Analysis

Trump's Vacillating Brings Syria to a Boiling Point

In the absence of an international plan to end the civil war, rebel militias are forced to forgo strategy and suffice with tactics.

An opposition fighter fires a heavy machine gun in Jobar, a rebel-held district on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, on March 19, 2017.
AMER ALMOHIBANY/AFP

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov managed to annoy Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week, not for the first time. “The Kurds must be invited to political negotiations so that all factions are represented,” Lavrov said on the eve of peace talks in Geneva.

When anyone, be it Russia or the United States, points out that Syria’s Kurds are a legitimate group fully entitled to political representation, Ankara squirms. Likewise, every time Turkey offers to join in occupying ISIS' capital Raqqa in Syria, Russia and the United States grimace.

The Turkish strategy is too transparent. It strives to split Syria’s northern front to prevent a contiguous Kurdish territory. If Turkey joins the occupation of Raqqa via Tel Abyad near where Turkish forces have set up base, it can drive a wedge between the Kurdish forces and thus break up the contiguity.

But the United States and Russia see the Kurdish forces as a vital part of the war against ISIS. They fear that if they let Turkey carry out its strategy, the Kurds may abandon the campaign against ISIS and focus on the struggle against the Turkish forces and their partners among the rebel militias.

These militias, by the way, include Ahrar al-Sham, a radical Islamic group part of which supports Al-Qaida’s ideology and has already joined the group formerly known as the Nusra Front. But the United States has no alternative strategy against the Turkish one, except general statements that destroying ISIS is the administration’s top priority, as U.S. President Donald Trump has said, and that Washington favors security zones for Syrian refugees.

Where would these zones be set up? Which forces would help defend them? What would be the step after establishing them? The U.S. administration has no answers.

Also, the idea of security zones isn’t acceptable to the members of the anti-ISIS international coalition, most of whom fear a deep involvement in Syria without a clear objective of how to end the war. Turkey, which once applied pressure for the establishment of security zones in Syria, now objects to the vague American idea.

A Kurd fighter in Qamishli, Syria, near the Turkish border, March 2017.
AFP / Delil Souleiman

Turkey’s security zones

Initially, the Turkish plan was to set up areas where Turkish and international forces would be deployed to prevent the Syrian Kurds from taking over the Turkey-Syria border area. But in view of the Russian and American support for the Kurds, Turkey fears, apparently justly, that mixed Syrian and Kurdish forces would be sent to these security zones and give the Kurds international legitimacy. They would also receive assistance and advanced weapons, letting them set up an independent region in the future, or at least block Turkey’s plans.

These zones would also have a humanitarian (or an anti-humanitarian) aspect, as hundreds of thousands of refugees would be deported from their host countries, mainly Turkey and Lebanon, to areas where fighting is still going on. In any case, there’s no need to be overly impressed by concerns for refugees on the part of countries that haven’t been moved by the fatality numbers – now almost half a million.

In the absence of an American strategy, the Trump administration suffices with sending a few hundred combatants and instructors to the Raqqa area to join the Kurds and Syrians acting under the umbrella of “Syrian Democratic forces.”

However, the landing of these forces this week shouldn’t be seen as a dramatic change in the American strategy that still objects to extensive on-the-ground involvement in the Syrian war. In fact, Trump hasn’t presented a policy different from Barack Obama’s; Trump called his predecessor’s strategy bad and weak.

A Syrian fleeing the city of Hama, March 23, 2017.

But since Trump said the United States didn’t have to help topple regimes around the world, meaning the Assad regime, the White House and State Department haven’t clarified, for example, what Syrian President Bashar Assad’s position in the transition government would be, what kind of regime Washington favors and how it sees Russia’s ascendancy in the Middle East, especially in Syria.

Trump may portray Iran as the greatest threat and doesn’t stop threatening sanctions or “reexamining” the nuclear agreement, but the administration doesn’t say whether the United States will intervene to block Iran’s influence in Syria. Is there an understanding between Trump and Russia about Iran? Or is he letting Israel handle Iran and Hezbollah and relying on the close coordination between Israel and Russia, if there is any?

In the absence of an agreement on an international plan or a solution to end the war, the rebel militias are also trapped in a dead end. The external assistance they receive is dwindling and the strategic goals are becoming tactical goals intended to demonstrate some military presence, or maintain the situation in which the regime can no longer claim it can win the war.

Fighting in Damascus and Hama

Thus two local campaigns were born this week – one in Damascus and one in the Hama area on the axis between Homs and Aleppo. The battles in Damascus may have surprised the Syrian army, but it quickly pulled itself together and won back control of a large chunk of the neighborhoods conquered by the rebels.

The rebels say they prepared this offensive for nearly six months in which they dug tunnels, moved power lines and arranged logistics. The Syrian army’s intelligence’s failure to discover this plan is indisputable, but it’s unclear whether the offensive’s timing was random and what the rebels were trying to achieve, knowing that the army’s forces in the capital were superior to theirs.

It appears the plan was to stop the Syrian forces’ progress toward eastern parts of Damascus. But to occupy all of Damascus? That’s a goal too far.

The second front is in the city of Hama, where dozens of civilians were killed in fighting between the regime and the Russian air force on one side and the rebels on the other. Hama is crucial for controlling the west of Syria, and the rebel militias, most of which are radical Islamist, intend to take over the Hama airport and the city’s suburbs. In recent days the rebels reported victories that sent regime forces in retreat.

But as experience has taught in other areas, the Russian air force is expected to intervene to destroy the attacking forces. As in Damascus and Hama, these tactical victories can’t win the war, and according to some assessments the militias must continue fighting, in part to justify the assistance they receive from private donors or groups in Arab states, without which they cannot survive.

It appears that since the rebels’ defeat in Aleppo and the agreements to withdrawal from Homs, many militias are having problems proposing new goals to ensure victories. This could make them more flexible in the political talks, but first they’ll have to reach agreements among themselves, especially when they have at least four groups represented in the talks, whether Kurds or groups sponsored by Russia, Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’ite Iraqi militias apparently act on Iran’s orders, but Tehran is at odds about keeping them in Syria in view of the many casualties and all the money poured in.

It seems that Israel, which fears an Iranian anchor in the Golan Heights, is overrating the danger, because for Iran to establish a force in the Golan it will have to overcome rebel militias in the south of the enclave, persuade the Druze in the Suwayda area to join it, and risk confronting Russia and Israel. But in the meantime the belligerent declarations are serving Israel in its efforts to persuade the Trump administration to act against Iran and make it easier for Israel to act in Syria.