The war, or wars, in Syria may be approaching an end.
The third of the country that was under the control of the once US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) will slowly be reabsorbed into the orbit of Damascus, as will the troops who fought alongside the Americans.
The SDF, abandoned in a flash by the Trump administration, or more specifically President Donald Trump himself, has cut a deal with the Syrian government. The SDF was caught between the devil it knows, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and the deep blue sea of an avenging Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan is dead set on obliterating the SDF and any Kurdish aspirations for independence, in Turkey, Syria and elsewhere. The SDF, understandably, chose the former.
The Turkish onslaught that started last week rages on, and may not end soon, but the final countdown to a messy closure to Syria’s eight-year nightmare has begun.
Only two obstacles remain to finally closing the book on the bloodbath that is the Syrian war. There’s Idlib, the province in northwest Syria currently under the control of a collection of rebels extremist groups and crammed with millions of civilians who fled there. That will be the most difficult chapter. Then there’s those parts of Syria currently under Turkish control, specifically the western, predominantly Kurdish district of Afrin, occupied by Turkey early last year, and the areas invaded by Turkey and its Syrian rebel militias in the last week.
US forces in Syria will remain, for the time being, in Tanf, in the southeast, stationed there to prevent the smuggling of weapons from Iran, through Iraq, to Syria. But, if the Syrian regime regains control of the entirety of the northeast, Tanf will no longer serve its original purpose and President Trump, perhaps eager to be done with Syria once and for all, may decide to pull out of there, too.
In the geostrategic balance sheet, it’s clear who comes out on top. First and foremost is the Syrian government, which in mid-2015 appeared to be teetering on the brink of collapse until Russia intervened militarily to shore it up. Which brings us to Russia, which has shown that, unlike the United States, Moscow will back its allies decisively to the hilt. Likewise Iran, which has been closely aligned with Damascus since the 1979 Iranian revolution. It dispatched troops, weapons, ammunition, and advisors. Then there’s the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which sent thousands of its fighters to bolster Syrian forces when they wavered. For all three it was a costly investment, but at least they have something to show for it.
At the top of the losing column in that balance sheet is the United States. President Barack Obama famously laid down his red line – use chemical weapons and we will act – and then didn’t when push came to shove and the Syrian government allegedly used chemical weapons. Assad denied it. But, hundreds of civilians were killed in Ghouta, east of Damascus, in August 2013.
The Obama administration provided the armed Syrian opposition just enough weapons and training to carry on the fight, but never enough to tip the balance. The Trump administration didn’t have the appetite to continue that lukewarm backing of the Syrian opposition, but did back the fight against ISIS waged by the SDF.
Yet even then it was half-hearted. In December 2018, Trump, seemingly out of the blue, announced he was pulling all US forces out of northern Syria. A political storm ensued in the corridors of Washington. Defense Secretary James Mattis and special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition Brett McGurk resigned in protest.
US support for the SDF continued, through the final battle against ISIS in Baghouz earlier this year, but this month Trump, after a phone call with Erdogan, announced the US would essentially step aside and let Turkey invade northern Syria. The rest is history.
Turkey joins the United States in the losing column. Millions of refugees fled to Turkey, while Ankara enthusiastically backed the Syrian rebels, including some of the most extreme elements. Tens of thousands of ISIS supporters transited Turkey on their way to join the so-called caliphate. While Turkey never sanctioned their movement, it was late in trying to stop it.
Turkey’s relations with the US and Europe have soured in recent years over Syria and, with the latest US sanctions and European and Canadian arms embargos, ties will suffer further.
ISIS, of course, has not been eliminated. According to a report by the Pentagon’s inspector general anywhere between 14,000 and 18,000 ISIS fighters, including 3,000 foreign fighters, remain on the loose in Syria and Iraq. That in addition to thousands more currently held in precariously guarded SDF-run prisons in eastern Syria.
ISIS will continue to pose a threat in Syria and Iraq, and also to the rest of the world. But that appears to be a secondary consideration to all who should be concerned.
So the war in Syria may be coming to a close. There is, however, no reason to celebrate. More than half a million Syrians have been killed in the conflict so far, millions more fled into what may be permanent exile, millions internally displaced. The war has reduced many cities and towns to a wasteland of rubble and human bone meal. Crippling US-initiated sanction make it difficult for the Syrian economy to revive, so at best a spartan life awaits those lucky enough to have survived the war.
Syria may eventually return to a pale semblance of its grim antebellum existence.
I lived and worked there, in Damascus, Raqqa, and Aleppo, during the rule of Bashar’s father, Hafez, who died a natural death in June 2000. Syria in those years was largely peaceful. The regime was oppressive, but mostly left people alone as long as they stayed away from politics. Daily gripes were tolerated, as long as they focused on the government and stayed away from the sacrosanct figure of the president himself.
I attended a play in Aleppo in the early 1990s where the actors, to the audience’s glee, made light of petty, low-level official corruption and the oafish ways of the ubiquitous secret police, the reviled Mukhabarat. Yet before the performance began, during a brief address by the director, every mention of the mandatory words “the President of the Republic, the struggling comrade Hafez Al-Assad” was dutifully greeted by a standing applause.
When all is said and done, and peace, a bleak peace, returns to Syria, there will be applause.
The applause, however, will be empty. Beyond the possible absence of war, there is nothing to celebrate.