The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Israel and America must avoid one-fit-all options regarding the military challenges in different parts of disintegrating Syria.

Since the beginning of 2018, dramatic events have occurred in rapid succession in what used to be Syria: The battle at Deir a-Zor (in which U.S. forces beat back pro-regime forces); the Israeli-Iranian skirmish; the Turkish conquest of ‘Afrin (where America’s friends were slaughtered by a NATO ally); the Ankara summit, indicating a Russian-Iranian-Turkish deal carving up zones of control; and now the chemical massacre in Douma and a mysterious attack on T-4. They all bring into focus the tangle of contradictions created by the disintegration of the Syrian state.

There is no point in speaking about “the Syrian situation.” Each local situation should be played by different rules. For the sake of regional stability, the U.S. (and Israel) must continue to treat Assad as an enemy, a close ally of Iran and beholden to the IRGC and the Shi’a militias. Therefore, in the east and northeast, U.S. forces need to stay and assist in keeping these areas under SDF control. In the north, however, some help from affiliates of the regime may be necessary in order to restrain Erdogan’s ambitions, and draw a red line at Manbij. In the south, the vital need to exclude Iran and Hizbullah from the borders of Israel (and Jordan) may well require some local cooperation with government troops. Israel, and the incoming team in Washington, would do well to avoid one-fit-all options.

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Within the last two months, a series of dramatic and contrasting events has offered painful insights into the extremely complex and contradictory political and military landscape in what used to be Syria. The heavy fighting near Deir a-Zor in February placed US troops under attack by Assad’s allies, Iran’s proxies, and Russian “volunteers”. To prevent them from crossing the Euphrates River, the Americans inflicted heavy losses on regime troops, Shi’ite militias, and killed a significant number of Russians (some reports spoke of hundreds: more reliable sources suggest a dozen or so). At about the same time, the Iranians tried to send a drone into Israel, and their launch base at T-4 was struck in response (it was struck again on the night of 8/9 April, with Russia and Syria claiming that Israel was behind the attack). All this serves to re-establish Assad as a dangerous and ruthless enemy:  so did the chemical attack at Douma, which gave rise to some blunt language by president trump (and by several Israeli ministers).

On the other hand, the Turkish assault and conquest of the Kurdish enclave of ‘Afrin demonstrated a dangerous reality; in which an important NATO ally destroyed significant pro-American forces. This brutal campaign, which lasted nearly two months – and indicated certain deficiencies in Turkish combat capabilities – led to the defeat and humiliation of those who previously played a major role in defeating the Islamic State. Assad, meanwhile, gave the Kurds m a half-hearted hand, and may do so again if the fighting spreads to the Manbij enclave. The Ankara summit, which brought together Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani, seemed to indicate that Turkey is now willing to discuss with Assad’s allies a scenario for the carving of zones of influence in Syria; again, with a nominal U.S. ally acting in support of the ambitions of America’s enemies and rivals.

In this tangle of contradictions, who is a friend and who is a foe?  At the highest strategic and even moral level, the answer is clear. Assad’s survival in power in the core areas of Syria is a fact of life. But this does not make him, or his allies, any less of an enemy. His association with Iran and Hizbullah goes back to his father’s time. In the war against his own people, he had come to rely of Tehran and the IRGC, and much of the fighting on the ground in recent years has been carried forward by Iranian forces or Iranian proxies. Those who still think he can be a reliable peace partner, and mourn the fact that Barak did not agree to hand over the entire Golan heights (down to the 4 of June 1967 lines) to Bashar’s father, choose to ignore the bitter lessons of the indiscriminate butchery that this man and his family have inflicted on the people of Syria since 2011, just to survive in power.

In practice, however, the proper responses to the swirl of events may vary according to the specific situations in each region and sub-region.  There is no point in speaking about a “Syrian situation”: while Assad may still seek to re-unify “his” country, realities on the ground indicate that the disintegration and effective partition of what used to be Syria will remain in effect for some time to come. Assad’s rule is being consolidated, brutally and ruthlessly, in the core areas of Syria, or “la Syrie utile” (useful Syria, as the French used to call the densely populated corridor leading from Aleppo to Damascus). Little can be done about it at this point in time, beyond sustaining a strong moral stand against Assad’s practices and against the role of both Russia and Iran in lending him a hand. At the same time, it is important to distinguish between Russian and Iranian purposes: Putin is not necessarily interested in seeing Assad fully beholden to the IRGC, and Russia need not be an accomplice in Iran’s efforts to build a land corridor to the Mediterranean.

This is why it is so important for Israel to keep open channels with Moscow. And, at the same time, for the U.S. (despite Trump’s recent pronouncements) to continue to lend sufficient support to the Kurds and the SDF. In ‘Afrin, given that the full fury of Erdogan’s policies was directed that way, there was not much that could have been done: but now a red line is necessary.  Despite obvious anger and frustration, the Kurds remain a key presence in very large areas of Eastern Syria. They have been effective in destroying IS, while fending off Iran’s proxies. In the context of an escalating confrontation with Iran, as may indeed emerge if the JCPOA is nixed (as it should be) in May, it will be all the more important to sustain a robust SDF presence, backed by U.S. troops (special forces) on the ground, in much of north-eastern and eastern Syria, athwart Iran’s lines of supply.

Not too long ago, the Trump Administration had openly committed itself to maintain such a presence in these parts. Now, in the wake of the new horror at Douma, a withdrawal or the erosion of this commitment would do untold harm to America’s already shaky standing in the region. Moreover, the possible spread of the fighting to Manbij  – and beyond – would put at risk the residual ability of the Kurds to look upon their erstwhile US allies with any degree of trust. Their confidence in the alliance is already sorely tested, and the overall lessons for the region are sad and frightening. Hopefully, the new American team – led by Bolton and Pompeo, and guided by the perspectives of soldier who fought alongside the SDF – would take a fresh look at the balance sheet and re-consider the president’s pronouncements.

At the same time, a policy (or rather, more accurately, an attitude) that rules out any cooperation with the regime and its affiliated elements – anywhere, anytime – is equally misguided. Each region and sub-region of what used to be Syria now has its own dynamics. The rules of the game, as relevant to the horrors inflicted by the Regime – with Russian help – in the immediate areas around Damascus, are not necessarily a good guidance for dealing with the delicate situations in the northwest, or the south.

In the areas still controlled by the Kurds west of the Euphrates river – mainly the area of Manbij, with its mixed population – are of crucial strategic importance for all the relevant regional players. It is not in the interest of the U.S. (or for that matter, Israel) to see them overrun by another Turkish assault. Erdogan, on his part, has found ‘Afrin to be a tougher nut to crack than he expected: his military, enfeebled by the purges, may not have much of an appetite for an even fiercer campaign. A stern U.S. message to both sides – the SDF/YPG would also be wise to avoid provocations at this time – can probably help avert another showdown. But this can be effective only if it is backed by some local arrangements with pro-regime forces in the north, as an important element in the overall power equations there.

In the south, with a special emphasis on the Jordanian border, the common interest of Israel, Jordan, the U.S. and indeed Russia (the last three signed an M.O.U. to this effect late last year) is to prevent Iran from gaining a firm foothold in the Golan. If free to use the Southern Golan, the IRGC would soon try to destabilize Jordan and use its territory as a jumping board into the West Bank: this would put all regional players at risk, and given the scope of Israel’s possible response, it may also endanger the survival of Assad’s regime. Thus, behind the scenes and with some Russian prodding, the regime can be induced to play a positive role in this particular sub-region, working closely with the Jordanians despite the acute and mutual dislike between them. If backed by a credible Israeli willingness to use force if necessary, this could actually lead to a reduction in tensions.

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