Dr Jonathan Spyer is a Jerusalem-based journalist and author and an analyst with the Jerusalem Institute of Strategic Studies. Spyer has been covering the rumble and crumble of Iraq and Syria into vast territories of stateless chaos for the past six years. Those two conflicts have been responsible for the deaths of a great number of journalists but, for Spyer, there was an extra layer of danger: he’s British-born, but is also an Israeli. On a visit to Australia sponsored by the Australia Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AJAC), Jonathan Spyer addressed The Sydney Institute on Tuesday 19 June 2018
SYRIA 2.0: THE CURRENT SITUATION IN SYRIA AND HOW IT AFFECTS THE REGION
In the half hour available to me to address you, I shall not give a potted history of the war in Syria, but only note what seem, to me at least, to be the key watershed moments in the war. I shall then look at what are, in my estimation, a number of new conflicts that are currently in the process of emerging on the ruins of the old conflict as the war between regime and rebels in Syria and the war between global coalition and ISIS in Syria wind down.
Let’s just first of all note the current situation in the country. Syria is into seven years now of war and bloodshed. Around half a million people have lost their lives in the course of the war. There are around nine million internal refugees in Syria, that’s to say people who left their homes in the course of the war but have not left the borders of the country. Additional to this, there are around five million external refugees, including large refugee populations in the surrounding countries of Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon and Jordan. And, of course, there are additional populations that have made their way further afield, notably into Europe. This is out of a pre-war population of around 23 million. If you do the maths, so to speak, it means that over half of all Syrians have left their home in the course of the war, whether for elsewhere in Syria, or for outside of the borders of the country.
There are around nine million internal refugees in Syria, that’s to say people who left their homes in the course of the war but have not left the borders of the country.
This arguably constitutes the greatest disaster to have hit the Levant since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. Certainly, one would be hard put in terms of the figures to find anything worse in that area. It’s a matter of considerable historical proportions, both in terms of its human cost and indeed in terms of its political significance.
Let me then begin by outlining the current situation. Contrary to the notion sometimes promoted in the media that the war has already wound down and Assad has won it, we will find, if we look at the map, that Assad controls today still only around 60 per cent of the territory of Syria. That is the Assad regime and its allies Iran and Russia.
Assad controls today still only around 60 per cent of the territory of Syria.
As well, there are three other entities still operating parts of Syria under their de facto control. The most important of them is the largely Kurdish forces of the so-called Syrian democratic forces in alliance with the United States who control Syria east of the Euphrates River. Around 30 per cent of the territory of the country. Along with around 80 per cent of its oil and gas reserves. Then there is the remaining enclaves of the Sunni Arab rebellion. Three remaining areas. One in the north-west of the country, administered largely by the Turks in alliance with their rebel allies. A small enclave in the south-west of the country, in Suwayda, Daraa and Quneitra provinces administered by rebels. And a base in the Al-Tunf area in the south-east of the country jointly administered by the Americans and their rebel allies. Lastly, there are the small enclaves still controlled by the Islamic State organisation.
So, Syria is still divided into four. How did we get there? Remember the heady days of the Arab Spring, so called, of 2012/2011 when authoritarian Arab regimes appeared to be falling like nine pins and many observers predicted that surely the longstanding and deeply dysfunctional Assad regime in Syria must be somewhere next on the list. Demonstrations began in Syria in March 2011 in the Daraa province, initially by schoolchildren demanding reform in Daraa province. The regime tried hard to crack down on the demonstrations but failed to do so. The demonstrations spread rapidly throughout the country, focusing on Sunni Arab areas, areas inhabited by the 60 per cent Sunni Arab majority in Syria.
Demonstrations began in Syria in March 2011 in the Daraa province, initially by schoolchildren demanding reform in Daraa province.
The regime tried initially to respond with some very piecemeal and cosmetic reforms. The governor of Daraa province was used as a kind of scapegoat for what had happened and he was sacked. Citizenship was afforded to a number of Syrian-born Kurds. As close observers of Syria here may well know, there was a large Kurdish population inside Syria who were without citizenship and without civil rights of any kind, even the minimal ones afforded by citizenship in the Assad regime prior to 2011. They were granted citizenship. And there was a law passed, or a permission passed, for women teachers in secondary schools to wear the Islamic hijab.
Unsurprisingly, these fairly cosmetic attempts at reform did not succeed in pacifying the demonstrations which continued to spread. From late spring 2011 onwards, the regime essentially took a decision to try to drown the rebellion in its own blood, so to speak. That’s to say, to respond with force alone to continued demonstrations. The effect that that had was to turn what began as a largely unarmed civilian uprising, characterised by mass demonstrations, into an armed insurgency by the end of 2011 and into 2012.
From late spring 2011 onwards, the regime essentially took a decision to try to drown the rebellion in its own blood, so to speak. That’s to say, to respond with force alone to continued demonstrations.
Interestingly, in the summer in June/July 2012, the Assad regime carried out a strategic withdrawal from a large swathe of the northern part of Syria. In so doing, the regime laid bare one of the central dynamics of the conflict which has continued to characterise it until today. Namely, the shortage available to the Assad regime of loyal manpower. The Assad regime was short of men willing to take a bullet for it. The reason for that was because of the narrow sectarian base of the regime, obviously the Assads themselves coming from the Alawi community in Syria, the Alawis are only around 12 per cent of the country. So, a narrow base of available manpower.
Assad looked at the map and said, “Okay, well, a logical response to this, given I haven’t got enough people, would be to withdraw from lands that I don’t absolutely need to defend, in order to better defend those that I must hold on to.” What Assad felt he had to hold on to were the western coastal areas of Syria and the capital of Damascus, and the line of cities going northward from Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo close to the Syrian-Turkish border.
In so doing, Assad effectively ushered in the de facto partition of Syria that, to a considerable extent, continues until this day. Having left the areas in question, they were rapidly taken over by Sunni-Arab rebels in the Arab areas, and by the Syrian franchise of the PKK, the Kurdish workers party, in the Kurdish majority areas in the north-east. The north-east of Syria then further subdivided in Syria in 2013 with the entry into Syrian soil of the former Al-Qaeda branch in Iraq, now renamed Islamic State in Iraq, which having entered Syria then further renamed itself Islamic State in Iraq and Syria ISIS, drove out other forces and created an area of control of itself, diving Syria into the four areas of control that we still see today. Of course, the size of the areas of control have changed radically since 2012/2013 but the entities themselves remain in existence.
In so doing, Assad effectively ushered in the de facto partition of Syria that, to a considerable extent, continues until this day.
Parallel to the strategic dilemma faced by the regime, namely the shortage of readily available manpower, the rebellion also faced a structural dilemma. In the rebellion’s case, the absence was not that of manpower. The absence was that of organisation and unity. In my estimation, the story of the Syrian war from 2012 to this day, is effectively the story of how the regime managed to address adequately the strategic dilemma facing it, namely the absence of manpower, while the rebellion failed to address adequately its own dilemma, namely that of poor organisation and disunity.
In 2013, the regime came once more close to eclipse at the hands of the rebellion, and then the Islamic Republic of Iran, a close ally of the Assad regime since the 1980s, stepped in using its own well known paramilitary methods of mobilisation, of proxies from across the region, proxy fighters from Lebanon, from Iraq. Also, from as far afield as Afghanistan and Pakistan, forces were mustered and brought onto Syrian soil to fill the gap in manpower faced by the regime. Firstly, and secondly, Iran came in and began to organise and recruit additional local paramilitary forces based on young men, young Syrian men, for the most part members of minority communities, organised in to new paramilitary structures created by the Iranians to fill the gap facing the regime. That’s 2013.
then the Islamic Republic of Iran, a close ally of the Assad regime since the 1980s, stepped in using its own well known paramilitary methods of mobilisation, of proxies from across the region, proxy fighters from Lebanon, from Iraq
But two years on, in 2015, once again the regime faced the prospect of defeat. At that time, the rebellion was as close as it would ever come to achieving a unified force. A force called the Jaish al-Fatah, or Army of Conquest, was created in northern Syria in 2015. It represented the coming together of militia groups supported by the Saudis, the Qataris and the Turks. For the first time they were working together and pushing westwards towards Latakia province and the Syrian western coast which is protected by the Alawi mountains. The rebels came close to pushing through the valleys. Had they done so and reached the western coast of Syria, it would probably have been game over for the regime. The regime would have lost its heartland of Latakia province.
That didn’t happen of course. It didn’t happen not because of the military abilities of the Assad regime, certainly, and not because, in this case, of the continued assistance afforded to the regime by the Iranians. Rather, it did not happen because of the appearance on 30 September 2015, for the first time, of Russian aircraft over the skies of Syria. Once the Russian air force had appeared over the skies of Syria, at that point there was no way in which the rebellion could achieve victory short of the intervention of an air force equal in ability to that of the Russians.
Now, such air forces do of course exist in the world. But, the political conditions by 2015 whereby they would have wished to intervene on behalf of what was by then a largely Sunni Islamist rebellion did not exist. No such air force appeared and, consequently, the subsequent history of the Syrian War, from autumn 2015 until today, has been that of the slow, grinding back of the rebellion from the areas it controlled, most notably of course from Aleppo City at the end of 2016, but then also from Homs and from Hama and from the Damascus countryside, and so on and so forth. The gradual pushing back of the rebellion is what took place subsequently.
history of the Syrian War, from autumn 2015 until today, has been that of the slow, grinding back of the rebellion from the areas it controlled, most notably of course from Aleppo City at the end of 2016
Now parallel to that war, from 2014 onwards, there was another conflict system operating in eastern Syria. A war which was “birthed”, so to speak, by the original war of regime against rebels and that was the war of global coalition against Islamic State. Islamic State having come onto Syrian soil, then reinvaded back into Iraq in the very dramatic events of summer 2014. In so doing, It triggered a US-led global coalition against it, seeking to destroy the Islamic State. In a relatively similar process, from a military point of view, the global coalition once again, like the Assad regime, enjoying complete air superiority, began slowly and inexorably to grind back the Islamic State. Until what remains today in both conflict systems is a few outlying areas, held by, in the regime-rebel case, the rebels, in the coalition-ISIS case, Islamic State, facing possible eclipse in the near future at the hands of the winning side.
This is how we currently are today. We have the regime-rebel war, not yet completed, but with the rebels clearly with no further chance of victory, holding on in a number of outlying areas. And we have Islamic State, also of course with no chance of victory, holding on in just a couple of areas in Middle Euphrates river valley and then just west of the Euphrates.
What’s coming next then, if these conflict systems are indeed winding down, as they appear to be?
What’s coming next then, if these conflict systems are indeed winding down, as they appear to be?
What is not coming next, in my estimation, is a return to the status quo antebellum of 14 March 2011, the day before the schoolchildren’s demonstrations began in Daraa that kicked the whole process off.
What does seem to be evolving are a whole series of new conflicts, consisting of contests between the various players who have come onto Syrian soil in the course of the war of the last seven years. This is a fascinating process to observe. Before I go on to look at the conflicts in detail, let’s say a few things about what they have in common.
The first, and most notable aspect, that these new conflicts have in common is that none of them are primarily driven by internal Syrian dynamics. They are unlike the regime-rebel war, or the emergence of the Islamic State. None of this has anything much to do with the desire of the Syrian people themselves. The Syrian people themselves are no longer driving this bus, so to speak. They are, to a great extent, working on behalf of various external factors and actors.
And now to the second fascinating thing, to observe about the emergent new conflicts on Syrian soil. If we look at the protagonists of all the new conflicts, we discover not only that none of them are Syrian, but also that none of them are Arabs. None of them are Arabic speaking. At least not Arabic as a first language. Now this is Syria we’re talking about. This is the Syria that is referred to in Arab nationalist ideology and Arab nationalist circles as the beating heart of Arabism or, if you want to quote the illustrious British MP George Galloway – a great admirer of the Assad regime – “The last castle of the Arabs”.
If we look at the protagonists of all the new conflicts, we discover not only that none of them are Syrian, but also that none of them are Arabs.
Syria has played a very special role in the politics of the post-colonial Arab world. It was a centre of Arab nationalist ideology, of secular Arabism and of secular Arabist political and military organisation. And here is this Syria today, thoroughly penetrated by a variety of non-Arab forces who are competing among themselves, so to speak, on the fragmented soil of Syria. These forces speak a variety of languages. They speak Turkish, some of them Kurdish and some of them Russian, some of the Farsi, some of them English, some of them Hebrew. But none of them speak Arabic, at least not as a first language. This is a fascinating process in and as of itself.
Let us then turn to look at these new conflicts. Who is fighting, and where are they engaged with one another. There are three or four new conflicts that we need to touch upon.
The first one, if I go from north to south, in terms of the map of Syria, is a conflict that has existed for a long time but wasn’t being played out on Syrian soil. That is the conflict between Turks and Kurds. Or more specifically between the government of the republic of Turkey and the Kurdish workers party the PKK insurgency which has been engaged in battle against Turkey since 1984. This long and bloody insurgency has now emerged onto Syrian soil. How did that happen?
the PKK insurgency which has been engaged in battle against Turkey since 1984. This long and bloody insurgency has now emerged onto Syrian soil
The Kurdish party that took control of the areas that Bashar al-Assad vacated in June-July 2012 in the north-east of the country was a party called Democratic Union Party, or PYD. This party is the Syrian franchise of the PKK or of the Öcalan movement among the Kurds. Which means that, from a Turkish point of view, what has happened is that a mortal enemy of Turkey has now taken control of a very large swathe of the 900 kilometre long Syrian-Turkish border. And Turkey is determined to try and turn back that reality.
What’s therefore taking place in northern Syria today is an effort by Turkey to undermine and eventually, if it can, destroy the de facto Kurdish sovereignty that exists east of the Euphrates river. The Turks, however, have a problem. In addition to being the Syrian franchise of the PKK, the Syrian Kurdish forces are also the most reliable and most effective military forces whose discovery by the United States has led to one of the few, but very notable, successes that the Americans have had in proxy warfare in the Middle East in recent decades. It’s a partnership that works.
The partnership between the Kurdish YPG and the United States airpower is what has led to, more than any other single factor, the destruction of the Islamic State or ISIS on the soil of Syria. That relationship is one that the Americans, for various reasons, appear to currently want to preserve. Which means that a second contest is emerging on Syrian soil, a contest not a conflict. But it is a contest of wills between the Republic of Turkey on one hand and the United States of America on the other regarding the future arrangements of the Kurdish dominated part of north eastern Syria.
The partnership between the Kurdish YPG and the United States airpower is what has led to, more than any other single factor, the destruction of the Islamic State or ISIS on the soil of Syria.
A third emerging conflict taking place in Syria today is a conflict between the Assad regime/Iran on the one hand and the United States and their allies upon the other. It has been stated by both President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Foreign Minister Walid al-Moalim, in the course of the last month, are determined to “liberate” as they call it, the entirety of their country including the area currently dominated by the Kurds and the Americans. That’s to say 30 per cent of the territory in the country in the eastern part of that country.
They can’t do that by military force. They would have to directly challenge the United States on the conventional battlefield – not a good idea. An attempt was made in February 2018 by a column of fighters from pro-regime militia and Russian military contractors associated with the private military company Wagner. It crossed the Euphrates river to try to grab the Konoko gas field in southern Deir a Zour province from the Kurds/Americans. The Americans tried to use the deconfliction channel they have with the Russians to turn them back.
They would have to directly challenge the United States on the conventional battlefield – not a good idea.
The Russians said it was nothing to do with them. So, the force kept coming eastwards until the Americans activated air power and marine artillery. The force was obliterated. Fewer than 500 men then made their way back across the Euphrates. It proved that you can’t take the Americans on in the conventional battlefield in 2018. No one can do it. That doesn’t mean you don’t have any options against the Americans if you want to oppose them. And what the Iranians and Assad do know how to do, very well, is proxy warfare and insurgency. And that is what they are currently trying to ignite in the American/Kurdish controlled part of eastern Syria.
A fourth and final new conflict taking place on the soil of Syria, is the conflict between Israel and Iran. Last but not least. Iran has been absolutely vital in the survival of the Assad regime. Iran’s contribution, unlike the Russian contribution, has largely taken the form of ground fighters, of proxy ground forces. Those forces are there on Syrian soil and they’re not going away any time soon. One of the characteristics of Iranian assistance to friends of the Islamic republic of Iran is that it can be nice to get the Iranians in at a moment of need, but when the moment of need is passed it’s extremely difficult to get them out again.
A fourth and final new conflict taking place on the soil of Syria, is the conflict between Israel and Iran.
That’s something which the Iraqis are discovering also, having been happy to accept the assistance of the Iranians in raising a 150,000 strong Shia militia force to face ISIS in the summer of 2014. They now find that’s settled into being a permanent presence in Iraq. It’s what the Syrians and others are going to discover on Syrian soil. The Iranians are in there and they aren’t going anywhere. From an Israeli point of view that’s worrying. Iran has been rather busy fighting the rebellion over the course of the last five years which is the reason why they entered Syria in the first place. But the war against the rebellion, as we’ve noted, is winding down. Which means that this infrastructure can now be turned to other tasks.
The Iranians are in there and they aren’t going anywhere. From an Israeli point of view that’s worrying.
Iran seeks the eradication of Israel as a strategic goal. Just two weeks ago, supreme leader Ali Khamenei Tweeted out a message describing Israel as a cancerous tumour in western Asia which needed to be uprooted. Consequently, the Israelis are worried about this presence. Israel has set a goal of having Iran leave Syria in its entirety. That may well be beyond immediate achievement, but certainly Israel is determined to degrade the Iranian infrastructure, both human and material, in Syria at the present time and to prevent its entrenchment and consolidation.
Israel has set a goal of having Iran leave Syria in its entirety. That may well be beyond immediate achievement, but certainly Israel is determined to degrade the Iranian infrastructure, both human and material
What that’s meant in practice, has been a series of air raids and air action undertaken by Israel on Syrian soil since February when the first clearly attributed action was taken. This has been in order to prevent the Iranians from bringing certain weapons systems and defence systems and UAVs into Syria. For example, the bombing raid conducted yesterday near the Abu Kamal area in which 52 members of a pro-Iranian militia called Kata’ib Hizballah — a pro Iranian Iraqi militia — were killed. If that was action carried out by Israel, which it may well have been, then that represents an upping of the ante by Israel to take in attacks not only on physical infrastructure, not only on UAVs and air defence systems, but also an attempt to degrade the pro-Iranian arrangement of fighters, of proxy fighters on Syrian soil, even as far east as Abu Kamal. Abu Kamal is nowhere close to the Golan Heights. Abu Kamal is on the Syrian-Iraqi border all the way to the east. The American coalition have flatly denied the initial accusation that it was they who were responsible for that action. And if it wasn’t the Americans it can only have been Israel. That’s an interesting uptick in the situation.
Where may all this be heading? In order to understand what’s happening one needs to slightly broaden the lens so to speak and to see these emergent new lines of conflict as part of a larger strategic contest which is underway in the region. A contest where we are seeing an alliance lead by the Islamic Republic of Iran facing off against a much looser coalition of states broadly associated with the United States of America. We would include in the Iranian lead alliance Iran itself. The Shia militias in Iraq, the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon are all engaged in Syria on behalf of Assad. On the other side, we would include the United States of America, Israel and then a number of Gulf Arab countries – UAE, Bahrain, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Many of those forces are not engaged on Syrian soil but a number of them are. The Americans are there, Israel is there. Trump would very much like to get the Gulfies in there as well, because Trump is keen on getting people to pay their way. So to understand what’s happening in Syria and what will continue to happen, we need to take a slightly broader view, from a strategic point of view and understand broader strategic blocs beginning to face off against one another in Syria.
The Shia militias in Iraq, the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon are all engaged in Syria on behalf of Assad.
However, I don’t want to conclude my talk on that note. I would rather bring us back, at least for a moment or two, to what I began with. Namely the enormous human cost which all this has meant for the people of Syria, in what remains, as seen from someone who has spent a great deal of time over the last five years reporting in the country, a remarkably beautiful and interesting and intricate and fragile society. With all the bloodshed and cruelty that no doubt characterises its politics and its enmities, nevertheless this is a fascinating human society that has received an enormous act of violence against it over the last seven years, violence of a truly tragic dimension.
this is a fascinating human society that has received an enormous act of violence against it over the last seven years, violence of a truly tragic dimension.