The last week has brought a deluge of important developments in Syria. Russia, the US and Jordan will hold a high level meeting to discuss southern Syria and an impending regime offensive to push rebels out of the area. Reports have also circulated that Iran is being pressured to reduce its presence in Syria. President Bashar Assad also said he is focused on negotiations to remove the US from eastern Syria.
Why are these developments important and what does Syria look like today after seven years of brutal civil war? Here is a way to make sense of a complex situation.
Different factions, different areas of control
Syria today is divided into five basic areas. In the center is the regime, which controls the major cities of Damascus, Hama, Homs, Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor. This is not only the heartland of Syria but areas between these cities have been reconquered from the rebels over the last year. Between 2016 and 2018, the regime consolidated control, with rebels leaving Aleppo in December 2016 and Deir ez-Zor being relieved from a three-year siege in 2017. The last Damascus rebels left under an agreement over the last months.
In southwest Syria, the rebels control the area near the border with Jordan. This area has been subject to a de-escalation zone and cease-fire since July 2017. The rebels there have received support from the US and Jordan and have an amicable relationship with Israel on the Golan.
In eastern Syria, mostly east of the Euphrates River, the US and its Syrian Democratic Force partners control an area they liberated from Islamic State after 2014. This includes Raqqa and the town of Manbij, the latter being the only area west of the Euphrates the SDF controls. The US presence is bolstered by other anti-ISIS coalition members such as the French.
In northern Syria, the province of Idlib is mostly in the hands of extremists and jihadists associated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which used to be al-Qaeda. This area has been in the hands of groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham since the first years of the rebellion.
Northern Syria areas along the Turkish border are now controlled by Turkey and its local allies, some of which are more extremist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham. These are Syrian rebel groups that have become increasingly tied to Turkey. The area of Turkish domination now includes Afrin, formerly controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Groups. Turkey took Afrin in March 2018. There are also several small pockets of ISIS left in Syria, along the Euphrates and in the desert near the Iraq border.
The southern crisis
The Assad regime wants to reconquer southern Syria. However, it needs Russian backing to do so and it needs the Russians to work with the US, Jordan and Israel to make sure that an offensive does not become a wider war. Jordan does not want instability from new conflict in the south. Israel does not want Iran gaining ground. Toward that end Israel has conducted a campaign against Iranian targets recently, in response to Iranian rocket fire in early May. The US also warned the Syrian regime against any moves south and warned Moscow that Russia had signed a cease-fire.
In a May 18 meeting with the visiting Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to suggest “foreign forces” would leave Syria. Some thought this meant Iran, but it likely meant the US and others as well. Assad told RT (formerly Russia Today) on May 31 that Iran does not have active troops in Syria. This is a way of admitting Iran has advisers in Syria. The US also has forces in southern Syria in a place called Tanaf, next to the Jordanian and Iraqi border. It appears the US will eventually withdraw from there.
Eastern Syria: Assad’s threats
In Assad’s interview and tweets from the Syrian Presidency, the regime sought to emphasize that the only real “problem” in Syria consists of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syria. He indicated that he was opening doors to negotiations and sought to argue that the mostly Kurdish SDF “love their country and do not wish to be puppets of foreigners.” If negotiations do not work, then the regime will resort to force to make the Americans leave. “This is our land and this is our right to liberate it.”
The US and its partners have come into brief fights with the regime and its Russian and Iranian backers before. In February, a column of regime fighters allegedly bolstered by Russian military contractors attacked the SDF near Deir ez-Zor. In a battle lasting several hours, US aircraft ripped apart the column and punished the fighters badly. The regime knows it can’t tangle with the Americans, but it wants to use Turkish influence and the Russians to pressure Washington.
Trump has indicated he wants to leave eastern Syria. The Pentagon doesn’t know what to do with its anti-ISIS campaign, which has experienced mission creep as it shifts to stabilization and training locals. Assad’s desire to challenge the US also dovetails with a policy of working more closely with Turkey via Moscow. At the same time the US wants to draw the Saudis into eastern Syria to help pay for and expand an Arab security force along the Euphrates Valley. This is an area formerly controlled by ISIS and there are Arab tribes there that the US hopes the Saudis can work with so they don’t turn back to the regime.
The northern crisis: Will Turkey move into Idlib?
Since 2016, Turkey has expanded operations in northern Syria. It moved into Jarabulus to create a corridor along the border to rebel-held areas near Kilis and then into an area between Idlib and Afrin. Then it invaded Afrin to create a contiguous area along a whole section of the north. It set up 11 observation points in northern Syria as well, cementing its military presence.
In early May, according to an article by Hassan Hassan in The National, Turkey met with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham leaders and told them to either disband the group in Idlib or “face a rebel assault backed by Ankara.” He concluded that Turkey “appears to hope that the group will dismantle itself and be incorporated into other formations.”
But Turkey has an election in June and it can’t chance a new round of conflict with extremists in Idlib.
Meanwhile, the Syrian regime is also eyeing an offensive in Idlib and does not want Turkey expanding its presence even more. This makes Idlib similar in essence to southern Syria, an area with a variety of players that could be a flashpoint.
Worst case, best case?
For the US, the real challenge in Syria is how to weaken Iran and not be seen as letting down its own allies. But the US faces a hurdle in defining its mandate to remain in eastern Syria.
For Israel, the goal is to stop Iran’s penetration of Syria and weapons transfers to Hezbollah. Anything that allows Iran’s presence to grow in southern Syria or major base construction elsewhere appears to be a redline.
For Russia, the victory in Syria is seeing the regime remain in power. Moscow doesn’t really care if Tehran remains in Syria or not. It wants to play referee with Ankara and watch Turkey confront the US with hopes Ankara will shift defense spending to Moscow.
For now the important messages of late may were rhetorical. Assad’s tanks haven’t moved south or east and Turkey is gingerly pacing around Idlib’s borders. After seven years of war Syria has reached the quietest and most peaceful state of affairs it has enjoyed throughout the long, bloody, conflict.