With the Syrian Civil war now in its seventh year—thanks to the confluence of ongoing bloodshed, sectarian tension, and foreign intervention—we now have one of the most complex tangled webs the international community has faced since the end of World War II.
With ISIS now but a shadow of what it was in 2015, the major players in the conflict are down to three: the Assad government (including supportive militias, Hezbollah, Russia, and Iran); the fractured opposition (i.e., the Free Syrian Army, Islamist militias such as Jaiesh al-Islam, and Hayet Tahrir al-Sham—all backed and supported by Turkey and Qatar); and the Kurds (backed by the United States and allied forces).
ISIS is no longer in control over any significant territory, largely has been killed off, and has been relegated to the desert outskirts of Eastern Syria. This leaves a power vacuum that the three major players will seek to fill. For now, they have solidified control over three different chunks of the nation, essentially creating three governments within Syria. Each is backed by one or another major global and regional power, and all have a stake in the Middle East’s power politics and are at odds with one another.
Assad’s Reassertion of Control
As last week, the Assad government controlled nearly 60 percent of Syrian territory. This is a major increase of territorial control from 2015 and is due largely to Russian and Iranian intervention.
With the arrival of the Trump Administration, the United States stopped backing the Islamist militia-filled opposition, and so the rebel groups’ control over territory began to fade. The Trump Administration took a clear-eyed approach to the conflict, knowing the Obama-backed Free Syrian Army had become infiltrated and taken over by Islamist militias and was not a “moderate, democracy-loving resistance” as prior administration suggested. They also knew that toppling a secular dictator like Assad would likely produce disastrous results as we saw in Iraq and Libya.
True, Assad has the backing of Iran and Hezbollah, but this has been the case ever since his father Hafez al-Assad came to power and developed a strategic alliance with the Islamic Republic to counter Israel and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Russia has also had a longstanding alliance with the Assad government dating back to 1971 when the Soviet Union opened its naval base in Tartus, which the Russian government continues to operate today.
The Trump Administration is taking a hard look at the situation and while the Russia and Iran-backed Assad government isn’t ideal, the alternative of a chaotic power vacuum between warring rebel factions would likely be far worse than maintaining the status quo. For now, the United States is focusing in arming, training, and providing logistical support to the Syrian Kurds, who have proven to be the most effective fighting force against ISIS. Additionally, the Kurds have largely avoided conflict with Assad’s forces and have even allied themselves with them in their fight against Turkish forces in northwestern Syria.
Assad’s military has reclaimed huge swaths of land from ISIS and Syrian opposition groups. The string of military victories likely will continue until his government controls the border area along the Israeli Golan Heights, Northern Homs, and a chunk of land along the Jordanian border. These areas are currently controlled by small rebel factions whose power is waning and have little to no support.
The Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan)
Whereas the Obama Administration failed to support the Syrian Kurds and instead supported the dubious Free Syrian Army, the Trump Administration has done a complete reversal by cutting support for the latter and heavily increasing support for the former. As a result, the Syrian Kurds have solidified their hold on Eastern Syria, controlling nearly 25 percent of the country’s territory and dubbing their proto-state, “Rojava.”
This has provoked the ire of Turkey, which sees the Syrian Kurds as no different than the Turkish PKK and has vowed to eliminate their control of territory along the Syria-Turkey border. That vow may prove hard to pull off, given that the United States and France have sent forces to assist the Kurds in their fight against ISIS.
The U.S. backing of the Kurds has strained our relationship Turkey, which is a NATO ally. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees Western support of the Kurds as tantamount to betrayal. It has even come to the point where Turkey has threatened to attack U.S. and French forces. While this is unlikely to happen, it’s clear that the old Cold War alliance is no more.
In the midst of all this, Assad’s forces are fighting Free Syrian Army elements and collaborating with the Kurdish forces against Turkish incursions in Northwestern Syria. Whether the détente with the Assad government holds remains to be seen. But Rojava doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.
The Turkish-Backed Northwest
The bulk of opposition fighters remain holed up along the northwest portion of the country in the Idlib Governorate and recently captured Afrin region. Our “ally” Turkey has provided weapons, training, and has even sent troops into this region to back and bolster the rebels’ position, essentially creating its own puppet state.
Many of the defeated rebels in other parts of the country have fled to this region, holing up for an eventual confrontation with Assad’s forces. The Turks concentrating their forces in the area may make it difficult for Assad to retake the region by the time he has solidified control over the other rebel territory in the country.
Like the Kurdish Rojava, the Turkish-backed rebel puppet state in the northwest looks like it will remain for the time being.
Where Does That Leave the United States?
With these three areas solidifying essentially into three distinct countries, the Trump Administration is in a bit of a Catch-22. The United States is still obliged to protect its NATO ally, yet that ally is arming and backing jihadist militant groups against Syria, and Assad is fighting against those same jihadists. The Turks are also fighting against another U.S. ally, the Kurds, who have proven to be a reliable partner in the region.
By maintaining a presence in Syrian Kurdistan, the United States would have a foothold in the region where the Kurds could act as a bulwark against Turkish and Iranian expansion. It also would allow us quickly to take out any ISIS elements before they metastasize into a larger threat.
This tangled web of regional affairs has left the United States in a precarious situation and it is a web our interests force us to remain involved with, even if only tangentially. The Trump Administration seems to be walking the fine line between Bush-style intervention and Obama-style “leading from behind,” which might be the right recipe for maintaining stability.
Photo credit: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images