In fragmented Syria, the battle for control escalates

Fighting in Syria has entered a new phase, with regional and world powers hoping to secure a long-term economic and military presence. Russia cannot reconstruct the country on its own, while China has shown a sudden willingness to play a more active role in Syria’s future.

A joint Russian-Turkish military patrol in Idlib, Syria Syria’s civil war
Russian Turkish military units have cooperated in joint patrols in Syria. Through its outposts, Moscow has established access to the Mediterranean and a launchpad against NATO forces in the region, achievements it will not be eager to relinquish. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Russia and Turkey seek new long-term footholds in Syria
  • With limited aims, U.S. influence has weakened
  • The Iran nuclear talks loom over the region

Fighting in Syria has entered a new phase. From a bloody civil war that began in 2011 (and is not quite over), it has morphed into a war for the control of the country. The foreign powers involved in that first phase now want to turn their successes in the field into a long-term economic and military presence.

They still hold sway over significant parts of the country. It is estimated that at least half of the deeply traumatized population has been directly affected by the conflict, which has taken a major toll on the economy. Massive international help will be needed to assist its recovery – one not likely to be implemented as long as Bashar al-Assad, the man who is seen as responsible for the catastrophic situation, remains in power. However, he has just been reelected president for the fourth time, even if the West does not recognize the result. There does not appear to be anyone in the position to challenge the Syrian ruler.

The principal players in this new game are Russia and Iran, which saved Assad’s regime from annihilation; and Turkey, whose army has taken over part of Kurdish-populated northern Syria, ostensibly to protect its border against “rebel organizations.” Ankara is helped by Syrian Islamic militias that serve at its bidding. 

There are other, lesser players, too. The once-powerful Daesh is greatly diminished but still controls small areas in the Deir ez-Zor desert and harasses civilian populations. In the northwest, near Aleppo, the city of Idlib – with a million and a half inhabitants in an area of 6,000 square kilometers – is held by Syrian rebel militias, the largest of which is the al Qaeda-aligned Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.

Further north, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) military wing of the Kurdish minority set up with support from the United States to fight Daesh, defeated the terror organization and established the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES, also known as Rojava). Now, it commands about 30 percent of Syrian territory along the border of Turkey and part of the Iraqi border. They hope their de facto autonomy and perhaps independence will be recognized by the Americans and the international community.

Setting goals

In the face of this complex situation, successive U.S. administrations have been unable to formulate a coherent policy regarding Syria and to act upon it. China, which had refrained from intervening, is suddenly signaling its readiness to help rebuild the country. It is far better equipped financially and technologically to do so than Russia, Iran or Turkey. First contacts were made during the July 18, 2021, visit of the Chinese foreign minister to Damascus, where he held talks with President Assad. Russia has taken a dominant position in Syria on the strength of a 2015 agreement signed by the two countries. Its military police units still patrol the country, dealing with terror attacks and civil disorders, and demonstrating to other foreign forces that they are in control. The Russian Air Force supervises from above, ready to act wherever needed.

Massive international help will be needed to assist Syria’s recovery, one not likely to be implemented with Mr. Assad in power.

Moscow has achieved its goals. Assad knows that he owes it his survival and that Russia defends his interests in the United Nations. Russia is actively engaged in restoring his legitimacy, while the U.S. and the West continue to accuse him of massive human rights abuses and the destruction of the country, seeking his ouster. According to the UN Security Council resolution 2165, adopted in 2014, all humanitarian help to Syria is to enter the country through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey. It was due for renewal in July 2021, but Russia demanded that aid be henceforth transferred through the Assad regime to reinforce its legitimacy. The move was opposed by Washington, which won the day by promising an additional $436 million for needy families in Syria and Syrian refugee communities in neighboring states.

Western countries now provide 90 percent of all international assistance coming to Syria. Unanimously adopting resolution 2585 (2021), the 15-member Security Council extended its previous authorization of the Bab al-Hawa for a further six months, renewable one more time. Moscow will undoubtedly try again; Russian firms have signed several contracts with the Syrian government regarding gas exploration and exploitation, and they are also interested in real estate. However, Moscow alone will not be able to tackle the task of reconstructing the country. 

Nevertheless, it has entrenched itself through its two military outposts, Khmeimim Air Base and the naval facility in Tartus in the Latakia Governorate. From there, it can intervene in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea and against NATO forces in the region. Last year, the runways were extended and adapted for the use of large, heavy aircraft. Moscow has now achieved its long-term goal of having a significant military presence beyond the Black Sea, the Dardanelles and the Bosporus – with complete freedom of movement on the open seas. It has no intent to give up that achievement.

Regional ambitions

Iran, the other partner in Mr. Assad’s survival, has wholly different ambitions. Tehran sees Syria as a forward asset in its aspirations to impose a Shia supremacy in the region and as a base for attacking and ultimately destroying Israel. That is why it came to the rescue of the Syrian leader, entering into cooperation agreements already in 2011 and tasking its proxy Hezbollah in 2013 with assisting the regime militarily. Iran also dispatched thousands of its  Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces. However, it withdrew them at the start of Russia’s intervention. In their place entered Shia militias comprising tens of thousands of combatants trained by Iranian experts.

Spread throughout Syria, they attempt terror attacks against Israel with drones and missiles. Israel was quick to perceive the threat. Its air force targets Iranian outposts and militia encampments to prevent the creation of fully operative bases and stop the transfer of precision missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon. In the last five years, Israel is said to have carried out more than a thousand such strikes. So far, Russia had refrained from interfering and blocking the raids, which are coordinated not to endanger Russian soldiers and equipment.

The 16th round of Astana talks on Syria with delegations from Turkey, Iran and Russia on July 8, 2021 Syria’s civil war
The recent July session of the Astana Forum — set up by Russia in 2016 to coordinate with Iran and Turkey over the Syrian civil war — showed important differences between the three players, including on the transfer of humanitarian assistance. © Getty Images

There are significant civilian aspects of Tehran’s policy in Syria regarding the economy, trade, culture and religion. These help make Iran an increasingly important part of the country’s fabric, such that it would be almost impossible to dislodge it. Iran has set up cellular infrastructure, mined phosphates, and has taken over agricultural lands; a railway line connects western Iran to the Mediterranean port of Latakia through Iraq. Also, Iranian real estate firms and banks with links to the IRGC are investing in Syria. Moreover, Shia cultural and religious centers are indoctrinating Syrian youth, while Tehran has granted Iranian citizenship to several Syrian influencers and Iranian tourists flock to Shia shrines. There have been Sunni protests, but the Syrian president owes too much to his powerful ally to do anything.

Turkey‘s intervention was motivated by the success of the SDF, which defeated Daesh and took over large tracts along the Turkish border. Ankara branded those forces an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – the Kurdish party in Turkey demanding independence – which Turkey is fighting and has declared a terrorist movement, followed by the U.S. and Europe. From 2016 to 2019, Turkish soldiers, assisted by Islamic militias calling themselves the National Army of Syria, conquered territories east of the Euphrates river and in the Afrin region, in the western part of the Kurdish autonomous area. They established a local government under Turkish military supervision, while more than 200,000 civilians, most of them Kurds, fled Afrin. Turkey is now busy sending its own citizens to settle there, hoping to make its occupation permanent. 

Russia, Iran and Turkey are members of the Astana Forum set up by Russia in 2016 to coordinate their activities during the civil war. There are important differences of opinion among them, as could be seen in their July 7, 2021, meeting, relative to the mentioned earlier transfer of humanitarian assistance. There was no reference to that issue in the final communique, which stressed their commitment to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Syria – all things which appear unattainable at this stage while the three powers themselves are occupying parts of the country.

Russian efforts to restore the legitimacy of the Syrian regime are seconded by pro-western Arab states, seeing a regional danger in Turkey’s encroachment in the country and the building up of Islamic militias. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain reopened their embassies in Damascus in 2018; Oman, Kuwait and Jordan did so in 2019. As for Egypt, it had renewed diplomatic relations already in 2015 at the start of the Russian intervention and is actively trying to have Syria readmitted to the Arab League.

The view from Washington

The U.S. now fields barely 900 soldiers in Syria, 200 of them garrisoned at Al-Tanf. Situated at the south of the Syrian desert on the Jordan and Iraqi borders, the outpost commands the main highway between the Iraqi border and Damascus. Syrian rebel groups are being trained there to prevent Iran from establishing a quick and easy route to Damascus and Lebanon through Iraq. The remaining 700 U.S. soldiers are stationed in the Kurdish de facto autonomy to support the SDF. 

President Donald Trump withdrew a significant part of the force in 2019 in the wake of the fighting between Turkish troops and the SDF. Washington stated its lack of interest in local wars, but the move was seen as green-lighting the Turkish offensive against the Kurds, longtime allies of America. President Joe Biden must be aware that total withdrawal from Syria – as in Afghanistan – would lead to a further tragedy with millions of refugees seeking refuge in Europe, which nobody wants.

The U.S. is committed to bringing change to Syria following the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, sanctioning the government and the president for war crimes against the population. President Trump exempted the Delta Crescent Energy company from the sanctions, enabling it to pursue its operations in the Kurdish autonomous region. President Biden has canceled the exemption along with many of Trump’s initiatives.

Turkey’s intervention was motivated by the success of the SDF, which defeated Daesh and took over large tracts along the border.

Though the decision has no practical impact, it has further weakened U.S. influence in Syria and encouraged Iran’s belief that America will also remove its sanctions in the negotiations on a renewal of the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It also assumed that attacks on U.S. installations in Iraq by its Shia militias would hasten the withdrawal of American troops. The Biden administration is toughening its stance there but is yet to clarify its overall position, though local skirmishes might get out of hand and lead to violent clashes.



Based on information leaked to the press by anonymous U.S. policymakers, the three goals under discussion by the new administration are: preventing a resurgence of Daesh and al-Qaeda; finding an urgent solution to the Syrian crisis through the UN, and ousting pro-Iranian forces from Syria. These comprise a worthy program, should it be accepted and receive Congress’ approval. But how would it be implemented? It must, in any case, include maintaining American troops in Al-Tanf and in the north to prevent further Iranian encroachment, notably in the Kurdish autonomy, which would lead to renewed fighting. Turkey would take the opportunity to deepen its intervention there.

Will it happen? The last three American presidents – including Barack Obama (2009-2017), who reneged on his pledge to punish Mr. Assad if he again launched a chemical attack on his people – were determined to limit American involvement in the Middle East and concentrate their efforts on Russia and China, and on global warming. The new administration focuses its attention on reviving the JCPOA, some say through unilateral canceling of sanctions. Without a firm U.S. commitment to its faithful allies in the Gulf, Egypt and Israel to prevent a nuclear Iran, and without taking decisive steps on the ground in Syria – such as recognition of the Kurdish autonomous area it had helped create – the Middle East could face its worst crisis yet.

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