The major conflict phase of the Syrian war is ending, with the American-supported and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces taking Raqqa and the Syrian regime with Iranian help likely taking Deir Azour. Only a few opposition-controlled enclaves remain in Idlib, north of Homs, northeast of Damascus, and in the south along the borders of Israel and Jordan. All are now more or less “de-escalated” zones. The regime, with heavy Russian and Iranian support, has mostly won the military contest, but that does not quite end the war.
The next phase will be more political. It is already outlined in general terms in UN Security Council resolution 2254 (2015). While all the deadlines in that resolution are blown, no one seems to doubt that the outlines of a “road map” for a supposedly “inclusive and Syrian-led process” remains valid:
- A political process lasting six months that sets a schedule for preparing a new constitution;
- Elections within 18 months pursuant to the new constitution, and administered under UN supervision.
The de-escalation zones have in some sense superseded the ceasefire, though that of course is still in principle desirable.
While there are many aspects of 2254 that have been ignored or superseded, these two pieces seem still to loom in the future, even if the time line may be significantly longer. During my visit to Turkey last week, opposition-affiliated folks were naturally anxious about what they could do in the next phase of this war.
How can an opposition that has largely lost the war gain some satisfaction in the peace? There will presumably at some point be a new UNSC resolution. The devil is in the details of that one. Here is what I think desirable with respect to elections. A future post will treat the constitution.
First, elections. While the first rule of post-war societies is that context matters and needs to be taken into account, as a general rule local elections should be held before national ones. It is rarely done (Kosovo is the only recent case I am aware of), largely because the internationals want to show progress. A national election usually satisfies their capitals, but local elections don’t.
There are at least five good reasons for doing local elections first, especially in Syria:
- Syria has never conducted anything resembling a free and fair election. Doing local elections first will be a test of the electoral mechanism and help to identify areas where it needs repair.
- Local elections will also help to identify who is emerging as political leaders: is it war criminals or extremists? If so, some rethinking by the internationals is in order. If not, the local elections will help the different political forces that emerge team up behind candidates for higher office.
- At the local level, voters are more likely to vote for people who can deliver services or advocate on issues, rather than on the basis of gender, ethnic, or sectarian identity. What do I care if the woman best equipped to collect the garbage, remove rubble, and pave the streets does not belong to my sect or ethnic group?
- Minorities and opposition are more likely to win at the local level than at the national level, because they are better organized and more numerous in particular communities. This matters a lot if the objective is inclusion, as it should be.
- National elections will favor the candidate with the best national organization backing him. That is still the Ba’ath party, which will of course back Bashar al Assad. Next in line nationally is likely the Muslim Brotherhood, though that is less clear.
So I’d be for local elections first, but only if they meet some exigent criteria.
First among these is absentee voting. More than half of Syrians are displaced. The standard in post-war elections since Bosnia is that recently internally displaced people and recent refugees should be permitted (not required) to vote where they came from. Otherwise, the election confirms ethnic, sectarian and political cleansing and makes it less likely that people will ever return (because those elected exclusive by those who remain in place may be hostile to returnees).
The problem with absentee voting is that it is complicated, especially in local elections. The ballot for each community has to be available in every other community, as well as in all polling places abroad. This can and has been done, but the UN resists it. No Syrian should be satisfied without absentee voting.
Nor should they be satisfied without intensive observation of the vote, including not only the procedures and counting on election day but also the performance of political parties and media during the campaign and the tabulation of the final tally. Intimidation often occurs far from the polls, both in distance and time. With armed groups likely still hanging around, observers need to be people who speak the local language and are willing to challenge malfeasance through whatever procedures are established by the electoral commission. Read more
Not only is Syria fragmented, its opposition is too. That has been true since the 2011 uprising, but things have gotten worse. The history since then is littered with opposition organizations: the Syrian National Council (SNC), the Syrian Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC or Etilaf), the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), and the High Negotiation Commission (HNC), not to mention the Syrian Free Army (SFA) and its many components. What, I asked last week during my talks with Syrians in Turkey, is the relationship among them. I won’t even try to recount the fate of Friends of the Syrian People and other ill-fated efforts to help.
The SNC, I was assured, has melted into the SOC.
The SOC still exists and claims to be the principal political body of the moderate opposition. It sees itself as setting the policy parameters and emphasizes it is100% committed to the fight against terrorism (principally Al Qaeda and the Islamic State), a point it intends to incorporate more fully into its narrative. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are SOC’s enemies, as much as the Assad regime, as the terrorists have frequently deprived the opposition of territory it controlled. This is an implicit critique of the SOC’s past exclusive focus on Assad.
The SIG is the executive branch of the opposition, whose eight ministers, including the Prime Minister, have relocated into Syria (presumably Idlib). They are trying to provide education, health, and other services in areas where opposition local administrative councils are able to operate. They are also making a big effort to coordinate the local councils (both those inside Syria and those in exile), whose representatives meet regularly under the chairmanship of the prime minister.
While now largely disregarded and unsupported by the internationals, the SOC and the SIG want to preserve the Syrian state by separating its security organs from its civilian apparatus, which will be welcome to return to opposition areas. The opposition is aiming to regroup and rebuild both its armed factions and its civilians apparatus. It seeks broader appeal through its disassociation from extremists and intends to maintain a more united armed wing under the Syrian National Army rubric.
The HNC is the technical negotiating arm of the SOC and SIG, from their perspective (I did not speak with anyone from the HNC last week). There is talk about a reform of the HNC, whose leader Riyad Hijab has been spending a lot of time in medical care in the US. The UN-sponsored Geneva negotiations in which it has been most involved have been unproductive. The regime and Iran see no need to negotiate seriously with the HNC, even if the Russians appear a bit more inclined in that direction.
The Americans do little to support the SOC and SIG, and only a bit more for the HNC. Most of their financing goes directly to local administrative councils and civil society organizations, thus contributing to fragmentation. The Europeans pay a bit more attention to the SIG, which however seems to be penniless at the moment and reduced to begging from Qatar, which has supported it in the past. The HNC was formed in Riyadh and still seems to have Saudi support.
One wag described the SOC, SIG, and HNC as “competing in weakness.” But the fighting has also dramatically weakened the Syrian regime, which depends on the Iranians and Shia militias for ground forces and on the Russians for support from the air. The way to strengthen the opposition is to unify its fighters and connect them more strongly to the civilian opposition local councils. The Russians have some sympathy with this approach. Moscow is interested in particular in using the opposition to fight terrorists in the communities the opposition controls.
Post-war, the SOC wants to see no reconstruction aid or diplomatic recognition for Assad, though some stabilization efforts could be appropriate. Provisional elections at the local level could be a prelude to allowing state institutions back into opposition-controlled areas. Property rights will be a big issues, both in the countryside and in urban areas, where there is extensive destruction of multi-story apartment buildings. Even permission to clear rubble will be a big issue.
One of my interlocutors argued vigorously that efforts at unification are the problem, not the fragmentation. From this perspective, there has been too much effort to smooth over differences between real liberal democrats and Islamists. That has weakened the opposition, which needs to remain true to its initial inspiration: a non-violent rebellion for human rights and freedom. What is needed now is for people who reject Islamism to unify and form the kind of political movement that can eventually win the day in Syria.
The Syrian opposition is fragmented. But it is also fertile, courageous, and determined. I wish those who want human rights and freedom success. They don’t merit the mess that Syria has become.
In a previous post, I focused on what I learned last week about the prospects for Idlib, a Syrian province still largely controlled by both moderate and extremist, non-regime forces. For the moderate opposition, which counts about 100 local councils there, Idlib is the center of gravity of its fight against the regime, even though Hayat al Sham (the Al Qaeda affiliate) has taken over much of the province (and controls an additional 40 or so local councils).
But there are many other issues in the rest of Syria that will contribute to determining the outcome of this long, costly, and deadly war.
First is the condition of the regime itself. Its regular Syrian Arab Army is down to below 40,000 soldiers, from a nominal strength of 125,000 before the war. Defections, deaths and injuries presumably account for the difference. As the regular army has declined, special forces and militias, some sponsored by Iran, have grown. These are less unified and less disciplined than the army, with commanders who are notoriously indifferent to human rights and other niceities. The dictatorship may well grow harsher as it tries to reassert control with diminished resources.
Even in its weakened state, the regime is seeking to shape Syria’s demography to its advantage, by moving politically loyal people into sensitive areas and leaving some districts once controlled by the opposition in ruins. It is also trying to ensure that reconstruction resources, insofar as they become available, will be under the control of regime-affiliated public/private partnerships, often at the municipal level. The local councils associated with the opposition are immediately disbanded when the regime takes over an area. Their members and associated activists are listed by name as among the first to be expelled/evacuated, so far usually to Idlib.
Areas other than Idlib out of regime control include the Euphrates Shield area under Turkish occupation, the Kurdish-controlled (PYD) “self-administration” zones, and the southern front, in addition to Raqqa and Deir Azour.
The Turks have trained and deployed more than 1000 mostly Arab police to operate in the Euphrates Shield area, have initiated local councils in Azaz and Al Bab, and are trying to restart schools and health services there, with less than complete success. They are also shutting out Syrian opposition people who would like to operate there. While Ankara might like most of the almost 2.5 million refugees it has received to return to Syria eventually, no more than one-quarter appear likely to do so. Some more highly qualified Syrians are now being offered Turkish citizenship.
The Turks regard the PYD and its associated YPG (Kurdish) and SDF (that’s YPG plus Arabs) forces that the US is relying on to take Raqqa as unreliable at best, hostile at worst. No Turks I talked with doubt that the PYD is just the PKK (the Kurdish rebel forces in Turkey) by another name. The Turks are hoping the US will abandon the PYD after taking Raqqa, force the return of the weapons it provided to the Kurds, and reengage productively with its Turkish ally. Ankara is looking for a gesture from the US, which is now regarded by ordinary Turks as their number one security threat responsible for not only the PKK but also the Gulenist coup, and ISIS (sic).
In Raqqa, there will be a tug-of-war between the US-sponsored city council and an opposition-controlled provincial council that has Turkish blessing. While this could be settled amicably with a division of labor, it could also prove problematic, as the provincial council is under Turkish influence and the city council includes people named by the PYD. It will not be easy to reopen the schools, re-establish health care and provide pyscho-social support for Raqqa’s seriously damaged infrastructure and people. For Deir Azour, the regime appears to have the upper hand, though some think the SDF will be prepared to fight the regime for it.
The southern front is opaque when viewed from Turkey. Everyone there just assumes that it will be maintained along the border with Israel and Jordan, in order to protect those two US allies. That sounds about right to me, though it may be tougher than it sounds.
The bottom line: If this war ends any time soon, the post-war process will be markedly different in different parts of the country. That’s ironic, because both the regime and the main opposition forces want it to remain united. More about that in a future post.
In his opening remarks at the Atlantic Council’s “Pushback: Exposing and Countering Iran” event on Thursday, September 14, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad addressed an American audience on the importance of paying close attention to Iran and its activity in the Middle East. He emphasized that a future in which Iran dominates the Middle East is not in the interest of the United States and that the United States should adopt certain approaches to decreasing the threat that Iran poses. The event included two panels, each discussing a report published by the Atlantic Council. The first panel assessed and described Iran’s activity in the region, and the second made practical recommendations directed towards the US administration.
To contextualize the issue, the first panel, based on the report “Revolution Unveiled: A Closer Look at Iran’s Presence and Influence in the Middle East,” began by examining evidence pointing to Iran’s increasing influence across the Middle East and identified some ways in which it maintains and increases that influence. Phillip Smyth of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (one of the authors of the report) and Tim Michetti of Conflict Armament Research explored Iran’s use of networks of loyal groups and militias and its role in arming these militias as two tactics that Iran has been using.
According to Smyth, Iran is actively expanding its list of primarily Shi’a groups and militias loyal to Tehran, using them as proxies in conflict zones such as Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, and financing them in an effort to become known as protectors of Shi’a groups. The importance of these groups lies not only in their number and the amount of territory which they span (Smyth mentioned mapping at least 40 groups aligned with Iran in Syria alone), but also in the image that they are able to convey of Iran’s strength and importance.
The appearance of these groups with weapons acquired through Iran is one significant way in which Iran accomplishes its goals. To demonstrate, Smyth referred to an image of a militia fighter carrying an AM-50 (Sayyad-2) rifle. The rifle, he explained, tends to appear with groups thought to be financed by Iran and in areas in which Iran possesses influence, and the wide circulation of the image serves as a possible announcement of Iran’s strengths.
Tim Michetti of Conflict Armament Research continued to demonstrate Iran’s apparent influence through weaponry, referring to two cases in particular. The first was the seizing of dhows in the Arabian Gulf that were headed from Iran to Somalia in 2016. The dhows contained Iranian and Russian rifles and weapons, labeled and in serial order, normally indicative of their belonging to a state. This indicated that Iran was sending weapons from its stockpile to armed groups. The second case involved the shipment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Houthi rebels in Yemen. The UAVs received resembled those manufactured by Iran, suggesting once again that Iran is supplying Shi’a forces with weapons across the region.
While Smyth and Michetti presented a picture of an Iran growing in power by the minute, Elisabeth Kendall of the Atlantic Council warned against overestimating Iran’s power. Kendall assessed that much of Iran’s influence is solely in appearance. She referred to the case of Yemen, where, through publicizing its alignment with the Houthis, Iran “antagonized” Saudi Arabia into joining the war, after which it significantly decreased its involvement, switching over instead into the role of peacemaker and leaving Saudi Arabia as the instigator of war in the country, diminishing its credibility. In this way, Iran has been able to “talk up” its involvement, spending less money than it appears to on rebel fighters while still increasing its influence and challenging its regional rivals.
Melissa Dalton of the Center for Strategic and International Studies contributed to this analysis by suggesting that Iran’s main strengths include its creativity and adaptability, traits that it has had to learn over time due to the isolation that it has experienced. Its tendency to use unconventional methods, however, has entrapped it in what Dalton described as a “vicious cycle,” in which the international community responds to Iran’s actions by increasing punishments, causing Iran to once again resort to “asymmetric” retaliation.
While a discussion on practical solutions was reserved for the upcoming panel, the panelists offered some suggestions, primarily related to the US’s outlook on the issue. Kendall’s comment offers an applicable piece of advice, as she urged the audience to approach Iran’s actions with a “healthy skepticism,” avoiding the polarization that often occurs when talking about Iran. Instead of suggesting, as some do, that Iran has a hand in all that occurs in the region, or inferring that it is completely uninvolved, Kendall suggested that one should instead adopt a middle path. A more rational approach to the challenge that Iran poses to the United States, backed with concrete evidence and that allows for a measured response, would be best.
- A Conversation With UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein | Monday, September 18 | 10:00 – 11:00 am | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Register Here | Join the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for the launch of the Morton and Sheppie Abramowitz Lecture featuring UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. Carnegie President William J. Burns will join the high commissioner for a conversation on the global state of human rights.
- Weighing Bad Options: Past Diplomacy With North Korea and Alliance Options Today | Monday, September 18 | 2:00 – 3:30 pm | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Register Here | The Trump administration and its allies are trying to apply maximum pressure on North Korea so that it will accept diplomatic talks predicated on its eventual denuclearization. It has been over a decade since such active hard and soft diplomatic measures have been applied to this policy challenge, even as regional circumstances have changed dramatically. Two veteran diplomats deeply involved with the last set of intense negotiations with North Korea will discuss their experiences and consider options in light of today’s dynamics and will be joined by both U.S. and Japanese experts. Carnegie’s Jim Schoff will moderate. Panelists include Christopher Hill of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at The University of Denver, Mitoji Yabunaka of Ritsumeikan University and Osaka University, Keiji Nakatsuji of Ritsumeikan University, and Douglas H. Paal and James L. Schoff of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This event is co-sponsored by the U.S.-Japan Research Institute.
- The Roller Coaster of Turkey-Russia Relations | Tuesday, September 19 | 3:00 – 4:30 pm | Brookings Institution | Register Here | The history of Turkish-Russian relations is replete with sudden outbursts of anger and unexpected rapprochements. Even in just the past couple of years, Moscow and Ankara swung from conflict to reconciliation with startling speed. Fewer than six months after Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet near Syria in November 2015, the two countries concluded deals on a gas pipeline and a nuclear plant. Following the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara in December 2016, they collaborated on a framework to stop the fighting in Syria. Moving forward, fluctuations will likely continue to characterize this ever-uncertain relationship. In the latest Turkey Project Policy Paper, “An ambiguous partnership: The serpentine trajectory of Turkish-Russian relations in the era of Erdoğan and Putin,” Pavel K. Baev and Kemal Kirişci explore the main areas of interaction between Ankara and Moscow. They discuss the implications of these shifting dynamics on Turkey’s relations with its trans-Atlantic allies, particularly the United States and the European Union. On September 19, 2017, the Center on the United States and Europe (CUSE) will host a panel discussion on the conclusions from this latest Turkey Project Policy Paper. The authors Baev and Kirişci will be joined by Evren Balta, Fulbright visiting scholar at New York University, and Naz Durakoğlu, senior policy advisor to Senator Jeanne Shaheen at the U.S. Senate. The discussion will be moderated by Torrey Taussig, post-doctoral research fellow at Brookings.
- Saudi Arabia Looks Forward: Vision 2030 and Mohammed Bin Salman | Wednesday, September 20 | 2:00 pm – 3:30 pm | Brookings Institution | Register Here | In a new paper titled “Saudi Arabia in Transition,” Karen Elliott House, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who has visited Saudi Arabia for nearly 40 years and a current senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, analyzes the progress the Saudis have made and the challenges they face in implementing Vision 2030 amidst the recent changes in leadership. On September 20, the Brookings Intelligence project will host Elliott House for a discussion on her findings, the Trump administration’s Saudi Arabia policy, and Iran’s activities in the region. Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project and a senior fellow, will moderate the discussion. Following their remarks, Elliott House and Riedel will take questions from the audience.
- Restoring Stability in a Turbulent Middle East: A Perspective from the League of Arab States | Friday, September 22 | 3:30 pm | Center on Foreign Relations | Register Here | Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit discusses the state of affairs in the Middle East, including the conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, countering the threat of terrorism in the region, the impact of the recent intra-gulf crisis, and how the Arab League operates within this complex climate.
I’ve been in Turkey the last few days, talking with Syrian opposition people (including civil society, the Syrian Interim Government and the Syrian Opposition Coalition) who live here, as well as Turks who worry about Syria. I was last in Istanbul and Gaziantep, the Turkish city closest to Aleppo that acts as a platform for the civilian Syrian opposition, two years ago, when the most of its exponents were upbeat about the prospects of evicting Bashar al Assad from the presidential palace, or at least wresting control of a good part of Syria from him.
Gone are those days. The sustained Russian air intervention that started in September 2105, coordinated with Iranian and Shia militia ground forces as well as the Syrian army, has wrested east Aleppo, some Damascus suburbs and other key areas from opposition military forces, while the Turks have taken a slice of Syria’s north and Kurdish and allied Arab forces have taken Manbij and moved southeast to take Raqqa from the Islamic State, the first provincial capital to fall to the opposition in 2013.
The only major population center in western “useful Syria” still in opposition hands is a good part of Idlib province, to which the Syrian government has shipped irreconcilable (both extremist and moderate) Syrians from all the territory it retakes. Idlib has also accumulated a large number of people displaced by fighting in Aleppo and other population centers, even while some of its native population has fled to Turkey. There are perhaps 1.2 million people in the province, including 300-400,000 displaced from other provinces.
Americans focus on Raqqa because that is where US forces are supporting the assault on the Islamic State, which is the main American priority. But for the Syrian opposition, Idlib has become by default the center of gravity of the conflict. The situation there is intricate: formed more or less in accordance with a Syrian decentralization law, something like 100 elected moderate opposition local administrative councils (and more at the village level) govern in places like Saraqib and Maarat al Numan, even as Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS, the current Al Qaeda front in Syria) has taken over Idlib city (and disbanded the local administrative council there), as well as much of the rest of the province.
The question is whether the remaining relatively democratic and free institutions can survive two possible future assaults: one might come from HTS to exert its control over the entire territory, though so far the jihadis have failed to be able to displace the civic opposition and they are not yet moving against major population centers other than Idlib city. Another possibility is an assault against HTS in Idlib by the internationals. Once the Islamic State has been ousted from Raqqa and the eastern city of Deir Azour, the American, Iranian, Russian, and Syrian government forces could pivot to Idlib, nominally seeking to obliterate HTS but likely doing in the moderate opposition at the same time, because Tehran, Moscow, and Damascus don’t distinguish much.
What could prevent an Idlib debacle and help the opposition institutions that have been painstakingly built, with a lot of US and European aid, survive? The proposition apparently on the table at the Iranian/Russian/Turkish meeting in Astana yesterday and today is some sort of joint action with Russian air support, either by the Turks or by the Turks in north Idlib and the Iranians in the south, to chase HTS from the province.*
The Turks are hesitating. The Euphrates Shield area they already control in the north along their border is costing a bundle and generating complaints from the Syrian opposition, which has been shut out of the Turkish-controlled area in favor of hand-picked Turkish proxies responsible for security, education, and religious affairs as well as Turkish-trained police. Turkey’s priority in Syria is doing in the Kurds and blocking them from controlling the entire northern border of Syria with Turkey, not helping the Syrian opposition.
If the Turks don’t act, Idlib could still fall eventually to the regime, with the help of Iran and Russia. That could precipitate a major slaughter, especially if the Turks continue to block the border at Bab al Hawa.
Even if the non-HTS local councils survive in Idlib and even if the Americans re-establish some sort of democratic institutions in Raqqa, the Syrian opposition has largely lost the military fight. But the war isn’t really over until there is peace, which is not yet on the horizon. The next phase will be less military and more political. The question is who will win that. More on that in the next post.
*PS: The decision at Astana was apparently to deploy observers, not forces, to the boundaries of Idlib’s non-regime controlled areas. Not clear how long that will take.
*PPS: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has a different version of the agreement, which includes deployment of Turkish, Russian and Iranian forces inside Idlib. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.