10 September 2019

Syria – too many pieces on the small chessboard

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

In mid-June 2019, Syria is a country which has neither peace, nor war. President Assad regained control over more than two thirds of the country’s territory, but the integration of regions still in the hands of the Jihadist opposition, Turkish-backed rebels and Kurds seems harder to achieve than conquering the famous bastions of the Syrian revolutionary opposition in Daraa, East Damascus, Aleppo and Homs. The country’s territory is home, for a medium, long or indefinite term, to military bases of Russia, Iran, the US, Turkey, the UK and France. Competing administrations function simultaneously inside the country, while outside of it, competing Arab diplomacies and others are coming back to face each other in Damascus. The country’s reconstruction was placed on stand-by, but the personnel shuffle continues at the presidential palace. Pieces are moved and transformed when they advance.

Image source: Mediafax

Assad won. For the moment, because he did not lose

Although the Damascus regime’s propaganda machine presents President Assad as the triumphant winner of Syria’s internal conflict, the reality on the ground is not as enthusiastic. There are four different administrations currently functioning in the country, each making independent economic, political and military decisions. Most of the institutions of a functional state are amassed in Damascus, which also the centre which commands approximately 70% of the population left in Syria. But in Idlib, 10% of Syrians are taught that the objective for their resistance and existence is the Jihad, in territories under the control of opposition forces supported by Turkey, approximately 10% of the country’s territory and 5% of its population, where the Ottoman past is brought back to life and the sun rises in the north.  At the same time, in Rojava and Syria’s sandy east, the Kurds are promoting an egalitarian society, after the model initiated by the “Uncle”, Abdullah Ocalan, in his 19 year of exile in this area.

Therefore, though the portraits of President Assad on Damascus billboards have “If Syria’s sand could talk, it would say Bashar al-Assad” written underneath them, there is still a long road until the moment in which the entirety of Syria could have at least a common voice.

And while exchanges between Damascus and a part of the rest of Syria is still reduced to artillery strikes and reciprocal accusation through American and European chancelleries, the international community itself is also not united and does not have a common stance on Syria’s issues, some self-caused, others produced especially with the help of many states and regimes in the region, from other areas or from other history books. And the problems are not few:

  • the return of refugees, at least a part of those from neighbouring countries, while the others have already settled in Germany;
  • the country’s rebuild, which according to a 2016 World Bank estimate would cost USD450 billion if the war were to end the following year, in 2017. We are in 2019, and a new estimate points to USD780 billion if the war will end in 2021. And if doesn’t then either… it’s better not to do guesswork;
  • how sanctions should work for a country in urgent need of foreign aid;
  • how to restart international dialogue with a regime which has, after all, resisted to an eight-year civil conflict and maintains a forced stability in a space with potential deadly threats for Europe’s eastern, south-eastern and southern borders.

Assad won. The approximately 40,000 to 60,000 armed jihadists in the enclave of Idlib also need to be convinced of this, half of which are members of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, affiliated with Al-Qaeda. There is also a detail of several thousand opposition fighters in Afrin canton and in Northern Aleppo, backed by Turkey, which is still threateningly waving the olive branch towards Damascus. There are also the 60,000 – 70,000 fighters in the Syrian Democratic Forces, which control approximately 30% of Syria’s territory, mostly desert, but rich in black gold. And there are also about 1,000 to 2,000 US troops – the number could drop to 400 after the redeployment announced by President Trump – who will be joined, however, by British and French contingents which will double, at least, this number. Germany has said “nein”, for the moment, to the American request for support, but Berlin could be convinced by further armed attacks made by groups loyal to the “Islamic state”.

So that things become even more complicated for Assad, a series of analyst are already equivalating the situation in Idlib with the one in the Gaza Strip, an enclave in which contact with the outside world is restricted and which functions with its own institutions, radicalized by conditions of siege, with a potential to further tensions in neighbouring regions.

Everyone is withdrawing, but no one is leaving

President Trump’s abrupt decision in December 2018 to withdraw US forces from Syria was followed by long and complicated negotiations for this to not take place immediately, to take place at a lower scale than initially announced and, generally, to not take place at all. Of all those in favour of maintaining US troops in the region, probably the most articulated was Israeli PM Netanyahu who, as a better specialist in trans-border geography, explained to the US president that under the Kurdish territory in northern Syria, cut by Turkey in January-March 2018, there is also an Iranian one, encompassing the deserts and central Iraq, eastern Syria and up until the salty breeze of the Mediterranean. And the US troops are the only ones that can monitor and, eventually, block traffic on this corridor which feeds Israel’s worst fears.

The withdrawal was thus transformed into a rescaling of forces, with US troops having already decreased in number from 2,000 to 1,000 in half a year, and could reach 400 in autumn 2020. But they will be joined by approximately 400 British and French troops, and potential others from states which will contribute with lower contingents, so that the decrease will be minimal in the end, the presence of foreign forces will be carried out within a renewed coalition.

“Redeployments” are also taking place in the contingents sent by Russia, Turkey, and Iran but, as they are not transparent, it is harder to assess regional presence and proportions. The result of international presence on Syria’s territory, with or without Damascus’ will, is a mosaic of frontlines and conflict alignments, either military or only political-diplomatic, which extend on the entirety of the country’s territory: between the regime and the opposition, between Arabs and Kurds, between the opposition and Kurds, between the Turkish-backed opposition and the one trained by the US, between the US and Iran, between Russia and Iran, between the regime and anyone else.

There are no funds for the reconstruction. We will make a restructuring instead

After the war, if it will ever truly end, the next step would usually be the reconstruction. According to initial assessments, this would cost hundred of billions of dollars for Syria. But the war is not even over yet, and these billions do not exist either. If foreign aid would come in at the highest level recorded at this moment, in the case of Afghanistan, 50 years would be needed to reconstruct Syria, according to a report by German analysis website qantara.de. The two million homes destroyed by the war would require 25 million tons of cements and five million tons of iron, every year, for ten years. It is only a calculation, perhaps exaggerated, because it comes from one the Damascus regime’s critics.

But the essence of this calculation is correct. The sponsors of the reconstruction in Afghanistan, the great donors, are not present for the case of Syria. Arab states which will want a reconciliation with the regime are reopening only diplomatic representations, not their wallets. Those who offer funds, without conditioning Damascus, the US and some European states, are guiding them, however, to Kurdish-controlled areas. And those who condition, especially Russia, are not very solvable at home.

So, in this case, Assad returns to the old Arab proverb which in English sounds somethings like this: Act as if you would trust people. But don’t! The restructuring of the security apparatus, recently announced on July 8, 2019, is the most important one from the past seven years. The previous one, in 2012, was the result of a devastating attack on the military intelligence services command and resulted in the death of numerous officials from the country’s military leadership, intelligence services and the structures of the Baath Party. Part of those who were appointed back then were replaced in this years’ restructuring. Maybe the most important appointment is that Gen. Ali Mamlouk, a former chief of the National Security Office, coordinator of Syrian information and security services, who was appointed vice-president on security issues. Gen. Mamlouk is the one who, in a period of diplomatic interdiction for the regime, maintained communication channels open with a part of the capitals of other states, not only Arab, who accepted to enter negotiations only on back or lateral entrances.

The restructuring is also seen as an expression of disputes between Russia and Iran which, through loyal people surrounding President Assad, are ensuring themselves an increased influence in Damascus. A lot of times, these appointments are seen as power plays, with many supporting scenarios, especially when they are made simultaneously and in key state offices. They could also be, however, the result of a linear evolution, to refresh some government structures following the wear and tear of so many years of war. And the moment of the restructuring is also in line with the Damascus regime’s bi-yearly calendar of institutional promotions, usually made in January and July.

It is certain enough, however, that President Assad must take into account when making these promotions that Russia is cooperating better with Syrian military structures commanded by Gen. Souhail al-Hassan, the creator of the “Tiger” special forces, and with the 5th Volunteer Corps, instructed by the Russian troops. At the same time, Iran is more closely cooperating with Gen. Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother and commander of the Republican Guard, or with the 4th Elite Division of this great unit, which is almost entirely composed of Alawites from the Latakia Governorate.

The balance between the two sides must be maintained also through these promotions and restructurings. The regime cannot allow to distance itself from its few foreign supporters, and encouraging their reciprocal surveillance also assures it of a certain leeway.

Too many chess pieces, and the sultan wants to be king

And President Assad’s problems, and by extension Syria’s, do not stop here. Two of the countries three interior administrations which are outside of Damascus’ control are depending on Turkey’s support:

  1. The enclave of Idlib is backed, for humanitarian reasons – according to Ankara’ rhetoric – to function even as jihadists are making the law within and are threatening with foreign actions. The status quo in this region cannot function, however, indefinitely, because neither does Turkey hold any special interests in a region populated by Arabs, neither is Russia content with having the Latakia military airbase in the strike range of the Syrian opposition’s drones, neither can Damascus tolerate an independent and concurrent rebel authority for too long. And the two to three millions of residents, half of which come from the rest of Syria, also do not want to repeat the misery of another enclave, Gaza, which is as well under jihadist control;
  2. The Afrin Canton and a part of northern Aleppo, areas with a powerful Kurdish presence but where Turkey’s control is exerted through armed opposition groups, mostly Arab and Turkmen. Damascus does not have the force to intervene, and does not even attempt airstrikes like those it used in Idlib, for fear of Turkish retaliation, and the Kurds are also acting as they can, under the form of low-intensity guerrilla. which also insidiously grinds the local institutional construct made by Ankara and sends coffins draped in the Turkish flag each week through the border.

Some time ago, several years before the war, Assad and Erdogan were “brothers” and were making family visits to each other. After the war began, Assad became the “dictator who must go”, and Erdogan “the model to follow for political Islamism”. Ankara’s road to the Arab world does not go through Syria, but the Turkish model, created on the “Muslim Brotherhood’s” principles, is not accepted neither in Cairo, nor Riyadh, Manama or Abu Dhabi. Turkey wants to come back to the region, a kind of reintegration through domination, but most of the Arab states are satisfied by the current situation and are trying, by re-establishing contacts with Assad, to block this attempt from Ankara.

Therefore, Damascus has rebecome what it once was, a crossway for worlds and roads, where debts are paid in blood, where histories are repeating, where the price is always paid by those without a country.

Mid-July 2019, in Syria.

Translated by Ionut Preda