This article was written prior to President Trump’s announcement that the US will withdrawal its troops from Syria.
The Syrian crisis, which has been going on for almost eight years, remains one of the main sore points in the Middle East. The defeats against ISIS and factions of the radical opposition in the last two years have not fundamentally changed the set of risks. Even the threat posed by religious extremists remains, due to the prospect of new active extremist organisations emerging.
Moreover, a new crucial factor has been added to the list. Shrinking territories controlled by the opposition and radicals increases the risk of direct collision between external actors operating in Syria, as well as some of these actors clashing with pro-government forces.
Potential points of escalation include the Israeli-Syrian border, northeastern Syria where Kurds, supported by the US, are creating a quasi-state, and Idlib, where it is extremely difficult to prevent a full-scale escalation. In addition, with the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, Iran’s presence in Syria poses new risks.
Another factor is the appointment of Geir O. Pedersen, the new UN Special Envoy for Syria. It is unlikely, however, that he will be able to radically change the situation for the better, since he will have to work in even more disadvantageous conditions than under his predecessor, Staffan de Mistura. The latter acted during the period of the most successful campaigns against ISIS, a time when almost all external actors were more or less united by the common aim to defeat the terrorist group.
Now that the Islamic State has been defeated, the diverging interests of external powers are becoming increasingly visible. Turkey is entrenched in the north of Syria, the US in the northwest and in Al-Tanf, and Russia closer to the coastline. And Iran’s presence is clearly visible in the territories controlled by Damascus, though indirectly, with various pro-Iranian militias present.
Thus, Syria is de facto divided into several zones that exist autonomously from each other. At the same time, no approach to realising a settlement has yielded tangible results. Telling evidence is the joint statement of Iran, Russia, and Turkey issued after their meeting in Astana on 28-29 November. The joint statement does not include anything substantially new, only containing a set of protocols. This, as well as the lack of progress in Geneva, both clearly indicate that the settlement process is faltering.
The fact that there is no forward movement was also indirectly acknowledged by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan when at the G20 summit in Argentina he called on Vladimir Putin to hold another Idlib Summit. Erdoğan was referring to the meeting between the two leaders in September, that resulted in the delimitation of the Syrian army and the armed opposition in Idlib, which has been the last notable success.
Instead, propaganda is becoming increasingly prominent in media coverage of Syria. External actors constantly criticise each other, threaten each other, and report only on their own victories over terrorists. What happens on the ground is too often left out of diplomatic discussions and media. As a result, one learns about real changes taking place and decisions made only post factum, which makes forecasting the future dynamics of the conflict extremely difficult.
At the same time, the peculiarity of the situation is that practically every external actor engaged in the conflict in Syria has benefited to at least some degree from the crisis.
The destruction of Syria and its disappearance from the ranks of significant regional players for the foreseeable future makes Israel feel quite comfortable about its northeastern region, despite concern over the Iranian influence in Syria.
The Kurds have gained significant advantages, even though they suffered losses in the fight against ISIS. They have legitimised themselves as an independent actor, making their pre-crisis status almost inconceivable now.
Turkey is also taking advantage of the current conditions. On the one hand, there is the Kurdish factor that is potentially destabilising for Turkey. But on the other hand, having entered into the north of Syria, Ankara received additional leverage for projecting its strength in the region.
Russia has achieved a number of important successes as a result of its engagement in the conflict: Moscow minimised the threat of terrorism in Russia, significantly increased its international clout, while the attractiveness of Russian weapons for potential buyers grew considerably. Now it is in Russia’s interest to transition to the post-war settlement phase as soon as possible. But for now it appears Russia is among the few countries that are really interested in this, at least, while Bashar Assad remains in power.
One of the main beneficiaries of the situation in Syria is the United States. Being geographically far from the ongoing events, it does not have to deal with the migrant flows out of war-torn Syria, and isn’t endangered by other direct consequences of the conflict. Thus, without too much effort, the US is able to put pressure on the Syrian government, Iran, Russia, and Turkey (the last with the support of the Kurds). The protracted conflict gives Washington an excuse to maintain its presence in Syria and, more broadly, in the MENA region, as well as exert geopolitical influence.
It is noteworthy that, in the broader international context, the chaotic trajectory of the Syrian crisis could potentially lead to unexpected interactions between countries previously not engaged very much with one another. The case in point is the increasing (and mostly positive) contact between Russia and Saudi Arabia, which could possibly lead to Saudi following Russia’s lead in the reconstruction of the Syrian Arab Republic. It is not that Riyadh is eager to help Assad, but that external pressure on the kingdom is growing, and above all, it is coming from its traditional allies. This new geopolitical environment was formed by the high numbers of victims of the military operation in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is taking an active part, and the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which resonated with the West. In this context, Riyadh might feel a deficit of support in the international arena. Its cooperation with Russia in Syria could be a new source of such a support.
By the end of 2018, Syrian territory has become dangerously ‘cramped’ for the external actors. On the one hand, this should force all players to act with twice as much caution. This is why next year we might witness less shots fired and fewer bombs dropped in Syria than in the previous several years. On the other hand, security risks are not going to diminish. For now, it is not so much about fighting scattered jihadist groups, but rather about the danger of collisions between global powers, including accidental clashes, such as the one that recently ended with a Russian plane being shot down by the Syrian air defense when Syrian territory was attacked by the Israeli air force.
Using geographical vocabulary to characterise the geopolitical situation: Syria is increasingly reminiscent of quicksand, which tends to suck down everyone who enters it.