Current trends in Syria and how they affect Israel's national interest

Publication Date12 January 2022
Publication titleIsrael National News (Israel)
Ten years on, what is the situation in Syria, and what is the direction of events? Are significant changes underway, and if so, are they likely to benefit or harm Israel's interests in Syria? What are Israel's goals in Syria, and are the current dimensions of activity sufficient to achieve them? This article will seek to address these issues

Frozen conflict and areas of control

Since 2019, no major combat operations have taken place on Syrian soil. The last significant engagement was the Turkish "Operation Peace Spring," which saw the Turks capturing an enclave from the Kurdish-controlled Autonomous Authority of North and East Syria (AANES) in October and November 2019. The area taken was east of the Euphrates, from Tal Tamr to Ain Issa.

While the global pandemic may partly explain this lull, the main reason lies elsewhere. With the conquest in June-July 2018 by regime forces of the southwestern Deraa and Quneitra provinces, the last rebel areas were returned to Damascus's control.

The Islamic State's area of control was an outgrowth of the predominantly Sunni Islamist rebellion. Its territory was reconquered in mid-2019. At this point, the civil war was, of course, still not over from the Assad regime's point of view. Just under 40% of the territory of Syria remained (and remains) outside of its rule. But the remaining non-regime areas were "guaranteed" their continued existence, underwritten by powers too strong for the Syrian regime to challenge.

The remaining parts of Idlib and Aleppo provinces that remain outside of government control in northwest Syria are guaranteed by Turkey. Together, they constitute around 10% of the country. The last remnants of the Sunni Arab Islamist insurgency against the government may be found in this area. These elements have become military and administrative contractors for the Turkish interest in Syria, directly organized by the Turkish Armed Forces in the 90-100,000 strong Syrian National Army (SNA) framework.

The geographical area underwritten by the Turkish presence is itself divided into two de facto authorities, namely the Syrian Interim Government, which is an amalgam of opposition forces under Turkish tutelage, and the Syrian Salvation Government, which is an entity created by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a Salafi jihadi insurgent organization with roots in al-Qaeda.

Turkey has approximately 15,000 troops in Syria. There are also Turkish positions surrounding the outer edges of this geographically contiguous region.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish-dominated AANES has its existence guaranteed by around 900 U.S. troops within the framework of the Global Coalition against Daesh (ISIS). Moreover, the United States has demonstrated its willingness to use force to resist attempts to enter this area without its consent. For example, in February 2018, it destroyed a Sunni tribal force led by Russian military contractors of the Wagner company, which tried to seize a gas field at Conoco, east of the Euphrates.

Similarly, the base at Tanf and the area surrounding it are defended by U.S. forces, though it has recently been targeted, notably, by Iran.

The long-term commitment of Turkey and the United States cannot be assumed, but it is probable that for as long as either country wishes to remain in these areas, the Syrian regime will not try to expel them by force.

As a result of this reality, the frontline areas separating the various enclaves have largely stabilized since March 2020, with some friction remaining along the lines of a frozen conflict. Within these areas of control, and in the area controlled by the regime, external powers are in many ways more potent than the local agent with which they work. The external powers of consequence in the regime areas are Russia and Iran. The survival and continued existence of the regime has been and remains dependent on their support.

The Arab attempt at rapprochement with Assad

While Syria is currently in a stalemate, this does not mean that the situation is entirely static. Official diplomacy has made little headway. The United Nations-sponsored Syrian Constitutional Committee, which includes both regime and opposition representatives, has unsurprisingly proven unable to agree on even the most basic joint texts.

The Russian-managed "Astana Process," bringing together Iran and Turkey under Russian auspices as an alternative track to the U.N.-sponsored talks, constitutes a vital communication channel but has not produced significant change.

The most significant political process underway concerning Syria is the attempt by several Arab states to secure the diplomatic rehabilitation of the Assad regime and the normalization of relations with Syria. This comes even as the government has yet to assert its authority over the entirety of its...

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