Syria: War is over at the Center, but Powers nibbling at Edges

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Where people live and how many of them there are constitute basic questions for any social scientist but these basics are often ignored by the writers of headlines in the press.

There is a rash of articles about how Syria’s war is heating back up. It isn’t.

The war is over for all intents and purposes, since there is no path to victory for the rebels who wanted to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Al-Assad controls all the country’s major cities: Damascus, Homs, Hama, Latakia, and Aleppo. He always had Damascus, Latakia and the majority of Aleppo. On the back of a napkin, I’d figure 65% of Syrians live under regime control in and around these cities (i.e. around 12 million of the 18 mn. Syrians still inside the country). Another ten percent are Kurds, who inhabit three cantons in Afrin, Kobane and Jazira in the north of the country. They are not under regime control but they aren’t fighting it for the most part, either, and could be reintegrated into Syria if the central government agrees to move to a loose federalism. The 2.2 million Kurds also now effectively rule something like 2 million Arabs in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor in the east, another 11% of the population.

[A warning about maps of Syria: That dark red stretch, above is where almost everybody lives, under al-Assad control. Idlib is probably 1.5 million people but looks enormous.]

So that leaves 14 percent (roughly 2.5 million) outside both central government and Kurdish control in a few pockets– Deraa and Quneitra in the south, East Ghouta outside Damascus, and Idlib in the north. Most of the rest of Syria is either under the government or under the Kurds and their US and Arab allies.*

What’s left is the determination of the fate of the 35% (Kurdish-ruled regions plus Arab rebels). Al-Assad is determined to reconquer them all. The Russians are hoping for a less bloody path to a negotiated surrender for the mainstream of the rebels, though they agree that the extremists with links to the extremist international that also includes Chechens have to be destroyed.

The 35% who remain outside Syrian government control are mostly on the rural peripheries of the country, and their undetermined fate has invited the intervention of other powers.

The one exception here is East Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus with some 300,000 people, who are under siege and appear to have little outside support save possibly from Saudi Arabia. That they are thus exposed explains why the regime is hitting them so hard, and, indeed, committing crimes against humanity against their civilians.

The US is hoping somehow to use the Kurds to weaken al-Assad over time and also to block Iran (how this could work in practice is mysterious). The Kurds do have half of Syria’s good farmland and so are key to the country’s food security going forward.

The US strategy of using the Kurds against ISIL but also as a wedge against the Damascus government enrages Turkey.

Turkey has lost, in the sense that a) it failed to overthrow al-Assad by backing fundamentalist rebels and b) the US strategy has strengthened the Kurdish hand in the region, something of which Ankara is terrified.

In an effort to soften the blow of this double defeat, Turkey has invaded the one Kurdish canton not in the US sphere of power, intending to ensconce fundamentalist Arab Syrian fighters in a buffer zone along the Syrian-Turkish border. In essence, this strategy looks like Israeli policy in southern Lebanon 1982-2000, when the Israelis backed a right wing Christian militia on their borders while occupying the Shiites of south Lebanon. This frankly stupid strategy created Hizbullah and gave Iran an opening, developments that Israel has never ceased regretting. I suspect the same regrets will haunt Turkey for decades.

Israel is supporting the southern fundamentalist rebels in a bid to keep the Syrian government from reasserting control of its portion of the Golan Heights, half of which Israel is occupying. Israel is particularly nervous about Hizbullah establishing bases in the Golan, which overlooks Israel and so is a military danger point.

The exchanges of fire this weekend were over the future of that small but highly important southwest Front.

Russia appears to have stepped in to restrain Israel from launching all-out war after the shoot-down of its fighter jet. Russia is acting both as a regime support for Damascus and as a referee in the remaining three major rebel enclaves, with their foreign supporters. Russia appears to be in no hurry. It seems determined to build back up the capacities of the Syrian state and military, cooperating with Iran and its Shiite militias to do so. Moscow wants the al-Qaeda-linked Syrian Conquest Front (formerly Nusra) defeated, but is perfectly happy to talk to and try to negotiate with the other rebels.

That Russia is a referee on the peripheries of Syria rather than a hegemon allows low-intensity guerrilla conflicts to simmer along.

They should not be confused with a bigger phenomenon, of major war.


Bonus video:

AP Archive: “US commander backs Kurdish fighters at Syria outpost”

*An earlier version of this article misstated the percentage of the country now controlled neither by the regime nor the US-backed Kurds.

Posted in Featured,Syria | 12 Responses | Print |

12 Responses

  1. In reading about recent events, I was most impressed by the strong US military response in support of the Syrian Kurds to a Russian/Syrian move against Kurdish positions, reported in previous posts here.

    I’ve lost track with all the distractions, the US air shield is based in Iraq still, and still extends to the _de facto_ Kurdistan in northern Iraq ? Of course it extends over Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, based in Qatar I assume? Israel has a special status as a sort of favored subcontractor based on its generally tight relationship with both the American state and the American public.

    Am I also correct in assuming that the US generally maintains an air supremacy over the entire globe, excepting Russia, China and North Korea and a few other places like Syria where a major power maintains a modern air force/air defense for the local client government?

    Personal note, the struggle for economic survival in America in my old age is definitely cutting into my ability to keep up my intellectual/historical studies. So please let me know if I’m misunderstanding any major situations.

  2. Perhaps Turkey also has aspirations of resuming the old Ottoman domination of the Near East, at least in the sense of carving out (i.e., conquering Idlib) a bigger enclave for their Antioch province, which Syria has never recognized as belonging to Turkey anyway.

  3. “They should not be confused with a bigger phenomenon, of major war.”

    True enough but this region is so volatile that things could easily spin out of control. Waiting to hear the final – and accurate – story about what happened near near Al Tabiyeh. But there are reports today that a number of Russian mercenaries attacking US-backed Kurds got blown to bits by an American airstrike. Nobody of sane mind wants this to escalate but……

  4. Interesting analysis.

    I’d add that the rebels in East Ghouta have randomly shelled Damascus at least 3 times in the last 6 weeks. That adds a lot of impetus towards finally crushing them.

    As an aside it also says something of the Saudis who knowingly supply the shells that are being used for outright terrorism.

      • Absolutely it is different and the evidence should be closely analyzed whether it is one or the other. What makes an assessment difficult for the outside observer is that East Ghouta is a very urban area where Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels are intermingled with the civilian population. Also there have been many shifts in strategy, ceasefires have been frequent and movement of the front has been super slow, to be measured in hundreds of meters per month, back and forth.

    • East Ghouta is currently in a humanitarian crisis with civilians starving and being bombed indiscriminately.

      The shellings by Salafist rebels from East Ghouta into Damascus have likewise killed innocent civilians and likely constitute war crimes by those rebels with Saudi-supplied weaponry – however there exists no corresponding right by the Baathists to counter the shelling of Damascus with their own war crimes.

      Attempts by the U.N. to deliver humanitarian aid to East Ghouta have been blocked by the Assad regime. This is deplorable.

  5. A litmus test to the heading of this post:
    My parents (both 70+ , Pakistan origin) visited with a group of 35 central Damascus last week and stayed there for a week. The moved in and out of Syria via Lebanon commuting by bus.
    So, things are well under control when people can safely visit a country, stay and have tourism.

  6. “The one exception here is East Ghouta……..the regime is hitting them so hard…………”

    East Ghouta is only a few miles from Damascus and has between 300,000 to 400,000 residents.

    It is a strategic location for the Salafist rebels that occupy it since they are able to fire deadly rocket and artillery attacks into Damascus – which has damaged morale for the Baathist regime and made Assad government appear weak and ineffectual.

    East Ghouta has been under siege for 52 months – which is the longest siege in the history of modern warfare, compared by observers to Sarajevo during the 1990s and Leningrad during WWII.

    The situation in East Ghouta has been described as “hellish” with severe malnutrition of children, rampant medical emergencies hampered by an inability to evacuate, chlorine gas attacks and air strikes by government warplanes:

    The Salafist militants there are entirely surrounded and have been since 2013, with their supplies coming via underground tunnels.

    The Assad government is suspected of committing serious war crimes in East Ghouta by virtue of the poison gas attacks and the indiscriminate military bombardments of civilians.

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