Syria: Is withdrawal Biden’s next move?

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 23 September 2021

America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has made its Kurdish allies in eastern Syria nervous. The White House was quick to reassure the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that it would not initiate a similar pull-out from Syria, but can US President Joe Biden be trusted?

After all, the Trump administration gave similar assurances before abruptly withdrawing over half its forces in 2019 and greenlighting a Turkish invasion.

More recently, Washington was muted when several SDF fighters were killed in Turkish attacks in August. Biden’s Kabul withdrawal, in which he prioritised saving “American lives” over his allies, will only heighten fears among the SDF that they too will be soon be abandoned.

So how likely is Biden to pull out? The signs are not good for the SDF. By withdrawing from Afghanistan, and also with the recent Aukus alliance, Biden has indicated clearly that great power competition, particularly the containment of China, is his primary foreign concern. This means ending involvement in the “forever war” legacies of the “war on terror” like Afghanistan and, possibly, Syria.

Related to this, Biden’s withdrawal suggests he has accelerated the move to fight Islamic terrorism “offshore”. He seems to accept that Taliban rule may see Afghanistan become a haven for jihadists once more. Yet rather than tackling this with troops, he prefers to strike from distance – already the practice in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Extending this approach to Syria, Biden might conclude he doesn’t need boots on the ground to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State (IS) group.

Softer line with Assad

Biden has never been much interested in Syria and, while he agreed to the anti-IS campaign, he opposed wider involvement in the conflict when he was vice president under Barack Obama. There are already hints that he might take a softer line with Bashar al-Assad, recently exempting an Egypt-Jordan-Syria-Lebanon gas deal from the US’s Caesar sanctions. Keeping US troops in eastern Syria to deprive Assad of oil may no longer be the strong motivator it once was.

Yet there are reasons for the SDF to be hopeful. Firstly, Biden was defiant on Afghanistan, but he will be wary of attracting more negative press by abandoning another ally so soon. This alone suggests that even were Biden keen to leave Syria, he may hold off until the post-Kabul criticism has died down.

Secondly, the operation in Syria is far less costly than the one in Afghanistan. While in 2018 the US still had 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, dropping to 4,000 before the withdrawal, it only has 900 supporting the SDF. Added to this, Syria is less of a live theatre now that IS’s caliphate has largely been destroyed, so American casualties remain low and Biden faces less domestic pressure to withdraw.

Then there is the international dimension. Key regional allies – especially Israel and Saudi Arabia – want the US to remain in eastern Syria to guard against Iran moving in. That said, another ally, Turkey, is eager for the US to leave so it can stamp down on the SDF unimpeded, believing its strongest faction, the PYD, to be Kurdish nationalist terrorists. Biden cannot please all of his allies, but there is certainly no regional consensus pressuring him to leave.

For the time being, then, even if Biden might prefer to get out, there is little internal or external impetus for a sudden withdrawal. However, that could change. In particular, the dynamics between Turkey and Russia in Syria are significant, and events in Afghanistan could yet have reverberations there.

Russian strategy

One of Russia’s long-term goals is to get eastern Syria back in Assad’s hands, which would give Damascus’s beleaguered economy access to oilfields it badly needs. But unlike rebel-held Idlib, which Assad and Moscow seem intent on capturing militarily, Russia’s strategy in the east seems to be persuasion. Ideally, it wants the SDF to accept a settlement with Assad and ask the Americans to leave.

This is not so far-fetched. The PYD had a good relationship with both Assad and Russia before Syria’s civil war and there is a faction that sees the SDF’s future under the protection of Damascus and Moscow rather than Washington. Indeed, when Trump permitted Turkey to invade in 2019, the SDF immediately looked to Moscow, which brokered a ceasefire in exchange for Russian and Assad troops gaining positions in SDF-held territory.  

Turkey’s activities are also helping Russia to nudge the SDF into swapping sides. Ankara increasingly sees the PYD as its number one concern in Syria, with defeating Assad and defending the rebels slipping down the priority list. As it struggles to moderate the extremist Idlib rebels, and Russian air strikes frustrate Ankara there, the frontline with the SDF further east is one of the few areas of Turkish success.

Consequently, it has stepped up attacks on SDF positions, either with drones or using its proxy Syrian rebel allies. Every time it does, and Washington fails to respond, it adds more evidence to Moscow’s claim that only Russia can protect the SDF from Turkey. Ankara might actually be open to some kind of eventual Assad-SDF-Russia deal, as long as it means ultimately disarming or neutralising the PYD.

Both Moscow and Ankara will feel that the US pull-out from Afghanistan has increased their chances of getting what they want.

For Turkey, it suggests a lack of interest and staying power that, at the least, might see Washington tolerate Ankara’s raids on SDF positions, and at best see the US cut and run.

For Vladimir Putin, Biden has given him the gift of doubt to sow in the SDF leaders’ minds. Even if the White House has no plans to immediately leave eastern Syria, and faces little pressure to do so, both Russia and Turkey will try to exploit the fallout from Afghanistan to further their goals, which might ultimately hasten an American departure anyway.

Syria war: While other states jockey for influence, the EU pays

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 21 July 2021

If someone were to ask who the most important external power in Syria is right now, most would probably say Russia, which intervened militarily in 2015 to save the floundering regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Some might also point to Iran, which backed the embattled president by sending money, weapons and armed fighters; Turkey, which supported anti-Assad rebels and has occupied parts of northern Syria; or the US, which led the international anti-Islamic-State campaign in eastern Syria and continues to back the Kurdish-led post-IS administration.

Few, however, would point to the European Union. Yet, the EU is a major stakeholder in the conflict, and has been heavily involved from the beginning. Brussels placed targeted sanctions on Assad regime figures as early as May 2011in response to the president’s violent crackdown on protests, which sparked the war.

Likewise, the leading EU powers of France, Germany and, at the time, the UK, joined former US President Barack Obama in calling for Assad to “step aside” a few months later. The economic sanctions regime they initiated, including banning imports of Syrian oil, had a far greater impact than Washington’s, as the EU was Syria’s biggest trade partner. This, in turn, contributed to Assad’s increasing economic dependence on Moscow and Tehran. Indeed, until the harsh US Caesar sanctions were introduced in 2019, European sanctions hit Syria’s economy hardest.

Coalition against IS

As well as sanctioning Assad, the EU sponsored his opponents, with France and the UK especially active in providing non-lethal aid to rebel fighters and oppositionists. London and Paris also joined Washington in air strikes against Assad’s forces in 2018, and had been prepared to do so in 2013, before the UK parliament vetoed any involvement. All EU members, moreover, joined the global coalition against IS, with many sending combat forces into eastern Syria.

At the same time, EU members have been significantly impacted by the effects of the conflict, with more than two dozen terrorist attacks linked to IS in EU states since 2013, killing hundreds of people.

EU members, particularly Germany and Sweden, have received more than a million Syrian refugees, while Brussels continues to spend considerably on the consequences of the war, being the largest donor of aid. Of the €5.3bn ($6.2bn) in aid money pledged to Syria by the international community in 2021, €3.7bn came from the EU (€1.12bn from the European Commission and €2.6bn from member states). 

In total, it is estimated the EU has spent €24.9bn ($29.32bn) on aid since 2011. With fears that Syria could erupt into conflict once more, or collapse into a failed state on its doorstep – sending further refugees or terrorists its way – this aid is unlikely to dry up anytime soon.

Clearly, the EU has a lot at stake in Syria, and it has expended much energy and money on the conflict. Yet, its influence is negligible compared to others, for two primary reasons.

Structural weaknesses

Firstly, the EU’s own structural weaknesses make it difficult for it to lead on any foreign issue. Uniting 27 (previously 28) members on a single strategy towards Syria has been challenging. Several states objected to sanctions in 2011, while today, at least five members are hoping to improve relations with Assad, despite Brussels’ official line of no reconciliation without political concessions.

The more powerful players in Paris, Berlin and, previously, London, have largely been able to cajole the more sceptical members to agree on a united line. But holding this coalition together limits how assertive and activist the union can be.

Secondly, the EU lacks the military capacity needed to significantly increase its influence in Syria. The early years of the war were largely fought between Syrians backed financially by outside players, and this might have been an opportunity for the EU to up its influence. But once Iran, Russia, Turkey and the US began sending their own forces, plus foreign allies in the case of Iran, the conflict shifted to one requiring a military presence to garner influence.

With Brussels lacking its own military and the members with the largest militaries unwilling to deploy them, it would have been tough to implement a more interventionist policy, even if the EU had been able to agree on one.

With these obstacles unlikely to change, the EU looks set to be in the paradoxical role of bankrolling Syrian aid, while simultaneously having very little influence over the conflict. Most members remain committed to maintaining sanctions and refusing accommodation, in line with the US.

While the EU could theoretically amplify its influence by diverging from Washington and opening a dialogue with Damascus, such a rupture with the White House would be too costly for too little gain, and thus seems unlikely. Instead, Brussels will continue as it has: paying for the consequences of the war, limiting the spillover at home, and hoping someone else will ultimately sort out a mess it actually bears quite a bit of responsibility for causing.

Russia is a broker, not a peacemaker between Israel and Syria

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye 2 March 2021

series of Russian-mediated deals between Syria and Israel have recently caught the attention of analysts.

In December, Israeli and Syrian security chiefs reportedly met at Russia’s Syrian Khmeimim airbase, while Russian forces this month excavated a Palestinian cemetery in Damascus with the aim of recovering and repatriating the remains of several Israelis.

Also this month, Moscow brokered a deal that saw Damascus return an Israeli civilian in exchange for prisoners held in Israeli jails and, secretly, $1.2m worth of Russia’s coronavirus vaccines

For two states technically at war, such regular contacts have been rare, prompting some to speculate that this might mark a more concerted Russian effort to mediate a peace deal. With Israel recently normalising ties with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, could Syria, desperate for an end to international sanctions after a decade of civil war, be next on the list?

Fanciful schemes

The Times’ Roger Boyes posits that, however improbably, Putin may cast himself as a Middle Eastern peacemaker by engineering Iran’s ejection from Syria in exchange for Israel’s return of the occupied Golan Heights. But such schemes seem fanciful and misread the more likely Israeli, Syrian and Russian motives.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reasons are probably more domestic than geostrategic. He faces yet another general election in March and likes to play the international statesman to boost his electoral appeal. Securing the return of a citizen and the remains of former soldiers, something particularly valued in Israel, could boost his popularity – and he has been keen to underline his “personal connections” with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This public closeness to Putin might also have other causes. Relations with the new Biden administration in the US are already strained, given Netanyahu’s closeness to former President Donald Trump and strained ties with former President Barack Obama. President Joe Biden conspicuously waited a monthafter his inauguration to call the Israeli leader. Publicly declaring Putin a friend and thanking him for his mediation sends a message to the White House that if it is going to be distant, there are other suitors.

Yet, this is still a long way from Israel accepting a Russian-mediated peace with Syria. Firstly, Israel must question whether Moscow could deliver such a peace. Israel would likely want the removal of all Iranian-allied forces, including Hezbollah, from Syria and Lebanon, which Moscow lacks the resources (and will) to achieve.

Secondly, it is questionable as to whether Israel really wants such a deal. The Golan has considerable strategic and economic value and, if anything, Israel is embedding itself deeper there, with the Trump administration recently recognising the annexation – something Biden has yet to rescind.

While Iran’s presence in Syria (and Lebanon) is threatening, it is something Israel has thus far contained via regular air strikes. While Netanyahu will continue to lobby Putin publicly to limit or even remove Iran’s presence in Syria, he likely prefers the status quo to losing the Golan.

Symbolic importance

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also has little interest in a peace deal. While the Golan retains symbolic importance for his regime – his father, Hafez, was defence minister when it was captured – it is not worth the valuable alliance with Iran, which saved the embattled regime in the early years of the civil war.

While Russia is now the dominant external player in Syria, Assad still gains from Iran and its allied militias; in some areas, they are the dominant military force, while Assad also likes to play Tehran and Moscow off one another to get his way.

In addition, it is not clear as to whether peace with Israel would solve any of Damascus’ problems. It desperately needs money and investment, but a Russian-brokered Israeli peace would not unlock international funds the way a US-led one would, while the international community is unlikely to ignore Assad’s civil war brutality just because he reconciles with Netanyahu.

Politically, a peace deal with Israel would also be risky. Even if the Golan were returned, the Assad regime has long portrayed itself as a champion of Palestinian rights, which would be betrayed in any such peace, potentially prompting domestic unrest.

Assad’s acquiescence to the recent deals appears more the result of Russian pressure. While freeing Syrians from prison gives the regime something, digging up graves to recover Israeli soldiers is humiliating, especially if it includes Eli Cohen, the notorious spy publicly hanged in 1965 to nationalist fanfare.

The inclusion of much-needed Covid-19 vaccines might have sweetened the deal, but it still seems Damascus has been strong-armed by Moscow – and yet, Assad is not Putin’s puppet. Russia has been repeatedly frustrated by Assad’s stubbornness and unwillingness to make even minor concessions throughout the civil war.

It is possible that Assad’s acceptance of these deals is intended to placate Putin, while still refusing to budge on weightier issues, notably Syria’s stalled constitutional committee negotiations in Geneva.

Regional profile

So what of Russia’s motives? Rather than being a first step towards Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations, these deals represent continuity with Putin’s strategy towards the Levant since Russia directly entered the Syria conflict in 2015. Moscow positions itself as the region’s indispensable broker: the one external power that has relations with all the major players – Israel, Syria, Iran and even Hezbollah.

This has allowed it to boost its regional profile and influence at the expense of its retreating rival, the US. In any future clashes between Israel and Hezbollah, Iranian or Syrian forces in either Lebanon or Syria, the mediator will now likely be Russia, not the US.

Importantly, this has come at relatively little cost to Putin. Military hardware has been poured into Syria, but with only limited losses – as Iranian and Syrian troops do the brunt of the fighting – and most costs have been recouped or surpassed by consequent arms deals with other Middle Eastern militaries impressed with Russian kit. Indeed, even the recent Israel deal saw Netanyahu pay Russia for Syria’s Covid-19 vaccinations.

So why would Moscow want to change this and push for a permanent Syrian-Israeli peace? Such a peace would end its role as mediator, as Iran and Hezbollah would be ejected, and it would probably destroy Russia’s alliance with Tehran. It would also be costly, as Russia would have to ensure the compliance of both sides, which could mean deploying troops to hunt down any resistant pro-Iranian elements.

Moreover, if the peace was really successful, it might lead to Syria’s eventual international rehabilitation, lessening its dependence on Russia. All of this seems a lot to pay for little gain.

Mediating the current chaos serves Putin’s agenda far better than seeking to engineer and maintain a difficult peace, so Russia will likely remain the Levant’s broker, not its peacemaker, for the foreseeable future. 

How the wars in Libya and Syria are strangely intertwined

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 22 July 2020

When Egypt recently threatened to intervene in Libya’s war, Cairo received the wholehearted support of Damascus.

That the embattled Syrian regime, itself still fighting a gruelling civil conflict that has drawn in a myriad of foreign intervention, would so enthusiastically back similar interference elsewhere might seem odd. But it serves a wider purpose for Assad, ingratiating him to Egypt and its allies.

It also fits a pattern that has been present since the beginning of both the Syrian and Libyan civil wars in 2011. Though the two conflicts have taken different paths, the Libya war has frequently impacted events in Syria, with reverberations felt in unexpected ways on the other side of the Mediterranean.

One key way in which the Libya war has impacted Syria has been to inspire some opposition actors to take up arms in the first place. When Syria’s uprising began in March 2011, the early opposition movement against President Bashar al-Assad was consciously peaceful, taking its cues from the successful bloodless revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt months earlier.

Yet, when this failed to achieve the rapid success seen elsewhere and Assad responded with brutal violence, some looked instead to the Libyan model of revolution, where armed rebels had toppled Muammar Gaddafi. While this prompted heated debate among Syrian opposition members, by March 2012, the opposition in exile, the Syrian National Council, had formally endorsed the armed strategy that rebel fighters on the ground were already taking.

Libya had already become a source of Syrian rebel arms and finance. As early as November 2011, Syrian rebels were reportedly negotiating with the new post-Gaddafi government in Tripoli about providing weapons. After a leading Libyan rebel, Abdul Hakim Belhaj, travelled to Turkey, the Libyan government made a $100m donation to the Syrian rebels.

A regular supply of weapons was sent from Libya to Syria’s rebels via Turkey. Also, Qatar was inspired in Syria by its apparent success in backing rebels against Gaddafi. It is an interesting question as to whether Doha would have been so enthusiastic were it not for events in Libya.

‘The intervention is coming’

A similar question could be asked on the importance of Libya in impacting western views of the Syria crisis, and the Syrian opposition’s expectations of western intervention. After Nato directly intervened against Gaddafi, Syrian opposition groups increasingly expected something similar against Assad.

The rebels’ strategy in 2011-12, encouraged by their allies in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, was geared towards taking territory and holding out long enough until the inevitable western intervention. One opposition figure, Bassma Kodmani, later recalled regional powers frequently telling the opposition: “It is coming definitely, the intervention is coming.”

Yet, the Libya campaign paradoxically deterred similar western intervention in Syria. Former US President Barack Obama had reluctantlyagreed to attack Gaddafi, under pressure from interventionists in his administration and his international allies. When Libya then descended into civil war, leading to the murder of US ambassador Christopher Stevens in September 2012, Obama’s initial caution returned to the fore, and he became even more unwilling to intervene in Syria.

This was seen in 2013, when he found a way to avoid striking Assad, despite Damascus defying Obama’s “red line” of using chemical weapons, to the outrage of the Syrian opposition and its allies. Obama and the anti-Assadists took different lessons from the Libya intervention, impacting their approach to the Syria war.

Turkey-Russia rivalry

More recently, as Libya’s civil war has heated up, it has begun playing a new role in Syria’s conflict. Whereas once knock-on effects from Libya reverberated in Syria, now, Syria’s war is having consequences in Libya.

The clearest example of this is the rivalry between Turkey and Russia. They back opposing sides in both conflicts, though Ankara and Moscow have both invested more in Syria. In recent years, however, each has increased their presence in Libya, seemingly as a means to boost their regional leverage in general and, at times, in Syria specifically.

It has become common at bilateral meetings between Russia and Turkey for both Syria and Libya to be under discussion. Setbacks in Syria have led to an increased presence in Libya. This was seen recently after Turkey’s comparative defeat to Russia and Assad in Idlib in March, precipitating a massive and decisive increase in Ankara’s support for the government in Tripoli.

A further Syria connector is their use of Syrians to fight in Libya. Turkey transported soldiers from its Syrian rebel proxies, the Syrian National Army, to fight in Libya, while Russia has used former Syrian rebels as mercenaries to fight for its Libyan ally, General Khalifa Haftar.

Sad pattern

Though less consequential than either Turkey’s or Russia’s actions, Assad’s own involvement in Libya is similarly expedient. His endorsement of Haftar, including by recently giving him Libya’s embassy in Damascus, carries ideological components. Both are autocrats who loathe the Muslim Brotherhood, are allied to Russia and are opposed by Turkey.

Despite these commonalities, Assad did not weigh in on Haftar’s side for several years. His move now comes more from a desire to woo Haftar’s key external allies, the UAE and Egypt. A desperate need for Abu Dhabi’s economic support, especially, to prop up his floundering, sanctioned economy – rather than ideological solidarity – seems his primary motivation.

With both states likely to remain unstable for some time, subject to intervention and influence from the international powers that have helped drive and prolong the conflicts, it is unlikely that this will be the last time that events in Libya and Syria impact one another.

For almost a decade, Syria’s tragic war has been strangely interwoven with the equally grim conflict unfolding in Libya – and this sad pattern seems unlikely to end soon.

Syria war: Could Washington’s ‘Caesar’ sanctions topple Assad?

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 22 June 2020

President Bashar al-Assad has largely defeated the rebellion against his rule, but Syria’s economy is in meltdown.

The recent economic and political crisis in neighbouring Lebanon, alongside the impact of nine years of civil war, Western sanctions and systematic government corruption, have already caused shortages, widespread unemployment and the near-collapse of the Syrian pound.

Now, Assad’s battered regime and the long-suffering Syrian people, 80 percent of whom live in poverty, face a new challenge: Washington’s “Caesar” sanctions.

While the Assad regime has faced Western sanctions since even before the start of its civil war in 2011, this new approach from Washington is more wide-ranging. Rather than just targeting regime individuals, the Caesar Actpunishes any business or individual from any country who deals with sanctioned actors.

This is expected to deter foreign companies from investing, starving the government of much-needed capital and accelerating economic decline. The US hope is that this will force the regime to offer political concessions, moderate its behaviour or, ideally, prompt an internal coup against Assad. Several commentators have already speculated that this may finally be the moment that Assad’s bloody rule ends.

Yet, such an outcome appears unlikely, based on the experience of sanctions on Syria and elsewhere in the past. Despite their popularity among Western policymakers as a means of leverage over foreign governments short of military action, economic sanctions rarely achieve their stated goals.

Most scholarly research suggests that sanctions are far more likely to entrench an autocratic regime than to either bring about its end or moderate its behaviour. The classic example is the sanctioning of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from 1991 to 2003.

The UN-mandated sanctions were intended to prompt the Iraqi elite to overthrow Saddam, but instead impoverished the Iraqi people. Saddam’s regime, meanwhile, was empowered, increasing the population’s dependence on the government for food, while it blamed the outside world for their poverty.

Mitigating losses

Though Assad’s Syria has thus far not faced sanctions as comprehensive as Saddam’s Iraq, a similar pattern has emerged. Since 2011, Assad, his cronies, and key regime institutions and sources of income have faced US and EU sanctions, yet there has been no coup against Assad’s rule. Nor has there been any sign of Damascus moderating its behaviour, either ceasing its repression of opponents or offering political concessions.

With help from its allies in Iran and Russia, both experienced sanctions-busters themselves, Damascus has found ways to mitigate the losses. As in Saddam’s Iraq, individuals linked to the regime have become comparatively wealthier and more powerful over the course of the conflict, with the burden of sanctions transferred onto the population rather than the elite.

So why do US policymakers and their supporters think that the Caesar Act will work where previous sanctions on Syria, Iraq and elsewhere so clearly failed? Possibly, it is the scale and scope of the Caesar sanctions, far greater than anything experienced by Assad before (though not Saddam). This will almost certainly cripple the beleaguered Syrian economy further, and may prompt unrest from previously loyal quarters.

In recent weeks, the usually quiet Druze-dominated city of Sweida has seen protests related to economic hardship, while journalists report grumblings along the pro-Assad coast. Yet, while such protests may continue and even expand, the past nine years have shown that popular unrest is insufficient to overthrow this regime.

Assad and his foreign allies are willing to crush dissent if it threatens their rule. One such ally, Hezbollah, recently underlined this by pledging to “not abandon Syria in the face of economic warfare”.

A coup is similarly unlikely. Most of Syria’s economic elite are tied to the regime and are either included in the sanctions themselves, or would lose their access to economic privilege if the regime fell. Moreover, like Saddam, Assad has a “coup-proofed” regime, making it very difficult for a coup to be carried out, even if regime elites wanted to.

Poor record of return

Perhaps the authors of the Caesar Act instead hope that the increase in sanctions will force Assad to moderate his behaviour and accept some political concessions. In the past, the threat of force has seen Damascus compromise, most notably giving up most of its chemical weapons in a Russian-moderated deal in 2013, after former US President Barack Obama threatened missile strikes.

The Caesar sanctions do offer a similar route out for Assad, with seven criteria that need to be met. However, these include measures that are anathema to the regime, such as establishing “meaningful accountability”. Such requests are far bigger concessions than chemical disarmament, and even then, Assad did not fully comply. Nothing in his past behaviour suggests that Assad is willing to give up any significant power to ease external pressure, with even his ally Russia struggling to nudge him towards far smaller political concessions.

Of course, policymakers know that sanctions have a poor record of return, yet they remain a favourite tool of Western governments. They are a way of signalling to repressive regimes that there are consequences for their brutality, but they are also used by politicians to show key domestic and foreign audiences that they are “doing something”, without having to launch more risky and costly military adventures.

The Caesar sanctions are no different, and came about after Syrian-Americans lobbied Congress, rather than as part of a thought-through US government anti-Assad strategy.

Like past sanctions, they will probably hurt the Syrian people the most, while Assad and his allies find workarounds where they can, entrench their rule further and transfer any suffering onto the wider population. Perhaps this time will be different, and the Caesar Act will be a rare example of successful sanctions bringing about positive change – but past experience would suggest otherwise.

Coronavirus could further weaken US power in the Middle East

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye21 April 2020.

It is too early to tell how the Covid-19 crisis will impact geopolitics. That, of course, has not stopped a range of commentators debatingthe likely extent of change and continuity once the pandemic passes.

This article adds to that debate, by focusing on how the international relations of the Middle East could be affected, albeit with the considerable caveat that the pandemic could yet take an unexpected turn.

In the past, major crises have tended to catalyse pre-existing trends rather than usher in total transformations. As such, one plausible result of Covid-19 could be the acceleration of a shift that began more than a decade ago: the weakening of US power and influence in the Middle East.

Bid for regional hegemony

The post-Cold War era of the 1990s and 2000s was characterised by an expansion of Washington’s Middle Eastern footprint. It strengthened ties with allies through military contracts and base building, mobilised the international community to isolate its enemies, and, eventually, directly invaded and occupied Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet this bid for regional hegemony has been rolled back in recent years due to a combination of factors. The US failure and overstretch in Iraq; public exhaustion; the 2008 financial crisis; and the election of two presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, who in different ways opposed heavy involvement in the Middle East, prompted more reluctance from the White House.

Meanwhile, the rise of China, renewed military activism from Russia and greater interventionism from Middle Eastern states saw the US’s previous dominance further challenged.

The Covid-19 pandemic will accelerate this. The US, like other Western democratic governments, looks set for a post-coronavirus period of internal focus. The US public was already hostile towards adventures abroad, a contributing factor to both Obama’s and Trump’s victories, and the pandemic crisis will add further pressure for leaders to focus domestically on healthcare, the economy and democratic accountability.

Moreover, Washington’s failure to lead a global response to the crisis, with Trump instead pulling support for the World Health Organization, has further eroded whatever soft power appeal the US had left in the region.

Russia and China

This is not to suggest the US will suddenly remove itself from the Middle East. It seems unlikely it will vacate its Gulf bases, while the arms industry will continue to seek regional clients. Specific regional projects, such as Trump’s confrontation with Iran, will not disappear.

But the broader view of the Middle East as an arena in which the US should dominate or, at least, be the primary external actor will have less and less appeal. Whoever is elected in November, priorities and resources will continue to be focused elsewhere. As Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former speechwriter, recently wrote: “The 9/11 era is over.”

So, what comes next? Again, one plausible scenario is a continuation of the past decade’s trends. The US’s global rivals, Russia and China, have been emboldened by Washington’s gradual retreat. Moscow has militarily intervened in Syria, backed anti-government forces in Libya, and built closer ties with Iran, Egypt, Israel and the Gulf.

China, meanwhile, has significantly increased its economic and diplomatic engagement, designating the Middle East a “neighbour” in its Belt and Road Initiative, and built a physical presence in Pakistan and Djibouti.

Though neither seems interested or has the capacity to replace the US as hegemon, both look likely to raise their stakes in the Middle East.

Regional activism

The other side of this trend has been the increased independent activism of regional powers. Middle Eastern heavyweights Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and – to a lesser extent – Israel, the UAE, Egypt and Qatar, have spent the last decade intervening in contested arenas such as Syria, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon and Iraq.

Unlike in the 1990s and 2000s, these interventions have frequently come without prior consultation with the US, even among Washington’s allies, echoing the regional competition of the 1950s and 60s.

These states, like China and Russia, are largely authoritarian, potentially sparing them the public demand to focus internally after the crisis that democratic Western governments may face. These regimes may even opt for more regional intervention to distract their publics from internal failures during the crisis.

That said, much will depend on how badly affected Russia, China and the regional powers are by the time the pandemic ends.

The coronavirus crisis has already highlighted poor governance in many Middle Eastern autocracies, and related future economic woes may spark public unrest and even revolution. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia continue to be rocked by low oil prices, while a collapse in regional tourism will hit others, possibly deterring any foreign adventurism.

Two alternatives

This could plausibly go one of two ways. On the one hand, those players least impacted by the pandemic, whether governments or non-state actors such as the Islamic State, Yemen’s Houthis or Libya’s Khalifa Haftar, could take advantage, prompting yet more regional conflict.

Alternatively, if all the potential interventionists are sufficiently stricken, there could be some respite in some of the conflict zones. A retreating US and an unwillingness from China or Russia to take its place may even lead weakened regional adversaries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, to seek greater accommodation.

Critics have long called for Washington to step back from the Middle East, and it is possible that the Covid-19 crisis will accelerate this process and grant them their wish. An optimistic forecast may suggest this would help usher in an era of less intervention in the Middle East by external, regional powers or non-state actors.

Yet, it seems equally plausible that in the vacuum, states and other players, including the US, will continue to view the region as an arena for competition, subjecting it to more conflict and suffering. The post-US Middle East that Covid-19 could usher in may prove no more stable than it was under Washington’s failed bid for dominance.

Syria war: The myth of Western inaction in Idlib

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 20 March 2020

Amid the global crisis over the coronavirus pandemic, the Syria conflict has quietly entered its tenth year. Over the span of a decade, the same sad images have become familiar: bombed-out towns, bereaved families and flows of refugees.

The latest round of fighting in Idlib was recently paused after a Russian-Turkish deal. Yet, while fighting might have been disrupted by the Covid-19 outbreak, most expect the ceasefire to eventually break down. If and when that happens, we will likely see another familiar trope of this war: laments over Western inaction.

But this “inaction” is a myth. Commentators and politicians might disapprove of Western policies, but the current situation in Idlib and Syria has not occurred without Western input.

Differing priorities

On the contrary: Western governments, especially the US, have played a leading role in creating the current mess. This is no conspiracy, and few leaders wanted the current outcomes. But the Syria debacle is still partly the product of Western actions, through a combination of errors, limited interest and differing priorities.

Going back to 2011, when protesters rose up against President Bashar al-Assad, Western governments indirectly encouraged civil war. Assad himself bears most of the responsibility for this, after slaughtering peaceful protesters who eventually took up arms – but Western policies helped. When leaders called for Assad to “step aside”, they helped to create a zero-sum conflict.

Moreover, by helping arms flow into Syria, Western governments have poured fuel on the fire. In her memoirs, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted that by March 2012, the US effectively green-lit Washington’s allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to send weapons and money to rebel forces. Around the same time, the CIA arranged its own weapons and training for the rebels, a programme that expanded over time.

The domination of radical Islamists within the rebel movement – such as the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which now rules much of Idlib – was also influenced by Western policies. Again, Assad and others bear much responsibility: Damascus deliberately released imprisoned jihadists to radicalise the opposition; Qatar and Turkey turned a blind eye to extremists they backed; and Iran sent sectarian fighters to help Assad, radicalising some Sunni rebels.

On the US side, the administration of former President Barack Obama let the moderate rebels and their regional allies believe that Washington would eventually intervene directly against Assad. When this did not occur, it empowered the radicals who had always opposed seeking Western support, and undermined the moderates who had rested their strategy on eventual US intervention.

Migrant influx

This was made worse when Obama ultimately did intervene directly against the Islamic State, showing that it was willing to act to save lives (the Yazidis), that it was willing to heavily arm and fight alongside Syrians (the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF), and that it was willing to deploy its own air force.

Yet, it also showed the rebels that it did not prioritise their battle against Assad sufficiently to do this for them. Even though more weapons and training were heading to the moderate rebels, it was a fraction of what was sent to the SDF, again undermining those battling for relevance against radicals.

European leaders also showed that their true priorities lay elsewhere. The 2015 migrant crisis, partly fuelled by the Syria conflict to which they had contributed, led the EU to strike a deal with Turkey on restricting the flow of refugees. Desperate to keep this in place, EU leaders have been relatively muted on the increasing authoritarian practices of Ankara and its growing closeness to Moscow, fearing major criticism could risk the vital deal.

In this context, they have not raised serious objections to Turkey’s increased presence in northern Syria or its inability to prevent the HTS takeover in Idlib, all contributing to the latest round of fighting.

Blow from the Trump administration

US President Donald Trump’s Syria policies have similarly played a role. The triumph of HTS was virtually guaranteed when he cut the last US programme funding moderate rebels in July 2017. A year later, he declined to protect a de-escalation zone in southern Syria that he had guaranteed with Russia, ensuring its fall.

Not only was this another blow to the few remaining moderate rebels, it also allowed Assad to continue his programme of deporting surrendering rebels who refused to reconcile and their families to Idlib, ensuring it became a densely populated, vulnerable refuge housing several million people.

More recently, Trump’s decision to partially withdraw from eastern Syria emboldened Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, all of which impacted the Idlib crisis.

Western policy, therefore, has played a major role in shaping the outcome of Syria’s war and the current conflict zone of Idlib. Today, Idlib is a densely packed region of vulnerable civilians, ruled over by HTS radicals, with next to no Western influence. Their fate will be determined by Russia, Turkey and Assad.

But this has not accidentally happened while Western governments looked the other way. In most cases, the events that have led to this outcome in Syria since 2011 were heavily influenced and often led by Western leaders. They might not have foreseen these outcomes, but much of the blame for this crisis lies with them – although they share it with Assad, Putin, Erdogan and others. It is a myth to say Western governments have been “inactive” in any way.

Idlib offensive: Turkey’s tradeoffs with Russia put it on the losing side

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye 19 February 2020

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s advance on Idlib province appears to be a disaster for Turkey. Ankara’s rebel allies have been rapidly overrun, while 13 soldiers have been killed while manning Turkey’s observation posts.

Up to 800,000 people have been displaced, but Turkey has closed its border, reluctant to add to the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it already hosts.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reacted angrily to the Syrian offensive, threatening retaliation – but his calls for Assad and his Russian ally to withdraw to previously agreed ceasefire lines have been ignored.

Long time coming

Yet, for all of Erdogan’s bluster, this was a long time coming. Assad has long coveted Idlib, vowing to reconquer “every inch” of Syria lost during the nine-year civil war against his rule, and Russia has helped him to break ceasefires elsewhere.

This assault fits an established pattern of Russian-Turkish tradeoffs in Syria, whereby Russia grants Turkey a territorial concession in exchange for turning a blind eye to an Assad advance elsewhere.

The pattern began with Operation Euphrates Shield in the summer of 2016, when Turkish forces, alongside their Syrian rebel allies, moved to push the Islamic State (IS) and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from Turkey’s border.

With Russia controlling western Syrian airspace, Moscow’s approval was needed, and a deal was struck. Turkey would gain a zone of influence between al-Bab and Jarablus, and in exchange Ankara would quietly end support for rebels in eastern Aleppo, facilitating Russia, Iran and Assad’s conquest of the city.

A similar story played out in 2018. Turkey again needed Russian agreement to expand its zone westwards, to push the YPG out of Afrin. In exchange, Erdogan said little when Assad cleaved off the eastern third of the Idlib de-escalation zone that Turkey had theoretically guaranteed.

Similarly, though Turkey made noises of condemnation, it did little to prevent Assad from recapturing the three other de-escalation zones in Ghouta, Rastan and Daraa later that year.

In line with this pattern, the tradeoff linked to Assad’s latest attack on Idlib was Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring, launched in October 2019. It invaded northern Syria once more, pushing out the YPG and carving out another zone of influence from Tal Abyad to Ras-al-Ayn. Turkey didn’t need Russian permission this time, as eastern Syrian airspace was controlled by the US, which surprisingly facilitated the operation against its Kurdish allies. But Russian President Vladimir Putin soon endorsed the move by agreeing to joint Turkish-Russian border patrols – an effective legitimation of the occupation.

Turning a blind eye

Russia reaped further rewards. Washington’s sudden abandonment of the YPG allowed Moscow to broker a partial reconciliation between Assad and the Kurdish militia, allowing Assad to march into YPG-held territory east of the Euphrates.

Yet, this seems too small a prize for Russian acquiescence to Peace Spring, given it has long seen Kurdish-Assad reconciliation as an eventual likelihood anyway. It is likely that parts of Idlib were also on the table when the joint border patrol negotiations were underway. This might also have been discussed when Turkey and Russia called for a ceasefire in Libya in January.

Given the pattern of tradeoffs, Russia might have expected Turkey to turn a blind eye when Assad launched his assault on southern Idlib in late December of last year. Ankara had done little, beyond rhetorical outrage, when Assad took Khan Sheikhoun earlier that year.

From Ankara’s perspective, given that the Syrian government had struggled for months in Khan Sheikhoun, they may have hoped Assad’s forces would exhaust themselves with similar slow progress. It might have taken years for Assad to advance all the way up the coveted M5 and M4 highways, bogged down by rebel and jihadist forces. Every slow campaign gave Ankara more opportunities to wring concessions from Russia.

Instead, Assad’s blitzkrieg came with unprecedented speed and ferocity. Not only did his forces take the M5 highway to Aleppo within weeks, they then fanned out north of Syria’s second city, securing it from enemy rockets for the first time since 2012. While the Turkish president may have been expecting a long, drawn-out campaign around southern Idlib, he instead faced the partial collapse of the entire de-escalation zone.

The junior partner

Evidently, Erdogan miscalculated – yet for all his anger, talk of a breakdown in Russia-Turkey relations over Syria seems premature. Moscow still controls the airspace over Ankara’s zones of influence in Afrin and al-Bab, while Turkey remains the junior partner in a growing economic and security relationship. Indeed, for all their disagreement on Idlib, Turkey has been keen to emphasise that this won’t derail the wider Russia-Turkey relationship.

For this reason, Erdogan would struggle to follow up on his threats with a decisive retaliation against Assad. Having spent four years rebuilding Assad’s military, Russia would not likely allow Turkey to inflict serious damage on it without responding. It may, however, accept tokenistic losses that Assad could absorb, similar to the now-regular raids on Damascus from ​​Israel.

Turkey’s pouring of troops and equipment into western Idlib suggests it wants to create new demarcation lines, to secure Idlib city and a slither of the former zone, rather than attempt to reconquer the lost lands. For this, it will eventually need to make another deal with Russia.

Though worried about refugees, Ankara can probably cope. It has already encouraged 250,000fleeing Idlib to head to its other Syrian zones of influence, such as Afrin and al-Bab. It is also possible some will be bussed to Tal Abyad.

Moscow comes out on top

One of the reasons given for Operation Peace Spring was to create space for two million Syrian refugees. Though publicly this was meant to be from the 3.6 million already in Turkey, it is not overly cynical to think Erdogan had half an eye on Idlib. One possible future tradeoff with Russia may be to allow Turkey to expand the Peace Spring zone to house more displaced Syrians.

That said, it is clear that Turkey has not always read Russia well on Syria. While tradeoffs have directed the relationship, Moscow has always ended up in a stronger position. Whatever deal can be arranged for Turkey to salvage something from the Idlib zone, the course of the war so far suggests it will be short-lived.

Assad is determined to retake all of Syria, and Russia seems committed to helping him do it. Turkey may be winning some short-term tradeoffs, but losing on long-term strategic goals.

Structure, Agency and External Involvement in the Syria conflict

This memo is part of a larger collection, POMEPS Studies 34: Shifting Global Politics and the Middle East. All pieces from this collection are available here.

Christopher Phillips, Queen Mary University of London

Barack Obama is frequently blamed for the outcomes of the Syrian civil war. The rebels’ failure to defeat President Bashar al-Assad, the growth of a Jihadist presence that culminated in the declaration of ISIS’ Caliphate and the intervention of Russia are frequently attributed to the then-US president’s actions.[1]Such charges give considerable agency to the US president and western leaders. Yet is this accurate?

The debate over responsibility for the outcome in Syria should be understood within the terms of an ongoing debate among International Relations (IR) scholars over how much influence the choices of individual leaders have over major events such as wars and diplomacy, and how much they’re constrained and directed by overarching structural conditions. The structure-agency debate in IR is long lasting and in some ways unresolvable.[2] The core question within these debates, whether agency or structure is more significant in determining international relations, has been of particular interest to Middle East scholars and policy makers when seeking to explain the successes and failures of the 2011 Arab Uprisings.[3] Ahmed Morsy expands on these debates elsewhere in this collection, explaining how Neo-Classical Realists (NCR) have sought to bridge such divides by showing how foreign policy is produced by an interaction of domestic politics with global structural conditions.[4]

This paper argues that while the Syrian case emphasises the primary importance of global and regional structure in limiting policy, interaction with domestic politics and the agency, character and choices of leaders often determines the shape and nature of actions taken within those constraints. This paper will explore first the major international structural conditions that shaped Syria’s war and then analyse key decisions by outside players over the course of the conflict, assessing how much structure and agency affected the outcome. It concludes that while leaders such as Obama always have agency, in most cases in Syria their decisions were heavily constrained by structural factors beyond their control.

Regional and Global Structural Change

The Syria conflict, which swiftly evolved from domestic peaceful protests into multiple simultaneous civil wars and international proxy wars serves as a useful test case to contribute to this structure-agency debate, given the number of external actors involved and the number of key decisions seemingly impacting the war’s outcome.

In the decade preceding Syria’s uprising a series of structural changes occurred that would greatly impact the conflict and shape external player’s reactions, on both regional and global levels. The regional international system was shifting to an embryonic multipolar order. Since the retreat of the Soviet Union in the 1980s the Middle East could be characterised either as a unipolar order dominated by the US and its allies, with this dominance challenged not by a peer competitor but by a weak set of players including (at different times) Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and non-state actors Hezbollah and Hamas.[5] This order was unsettled in the 2000s, primarily by two factors: the fallout of the 2003 Iraq war and wider global and regional economic developments, that interacted to shift several regional (and also global) structural conditions. Firstly, Iran broke out. The fall of Saddam alongside a domestic economic boom enabled Tehran to be more regionally expansive than at any time since 1979. This led to the second shift, more active Saudi Arabian involvement in Middle Eastern politics to contain its regional enemy.

Though this Saudi-Iranian rivalry produced clients and rival blocks, this did not solidify the 2000s’ weak bipolar order because of a third shift: Turkey’s entrance as a regional power. This was due to domestic political and economic factors – the Islamist-leaning ideology of its ruling AK party and the hunt for new markets for a booming manufacturing sector. Qatar, benefitting from a fossil fuel boom driven by Chinese demand, also entered regional politics as an independent force. Qatar and Turkey’s ambitions ensured the regional system became multipolar rather than bipolar.

A final regional structural shift was the growth of fragile states. The collapse of Iraq after 2003 and growing instability in Yemen increased the arenas for regional competition within this emerging multi- polar order. It also created space for significant Jihadist and other non-state actors. In the run up to 2003, Lebanon and, to an extent, Palestine had been the primary battleground for regional rivalries. After 2003 Iraq and Yemen were added to this list and, after 2011, Libya, Syria and (briefly) Egypt. These latter two shifts were particularly impacted by internal developments and the ambitious policies of particular leaders, while the first two owed more to external structural changes. This neatly echoes Morsy’s point of how difficult it is for Neo Classical Realists to consistently place more emphasis on either structure or domestic factors to explain foreign policy change.

At the global level, the international system was also shifting, though less obviously, towards a multi-polar order. The US’s imperial over stretch and failure in Iraq in 2003-11, public war weariness and the 2008 financial crisis meant the US was becoming less inclined towards interventionism.[6] This contributed to the election of Barack Obama in 2008 who promised a withdrawal from Iraq and a tilt towards Asia. At the same time China’s economy was booming and challenging the US-dominated order in South East Asia and Africa, while Russia was also becoming more assertive under Vladimir Putin. The multi-polar international order would become more visible during the course of the Syria conflict, but the ingredients were present by 2011, stretching back to the strategic blunder of the 2003 Iraq war and its unintended consequences.

This structure of regional multipolarity embedded within a declining global unipolarity would have notable consequences in Syria.

The Regional Level: Intervention from Local Powers

To illustrate how leaders’ decisions interacted with and were often constrained by these structural conditions, the remainder of this paper case studies key decisions, often seen as the turning points in the conflict. Arguably the most significant decision was that made by Bashar al-Assad to violently supress protests in 2011, which set Syria on the path to war. The internal structure of Syria’s politics generates its own fascinating structure-agency debate which we don’t have time to explore here. The focus instead is on the key external decisions that shaped the war, and three stand out: the decision by regional powers to sponsor Syrian fighters rather than seeking mediated solutions; the decision by the US to limit its intervention in the conflict until the emergence of ISIS in 2014; and the decision by Russia to intervene on Assad’s side in 2015.

The eagerness of regional powers to send money, weapons and support to Assad and his opponents in the first years of the crisis played a major role in its rapid escalation from protests to civil war.[7] The opposition, for example, received direct and indirect encouragement from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to pursue a military solution in the face of Assad’s violent suppression in 2011-12. The embryonic Free Syria Army was allowed to base itself in Turkey in July 2011. Qatar funnelled arms to the rebels via its Libyan allies as early as November 2011, and promised $100 million in support in February 2012. Saudi Arabia used tribal allies to procure arms in February 2012, the same month that it and Qatar urged the international community to back the rebels.[8] This contrasted with their swift abandonment of an Arab League peace initiative barely a month after its creation in December 2011. Though they noted Assad’s frequent violation of the agreement, both were arming rebels soon after its collapse, suggesting a lukewarm interest in mediation at best.

On the other side, Iran also encouraged a violent response from its ally. Iran initially urged Assad to avoid mass slaughter, but when Damascus ignored these pleas, Tehran still supported it. In 2011 the first Iranian military advisors arrived in Damascus. The next year Tehran dispatched its Lebanese ally Hezbollah to fight the rebels, and by 2013 there was a sizeable Iranian-sponsored military contingent in Syria eventually including Iraqi, Afghani and Pakistani Shia militia, commanded by IRGC Quds force commander Qassem Suleimani. As the conflict turned violent Iran increased its military resources rather than means to peacefully resolve the crisis.

These actions were shaped by the structural changes discussed. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey showed themselves to be ‘pro-war’: believing violence was the quickest and most effective route to topple Assad. Qatar and Turkey’s activism was enabled by the structural shifts of 2003-11, giving each the confidence to intervene. Had a similar uprising broken out in Syria in 2001, the Kemalist government in Ankara and a then-insignificant Qatar would not likely have acted the same way. Saudi Arabia likewise may have been more cautious. The growth of Iran and the perceived ‘loss’ of Iraq in 2003 meant many Saudi Arabian policy makers looked at Syria in 2011 as an opportunity to correct the perceived regional imbalance. Iran’s position was less impacted by structural shifts. The Assad regime was an ally since 1979 and Tehran would likely have sent help if asked irrespective of the post-2003 changes. That said, the transformation of Iraq into an Iranian ally did make it easier for Iran to act: giving Iranian planes access to Iraqi air space after December 2011 allowing easier resupply to Damascus.

Such structural changes did not make the regional powers’ behaviour in 2011-12 inevitable, but they transformed Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s regional position, making their entry into the conflict seem easier and thus more likely.

The Global Level: Washington and Moscow

Despite the emerging multi-polar order, the US was still the world’s most powerful actor. Had it decided to, the Obama administration would have been able to topple the Assad regime by force. The fact that it did not do so has led many to attribute Assad’s survival to Obama’s inaction: emphasising agency. Yet Obama was constrained by structural forces, limiting his realistic options. Obama could have ordered a direct US-led military attack on Assad, like George W. Bush in Iraq. However, the failures of 2003 showed Obama that military-led regime change did not always produce favourable outcomes. Neo-Classical Realists would further note domestic constraints: the public were not on side as they had been after 9/11, and the economy was weak following the financial crisis. Even had he wanted to, and it certainly wasn’t his preferred course, Obama would have struggled to shake off these limits.

More feasible was greater US support to rebel forces, possibly including air support, as occurred in Libya in 2011. Yet Obama did not trust the rebels sufficiently, correctly fearing Islamists and Jihadist among them, and recognised this still would be insufficient to tip the balance against Assad. He twice vetoed an arming plan by Hilary Clinton and David Petraeus for these reasons in 2012, even though he eventually relented and sent limited weapons from Spring 2013. Two structural factors came into play here. Firstly, the presence of jihadists was greatly exacerbated by the 2003 Iraq war. Secondly, the growth in power and influence of regional actors such as Qatar meant that the US struggled to monopolise the flow of arms. Indeed, in Libya when the US did back the rebels more extensively, they couldn’t prevent Qatar and UAE from backing rival groups and destabilising the post-Gadhafi environment. Indeed, the debacle of post-intervention Libya further deterred Obama in Syria. Obama was also conscious that the US had a bad record of arming proxies going back decades. In that sense perhaps Obama’s agency did come into play as he was much more willing to reject the foreign policy establishment’s usual tools in an attempt to avoid past mistakes.[9]

Obama’s twin decisions on direct strikes – not to go through with a prepared attack on Assad in September 2013 after he allegedly used chemical weapons, and putting together an international coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2014 – also suggest considerable agency. The US military and White House staff were fully prepared for a missile strike on Damascus in 2013, only for Obama himself to defer at the last moment. Echoing Kristian Coates Ulrichsen’s point elsewhere in this collection about the significance of ‘middle powers’, the UK parliament’s vote not to join the strikes seems to have contributed to the president’s wavering. Obama eventually reasoned that he would more effectively remove chemical weapons from Syria via a proposed deal with Russia. Yet this was not all down to his agency and structural factors came into play. Russia’s increased global importance made it a viable partner to facilitate a deal. Obama’s caution also stemmed from a fear that the strike would set a precedent and suck the US into another Middle Eastern quagmire – something he was reluctant to do after unpopular failures in Iraq and Libya.

So why did Obama then launch a direct intervention in Syria barely a year later, against ISIS rather than Assad? Though the arena was the same, the mission was quite different. In 2013 the attack would have been to protect the international norm against using chemical weapons and possibly to help topple a dictator. In 2014 Obama’s intervention, while also having a humanitarian framing in preventing a Yezidi genocide in Iraq, was presented domestically as counter-terrorism. Unlike in 2013 Obama made no attempt to seek congressional approval, launching it via executive order. This might suggest Obama’s agency is the best explanation. However, there were strong structural drivers. The growth of Jihadists actors like ISIS had emerged out of the structural changes of the 2000s: the chaos of post-2003 Iraq. While Obama did not seek congressional approval, there was broad support for his actions, unlike in 2013 when Obama’s aides feared he might lose any vote.[10] After 9/11 US law makers and public opinion were broadly united on the need to confront jihadists, whereas the perceived threat from dictators like Assad was far less.[11] In fact, in the post 9/11 era it is hard to imagine many US presidents being less confrontational that Obama on groups such as ISIS.

A third and final key decision was Moscow sending its air force to Syria in 2015, later supported by Special Forces and military police, which shifted the conflict decisively in Assad’s favour. While victory was still not guaranteed, Assad’s defeat was off the cards from this point. This intervention was the product of several actions. Firstly, Iran’s appeal to Moscow for help – sending Suleimani to Moscow in summer 2015. Secondly, President Putin’s decision to act. There were several motives behind his involvement that show the NCR’s interplay between domestic and foreign factors: a desire to contain radical Islamists that might infiltrate southern Russia; appealing to Russian Orthodox supporters by protecting Syria’s Christians; asserting Russia’s resurgent foreign policy against the West; and providing combat experience for the Russian military. However, the timing of the intervention was due to an imminent threat that Assad might collapse.

The agency factor here is quite strong. Structurally, the emerging multi-polar global order which permitted Russia to be more active came about due to factors beyond Russia’s control: the economic boom of China in the 2000s and the imperial and financial over-stretch of the US. Yet how Moscow inserted itself into this order owed much to the policies of its leader, which are either ingenious or reckless depending on your perspective.[12] Putin responded aggressively to the changing regional environment. The 2008 Georgia war was a prelude to further military and covert operations including the Ukraine campaign and annexation of Crimea in 2013-14, the intervention in Syria in 2015, interference in the US election of 2016 and various acts of espionage in the UK. In the Syrian case, while the structural forces perhaps necessitated Russian involvement to save its ally, the form it took seemed very ‘Putinist.’ Russia could, for example, have sent planes to be commanded by Syrian pilots or to be under Assad’s command. Yet Putin intervened directly – making a significant geopolitical statement beyond just saving Assad. The shifting structure of the international system provided space for Russia to act, in this case deterring the US from becoming directly involved and potentially blocking Moscow’s 2015 intervention, but it was Putin’s agency that determined the shape of the involvement.

Conclusion: Structure Over Agency?

The actions of international leaders impacted how the Syria conflict played out and personality mattered. Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Emir Hamad of Qatar were both ambitious and interventionist while alternative leaders may have been less reckless. Likewise, Obama was instinctively cautious, while Putin was a gambler. However, the options available to them were enabled or constrained by the structural environment in which they operated. Erdogan and Hamad were only able to act because space had opened up in the emerging multi-polar regional order. Obama was cautious because of US imperial overstretch and Putin felt he could be reckless because of structural US retreat. In some cases structure seems particularly dominant. This is especially so with Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose regional enmity appears relatively fixed, whoever is in charge.

Individual decisions did shape specific outcomes, such as Obama’s decision to call off his strike in 2013 or Putin’s to intervene in 2015. However, the overall trends seemed more directed by structure. Putin was likely to prop up Assad, even if the shape of the intervention was particular to him. Obama could have gone ahead in 2013, but he would not likely have allowed himself to be sucked further into the Syria conflict. His strike may have ended up like Donald Trump’s hits on Assad in 2017 and 2018: a rap on the knuckles, but not the decisive intervention oppositionists hoped for. The fact that Trump has not substantially stepped up US Syria policy, despite posing as the anti-Obama, reinforces the notion that structure rather than agency drove responses to this conflict. Obama may frequently be blamed for the outcome of the war, but in reality regional and global structural conditions appear more important in driving the Syria conflict than the agency of whoever was sitting in the White House.

Endnotes:

[1] See for example Cohen, Roger, ‘America’s Syria Shame,’ New York Times 8/2/16 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/opinion/americas-syrian-shame.html [accessed 10/10/18]; Tisdall, Simon, ‘The Epic failure of our age: how the West let down Syria’ The Guardian 10/2/18 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/10/epic-failure-of-our-age-how-west-failed-syria [accessed 10/10/18]; Gerson, Michael, ‘The horrific results of Obama’s failure in Syria’ Washington Post 3/9/15.

[2] Bieler, Andreas, and Adam David Morton. ‘The Gordian Knot of agency—structure in international relations: A neo-Gramscian perspective.’ European Journal of International Relations 7.1 (2001): 5-35

[3] Hinnebusch, Raymond. ‘Conclusion: agency, context and emergent post-uprising regimes.’ Democratization 22.2 (2015): 358-374; Valbjørn, Morten (2017). Strategies for Reviving the International Relations/Middle East Nexus after the Arab Uprisings. PS: Political Science & Politics, 50(3), 647-651.

[4] See also Ripsman, Norrin M., Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, and Steven E. Lobell. Neoclassical realist theory of international politics. (London: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[5] Different interpretations discussed in F. Gregory Gause, ‘Beyond sectarianism: the New Middle East Cold War’, Brookings Doha Center (2014); Vali Nasr, The Dispensable Nation (London: Scribe, 2013); Curtis Ryan, ‘The new Arab cold war and the struggle for Syria’, Middle East Report 262 (2012): 28–31.

[6] Lynch, Marc, ‘Right-Sizing America’s Mideast Role’ Foreign Policy 11/1/13 https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/01/11/right-sizing-americas-mideast-role/ [accessed 10/10/18]

[7] Phillips, Christopher, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East (London: Yale University Press, 2016) p. 82

[8] Ibid p.137

[9] Goldberg, Jeffrey, ‘The Obama Doctrine’ The Atlantic April 2016

[10] Brian Beutler, ‘Obama’s Bombing Syria Without Authorization—and Congress Couldn’t Be Happier’ The new Republic 23/9/14 https://newrepublic.com/article/119544/obama-authorized-isis-strikes-syria-and-congress-ok [accessed 10/10/18]

[11] The importance of perception is expanded on and explored elsewhere in this collection. For example, May Darwich discusses the role of perceived roles in regional politics and how those roles can change, while Curtis Ryan and Ahmed Morsy both reconsider’s Steven Walt’s classic text on the importance of perceived threat in explaining alliances and behavior.

[12] Rachman, Gideon, ‘Putin is reckless, but not irrational. He can be deterred’ The Irish Times 20/3/18

Idlib’s fate looks more likely to be decided in Moscow than in Ankara

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 30 August 2018

Last year, four de-escalation zones in western Syria were agreed under Russian orchestration, with international guarantors to effectively freeze the conflict between the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels.

Since then, helped by Russian assistance and Western indifference, Assad has discarded the agreements, using violence and reconciliation to force three zones back under his control. Now, government troops, alongside Iranian-backed Shia militias, have gathered on the borders of the last remaining rebel-held province, Idlib, in the northwest.

Leaflet drops urging fighters and civilians to reconcile with the government portend an imminent assault. But Idlib is larger, more populous and more complex than the other reconquered zones, making its recapture far from straightforward.

Seven-year rebellion

Assad has long stated his intention to recapture “every inch” of Syria lost during the seven-year rebellion against his rule, and he recognises that the longer areas remain beyond his reach, the harder it will be to reintegrate them.

Large swathes of the north and east remain out of his control, but Idlib is the logical priority. It lacks a significant foreign military presence, unlike the US-protected east and Turkish-controlled north. It is the last part of the more densely populated west – sometimes disparagingly referred to as “useful Syria” – that Assad has yet to regain.

Idlib is also home to essential infrastructure, notably the M4 and M5 highways that connect Aleppo to Latakia and Damascus. For the war-ravaged Syrian economy to recover, these roads need to reopen, and with them, eventual through-trade with Turkey and Jordan.

Yet any assault carries risks. Parts of Idlib province are mountainous and could prove difficult to conquer, with claims that up to 70,000 fighters await Assad’s forces. At least 2.5 million civilians now live there, many evacuated after the government took other rebel areas, raising the prospect of another refugee crisis.

However, when Assad reconquered the south in the summer, displacing 330,000 civilians, Western leaders were muted in their condemnation, and the Syrian president may feel he has a free hand. Western governments are already ambivalent about Idlib’s rebels. Their support for moderate fighters has ended, while humanitarian schemes are being wound down.

Meanwhile, they classify Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the al-Qaeda linked militia that dominates Idlib, as a terrorist group and may privately welcome its destruction, provided the humanitarian costs remain low.

Idlib’s de-escalation zone

The main obstacle to Assad’s attack is therefore not Western governments, but Turkey, the guarantor of Idlib’s de-escalation zone. Having effectively given up on regime change in Damascus, Ankara’s focus in Syria is now on three areas: eastern Syria, where it wants to prevent an autonomous Kurdish enclave; northern Syria, which is under effective Turkish occupation; and Idlib.

While the latter is probably the lowest priority, it remains important. Turkey had feared that Idlib’s collapse might allow its Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) enemies to grab further territory, but this threat was removed when Turkey routed the Kurds in Afrin in early 2018. Since then, Turkey’s priority has been stability in Idlib, wanting both HTS fighters and the potential 2.5 million refugees to stay in Syria, not cross into Turkey.

To achieve this, Turkey has sought hegemony over the last rebel province, seeking to unite the various rebel factions, reaching out to HTS and building 12 observation posts manned by a small number of Turkish troops to deter any Assad encroachment.

This has had some success. Several rebel factions have united, while a large number have joined the Turkish-trained “National Army”. Some observers also see a degree of moderation from HTS as a result of Turkish outreach, though the group remains fiercely independent: Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, its leader, recently stated that he did not expect Turkish protection from Assad.

He may be right. For all of Turkey’s dominance, Idlib’s fate looks more likely to be decided in Moscow than Ankara. Turkey has discussed the rebel province with Russia frequently since the south fell, but Moscow, whose Khmeimim airbase has faced occasional HTS attacks from Idlib, seems increasingly in favour of an assault.

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds most of the cards. Turkey’s incursions into Syria, in both the north and Idlib, came with Moscow’s permission, and Russia has not allowed Ankara to extend air cover. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is especially vulnerable now due to economic weakness, and Moscow could tighten essential financial screws should he obstruct any attack on Idlib.

Attacks on key towns

Yet, Putin values his relationship with Erdogan, and may be reluctant to humiliate the Turkish president. To square the circle, Moscow may urge Assad to limit this round of fighting. Attacks on the key towns along the M5 and M4 routes – Maarrat al-Numan, Saraqib and Jisr al-Shughur – would give Assad control of the key highways, while bypassing Idlib city. The government could grab key infrastructural links without pushing refugees and HTS fighters from the provincial capital into Turkey.

Were such an agreement reached, Turkey’s observation posts may be quietly bypassed and then abandoned, with Assad stopping short of Idlib city. Putin and Erdogan are due to meet in Iran in early September, a scheduled summit that suggests the assault, if it begins before then, could be smaller than expected.

Yet, if Assad and his Iranian allies are persuaded by Russia to limit their attack, it will not settle the issue. Assad wants to reconquer all of Syria and will not accept Idlib – nor for that matter, northern and eastern Syria – remaining permanently out of his control.

While he has cut deals and reconciliation agreements elsewhere and may be seeking something similar with the eastern Kurds, few expect a compromise with HTS and the remaining Idlib rebels.

Russian-Turkish deals may limit this showdown for now, but it will come eventually, and with it a costly humanitarian crisis.