Russia and the US vie in fragmented Syria 

Brian M Downing 

The wars in Syria are less intense than in previous years. Battered ISIL forces are losing position after position and rebel forces are on the defensive in most areas. Foreign backers of all sides want the war to wind down.

Syria has fragmented and is unlikely to reconstitute to prewar boundaries. Russia and the US, along with regional partners, will vie for influence in breakaway areas, expanding their influence at the expense of the other. Cold War Two, after all, has been on for several years.

Syrian rebels

At least one Arab force in northwestern Syria, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), has already aligned with Turkey. The FSA and Turkish troops have stablished a de facto autonomous region and keep watch on the Kurds in northwestern Syria. Damascus, probably after Russian pressure, has accepted the arrangement and the partition it entails.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a grouping of Arab and Kurdish militias, is defeating the last of the ISIL fighters east of the Euphrates. They also look warily to the western side of the river where Syrian government forces have massed. They saw Kurdistan’s move for independence quashed by foreign powers and wonder what’s in store for them. The SDF comprises fractious militias living in barren lands, far from supply ports, and vulnerable to foreign intrigues.

The SDF was built and remains supported by the US, UK, and Saudi Arabia. Russia, in conjunction with Turkey and Syria, will try to change that.

Russian efforts

Most rebel groups despise Russia. It was Putin’s airpower that pulverized Sunni neighborhoods, ended the stalemate, and allowed Assad’s forces to retake Aleppo, then drive into the east. However, they may listen to Russian offers, if only reluctantly.

The Kurds have never been at war with Damascus. Indeed, early in the war Assad recognized their autonomy in the hopes they would not battle his overstretched troops. And for the most part, Kurdish troops fought ISIL, not Assad. Russia and Syria could attract them by formally promising Kurdish autonomy.

Russian entreaties to Sunni Arabs will be even less attractive. The Sunnis, however, are neither unified nor blessed by geography. Russia and Syria can offer aid, economic integration, and access to the Mediterranean. Autonomy could be promised, though neither Putin nor Assad can be trusted for long.

American efforts

The US cannot offer economic integration or access to ports. Its opposition to an independent Kurdistan brings questions of loyalty to Arabs and Kurds alike. And Washington’s present leadership is hardly a beacon of stability. Nor is its political system for that matter.

Saudi Arabia and Israel may provide pressure on Washington to stay the course. The Saud dynasty and Likudniks are deeply worried about rising Syrian-Shia power and want effective proxies to oppose it. They will use their considerable influence in Washington to strengthen Syrian rebel forces. Their pressure may blind decision-makers to the open-ended nature of the commitment and its questionable relationship to US security.

The view here has been that the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia will seek to prevent, or at least be positioned to interdict, a land route linking the Shia powers of Iran and Iraq in the east and Syria and Hisbollah in the west. The new powerholder in Riyadh stepped back from confrontation last summer and began a dialogue with Iran. Syrian forces moved east, US-backed forces did not engage them. Deir Azzor and its environs fell into Syrian hands.

The dialogue led nowhere and the young prince is acting more aggressively than before. In coming months we may see renewed maneuvering and skirmishes in eastern Syria and airstrikes on Shia forces throughout Syria. And victory will bring neither peace nor stability, only further American commitments and exasperating efforts to manage numerous Kurdish and Arab strongmen.

Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.