Syria’s ‘Cold’ Civil War Could Easily Get Hot Again

Syria’s ‘Cold’ Civil War Could Easily Get Hot Again
Turkish soldiers fire a missile at a Syrian government-held position in the province of Idlib, Syria, Feb. 14, 2020 (AP photo by Ghaith Alsayed).
Back in June 2011, when news began to filter out from Syria of the first signs of armed resistance against the Baathist regime of President Bashar al-Assad, few could have predicted the level of disruption to the global order that the conflict in Syria would go on to produce. After months of brutal violence against protesters inflicted by the Assad regime, local inhabitants around the town of Jisr al-Shughour in the northern province of Idlib seized a police station on June 4, triggering a major shift whose implications few observers fully understood. Two days later, armed resistance led by police officers who had defected to the opposition in the face of approaching Syrian military units marked the beginning of a conflict that would reshape the politics of the Middle East and Europe. A vast toll of human suffering compounded by regime atrocities—including the use of poison gas—as well as the devastation wrought by the Islamic State, factional infighting among a fractured rebel movement and attempts by Syrian Kurdish militias to carve out their own quasi-state led to a fracturing of Syrian society that does not look like it will be resolved anytime soon. Huge waves of Syrian migration fueled by endless combat and economic collapse created a diaspora network of up to 11 million refugees spread across Lebanon, Turkey, Germany and many other states that now links the politics of the countries in which they have settled with developments in the communities from which they have fled. After the war seemingly reached a climax in 2016 and 2017, the attention of Western policymakers and much of the media-think tank complex that shapes foreign policy debate has shifted to other geopolitical challenges. Yet the seeming equilibrium that pushed Syria off the top of policy agendas and media headlines was the result of various external powers deepening their long-term exposure to developments in Syria in ways that mean they cannot escape the impact of changes on the ground there, however much they hope to. The U.S. military intervention on the side of the Syrian Defense Forces, or SDF, was crucial to pushing Islamic State jihadists out of major cities and into a shadow existence in more remote parts of central Syria by August 2017. The fall of the rebel-held portions of the city of Aleppo in late 2016 to a Syrian military offensive—supported by Russian artillery and airstrikes along with thousands of fighters led by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Lebanon’s Hezbollah—tightened Assad’s grip on Syria’s major cities. In parallel, Turkey’s intervention in the northern areas of Aleppo and Idlib provinces ensured the survival of a final set of rebel enclaves under Ankara’s military protection. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has since doubled down on this neo-imperial project in Syria. In 2018, Turkey seized the northeastern Afrin enclave from the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which was previously Washington’s primary partner on the ground but is also closely affiliated with the Turkish Kurdish PKK insurgency. That intervention was followed a year later by another Turkish military deployment to prevent a Russian-supported Syrian offensive from pushing too deeply into Idlib province. Perhaps most remarkable of all, the willingness of the Jabhat al-Nusra jihadist militia to decisively break with al-Qaeda and reconstitute itself as the Syria-focused HTS movement under the leadership of Mohmmad al-Jolani allowed the group to construct its own quasi-state in Idlib under Turkey’s military shield. As other rebel groups collapse into banditry and infighting, Jolani’s maneuvering demonstrates how shifting dynamics in Syria still provide opportunities for shrewd operators to rise to positions of dominance.

The three zones in which Syria has been de facto partitioned each contain their own internal and external sources of instability that could spark another round of brutal escalation spilling over beyond Syria’s borders.

The de facto partition of Syria into three distinct political spaces generated a complacent conviction among policymakers in Europe and the U.S. that the Syrian conflict had been largely settled. Yet even as global attention moved on, skirmishing along lines of contact between rebel groups under Turkish protection and the forces of the Assad regime continues. In central Syria, Islamic State attacks against Syrian forces as well as SDF-controlled towns undermine efforts at economic reconstruction. Shelling between SDF and Turkish-backed groups as well as infighting among rebel factions causes misery for thousands of civilians. Even in districts fully taken back by Syrian forces in the southern province of Daraa, banditry and shootouts involving former rebels supposedly reconciled with the regime indicate how tenuous Assad’s grip might be over large swathes of territory. With this constant tension in the background, the three zones of Syria each contain their own internal sources of instability and external vulnerabilities that could spark another round of brutal escalation spilling over beyond Syria’s borders. Though still protected by a U.S. troop presence as well as some Russian military units placed near the towns of Tel Rifaat and Manbij, the SDF looks exposed to another Turkish attempt to seize territory. Moreover, hostility in Ankara toward the SDF’s ties to the YPG and supporters of the PKK’s brand of Kurdish irredentism reaches beyond Erdogan’s ruling AKP. So although the Turkish opposition claims it would prefer to withdraw from Syria, Assad’s unreliability coupled with YPG pressure along Turkey’s borders and the risks of further migration flows make it more likely that any Turkish government would feel obliged to respond to a threat to the status quo there with further military incursions. The SDF’s vulnerabilities are compounded by the frustration expressed by substantial parts of the Syrian Arab population as well as rival Kurdish groups in its territory with how governance of northeast Syria is dominated by PKK-aligned networks. This anger makes those who feel cut out from the SDF’s political order potential targets for Islamic State subversion, Turkish deal-making or Assad regime bribery that can fuel further conflict in territory in which U.S. troops are deployed. Provinces under Turkish protection are also exhibiting serious social stresses. The global surge in commodity and energy prices led to spikes in electricity and gas prices, triggering widespread rioting against local governments in Afrin. The collapse in the value of the Turkish lira, the primary currency in areas controlled by Ankara, has accentuated price spirals of imported goods, further stoking discontent and making it even more difficult for Turkey to rule via local proxies. With education, health care, utilities and transport in these Turkish-controlled Syrian territories all integrated with Turkish state structures across the border, Ankara—whether under Erdogan’s ruling AKP party or a successor—faces the choice of either handing Afrin back to an Assad regime that cannot be trusted to keep the YPG out or doubling down on their de facto absorption into Turkey. Turkey’s struggle to develop effective governance in Idlib is also opening up further space for the HTS to pursue its broader ambitions in northern Syria. Turmoil in the global economy is also putting the Assad regime under strain. Unable to control the rampant corruption that, through its distribution of patronage, is crucial to his grip on power, Assad’s regime remains dependent on Iranian and Russian military resources to sustain its position. More recently, signs of investment by the United Arab Emirates indicate another source of funding needed to stave off economic collapse might become available. Yet rising commodity prices of such household staples as bread and cooking gas have led to open frustration among the regime’s core Alawite supporters. The disastrous implosion of Lebanon’s financial sector has also damaged the financial position of influential regime loyalists who move capital and smuggle goods through Beirut. With regular raids by Islamic State terror cells into regime-held areas, a scenario in which domestic turmoil or imperial overstretch by Iran or Russia constrains their ability to shore up the Assad regime could swiftly tip the power balance in Syria. That in turn could reopen questions about the country’s future that Western policymakers thought had been resolved in 2017. Precedents abound of civil wars that many assumed had died down, only to suddenly escalate again after an external shock or internal challenge throws a fragile political equilibrium out of whack. In October 1976, the massive Syrian intervention in Lebanon’s civil war by Bashar’s father, Hafez, was considered by many at the time to be the closing act of that conflict. Yet rivalries among militias along with intransigence by the Palestinian Liberation Organization triggered a much greater escalation, which culminated in an Israeli invasion in 1982 and cycles of fighting that continued until collective exhaustion led to a peace deal in 1990. If one takes in all the potential sources of disaster in Syria that have become endemic in each of its three zones, the tendency among many European and American policymakers to assume that Syria’s civil war is over looks downright delusional. Unfortunately, if the global response to past civil wars—from Lebanon to Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of Congo—is anything to go by, those who should have known better will express surprise when Syria spirals out of control again.

Alexander Clarkson is a lecturer in European studies at King’s College London. His research explores the impact that transnational diaspora communities have had on the politics of Germany and Europe after 1945 as well as how the militarization of the European Union’s border system has affected its relationships with neighboring states. His weekly WPR column appears every Wednesday.

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