Russia to pick apart NATO allies to reconquer all of Syria

The collapse of the opposition in southern Syria is the final destruction of the originally constituted rebellion against President Bashar Assad. It is also a demonstration that the United States under President Donald Trump is no more invested in shaping the outcome in Syria than his predecessor, and marks the potential end of the diplomatic pact that had allowed Turkey to retain some sphere of influence unmolested by the pro-Syrian government coalition.

Turkey reversed its decision to try to overthrow Assad in the summer of 2016 as part of a strategic reassessment that prioritised countering the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish force that had been gaining strength as a result of its partnership with the United States against Islamic State (ISIS). Turkey moved into Syria directly and to avoid fighting on all sides cut a deal with Assad’s patron, Russia, in which Turkey’s areas would be left alone and Turkey would curtail its support for rebels in Aleppo city, a resistance pocket that was eradicated in December 2016.

It was after Aleppo’s fall that the Astana process began, with Turkey, Russia, and Iran participating, ostensibly as a means of managing the conflict tactically and reducing violence. In September 2017, four “de-escalation zones” were demarcated - in Ghouta, northern Homs, Deraa, and Idlib. As with previous ceasefires, this turned into a mechanism to sequence Assad’s war.

One-by-one the “de-escalation zones” have been liquidated. Ghouta was defeated in April. The Houla-Rastan-Talbiseh area of Homs collapsed in May. And in June came the turn of Deraa.

In theory, Deraa should have been an immense challenge. The rebels had resisted far more successfully than their northern brethren infiltration by the jihadists and coalesced into a unified structure, the Southern Front, under U.S. guidance, a model of what the United States could have done to bolster its allies and defeat the radicals in Syria had it so chosen. Israel also supported some of these rebel factions and their civilian supporters.

Yet Deraa buckled quickly. After an merciless aerial campaign in the eastern countryside, Deraa city itself fell two weeks ago to the pro-Assad coalition, and Israel evacuated many of the Syrian Civil Defence “White Helmets”, the medical first-responders. Several scattered rebel outposts remain along the Israeli and Jordanian borders, plus an ISIS-held enclave.

The rebels in southern Syria had long been restrained by their purported backers in Jordan and the United States from fighting Assad and Washington cut off supplies last year. Demoralised, starved of resources, and infiltrated by government spies, there was no way the Southern Front could hold out for long on its own.

It might have been expected that the United States would step in, however. The United States had been a guarantor of the “de-escalation zone” since June 2017 and as the regime coalition was preparing the offensive, Washington said on three separate occasions that it would protect the ceasefire in the area. The United States then changed its mind and said the rebels were on their own.

Israel’s decision to stand aside is even more perplexing. Russia promised that Iranian troops would not enter the area, but Russia’s weak position and the nature of the Assad regime, shattered and entangled with Iran’s Shia militias, meant this was not a credible promise. Even had Iran’s appendages been kept out of the offensive itself Iran would have occupied the space afterwards. In the event, Iran did not even wait that long.

The outcome is that Russia orchestrated the removal of the big powers that could actually stand in the way of the pro-Assad coalition, and the United States has effectively repeated its “red line” disaster. Trump never drew the line as clearly as President Barack Obama did over the 2013 nerve agent attacks, but the precedent will likely have much the same effect.

The United States’ allies now understand that there has been no significant change in U.S. policy toward being a more reliable partner. This leaves those wishing to continue resisting Assad vulnerable to recruitment by extremists. It leaves Jordan, Israel, and Turkey more dependent than ever on Russia - an abominable situation in any circumstances and all the worse since Moscow cannot deliver what these states need, even if it wanted to.

The immediate question is where the pro-Assad coalition will go next. The likely answer is Idlib, the final “de-escalation zone”, which is manned by Turkish observation points. Russia and Iran have surrounded Idlib and the zone is swarming with jihadists, providing a pretext for attack that will blunt the international outcry.

Michael Dempsey of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote that Idlib would be next. Turkey’s “presence in the area is quite limited”, said Dempsey, and the Russian political interest in retaining relations with Turkey will not be enough to stave off an Assad-Iran offensive that Moscow will join. Dempsey concluded: “Only after Idlib is secure, probably sometime next year, will Assad finally turn his attention to” the U.S.-backed YPG zone in the east.

It is quite possible that Dempsey is correct, and is certainly correct that “Assad’s pledge to recapture every inch of Syria” should be taken seriously. The question is one of timing.

Assad has indicated in the last few days that an Idlib offensive is pending. The complication is that if Turkey chooses to stand its ground, it is not clear the regime coalition has the strength to force Turkey out; the pro-Assad forces proved incapable of stopping Turkey in Afrin. And Ankara has publicly called Idlib a “red line”. Turkey has clear security interests in living up to this rhetoric: preventing an inflow of two million more refugees that it cannot cope with, a flow that would include jihadists, and a vacuum in Idlib that would likely be partly filled by the YPG.

Perhaps Turkey will agree to a Russian-mediated “reconciliation”-style handover to the Assadists that prevents the refugees and ostensibly keeps the YPG out. But given how embedded Turkey is in adjacent zones, there is little strategic sense in ceding Idlib and, again, Turkey likely has the leverage to avoid this outcome.

Isolated as the United States is, it is clearly the more powerful opponent of the pro-Assad coalition and has defended its area with lethal force, even against the Russians. But politically the United States is more open to a Russian-mediated exit. Trump’s clear inclination is to leave Syria as quickly as possible and the YPG partner, already integrated with the pro-Assad coalition, is now seeking a public reunion with Assad, including an apparent offer of assistance in an Idlib offensive. If the pro-regime coalition can retake the east by negotiating an American exit and combine with the YPG forces, it makes an Idlib offensive seem more viable.

The concern that the United States would end up applying sanctions to Turkey now appears to be coming to pass, making U.S.-Turkish normalisation, and a united NATO front in Syria, look more distant. Without such unity, Russia looks set to pick apart the allies and enable the Assad-Iran system to reconquer all of Syria.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.