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. 

The Arab Spring’s foreign spoilers

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye 4 January 2021

Much analysis has been written to mark the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the Arab Spring.

Understandably, many have focused on the domestic reasons why, with the exception of Tunisia, hopes of democratic transformation were dashed in most states that witnessed protests, ushering in instead instability, renewed dictatorship and civil war. Yet, the external reasons for the Arab Spring’s failures should not be dismissed or marginalised.

From the very beginning, foreign powers, whether regional or international, interacted with domestic forces and played a major role in determining the fate of the popular uprisings that swept the region. While the Arab Spring’s first popular uprising, in Tunisia, took regional and international powers by surprise, they were far less passive about the copycat protests that erupted across the Arab world in its wake.

The United States, at the time led by Barack Obama’s administration, which didn’t want to be caught on “the wrong side of history,” was a prominent player. In Egypt, it was only once Obama had turned on his ally, President Hosni Mubarak, that the protests translated into regime change. It was Obama’s message to the Egyptian military, via Defence Secretary Robert Gates, that Mubarak must resign that prompted his removal. 

Similarly, Obama’s decision to back British and French plans for Nato to intervene militarily under the pretext of preventing Muammar Gaddafi from crushing protesters ultimately led to the fall and death of the Libyan dictator. Yet, for all these seemingly positive moves, the US did as much to contribute to the uprisings’ failure.

On 14 March 2011, when the Bahraini government crushed its nascent protest movement with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Washington remained silent. With Bahrain home to the US Fifth Fleet, and the Obama administration keen to retain Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s backing for the Libya campaign, the White House indicated that sometimes geopolitical priorities trumped its support for democratic protesters.

Likewise, when the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was toppled in a 2013 coup,again backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the US did nothing to defend the elected government, eventually endorsing the new dictatorship established by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Some have argued that US activity, or inactivity, also worsened the fates of uprisings in Syria and Libya. In Syria, Obama called for President Bashar al-Assad to stand down when he brutally crushed protesters, and eventually sent weapons and money to the armed rebels that tried to overthrow him.

But Obama’s efforts were half-hearted, and he didn’t follow up with direct intervention, even after Assad crossed his “red line” of using chemical weapons. This all helped to fuel a civil war by aiding the rebels enough to fight, but not enough to win. In Libya, the US’ relative retreat after Gaddafi was defeated, offering very limited institutional and state-building support to the new democratic government, contributed to its collapse into civil conflict.

et, the US was far from the only injurious international power. Russia and China repeatedly intervened at the UN Security Council to veto numerous attempts to punish Assad for his repression in Syria. Moscow was determined to prevent the collapse of the Baath regime in Damascus, providing weapons and money to shore up Assad’s depleted forces before intervening directly in 2015 with its air force and special forces to turn the tide of the war.

Since then, President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions in the Middle East have widened, but again he has primarily been supporting autocrats, such as the rebel Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, who seeks to overthrow the weak UN-backed government.

Regional players were also far from benevolent. Long before Putin’s intervention in Syria, it was Iran that led the charge to keep Assad in power. As soon as protests broke out, Tehran sought to undermine them by offering Assad money and weapons, fighters and commanders from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah, and Shia militia from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to supplement Assad’s fading military.

While Syria was Iran’s primary focus, it also supported the Houthis in Yemen. And in Iraq, US-Iran tensions have undermined the peaceful protest movement there.

Despite being fierce rivals, Riyadh was even more reactionary than Tehran. While it helped broker the exit of Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012 and backed anti-Assad forces in Syria, Saudi Arabia broadly sought to stifle the Arab uprisings.

Fearing the 2011 protests might come home, King Abdullah spent lavishly in the early months: not only $37bn on welfare measures domestically, but a further $21bn in neighbouring Bahrain, Oman and Jordan to help their embattled rulers buy off dissidents.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia bankrolled the Egyptian military’s 2013 coup, alongside the UAE, contributing to the collapse of the democratic experiment there. Moreover, in sending in its own troops to Bahrain in 2011 and Yemen in 2015, it showed a willingness to go beyond its traditional chequebook diplomacy to ensure the Arab uprisings turned in its favour. Riyadh thus greatly contributed to the ongoing civil war in Yemen and the return of autocracy to Bahrain and Egypt. 

Qatar and Turkey were two other regional powers that have impacted the Arab uprisings’ outcomes in an ambiguous way.

On the one hand, Qatar was one of the early supporters of the Arab uprisings. Al-Jazeera channel played a key role in reporting on protests and providing a platform to inspire activists across the Arab world. Doha urged Nato to intervene in Libya to save protesters from Gaddafi, backed the anti-Assad rebels in Syria and gave generous grants to the newly elected regimes in Tripoli and Cairo. 

In Egypt, Doha’s unconditional backing for the Muslim Brotherhood government may have contributed to its uncompromising stance, increasing the military’s appetite for a coup.

Turkey’s involvement was also mixed. When the Arab Spring began, Turkey was often heralded as a potential model for the new democracies expected to emerge, particularly the mildly Islamist ruling AK Party. Though slower to endorse the protesters than its ally Qatar, Ankara eventually became a prominent supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, several rebel groups in Syria, and the new government in Tripoli. 

Yet, as with Qatar, this did little ultimately to prevent the return of dictatorship in Cairo and contributed to the weakness and disunity of the Syrian opposition. Moreover, as Turkey itself became more authoritarian following the 2013 Gezi Park protests and a failed coup by the military in 2016, Ankara’s commitment to democratic forces abroad also waned.

Moreover, while it continues to defend some regions of Syria, notably Idlib, from Assad attacks, it arguably contributed to Syrian regime’s overall victory in the conflict by making deals with Russia and Iran that allowed Damascus to retake several key rebel areas.

These foreign governments, therefore, all contributed to the failure of the 2011 uprisings in most cases.

While their motives differed and they prioritised different arenas, all arguably had a net negative impact. Moreover, they are not yet done. The governments that intervened to try to shape the Arab uprisings to their advantage continue to interfere in the politics of the many states scarred by that experience, whether Syria, Yemen, Libya or elsewhere. 

With new uprisings emerging and activists successfully toppling governments in Sudan and Algeria, and attempting to in Lebanon and Iraq, foreign spoilers have circled once more to try to influence the outcome.

While these activists can learn much from the domestic mistakes that derailed the revolutionaries of 2011, they would do well to also consider how they might mitigate against the damaging foreign interference that greatly contributed to the Arab Spring’s failures. 

Why Syria will be low on Biden’s list of foreign policy priorities

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye 12 November 2020

What does Joe Biden’s election mean for US policy on Syria? The civil war has moved on in the four years since Biden has been out of power, but it remains an unresolved domestic and regional conflict that could give this new administration a headache.

US President Donald Trump has a mixed and inconsistent record in Syria. On the one hand, he abandoned former president Barack Obama’s policy of actively seeking the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, ending support for the armed opposition in 2017. On the other hand, he launched missile strikes on Assad’s forces after they used chemical weapons in 2017 and 2018, and approved the imposition of harsh Caesar sanctions

In eastern Syria, Trump continued Obama’s anti-Islamic State (IS) policy, backing Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters to destroy the so-called caliphate and killing its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But he then abandoned his former allies, allowing a 2019 Turkish attack on the Kurds after withdrawing most US ground troops, leaving only a skeleton force behind around eastern Syria’s oilfields. 

Trump similarly took up contradictory positions on the key external players in Syria. He was confrontational with one key Assad ally, Iran, yet accommodating with the other, Russia. He likewise seemed very willing to listen to requests by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sometimes even against the advice of US military leaders. Washington’s influence in Syria, already limited, was therefore diminished further by four years of Trump. 

Will Biden attempt to step up US involvement? It is worth recalling his role on Syria policy as Obama’s vice president. Unlike former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he was sceptical of deep involvement in Syria’s civil war. He was unenthusiastic about arming the opposition, fearing the radicals among them.

Biden, like most of Obama’s cabinet, had supported striking Assad in 2013 when chemical weapons were used – but after the president opted instead for negotiated disarmament, Biden backed him. Later, in 2016, the vice president lamented critics who said Obama had done too little against Assad, dismissing their recommendations as unrealistic and unfeasible. 

Domestic priorities

Biden’s recent statements also suggest that Syria will be low on his to-do list. With the defeat of IS, the war is no longer making regular headlines in the US, and Biden has already indicated that other areas will take precedence. 

Domestic affairs, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and related recession, occupy most of Biden’s attention, and foreign policy priorities will likely focus on multilateralism, the pivot to Asia, China and climate change. 

In the Middle East, Biden has pledged to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, provided that Tehran adheres to its stipulations, while his team has indicated a more critical stance towards Saudi Arabia. Managing difficult allies, such as Israel and Turkey, will also be in focus. 

While Biden has said more broadly that he wants to support fellow democracies globally, in the Middle East, his stated focus appears to be more on counterterrorism than regime change. Combined with his recent statements about ending “forever wars” and opposing increased US boots on the ground, this suggests Biden will not be rushing to increase Washington’s stake in the Syria conflict.

He is unlikely to step back, though. The veteran Democrat’s advisers have insisted he will maintain tough sanctions on Damascus, and the vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, has spoken out against Assad in the past. Though the sanctions are aimed at pressuring Assad into reaching a settlement, or at least pressing Moscow to push the Syrian president aside for someone who will, such efforts rarely achieve their goals

Maintaining pressure

Regarding Assad, Biden’s policies may look much like Trump’s: maintaining pressure financially, but without any serious military escalation or diplomatic investment that could actually force the Damascus regime to collapse or compromise.

In the east, Biden has said he would maintain the small contingent of US forces present to guard against any IS revival, while Harris was appalled at Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds in 2019. This could mean a revitalisation of the SDF-US alliance, but as Trump found, this would complicate efforts to improve ties with Turkey and may prove short-lived. 

Indeed, as under Obama, US policy towards Syria may find itself swayed by priorities elsewhere. Biden could use policies against Assad to pressure Iran on the nuclear deal, but may similarly ease off if Tehran is compliant. By the same token, Biden is far more hostile towards Russia than Trump, and he may use Syria policy to stand up to Moscow – although under Obama, anti-Putin actions tended to focus more on Europe.

Syria policy may also be shaped by the state of US relations with Israel and Turkey. If ties are warm with Israel, Syria may see continued Israeli raids on Iranian positions, while if they sour, Biden may urge such strikes to stop. Turkey’s ambitions to push the SDF from its border will likewise be partly conditioned by its ties to Washington, as has been the case in recent years.

Huge challenges

In sum, then, don’t expect major changes from Biden on Syria. He will likely approach the conflict with the same caution he did as vice president, and he is unlikely to step up US military involvement. That said, he has little incentive to step back from existing US policies: keeping some forces in the east and maintaining sanctions on Assad. 

With Biden’s priorities elsewhere, Syria policy is likely to dramatically alter only if there is a major headline-grabbing change on the ground, or if Washington’s other foreign priorities are impacted by it. Policy towards Iran, Turkey, Russia and Israel could all have reverberations in Syria – but at present, it seems unlikely Biden will expend political capital on the Syria conflict in isolation.

One final unknown is whether his predecessor will leave Syria alone during his remaining 10 weeks in office. While Trump is likely to focus on challenging the legitimacy of his election defeat, some have speculated that he may also use his last weeks in office to sabotage Biden. Syria could be one arena for this, perhaps with Trump fulfilling his promise to withdraw the last remaining troops from the east. This may seem unlikely, but Trump has shocked throughout his presidency. 

Even without any such final curveball, Biden faces huge challenges in rebuilding Washington’s global reputation. While Syria will almost certainly receive some attention in this, it is unlikely to be centre stage.

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.

Why some Middle East autocrats are harder to oust than others

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 22 May 2020

The political futures of both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have recently been the subject of speculation.

For Assad, a dispute with his wealthy cousin amid grumblings from his ally, Russia, has prompted some to wonder whether his bloody reign may soon end. For Erdogan, the fallout from the Covid-19 crisis and associated economic uncertainty has led to murmurs about his potential departure.

Yet, such speculation rarely outlines how these neighbouring strongmen would actually be toppled. Both rule over regimes, whether inherited (in Assad’s case) or created (in Erdogan’s), that make it difficult for rivals – from either within the ruling establishment or without – to overthrow them.

‘Coup-proofing’ the state

As is the case in many autocratic states, Assad and Erdogan have tried to “coup-proof” their regimes to ensure they can withstand far more dramatic setbacks than either currently faces.

Coup-proofing is, according to author James Quinlivan, “the set of actions a regime takes to prevent a military coup”. This is more common in states such as Turkey and Syria, where there is a history of military intervention in politics.

The methods vary from state to state, but Quinlivan notes similarities in the coup-proofing of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Standout methods include packing key security positions with those tied to the ruler by family, ethnicity or religion; building up armed forces parallel to the regular military; and developing multiple overlapping internal security agencies monitoring the military and one another to prevent coups.

Assad inherited a regime that his father had coup-proofed par excellence. The extent of successful coup-proofing was seen when he avoided any serious attempt by establishment insiders to topple him, despite losing more than half of the country at one point during the recent civil war.

Though thousands of soldiers defected and joined the opposition, those in key security positions, mostly from his own Alawi sect and family, stayed loyal. Similarly, the key security divisions fighting rebels in the early stages of the conflict were the “parallel structures”: the Republican Guard and the 4th Armoured Division, armed with the best equipment to defend the regime.

Though it is unknown whether there were attempts at coups – there were several rumours – their absence suggests the myriad security agencies Syria had on the eve of the war proved effective.

Parallel security structures

The absence of a coup against Assad during the conflict casts doubt on claims that disputes with his cousin, Rami Makhlouf, or Russia will prompt one now. In the unlikely event of a military challenge, Makhlouf could theoretically win over some Alawis and members of the extended Assad-Makhlouf family, but not the key parallel military structures or intelligence agencies loyal to the regime.

The same happened when Assad’s uncle tried to outmanoeuvre his father, Hafez, in 1984; key security agencies and institutions remained loyal to the president.

Others have speculated that Russia, frustrated with Assad’s foot-dragging on a new constitution that could open the way for international investment, may turn against their ally. Yet, for all Russia’s influence, it is only one player among several in Syria’s complex coup-proofed regime.

As well as having to negotiate the various overlapping intelligence and security services, only some of which are close to Moscow, it must also deal with Assad’s other key allies, Iran and Hezbollah. Even if Russia wanted to topple Assad – and such rumours are more likely aimed at nudging Assad to make concessions, rather than serious thoughts of a coup – the regime is engineered in such a way to make it very difficult for Moscow.

Mubarak and Morsi

By way of contrast, not all autocratic regimes are so coup-proofed. A good example is former President Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. While Mubarak led a fearsome regime, with extensive intelligence agencies not unlike Syria’s, he did not build up parallel military structures or pack key security positions with loyalists based on family, ethnic or religious ties.

Instead, he allowed the military, from which he and his predecessors had emerged, to remain by far the most powerful security (and economic) actor in Egypt.

When protests erupted in 2011, unlike in Syria, the military was a single united body, sufficiently separate from the president that it could overthrow him in a coup to protect its privileged position. The same happened in 2013, as the military overthrew the democratically elected government of former President Mohamed Morsi.

Erdogan’s regime in Turkey, by contrast, is somewhere in between. Unlike Assad and his father, Erdogan won power through the ballot box and only belatedly took an authoritarian turn.

With Turkey’s military having launched four successful coups against elected governments since the Second World War, and attempting another against Erdogan in 2016, the Turkish leader’s desire to coup-proof is understandable. Since 2016, he has purged not only the military, but large swathes of the judiciary, police, journalism and academia of potential opponents.

Work in progress

Erdogan’s coup-proofing, however, is only partial. He has packed the military with loyalists, but not built up parallel structures, as Hafez al-Assad did. Similarly, though he is idealistic and has put some family members in powerful political positions, he has not leaned on religious and/or ethnic ties to populate key security positions.

And while he is increasingly intolerant of public criticism and opposition, he is for now permitting challenges via elections, albeit ones in which pro-government media dominate. Even so, local elections did recently see his party lose control of Turkey’s two largest cities.

For Erdogan, then, coup-proofing is a work in progress, and it is unclear how far he intends to go. On the one hand, he may opt to fully mimic Hafez al-Assad, turning elections into controlled showpieces and preventing internal threats by developing multiple overlapping security agencies loyal to him.

Alternatively, he may end up like Mubarak, presuming his purges of the military have been successful until a domestic crisis sees them turn on him. His neighbour to the south is a potential model, but also a warning. Bashar al-Assad’s regime may be robust, but its security forces have been willing to burn Syria to the ground rather than turn on their leader. Coup-proofing comes at a cost.

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.