Inching Toward the End of the Conflict in Syria

By: Hilal Khashan

Starting a protracted conflict is much easier than ending it. That’s especially true when the regime in question is callous and fossilized and foreign countries are waiting for an opportunity to take advantage of a deteriorating situation. These two factors explain how the brutal armed conflict in Syria got underway. Before his death in 2000, Hafez Assad entrusted select members of his old guard with shoring up the safety of the future regime of his politically inexperienced son, Bashar Assad.

Instead of applying Hafez's Machiavellian approach in addressing a seemingly spontaneous and innocuous protest movement, the old guard recommended heavy-handed action. The regime's use of excessive coercive force militarized the uprising and invited foreign intervention – from Iran, to rescue the younger Assad, and Saudi Arabia, to bring Iran down and prevent the formation of the Shiite Crescent (that is, Iran’s overland route to the Mediterranean).

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Syrian army defectors established the Free Syrian Army, with the goal of bringing down their former commander in chief. But as uncoordinated material support from outside militaries flowed to rebel groups, jihadist militias arose in Syria’s overwhelmingly religious society.

Syria, a Geopolitical Chessboard

The United States did not seek to overthrow Assad's regime, despite what people may think. (This was borne out, in particular, when the Obama administration failed to punish the regime for crossing the notorious “red line” of using chemical weapons against the Syrian people.)

Rather, the CIA’s 2013 program was aimed at supporting the FSA against radical Islamic movements, such as the Nusra Front. But when the program proved ineffective, Langley terminated it in 2017 and recognized Russia's leading role in defeating jihadism in Syria and restraining Iran’s burgeoning power.

Russia, in partnership with the Syrian air force, had already begun in 2015 a systematic air campaign to support Assad’s army, which, despite massive backing by Iran and its multinational Shiite militias, had been forced into retreat. Russia also intended to help rebuild the Syrian state.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan abandoned the core demands of Syrian rebels in favor of establishing a safe zone despite American, Russian and Iranian reservations. While moderating Turkish ambitions, clearly with tacit U.S. backing, Russia seems determined to rein in Iran’s influence in Syria.

Foreign power players share a desire to prevent Iran from extending its territorial control in eastern Syria and filling the vacuum caused by the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from the area. Russia has been keen to recruit young Syrians away from Iran; it invested in the formation of the Fifth Assault Corps that reports directly to Russian officers, and whose 50,000 members come from pro-regime groups and elements of the defunct Free Syrian Army.

Russia is also expanding its Hmeimim air base and naval facility in Tartus. Russia deployed FAC units last year in southwestern Syria and near the cease-fire line in the Golan Heights after reaching an understanding with the U.S. and Israel. Iran demonstrated its anger at Russian efforts to weaken its influence on the government in Damascus by ordering its Shiite militia allies to refrain from participating in the battle for Idlib in June, which rendered it an unnecessary war of attrition.

Contrary to media reports that Islamic militants sought to attack Russia’s Hmeimim air base near Latakia, the truth is that the Iranian-created 313th Battalion in Qardaha, the Assad family's hometown, sent drones to fly over the base only for harassment. The Russians ordered the Syrian regime to disband this battalion after implicating it in launching drones.

Competition between Russia and Iran in Syria goes beyond military influence on the ground to economic supremacy. Russia has a competitive advantage over Iran in winning big reconstruction projects. Russian President Vladimir Putin angered the Iranians when he negotiated to grant Russian businesses the lion’s share of postwar projects in return for propping up Assad’s regime. Assad is unhappy about Iranian attempts to control the centers of decision-making in Syria. He prefers to work with Russia because Moscow wants to be a junior partner, whereas Tehran wants to be the dominant partner.

Assad also understands that the United States, Russia and Israel have decided to disallow Iran's permanent presence in Syria. Russia has concerns that Iran will be an obstacle to its long-term economic interests in Syria. The Russians reason that Syria will emerge from the devastating civil war as a fragile state. Putin does not want to have rivals in determining Syria’s domestic and foreign policy, and he made this point clear to Assad before committing himself to rescuing Syrian regime.

Russia understands Syrian sectarian and ethnic sensitivities, and, unlike Iran, which promotes a strictly religious agenda, it has no reservations about dealing with the country's diverse groups. When Moscow secured the withdrawal of Islamist rebels from Greater Damascus last year, it used Chechen military police officers to communicate with them. The Russians want to work with an able Syrian government and avoid getting stuck there, whereas the Iranians prefer to work with a lackey administration.

The crippling sanctions against Iran curtail its ability to preserve its achievements in Syria. The eventual readmission of Syria to the Arab League, which Assad is eager to realize, threatens to distance its regime from Iran.

The cost of staying in Syria is high and useless. In addition to business opportunities in Syria, Putin is more interested in flexing military muscle to project the surge of Russian military might and win concessions in Europe. The Russian public sees no strategic reason to squander scarce resources on such a volatile country, while poverty-stricken Iranians are unable to comprehend their mullahs' ideological drive in Syria. In terms of articulating their Syrian policy, Russia is pragmatic, while Iran is dogmatic. Thanks to Russian mediation, there is increasing evidence that Turkey is willing to work with the Syrian government whose forces, even if token, are positioning themselves in specific border posts. The release of 18 Syrian soldiers recently arrested by the Turkish army, despite Assad's anti-Turkish rhetoric, points in that direction. Erdogan had to shelve his ambitions to overthrow Assad's regime and install a pro-Turkish government in Damascus. He's now resigned to the establishment of a safe zone along the Syrian border under strict American and Russian surveillance after halting Operation Peace Spring.

Iran’s heavy involvement in the Syrian conflict generated the false impression that its influence there has become paramount. This claim is far from reality. Iran faces a fundamental weakness in determining the future of Syria, mainly because of its overbearing political style and the small size of Syria’s Shiite community. Shiite proselytization is not as widespread as the Iranians think it should be, since Sunnis have an aversion to it and Alawites disfavor it. Despite Iran's best efforts, there are less than 300,000 Syrians who follow Twelver Shiite Islam – the branch of Shiite Islam favored by Iran. Even though Iran founded Syrian Shiite militias (such as Imam al-Rida Forces in Homs and al-Baqir Brigade in Aleppo), the main forces commanded by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are Iraqi and Afghan Shiites.

Postwar Syria

No matter what shape postwar Syria takes, the country will look different than what it was before 2011. Nearly 600,000 Syrians have lost their lives, and more than half of the country’s population of 21 million on the eve of the uprising have been displaced, both internally and externally. Even though Assad escaped the fate of other presidents in the countries of the Arab Spring uprisings, he did not win the war; in fact, he is the biggest loser in the battle for Syria.

Syria is economically devastated, and he is presiding over a shattered country, whose cost of reconstruction could reach a staggering $1 trillion. (For reference, Syria’s gross domestic product in 2010, just before the war, was about $60 billion.) It is doubtful whether reconstruction can occur in Syria's massively corrupt business and bureaucratic environment. Postwar reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Lebanon do not bode well for Syria.

The regime lost critical oil and water resources and the fertile agricultural areas of northeastern Syria. Iran’s IRGC and Russian forces control the command structure of most Syrian military and security formations, and the Turks established their much-sought security belt to prevent the Kurds on both sides of the border from linking up. The perceived Kurdish threat remains a top priority for Turkey and a stable determinant of its foreign policy choices.

The ongoing understandings among the major actors in Syria, be they bilateral or multilateral, are setting the stage for military action in Idlib, the site of the last major battle in the Syrian armed conflict. Syria's march toward the final settlement of its conflict will commence only then. One must not assume that Iran's presence there is about to end. It will not, but its scale would not live up to the expectations of Iran's conservative ruling elite. Unlike Iran’s sway over Iraqi politics, Syria is reemerging as an arena of inconclusive regional competition.

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