GIS Dossier: Syria, Round 2

Map of international conflict zones in Syria
Three triangular-shaped conflict zones mark the spots in Syria where armed conflict between the major international players could ignite and spread (source: macpixxel for GIS)

GIS Dossiers aim to give our subscribers a quick overview of key topics, regions or conflicts based on a selection of our experts’ reports since 2011. This survey further explores Syria’s civil war, the topic of a previous Dossier in February 2017.

More than a year ago, it was already apparent that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government was headed toward victory in Syria’s civil war. What has changed since is the military defeat of Daesh, also known as Islamic State, whose “caliphate” in eastern Syria and western Iraq has all but vanished (or gone underground) after 18 months of hard fighting.

The effect has been to internationalize and widen an already dangerous regional conflict. None of the major players – Iran, Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States – are new. But as the field of local contestants thins out (basically, only the Assad regime, the Kurds, and a hard core of Sunni rebels concentrated in Idlib province survive), these powers are coming into direct contact on Syrian battlefields, rather than being safely insulated through proxies. This increases the chances of a regional conflagration.

1. Dangerous vacuum

The vast territories formerly controlled by Daesh in the north and east of Syria, and beyond into northern and western Iraq, had acted as a buffer zone separating the main regional and global players. In addition, the fight against Islamic State (and to a lesser extent other jihadists, including al-Qaeda affiliates) united every one of these powers in a single cause.

Now, as GIS expert Bernard Siman observed in a prescient analysis from July 2017, Daesh’s military defeat has created a vacuum into which various “winners” and outside powers are being drawn. Spheres of interest are now grating and rubbing together, as we can see from recent headlines. That is why Russian military contractors came to be bombarded from the air by U.S. forces, Turkish troops have seized the Syrian Kurdish city of Afrin, or Iranian drones are probing Israeli air defenses along the Golan Heights – provoking the biggest Israeli air strikes in Syria since the 1973 October War.

The tide is turning against the most promising way to resolve the civil war – a federal solution


Over this area, three conflict zones stand out. The first is a triangular-shaped vacuum in the desert regions of eastern Syria and western Iraq, especially around the At Tanf border point on the Baghdad-Damascus highway, where the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are attempting to block Iran from establishing an overland logistics route to Damascus and Lebanon. Syrian, Russian and Hezbollah forces are also pushing toward SDF-held oil fields farther north, near Deir Ezzor.

The second, between Damascus and the Golan Heights, is an exclusion zone within which Israel says it will not tolerate Iran’s and Hezbollah’s military presence. And in the north, Turkish forces, fresh from seizing Afrin, could start pushing east toward the Euphrates, against the Kurds and U.S. special forces. This bears out the warning by Mr. Siman that “the full impact of these [geostrategic] stresses will only become clear once Daesh is defeated in Raqqa.”

2. Bye-bye federalism

As the outside powers move in, the tide is turning against perhaps the most promising way to resolve the Syrian civil war, according to GIS expert Dr. Samir Nassif – a Lebanese-style federal solution. This to a large extent is because of the Kurds, themselves key local players who had carved out an autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq and liberated extensive areas of northern Syria through their powerful People’s Protection Units (YPG), the backbone of the SDF.

Neither of the regional powers being drawn into Syria – not Iran nor Turkey, each with its own Kurdish minority – wants to see a Kurdish state. For a variety of historical, political and economic reasons, they are hostile to regional or ethnic autonomy and favor centralization. This applies to the Assad regime itself, and even to its main sponsor Russia, whose own federalism is organized around local fiefdoms that are more a tool for remote control from the center.

Turkish forces patrol the streets of Afrin, Syria
March 21, 2018: Turkish Army soldiers patrol the streets of Afrin after taking it from Kurdish forces; the fall of the northwestern Syrian city lessened the chance of a federal solution to the civil war (source: dpa)

Federal solutions can work in states with a long tradition or largely bereft of natural resources, such as Lebanon. But in countries where the national minorities dwell in vital oil and gas areas (the Kurds in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, the Shias in eastern Saudi Arabia), the central authorities cannot afford to give in. This was demonstrated by Baghdad’s reaction to the September 2017 independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, which “altered the political geometry of the Middle East,” according to a November 2017 report by Mr. Siman.

The overwhelming vote of the Iraqi Kurds for independence – a serious misjudgment by the KRG – united the three states most inimical to their cause: Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Their way smoothed by Iranian negotiators and Iranian-backed Shia militias, Iraqi troops rolled into the Kurdish-controlled oil-producing area around the city of Kirkuk. This was a devastating blow to the economic basis of Kurdish autonomy, and will have a chilling effect on federalism in the rest of the region, where Kurdistan’s progress was being closely watched by Alawite, Yazidi, Christian, Druze, Sunni and Shia minorities in various countries.

3. Saudi stratagems

Having backed the losing side in Syria, Saudi Arabia has spent the past year casting around for ways to strike back at its archrival Iran. Most have not worked out well.

A bizarre attempt to strong-arm Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, backfired, leaving Hezbollah in firm control of the country. The war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen is not going well, and could become increasingly difficult for Saudi Arabia to afford in an era of low oil prices and tighter budgets. And the unprecedented crackdown by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on potential rivals within the royal family, while it put him firmly in charge, also highlighted the dynasty’s fragility.

Saudi Arabia and Israel want the same thing –an Iranian withdrawal from Syria


The upshot has been an increasing convergence with the new U.S. administration, which has adopted an openly anti-Iranian stance, and with Israel. Riyadh pulled off a diplomatic coup by hosting President Trump for his first big foreign trip in May 2017, organizing a summit for 17 Arab heads of state and signing letters of intent to buy up to $110 billion of American weapons. This investment was vindicated by Mr. Trump’s decision to tighten sanctions on Iran and pull out of the nuclear deal negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

In Syria, meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Israel want the same thing –an Iranian withdrawal, or at least an exclusion zone near the Golan Heights, as Dr. Nassif noted in an October 2017 report. The shared Israeli-Saudi concern about Hezbollah was behind the attempt to pressure Mr. Hariri and the Lebanese government, noted GIS founder Prince Michael of Liechtenstein in December 2017. Riyadh is also working hard to lure Iraq’s Shia-dominated government out of Tehran’s sphere of influence – for example, hosting in August 2017 a surprise visit by Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose supporters won this week’s parliamentary elections in Iraq.

4. Coalition against Iran

The Saudi-Israeli combination against Iran has enlisted U.S. support, as Mr. Trump’s decision to pull out of the nuclear deal indicates. A desire to punish Tehran is one area where the U.S. president is not isolated from his security establishment – especially after the departures of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster.

President Trump’s upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un also serves this purpose, because it potentially isolates Iran from nuclear technology and shows the U.S. has made a choice of enemies. After all, he has no more intrinsic reason to trust Mr. Kim than Iranian President Hassan Rouhani over a nuclear deal – yet has chosen to deal with the former and spurn the latter.

One thing that should not be underestimated is Iran’s growing confidence. The Iraqi government’s move against the Kurds gave Iran a crucial sliver of Iraqi Kurdish territory stretching from Kirkuk through Sulaymaniyah – a key oil-producing region. And the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital gives Iran “a great propaganda tool” and instant credibility on the Arab street, as GIS expert Professor Amatzia Baram noted in December 2017.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets the Israeli Prime Minister in Tel Aviv
April 29, 2018: The U.S. is now more closely aligned with possible Israeli pushback against Iran, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s (L) meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed (source: dpa)

The result is to severely limit U.S. options for confronting Iran and possibly fracture a Sunni Arab alliance against Iran’s regional hegemony, added Mr. Siman in January 2018. Iran realizes this and could even seek to provoke a conflict, on the assumption that the Sunni coalition could splinter along transnational lines or implode, as popular revolts topple regimes like Saudi Arabia’s.

Internal strains are also affecting Iran. The leadership is torn by conflict between so-called “moderates” like President Rouhani, who enjoy popular support, and the religious principalists around supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the security and military apparatus, especially the powerful Revolutionary Guards (pasdaran), who hold the real power, as noted by Dr. Udo Steinbach in August 2017.

Iran’s broken economy remains a major weakness, yet popular protests like those at the end of 2017 are unlikely to pose a serious challenge – especially if any problems can be blamed on U.S. meddling, noted GIS founder Prince Michael in a January 2018 statement. Paradoxically, “a more helpful approach would be more trade and negotiations with Tehran,” he concluded.

5. Israel’s war

Professionals think that a war between Israel and Hezbollah is growing more likely and may be impossible to avoid, even though neither side wants it, GIS expert Zvi Mazel noted in a February 2018 report. It could be an accidental escalation, much as happened during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War.

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are increasingly considering the option of a preemptive “War in the North,” according to Professor Amatzia Baram in an April 2018 report for GIS. Israel is aware that Hezbollah’s expanding rocket and missile arsenal could temporarily overwhelm its defenses – and that is before the deployment of longer-range, precision-guided missiles that Iran is developing.

There is plenty of potential for collateral damage and subsequent escalation, as recent Israeli air strikes at Syrian government, Iranian and Hezbollah targets have indicated. Potential casualties would include Russian personnel attached to Syrian air defense and ground units, along with volunteers from Iranian-backed Shia militias from Iraq.

Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal and its range to targets in Israel
Most of Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal is short-range, but scores or even hundreds of more advanced Iranian-supplied missiles could potentially strike deep into Israel (source: maxpizzel for GIS)

Another consideration is that many Israeli commanders believe it makes no sense to fight a limited war, which would prove more protracted and produce more international fallout against Israel, without decisive results. The alternative would be a massive strike at Iranian and Hezbollah positions, along with civilian infrastructure throughout Lebanon. The goal would be to convince the Lebanese government that its toleration of Hezbollah’s stronghold in the south is not tenable. However, as of early April 2018, Professor Baram concluded that “a first strike does not seem imminent.”

Nevertheless, many Israeli red lines have been crossed. Iran has become a de facto military neighbor, as Bernard Siman noted in a February 2018 report. Iranian ground forces are within the 50-kilometer exclusion zone near the Golan Heights and the Jordanian border. Shipments of sophisticated Iranian weapons have been identified and destroyed. If a conflict gets started in the “triangle-shaped space south of Damascus,” it would probably spread, Mr. Siman noted in January 2018:

Given Israel’s strategic capabilities, it should not be assumed that an armed conflict in southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights region would remain local in scope. The Israelis could act against Iran even from the waters of the Gulf, through use of submarine-launched cruise missiles. A conflict of this magnitude would be something very new to the Middle East.

6. What will the U.S. do?

While the U.S. has reinserted itself as “a counterforce” to Iranian expansion, it is still not clear how far the Trump administration is prepared to go. Completely ejecting Russia and Iran from their strongholds in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq may not be possible, or even desirable from Washington’s point of view. There have also been mixed signals on whether the U.S. plans to sustain its substantial armed presence on the ground in Syria (including 2,000 military advisers, by one count), or whether it will stand by its Syrian Kurdish allies now that Daesh has been defeated.

For all of President Trump’s determination to show there’s “a new sheriff in town,” there is still a strong logic for the U.S. to let the “Astana Process” – peace talks sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey – supplant the ineffective “Geneva Process,” sponsored by the U.S. and the United Nations. Going this route would revert to early hopes that “the U.S. and Russia would get together, find a solution and impose it on their respective allies,” as Ambassador Zvi Mazel noted in a May 2017 report.

Map of areas controlled by various factions in Syria in early 2018
As the area controlled by Daesh continued to shrink in the first months of 2018, the Syrian government and Iranian-backed forces, Kurdish troops supported by the U.S., and the Turkish Army have all moved in (source: macpixxel for GIS)

Another complicating factor is the U.S.’s growing divergence from Europe. The most dramatic instance has been German and French efforts to keep President Trump in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and to carry on even if the Americans withdraw. Other differences abound – on the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, or on French weapons sales to Egypt. Despite U.S.-British-French cooperation on retaliatory air strikes following the April 7 chemical attack on Douma, Syria, there is an increasing chance that the U.S. and Europe could back different horses in the Middle East. This only adds to fragmentation and increases the potential for a general conflict.

7. Talking Turkey

Turkish military intervention in northern Syria expanded with the seizure of Afrin, a major Syrian Kurdish population center, in March 2018. But despite signs of a neo-Ottoman push for regional influence, including military bases and leasing rights in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, these aspirations suffer from internal conflicts and are also defensive, driven by internal security concerns.

As Dr. Udo Steinbach noted in a June 2017 report, Turkey’s ambition to lead the Sunni countries of the Middle East puts it on a collision course with Iran, despite their tactical cooperation in Syria. “Confessional differences make it difficult for Ankara to accept the strengthening of Iran’s position in Syria and Iraq, which it perceives as an expansion of the Shia variant of Islam.”

“In Syria, Turkey’s top priority is no longer regime change,” Dr. Steinbach wrote in May 2018.

Instead, Ankara is doing everything in its power to keep the Kurds from being in the position to establish an autonomous state, on the grounds that it would set a dangerous precedent for the Kurdish minority in Turkey. The incursion of Turkish troops into Afrin, widely deemed a violation of international law, is a clear sign of Ankara’s determination to serve Turkish interests wherever it sees fit – even if that flies in the face of the international community’s objections.

Nevertheless, for all its anti-American posturing, Dr. Steinbach concludes that the Turkish government will not bolt the NATO alliance – the inevitable result of any clash with the U.S. in Syria. Instead, Turkey is looking to defend its core security interests – including in the Horn of Africa and the Persian Gulf. The Syrian intervention was a question of long-term security, noted Prince Michael in a February 2018 statement.

Russian troops parade at air base in Syria
Dec. 11, 2017: Russian troops parade in front of President Vladimir Putin and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad at the Khmeimin air base near Latakia, Syria (source: dpa)

8. Staying alive

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be winning, but he doesn’t look strong. His forces in the field are utterly dependent on Hezbollah and Iranian shock troops and Russian air support. Both Tehran and Moscow treat him instrumentally, and he must suspect that Russian President Vladimir Putin might toss him aside for the right deal – even with President Trump and the U.S.

For all that, letting the government in Damascus regain control of the country may be the only way to end the killing – especially if Mr. Assad is willing to cut a deal with the Kurds. The most likely resolution would involve a tripartite agreement of regional powers – Turkey, Iran and Russia – without Western involvement, Prince Michael pointed out in an April 2018 statement. This “triumph of realpolitik” would have its advantages – improving U.S.-Turkish relations by removing the possibility of “a potential standoff between two NATO partners.”

The terrible truth is that for the U.S., Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, geopolitically, peace in Syria while maintaining the Assad regime is detrimental. However, in the existing constellation, peace can only be achieved with Syria’s present government.

9. Russia’s constraints

Russia has played a winning hand in the Middle East, establishing a solid military base in Syria and arbitraging its position on the oil markets to win influence with Iran and Saudi Arabia alike, as Mr. Siman noted in January 2018.

Yet for all its tactical prowess, the Kremlin has a strong sense of its economic and political limitations, and even a feeling of long-term strategic pessimism. Russia doesn’t have the resources to help its allies rebuild (Syria) or modernize (Egypt), except in a few areas such as nuclear power. Its finances are so stretched that President Putin has repeatedly announced that the military commitment in Syria would be scaled down. Even when an elite detachment of its military contractors got slaughtered in a U.S. air strike, the Kremlin didn’t make a peep.

This ambivalence extends to a possible confrontation between Iran and Israel, which Russia may be anxious to avoid. Limited sparring is useful to give Moscow information about cutting-edge Western weapons and tactics, but it has no desire to get caught in the crossfire. The Russians are also unenthusiastic about Iranian expansion. “Moscow has no interest in having Iranian naval or air bases near its own at Tartus and Khmeimin,” noted Professor Baram in a December 2017 report.

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