Civilians and vehicles wait to be evacuated from east Aleppo

GIS Dossier: Syria

  • Assad’s next offensives may be west and south; the latter could widen the war
  • Russia’s alignment with Iran and Turkey could cave in NATO’s southeast flank
  • Islamic State is not going away and will thrive after military defeat

Syria’s civil war reached a turning point with the fall of east Aleppo to government forces in late December 2016. Little more than a year after Russia’s military intervention started, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has gained the upper hand. The ramifications will be plentiful for the Middle East and the rest of the world. GIS experts have considered all aspects of the conflict and their implications since the fighting began in 2011. Below are key points drawn from their forecasts.

This is the first in GIS’s new “Dossier series, which aims to give our subscribers a quick overview of the analysis we have provided on particular topics, regions or conflicts. We invite readers to click through to the main reports that they find most intriguing for more insight.

1. Assad’s next move

Now that Mr. Assad’s forces are in control of Aleppo, the authorities in Damascus must make a strategic decision – to strike east, west or even south. A logical target would be east toward al-Bab, a strategic road junction held by Daesh, or Islamic State, writes Professor Amatzia Baram of GIS. But that would mean tangling with the Turkish army, already besieging the town, and strong Kurdish forces near Manbij.

A more likely course is to turn west, into Idlib province. This opposition stronghold is defended by militias allied with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (an al-Qaeda offshoot), which have few Western sympathizers. More importantly, Russia will be willing to provide air support to take Idlib (which it wouldn’t do for an al-Bab operation). This is a crucial force multiplier for the pro-Assad forces, which have only about 25,000 reliable combat troops who must be shuttled from front to front. A successful offensive into Idlib would make Mr. Assad the master of western Syria, giving him control of the entire Mediterranean coast and all the country’s important population centers.

But Mr. Assad and his Iranian allies will want more. The most tempting next step would be to go south, either into Daraa province, on the Jordanian border, or southeast into the Golan. The latter would put Israel eyeball-to-eyeball with Iran and Hezbollah on the Golan Heights. This prospect is unacceptable to any security-minded Israeli. If the weak local militias tied to Daesh are ejected from this area, Israel will intervene militarily.

2. Russia in charge

Russia’s decisive intervention in Syria’s civil war was made possible by the United States and Europe’s misguided insistence on excluding President Assad from peace talks – a mistake GIS has been pointing out since 2013. The anti-Assad boycott was the latest in a series of Western attempts to “enforce structures and principles on Middle Eastern countries that are not tailored to the local realities,” Prince Michael of Liechtenstein noted in November 2015. “Russia’s actions have given it significant influence on how events in the Middle East will play out.”

As GIS expert Dr. Samir Nassif observed in 2013: “Russia would like to return to the Middle East. Today it only has one window – Syria – but it could easily open several doors.” Over the past year, thanks to the Kremlin’s demonstrated loyalty to Mr. Assad and lack of compunction about backing authoritarian governments, we have seen those doors open: in Turkey, the Persian Gulf and even Saudi Arabia.

3. NATO has been outflanked

As Russia solidifies its position in the eastern Mediterranean, the European countries have adopted an equivocal approach. Instead of asserting its interests, Europe has “dealt with this tidal wave of geopolitical change in dismal fashion, by viewing it through the narrow prism of purely domestic issues: immigration and counterterrorism,” writes GIS expert Bernard Siman.

Strategically, Turkey’s alignment with Russia and Iran could be a game changer. Russia’s military buildup in Syria – coupled with its potent area-denial capabilities – has already weakened NATO in its southern area of operations, writes GIS expert Stefan Hedlund. With the deployment of S-400 surface-to-air missiles in northern Syria and Crimea, much of the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey and the Black Sea have been turned into a potential no-fly zone for NATO aircraft.

President Bashar al-Assad speaks with Syrian troops in an outlying district of Damascus
President Bashar al-Assad has the clear military advantage but not enough troops. His key decision now is whether to strike west or south; the latter could risk a war with Israel (source: dpa)

4. The West has lost control

Syria’s civil war is the harbinger of a new era in international relations, GIS expert Charles Millon wrote in June 2013. It was the first proof that the West was no longer in control of the world’s power games. As U.S. President Barack Obama refused to commit troops and Europe meekly took a back seat, it became clear that the days when a U.S. president could unilaterally decide to intervene in Afghanistan or Iraq are long gone.

Just as Daesh exploded on the scene, the U.S. was drawing down its active counterterrorist operations, GIS expert Dr. James Jay Carafano noted in May 2013. This may have reflected a shift to a passive approach in which intelligence agencies acted as clearing-houses of information. “In any case, the global terrorist threats which may one day turn on America and its allies seem a diminishing priority for Washington at present,” Mr. Carafano concluded.

5. Turkey is back

Turkey’s intervention in northern Syria could give Islamic State a new lease on life in the short term by derailing the planned U.S. Kurdish offensive on Raqqa, writes GIS expert Witold Repetowicz. Ankara remains intent on its military objective – preventing a linkup of Kurdish cantons – and is convinced it has a free hand because the U.S. and Europe will do nothing to imperil Turkey’s NATO membership.

In the longer run, however, Turkey’s expanding regional role in Syria and Iraq may pose an opportunity, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein. This especially applies to the Kurdish autonomies in those countries, whose leverage will disappear once Daesh is defeated and U.S. support dries up. With Ankara in a position of strength, it may be better positioned to work out a settlement with the Kurds that would extend its sphere of influence. It is also in the vital interest of all Kurds to find a sound arrangement with Turkey.

6. Borders will be redrawn

The rise of Turkey and Iran is part of an ongoing redistribution of power in the Middle East, writes GIS expert Dr. Samir Nassif. This may even include drastic changes to the borders set in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement. New entities could emerge – such as Kurdistan, an Alawite state in Syria, or Christian, Druze and Shia autonomies in Lebanon. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and even Saudi Arabia are susceptible to partition as Iran and Turkey vie for the mantle of regional leader.

Even with the Assad regime winning, Syria will probably be parceled out along ethnic and sectarian lines. The partition may involve five autonomous zones, according to a two-part report by GIS expert Amatzia Baram on the endgame against Daesh. Hezbollah’s push for sovereignty in south Lebanon and the Bekaa valley could potentially reopen the war with Israel.

7. Daesh (or something like it) won’t go away

The success of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq came not through terror, but by its leadership’s observance of classic military precepts, writes GIS expert Bernard Siman. The military campaign to crush Daesh will only succeed if it recognizes Clausewitz’s principle that war is a continuation of policy by other means. Without a root-and-branch reform of the sectarian government in Baghdad, Daesh will soon be back.

The Iraqi army’s recent advance into Mosul shows that Daesh’s total defeat is perfectly feasible in the military sense. But crushing the caliphate would be like beating a blob of mercury with a hammer – it would merely splatter in all directions. Defeat and dispersal would potentially strengthen the movement in Northern Africa, Western Europe and possibly the Sahel. It would consolidate the nexus between terrorism and organized crime groups and increase refugee flows along the Libyan migratory route.

Russian sappers ride atop armored personnel carriers into east Aleppo, Syria
Dec. 23, 2016: Russian military engineers ride into east Aleppo to clear mines (source dpa)

8. The Saudis are losing

Saudi Arabia has backed the losing side in Syria, but that could be the least of Riyadh’s worries, writes GIS expert Charles Millon. The embattled Kingdom is managing a leadership transition as it tries to reform its economy, while fighting two shooting wars (Yemen, Syria) and a petro war (OPEC) against Iran and its proxies. Seemingly abandoned by its traditional protector, the U.S., Riyadh had been counting on Turkey as a regional ally – until Ankara chose to side with the Russians and Iranians in Syria.

Saudi Arabia appears to have lost its long-term trust in oil reserves as the best instrument to preserve its economic stability and regional influence, writes GIS expert Dr. Frank Umbach. That may explain Riyadh’s greater determination to diversify its economy before it is disrupted by shrinking demand for fossil fuels, competition from shale output, and explosive demographic growth in the Kingdom, writes GIS expert Dr. Carole Nakhle.

9. Migration won’t stop – unless Europe engages

Europe has been reduced to moralistic pontificating, even though it has much more at stake in the Middle East than the U.S., writes Michael von Liechtenstein. It ignores the brutal reality that any further weakening of the governments in the Middle East and North Africa will swell the flow of migrants. Turmoil in Egypt, where living standards have taken a beating after an unpopular currency devaluation, could prompt as many as 5 million people to seek better lives in Europe, notes GIS expert Bernard Siman.

To deal with the migrant crisis, the West must learn again how to think big, writes GIS expert Lord Alton of Liverpool. What is needed is another Marshall Plan to rebuild the ruined cities of Syria, Iraq and Libya. International safe havens need to be created on the shores of North Africa – perhaps small city states like Singapore, “new Carthages” that offer a prosperous and safe alternative to Daesh’s Islamist caliphate.

10. Syria may be Trump’s biggest deal

President Donald Trump’s administration may seize upon Syria as an opportunity for new strategic rebalancing between the U.S. and Russia – a new Potsdam that trades off interests in the Middle East against Ukraine, writes GIS expert Ambassador Zvi Mazel. The deal will leave President Bashar al-Assad in place, with the country divided between several autonomous zones, while resurrecting a pragmatic Sunni alliance led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In return, Russia would drop its assistance to Iran.

This would be a move away from the Obama administration’s Fabian strategy – a perhaps unplanned procrastination that exasperated the many U.S. allies in the region, but also gave Washington flexibility, observes GIS expert Dr. Samir Nassif. The U.S. steered clear of a quagmire in Syria that may be more difficult for Tehran and Ankara to avoid.

A grand bargain between the U.S. and Russia could lead to a settlement in Syria that might ultimately ease out Mr. Assad and check Iranian expansion. By bolstering support for Sunni countries, it would lessen the Iranian threat to the Gulf States and Yemen and help Egypt in its war against jihadist terrorism.

By clicking "I Agree" below, you acknowledge that you accept our Privacy Policy and Terms and Conditions. Feel free to check out our policies anytime for more information.
I agree