February 28, 2019

IntelBrief: Shifting Geopolitical Tides in Syria

A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter gestures as men walk to be screened after being evacuated out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, near Baghouz, eastern Syria, Friday, Feb. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana).
  • With the so-called Islamic State losing its remaining territory, the focus has pivoted to geopolitical competition between the major powers involved in Syria.
  • Assad has accused Erdogan of having imperial designs on Syrian territory, while Damascus leans on Moscow and Tehran for support.
  • The shifting web of alliances in Syria demonstrates the vastly different priorities of Damascus, Tehran, Moscow, Ankara and Washington.
  • U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East has reached a nadir and the troop withdrawal has sidelined Washington’s ability to wield much influence.

With the so-called Islamic State (IS) losing its remaining territory, the focus has pivoted to geopolitical competition between the major powers involved in Syria. Bashar Assad's regime has been highly critical of Turkey for its expressed desire to establish a safe zone in northern Syria. An Assad spokesperson recently accused Turkey of imperial ambitions and wanting to occupy Syria as part of grander plans to reestablish the Ottoman Empire; for its part, the Turks are primarily concerned with containing Kurdish fighters and squelching any talk of Kurdish autonomy. Assad recently made an unannounced visit to Iran to meet with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini and President Hassan Rouhani, where a major topic was the proposed buffer zone. The Russians have also weighed in, offering to secure the Turkish border with Russian security and police forces. With a possible end in sight to the war in Syria, both Tehran and Moscow are moving swiftly to exert more leverage and solidify gains they have amassed incrementally through their consistent involvement in the conflict. In some ways, this is merely the viceroys coming to claim their spoils in return for propping up Assad’s regime and ensuring his survival, which was at no point preordained. 

In mid-February, Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan met with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, where the two leaders discussed potential areas of cooperation in Syria. This continues the trend of Ankara moving further away from Washington and toward Moscow, an extremely troubling development for a NATO ally that is a key player in the Middle East. Still, Putin has taken umbrage with Erdogan over Ankara’s reluctance to aggressively counter Sunni terrorists operating in Idlib, particularly the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. For its part, the U.S. is also relying on Turkey to continue fighting IS, especially as American forces will be reduced to a mere 200 troops in Syria, described by the administration as ‘a small peacekeeping group’ and by Senator Lindsey Graham as part of an ‘international stabilizing force.’ The troops are intended mostly to serve as a bulwark between Turkish forces and armed Kurdish groups operating in northern Syria. Just this week, Russia and Syria issued a joint statement urging the U.S. to remove all of its troops, stating that American forces are in the country illegally.

All of this is taking place as the U.S. seeks to pressure the Gulf States to keep Syria isolated. Recently, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has moved closer to Damascus to balance the weight of its rival, Iran. Beyond the benefactors Assad has in Russia and Iran, Damascus will also need allies (and generous ones) to help with reconstruction – a reason he has been courting China. But a more comprehensive international embrace of Assad is no fait accompli, as the Gulf states have sought to keep him from rejoining the Arab League and only a handful of countries, including the UAE, have reopened embassies and ramped up diplomatic outreach in Damascus. After all, Assad and his cronies are responsible for unspeakable atrocities; welcoming Syria back into the community of nations sets a dangerous precedent by normalizing relations with a dictator that used chemical weapons and wantonly slaughtered and starved his own people. 

But even as the US seeks to exert influence with its Gulf allies, the U.S. has less leverage in Syria than at any point since the civil war began in 2011. U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East is at a nadir, and the troop withdrawal has sidelined Washington’s ability to wield much influence. The civil war in Syria has seen an abdication of leadership by both the U.S. and the European Union (EU), where a limited presence has translated to limited leverage. There are a few obvious losers if the current trajectory in Syria continues, including the U.S. and Israel, but also the Syrian people and the international community. Assad’s move to solidify power demonstrates to other countries that they can even get away with war crimes, too. It further indicates that, as long as you have powerful allies, no nation or group of nations—not the U.S., the EU, NATO, or the United Nations—will be able to muster the political will to effectively intervene in any meaningful way.


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