On Sept. 14, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement warning that, “Syria cannot afford a return to larger-scale fighting, but that is where it may be heading.” Syria’s frontlines have been frozen since March 2020, and while cross-line and insurgent attacks continue on a near daily basis, the level of violence is significantly reduced compared to previous years. However, Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine has given rise to speculation that it might draw down its forces in Syria, if not fully withdraw, which could create a power vacuum prompting the remaining anti-regime forces in the country to escalate and ignite new widespread fighting. Yet these fears of escalation ignore the significant changes to the balance of power across Syria in recent years, overestimating the centrality of Russian power and underestimating that of Turkish and American power. Russia’s role in “freezing” the conflict today is minimal at best; rather, it is Turkey and the United States that have ensured the relative stability in the northwest and northeast, respectively. Understanding the current state of Syria and the evolving role of the three main international actors reveals unique policy options for both strengthening the current ceasefires and for enabling broader engagement to stabilize and support the millions of Syrians living outside of regime control.
The single largest contributor to the Syrian stalemate is the northwest ceasefire deal imposed by Turkey on Russia in March 2020, which froze the last major frontline in the country. In the nearly three years since, fighting has been confined to five areas: 1) Cross-line attacks between Turkey and its Syrian allies and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria; 2) cross-line shelling and bombing along the Idlib frontline; 3) rebel infighting in northwest Syria, largely between the opposition factions backed by Turkey known as the Syrian National Army (SNA) but which recently saw Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) involvement; 4) the insurgency in southern Syria between the regime, ex-rebels, and ISIS; and 5) the ISIS insurgency against regime forces in central Syria and the SDF in the northeast.
When it comes to potential escalation there are a few key triggers. First, and most likely, is the possibility that Turkey conducts another ground offensive against the U.S.-backed SDF, which it views as a branch of the designated terrorist group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Since the summer of 2022, Turkey has signaled that it intends to launch an offensive against the joint SDF-regime-Iranian-held regions of Tal Rifaat and Manbij, the former of which has in recent years become a staging ground for attacks against Turkish forces while the later serves as an important economic center for the northeast. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has in the past also stated his desire to seize SDF-held Kobani. Erdoğan’s decisions, however, and the fate of the northeast are not determined by Russian redlines.
The second potential trigger is along the HTS-regime front in Idlib. This frontline remains frozen due to Turkish military deployments on one side, and Russian restraint of Damascus on the other. Nevertheless, both the rebels and the regime regularly exchange fire across the frontline, killing civilians in Idlib and militants on both sides every week. Meanwhile, Russia continues its intermittent bombing campaign of civilian homes. There remains the possibility that a significant regime or Russian attack will eventually trigger a rebel ground offensive, at which point fighting may escalate beyond Turkey or Russia’s control.
The insurgencies in southern and central Syria lack the ability to shift the balance of power in these areas, even with the already minimal Russian involvement in countering them, and in southern Syria has actually triggered a tightening of regime control over areas that were previously semi-autonomous. Similarly, the ISIS insurgency in the northeast, while gradually eroding SDF control in the Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa countryside, lacks the manpower and depth to trigger a full governance collapse absent any significant power vacuum, such as the withdraw of coalition forces.
A Russian vacuum?
The central question at hand, then, is how the Russian invasion of Ukraine will impact Syria. Could a weakened Russia encourage new opposition or SDF escalations, as the armed groups seek to increase their standing? There are two competing aspects at play here: what Syria’s various actors are actually capable of doing versus what they perceive themselves to be capable of doing.
Russia no longer serves as the military bulwark for Damascus it once did, having withdrawn most of its combat forces from the country in 2018 and 2019. Since the regime recapture of southern Syria in spring 2018, the Russians have focused their efforts on training, equipping, and rebuilding the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) specifically so that Damascus would not require direct Russian military intervention in the future. This rebuilding effort has pursued multiple paths, but most importantly has led to the renovation of the SAA’s Special Forces and a focus on more mobile, fast-reaction units paired with mass artillery support. During the last regime offensives in 2019 and early 2020, Russia’s direct involvement was largely confined to providing air support; its efforts otherwise centered on supplying, planning, and command and control of the various regime units. In the nearly three years since then, Russia has continued to methodically equip and train a range of regime units stationed around Idlib with laser-guided Krasnopol artillery, and Russian officers routinely oversee SAA artillery training in the area. Meanwhile, Damascus has, since 2018, embarked on a concerted effort to rebuild its own air force, which has slowly supplanted Russia’s role in the anti-ISIS air campaign in central Syria.
All of these changes make the risk of collapsing regime lines in northwest Syria remote. The Russians and Damascus have built a regime firewall around Idlib. It does not matter that Russia has not addressed the endemic corruption and glaring weaknesses of the SAA when Damascus is ultimately backed by a depth in numbers no actor outside of the SDF can hope to match. While rebel forces would no doubt succeed in capturing some territory in a hypothetical offensive, there is little possibility they would hold it. Likewise, any regime takeover of the northwest would result in a massive insurgency far greater in scale than Damascus is currently enduring in south and central Syria. It is the Turkish military that ended the regime’s ability to fly over Idlib, and it is only the Turkish military that can ensure rebels gain and hold ground in the future.
The greatest risk of escalation, therefore, comes from HTS or Damascus overestimating their hand. HTS may still think it is only the Russian air force that stands between them and new victories, while Damascus may underestimate Turkey’s resolve in preventing further encroachments into Idlib. If one or the other were to test this stalemate, it will largely fall on Turkey to prevent a spiral of escalation.
It is Turkey’s posture that is most significantly impacted by the war in Ukraine. Ankara and Moscow have been locked in a delicate balance of bluffs and blows since the Russian intervention in 2015. The 2020 Turkish offensive marked the first serious shift in Ankara’s policy toward Russia when it violently enforced the ceasefire the two countries had negotiated years prior but which Russia had continually ignored. The political and physical costs of Turkey’s continued enforcement of the northwest ceasefire are not insignificant, chief among them the risk and resource drain placed on Turkey’s army and the fact that Idlib is controlled by HTS, a designated terrorist group. Still, the single largest motivating factor for Turkish policymaking in northwest Syria is stopping refugee flows, a critical domestic issue for both the ruling and opposition political parties. Ankara therefore cannot allow a regime offensive, which would push millions more Syrians across the border, but also has little incentive to risk Turkish soldiers’ lives to assist rebels in retaking land from the regime.
Likewise, domestic politics and perceived national security concerns, not Russian power, dictate Turkish military action and inaction against the SDF. Turkey does not need a Russian greenlight to take Tel Rifaat, and Russian pressure poses even less of an obstacle east of the Euphrates, where Turkey routinely targets the thin line of regime forces stationed along its border with the SDF. Rather, Turkish decision making in the northeast is more influenced by U.S. economic and political pressure, and by SDF/PKK attacks within Syria and Turkey. What happens in Ukraine, therefore, has little impact on the risk of escalation in the northeast. It is the upcoming Turkish elections in mid-2023 and the risk of continued U.S. distraction with Ukraine that create the most uncertainty about Erdogan’s decisions on Syria.
Implications for foreign engagement
Despite the frozen frontlines, civilians in northwest Syria are still subject to weekly shelling from regime forces, displacing thousands every month. While HTS has used the relative calm to crack down on and dismantle most of the transnational jihadist groups operating there, the worsening humanitarian conditions leave an opening for ISIS and al-Qaeda cells to persist and rebuild. The same risks plague the northeast, where the persistent threat of Turkish invasion, fears over a U.S. withdrawal and regime return, and security and governance missteps by the Kurdish-led administration have fostered an ideal environment for ISIS to recruit, fundraise, and operate.
Both of these regions offer unique opportunities to improve humanitarian conditions and address potential national security threats for policymakers willing to think creatively about the conflict. International aid organizations must be allowed and encouraged to expand their work beyond immediate life-saving aid in Idlib, instead investing in the types of stabilization work that will provide educational and employment opportunities for the region’s 3 million civilians. Western nations themselves may find enticing returns for private engagement with HTS on select topics, such as pressuring the group to respect the rights of civil society and journalists while maintaining its crackdown on transnational jihadists. Meanwhile, the coalition presence in northeast Syria serves as the primary bulwark against both the return of ISIS and attempts by Ankara and Damascus to seize new territory from the SDF. American — not Russian — political and economic pressure on Ankara has thus far played a large role in deterring a new offensive in Manbij or Kobani, while indifference to the Turkish drone campaign has given Ankara the space to degrade PKK leadership networks. Yet the U.S. and its allies must invest more resources and attention in the social, political, and economic crises that are undermining the counter-ISIS campaign and driving a wedge between Arabs and the Kurdish-led administration.
Russia’s centrality as a key stabilizer of the Syrian regime has diminished and evolved in recent years. Policymakers should recognize that Turkey and America have become the guarantors of semi-stability in the regions outside of regime control, and only they have the power to strengthen the resilience of current agreements. America must continue to pressure Ankara against any ground offensive while simultaneously working with it to ensure the northwest ceasefire is maintained during and after the 2023 elections. While these may be difficult policies to pursue, ignoring the true underlying causes of today’s “frozen Syria” and their fragility all but guarantees future escalations. Rather than grow complacent over the general quiet, Western countries should re-examine the breadth of options they now have for creative policymaking to further stabilize the regions outside of regime control and improve the lives of millions of Syrians.
Gregory Waters is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute, a consultant for the International Crisis Group, and a research analyst at the Counter Extremism Project. His research focuses on the Syrian regime’s security forces, primarily utilizing open-source research to assess the capabilities and structure of the Syrian Arab Army and allied militias. You can follow him on Twitter @GregoryPWaters.
Photo by BAKR ALKASEM/AFP via Getty Images
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