Bashar al-Assad’s international rehabilitation has begun

By Christopher Phillips, Washington Post, 5 January 2019

For Syria’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, 2018 ended well. Alongside President Trump’s announced withdrawal of  U.S. troops from eastern Syria, several Arab states indicated they were willing to reconcile.

In December, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the first Arab leader to visit Syria since the civil conflict broke out in 2011. Soon afterward the United Arab Emirates, previously opposed to Assad, announced it was restoring ties with Damascus, with Bahrain and Kuwait indicating they could soon do likewise. With Tunisia resuming direct flights to Syria and Jordan reopening trade ties, many observers suspect Assad’s days as a regional pariah are numbered.

Saudi Arabia, a lead rebel sponsor during the war, seems increasingly willing to accept Assad remaining in Damascus, hoping to lessen his dependence on Riyadh’s regional rival, Iran. It is even expected that the Arab League, which expelled Assad following his brutal crackdown on protesters in 2011 that initiated the civil war, will welcome him back in 2019.

How isolated was Assad really?

Of course, Assad was never that internationally isolated — one of the main reasons he has survived. Vital assistance from allies Russia and Iran is well documented. Russia ensured that Damascus faced no United Nations-led sanctions, such as those suffered by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, while alongside Iran, Moscow provided aid, loans and support to keep Assad’s state and military just about functioning.

The remaining BRICS (Brazil, India, China and South Africa), like many non-western states, did not demand Assad stand down. China was most supportive, vetoing anti-Assad U.N. Security Council resolutions six times since 2011, but India, too, retained ties to Damascus, fearing the rise of Islamists and possibly rewarding Syria for its past pro-Delhi stance on Kashmir. Brazil withdrew its ambassador to Syria, but for safety reasons rather than an explicitly anti-Assad action. Even before the recent election of right wing “pro-torture” President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil stated its wish to restore full ties and take part in reconstruction.

Rebuilding Syria will be costly

The BRICS and Assad’s allies are unlikely to provide much of the estimated $400 billion needed to rebuild postwar Syria. The wealthiest, China, seems lukewarm, while Russia and Iran lack the funds. Assad and his allies have long recognized that only Persian Gulf or Western aid could provide the reconstruction billions needed, and this is the true value of any warming of Arab ties.

While rejoining the Arab League brings economic reward and marks a symbolic end to attempts by Assad’s Arab enemies to topple him — and will be used by the Syrian dictator domestically to underline his victory — even in the Arab world Damascus’s isolation was never complete. Lebanon and Iraq refused to join any gulf states-led sanctions and maintained close ties, while Jordan retained a diplomatic presence in Syria even while forced by the war and external political pressure to halt trade and grant rebel fighters safe haven. Further afield, Algeria, a fellow dictatorship that also fought an insurgency in the 1990s, opposed the Arab League’s expulsion of Syria and acted as backchannel thereafter, while the Sisi regime in Egypt also developed covert ties.

Roadblocks to Assad’s rehabilitation: the U.S., E.U. and Turkey

Despite these positives, Assad’s road to full rehabilitation remains blocked by three significant obstacles: the United States, the European Union and NATO-ally Turkey. The United States seems the most immovable of these. While Trump’s shock decision to withdraw troops from Syria boosts Assad’s stated desire to reconquer, “every inch,” of territory, there is no indication this will come alongside any softening toward Damascus. Pro-Israel and anti-Iran voices in Washington make it unlikely U.S. sanctions will be lifted anytime soon. These restrictions on U.S. companies and citizens dealing with or financing any work in Syria remain problematic and deter international investors.

E.U. sanctions are similarly problematic, although not as harsh, but the Europeans are more ambivalent about Assad. There has long been a split among E.U. members on Syria: France, Britain and Germany backed Washington’s tough stance, but doubts were expressed by Syria’s neighboring southern European states.

With Assad’s survival now all but guaranteed, these voices — many hosting Syrian refugees that they want to return — will grow louder. As Britain departs the E.U. and Germany hosts 600,000 Syrians, France may find itself unable to prevent a shift in European policy. E.U. policy is slow-moving and will still seek to attach conditions to the gradual lifting of any sanctions or provision of aid. While it may eventually split with Washington on Syria, Assad will have to wait some time yet.

The more pressing obstacle, however, is Turkey. Syria’s economy and especially its war-ravaged second city, Aleppo, would be greatly boosted by reopening routes into Turkey — currently blocked by both Ankara and the Turkish-backed rebels controlling Idlib. Though Turkey has dropped demands for Assad to go, three contested areas prevent reconciliation.

First, after Trump’s withdrawal Ankara and Damascus could come to blows over eastern Syria. Turkey wants to push out Washington’s former Kurdish allies it sees as terrorists, while Syria may reach accommodation with them to regain the region. Much will depend on whether Russia can mediate any deal.

Second is Idlib, the last rebel-held pocket of Syria that Assad is determined to retake but is protected by Turkey, which fears being flooded with refugees and militants should Idlib fall. Finally, there is the chunk of northern Syria between Afrin and Jarabulus currently held by Turkey through rebel proxies Ankara seems reluctant to give up. These issues are unlikely to be resolved swiftly. Even if some kind of agreement can be reached over border trade and highways, Turkey and Syria seem years way from any kind of normalization.

Assad will welcome any return to the Arab League, but its significance should not be overstated. On the one hand Syria was far from isolated throughout its civil war, and on the other it remains a long way from reconciling with western governments and Turkey. Not that this will overly concern Damascus. The Assad regime has decades of experience withstanding western and regional sanctions and isolation, most recently in the mid 2000s.

Its strategy has long been to wait for international conditions to change in its favor than alter its policies. The recent opening from Arab states will further vindicate this approach, and Assad will be confident that eventually the west and Ankara will also come round, no matter how long it takes.

Syria’s war is far from over

By Christopher Phillips in Middle East Eye, 10 January 2018

The year 2017 was a good one for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Islamic State’s (IS) “caliphate” was largely destroyed, squeezed by Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces on one side and by the American-backed Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the other.

Assad’s mainstream rebel opponents were largely abandoned by their external backers and pummelled by his allies, leaving them in isolated pockets, divided and politically marginalised.

His position will likely be further boosted by the upcoming Russian-led “peace congress” in Sochi in late January, in which Moscow hopes to broker a deal that will bring in some Kurdish and opposition elements while ultimately leaving Assad in control.

However, even if Russia can reach some kind of viable agreement, many opposition groups are likely to remain excluded. Moreover, Moscow, Tehran and Damascus have been far from conciliatory over the past six years of war and few would be surprised if any agreement was ultimately undermined or ignored.

Far from over

Indeed, it seems likely that whatever happens in Sochi, Syria’s war is far from over. The local, regional and international dynamics at play suggest conflict will continue beyond 2018, even if Assad’s position is secure.

Firstly, Assad and his allies appear committed to militarily defeating the remnants of the rebels. The rebels, including a sizeable Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) presence, currently hold four main territories: Idlib province, Rastan near Homs, some suburbs around Damascus (notably Eastern Ghouta) and an area along the Jordanian and Israeli border in the south.

While these were declared “de-escalation zones” last year in Moscow-led agreements, in reality Assad, Iran and Russia have frequently broken these ceasefires. The truces allowed forces loyal to Assad a respite to direct their forces eastward as IS collapsed, reclaiming former “caliphate” territory and denying it to the US-aligned SDF.

Now that IS is largely gone, Assad and his allies are directing their elite troops back on the rebels.

Already January has begun with the Syrian government’s offensive in Idlib, with the apparent goal to cleave from the rebels the less populated eastern part of the province around Abu ad Duhur. This may be the preamble to a government push on Idlib city, though much will depend on whether Russia can obtain tacit agreement from Turkey, who would likely receive many refugees from the province, currently estimated to have a population of two million.

With the dominant force in Idlib being HTS, viewed as terrorists by Russia, the US and Turkey, and most of the other rebel groups there reluctant to engage at Sochi, correctly seeing it as submission to Assad, conflict at some point seems inevitable.

Capturing ‘every inch’

A similar fate probably awaits the other rebel pockets. Some, perhaps Rastan and parts of the south, may be persuaded to compromise with Assad, either via Sochi or later deals. But Assad, confident in his position, will likely target Eastern Ghouta in Damascus militarily, being the source of the last remaining rocket attacks on the capital.

The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that 417,000 Syrians remain living in besieged areas, the majority of them in the Ghouta region. Any military campaigns in Idlib and Ghouta then would likely be violent, take a heavy toll on lives and create yet more refugees.

Secondly, beyond the continued conflict with the rebels, the future relationship between Assad and the Kurds remains uncertain and could descend into violence. At present the SDF and Syrian government forces face each other on opposite banks of the Euphrates, while retaining isolated pockets in each other’s territory.

As long as the US patrols its skies, alongside 3,000 American special forces and 10 bases on the ground, the SDF will feel relatively secure from Assad, whose stated goal is to eventually recapture “every inch” of Syria.

However, despite assurances from the Pentagon of a prolonged US presence, the unpredictability of President Donald Trump, Washington’s recent unwillingness to prevent the fall of Kirkuk and the US’s historical tendency to sell out Kurdish interests has led many Syrian Kurds to be wary.

Assad and the Kurds

Consequently some expect the PYD, the Kurdish force that dominates the SDF and is attending Sochi in an unofficial capacity, to cut a deal with Assad via Russia. Surrendering the Arab-majority lands along the Euphrates in exchange for autonomy in the Kurdish-majority areas along the Turkish-Syrian border is one mooted option.

US forces would presumably have to leave all of Syria in such a scenario. However, even were Assad to accept such an agreement – and he has shown himself far from compliant to Russian requests in the past – his long-term commitment to it would remain questionable.

The PYD, being Kurdish nationalists, pose an ideological threat that Assad will not allow to thrive in northern Syria.

The Syrian government will most likely seek to undermine Kurdish autonomy, either through political machinations or violent re-conquest (possibly with Turkish acquiescence), once the PYD’s external backers have all left.

Finally, alongside the violence coming from within Syria is that from the outside. IS’s caliphate may have been defeated but its followers, both old and new, remain in Iraq and Syria and could yet set off low-level attacks and possibly even a renewed campaign.

Turkey remains sceptical of the PYD’s presence, being affiliated with the Turkish Kurdish separatists the PKK, along its border, and could yet move against outlying redoubts such as Afrin in Syria’s north.

Similarly Israel fears the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian presence in Syria as a result of the war and has already stepped up its attacks against military convoys in 2017. The long-awaited next round of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict may this time be fought in Syria as well as Lebanon.

Assad therefore may have reasons to be cheerful, having survived the civil war launched to topple him. Whatever happens in Sochi this month, the Syrian dictator looks likely to remain as president. Yet the suffering for Syrians is far from over, and the conflict will evolve and continue in 2018 and possibly beyond.

Assad may have won, but peace likely remains elusive.

Syria after IS

‘Syria after IS’

by Christopher Phillips in Orient IV/2007

Three years after Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his ‘Caliphate’, the so-called Islamic State (IS) appears in terminal decline. Its territory, which once stretched from the Syrian-Turkish border to the outskirts of Kirkuk and Baghdad, has been gradually cleaved. In Syria, the US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of militia dominated by the Kurdish Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat or Democratic Union Party (PYD), have taken huge swathes of northern Syria back from IS and besieged the Caliphate’s capital, Raqqa. Independently of this, forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, backed by allies Russia and Iran, charged back into central Syria in spring-summer 2017, retaking Palmyra and reaching the provincial capital of Deir-Es-Zour. Though IS forces remain in Syria’s east along the Euphrates into Iraq, their long-term survival seems unlikely and the days of the Caliphate being a major player in the Syrian civil war appear over.

Neither Assad, the SDF, nor their international backers will take the task of finishing IS off for granted, but inevitably thoughts are turning to what happens next and what IS’ decline means for the Syria conflict. Both Russia and the US justified entering the Syria war as a means to defeat IS; will either or both remain even after it is gone? More significantly, how will their two Syrian allies, Assad and the SDF, now facing each other either side of the Euphrates, respond? Could local or international factors prompt a new conflict in former IS territory between the two victors or is some form of compromise on the cards? Moreover, does IS’ territorial defeat actually mean its complete removal from the Syrian war, or might remnants and supporters continue to be a thorn in both Assad and the Kurds’ side? This article will explore these key domestic and international questions emerging from IS’ decline in Syria. By considering the conflicting goals and priorities of the two main Syrian forces and their external backers, as well as the remnants of IS, it will argue that though the Caliphate may have been defeated, new conflicts and instability may yet emerge from the fallout…

Full version available at Orient. Draft available here.