What is Next for Syria?

By Alexander Clark, ’19

Since 2011, the Syrian Civil War has been analyzed as an ongoing and inconclusive conflict. Many observers took for granted that the conflict would never reach any sort of peace settlement or end. However, recent developments have fundamentally shifted the reality of the conflict. In the medium-term, the Syrian Civil War will in fact come to an end with the Assad regime intact. The key questions going forward pertain to how the ending of this conflict will shape the future of the region.

What key events led to the near-certainty of an Assad victory in Syria? In short, the decisions of third-party major powers were pivotal in determining the balance of power in the conflict.

In the Fall of 2015, Russia launched airstrikes in Syria as an ally of Assad and a foe against the rebels in the conflict. The anti-Assad forces which initially made major gains saw much of their progress reversed in the ensuing months. By the end of the year, the Syrian army recaptured the country’s third-largest city, Homs. By the end of the following year, the four-year siege of Aleppo culminated in victory for Syria, Russia and their other allies including the Shia militia of Hezbollah and Iran. Aleppo was the last city in Syria that the Rebel opposition controlled.

Perhaps more significant than the Russian intervention has been the extremely recent, albeit somewhat unnoticed shift in US foreign policy prerogatives in Syria. Throughout the Syrian Civil War, the Obama administration harshly criticized the Russian role in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry referred to Syria and Russia’s role in the siege of Aleppo as “savage brutality.” President Obama and his officials also made numerous statements calling for Assad’s removal from power.

In early March, a somewhat unnoticed albeit highly consequential dialogue began between the Russians and Americans regarding Syria. U.S Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford met with Valery Gerasimov and Hulusi Akar, his Russian and Turkish counterparts respectively in Atalya, Turkey. They discussed ongoing developments particularly relating to the Syrian town of Manbij. All three powers shared a common concern regarding a confluence of too many forces and interests within a such a small region. Indeed, Russian and US forces have never been within walking distance of one another throughout the conflict. At the same time, the US has not put forth a major objection to Syria and Russia’s presence in the town. In fact, both the US and Russia have developed a common interest in protecting the town’s Kurdish population from clashes with Turkey.

This meeting may seem insignificant; however, it marks a major departure from the previous frosty relations between the two powers regarding the Syrian conflict. This meeting suggests a legitimacy bestowed upon Russia’s presence on behalf of the US. Of course, foreign policy developments are never subject to certainty and a regression to previous tensions is possible. At the same time, the new outlook in Manbij is part of a wider trend throughout the conflict.

By the end of February, the United States launched airstrikes on ISIS positions in the Ancient Syrian City of Palmyra as co-belligerents with Russia, Syria and Hezbollah. No official co-ordination between these power blocs took place. At the same time, the precedence of such a development cannot be understated. Traditionally, the US has restrained itself from playing an active role in direct engagements between Syria and ISIS. In short, this new stage of the Syrian Civil War represents an American acceptance of a competing power bloc. By no means has any sort of official alliance developed. At the same time, this state of affairs was unthinkable in 2015.

This new rapprochement is taking place in the context of both an increasing US role in the Syrian conflict and the declining position of all assorted factions opposed to Assad’s government. In early March, an expeditionary force of US marines landed in Syria armed with heavy artillery to lay siege to the ISIS capital of Raqqa. This deployment marks an increase in how the US saw its traditional role in the conflict. ISIS cannot effectively operate and survive without this city, its capital.

The questions regarding Syria need to shift away from factors such as ISIS or regime change in Damascus. Bashar Al Assad is in a far stronger position relative to merely three years ago and ISIS is on a course to not effectively hold territory in Syria. By no means should Syria be ignored as this new stage in the conflict presents both predictable and unforeseen consequences of tension. How would Assad react to a large contingent of US ground forces in his country? Is the detente we witnessed in Atalya between Russia and the US short-lived and inconsequential? In the road to Raqqa will the US give a cold shoulder to its NATO ally Turkey in favor of the emboldened Kurds as it did in Manbij? Syria today is a limited space contested by complex and evolving foreign interests. As the Syrian Civil War enters its final stages, the groundwork for a conflicted piece has begun to take shape.

 

Sources

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-03-07/russia-turkey-u-s-hold-military-talks-amid-syria-standoff

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-syria-civil-war-bashar-al-assad-raqqa-manbij-turkey-russia-us-coalition-a7614706.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/us-marine-corps-syria-raqqa-isis-stronghold-assault-attack-donald-trump-islamic-state-a7620236.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2017/03/08/marines-have-arrived-in-syria-to-fire-artillery-in-the-fight-for-raqqa/?utm_term=.94bd66615e9e

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/03/06/us-russian-troops-patrol-neighboring-villages-syria/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/pentagon-plan-to-seize-raqqa-calls-for-significant-increase-in-us-participation/2017/03/04/d3205386-00f3-11e7-8f41-ea6ed597e4ca_story.html?utm_term=.4bb3e0415ea4

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/syrian-army-retakes-the-ancient-city-of-palmyra-from-the-islamic-state/2017/03/02/fe770c78-ff63-11e6-9b78-824ccab94435_story.html?utm_term=.bc1c6d453a85

http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-battle-for-aleppo-syrias-stalingrad-ends

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/08/19/five-reasons-why-syrian-civil-war-wont-end-anytime-soon/89002928/

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-14703995

http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/30/politics/russia-syria-airstrikes-isis/

https://www.wsj.com/articles/obama-says-syrian-leader-bashar-al-assad-must-go-1447925671

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/aleppo-syria-battle-advance-russia-bombing-war-crimes-uk-on-wrong-side-of-history-ambassador-a7477536.html

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