Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should fundamentally alter how we think about Syria and its future. Prior to Feb. 24, the prevailing thinking among Western policymakers, including U.S. administration officials I have spoken to, viewed Syria as a middle-tier priority considering the intractable and semi-frozen nature of the conflict. With the country essentially divided into three zones of influence between the Russians, the Turks, and the Americans, they surmised that there was little utility in spending additional political capital on the conflict. Russia was considered essential to any serious diplomatic initiative and for maintaining humanitarian access through the north. Despite its brutal military campaign on behalf of the regime, which included the targeting of hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, the U.S. coordinated its military activities with Russia through a “de-confliction channel” to avoid direct confrontation. There were even efforts to broker an agreement between the U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) and the regime with Russian guarantees as a mean to extract the U.S. from the country.
For their part, Arab countries that once shunned Bashar al-Assad for his violent repression began considering rehabilitating him and readmitting Syria into the Arab League. King Abdullah spoke with Assad for the first time in a decade after reopening Jordan’s border with Syria. A number of other countries, including the UAE, sent ambassadors back to Damascus. On March 18, Assad traveled to the UAE in his first visit to an Arab country since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, meeting with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing U.S.-led response to isolate and punish Russian President Vladimir Putin makes conducting business as usual with Russia in Syria extremely problematic. Doing so would undercut policy coherence and confuse partners and allies. Maintaining U.S. dependence on Russia’s goodwill on the diplomatic, humanitarian, and counterterrorism fronts provides Putin with leverage that can be used to undercut efforts to isolate him. How can the United States protect its objectives in Syria without compromising with Russia? The answer lies in the north.
Today, two NATO allies, the United States and Turkey, back competing Syrian armed coalitions that collectively control 30% of Syria. More importantly, the presence of U.S. and (separately) Turkish forces in these areas protects 7 million ethnically and religiously diverse Syrians from both the Syrian regime and Russia, which would attempt to fill the vacuum if either Washington or Ankara withdrew. This reality was not necessarily the way either country envisioned things to turn out 10 years after the revolution began, but they are where they are. In the northeast, several hundred U.S. soldiers are enabling the SDF and their Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria to govern. As imperfect as that rule is, the millions of Syrians who live there prefer it to Assad’s gulag. This relatively small footprint has projected credible power that has safeguarded inhabitants from the Syrian-Iraqi border to the eastern banks of the Euphrates River. In the north and northwest, 10,000-plus Turkish troops fortified a ceasefire agreement between Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and largely kept the regime and most Russian aircraft away from harming over 4 million people. While communities in both spheres of influence have suffered awful losses at the hands of various actors, conditions on the ground are far more stable than they have been at any point since the conflict began. Local administration in these “liberated” areas have taken hold, with the SDF having developed the more sophisticated infrastructure for local governance. But even in the Turkish-backed zones, local communities are working to ensure that water and electricity are on and economic activities are growing.
There are serious problems plaguing each of these zones. Ankara sees the Kurdish component of the SDF, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as the Syrian extension of its long-standing enemy, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and has vowed to end its hegemony over the areas. Deep Arab discomfort with the extent of YPG control over the SDF and local councils risks undermining the current relative stability. Making matters worse, an ugly bombing campaign emanating from SDF territories against Turkish-occupied areas that has killed civilians, has further entrenched Turkish and local Syrian views regarding the YPG-PKK connection. ISIS cells continue to carry out attacks in Deir ez-Zor and Hasakah — a serious reminder that the organization which first grabbed attention with gruesome beheadings and the enslavement of Yazidi women continues to seek opportunities for resurgence.
The Turkish-backed areas, for their part, are grappling with their own problems. The dominant local armed group in Idlib, which is home to 3 million people, is the Islamist faction Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Formerly an al-Qaeda affiliate, HTS in recent years has cut ties with international jihadism, pushed out its most extreme figures, turned its guns against ISIS and al-Qaeda cells, and adhered to the Turkish-Russian ceasefire. Yet it remains internationally-designated as a terrorist organization, and the autocratic behavior of its forces belies efforts by its leadership to depict the group as a reformed, responsible actor. Meanwhile, there is also little coordination between the powerbrokers who control other Turkish-protected enclaves, where predatory behavior by local armed factions remains a huge problem. Even if the situation inside these respective spheres is improved, a bigger challenge remains on how to convince the Turkish government to accept coordination between its Syrian proxies and the SDF.
These challenges are significant but not impossible to overcome. The Ukraine crisis has brought Washington and the Europeans closer to Ankara as they grapple with the biggest security threat facing Europe since World War II. To bridge differences in northern Syria, the United States, Turkey, and key allies should put in place a coordinated plan to expand security, governance, and economic support, while reducing tension — and ultimately enabling cooperation — between the U.S.- and Turkish-backed zones. During the early years of the Syrian revolution, local communities stepped up on their own and administered cities and towns, but lacked the means to protect themselves from Assad and Putin’s bombs and missiles. This predictably undermined their efforts and led to horrific destruction and displacement. Now, there is a rare opportunity to leverage the de facto ceasefire that exists in the north and help local communities build resiliency that will allow not only current inhabitants to survive, but perhaps provide enough incentives for some refugees to return.
For its part, the United States does not necessarily need to significantly ramp up its military or assistance commitments, though even marginal increases would further bolster its position and the communities that depend on its support. The more important role the United States should consider is that of a convener, a role similar to the one it played when it assembled over 70 countries to defeat ISIS. Now, there is a new and more affirmative mission to build and sustain communities by restoring critical infrastructure, rehabilitating the agricultural sector, and investing in health and education. This requires coordinated security, humanitarian, and capacity development support to help the region provide basic necessities and eventually job opportunities. This coalition can work with both the SDF- and Turkish-protected communities to strengthen their local governance structures and secure commitments to transparency, good governance, and respect for human rights. The Counter-ISIS Coalition convened regularly at the ministerial and working group levels along military, finance, humanitarian, and messaging lines of effort to ensure coordination and unity of effort. International organizations, including the United Nations, were included. A similar effort for northern Syria is needed.
The YPG-PKK connection and HTS present serious challenges. The United States will have to use its leverage over the YPG to ensure that attacks against Turkish-controlled areas stop. It is simply reckless to continue to turn a blind eye to attacks against a NATO ally by a U.S.-funded entity. On the governance front, efforts to diversify the SDF’s leadership and make it more inclusive should intensify. In exchange, the U.S. should continue to maintain its military presence in the northeast and support the inclusion of the SDF in future negotiations between the opposition and the regime. A genuine Syrian peace that ends the war will have to include the main political and security powerbrokers of the country.
For HTS, the presence of 10,000 Turkish troops in the province has placed real limits on the group’s behavior. It has largely halted attacks on the regime and its backers since the Turkish-Russian ceasefire and welcomed the deployment of Turkish forces in Idlib. There are also indications that its leadership is amenable to accommodation in the hope of attracting foreign support to Idlib and reducing the group’s international isolation. HTS has gone after ISIS and extremist groups such as Junud al-Sham and Jundallah as it seeks to consolidate control and perhaps, signal its seriousness to not be implicated in external terror plots. There is no need to take HTS at its word — together, the U.S. and Turkey can define stiff criteria conditioning any adjustments in how they treat HTS on concrete, sustained behavioral change by the organization. Should HTS prove irreconcilable, Turkey and the U.S. should increase existing investments in civil society and bypass HTS structures while isolating and weakening the group.
The second phase of this effort entails connecting the SDF and Turkish zones — a difficult undertaking but one that is worth supporting given the upside. The U.S. can support this now by facilitating Kurdish-Arab dialogue as well as YPG-Turkish understandings to secure a northern Syria governance and security agreement. The U.S. played a similar role in Iraq when it facilitated dialogue, and eventually cooperation, between Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Turkey had vehemently opposed the emergence of a semi-autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Iraq following the U.S. invasion and still conducts strikes against Iraqi PKK fighters. Mainly because of U.S. diplomacy, the two sides reached important security and economic agreements that stand to this day. Key to this effort is to leverage U.S. support to end YPG/PKK attacks against Turkish-controlled zones and to diversify the SDF’s political and military leadership. The U.S. can also leverage substantial international investments to SDF- and Turkish-controlled zones to help both sides get to a yes. With the Turkish economy faltering ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2023 and the SDF areas looking for sustaining income, the economic piece cannot be discounted. Even if the two respective zones do not formally connect anytime soon, lowering the tensions between them, while investing to make them more stable and secure, would go a long way in bolstering communities there and preventing their takeover by the Assad regime.
Should these two NATO allies figure things out in the north and begin to cooperate, it can improve the fortunes of Syrians in those areas in dramatic ways. Investments in infrastructure and services would have an immediate impact on health, education, and security. Some refugees who flooded neighboring countries could more credibly be convinced to return. Other priorities, including counterterrorism, would become more manageable. On the political front, the Assad regime and its allies would have a choice to make: remain isolated as the north develops, or consider genuine compromise that brings the country back together.
This proposal will challenge the most seasoned of diplomats and policymakers, but the alternative is playing out before us. Growing international apathy toward Syria mixed with guilt is driving some countries to throw in the towel and declare that it is time to patch things up with Damascus. Russia is all too eager to actualize these sentiments given its need to shore up its client’s devastated economy and standing within his own base. If Assad is rehabilitated, not only will his crimes be rewarded, but the fundamental grievances that fueled the uprising in the first place will remain. So will the raw ingredients that fueled the rise of ISIS and displaced millions. All while Russia maintains leverage and cements its foothold in the country.
Wa’el Alzayat is CEO of Emgage, a national Muslim American voter mobilization organization, and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. He previously served for a decade at the U.S. Department of State, including as senior advisor to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power.
Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images
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