The last battle of the Syrian regime
Seven years after the outbreak of the Syrian war, three zones of governance emerged. Each enjoys some degree of stability and depends on the protection of regional or international power while preserving some independence from that protector.
There is the zone of northern Aleppo, associated with Turkey; north-eastern Syria, associated with the United States; and the remaining and largest zone, associated with Russia.
Such a division was not possible a few years ago when overlapping battles raged across Syria in a way that prevented the emergence of clear spheres of influence. However, the most important factor that prevented the formation of such areas was linked to a policy followed by the Syrian government to deal with the rapid military developments since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011, especially when it came to the so-called liberated areas.
Once the government realised it was impossible to reclaim areas beyond its control, it denied them any stability. Damascus refused to recognise any autonomous existence for the areas, no matter the consequences. This required horrific and unprecedented levels of violence, such as the deployment of warplanes to strike residential areas since mid-2012 or the use of explosive barrels.
The use of barrel bombs against popular markets and residential areas caused widespread destruction, waves of displacement and ended any chance for stable local governance zones outside government control.
This was a very dangerous gamble by Damascus because it caused a dramatic increase in the number of deaths and of refugees — a consequence that could have resulted in an international reaction strong enough to bring the government down. The regime nonetheless chose between what it determined was the lesser of two evils: the acceptance of stable governance areas lying outside its control or raising the level of death and destruction, which would risk more external interference.
The regime’s gamble paid off. It avoided the potential nightmare of liberated areas without having to face additional international intervention not on its side. The government was spared this because of the decline of the role of the United States and the rise of Russia’s role. The emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria ended the possibility of international military intervention to protect Syrian civilians.
However, it was not possible for Damascus to control a conflict of such proportions and complexity. Eventually, there emerged areas independent from the government with some degree of stability.
The US intervention strengthened the Kurds and expanded the range of territory available to them, permitting the emergence of a governance system independent of Damascus. Despite grievances by Kurdish zone inhabitants about public services available to them, the United States and some Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, pledged $100 million for reconstruction and stabilisation efforts in those areas.
North of Aleppo, areas under Turkish control developed after the expulsion of ISIS by military operations that kicked off in 2016 and continued until the end of last year. Since the cessation of the hostilities there, the Turkish presence has turned from military to political.
Turkish influence has been growing through projects at a variety of levels. Thus, Turkish municipalities have established and financed local governance councils in Syria. They run a wide network of health, education, security, economic and judicial services.
The situation in Syria did not evolve as Damascus wished. Despite reversing the situation in its favour in the past couple of years and eliminating the threat of its downfall and despite the tremendous shrinking of the area controlled by the opposition to northern Aleppo, the Syrian government came out a loser. Its goal was not to just remain in power at any cost, it was to survive in a very specific state of centralised control and imposing authority and its security apparatus on every inch of Syria.
The battle today is focused on either perpetuating or reversing this reality, which represents a serious threat to the Syrian regime. The United States and Turkey are trying to transform the three zones of influence into a political agreement and even to guarantee and legitimise their existence and possibly that of other areas by emphasising the principle of decentralisation in the new constitution of the country. Russia is showing relative flexibility in accepting the decentralisation of the Syrian regime, in exchange for a complete exit of the United States from Syria.
The Syrian regime has other plans. As invested as it is in the US withdrawal from Syria, it would not allow it to occur at the expense of its authority nor would it accept the enshrining of this loss in authority in the country’s new constitution. This explains Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem’s insistence during his meeting with UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura that the constitution is an “issue of sovereignty” and his rejection of any foreign intervention in that regard.