Only months ago, expectations were high that the Syrian civil war was coming to an end. But today, it seems that the war for Syria is just beginning. New disturbing scenarios are opening up. Weeks ago, tensions between Iran and Israel over Syria reached an all-time high. Meanwhile, the Turkish military began the operation "Olive Branch" in the Kurdish-controlled Afrin district in the northern region of the country. At the time of writing, Bashar al Assad's government had launched a bombing campaign on the rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, while in Afrin Turkish troops are clashing with Syrian pro-regime forces. "During the fight against ISIS, all sides agreed to focus on destroying ISIS and agreed to freeze other fronts of the war in what were called “de-confliction” agreements. Once ISIS was destroyed, however, all bets were off and all sides scrambled to take the remaining rebel-held regions." ISPI interviewed Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and a leading expert on Syria, on unfolding events.
Afrin, a Kurdish dominated region of north Syria that borders Turkey, has been at the center stage of the latest dangerous escalation between actors involved in the conflict. What is happening and why has Turkey invaded Afrin?
A week ago, it seemed that a cease-fire in Afrin between Turkey, Russia, Assad and the YPG or Kurdish militia had been concluded. According to this agreement, the Syrian army would move into Afrin, disarm the YPG and send them to the east, thereby restoring Syrian sovereignty to Afrin, allowing the Turks to withdraw their forces and stop their advance into Afrin. An advance that had by that time killed well over 20 Turkish soldiers and a thousand YPG soldiers.
What happened then?
Turkey greeted the Syrian pro-Assad militias that advanced into Afrin with artillery fire, claiming that the Assad forces had come to defend the YPG rather than disarm them. So, clearly, the negotiations failed. Even before Turkey invaded the area, the Assad government and the YPG had been in negotiations over a possible Syrian takeover of Afrin. The problem was that the conditions laid out by the Assad government were very strict: namely a total departure of the YPG and a complete hand over of YPG weapons to the Syrian army. The YPG would not agree to these conditions. They insist on a broad degree of autonomy; They want neither a Turkish nor a Syrian takeover. So they never came to an agreement. Turkey accused the Assad government of sending in its militias to defend the YPG rather than to disarm them. What is more, Turkey is in the midst of a war that is broadly popular with Turks in Turkey. Erdogan undoubtedly wants to press his advantage, having mobilized the Turkish army.
Do you mean the Assad regime took advantage of Turkey’s advance to ask the YPG for more concessions?
Yes, indeed. Assad hoped that as the YPG felt more pain, it would make deeper concessions to Kurdish demands for autonomy and Syrian federalism. Once it became clear to the Kurds of Afrin that neither the US nor the international community would come to their aid, they began to make concessions to Assad, but not enough to satisfy Turkey or to convince Assad or the Russians to invest enough in their defense. We do not know enough about the nature of the negotiations to know whether they stood a real chance of success. Clearly, the Turks do not trust Assad and want to make a statement to the YPG and the Americans who have been arming the YPG. News reports out of Turkey suggest that the invasion of Afrin has given President Erdogan a significant bump in popularity. The operation is also helping Turkey to achieve its strategic goals taking a buffer zone inside Syria that may eventually extend from the Euphrates River, west to Afrin and south through the province of Idlib.
What are these goals?
More than simply building a buffer zone, Turkey has additional goals. It wants to settle many of the three million Syrian refugees in Turkey back inside Syria. Ownership of Syrian land will allow it to begin a repatriation process. What is more, Turkey fears that if Assad reconquers Idlib province where so many rebel militias are present, they will all be chased across the border into Turkey. Ankara wants to avoid this. Many of those militias are jihadist organizations that have some affiliation with al-Qaida. What is more, Turkey, like America, may believe that if it can grab more land, it will gain leverage in any future negotiations over the ultimate disposition of Syria.
A long ‘Turkish’ buffer zone in the north of Syria is exactly what Assad and Russia are trying to avoid. Already, the US has taken 30% of northern Syria east of the Euphrates River. If Turkey manages to take the rest of the border region west of the Ephrates and all the way down through Idlib province, Syria’s strategic position will be badly damaged. Foreign powers will control all northern border crossings and highways. They will also own much of Syria’s best agricultural land and water resources. This is not to mention that the US zone includes over 50% of Syria’s oil and gas fields.
Will Russia accept this?
Russia is clearly negotiating on Assad’s side, hoping to find some ‘happy’ agreement. But Russia has not committed its air force to Afrin. We do not know what Russia is going to do, and this is of course a big question mark in the Afrin situation, as it is elsewhere. Russia’s interests are not identical to Assad’s. Russia wants good relations with Ankara and with the Kurds.
What about the United States? They have several bases in Syria and one in Manbij too. Yet it seems that they are not acting, despite recent events in Afrin.
When the US went into northern Syria, it made a deal with Erdogan: US forces would take everything east of the Euphrates, while Turkey could have the area west of the Euphrates. This agreement is why the US has stood by as Turkey invaded Afrin. Manbij, a city just west of the Euphrates is a point of friction between US and Turkish backed forces. The US and the Syria Democratic Forces, which are led by the YPG, took Manbij in the original fight against ISIS. Turkey was upset. In order to assuage Ankara’s ire, the US placed its troops in Manbij and stood up an Arab force there, assuring the Turks that the YPG would withdraw its forces. However, of course the YPG has not really withdrawn. Thus, Turkey is now considering taking Manbij back and has threatened to drive the US out as well.
In many respects, the Kurds of Afrin were “thrown under the bus” by the US: the YPG was asked to sacrifice its brothers in Afrin to enable the US to preserve its relationship with Turkey. Of course, the YPG did not want to do this, which is why they turned to Russia and Assad to help save Afrin from Turkey, a move that could not be pleasing to the US. Yet, the US has little alternative but to accept the outcome in Afrin for it has little influence there and wants to placate Turkey. Russia is the main broker.
Are Iranian militias involved in the events unfolding in Afrin?
So far, there has been no indication of Iranian militias being directly involved in this northwestern corner of Syria. On the other hand, when the US announced that it was going to stay in northern Syria for the long haul, it announced that an important goal was to roll back Iran and not simply to destroy ISIS. In American eyes, Assad and Iran are seen to be practically one entity; therefore, Assad retaking Afrin would be seen by some in Washington as a setback to US policy of rolling back Iran.
Let us come to Ghouta, in the outskirts of Damascus. According to news reports, a humanitarian tragedy is underway. What happens reminds us of the 1982 bombing of Hama by Bashar al Assad’s father Hafez. How vital is a victory in Ghouta for the Syrian government? Is ‘victory’ the only objective?
Assad is not going to allow a rebel enclave to survive in the Ghouta. He is determined to retake the region, which its forces are now doing even if it is at great cost to civilian life if a growing number of nations condemn him for it.
After the failure of the UN Security Council resolution for a cease-fire, Russia appears to be once again the only possible broker in Syria. But how much power does Russia really have to stop the conflict? Where lies Putin’s bottom line?
Russia is getting a black eye on the Ghouta issue. It voted “yes” on the Security Council resolution demanding a humanitarian pause. And it has asked Assad to stop its operations subsequently. Assad is not taking Moscow’s advice. It is unlikely that Putin will punish Assad for this – at least not in any military or public way. After all, Russia has committed itself to Syria’s restoration of its sovereignty. Like Assad, Russia has defined the rebel militias as terrorists, who are illegal and should surrender.
Overall, it seems that the Syrian war has been entering a new phase since a couple of months and now this escalation in Afrin is opening other scenarios too. Do you think a new kind of war is breaking out within the Syrian war?
I do. During the fight against ISIS, all sides agreed to focus purely on destroying ISIS. In that effort a number of de-confliction zones were agreed upon, in Daraa, in the south along the Jordanian border, in the Ghouta region around Damascus and in Idlib province as well. Once ISIS was destroyed, however, a scramble for the rest of Syrian rebel-held regions. Ensued.
The US went sweeping down towards the Iraqi border, in order to capture as much oil – and other resources – as it could. It wants leverage. Assad has rekindled the battle around Damascus and Ghouta, which is raging today, he has opened the front in Daraa, and he is pushing against the rebel militias near the Golan Heights, which is greatly disturbing to Israel. His military is also moving towards Idlib. He does not want Turkey to impose greater control over Idlib province. Therefore, Afrin is just one part of this larger scramble for territory. The three major militaries: the Syrian military backed by Russia and Iran, the Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the US military and the Syrian Arab rebel militias, backed by the Turkish military are all jockeying for position in Syria. They want resources and land. Russia, the US and Turkey are the major external powers contending over the future of Syria. Each has its partners or proxies inside Syria.