Behind the Lines: The Syrian sideshow

By
July 18, 2019 22:46
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu watch servicemen passing by

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu watch servicemen passing by as they visit the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The international news focus has long moved on from the Syrian conflict. Behind the oft-stated clichés of the conflict “winding down” and of regime survival or victory, however, a complex and often deadly reality remains.

The most violent part of Syria today is the northwest, where regime and Russian forces are clashing with Turkish-supported Sunni jihadis. But the regime-controlled and Kurdish/US-controlled areas are periodically also rocked by internecine violence, most of it committed by Sunni Arab elements, including the Islamic State group.

Far from entering a phase of post-conflict reconstruction and renewed centralized governance, Syria today is a patchwork of different areas of control. It is also thoroughly penetrated by a variety of regional and global players. Indeed, Syria today forms a fascinating microcosm of the larger regional cold war under way. It is a space in which all the main players in this contest – the Iran-led bloc, Russia, the US and its allies, and the Turkey-Qatar Sunni Islamist axis – have a stake.

But while violence continues, the main competition today is political. The enclaves appear set to continue in existence for the foreseeable future, with their lines fairly stable. The most important flash points in the regional cold war have moved elsewhere.

Assad regime apologists have sought for a long period to present a view of the war in which the status quo antebellum was in the process of being restored. This image does not entirely correspond to reality. Assad, with Iran and Russia, controls around 60% of the territory of Syria. The area east of the Euphrates controlled by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces constitutes roughly 30% of Syria. The Turkish-guaranteed Sunni Islamist area in the northwest covers the remaining 10%.

Population figures are harder to come by, but approximately 17 million people remain in Syria (from a prewar population of 23 million). Of these, around 11-12 million live in the regime-controlled area, 3-3.5 million in the Turkish-backed enclave and around 2 million in the SDF area east of the Euphrates.

Within these enclaves, the violence continues. This week, two particularly notable and unprecedented incidents took place in the regime area. An attack on the gas pipeline linking the Shaer gas fields to the Ebla processing plant took place on July 14. The pipeline, according to the regime’s SANA news agency, carries around 2.5 million cubic meters of gas to the processing plant. Intermittent electricity supplies are an ongoing complaint in regime-controlled areas. The Shaer fields and Ebla factory are a vital source of electricity for the regime. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but the gas fields and the Ebla factory are located in the area of the Badia desert, which has witnessed an uptick in activities by Islamic State fighters in recent weeks.

The second significant incident was an attack on a Russian military police patrol in Deraa province, using an improvised explosive device. No one was killed in the attack, which took place between Busra al-Sham and al-Sahwa village, in eastern rural Deraa. Again, no group has claimed responsibility.

Both these incidents reflect an increase in recent weeks in violence in supposedly pacified regime-controlled areas. The attack on the Russian patrol was unprecedented and is particularly significant. Deraa remains restive, in part because of the brutal repression imposed by the regime following the reconquest of the area in the summer of 2018. But the Russian ground forces have hitherto been regarded as outside of the circle of the smoldering conflict between the regime and the population of Deraa. No longer.

Elsewhere, the SDF scored a success this week in its ongoing efforts against ISIS networks in Deir al-Zor province. Thabit Sobhi Fahd al-Ahmad, a high-ranking ISIS member and the former “oil minister” of the ISIS caliphate, was trapped and killed by the Kurdish-dominated, US-aligned force.

And in the northwest, the regime’s bloody campaign to reduce the Sunni-jihadi-controlled, Turkish-guaranteed Idlib province continued to claim lives, while failing to facilitate progress for Assad’s forces on the ground. The offensive remains stalled; meanwhile 2,443 people have been killed since it was launched on April 30. These include 869 pro-regime fighters and 945 jihadis.

Further east, there is US and Kurdish concern at a buildup of Turkish forces close to the border, in the area of Tel Abyad. No large-scale Turkish intervention appears imminent, however.

THUS, THE general picture in Syria at present consists of fairly stable lines between the areas of control, and ongoing internecine violence and instability within each of them (with the northwest at present the only area in which conventional combat is taking place).

The bigger picture is one in which the international backers of the various enclaves have a greater say in the direction of events than do their Syrian clients.

It is interesting to note that each of the alliances in the current strategic contest taking place in the region today dominate a part of Syria. The Iranians and their allies are the key force in the regime-controlled area, in partial alliance with Russia. The Americans, along with a limited European presence and the tacit support of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, underwrite the Kurdish enclave in the east. The Turks (with Qatar alongside them) are the guarantors of the northwest. Israel, meanwhile, prosecutes its ongoing air war to disrupt Iran’s efforts to construct a military infrastructure for use against the Jewish state on Syrian soil.

Direct tensions are now rising between the US and Iran. The center of attention is the Gulf waterways. Iraq is a secondary point of friction.

Syria, where a kind of proxy conflict between the US, Iran and other forces has played out in recent years, is for the moment no longer the main focus of attention. Its ruined landscape is divided up between the competing regional blocs, each in turn making use of local players. Long the central arena, it is now a sideshow.

The writer is director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, and is a research fellow at the Middle East Forum and at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.


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