With domestic affairs dominating the news cycles, and the US disastrous exit from Afghanistan stealing some headlines, Americans have paid little attention to the ongoing conflict in Syria. The decade long civil war, turned into a conflict with multiple stakeholders, is far from being resolved. In September this year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet (former President of Chile) announced that more than 350,000 Syrian people have been confirmed as killed in the Syrian conflict. The actual toll is likely to be much higher. Geir Pedersen, the UN Special Envoy to Syria, added yet another grim statistic, noting that 12 million Syrians have been displaced, and tens of thousands remain in detention, have been abducted, or are missing.
Syria itself, much like her people, has been split and fractured into many parts, controlled by various parties. The Assad regime, with massive help from Russia, Iran, and its Shiite militia proxies, including the terrorist Lebanese Hezbollah, has been able to consolidate large portions of the country. The Russians received their reward for rescuing Bashar Assad from oblivion by establishing bases on the coveted Mediterranean Sea, a Russian dream since Tsarist time. Their naval base in Tartus, and the Hmeimim airbase in Latakia province have been leased for 49 years. Other Russian bases include the Shayrat airbase south of Homs, and the T4 base in Tayyas.
The half-dozen state and non-state militaries involved in the Syrian conflict includes a contingent of US troops guarding the Al-Tanf garrison located along the borders of Iraq, Jordan and Syria. It is situated on the Baghdad-Damascus highway. The base is also close to the major oilfields in Syria. The US has, in addition, several airbases in the Kurdish majority areas of northeastern Syria.
The Iranian and Turkish militaries are also heavily involved, albeit, on different sides. The Islamic Republic of Iran has deployed in Syria, particularly in the Deir ez-Zor area (Eastern Syria) the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iranian Basij forces, and Iraqi Hezbollah. Fighters of the above groups and other Shiite militias from Afghanistan and Pakistan have moved close to Israel’s Golan Heights, intent on creating a second front against Israel (southern Lebanon being the other). Israel estimates that Iran has control over 80,000 fighters in Syria. Iran also oversees the pro-Assad regime auxiliary forces such as the Local Defense Forces (LDF), ostensibly to combat the anti-Assad forces, including the Islamic State (IS). Iranian controlled forces are present in central Syria, as well as in the north near Aleppo, and close to the Syrian-Lebanese border in the west. The ultimate Iranian objective is to control the Shiite Crescent from Baghdad to Beirut, and Syria is the vital link.
The Turkish Armed Forces and its ally, the Syrian National Army (SNA) have occupied areas in northern Syria since 2016. Turkey launched four military operations in northern Syria. Domestic considerations, as well as foreign policy objectives, have driven Turkey’s President Erdogan to enter the Syrian conflict. As a pretender to the leadership of the Sunni-Muslim world, aiding the Sunnis in Syria was an imperative. Primarily though, he was aiming to suppress Kurdish rights in Turkey. Turkey’s war against the Kurds in Syria has created tension with the US, because of Washington’s support for the Kurds in Syria. The Kurds have been loyal and effective US partners in fighting the Islamic State. Erdogan has realigned his relations with Russia (purchasing the S-400 air defense system from Russia). In his deal with Russia, Moscow got its objective, which is Bashar Assad’s survival (Erdogan previously called for regime change in Syria) as Syria’s ruler, and Ankara received Russian consent to weaken the Syrian Kurds.
In operation “Euphrates Shield,” (August 2016 to March 2017) Turkey’s army took possession of Jarabulus on the Euphrates River, and moved westward to capture a strip of land up to the Afrin district. It took away territory that linked Kurdish districts to the east and west of the Euphrates. In operation “Olive Branch,” (January to March 2018) the Turks removed the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from Afrin. Operation “Peace Spring” (October 2019) involved Turkey’s proxy – the SNA, along with the Turkish army, pushed the Kurdish forces from the Syrian-Turkish border. It meant to prevent the Kurds forming an autonomous Kurdish entity along the border. Operation “Spring Shield” (February to March 2020) was carried out in the Idlib Governorate. It halted the Assad regime’s advance to take Idlib, the last piece of territory controlled by rebel forces.
Damascus’ victory remains elusive, with significant portions of Syria being controlled by Kurds, Turks, and rebel groups. In the north, it is the Turkish army and the anti-Assad SNA. In the northwest, it is Tahrir al-Sham, an Al-Qaeda affiliate which became the dominant rebel group in Idlib. Syria’s northeast is largely controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a predominately Kurdish force which enjoys some US protection. Northeastern Syria is now an autonomous region, with its primary revenue emanating from the area’s oilfields.
Although defeated and territorially deprived, IS or ISIS is regrouping unobstructed in the central and eastern Syrian desert. Some estimates figure on IS to have approximately 3,000 fighters in Syria.
There may be a respite in bloodletting from time to time, but no peace. Geir Pedersen, the UN Special Envoy to Syria pointed out that, UNSC Resolution 2254 of 2015, endorsing a road map for peace and setting a timetable for talks, “recognizes the close link between a nationwide ceasefire and a parallel political process, and I continue to call for this, particularly given episodes of violence and the dangers of this spiraling into all-out confrontation.”
The International Syria Support Group (ISSG) consisting of 20 countries, (China, Egypt, France, Germany, Iraq, Iran, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE, UK, and the US) including the Arab League, European Union, and the United Nations, met in Vienna in November 2015, and again in Munich, Germany in February 2016, resolving nothing. The EU issued a statement saying, “The participants had a frank and constructive discussion, covering many issues, while substantial differences remain among the participants.” They did agree, however, on Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and the secular character of the state.
Early on the US and the Europeans demanded Assad’s removal. In September 2016, the Russians and the US reached a deal on a ceasefire between the Assad forces and the US supported opposition groups. Earlier in the year, the ISSG agreed on a plan to end hostilities in Syria within a week, provided the Assad regime agreed to that, and allowed the delivery of humanitarian aid. Little was actually accomplished.
In 2017, Russia, Turkey and Iran launched the Astana, Kazakhstan talks on the future of Syria, which excluded the US and western powers. The talks ended with an agreement between them to form a joint monitoring body to enforce UNSC Resolution 2254, calling for a ceasefire… Last July, the 16th Astana talks focused on the humanitarian situation in Syria, the political process to end the conflict, and drafting a new constitution. On October 27, 2021, U.S. News reported that Geir Pedersen declared that, the Syrian government refusal to negotiate revisions to Syria’s constitution is the “key reason for the failure of the talks.”
Syria is likely to face years of instability, and hopes for a regime change have faded. The peace talks are at a dead-end, with Syria remaining divided and bleeding for the foreseeable future.