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Syria war enters complicated, confusing phase

Apr 04,2018 - Last updated at Apr 04,2018

The war in Syria has entered a new, complicated and confusing phase. Having gradually won back territory seized by insurgents of different hues, secured the support of Syrians living in the country and a measure of regional and international recognition that President Bashar Assad will stay on, Syria must meet other challenges before the war can end and the country can emerge in one piece.

On the military front, the government is making strategic gains. After the Syrian army has completed the process of driving the four tenacious takfiri groups, Jaish Al Islam, Faylaq Al Rahman, Ahrar Al Sham and Al Qaeda's Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, from Eastern Gouta, the farmland, towns and villages east of the capital, the military is expected to focus on the pocket of Daesh fighters in the southern Yarmouk and Hajjar Al Aswad suburbs. Daesh moved into the area held by Tahrir Al Sham when it withdrew to the northern Idlib province, where the group has a strong presence, but is now battling Turkish-backed factions for dominance. Idlib is destined to be a major battleground after Yarmouk and Hajjar Al Aswad have been cleared of Daesh.

On the issue of the government's standing, a well-informed Syrian source said it currently has the support of more than 70 per cent of the population residing in the country. He argued that if an election monitored by the UN had been held at the beginning of the crisis in 2011, Assad would have secured a solid majority of at least 65 per cent. This might have discouraged outside actors from trying to topple him, and thus averted war. Syrians may criticise the authorities these days but are grateful that they have a government and the state functions.

On the external front, there is grudging recognition of the fact that Assad is here to stay. The latest key leader to accept this reality was Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, whose country has backed a variety of takfiri and insurgent groups. He recently made this admission during a visit to the US.

Turkey is a growing challenge which must be tackled and not by Damascus on its own. Ankara has recruited various factions under the banner of the so-called "Syrian national army", and claims its fighters are "moderates." They are, however, simply rebranded takfiris ready to serve anyone who pays and arms them. Turkey is using this formation to impose its control on Idlib and the newly conquered Afrin canton, lately wrested from the Kurds.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeks to create what he calls a "safe haven" on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey, allegedly, to prevent Syrian Kurds allied to Turkey's dissident Kurds from forming a contiguous enclave along the length of this frontier. However, the connection between Syrian and Turkish Kurds is simply a pretext for a Turkish land grab which will, in the words of a Syrian friend, "never be accepted by the Syrian people", who are not ready to cede more territory to Turkey, which happened with Iskandarun in 1939 while Syria was under French rule.

Turkey's land grab began with operation "Euphrates Shield" in 2016, when Turkish and surrogate forces seized Jarablus, Al Bab and Dabiq in north central Syria. During Turkey's Afrin offensive, the Kurdish population has been driven from the canton, and Ankara has proclaimed it intends to move Syrian refugees now residing in Turkey into this area as it has in the Jarablus-Al Bab-Dabiq triangle, where Turkey has established an occupation zone. Ankara has connected the area to the Turkish electricity grid, postal and telephone services, and deployed Syrian police and administrators loyal to Ankara.

On the issue of Turkish territorial ambitions and installation of rebranded takfiris, Damascus could have the undeclared support of the Western-sponsored anti-Daesh coalition, including the US, Britain, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as the Syrian government's allies, Russia and Iran. These countries reject any possibility of resurrection of the takfiri menace in northern Syria. Transforming takfiris into a proxy occupation force would simply preserve their presence. There will have to be a deal to root them out. This could involve restoration of Syrian government rule and sovereignty in this area and along the Turkish-Syrian border to prevent Ankara from waging war on the Syrian Kurds, who have established an enclave along the frontier.

Turkey is not the only unpredictable actor in the Syrian drama. While some armed groups in the south have made "reconciliation" deals with the government, others remain in the field and are still being paid and armed by external actors. Under "reconciliation" agreements, fighters have the option of obtaining amnesty if they lay down their weapons or being transported to Idlib or the Turkish-occupied area, taking sidearms, money and family members. Jaish Al Islam, the largest and last takfiri faction occupying Eastern Ghouta, was offered Jarablus as its destination after its fighters were rejected by Idlib, where the group has no presence.

Since men who opt for amnesty are often drafted into the over-stretched, under-manned Syrian army, they often choose the latter option with the hope that they can smuggle themselves into Turkey and move on from there to Europe or elsewhere. As they are generally adherents of the takfiri ideology, they may belong to networks already based in Europe and remain a threat where ever they settle.

US President Donald Trump is a rogue element, creating consternation and confusion. For the moment, he appears eager to quit Syria. He has suspended $200 million in reconstruction aid and said he will withdraw 2,000 troops deployed by the US in the north. This could involve abandoning the vast occupation zone that the Syrian Kurds hold with US support in Raqqa and Deir Al Zor provinces. While Trump faces opposition on the question of pulling out US troops, he could override his generals and advisers. He is a very stubborn man when questioned or opposed. Of course, Trump is also ignorant of regional affairs, erratic and cannot be trusted to follow a policy he says he has adopted.

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Comments

More than 80% of the Syrians forcibly displaced in and out, with their beloved gassed, exterminated with napalm, phosphorus, by Russian-Extremist Jhadist Shi‘a invaders shall no doubt seek revenge and fight for generations to recover their rights and stolen homeland.
Culturally, Syrian identity cannot coexist with Extremist Jihadist Terrorism.
Qardaha's chief mobster has no legal nor political existence. He's a mere loincloth.
What you call "Syria, institutions, army, etc." do not exist.

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