For Syria, international compromise drives internal partition
UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, speaking at Geneva’s Graduate Institute, said Syria was heading towards a “soft, long-term partition,” which he described as “catastrophic.”
The Swedish diplomat was saying what all Syrians had known for years. They have watched their country sleepwalk towards “soft partition” since 2012.
When the crisis started, the thought of a three- or four-way partition was categorically refuted by the Syrian government and its opponents, arguing that they would accept nothing less than control of metropolitan Syria, with its present borders, with a capital in Damascus, with no breakaway states or invisible borders.
That mentality slowly changed, although few would admit it in public, seeing it as politically incorrect and ultimately wrong, from a nationalistic point of view. Once the battles of Afrin and Eastern Ghouta end, the Syrian patchwork would look semi-final, more like a chessboard than a battlefield.
Today, seven years down the road, invisible borders are beginning to emerge, carving the country into spheres of influence, shared by the Russians, Americans, Turks and, to a lesser extent, Iranians.
When Iran entered the Syrian battlefield in 2012, many expected it to want control of the entire country, transforming it into another Iraq. The Iranians didn’t lift a finger, however, to prevent entire towns and cities from falling to the armed opposition through 2012-15, much to the horror of Syrian leaders.
Half of Aleppo fell to the opposition in 2012, along with its entire countryside, and so did the north-western city of Idlib, Daraa in southern Syria, Deir Ez-Zor, Raqqa and Abu Kamal on the Euphrates, in addition to the ancient city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert, which was overrun twice by the Islamic State (ISIS). It became clear that Iran had a limited ambition in Syria, only to secure areas that were vital to its national interests, such as the Damascus-Beirut Highway, which was vital for Hezbollah, the Qalamoun district and Shia shrines in Damascus.
Iran realised that there were limits to its ambition, given that, unlike Lebanon or Iraq, it had no Shias in Syria who were willing to carry arms and die for the sake of Tehran. With limited tools, it decided to take only what was feasible, politically, militarily and demographically.
These are the pockets that Iran continues to control and will likely be left with in the short term, although US President Donald Trump has made the ejection of Iran from Syria a prime objective of his foreign policy, on par with the empowerment of Syrian Kurds and the annihilation of ISIS.
The Turks, too, had to settle for less than what they hoped to get in 2012. Their plan was no less than marching on Damascus, toppling the regime and replacing it with Syrian proxies in the Muslim Brotherhood.
When that became increasingly difficult by 2013, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned to an alternate strategy, tearing the country apart if he couldn’t get it in full, shattering cities that he had wanted on his “wish list.” He saw the Russian military intervention of 2015 as a blessing in disguise, cutting a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin to settle for a fraction of what he had originally wanted, in return for letting the Russians tip the balance in favour of their allies elsewhere in Syria.
In the summer of 2016, the two men met in St Petersburg and, shortly thereafter, Turkish troops marched into northern Syria, overrunning the border cities of Azaz and Jarabulus and the inland one of al-Bab.
The declared objective was to clean the area from ISIS and Kurdish militias, creating a safe zone along the border where Ankara could relocate millions of Syrian refugees who have been living in Turkey since 2011. Erdogan begged then-President Barack Obama to let him have the honours of retaking Raqqa from ISIS but that went to Kurdish militias supported by the CIA.
The ambitious Turkish leader turned to the Russians once again, seeking their approval to march on Afrin, the strategic city west of the Euphrates River, deep within Russian-held territory.
Afrin was strategic for the Kurdish project, as Kurdish parties hoped to unite it with Hasakah and Qamishli east of the Euphrates, to create the “Federal Government of Northern Syria.” Erdogan would settle for any deal, no matter how painful, if it led to an end of the Kurdish project on his borders. In February, he got approval from the Russians, overtaking Afrin in mid-March.
The Russians looked the other way and, in return, Erdogan didn’t lift a finger to save Turkish proxies in Eastern Ghouta, the agricultural belt surrounding Damascus, which has been held by the armed opposition since 2012. It was Afrin for Ghouta, just like in 2016, he had traded Aleppo for Jarabulus and Azaz.
He is now threatening to march on Manbij, north-east of Aleppo, which was liberated from ISIS rule by Kurdish militias in 2016. This, however, is where Erdogan’s troops will stop. They won’t trespass on Russian territory if the Russians leave them in peace in the cities of Jarabulus, Azaz, al-Bab, Afrin and, soon, Manbij as well.
The US share of Syria — a total of 22% — is seemingly okayed by the Russians. They are situated throughout Kurdish towns east of the Euphrates, where eight US military bases operate, under the watchful eye of Russian warplanes. Trump wants to empower and reward the Kurds of Syria, whom he sees as vital allies in the war on terror.
During their brief summit in Vietnam in November, Trump and Putin agreed to co-sharing Syria through pockets of influence, with the Americans staying in the north-east until after the political process starts, an indefinite date, no doubt, that could mean years.
In return, the Trump administration seems to have surrendered to Putin’s version of the Syrian endgame, one that keeps Bashar Assad in power and crushes the armed opposition once threatening his rule in cities and towns where the Russian Army is present. This basically applies to all major urban centres in Syria, including Aleppo in the north, Latakia on the coast, where the Russian Hmeimim base is located, and Damascus proper, with its entire countryside.
Syrians of both camps feel helpless at such under-the-table deals on their behalf but are helpless to challenge them. Some argue that such a formula is bound to fail, with some satisfied as long as battle lines are drawn firmly in cement rather than sand, seeing that a clear-cut military victory is close to impossible. If the spheres of influence survive, each camp would be given the chance to say: “At least, I didn’t lose completely!”