Syria’s Three Wars
With battles raging in Idlib, near the Golan Heights, and in the country's east, the civil war is far from over.
With the Islamic State largely eliminated militarily and the Bashar al-Assad regime in control of Syria’s densely populated western reaches and pausing prior to a major campaign to retake Idlib, a major rebel stronghold, the Syrian civil war is entering a new phase. Iran, Israel, Russia, Turkey, and the United States are still engaged in the conflict, while Qatar and Saudi Arabia seem to be out. Three separate regional battles among the remaining players—in Idlib, in the territory near the Golan Heights, and in Syria’s eastern reaches—will determine the country’s future.
President Donald Trump has been explicit about his desire to wind down U.S. involvement as quickly as possible. In March, he told political supporters that “we’re knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. … We are going to get back to our country, where we belong, where we want to be.” The government he presides over, though, takes a different view. The United States now has a “new policy,” James Jeffrey, the U.S. secretary of state’s new special representative for Syria engagement, told the Washington Post in September. “We’re no longer pulling out by the end of the year.” Jeffrey said the administration aims for a more “active approach” to ensure the “enduring defeat” of the Islamic State and to push Iran out of Syria. “That means we are not in a hurry,” he said, adding, perhaps to convince himself, “I am confident the president is on board with this.”
Whether or not the president is on board, the truth is that the United States has almost no real influence in Syria and lacks the resources, capacity, and political resolve to sustain a major military and diplomatic commitment to shape the region’s future. In this latest phase of the war, then, restraint would be the better part of valor.
For the moment, the most consequential of the three struggles—over Idlib province—is in its early phases. This province, in Syria’s northwest, is nearly two-thirds the size of Lebanon and is very mountainous. To the west, its high ground overlooks Syria’s coastal plain, the city of Latakia, a Russian naval base, and a largely Alawite population. To the east, Idlib verges on Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war and the object of a brutal fight between the regime and the Islamic State in 2016. Looking southward, the territory abuts the city of Hama, which was destroyed in 1982 by President Hafez al-Assad in his campaign to exterminate the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. In 2016-2017, villages just north of the province’s capital changed hands several times until the Syrian army secured them, apparently for good. To the north lies the Turkish border.
Like mountainous terrain elsewhere, Idlib has attracted settlers for whom isolation is essential to survival; it’s the natural environment for dissidents. The conservative Sunnis there rejected the secularism of the Baathist regime and the heterodox Alawism of the Assad family. For decades, they have resisted Damascus and provided safe haven for religious malcontents.
It is not surprising, then, that one of the first firefights in Syria’s ongoing civil war took place near the city of Jisr al-Shughur in western Idlib, where insurgents assaulted a military outpost, killing more than 120 people. After four years of fighting, the Syrian regime lost control of Idlib in 2015. In 2017, as the United States pushed jihadi forces out of Raqqa in Syria’s east, survivors fled to Idlib. Their numbers were swelled more recently by men of all political stripes seeking to evade conscription into the Syrian army, which has been hoovering up all males between 18 and 51.
In the interim, Turkey inserted about 1,300 troops and a dozen observation posts into the province. These were meant to contain any threat to Turkey emanating from Idlib, as well as provide the country with a forward base for further operations, as Ankara somewhat unrealistically described its mission. Instead, Ankara was primarily focused on corralling extremists who might otherwise make their way to Turkey, keeping refugees from crossing the border, and attempting to filter hard-core jihadis out of the larger rebel population, even as it sustained more moderate rebels as weapons to be used against the Assad regime. Once the civil war is over, Turkey will likely aim to convert a long-term occupation of Idlib into a permanent arrangement as part of a larger postwar settlement.
For its part, the Assad regime has been champing at the bit to re-enter Idlib for months. Assad is determined to stitch Syria into a unified whole under his rule, and Idlib was long thought to be his next mark after victory in Aleppo and Daraa. The deployment of Turkish forces to Idlib likely added urgency to that goal, as did the strategic threat posed by jihadis. Militants there often talk about using Idlib as springboard for a perpetual battle against Assad. How militants would carry out that threat without air cover, armor, or heavy artillery is a mystery, of course, but the regime has taken their posturing seriously.
Damascus has indicated its readiness to move against the rebels in Idlib soon, but a drumbeat of warnings from the United States, United Nations, Turkey, and others against a reckless offensive seems to have deterred the expected assault for now. From the regime’s perspective, the delay represents pragmatic restraint. A campaign in Idlib would be labor-intensive, and the regime lacks manpower. It would also be difficult—the foreign fighters, especially Central Asians, who have lived and battled in Syria for years have nowhere to go and would fight to the death. Intensive combat would push a wave of desperate refugees toward the Turkish border, which might inject unwelcome vigor into Turkish operations in the province. In addition, neither of Syria’s backers, Russia and Iran, want to be tarred as facilitators of the humanitarian disaster that most observers expect to result from an offensive. It is no wonder, then, that things have been put on hold.
For the moment, Turkey and Russia have reached an agreement to kick the can down the road. They plan to set up a demilitarized zone 10 miles deep around Idlib. The zone will be patrolled by Russian military police on the Syrian-held side and by Turkish forces backed by drones within Idlib. Turkey will take responsibility for moving all the extremist fighters and heavy weapons out of the demilitarized zone. How it will do so is left unexplained, but the Turks have referred to an increase in troop levels within Idlib. By the end of the year, according to the text of the agreement, both the M4 and M5 highways that traverse Idlib and are frequently cut by rebels will be open to traffic. In the meantime, Russia has promised to send new S-300 missile defense systems to Syria.
On its face, this is a good deal for Russia and for the regime. But whether hard-line rebels trapped in Idlib will really refrain from attacking Assad-controlled territory is unclear, as is the degree of force that the Turks would use to stop them. Implementation of the deal will entail a kind of Kabuki theater, where the Turks pretend to enforce the terms of the agreement and the radicals pretend to disarm by rebranding. In the long run, the Assad regime’s strategic interest in territorial unification and in destroying a rebel stronghold will likely outweigh the risks of an assault, and the deal will collapse. That the latest agreement makes Damascus appear to have meekly ceded Syrian territory to the Turks is probably enough to motivate Assad to proceed. Indeed, the resemblance between the situation in Idlib and the forced acceptance of Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights since 1967 must be too awkward for Assad to contemplate.
That brings us to the lower tip of the Golan Heights and the Syrian territory adjacent to it. This plateau is the second major theater still in play. The Assad regime lost control of the area to rebels early in the civil war. But over the past year, it has reasserted authority. Israel and Iran, however, still compete for operational freedom there.
Israel is worried that Iran and Hezbollah will use this area to try to establish a second front—the first being the one on the Israeli-Lebanese border—against it. In 2015, Israelis signaled their intention to prevent Iran or its proxies from digging in on the Syrian side of the Golan by killing an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) general and a senior Hezbollah official who were touring there.
Israel has also taken full advantage of anarchic conditions in Syria to open something of a free-fire zone. Since 2012, it has launched hundreds of airstrikes against Syria to stop the movement of weapons into Lebanon and the delivery of Iranian military assistance to the Assad regime. Over the past year or so, Israel also began supporting a cluster of so-called moderate Islamist forces on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights to prevent Iranian encroachment. Israel tried to do something similar in Lebanon in the 1980s, when it backed the Christian South Lebanon Army as a buffer on the Lebanese side of the border. The arrangement proved unsustainable, though, and led to a long-term Israel Defense Forces (IDF) presence in southern Lebanon. The IDF was withdrawn in 2000 when public support for paying the cost of the mission in blood and treasure collapsed. Maybe the strategy will prove more durable in Syria.
Russia, for its part, has usefully attempted to bring Iran and Israel into an arrangement that would keep Iran and its somewhat ragtag band of proxies from Afghanistan and Iraq at least 60 miles away from the Israeli frontier. Israel seems to have rejected the proposal, holding out for the full removal of Iranian forces from Syria. As far as Israel is concerned, since it has nearly unfettered access to Syrian airspace and an endless supply of munitions, it makes more sense to pound away at Iran and its affiliates than to agree to a partial withdrawal that would tacitly legitimize Iran’s role in the Syrian civil war.
The Assad regime, meanwhile, would like Iran to stay because its forces are still useful and because Iran has been a reliable ally. It does not wish to see Iran provoke a war with Israel that would mostly damage the regime itself, however. Thus, Assad theoretically has the incentive to keep Iran and other anti-Israeli forces near the Golan Heights in check. Both Israel and the Trump administration remain skeptical that Assad has any clout over Iran, but it is noteworthy that there has not been a single strike on Israel from the region since the regime re-entered the area. Further, Iran’s response to Israeli strikes on Iranian assets in Syria has been largely confined to threats of retaliation rather than actual retaliation.
It is hard to know the exact reasons for Iran’s caution. It could reflect a view among regime officials that the targets of Israel’s strikes have been insignificant. Alternatively, Tehran might just not have plans to open a second front. It could also want to avoid doing anything that could diminish European support for the Iranian nuclear deal, or it might believe that it is overmatched. It is also possible that the skeptics are wrong and that the Assad regime has effectively banned counterattacks. Whatever the reason, Tehran could at some point decide that it has had enough and respond either from Syria or Lebanon.
At the same time, Israel cannot know which bomb it drops on an Iranian proxy in Syria will trigger the barrage from Lebanon that escalates into a devastating war. Israel is fairly confident in its ability to dismantle Hezbollah and destroy its missile inventory, although the government concedes that Israel would pay a high price for doing so. Lebanon, on the other hand, would be devastated.
Finally, in Syria’s east, 2,200 U.S. soldiers, working alongside a much larger cohort of Kurds and Arabs under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces, have crushed the Islamic State’s combat capability. Many Islamic State fighters are still around—the battle for Raqqa was not, as the Trump administration advertised, a war of annihilation—but their ability to seize and hold territory is gone. In the process, however, the coalition wrecked much of Raqqa city, leaving the immiserated residents to till the rubble. The United States has denied funding for reconstruction, thereby contributing to conditions that favor the eventual return of the Islamic State or something equally harmful with a different name.
Now that the campaign against the Islamic State is largely over, U.S. forces are branching out. They are currently conducting an exercise at Tanf, a city on the border with Iraq, presumably to signal U.S. resolve in its intention to deny Iran a “land bridge” to western Syria and Lebanon that could threaten Israeli interests. (Israel has already raided the area from the air.) Yet the U.S. presence is not really sufficient to control land access to Syria from Iraq, and Iranian movement across the border seems largely unconstrained. We will soon see whether the administration’s new policy of staying on in Syria for the duration leads to an increase in the U.S. military presence there and a redeployment of forces from their current staging areas in the north to the Iraq-Syria border in the south. Should such an adjustment be made, a direct clash between the United States and Iran would become more likely.
The other open question is whether the Kurds in the area can count on perpetual U.S. protection now that they have served their purpose in the campaign against the Islamic State or whether they should start preparing for an eventual U.S. withdrawal that will leave them exposed to a revanchist Assad regime on one side and a paranoid Turkey on the other. Presumably, they will choose to take their chances with the Assad regime, which has been fairly vocal in its invitation to parley with Kurdish representatives about the Kurds’ place in a reconstituted Syria.
For the foreseeable future, foreign forces will be a feature of the Syrian landscape. A relatively small number of Iranian troops, roughly equal to the U.S. presence, will remain in the area, along with a larger number of Iranian-controlled Shiite fighters. Where these young men are deployed at any given time will depend on where the regime needs bodies to stop bullets. Much of the IRGC personnel will be billeted at Syrian bases, and some forces will presumably remain as close as possible to the Israeli border. At some point, Syria’s many battles could shift east, and these militias, along with their Iranian officers, will flow in the same direction. Turkey will maintain a presence at locations along the border with Syria to defend against Kurdish antagonism and to poke Assad in the eye. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has begun to appear in public wearing military battledress, which suggests an ambition for a long-term presence in Syria.
As things stand, an empowered Assad regime is determined to reunify Syria under its rule. The opposition is fragmented, friendless, and ineffectual. Russia and Iran continue to back a willful and occasionally uncooperative client to further their own regional goals. Turkey has accepted responsibility for a seething cauldron of violent rebels. And Israeli air operations over Syrian territory are largely unconstrained. At this point, it is worth asking whether there is any scope for meaningful U.S. intervention.
The answer would appear to be no.
“No” also seems to reflect the mood at the White House. Although the Trump administration has taken credit for the Idlib agreement, the consensus among the parties involved is that the United States played neither a direct role nor a tacit one by threatening force. Indeed, the U.S. message on Idlib has been, if anything, confusing. In early September, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said that “[Idlib] is a tragic situation, and if [the Assad regime] want[s] to continue to go the route of taking over Syria, they can do that. … But they cannot do it with chemical weapons. They can’t do it assaulting their people, and we’re not going to fall for it.” This was a classic April Glaspie moment as the administration soon realized. For those who don’t remember, Glaspie, then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq, had the misfortune of telling Saddam Hussein in 1990 that “we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” Saddam is thought to have heard this as a green light from Washington to invade Kuwait.
Haley, a week after her previous remarks on Idlib, said to Bret Baier in an interview on Fox News, “Don’t test us again. … Any offensive on the civilian people in Idlib was going to be dealt with,” regardless of whether chemical weapons were used. What she meant by “dealt with” is anyone’s guess, but she was careful to differentiate between an assault on Idlib that focused on jihadis and one that threatened civilians. For now, this is academic, but if the regime does enter Idlib and refrains from using chemical weapons, the administration’s options will be limited by the risk of a clash with Russia and burdened by the absurdity of a humanitarian intervention that willy-nilly benefits extremely violent jihadis.
Although both U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Rex Tillerson before him laid out big goals for the United States in Syria—to pressure the regime to negotiate by weakening it, take away its oil resources until it gets serious about humanitarian relief, destroy the Islamic State, and expel Iran from Syria—the country’s appetite and capacity to do any of these things seem pretty small. Accordingly, the administration has said a hodgepodge of things including that it is not the United States’ job to get rid of Assad; that it cannot get rid of the Iranians there alone; that it will continue to focus on the fight against the Islamic State; and that it will withdraw existing funding for reconstruction activities and withhold future funding until Assad is gone. It has made no commitment to the Kurds one way or the other, and when the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons, it has responded perfunctorily and ineffectually. And perhaps unsurprisingly, actual U.S. policy on the ground reflects the president’s preference to spend as little and get out as quickly as possible.
This could change. Israel or Iran could conceivably pull the United States into a war against Iran in Syria. The Assad regime could commit a hideous atrocity that impels the United States and perhaps the United Kingdom and France to risk a clash with Russia in order to punish Assad in some decisive way.
Barring such scenarios, however, the Trump administration’s derisory commitment in Syria is proportional to the United States’ actual strategic interests there. Humanitarian intervention, unlike strategic intervention, is a political issue. The Trump White House clearly does not believe that the popular support exists for a long-term humanitarian campaign. And in strategic terms, Syria represents only one among many issues in the competition between the United States and Iran. The Russians maintained a close relationship with the Assad regime and its predecessors for decades. U.S. interests did not suffer then, except when Washington stepped on Assad’s toes in Lebanon in the 1980s, and they won’t suffer now. Fighting the Islamic State still seems worth continuing a relatively inexpensive effort. Thus, the “new policy” heralded by the appointment of Jeffrey as special representative will likely look very much like the old one.