illusions. The so-called peace process has been an illusion, starting in 2012 in Geneva. At times, it almost looked as though the US and the European powers were serious about reaching and implementing a new constitutional settlement. But, as we saw most clearly in August 2013, they were never prepared to put any actual force behind this.

And so it made no difference whether they wanted a Syria free of the Assads or a Syria where the Assads or their representatives would be allowed to oversee a transition to a different future. However unrealistic either aspiration might have been, it didn’t matter because nothing could come of it. And nothing did.

The Russians — who, true to their noble traditions, acted as spoilers throughout — then added a Slavic twist through the Astana process, which began at the end of 2016. The only difference was that this was a deliberate illusion designed to divert the attention of the international community while Russia went about the business of preserving the Assad regime diplomatically and through military intervention.

Turkey was self-deluding from the beginning, believing that, by supporting certain Islamist elements in the armed opposition, many of them highly unpleasant, it would create useful clients for the future and enable Ankara to see off the threat of the largely PKK-aligned Kurdish resistance that controlled territory along large sections of the Turkish-Syrian border. Its experience in Libya from the end of 2011 should have told Recep Tayyip Erdogan that it was unwise to bite off more than you could chew. But it didn’t.

And the Syrian opposition in exile was an illusion in itself, divorced from the situation on the ground and increasingly from the internal armed opposition groups, squabbling among themselves and backed by various external actors, for all the world like anti-czarist exiles in the Geneva of 1900 — except with no train ever likely to take one of their number in a sealed carriage to Damascus station.

We have now arrived at the final scene of yet another act of the Syrian tragedy. Turkey thought it had an agreement with Russia and Iran over de-escalation and buffer zones in Idlib, where many of those opposition fighters who survived battles elsewhere had been allowed to retreat, along with thousands of refugees. But that was always likely to prove another illusion, especially after the Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, which rejects any cease-fire, emerged as the dominant armed faction, more or less guaranteeing that no one else would come to its aid and complicating Turkish efforts to ensure a genuine cessation of hostilities.

Sending 2,000 militants to Libya doesn’t even begin to address the problem — it simply spreads it to North Africa. And, ever since Bashar Assad realized that Russian and Iranian support meant he could not be overthrown, he has been prepared to do whatever necessary to recover as much of Syria as he possibly can, no matter what the human or material cost. The same will eventually apply in northeastern Syria, where Kurdish forces still patrol territory within a complicated patchwork of regime, US, Russian and Turkish zones of influence and control — with Iranian-backed militias hovering in the background. For the moment, this is all held in some sort of precarious balance, with friction but no overt clashes.

But that will inevitably change. The situation is inherently unstable. The regime, with direct Russian support and Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah providing security to the rear, pushes on with its offensive against the remaining opposition positions in Idlib. It has already taken back control of the critical M5 highway, connecting Aleppo with Damascus and the coast. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the city is now reportedly free of insurgents and out of range of their artillery for the first time in years — at a very high human cost. We also see a new seriousness of purpose in the deadly clashes we have witnessed over the past few weeks between regime and Turkish forces. The rest is a matter of time.

This poses a serious national security challenge for Turkey. Some 800,000 people may already have been displaced in this most recent round of fighting. Ankara does not want another massive surge of refugees to add to the 3 to 4 million it already hosts. And it has a lot of prestige wrapped up in being able to keep its promises of protection to elements of the armed opposition and the civilian population of Idlib. It has significantly reinforced its positions in and around Idlib over the past few weeks. But, in the end, all this is dependent on what Russia and the US — both of which have had a difficult relationship with Turkey since the outbreak of the conflict — decide to do.

Without Russian air and logistical support, Assad would find it hard to sustain an offensive. Turkey sought at first to confront Moscow. Finding that game too dangerous, it then tried to play Russia off against its NATO partners. Given that Vladimir Putin clearly has no intention of stopping Assad pushing on and seems to have no inclination or ability to dictate terms to Iran, Turkey therefore needs the US fully on its side.

But it is almost certainly too late, whatever the US now decides to do. That, in turn, has implications for the Syrian Kurds, who have been hedging their bets for some time now. And all this is essentially because of Turkish maladroitness — claiming they supported the overthrow of Assad but actually backing some of the worst elements of the opposition and acting mainly against the Kurds, who were one of the most effective, if complicated, Syrian opposition actors. In this they were, of course, aided and abetted by mixed signals and similar policy confusion in Washington and enduring policy weakness in the EU.

The Turks say they now want a renewed cease-fire in Idlib. But, even if one is achieved, it won’t mean much. In reality, what Ankara, like the rest of the international community, now faces is the challenge of dealing with the inevitable victory of Assad over his domestic enemies. That will be a major problem. With hundreds of thousands dead and about 13 million refugees or internally displaced, in addition to the material damage to large parts of Syria’s urban fabric, the country will need long-term reconciliation, resettlement and massive reconstruction.

But it is very hard to see how this is going to happen. When rebel-dominated areas have surrendered in the past, the regime has claimed to apply a process of status normalization to those who it suspects of having opposed it. In practice, this has often meant harsh and vengeful punishment. There are no signs that Assad actually wants any of the refugees back. It may be that he believes them to be irreconcilable. And they represent a useful political lever to be used against those states that host the largest numbers — Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and parts of Europe. And, as with physical reconstruction, where is the money going to come from?

In the meantime, the Turks are dialing up the bellicosity of their statements. So the chances of a serious clash involving Turkish, regime and maybe even Russian forces in Idlib seem to be increasing. It is, however, unlikely that anyone — apart from maybe Assad — actually wants that to happen. So it is entirely possible that Putin and Erdogan will come to yet another agreement. But the slow tide of the regime advance will only be delayed for a time because, in the end, the real question is the future of Syria as a whole. And that is part of the wider game that is being played out in the Middle East. As Humpty Dumpty put it to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” the question is: Who is to be master? You can’t answer that question without considering Iraq, or Iraq without Iran, or any of this without the US.

What is happening in Syria is not really about the next month or so — it is about the next 50 years. And, given the state of global politics, that remains profoundly unclear. Part of the answer would be if the EU and the US could come up with a properly considered, long-term and coherent joint approach, setting clear and rigorous conditions for any post-conflict re-engagement with Syria.

And if — as part of this — Turkey concentrated on agreeing with the EU proper arrangements for meeting the humanitarian needs of refugees and eventually their reintegration back into Syria, rather than threatening simply to dump them on Europe’s doorstep again; if Syria’s other neighbors, particularly Jordan and Lebanon, were also brought into this discussion; and if the continuing anti-Daesh campaign was itself integrated into this approach rather than being seen as a separate tasking.

I’m not holding my breath.

  • Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain and was a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.
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