The latest chapter has only recently started. The Russian military and Syria State TV said two Israeli war planes carried out strikes on a Syrian airbase at the end of last week, a few hours after reports of a chemical attack in Douma, the last rebel-held enclave in eastern Ghouta, near the capital Damascus.
President Donald Trump said last week that the U.S. would “be coming out of Syria like very soon,” just hours after Pentagon functionaries emphasized the need for American troops to remain in the country. The alleged chemical attack in Douma forced the American Administration to reevaluate its strategy, and now President Trump and global allies mull joint military response.
Seven years after the start of the civil war in March 2011, the end of the conflict in Syria seems far away and the situation on theground remains critical and uncertain. Actually, the Syrian scenario allows us a glimpse of what could be the symptoms of a new and worrisome cycle of crossed conflicts.
On the ground
With the fall of Raqqa, in Syria, and Mosul, in Iraq, the Islamic State has been relegated to marginal areas. As a matter of fact, although with many ambiguities, the fight against Isis was seemingly bringing all of the main players in Syria together in agreement. Now, with the defeat of the “Caliphate”, the justification used by many for participating in the conflict is lacking, and everyone’s individual interests are emerging.
Secondly, the “Pax Russica”, meaning the stabilization process operated by Moscow in saving the regime of Bashar el-Assad, is not taking off: one thing is to win the war against the anti-government rebels, another is to impose a peace that exceeds the crossed vetoes of their allies. In other words, Russia, while keeping the ranks of the alliance with Turkey, Iran and the Syrian government, cannot balance the interests of its allies and push them to accept a compromise of non-belligerency.
In the meantime, however, Russia finds itself forced into political and diplomatic balancing acts that are unsustainable in the long term and expose the country. For example, the Russian government has good relations with both Israel and Iran, but also supplies weapons to Syrian and Iranian forces, which Israel is currently bombing while meeting no opposition from the Russians themselves.
Another example of this sort of ambiguous position held by Russia can be found in the coordination on the ground with Turkey: Russia in fact maintains good relations with the Syrian Kurdish movements which are in opposition to Turskish president and ally Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.The region has been the site of a Turkish military operation since January 20th. Moreover, after having painstakingly negotiated the construction of four “de-escalation” zones, Russia is now seeing two of these, Ghouta and Idlib, being taken over by the attacks of the Syrian government itself.
Finally, an important consideration must be made regarding the anti-government forces. At the beginning of the civil war, the Syrian government clearly understood that its only chance for survival was to present itself to the world as the only alternative to a jihadist victory. As a result, also thanks to the support from Russia and Iran, the regime has concentrated its military efforts against the moderate opposition, leaving the Americans alone to deal with the Islamic State.
So today, with the “Caliphate” having collapsed, rebel forces are weak, divided and unable not only to establish themselves on the field, but above all to form a united political front. The only exception are the Kurds, who benefit from American support, and with whom Assad has maintained neutrality since the beginning of the conflict.
To better understand the Syrian crisis it is useful to analyze it keeping in mind three different levels of interpretation, which are actually strictly interconnected. First of all, there is the broader international dimension, which sees a central role for Russia, a secondary role for the U.S: and the inconclusive approach taken by the United Nations.
Then there is the regional level, which includes the involvement in the crisis mainly of Turkey, Iran, of the Lebanese Shiite militias of Hezbollah, as well as Israel. Finally, there is the local Syrian level, which sees the government forces opposed to different groups of Islamist and moderate rebels.
The international level
Internationally, while the U.N. has sponsored inconclusive talks in Geneva, Russia, Turkey and Iran have engaged in two complementary initiatives: on one hand, the Astana agreements, aimed at implementing a series of ceasefires and “de-escalation”; and on the other, the Sochi negotiations, with the aim of reaching a peace agreement and drafting a new constitution.
In reality, all the negotiated truces were quickly violated, and only the de-escalation zones between Dara‘a, in the South-East of Syria, and Quneitra, in the Golan, are currently holding up. Meanwhile, the U.S. was unitl before the alleged chemical attack in Douma, willingly accepting a secondary role, having understood the current complexity of the Syrian conflict, and is dedicating its efforts to limited objectives such as the fight against terrorism and the preservation of relations with Turkey.
The regional level
At the regional level, instead, there is a growing and worrisome dynamism. On one side, there is Turkey seemingly geared towards a head-on collision with the Kurds of Rojava – in northern Syria – trying to weaken them with the conquest of Afrin, and looking to carve buffer zones in the Syrian territory close to its border. Then there are Iran, Hezbollah and several militias created by them, which are consolidating themselves on the ground in view of a possible confrontation with Israel.
The local level
Finally, there is the local level, where what is noticeable is first and foremost an extreme fragmentation of groups and a continuous fluidity of alliances. In Syria, a proxy war dynamic is evident: most of the forces on the ground are linked to a regional sponsor.
President Assad is seen as the great winner of the Syrian civil war, but in reality, he has lost control of large portions of the country: he controls extremely fragile and limited armed forces, and must rely on Russian support from the air and support of Iran-related groups such as Hezbollah on the ground.
The Syrian government relies on its Armed Forces, which are more of a weak militia group than an army. Then there are the National Defense Forces, static militias linked to the government and trained by Hezbollah and Iran and, finally, a plethora of irregular units of various kinds and of uncertain reliability, often comparable to criminal gangs.
In the Rojava, the Syrian Democratic Forces are fighting the Islamic State and maintaining a kind of entente cordiale with the government. They are militias composed of Arab Sunni, Turkmen and Assyrian, but mostly of Kurdish forces of the People’s Protection Unit (YPG). Even though they are trained, armed and supported by the United States, in these months America is sacrificing the Kurdish areas on the West of the Euphrates, letting Turkey penetrate in the name of survival of the NATO alliance.
Islamist rebels constitute an extremely fragmented panorama. On one side is the Syrian Liberation Front, where Ahrar al-Sham and the Nureddin Zengi movement, two of the most important rebel forces in Northern Syria, converged. These are jihadist movements, but linked to a Syrian nationalist dimension and without the transnational aspirations of the “Caliphate”.
On the other side, the Salafist jihadist groups like Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, in Idlib and the Northwest, are in a critical position: wedged between government forces and other rebel militias. And while many jihadist groups seem willing to de-radicalize to integrate with other more moderate militias, forces linked to Isis and al-Qaida are still active in the territory.
Among the rebel forces there is also the now disintegrated Free Syrian Army, initially composed of rebel units from the national army, but which after a series of turns is now divided into several groups that in the North support both the government and the Turks and even the jihadists, while in the South they have greater cohesion and still represent the strongest opposition to the Syrian government.
In conclusion, in Syria we are far from an end to the hostilities; actually, after the defeat of the Islamic State the ruthless offensive of the government to regain land continues, the conflict between Turks and Kurds in the North is escalating, while presages of war are increasing in southern Lebanon and Golan. The risk of unilateral initiatives by the many local and regional actors who, escaping the control of their international sponsors, could unleash cycles of conflict is increasingly: basically, in Syria, everyone fights their own war.