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.
- 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.
Much lower I fear. While he has given a couple of half-sane, scripted speeches prepared with Chief of Staff Kelly’s approval, President Trump is still doing what he can to offend as soon as he is off the Teleprompter. Those who don’t approve of him are at this point about 60% of Americans and far higher percentages in most other countries. Russia and Israel are the exceptions. He is still launching ferocious attacks on the American media, retweeting anti-Semitic and racist tweeps, and slamming both Senate supporters and antagonists.
With August waning and an early Labor Day (September 4) looming in the US, prospects are for a difficult fall. The first item of business in the US Congress will be raising the debt ceiling and passing some sort of budget resolution. Trump has made that more difficult by insisting that the budget include money for the wall on the border he has promised the Mexicans would pay for. That’s a non-starter for the Democrats, who have some say in the Senate because 60 votes are needed on the budget issues. Tax reform, which so far means a big tax cut to businesses like Trump’s own, will have to wait. Never mind the promised trillion-dollar infrastructure program.
Trump wants the budget resolved by eliminating the filibuster and allowing bills to pass in the Senate with a simple majority. That is a proposition even more controversial than the wall, so he is publicly hounding Senate Majority leader McConnell into changing Senate rules to allow it. That’s not a way to make friends in the Senate, but so long as the Republicans control the House Trump can be sure it won’t impeach him (which has to precede sending him to the Senate for trial).
While America tries to sort out its internal political mess, the rest of the world is trying to make do without much clarity from Washington. In Asia, China is seizing the initiative on trade and finance, pushing its “belt and road” projects all the way to the Middle East and Africa. North Korea hasn’t tested a missile lately, and there seem to be talks about talks going on behind the scenes with the US, but the prospects of denuclearizing Pyongyang have dropped to zero.
In the Middle East, Syria’s President Assad is still advancing, as are the US-supported, Kurdish-led forces trying to take Raqqa from the Islamic State. The Syrian opposition is being pressed by the UN and everyone else to drop its demand that Assad step aside. Civilian casualties from American and other air attacks in the battle for Raqqa are mounting.
Defense Secretary Mattis is promising Turkey the US will help fight against Kurdish rebels inside Turkey and in Iraq, even as it supports their affiliates in Syria. That’s going to be a hard circle to square. Iraq is also making progress against the Islamic State, but Baghdad still hasn’t convinced its own Kurdistan to call off its independence referendum, scheduled for September 25 but increasingly in doubt.
Jared Kushner is plugging away at the Israel/Palestine issues, in visits to Ramallah, Cairo and Jerusalem. No one is expecting much to come of his efforts. The State Department has refused to reiterate US commitment to a two-state solution, which (as Matt Duss pointed out on Twitter) represents the single largest concession the Palestinians have made to date. Not that anyone had much doubt about which side the Trump Administration was on. We’ll presumably now be treated to the spectacle of Israel and the US proposing various confidence-building measures meant to make life and the economy more palatable for the occupied territories on the West Bank, while Jewish settlements expand and kill off any remaining hope for a two-state solution.
This is enabled in part by some Arab states coming to the conclusion that they care more about countering Iran than supporting the Palestinians. The Saudis and Emiratis seem prepared to collaborate with Israel against Iran, even if Qatar, Iraq, and Oman are headed in the opposite direction. Yemen no longer counts, since it is being obliterated in the Gulf-led war against the Houthi rebellion. Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco are likewise out of the game for now. Egypt and Jordan have made their peace with Israel and have no choice but to keep it.
Trump is increasingly marginalized from all these developments. Weakness at home leads to weakness abroad. His only major push on foreign policy lately has been the renewal and expansion of the American military push in Afghanistan. This allegedly new strategy closely resembles his predecessor’s effort to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Like Obama, Trump doesn’t want to be blamed for losing Afghanistan, even if it proves impossible to keep his promise to win there.
We can still sink lower: North Korea could test another missile, the Palestinians could tell Kushner where to go, Trump could renounce the Iran nuclear deal, and the country’s long recovery from the financial crisis of 2007/8 could end. But most of all: we could continue to fail to deal with a president who is unqualified, mean-spirited, incompetent, and divisive. Let’s hope Special Counsel Mueller comes up with something compelling, sooner rather than later.
Following my op/ed for the Washington Post on this subject, Peter Galbraith and I debated the issue for Iraqi Kurdistan’s Al Rudaw TV:
Comments as always are welcome.
For those who are thinking, what difference does all this make? So the President wrote a fib for his son about a meeting with Russian agents, the Republicans failed to pass Trumpcare by just one vote, the potty-mouthed Communications Director got fired before he was hired? This is all small beans compared to today’s challenges: North Korea with nuclear weapons and missiles that can reach the US, Hizbollah running rampant in Iraq and Syria, Venezuela coming apart at the seams.
Yes, it is small beans, but that makes it more harmful rather than less. The President is weak domestically and disdained internationally:He is unable to manage even small issues without embarrassing himself. International support is evaporating. Japan and South Korea have no choice but to align with the US against Kim Jong-un, but the rest of Asia is still reeling from Trump’s sinking the Trans Pacific Partnership, most of Europe and Latin America are lost to American leadership, and the Middle East is consuming itself.
Adversaries are encouraged. Only friendly dictators are comforted, knowing that Trump will not criticize the homicidal crackdown on drug traffickers in the Philippines or the restoration of military dictatorship in Egypt, never mind the absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia or the elected autocracy in Turkey.
America’s two biggest challenges right now are China and Russia. The Chinese are bemused by Trump’s warmth one day followed by bluster and threats the next. He has given the Chinese no compelling reason to be helpful on anything: the South China Sea, North Korea, or trade. Beijing hasn’t done anything dramatic to show off its advantages, but it doesn’t really need to. Xi Jinping gets better ratings than Trump, even if he lags Angela Merkel:
Russia is less shy. It is expelling most of the US embassy, with nary a tweet yet from Trump in protest, and assembling a massive military exercise on the border with NATO. President Putin is disappointed in the return on his investment in Trump, but for the moment at least he seems prepared to take it out on the US government rather than Trump’s business empire, which depends on Russian purchasers and investors. That is odds-on the reason for Trump refusing to make his tax returns public, but it will be clear enough the day Russia decides to yank Trump’s personal chain.
I know lots of people think America looked weak under President Obama, who purposefully set out to reduce American commitments around the world. In withdrawing from the Middle East, he left a vacuum that others exploited. But Trump is continuing that policy, with a lot less finesse. Ending aid to the Syrian opposition, declaring that the US has no interest in Libya, allowing President Erdogan to reverse Turkey’s democratic evolution, and failing to oppose Kurdistan’s referendum on independence are decisions that will have serious consequences for a decade or more. His policy proposals are disliked worldwide:
Can the situation be saved by a retired general as White House Chief of Staff? No more than it has been saved by a general as Defense Secretary and another as National Security Adviser. The fish rots from the head, as the late lamented Communications Director averred. General Kelly may impose some order on the policy process, but the President will still say and tweet what he wants, the family will confer with him at will, and the white supremacists, alt right freaks, and Fox news friends he likes so much (except when they won’t fire the Special Prosecutor) will still have his rapt attention. None of that will change what the world thinks of the man and the country he now leads so badly:
Source for the lovely graphs: Trump Unpopular Worldwide, American Image Suffers | Pew Research Center