As the conflict in Syria moves into its seventh bloody year, one end state does seem increasingly inevitable: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his brutal regime are not going anywhere any time soon.
With power dynamics solidifying in peace talks and on the ground, and the Islamic State having largely been dislodged from the country, experts say the war’s proxies are making moves to potentially resolve certain aspects of the civil war.
According to the United Nations, about 5 million Syrians have fled the country and more than 6 million are internally displaced. The Syrian Center for Policy Research, an independent research organization, puts the death toll since war erupted in March 2011 at more than 470,000 people. The violence in Syria is becoming “more localized” as additional parts of the country are no longer scenes of fighting, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told The Washington Diplomat.
“In those places where there is still fighting, such as Eastern Ghouta and Idlib, the horror of the war is still very real,” he said, referring to two besieged rebel-held enclaves. “But in parts of the country formerly wracked by violence, the Syrian government has a basic level of control in Aleppo, Homs, Deir ez-Zor, or the [opposition] Syrian Democratic Forces have taken control in Raqqa,” he said.
But “there is one conclusion being established: The Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad will remain in power, even if it is greatly weakened,” Ford said.
There will be no transition government, and “the ruthless security apparatus will remain in essential control of the major cities — Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor, Latakia,” according to the former ambassador.
With the majority of territory known as “useful Syria” under the regime’s control — including Aleppo, once the cradle of the opposition — Assad now holds much of the cards in any peace talks. A member of the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, Assad received critical support from Iran and Shiite Hezbollah fighters, while Sunni rivals such as Saudi Arabia funded the rebel opposition. But Assad owes his survival largely to Russia, which entered the war in 2015 with a ferocious bombing campaign to preserve its geostrategic ally in the Middle East.
Russia has now positioned itself to be one of the main arbiters of Syria’s fate. The opposition has been severely weakened and fractured, and its demand that Assad step down ahead of any political transition is a nonstarter for the Syrian government, which is unlikely to offer any concessions in the wake of military victories on the ground. The deadlock has essentially scuttled numerous rounds of U.N.-backed peace talks in Geneva, where U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura could not even get the two delegations to meet in the same room last November.
The rebels, seemingly resigned to the fact that Assad won’t leave as a precondition for talks, are now urging Russia to pressure the Syrian president into face-to-face negotiations.
Even the United States — which intervened in Syria in 2014 to root out the Islamic State — has conceded that Assad could remain in power until presidential elections in 2021.
“Diplomatically, Washington has been marginalized by the powerful troika of Russia, Iran, and Turkey, which now dominates the peace process,” wrote Robin Wright in a Dec. 11 article for The New Yorker.
In January, the troika launched its own peace process in Kazakhstan, where talks quickly devolved into squabbling, with the rebels labeling the government “a bloody despotic regime,” while the government called the opposition “armed terrorist groups.” Despite the lack of progress, this Russian-led diplomatic effort could supersede the official, struggling United Nations peace process. Moscow is hosting a national dialogue conference in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi in February, shortly after another round of Geneva talks is scheduled to take place.
Randa Slim, director of the Track II Dialogues initiative at the Middle East Institute (MEI), argues that the Geneva talks are a sideshow to the “real” talks led by Russia. “To reach a sustainable peace agreement in Syria, Moscow needs buy-in from two stakeholder groups: the spoilers, including Damascus, Tehran and Ankara; and the funders, including the United States, E.U. and Arab Gulf countries. Without the spoilers’ buy-in, no peace agreement can be reached. Without the funders’ blessing, peace-building in Syria is difficult,” she wrote in a Nov. 27 MEI briefing. “While all share the objective of ending the conflict in Syria, a wide gap remains within each group and between the two groups about the terms of an acceptable peace agreement.”
Ford agrees that the U.N.-backed effort has reached a dead end. “The Geneva talks have nowhere to go, since the Syrian government refuses to make any serious compromises — it won’t even offer confidence-building measures such as prisoner releases,” Ford said. “Meanwhile, the opposition is fragmented.”
There will be more “desultory talks,” he noted, but there is not any kind of rapid conclusion in sight.
“Russia and its allies in Damascus and Tehran will move to marginalize the harder-line opposition as the political process crawls along,” Ford said. “In the meantime, there will be continued fighting in northwest Syria — Idlib and northern Hama — and in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.”
“Make no mistake,” he added. “The Syrian government is advancing, very slowly, two steps forward, one step backward, but slowly it is expanding its control.”
And Washington has taken a backseat, losing ground to Moscow as the long, violent conflict seems to be approaching some kind of, if not conclusion, then possible stalemate over the future of the country. But while Russian President Vladimir Putin has backed Assad, many experts say he is not particularly wedded to the Syrian president. Rather, Moscow is more concerned about retaining control of its naval facility in the Syrian city of Tartus, its sole foothold in the Mediterranean.
Moscow may only have been interested in using its intervention in Syria as a way to try to position itself as a great power, according to Mark Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University who is currently serving a three-month stint as a Fulbright scholar at the SOAS University of London.
“Obviously, the regime and its allies have done pretty well, haven’t they — from being on the ropes both in 2011 and 2012, and then in 2015, now it seems the survival of the regime is pretty much assured,” Katz said. “I guess the question is, are they going to take over the entire country and are their allies willing to help with that? It appears the Russians aren’t willing. They got what they want, and they want to limit their involvement.”
Putin has been maneuvering to be in a position of authority in bringing the civil war to some kind of close. But Katz said he does not believe Moscow is particularly invested in the diplomatic process it purports to be heading up. “They just want to keep watch over it, not for it to actually do anything,” he said.
Ford, who served as ambassador from 2011 to 2014 and now is a fellow at the Middle East Institute and at Yale University, said Russia and Syria will likely seek to cut a deal with the opposition groups that have a softer stance on Assad. Such an arrangement would change “nothing” in the Syrian security apparatus or presidency and offer merely “cosmetic changes” to the government, Ford said.
“In a sense, the Syrian government will be imposing terms on softer elements of the opposition in return for minor or cosmetic changes — a minister here, or a deputy minister or secretary-general there,” he said. “When the armed opposition and harder-line elements of the political opposition reject this cosmetic deal, Russia-Syria will move to strip them of any remaining international legitimacy by saying these rejectionists are blocking a final end to the civil war.”
But Washington is not totally out of the picture. Ford noted that in terms of its military presence, the United States has expanded its role, “extending the deployment of the roughly 2,000 military personnel in eastern and northeastern Syria.” Those troops will stay for the foreseeable future, not only to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State, but also to counter Iranian influence. And U.S. civilians are also going to work on various stabilization projects to try to rebuild some infrastructure, such as power and water, and services like schools and governance.
Where that ends and “long-term reconstruction begins is very unclear,” Ford said. “In that light, the U.S. could be starting a longer-term engagement that lacks any international OK and will garner regional hostility from Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.”
While Russia, Iran and Turkey have teamed up to find a political settlement to the war, their interests do not necessarily align. The Kremlin seems open to cooperating with some communities opposed to Assad, while the other parties in the Russian-led talks, Iran and Turkey, are less inclined. One contentious issue is how a Russia-Syria deal would affect Syrian Kurdish militants, who have been trained and financed by the U.S. and largely make up the Syrian Democratic Forces, which have helped liberate territory seized by the Islamic State.
Turkey, which had up until recently backed the Syrian opposition but has now aligned itself with Russia, is primarily concerned with blocking Syrian Kurdish territorial gains along its border, fearing a Kurdish separatist uprising in its country.
It vehemently opposes a reported plan to create an American-backed, Kurdish-led border force in northeastern Syria that could create a de facto Kurdish state and recently went to Russia to green light attacks on the Kurdish-dominated enclave of Afrin. That offensive has reportedly killed some 300 fighters and possibly opened up a new front in the war. While Russia has made some overtures to Syria’s Kurds, it may approve of the Turkish assault as a way to sow division between the U.S. and NATO ally Turkey. Moscow also opposes any division of Syria, as does Iran.
Iran is just as heavily invested in Syria’s outcome as Russia is, if not more so. The Islamic republic has supported the Assad regime with money, weapons and elite ground forces. Propping up his government means both having an ally against its major rivals in the region, namely Saudi Arabia and Israel, and a way to move weapons to Hezbollah. Katz noted that under Putin, Russia “has pretty decent relations with Israel, which it doesn’t want disturbed.”
Washington, meanwhile, has been overwhelmingly focused on defeating the Islamic State, also known as ISIS — a military offensive that began under Barack Obama and has continued under Donald Trump. Last April, President Trump did order an airstrike against a Syrian base after reports that Assad used chemical weapons, but otherwise he has generally avoided direct conflict with forces backing the regime and the administration’s overall intentions are unclear. “As far as Syria’s concerned, we have very little to do with Syria other than killing ISIS. What we do is we kill ISIS,” Trump said in September.
Katz said that Moscow does not want the U.S. involved in the peace negotiations, but “they do want the U.S. to contribute to the reconstruction effort.”
“There’s a fundamental different approach or disagreement against the American approach, which is that people who win the war pay,” Katz said. “In the Soviet way, they make the people who lose pay.”
But Trump, who campaigned on an “America First” platform that seeks to avoid overseas entanglements, is unlikely to foot the bill for Syria’s reconstruction, which is expected to massive. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a Jan. 17 speech, also said the U.S., EU and other partners “will not provide international reconstruction assistance to any area under control of the Assad regime.”
However, a recent report by Rand Corp. on a possible peace plan for Syria suggests that the United States, Europe and Gulf Arab states do just that. It recommends that Assad’s international opponents admit that military assistance to the rebels has failed, and instead use their ability to offer reconstruction aid to push a bottom-up, community-by-community political process that could lessen Russian and Iranian influence.
“Rather than continue to resist that process by focusing U.S. and allied efforts on the unlikely goal of overthrowing the Syrian government, we suggested that [deconfliction] zones might become the basis of a long-term agreement that could help de-escalate, and ultimately end, the war,” wrote James Dobbins, Philip Gordon and Jeffrey Martini. “A decentralized Syria, we argued, was a more realistic goal than the continued pursuit of military efforts to overthrow the regime, which were merely perpetuating a conflict that was killing and displacing millions, exacerbating sectarianism and destabilizing Syria’s neighbors.”
But rebuilding a country whose infrastructure, hospitals, schools and businesses have been leveled is a staggering task.
“What’s going to happen is there just isn’t going to be much reconstruction, and hence, that will lead to chronic instability,” Katz predicted. “It’s going to be very hard for them to fully stabilize.”
Ford says he expects “reconstruction will be very slow, hindered by a lack of financing.”
As long as Assad was on the ropes, Katz said, Moscow and Tehran were largely aligned in Syria, “but now that he’s more stable, it seems their interests are somewhat divergent.” How that will play out will be “difficult,” he said. But it seems that Assad — a violent, ruthless leader who for years has ignored the international community’s demands for him to go — may emerge from the war still holding onto some semblance of power.
“There are reports indicating that the Russians really don’t think all that highly of Assad, and Iranians don’t either. The real issue is what’s going to come afterward. Everyone agrees Assad is a loser, but the question is, what can replace him? That’s not clear at all. And I don’t think the Russians and Iranians would agree on it,” Katz said. “And Assad knows all this.”
As Katz said, “The Syrian conflict has the local dimension, regional dimension, external great power dimension — and they’re not all in sync. It’s a separate competition, but all are interrelated.”
About the Author
Mackenzie Weinger (@mweinger) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.