Analysis |

Rival Syrian Governments Lock Horns in a Bloodless but Ruthless Battle

A patchwork quilt of governments and organizations are running the show in northern Syria where Turkey has asserted itself against the Kurds, while Russian-backed constitution talks in Geneva are going nowhere fast

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shown in handout picture from October 21, 2019 looking at a map with army officers on the edges of Idlib province.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shown in handout picture from October 21, 2019 looking at a map with army officers on the edges of Idlib province. Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

There was a small civil uprising this week in the city of Idlib in northern Syria. Residents of the city and neighboring villages went out to demonstrate, and shouted derogatory slogans against the Syrian Salvation Government running the province, called for the revocation of recent tax hikes and demanded that oil and gas be supplied to them and the corruption wiped out.

Idlib province is home to about 3 million, including tens of thousands of displaced persons from all over Syria, in addition to about 50,000 armed militiamen who arrived after the cease-fire initiated by Syria. It acts like a state within a state within a state. Most areas of Syria are now under the control of the central Syrian government but there are still many liberated areas controlled by opposition groups and rebel militias.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 47Credit: Haaretz

These are run by the “Syrian Interim Government” established back in 2013 and recognized by international institutions as representing the opposition. It is ostensibly a government in every respect. It has a prime minister, Abdurrahman Mustafa, and a large array of ministers for defense, education, trade, justice and more and its representatives participate in discussions about seeking a political solution with representatives of the Syrian government.

Separately from the interim government, in 2017 the Syrian Salvation Government was established in Idlib province, headed by Mohammed al-Sheikh. It runs the province independently and is in a constant battle for control against the interim government.

The Salvation Government is in actuality administered by Tahrir al-Sham – the Levant Liberation Organization – formerly the radical Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra, an offshoot of Al-Qaeda. Both the Interim Government and the Salvation Government operate as though they are indeed a real government.

The Salvation Government has 14 ministers and runs the civil and security affairs of Idlib Province, including courts and the education system. In order to fund its activities it has taken control of a number of border crossings between Idlib and Turkey, profiting greatly from transit imposts on passage between Turkey and Syria.

This government also collects taxes from the citizens and has a monopoly on fuel supply to the province through a subsidiary called Wattad. The double control over “liberated areas” not under the control of the central regime inevitably creates administrative conflicts that derive from the recognized Interim Government’s effort to control all the liberated areas and to depict itself as the sole representative of all the opposition movements.

One of the nodes of political conflict between the two bodies lies in their disagreement over the formulation of a new Syrian constitution to determine the character of Syria after the war. The Idlib Salvation Government is demanding that Syria become a theocracy with its laws based on the principles of Islam, whereas the Interim Government aims to establish a liberal, democratic Syrian regime that represents members of all faiths and ethnic groups, and in order to do so it is prepared to participate in the Constitution Committee alongside representatives of the Syrian regime.

Under different circumstances it might have been possible to see these two “governments” as representatives of rival ideological groups striving to implement their aspirations. However, these groups differ not only in their ideologies and principles. The heart of the struggle between them is political and economic. The interesting thing is that both these bodies support Turkey.

The Interim Government, including its defense ministry, is headquartered inside Turkey, from where it manages the affairs of “the liberated territories” inside Syria. At the same time its rival, the Salvation Government, enjoys freedom of movement into and out of Turkey and it appears that some of the militias that make up this government are receiving financial aid from Turkey and Qatar.

From the opposite side, Syria and Russia view this government as a non-representative, terrorist body, or at least one that relies on terrorist organizations. Though in an agreement with Russia, Turkey has committed itself to removing heavy weaponry from the hands of rebels living in Idlib, it is also committed to maintaining good relations with the Idlib government that is ensuring Turkey an important stronghold of influence in the country, and a means by which it hopes to shape a political solution in Syria.

In addition to the Idlib government, Turkey also has another important source of support in Syria, which is the so-called Syrian National Army, a recently created consortium of militias, the largest and most important of which is the Free Syrian Army, the first rebel militia established in Syria when the rebellion broke out. It is made up mostly of defectors from the Syrian army. The National Army, with generous funding from Turkey, is subordinate both to Turkey and the Interim Government and it is commanded by the defense minister of that government, General Salim Idris.

People look at a destroyed house near the village of Barisha, in Idlib province, Syria, Oct. 27, 2019, after an operation by the U.S. military that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Credit: AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed

In an interview with the Turkish news agency Anadolu in October, Idris compared the Kurdish forces to Islamic State and defined them as a terrorist organization that must be eliminated. Idris, 62, speaks five languages and holds a Ph.D. in “electronic radars” from Germany. He was formerly a top general in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army, from which he defected in 2012. He said in the interview that “our interests overlap those of our Turkish brothers.” Additionally, Idris considers Russia an enemy state that is operating in cahoots with the United States and Israel in order to preserve the dictatorial regime in Syria.

“Putin,” he said, “considers himself to be the one who is controlling this issue” – that is, the diplomatic moves Russia has initiated in Syria – “but he does not know that we know that he is an emissary of the United States, which is taking its orders from Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu wants to leave Bashar Assad on his throne because he and his father were and are the guardians of Israel’s borders. We must be cautious in reading Russia’s diplomatic move, which is encapsulated in the formulation of the new constitution. Here the president does not honor the constitution.”

Idris and his national army apparently understand that the diplomatic game in Syria is being played above their heads and that they are merely pawns in that game. However, they also know that their dependence on Turkey leaves them no alternative but to obey the orders handed down by Turkey, which is itself required to coordinate its activities with Russia.

The question of the formulation of the constitution is indeed at the focus of the diplomatic talks taking place in Geneva but it is best not to hold our breath in anticipation of any political outcomes. The 150 delegates in Geneva, a third of them from the government, a third from the opposition and a third from civil organizations, are members of the Constitutional Formulation Council. The council includes a 45-member constitution committee charged with formulating proposals.

The first day of the discussions last month was devoted in its entirety to the behavior protocol for its members, a kind of etiquette guide that includes instructions prohibiting altercations, cursing and hostilities among delegates. By the second day, delegates were already hurling accusations at each other, and a number of them, mostly from the opposition, did not show up for some of the sessions.

Assad is keeping his hands off the committee’s discussions while employing original semantics. He is calling the representatives of his government “delegates who support the government’s position,” as if it were a matter of a random assemblage of individuals who are not tethered to his government by their umbilical cords and not getting their instructions from him.

Syrian Kurdish and Arab families are pictured fleeing in the countryside on the border between Syria and Turkey, on October 22, 2019.Credit: AFP

This terminology is apparently aimed at divesting Assad of any responsibility in case the negotiations fail and disassociating himself from any agreements that may be reached if he doesn’t like them.

On the ground, and mainly in northern Syria, United States President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces from Syria has created a strange coalition in which Turkey and Russia are conducting joint patrols along the border between Turkey and Syria in areas that have been occupied by Turkey, while the American forces are continuing to conduct joint patrols with Kurdish forces, much to Turkey’s displeasure.

At the same time, the Syrian army is deploying in a number of Kurdish areas and has reached the outskirts of the northeastern city of Qamishli, signaling its intention to block the continuation of Turkey’s takeover of the border region. However, despite random exchanges of fire between Turkish and Syrian forces, it is doubtful whether Syria intends to embark on an all-out conflict with Turkey to eject its forces from Syrian territory. Assessments are that after Turkey completes its operation along the border to cleanse it of a Kurdish military presence, Russia will demand it withdraw from Syria in order to complete consolidation of Assad’s control over the entire country.

In the meantime, the Turkish invasion is serving the interests of both Russia and Syria, in part by pushing the Kurds to enter into an unofficial alliance with the Syrian regime, which has promised to protect them from Turkish forces.

However, the situation on the ground is also very ambiguous. According to statements by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Kurdish forces have already pulled back to to 30 kilometers from the border as obligated by the agreement signed by Turkey and Russia. Turkey denies this report and claims that the Kurds have not yet completed their withdrawal, and indicates that it intends to remain in the field and expand its military activity for as long as the Kurds do not withdraw and until the Syrian refugees return from Turkey to the security zone it intends to establish inside Syria.

Thus, Turkey is expanding its mandate and if prior to the invasion it made it clear that its military involvement was intended to distance a security threat posed by Kurdish forces, now it is stipulating another condition that includes the refugees’ return from Turkey to Syria.

This is precisely what is worrying the Kurds and the Americans, who see the Turkish move as a plan to impose demographic change in northern Syria by settling millions of Syrians in an area populated by Kurds and historically considered to be Kurdish territory. Turkey is justifying this goal by claiming it has spent approximately $40 billion on the refugees and is no longer able to fund them.

This is a weighty claim, especially since the European Union has not yet given Turkey all the $6 billion it promised to prevent the refugees from heading to Europe. However, the refugees are in no hurry to take up any opportunity to return to Syria where their homes have been destroyed. They would continue to live like refugees in the security zone and many would be forced to enlist in the Syrian army upon their return. Their justifications are indeed persuasive but if Turkey decides that the time has come to get rid of them, neither logic nor humaneness will prevent their expulsion from their refuge in Turkey.

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