September 14, 2023

IntelBrief: Despite Assad Normalization, Syria Remains a Powder Keg

AP Photo/Baderkhan Ahmad

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Protests and violence that erupted in parts of Syria in mid-August indicate that the Assad regime’s normalization with the rest of the Arab world has failed to help stabilize the country.
  • Protesters in southern Syria are reacting to deteriorating economic conditions as well as the regime’s repression and brutal suppression of the on-again, off-again armed rebellion, which began in 2011.
  • U.S. commanders in eastern Syria are trying to end fighting between two factions of allied forces that cooperate with the U.S. against Islamic State and help contain Iranian influence in Syria.
  • Russia’s war in Ukraine renders Moscow less able to help Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s government fend off a major rebellion, but Iran remains committed to defending the Assad regime no matter what.

Assessments that Syria’s regional reintegration would produce durable stability and economic recovery after 12 years of civil war have proven fatally flawed. The broad expectations that normalization with Syria’s neighbors, such as the wealthy Gulf states Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), would automatically produce a flood of grants and loans as well as new investments have not been met. As a result, the Syrian public has become restive. Protests and a general strike – motivated initially by a reduction in fuel subsidies and the inability of the government to improve the economy and living standards - broke out in mid-August in the southern governorate of Sweida, populated mostly by members of the Druze community. The demonstrations quickly evolved into a broader call for the fall of the regime; protesters demanded full implementation of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2254, which outlines a peace process in Syria and the formation of a transitional governing body with full powers. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its outside backers have steadfastly thwarted any attempts to dilute his power and that of the cronies firmly entrenched in his broader patronage network. As protests intensified, Sweida oppositionists repeatedly attacked the headquarters of Assad’s ruling Baath Party and removed pictures of Assad from the streets and buildings of the city. Yesterday, there were reports of injuries after regime security forces opened fire in an attempt to disperse protesters outside of Baath Party headquarters.

Predictably, the protests spread to other parts of Syria, including Daraa, which has been continuously restive; Idlib, which remains controlled by Islamist-led oppositionists; Raqqa, once the Syrian base of Islamic State’s “caliphate;” Deir ez-Zor; Aleppo, still devastated by the regime’s 2016 recapture of the city; and parts of the regime’s Alawite community-dominated political base on the Syrian coast. Some experts report that new revolutionary groups, including one calling itself the Tenth of August Movement, have sought to organize, although it is not clear whether such groups are armed or remain as peaceful, non-sectarian resistance to the Assad regime. To try to prevent the armed opposition from advancing amid the broadening unrest, Syrian aircraft, joined by those of Russia, conducted strikes against opposition bases in the countryside of Aleppo, Latakia and Hama after "repeated attacks" on regime-held areas in the provinces. The rapid spread of the unrest – and the regime’s immediate resort to armed force to suppress it – seemed to represent a replay of events that led to the initial uprising in 2011. Relatively large protests in Sweida have continued throughout this month.

Separately, in late August, Arab tribal groups in eastern Syria began clashing with Kurdish forces that dominate the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – the militia that helps the 900 U.S. forces in eastern Syria combat Islamic State. The violence, which reportedly resulted in the deaths of 90 people, was sparked by the Kurdish SDF authorities' arrest of Ahmad Al-Khabil (known more commonly as Abu Khawla), the leader of the Deir al-Zor Military Council, an Arab tribal detachment of the SDF. The Arab tribal fighters and their political leaders apparently perceived Abu Khawla’s arrest as an example of Kurdish exploitation of their close relationship with the U.S. military to dominate the politics and economy of northeastern Syria. Although not clearly or directly related to the outbreak of unrest in the country’s western spine, the fighting in eastern Syria added to the perception that major instability had returned to the country.

U.S. commanders in eastern Syria immediately sought to quell the Arab-Kurd infighting through talks, reflecting U.S. concerns that fighting between two U.S. allies jeopardizes the joint effort against Islamic State. U.S. leaders also seek to prevent the Assad regime, Iran, Türkiye, and other outside actors from taking advantage of the clashes to further their own interests. Türkiye, in particular, has long criticized the U.S. alliance with Kurdish militias in Syria, arguing that the Kurdish fighters are linked to the Turkish opposition Kurdish group Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been carrying out terrorist and border attacks on Turkish forces and targets since 1984. Türkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has even put at risk his relations with Washington by threatening to send forces further into northern Syria to deter and contain the Syrian Kurds. Suggesting that U.S. military officials had made progress calming the dispute, SDF commander Mazloum Abdi, a Kurd, said on September 7 that he had met tribal leaders and would honor their request to release dozens of local fighters who had been detained as the SDF put down the Arab unrest. "We have a decision to issue a general amnesty for those involved," Abdi said, adding: "We already released half that were arrested, and we will release the rest." Abdi also promised to host a wide-ranging meeting with Arab tribal leaders and other representatives from Deir al-Zor to address longstanding grievances, including education, the economy, and security.

The renewal of serious unrest in Syria poses a direct threat to the interests of the two main outside backers of the Assad regime: Iran and Russia. Although Russia continues to provide close air support to Assad’s forces, many of Moscow’s best commanders, much of its equipment, and some of its troops have been redeployed to Ukraine to support Russia’s faltering war effort there. The Wagner Group private military company, which has supported Syrian army ground operations, could have a different force posture in Syria moving forward, especially following its failed June mutiny against Russia’s military leadership and the death of Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in August, likely at the behest of the Kremlin. U.S. military officials assess that Moscow’s overall capability to support the Assad regime has declined due to Russia’s ongoing struggles with the Ukraine war. Still, Moscow retains sufficient ground force in Syria to dispatch units to areas in eastern Syria close to where U.S. forces operate – signaling Moscow’s resentment of U.S. support for Ukraine.

The renewed unrest against Assad – coupled with Moscow’s reduced ability to assist Syrian forces – has undoubtedly raised significant concerns in Tehran, which considers Assad its main Arab ally. Iranian leaders assess that the fall of the Assad regime would significantly set back Iran’s national security, which is dependent upon the ability to arm a network of regional pro-Iranian movements, particularly Lebanese Hezbollah. Syria’s regime allows Iran to use Syrian territory and facilities to supply Hezbollah with arms, including more than 150,000 rockets and missiles of varying ranges, and armed drones. Israeli warplanes regularly attack Iranian targets in Syria and did so again just yesterday, launching several rounds of strikes. Iran’s deployment of thousands of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and Iranian regular military personnel to Syria in 2012 was insufficient to help Assad recapture territory lost to the armed rebellion. Iran ultimately persuaded Russia to intervene on Assad’s behalf in 2015, and Russian air strikes were pivotal to Assad’s ability to restore control over most of the population by 2017. Still, Tehran has not, at least up until this point, expressed any sense of panic at the renewed unrest in Syria. During his unannounced August 31 trip to Syria, which featured a meeting with Assad, Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian did not address the violence and unrest. He only reiterated Iran's support for Assad's government and "emphasized the need to establish stability and calm and to preserve sovereignty and territorial integrity." Despite Tehran’s calm demeanor, should the renewed unrest in Syria expand into a broad, nationwide armed rebellion, it is virtually certain that Iran will deploy whatever forces it deems necessary to help Assad stay in power.