The Syrian Conflict Enters its Seventh Year

As the conflict in Syria enters its seventh year, it poses both new and old unanswered questions for US policy. The armed opposition is no longer a strategic threat to the Assad regime, and while international intervention would change that, it is unlikely. Fighting, which Assad is too weak to prevent, will continue in parts of the country, but Russia’s presence limits other states’ options to exploit the conflict. The regime could lose more territory, but its gains will be more important than its losses. The question is no longer “Who will win the war?” The opposition is losing, even if the ruined regime cannot meaningfully be described as ‘the winner.’ As new policy questions emerge, the Trump’s administration has yet to offer clear answers, despite heavy criticism of its predecessor’s policies.

A Perilous ‘New’ Syria

The war on the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) is central to this new phase. The regime and Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) control the largest territories in the country, both securing gains against ISIS as they seek to maximize control of territory and strategic resources such as hydrocarbons and fertile land, which happen to fall in or near areas of ISIS control. The regime (and its ally Iran) also want to secure a land route to Iraq through ISIS territory. While the Trump administration prioritizes defeating ISIS, it has yet to articulate broader policy goals in Syria. It is continuing on the Obama administration’s ‘path of least resistance,’ fighting the war through a local partner, the PYD, that meets two key criteria: It is not Islamist and it will not pull the United States in a direct confrontation with the regime, which the US military wants to avoid.

The multi-front war on ISIS has generated interesting results. For one, US air strikes facilitated regime advances against ISIS-held Palmyra. The United States now flies its anti-ISIS missions from NATO-ally Turkey, while US ground troops protect PYD areas from Turkish troops and their local allies. This facilitates both regime and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) advances toward Raqqa. Most recently US forces helped the SDF seize a key route west of ISIS-held Taqba, laying the ground for encircling Raqqa. All this takes pressure off the regime and its Iranian allies, enabling them to more effectively fight insurgent groups, some of which have received US support.

ISIS may drag out the battle for Raqqa, but eventually its self-declared capital will likely fall to the PYD, raising the question: What comes next? While the Obama administration showed little interest in the ISIS-held Euphrates River Valley southeast of Raqqa, its successor is more likely to support a PYD push in that direction, as regime forces simultaneously head there from Palmyra. Eventually US and regime (and Iranian-backed) forces will converge on the ISIS-controlled city of Deir Ezzor, where the regime retains a military base and airfield under ISIS siege. This small foothold has enormous strategic significance, anchoring the regime in a crucial geography, offering a potential springboard for ground offensives, and deterring US and US-supported forces from taking Deir Ezzor from ISIS. If the United States decides to take Deir Ezzor, it will be faced with a choice: either compel Assad’s forces to step aside, confront them, share the captured area, or simply hand it all over to the regime and Iran.

The emerging ‘new’ Syria is just as, if not more, beset by conflict and contradictions as its predecessor. The PYD is determined to gain some autonomy from the regime, which requires a de facto border agreement (likely along the Euphrates river area). It controls significant resources—oil, gas, fertile land, dams, and smuggling routes—and has effectively repressed internal competition, but the regime still pays public sector salaries in Kurdish areas, forcing the PYD to depend on it. While PYD-regime relations are currently sound, it is an unstable arrangement further threatened by the regime’s reluctance to share Syrian land. The Kurdish PYD, however, may be willing to trade territories in exchange for regime concessions—including Raqqa, which is poor and Arab, and only valuable to the PYD as a point of leverage with the United States.

External actors are already adapting to these changes. Jordan was among the first when it compelled rebels in southern Syria to freeze their front against the regime, seemingly in coordination with Russia after the latter began its intervention on September 30, 2015. Turkey stumbled, backing some rebels continuing to fight the regime, while compelling others to fight its own war in northern Syria to check PYD advances. When ISIS is defeated, Turkey will either need to ensure its proxies can contain the PYD or maintain its own military presence. The United States must decide whether the PYD is a long-term ally—and ruin US-Turkish relations—or whether defeating ISIS would render that alliance obsolete.

No one seems to have a plan for territory controlled by or captured from rebel groups or ISIS. Assad’s coalition has destroyed or continues to subject opposition areas to collective punishment and forced displacement. The devastating loss of human capital will complicate recovery efforts, and permanently displaced Syrians will be more susceptible to crime and extremist ideology. Even regime territory is beset by insecurity, lawlessness, and economic decline. These problems affect areas captured from ISIS as well, with the added complication of Arab-Kurdish friction as the SDF leads in taking them.

Challenges for US Policy

All this poses fiendishly difficult policy questions for the United States. First, the US needs to resolve the inherent contradiction between taking territory from ISIS and cooperating with Iran and Assad. It does have a plan to take Raqqa through the SDF, but breaking ISIS in the Euphrates River Valley and preventing it from reemerging elsewhere will require either cooperation with Iran and Assad, a US military occupation, building an indigenous proxy force hostile to ISIS, or some alternative. A PYD-centric strategy offers no solution to governing post-ISIS Arab territory.

Second, a US-SDF alliance would alienate Turkey, while cooperation with Iran and the regime would violate a pillar of the Trump administration’s anti-Iran foreign policy and undermine relations with Arab partners. Without a strategy that creates alternatives and plans for a post-ISIS recovery, territorial gains against ISIS will distort strategic priorities, alienate local populations and allies, and continue to consume US energy and resources in an endless war on terrorism.

Third, the United States needs to reach a position on reconciliation and rebuilding Syria, both urgent issues. Analysts and the US military both acknowledge that the United States needs a political arrangement in Syria that addresses core grievances of the communities, in order to prevent these grievances from igniting into new conflicts and prevent extremists from using them to attract recruits. That has not led to an actual policy to do so. The United States also needs a rebuilding plan that delivers peace dividends and incentivizes cooperation in Syria.

Perhaps most importantly, US policymakers should finally have an honest conversation about the Assad regime, which the United States has alternatively fought by proxy, ignored, and partnered with throughout the Syrian conflict. If weakening Iran is a US priority as the Trump administration insists, then handing over (or allowing the SDF to hand over) captured ISIS territory to Assad and his militia allies seems self-defeating. A slower, more laborious alternative may have to be developed using US forces and/or Arab proxy groups. Either way these tensions must be addressed. The Obama administration deliberately, if awkwardly, separated the anti-ISIS effort from the question of the regime and Syria’s political future. It could do so because it defined its goals very narrowly in a slightly more forgiving geopolitical environment, and alongside a policy of accommodating rather than weakening Iran. The current administration has a more ambitious and aggressive agenda.

So far, the Trump administration’s Syria policy resembles a somewhat more confusing and belligerent version of its predecessor’s. US officials have ignored the problem of the regime and the civil war itself, at least publicly. Instead they have offered vague, shifting statements about ‘safe zones’ and ‘interim zones of stability,’ without articulating definitions, goals, geographic parameters, or enforcement mechanisms. Most recently, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “The military power of the coalition will remain where this fraudulent caliphate has existed to set the conditions for a full recovery from the tyranny of ISIS.” This could be read as a US plan for a long-term military deployment in post-ISIS Syria. This would be an enormous policy shift and deserves clarification, along with an explanation of how it would address the tensions outlined above and fit ‘interim zones of stability’ within US policy constraints.

Faysal Itani is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Hossam Abouzahr is an editor at the Rafik Hariri Center.

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Image: Photo: Free Syrian Army fighters carry their weapons as they stand inside a trench, in the east of the rebel-held town of Dael in Deraa Governorate, Syria, March 22, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Faqir