Politicians in the West and leaders in the Middle East appear to have come to terms with the dominance of President Assad in Syria. Not only has the Assad regime survived a war that at one point saw it losing control of the majority of the major cities and rebel encroachment into Damascus, but support for the moderates within the opposition has dissipated, leaving them with few allies of any note. All that remains of the western supported opposition is a handful of groups in Idlib province and those attached to the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The dominant forces in Idlib province are Islamists and jihadists and the Kurds hold sway over much of northern Syria except for the north-west, where there is a mixed Turkish and Syrian rebel control. ISIS retains a sliver of territory in the east, sandwiched between government and SDF forces. There are many reasons for Assad’s survival, but the most critical has been the backing of friends such as Hezbollah, Iran and Russia with few qualms about military intervention. Support for the revolutionaries came in the form of words and a smattering of radios and small-arms, unless they showed enough organisation and commitment to Islamism to warrant support from Turkey, Qatar or Saudi Arabia. The military might of the West was only deployed when ISIS emerged as a major actor and a threat to the Kurds of Syria and Iraq. Assad’s dominance in the government controlled areas is unquestioned as long as he retains the support of his allies but flashpoints still remain in what has become an internationalised war.
The matter of Idlib province remains unresolved. With the exception of SDF-held Raqqa, Idlib is the only major city outside of government control. Fighting continues there between Hayat Tahrir al Aham (HTS) and other rebel groups, with HTS spending more time fighting other rebel groups, including the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF), than it does the regime in its efforts to control all of the region. During the latter part of 2018 there was a series of assassinations of rebel leaders. The province is also subject to attack from government and allied forces, with an offensive in 2018 put on hold after an agreement between Turkey and Syria. An important part of this was that Turkey would help deal with the al-Qaeda linked HTS through its backing of the coalition of rebel groups that form the NLF. A government offensive that many, including this writer, expected to take place in 2018 remains a dangerous possibility.
The other major territory outside of government control is that controlled by the Kurds and the SDF. The threatened withdrawal of US forces has resulted in much debate over the US role in the Middle East and the impact on Kurdish allies and the ISIS foe. This is despite the fact that no US withdrawal has actually begun or is actually certain to take place in the near future. Kurdish gains in the war, earned alongside opposition allies, came only after they came close to losing all their territory to ISIS and the Syrian Kurds had quickly ceased their military opposition to the Assad regime early in the war. More damaging to Kurdish interests has been the loss of Afrin and the threat to Manbij by Turkey and opposition groups linked to them. It is of little surprise that they are seeking support from the government as the greater threat to the Syrian Kurds is not the government but Turkey and its Islamist allies. This is linked to Ankara’s ongoing and underreported battle with the PKK in eastern Turkey as Ankara does not distinguish between the separatist PKK in Turkey and PYD in Syria, seeing both Kurdish groups as one and the same. Nor should the strained relationship between the Kurdish and Arab members of the SDF alliance be discounted. They allied under US auspices as a counter to ISIS, which has been comprehensively crushed, and attention will turn to who rules the predominantly Arab areas controlled by the SDF.
The above are the two major flashpoints that represent a risk of conflict escalation as the government does not control all of Syria yet and the future of Idlib province and the Syrian Kurds is of interest to both the governments in Ankara and Damascus, whom hold a mutual distain. There is also a third problem that may arise in the future should the Assad regime retain control and fail to reform and that is the reliance on former opposition fighters in the Sunni areas of Syria. Prior to 2011 there was at least a shared idea of what it was to be Syrian but the sectarian differences that have emerged as a consequence of the war and the propaganda and actions of the participants involved in it have meant that the differences in ethnicity, class and religion are more sharply drawn. This can be overcome, but only as part of a wider approach to rebuilding the nation of Syria.
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Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.