The severity of fighting between Syrian regime forces, the Free Syrian Army and Islamist groups has receded thanks to the implementation of the cease-fire plan in three out of four “de-escalation” zones, as opposed to the continued fighting of most parties with the Islamic State group in the country’s east, giving a chance for members of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) — which includes Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front) — to relocate to Idleb to await their fate. This does not mean that the war is over. New wars or serious conflicts are expected to erupt in the country in the medium and long term, especially in the event that de-escalation zones are not followed by an urgent, comprehensive political solution, instead settling on division as a fait accompli. Here are some possibilities:
Washington believed that it has achieved a breakthrough with Moscow’s approval of an “absence of non-Syrian forces” in the areas of the “southern truce” in Daraa, Quneitra and Suweida, which means the withdrawal of the groups supported by Iran and Hezbollah of between 8 to 32 kilometers. The southern truce agreement includes the establishment of a monitoring center in Amman and the opposition keeping their heavy and light weapons, as well as defining the battle lines and beginning commercial trade with regime areas and forming a local opposition council, in addition to the possibility of refugees returning from Jordan or displaced people from near the border. But the possibility of war here comes from the Israel’s possible concerns with the results of the agreement, because it has restricted the movement of its warplanes in bombing Hezbollah targets or those of Iranian organizations near the Golan or the country’s south, and is convinced that Russia will not demand Iran’s groups to withdraw to a “sufficient distance”. This means that Israel will resort to resuming its airstrikes near Damascus and other areas between the Syrian capital and the occupied Golan, thereby threatening a confrontation with regional and international dimensions.
Rebel group fighting
In accordance with the de-escalation agreements, the FSA is demanded to fight ISIS and its ideology militarily and politically and to expel HTS after a grace period, which means the possibility of conflict breaking out between former allied factions who were previously pitted against regime forces. Fighting occurred previously in the Eastern Ghouta of Damascus before the Jaish al-Islam joined the cease-fire truce in Douma, and then Al-Rahman Legion in Jobar and the Eastern Ghouta. But HTS remains outside the agreement, which stipulates: “The first party [the FSA] shall commit to preventing the presence of members of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in the areas under its control in the de-escalation zone, and shall emphasize its position of rejecting ISIS and Nusra, and their extremist ideas in any of the areas under its control. In the event that members [of the Nusra Front] prepare to depart with or without their families to Idleb, they shall be provided guarantees for safe crossing from the second party to this agreement.”
Ambitions of the regime forces
Damascus’ plan for the “military solution” has not changed, and it is waiting for the appropriate chance to pounce on opposition areas in order to return them to the state, and considers the truce an opportunity for reconciliation with the regime. Damascus meanwhile rejects the presence of local opposition councils, contrary to Moscow’s position and the provisions of the truce agreements.
The Russian Defense Ministry has deployed about 2,000 Russian (Chechen) military police in the de-escalation zones. Some of them have been deployed in Quneitra, Daraa, the Damascus Ghouta and Homs countryside. They make up a barrier in front of Damascus’ ambitions, which lack human resources in the regime forces. However, with the passage of time and the increase of confidence in Damascus, these forces may challenge the lines of the cease-fire contact. This is especially the case given the difference between Russia and Damascus is not very different in terms of imposing state authority and maintaining the unity of Syria in accordance with the text of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254.
Militias and army
In regime-held areas in “useful Syria,” which extends to natural resources, gas and oil of the country’s east, the issue of rebuilding has become a battle because of the refusal of Western countries to support this without an acceptable political solution and the absence of financial capabilities of the regime’s allies in Russia and Iran to compensate for the price of destruction which exceeds $250 billion.
There are also signs of other battles between the “warlords” and new businessmen who have appeared in the war economy and who are competing for a share in the country’s future, where increased rates of crime and corruption have decreased administrative competence and the chain of authority. Other likely wars, however, are between the militias under Iran’s authority, which include Syrians and foreigners who owe allegiance to Tehran, and the regime forces, which include the army and forces which Russia is trying to maintain. Moscow is here proposing behind closed doors to form a joint military council from Arabs and Kurds reflecting regional and local internal balances.
Idleb between war and isolation
In Idleb there about 2 million civilians and more than 50,000 fighters from Islamist, extremist and moderate groups, including more than 10,000 HTS members. Washington believes there are 10,000 Al-Qaeda members, as it considers Nusra an affiliate. But Ankara is seeking compromises, including a plan published in the newspaper Yeni Safak which stipulated: “A civilian administration for Idleb, transforming the Free Syrian Army into civilian police, and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham dissolving itself.”
There are still ongoing communications to resolve Idleb’s future. There is a proposal to “isolate Idleb” and use surgical strikes against the Al-Qaeda commanders with special ground operations. However, Damascus is betting on Idleb turning into an “international problem” demanding an “international solution” — perhaps through a coalition and Russian-American coordination which would restore legitimacy to the regime, according to the thinking of officials in Idleb.
Turks and Kurds
Faced with the advance of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which include primarily the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northeastern Syria, Turkish worries are increasing for three reasons: First, the Kurds are advancing with American weapons and the air cover of the international coalition. Second, they consider the Syrian Kurds an extension of southern Turkey’s Kurds. Third, the presence of a Syrian-Kurdish entity and the increased presence of Iraq’s Kurdistan region will move political-geographical aspirations to Turkey, which has come under pressure from the Americans and Russians.
This has led to the beginnings of cooperation between Iran and Turkey against western Kurdistan (northern Syria) resembling the tripartite cooperation with which they were joined by Damascus at the end of the 1990s against the Kurds of northern Iraq. Despite Washington’s assurances that there have been no political promises to Syria’s Kurds, and that American and European weapons will be withdrawn from the YPG after eliminating ISIS, the Turkish army could find itself forced to expand fighting against the Kurds and enter northern Syria as happened a decade earlier in Iraq.
Damascus has turned a blind eye to Kurdish successes since mid-2012 because they were not a priority. However, with the passage of time, the increase of confidence and the receding of the FSA, a new front may open between Damascus and the Kurds, or Damascus may turn a blind eye to strikes by the Turkish army — as happened in Iraq years ago. Damascus did not do a great deal when the Turkish army backed Euphrates Shield groups to establish a pocket between Aleppo and the border.
The Euphrates Valley
The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political wing of the YPG, knows that Washington betrayed Iraq’s Kurds in the '70s and '90s and the Arab Sunnis in Syria in recent years. For that reason, they do not rule out America betraying Syria’s Kurds after the elimination of ISIS. Some Kurdish officials see an interest in prudence in the battles against ISIS to entrench military presence on the ground in the federation of northern Syria, while other Kurdish officials are preparing themselves for the “great battle” in the Euphrates Valley given that the group’s fighters are gathering after fleeing from exits in Raqqa, Deir-ez-Zor and western Iraq. It is true that the hotline between Moscow and Washington prevents contact in eastern Syria between regime forces and Hezbollah, backed by the Russian army, which are advancing toward Deir-ez-Zor on one side, and the Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by the international coalition led by America, which are advancing in Raqqa and its countryside on the other.
But confrontation is possible, especially given that Iran wants to test the extent of American military designs in eastern Syria, whether by extending north of the American Al-Tanf base toward Abu Kamal and Deir-ez-Zor to connect the “southern truce” area to the “Raqqa region,” or by encouraging groups in the Iraqi Popular Mobilization forces to enter eastern Syria, which makes room for a potential confrontation with the Syrian Democratic Forces or a break up of Arabs and Kurds after a period of temporary stability in the areas liberated from ISIS.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.