The 2018 winners and losers in Syria war
BEIRUT - The year 2018 kicked off on a high note for Syria, heralding cautious optimism, when more than 1,000 delegates assembled last January in Sochi, Russia, attending peace talks hosted by President Vladimir Putin.
For the first time, prominent opposition figures such as Ahmad Jarba and Haitham Manaa sat across the podium with delegates from Damascus. Apart from breaking the psychological barrier between the two sides, the conference achieved little for the war-torn nation.
By year’s end, however, the peace process had morphed from “Assad must go” into simply drafting a new constitution for Syria, in accordance with UN Resolution Security Council 2254.
The first six months of 2018 were marked by major battlefield developments, all to the favour of the Russians and their Syrian allies. On January 25, they launched a major ground offensive to retake Eastern Ghouta, held by the armed opposition since 2012. By mid-April, they declared victory.
Those who refused to join the Russia-led reconciliation were shipped off to northern Syria under auspices of the United Nations. It was the single most important battlefield development for the Russian and Syrian armies since the December 2016 capture of Aleppo.
On April 19, a new operation started, this time against the Yarmouk camp and its nearby Hajar al-Aswad neighbourhood, also in the hands of Islamic rebels since 2012. By late May, both areas had been levelled to the ground and cleared from the armed opposition as well.
On June 22, the last major military operation was begun, now against rebel-held areas in southern Syria, around the strategic city of Daraa, considered the birthplace of the revolution by the Syrian opposition. That operation ended July 6, with the recapturing of the Syrian-Jordanian Nasib border. Busloads of militiamen were shipped off to Idlib in north-western Syria, where they assimilated with thousands of fighters.
The year was catastrophic for the Syrian opposition, which lost all major territory and with it, any ability to influence the peace process begun four years ago under the unspoken slogan of “Negotiations under Fire.”
US assistance to the armed opposition abruptly ended in 2018, along with financial aid to the White Helmets. The only party still a recipient of military aid were Kurdish fighters in the Syrian Democratic Forces dotted across cities and towns east of the Euphrates River. When the Daraa operations started, the United States warned its proxies in southern Syria that it would not intervene on their behalf.
Syrian Kurds were definite losers in 2018 after both the Americans and the Russians looked the other way as Turkey-backed forces retook the city of Afrin, within Russia’s sphere of influence, last February. The opposition argued that a deal had been struck between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Putin, swapping Afrin for East Ghouta.
On March 29, US President Donald Trump announced that his troops would be leaving Syria “very soon,” shocking Kurdish militants who had relied heavily on US presence in cities such as al-Hasakah and Qamishli.
If the Americans withdrew, the Turks would certainly march across the border to end Kurdish forces in eastern Syria. No withdrawal happened, however, due to continued Iranian presence in Syria. As the year closes, Erdogan is amassing troops for a new offensive, targeting Kurdish groups east of the Euphrates.
The second half of the year was relatively less eventful, focused mainly on political talks, by the Russians, Turks and Iranians with notable participation of France and Germany in Istanbul in October. In September, Putin agreed to halt an upcoming offensive against Idlib, which would have aggravated the massive refugee problem for the European Union and Turkey.
In return, Erdogan promised to let his proxies, now looped into the “National Liberation Front,” to free the area from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamic State (ISIS). Each of the militant groups is estimated at 15,000 strong in Idlib. Meeting in Sochi, the two presidents set a deadline for mid-October but Erdogan failed to deliver, prompting an “extension” by the Russians, with backing from France and Germany.
Once controlling vast territory bestriding Syria and Iraq, ISIS is confined to Idlib and small pockets in the countryside of Deir ez-Zor and Abu Kamal. Along with the Syrian armed opposition and Kurds, they are the certain losers of 2018 if Erdogan goes ahead with his military operation.
The biggest winner no doubt is Putin. All benchmarks set after his 2015 intervention in the Syrian conflict have been met. The threat to his allies in Damascus has been eliminated. The UN-mandated Geneva peace talks are dead, with the November departure of their engineer, Staffan de Mistura. So is all talk about creation of a Transitional Government Body to rule with “full executive powers” during the “transition period” as outlined by the first session of Geneva in the summer of 2012.
The talk of the town is the constitutional committee, expected to be announced before the end of this month and to start work in early 2019. Also, Arab countries are inching towards rapprochement with Damascus, music to the ears of Putin, who is glad to see historic allies of the United States, such as Kuwait and Bahrain, mend fences with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
It would be wrong to assume that the Syrian conflict, which started in 2011, ended in 2018. Far from it, a large chunk of territory is in the hands of the United States and its Kurdish proxies. Turkey occupies border cities such as Jarabulus and Azaz, and inland ones, including Afrin and al-Bab. The Russians promised to repatriate approximately 2 million Syrian refugees by year’s end but only a tiny fraction of that amount has returned.
The elephant in the room remains where to raise money for Syria’s reconstruction, funds Russia cannot give and nor can Iran, certainly not after US sanctions were renewed last November.
A rapprochement with the Gulf might help but the European Union won’t pitch in before a political process kicks off and that cannot start before all the guns go silent on the Syrian battlefield.