Within a few years the Syrian Arab Republic has become a textbook example of power politics, but in a more modern and sophisticated form. While state actors continue to have an integral role, non-state players are assuming important positions in the process; these include private military contractors, unofficial armed groups, as well as terrorist organisations.
One of the latest manifestations of this new kind of power politics is Turkey’s ‘Operation Olive Branch’, aimed at suppressing Kurdish autonomy in Afrin. Turkey has made no secret of its intentions, but has refrained from significant action until the Kurds took Raqqa and a number of important areas on the Euphrates left bank in 2017. During the operation, not only the Turkish armed forces, but also some factions of the Syrian Arab Opposition were involved, so it is possible to say that this move had an indirect ‘anti-Damascus’ effect too. In doing so, the Turks managed to avoid confrontation with Russia and the US, both of which were previously considered the Syrian Kurds’ allies. In this case, the US did not oppose Ankara, and avoided destroying a partnership with its important NATO ally.
Russia, which needs a partnership with Turkey for its anti-terrorism activities in Syria, provoked a wave of criticism for withdrawing from the region before the launch of Operation Olive Branch. These allegations sound rather dubious though, if one compares Russia’s move with the stance of the US – so far the closest ally of the Kurds. Given numerous threats from Turkey and the lack of US support for Kurds in Afrin at present, Washington’s January 2018 statement on the creation of a 30,000-strong predominantly Kurdish border force looks like deliberate provocation. One of the likely motives for this was to reduce tension between the US and Turkey. It is well understood in Washington that the Kurds of Northern Syria have no substitute for US support anyway.
The Kurdish attempts to come to an agreement with the Assad government for assistance against the Turkish intrusion looked like a desperate measure. Had they made some concessions to Damascus before the launch of the Turkish operation (as they had been repeatedly advised to do), things could have taken a completely different course. It would have been a much more difficult decision for Turkey to confront the Syrian army directly. The Kurds themselves were counting too much on US support, although the experience of neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan, with its referendum in September 2017, could have taught them to be more careful. What followed the referendum was the occupation of the oil-rich region of Kirkuk by the Baghdad-controlled forces and the US staying out of the process.
Success in the fight against ISIS over the last several years seems to have led the Kurds to overestimate their significance to external actors leading anti-terrorism operations in Syria. There were real opportunities to make a deal with Damascus, which historically has been rather tolerant of the PKK and its affiliated structures. It is quite telling that the PKK’s Abdullah Ocalan spent so many years in Syria under Hafez Assad. Although, the chance to develop this alliance still remains for the Kurds, especially under increased Turkish pressure.
In Ankara, they believe that with its ongoing activities in Syria, Turkey is managing its own security well. But at the same time, it is damaging its image. International media often portrays Turkey as an aggressor against the Kurds – one of the most active groups fighting international terrorism. The actual level of security from its involvement in Syria is not very promising for Turkey either, for there is no guarantee that by weakening the YPG in Northern Syria, Ankara will manage to deescalate the Kurdish issue and weaken PKK on its own territory.
Iran, as a country with a considerable Kurdish minority, has found itself among the beneficiaries of the Turkish operation against the Kurds. This allowed Tehran not to divert attention from its key objectives in Syria. Despite its economic predicament and anti-Iranian rhetoric in the US, Tehran invested too much in Syria to reduce its activity now. In this sense, maintaining partnerships with Russia and Turkey is of critical importance for Iran. It is not clear, however, in what direction these partnerships will evolve in case of at least a slight normalisation of relations between Russia and the US (still unlikely), or between the US and Turkey (which much more likely to happen). In addition, there is likely to be an increase of competition between Russia and Iran for their influence on Damascus, which according to some estimations is already occurring.
It is a more complicated task to assess the role of Europe in the ongoing processes. While the Syrian crisis is an integral part of the EU’s foreign policy agenda, it is not easy to determine what the real intentions of the European Union are in this regard. So, during Operation Olive Branch, a number of loud statements made by European leaders were not followed by any specific actions.
As for the two key external players in Syria – the US and Russia – their relations are experiencing an escalation of negative rhetoric. The US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, recently voiced another threat to strike at the Syrian government forces, arguing (without providing any sort of evidence) that Damascus used chemical weapons. A peculiar reaction came from a statement made by Chief of the Russian Armed Forces’ General Staff Valery Gerasimov, warning of retaliatory measures in case of deadly threats to Russian military personnel in Syria. These measures were supposed to be taken with regard both to “missiles and carriers that will use them.”
In this situation, if one puts the diplomatic narrative aside, it is obvious that a settlement of the Syrian conflict is not to be expected in the short term. Even a basic outline of an agreement is unlikely. One of the reasons is that until now the interests of the US in Syria have not taken shape. The spectrum of opinions expressed within the expert community in the US is wide enough. There are even voices advocating the decrease in US activities in Syria (if not a complete withdrawal). So far, the US has shown a minimum of military activity in Syria and has achieved significant results. For example, the US has managed to provoke Turkey to launch Operation Olive Branch and at the same time maintain a functional relationship with the Kurds.
The media often label the Assad regime as the main responsible party. However, when it comes to the growing number of civilian casualties, Damascus accusers prefer to pay attention mostly to victims in territories controlled by the opposition, while it would be only logical to also include civilian casualties in the territories under the government’s control. Including civilians in Damascus dying under fire of the opposition and terrorist groups.
The central government in Damascus is likely the only basis on which a fully functioning state can be revived in Syria. However, the realisation of this possibility is problematic, given the number and aggregate potential of the opponents of the Syrian government.
There will be no return to the pre-war situation for the Assad government, if only because it does not possess enough resources to establish control over the entire territory of the country. The Shiite militias and other irregular armed groups, often referred to as pro-government forces, in fact do not always obey Damascus. Other than dividing the country into zones of control, it will be necessary to compromise and include non-radical elements of the opposition into the governance structures. However, so far, the readiness of Damascus for a dialogue with broad groups of the Syrian population has not been evident.
There is another phenomenon emerging in the Syrian conflict, which will become more visible with time. The more success in fighting terrorism, the more acute the contradictions between different actors will be. The problem is that the “Syrians are fighting the wars of others on their own soil.” And this is perhaps the major obstacle to a resolution of the Syrian conflict. For example, the death of pro-government combatants – with the possible participation of Russian citizens – near Deir ez-Zor on 7 February, from American air strikes and the animated reaction of the international media probably have more to do with Russia-US relations than with the interests and the future of the Syrian people. Once again the Kurds will likely become victims of this international power struggle. Their short-term prospects are also not very promising.
It is not to underestimate the successes achieved in the fight against ISIS and other extremist organisations in Syria. However, it is much more difficult to stabilise Syria, than to defeat ISIS. This would require a broad consensus and coordination on the part of forces involved in the conflict. This should become a top priority, even in a situation involving reluctant parties.
In general, the evolution of the Syrian crisis demonstrates a problem that exists in other areas of international relations: critical shortage of mutual trust. The lack of trust between the actors involved is another key obstacle for settling the conflict. At the same time, relations between Iran, Russia, and Turkey over the past year and a half demonstrate that coordinating actions among actors with very different interests is not a utopia, but a realistic goal. Especially indicative are Russian-Turkish relations, which in just two years have progressed from conflict on the verge of a military confrontation, to a relatively effective working relationship.
Achieving a certain balance of power between the key actors in Syria could indeed become a solution, though there is still no substantive movement in this direction. It is difficult to expect hegemonic rule to emerge, as well. It is only clear that it is necessary to avoid bellum omnium contra omnes. Power politics will inevitably persist in Syria. The question is how to ensure at least minimal rules that all actors will adhere to. And not to forget that Syria, like much of the Middle East and North Africa, is not only an object of struggle for geopolitical and economic influence, but also a region whose population has every right to hope for at least the remote prospect of establishing a decent life.
 The US has been supporting and using Kurdish armed groups for several years to combat ISIS and to form their own foothold in the north of Syria.