The roles of the US, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel in Syria: moving towards the end of the war
The two superpowers have agreed to finish off ISIS in Syria
Al-Qaeda in Syria has lost the support of the people and the countries of the region
Hezbollah fears an Israeli-US-Saudi Arabia war but the facts speak otherwise
The US and Russia have agreed to put an end to the “Islamic State” (ISIS/Daesh) as a priority in Syria, unifying the goal without necessarily agreeing on uniting efforts and coordinating the ground attack. Nevertheless, this beginning will lead the way towards the end of the war in Syria and pave the way to removing essential obstacles (that means all jihadists) on the peace process road.
The US in Syria and the difficult choices:
The United States has pushed hundreds of its special forces and elite troops into the north – east of Syria to maintain a military presence in the country and help the Syrian Kurds and Arab tribes fight ISIS. The US forces are training, planning and supplying their proxies with weapons, offering air support and intelligence monitoring through SIGINTL (signal Intelligence) to observe and neutralise ISIS leaders and formulate attack plans for the city of Raqqa.
It is inevitable that there should be some redistribution of roles between the US and Russia over the attack to defeat ISIS in Raqqa. This is also manifested in the advance of the Syrian army towards ISIS-held territory[ii] in north-eastern Aleppo in order to stop the Turkish army and its allies from advancing beyond al-Bab city[iii] and to close the circle tighter around Raqqa by crossing the Euphrates River from the west bank. The Syrian army is aiming to liberate Deir Hafer and Maskana to complete its full control of northern-eastern rural Aleppo and cleanse it of any ISIS presence.
Top military generals, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian general staff; and their Turkish counterpart, Gen. Hulusi Akar met last week[iv] in Antalya and defined the limits the Turkish forces and their proxies can reach in Syria. It was clear that Ankara shall not be part of any attack against Raqqa and that its forces and proxies will stop at the limits defined by Al-Bab gates. Both the US and Russia want to avoid any Turkish-Kurdish clash in Syria, particularly as the danger from Jihadists, ISIS and al-Qaida is far from being over, and that Kurdish forces still have a role to play in attacking ISIS around Raqqa.
Aspects of President Trump’s policy towards Syria are materialising, whilst there is a clear hesitation by the US administration regarding many other plans related to Bilad al-Sham during and after the war’s end. Trump wants to avoid any military confrontation with Russia and acknowledge its presence and its role in Syria, useful also for combating terrorism. Moscow wants to end the war and look after its strategic interests by being present on the ground in the Middle East for many years to come, thanks to the Syrian window. It is also aiming to eliminate over 9,000 Russian nationals[v] and various other nationalities fighting within the ranks of ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria. It is in the interests of all the countries concerned to eliminate terrorists before they spread and leave Syria for other destinations and wage the jihad in some other place. This particular issue is driving the Russian-US coordination in countering terrorism, even if the US is still unclear about its own plans after the end of the war.
To-date, the intention of the US troops stationed in the north of Syria and its strategic objectives is still unclear. The presence of four US military bases and an airport under construction may be an indication that these forces are not willing to pull out any time soon. Leaving Syria won’t be without a price and staying means the creation of a Kurdish Syrian enclave similar to Kurdistan in Iraq. This also means the Turkish forces will follow the US and keep over five thousand square kilometres annexed to Turkey.
It is also clear that though Trump is injecting more US troops on the ground, he is fighting, up to now, with Kurdish and Arab tribe’s proxies. He may be aiming to register a “recognised victory” by defeating ISIS (the group is retreating on all fronts in Iraq and Syria, deprived of any support and with more limited finances) without diving into the Syrian quagmire. Such a victory may turn into failure if Trump decides to keep US troops there indefinitely once the Syrian war is over.
The question remains: which forces will storm the city of Raqqa?
Twenty thousand Arab and Kurdish militants may be able to reach the gates of Raqqa and participate in surrounding it. The Arab tribes in the area will reject the control by Kurds of an Arab city. Moreover, there is no reason for the Kurds to risk their lives and lose hundreds or thousands of militants (hundreds of Kurds lost their lives to liberate Manbij city) to deliver the city of Raqqa back to the Arab tribes once it is liberated from ISIS.
Therefore, Trump will be facing a real dilemma, and will be forced to collaborate with Russia and its allies on this front against ISIS. Air strike coordination between Russia and the US is not excluded for the Kurds to reach one side of Raqqa and for the Syrian Army to storm the other side of the city, similar to the tactics used at Mosul (Iraqi Kurds were responsible for reaching the northern front of Mosul, contributing to surrounding ISIS). In this case, Trump won’t be the only one to collect the victory, he will be forced to share it with Russia and work alongside the Syrian forces- unless of course he decides to put in his own US troops (several thousands) and accept the inevitable human losses! All difficult choices, but the collaboration of US, Russian and Syrian army forces in Syria is absolutely unavoidable.
The role of Russia:
[i]Moscow in the Syrian war is acting like the maestro of an orchestra, aiming to control the pace of the battles and the distribution of power on the geopolitical map of the Levant.
Russia has decided that Syria has become a part of its political and military strategies, preventing the fall of a coherent governing system that protects the state and prevents the reproduction of the Libyan “failed state” scenario. To this end, and to maintain its influence in the Middle East through the Syrian window, Russia has worked on multiple fronts to ensure that it is not dragged into the Syrian quagmire, that the long war in Syria ends, and that the safety and long term security of its military bases on the borders of NATO Middle East – represented by Turkey – be confirmed.
Moscow showed its fangs to the Obama administration when they insisted on protecting al-Qaeda and other jihadists. The Russians used all kinds of modern weapons (appropriate to the Syrian war) to hit all of the United States allies and “protected” groups in Syria when these were working closely with al-Qaeda, and were benefitting from modern weapons, intelligence, finance and logistic supply from the countries of the region (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey). Moscow offered full air support to the Syrian army and its allies, and represented the spearhead of main attacks against the alliance of jihadists and the Syrian rebel groups. This led the forces of Damascus to a robust victory in the cities of Aleppo, Palmyra, rural Lattakia, and Damascus and other parts of Syria.
Russia has committed itself to strike any alliance of al-Qaeda and the armed opposition (even if these were not included in any peace talks) if these have the intention of violating the Astana-Kazakhstan ceasefire and preparing for a future offensive against the Syrian army. Moscow is asking Damascus and its allies to fight ISIS now rather than al-Qaeda, mainly established around Aleppo and in the northern city of Idlib, unless these insist on harassing the Syrian army positions.
The Kremlin rejected any Turkish proposition to advance into Kurdish territory because this is already liberated from ISIS. And it stopped Turkey dead at the city of al-Bab, preventing its forces from moving any further. Russia does not trust Turkey’s intentions in Syria despite the recent visit of President Erdogan to Moscow (where warmth has returned to the relationship-for the sake of both countries’ economies). President Putin was clear with Erdogan about his strategic alliance with Iran, despite his orchestrating terrorism whilst hoping to earn Trump’s blessing.
Ankara may try to turn its attention towards Russia rather than the US in the forthcoming Astana 3 talks, hoping, probably in vain, to persuade Putin to choose to support Turkish forces against the Kurds in Syria. The military map has been already drawn, where Turkey has no place in the forthcoming war against ISIS- nor will she be allowed to venture into the area already liberated by the Kurds. Nevertheless, the Turkish influence is still needed against al-Qaeda due to the presence of several of its proxy groups in Idlib and around it, and due to the easy border crossings and benefits Turkey allows al-Qaeda to enjoy.
Moscow is expected to play an important role in the future of Syrian policy, imposing a political dialogue and negotiations between rebels and Damascus in Astana and Geneva. Russia is carefully avoiding the Afghanistan experience, unwilling to be drawn into a long war in Syria. This is one of the main reasons why Putin wants the end of the war as soon as possible. Already, the slogan of “Assad should leave by military or political means[vi]” is history: even the US is no longer asking for the departure of the Syrian President saying his fate will be decided “by the on-going political negotiations”.
On the other hand, Russia has not interfered in the conflict between Israel and Iran (and its Lebanese Hezbollah ally). Israel was prevented from targeting any military force fighting alongside the Syrians, but, at the same time, Tel Aviv jets were given a free hand to bomb Iranian warehouses dedicated to Hezbollah in Lebanon or to the “Syrian resistance” in the Golan, a force which is preparing in the shadows for the post-Syrian war. Russia doesn’t want to be part of this struggle and she has allowed both sides to sort out the rules of engagement on their own. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu failed to convince President Putin and won’t have a free hand to bomb Hezbollah and Iran[vii] in Syria as long as these are part of a coalition led by Russia to end ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria. The war is not over yet and al-Qaeda has large forces in the north of Syria and others in the south. ISIS is still capable of causing damage, its fighters number several thousand in Syria and Iraq.
Al-Qaeda from “Nusra” to “Fateh al-Sham” to “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham”:
Al-Qaeda has lost its “father” and “mother” in Syria and its region when absolute support for changing the regime in Syria was dropped.
The “father” was incarnated in several countries of the region (Saudi Arabia and Qatar) who are now reducing their role in Syria because the opposition failed to achieve the target of overthrowing Assad, and because Russia and the US are imposing new rules, closing the road to any arms supply or finance to terrorist groups in Syria. The regular passage through Turkey is closing down slowly but surely: ISIS and al-Qaeda will be shortly unable to benefit from the supply line available for over five years.
Where the Obama administration failed to split rebels from al-Qaeda, its leader Abu Mohamad al-Joulani succeeded: he attacked the same rebel groups who offered protection to al-Qaeda for years when these accepted to participate in the Astana cease-fire talks. Not only that, al-Qaeda attacked the biggest rebel jihadi group “Ahrar al-Sham” who turned down the offer to go to Astana, accepting Turkey’s anger, just to stand by AQ. This is when al-Qaeda lost its “mother” in Syria- where the Syrian people are giving up, turning against it and rejecting its actions. Joulani offered two choices to most groups: either you join us or we fight you to the death.
In the light of the Russian-American determination to fight terrorism in Syria, al-Qaeda has few options:
– Fight to the death a battle without any strategic outcome
– Merge with rebel groups, like Ahrar al-Sham, a most unlikely step following the recent events where al-Qaeda attacked rebels and Ahrar to gather strength and weapons
– Ask all foreign fighters to leave Syria and go to another Jihadi land, Yemen or Somalia. Joulani has said that Foreign Fighters represent at least a third of his forces.
Therefore, eliminating ISIS first as a top priority may allow enough time for al-Qaeda to prepare for its biggest battle or decide on an alternative plan. Once Idlib faces the choice of surrendering or fighting, the thinking will be over and a clear cut decision will impose itself.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar role in Syria:
The Middle Eastern countries understand today that Russia is planning to stay in Syria and will use all its powers to defend its interests. It is also clear that the US won’t be able to alter Russia’s decisive intention. Therefore all regional players are slowly pulling out, mainly following the recovery of the city of Aleppo by Damascus forces.
The UN envoy to Syria, Stafan De Mistura has clearly stated that the all parties should give up on the illusion of a possible military victory, engage in a global ceasefire, discuss the constitution (by the same Syrians), reconstruct the country and put an end to terrorism. There is to be no further talk about the fate of the Syrian President: a clear indication that the international community is prepared to give up on any group willing to continue fighting and that Syria is heading toward the end of the war.
This stand is sending a strong message to Saudi Arabia and Qatar that no more military supplies to rebels or jihadists will be tolerated, which means the end of the Middle Eastern countries’ negative role. Saudi Arabia and Qatar never had a clear strategy in Syria except supplying weapons and finance for a regime change without necessarily planning for a new government or forwarding any kind of vision for the new ruler of Syria. A “failed state” was on the agenda of Saudi Arabia and Qatar even if that was leading to control by jihadists, al-Qaeda and ISIS, who would turn their guns, once they were strong enough, against these same Middle Eastern countries.
Speculation went viral in the media, claiming that Russia would ask Iran and Hezbollah to leave Syria as part of the peace process deal. This was wishful thinking since Moscow never raised the question with Iran and its allies. What makes this speculation unrealistic is the fact that only the Syrian government or President would ask his allies to leave the country. Moreover, al-Qaeda and ISIS still maintain tens of thousands of militants on the ground and the Syrian army alone, with the support of Russian Air Force, may not be able to cleanse the country of these. AQ and ISIS are equipped with a strong ideology, a driving force not present in the doctrine of the professional soldier: therefore, there is a need for similar ideologies so as to be able to fight back with the same determination.
Iran came to Syria in 1982 to respond to those who became known later as the Lebanese Hezbollah. Also, it is Assad who asked for the support of Hezbollah in 2013 when the situation became critical. Syria, Iran and Hezbollah form what is known as the “axis of resistance” where Syria fulfilled its deal by supplying advanced weapons to Hezbollah in 2006 (and continues to do so to this date) to face Israel. Therefore, Syria won’t be in need of tens of thousands of allies once the war is over. The allies of Syria are expected to leave as fast as they landed in the country when Assad decides it shall be so, regardless of what Moscow or Washington wish.
Today, it is obvious that the Iranian strategy prevailed over that of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Syria and managed to sustain a friendly government in Syria. Iran is also playing a positive role in the rapprochement between Baghdad and Damascus, resulting in military collaboration and the air bombing of ISIS targets by the Iraqi Air Force in Syria.
Moreover, there is an on-going discussion between Damascus and Tehran for the construction of an Iranian naval base in the oil terminal port of Banias, 55 km from Latakia. If realised (it may take few years before it becomes operational) it will boost the crippled Syrian economy. Throughout the years of war, Iran has been supplying Syria with oil, mainly when the jihadists of ISIS and Al-Qaeda controlled the northern eastern oil fields.
Hezbollah militants are present over the entire Syrian geography, supporting the Syrian army in its war against rebels and jihadists. Hezbollah believes Israel and the US, financed by Saudi Arabia, maybe preparing for another round of violence against the Lebanese group in Lebanon. Nevertheless, all facts indicate the opposite:
- if Trump is aiming for a spectacular victory, ISIS is much weaker than Hezbollah, easier to win over.
- US priorities in Syria are to degrade and contain ISIS and maybe al-Qaeda. To achieve this goal, Hezbollah forces are still needed. Moreover, the result of a war against Hezbollah, unlike ISIS, is not guaranteed. The tens of thousands of rockets and missiles held by Hezbollah can create real damage in Israel.
- If Israel declares war against Hezbollah, Syria will take part as a direct player, dragging Russia with it. The destiny of the Syrian regime is linked to its victory in Syria. It won’t hesitate to stand by those who fought with its army for years. Russia wouldn’t want to see its plans in Syria collapsing when so close to achieving its goal.
- The internal Israeli front is not ready to face a destructive war with Hezbollah, in control of between 150,000 to 200,000 rockets and missiles, according to Israeli officials.
- The warfare experience gathered by Hezbollah in Syria made the group a challenging adversary when facing Israeli infantry. Hezbollah engaged in a different battle style against its fiercest enemies in Syria (ISIS and al-Qaeda) and showed itself to be fearless of death, unlike the Israeli army.
As long as the war in Syria was fuelled and active, Israel was feeling safe. Now that the beginning of the end is taking off, Israel is rightly worried. It took Hezbollah very few days to occupy the 600 sqkm city of al-Quseyr in 2013. How long it would it take to occupy the 2,380 sqkm of Galilee in a war situation? The war in Syria was highly beneficial to Hezbollah, despite the 1,600 men killed in the battlefield.
Syria looks both close to and far from the end of the war. There are still both military (against ISIS and al-Qaeda) and political battles (constitution, cease-fire, reconstruction) to be fought. Nevertheless, despite the US and Turkish occupation of Syrian territory which Damascus will have to face one day, there are clear signs that the war in Syria is on track towards its ending.