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6 Spheres of Foreign Influence in Syria: Geographic Gains and Political Concessions

Syria has become divided between conflicting forces into spheres of influence
6 Spheres of Foreign Influence in Syria: Geographic Gains and Political Concessions

The illusion of a knockout-blow is over. The goal of Syrian government forces decisively restoring control over the entire country is nothing but a phantom, and the idea that the regime and all its symbols and foundations are collapsing is nothing but an illusion. As of right now, the regime is not able to implement a political-military solution that can return it to governing the country and its subjects. Additionally, the current political solution includes the formation of a transitional governing body with complete executive authority over Syria. It appears this dream has no connection to the geography and demographics in Syria.

In the dictionary of bitter political realism, the belief that it is possible to return to 2011 or before 2011 or to the 1980s appears next to the illusion that the regime is finished. No “the revolution triumphed” and no “regime decisiveness.” Syria as we know it is the only one who was defeated. The Syrian people are oppressed and torn in two, inside the country and outside of it.

To one who knows Syrians, both pro-government and opposition, these facts are difficult to acknowledge. The truth is bitter and painful. So the regime talks about “sovereignty,” a booming tourism season, and “victory over terrorism and Takfiris,” and the opposition talks about “occupation” and the necessity of a “political transition.” But state-sponsors and allies of Syrian parties are the boldest in pursuing their interests.

The direct Russian intervention curbed regional and international ambitions in Syria. As long as President Barack Obama’s administration is unwilling to intervene against President Vladimir Putin, states will revert to the basics of their interests and away from the future goals until the arrival of a new American President.

Putin the Sponsor…and a Glass Room

This equation has imposed Russia and Putin as a compulsory entrance to discuss Syria. Additionally, the parties involved in Syria have become willing to accept spheres of influence which have been acquired [and accepted internationally] in exchange for political concessions, and so Syria has become divided between conflicting forces into spheres of influence. Currently, the Russians are an overarching umbrella, sponsoring conflicting interests on the ground in Syria, and the Americans are providing cover to the interests of their allies. In their rush to divide the region, the parties have danced in harmony such that is possible to talk about six regions that intersect and come into conflict.

First, the Region of the Regime and Its Allies

This region extends from Suweida and the city Deraa in the south to Damascus, passing through Homs, and ending in Tartous and the city of Lattakia. Iran, which guaranteed the regime’s survival and invested all of its military, security, economic, human, ideological, and sectarian energies in ensuring this happened, achieved most of its immediate geographic goals. It protected Hezbollah through direct control over the Damascus countryside adjacent to the Lebanese border, and it controls the Shia shrines in Damascus and its suburbs. Iran participated in projects to change the demographics of Damascus and as such, it secured a foothold on the Mediterranean Sea and military and ideological supply lines to Hezbollah

The only thing Iran was denied was a military logistics base, “Al-Muqaumat,” in the Golan Heights territory, linking the Syrian region to southern Lebanon. This “red line” was drawn by the Israelis, and Putin guaranteed it to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Iran examined this “line” to see whether it was like the “red line” which Obama drew and did not commit to against the use of chemical weapons in 2013. Iran and its allies confirmed that the Israeli “red line” was serious, and no doubt there is a hotline between Tel Aviv and the Russian base in Hemeimem Airport for urgent situations.

The main guardians for this region are Russia’s airplanes. Of course, there is distrust and doubt between Moscow and Tehran. Differences in priorities and strategic interests can be seen in the lack of direct coordination and the lack of a joint military operations room between Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. However, Iran is currently requesting that Russian air forces pressure the opposition and expand its military bases and airspace, and Russia has also benefited from Iranian militias because it is unwilling to operate on the ground. This marriage of convenience is waiting for divorce or separation.

In this region, there are two Russian military bases in Tartous and Lattakia and an IS-300 missile base with a permanent presence providing air support, intelligence, and ammunition. There is an Iranian base in the “glass room” near Damascus, managing Iranian operations. There is also an impenetrable fortress in Sayyeda Zaynab. The Iranians are supporting the non-state militias and troops, and the Russians are seeking to strengthen the Syrian army and the troops, which represent what is left of the state.

Second, the Kurdish regions and Daesh

Three American military airports are located in this region. Two are in the Hassakeh countryside and a third is in Ayn al-Arab (Kobani). Approximately 250 American advisors are spread out across the region. The American bombers are part of the international coalition against Daesh. This sphere of influence extends across northeastern Syria, spreading across the Kurdish regions east of the Euphrates River and including Afrin west of the Euphrates. American cover and military support in the war against Daesh raised the Kurdish ambitions similar to what happened in northern Iraq after the first Gulf War. The No-Fly Zone after the Gulf War reinforced the evolution of Kurdish ambitions into “Iraqi Kurdistan.”

The Kurds established the “Kurdish People’s Protection” forces from more than 50,000 troops with a plan to grow it to 100,000. They gave authority to local administrations, and in the past two years, they moved to a structured form. For the beneficiaries of American assistance, only one step remained, and it was linking al-Jazira and Ayn al-Arab with Afrin.

This was a “red line” for the Turks who believed that a Kurdish province in northern Syria would inspire Kurds in southeastern Turkey to follow in their footsteps. Ankara announced this “red line” many times, and more than once, the Turkish military drew up a plan for safe zone between northern Aleppo and the Turkish border with the former American envoy John Allen. However, Obama refused to implement it more than once. Additionally, the Americans postponed implementation, promising that the Kurds would return to east of the Euphrates River after gaining control over Manbij and expelling ISIS. Indeed, the Americans were planning on the Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces going on to control Raqqa and expel ISIS from its stronghold.

Erdogan now finds himself in Putin’s clasp after their separation over the downing of a Russian fighter jet this past November. He reconsidered the basic Turkish interests. Why not repeat the experiment from the 90s? Because at the time there was Syrian, Turkish, and Iranian coordination against the Kurds in Northern Iraq. Syria changed as did Iraq. Turkey is now coordinating with Russia and Iran on behalf of the two Arab countries, and here the third region is born.

Third, the Turks Region

Recall that 500 years ago, the Battle of Marj Dabiq, which inaugurated Ottoman “conquest” over the Arab world, was in a small town in the Aleppo countryside. Turkish troops supporting the Free Army entered the Jarablus border. Free Army troops trained in southern Turkey, which gave the Free Army direct military and intelligence support.

Russian-Turkish talks, in light of Putin and Erdogan’s reconciliation on August 9, included a discussion of general principles for Syria: A unified Syria, a political – not military – solution, a secular and non-sectarian state, and preservation of Syrian state institutions.

Therefore, preventing the establishment of a Kurdish entity is one of the common principles. However, the direct trade between Moscow and Ankara was preventing the Kurdish region in east Syria from connecting with its northern region in exchange for Turkey fighting ISIS and working too close the border. This will be Turkey’s sphere of influence in which the Free Army will spread from Jarablus to the Aleppo countryside, and they will move Arab refugees to the region to serve as a bulwark against the Kurdish dream. The temporary opposition government may also move to the region. Turkey may also turn a blind eye to the Russian goal of “neutralizing” Aleppo from the conflict, freezing it, and the regime’s gradual return to it.

The plan for the region to impose security, which was sent to Obama’s office many times and rejected, was accepted in the Kremlin, and it was voluntarily implemented as was the case with southern Syria. The question: If Putin achieves Erdogan’s dream of running a gas pipeline from Turkey and around the energy hub to Europe, to what extent will the Turkish President concede Syria and the Middle East to Putin?

Fourth, the Region of Jordan and Israel

It extends between the Daraa countryside, Quneitra, the Jordan border, and the line of disengagement in the occupied Golan, and spread out within it are approximately 35,000 fighters from the “Free Syrian Army” and hundreds of elements from “Daesh” and “Jabhat al-Nusra.” “Free Syrian Army” factions are governed by the Military Operations Room headed by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with preference given to Jordanian decisions in administration of military operations.

Amman succeeded in blocking attempts to Islamize the insurgents. With its allies, it also succeeded clearing Iranian militias from Bosra al-Sham and Moabr Nasib this past spring. More than once, Amman responded to the pressure to open military fronts. Amman wants to protect its direct interests. Jordanian officials have benefited from their friendship with Putin, and the two have an understanding: Stop “Free Army” offensive operations against regime territory in exchange for a halt to Russian and Syrian bombing of southern Syria. Through mutual consent, they have tried to establish a safe zone free from Daesh for accepting refugees. The Israelis also obtained what they wanted: A green light to bomb anything that crosses their red line, preventing the establishment of offensive military bases in the Golan, and preventing linking southern Syria with southern Lebanon

Syrian Grozny

Fifth, the region of Idleb, the Aleppo countryside, Hama, and part of the Lattakia countryside

This pocket is dominated by opposition factions that are predominantly Islamist in contrast to “Free Army” factions. Putin’s recipe for this region, whose fighters refuse to surrender, is to dismantle opposition infrastructure ranging from hospitals to local and coordinating councils to civil associations, and to send messages to their western sponsors. After Zabadani and Madaya, in Daraya, Moadamiah, the rest of Damascus’ outskirts, and the neighborhoods in al-Waer in Homs, there is the evacuation of civilians and soldiers to Idleb.

On the one hand, this plan is based on an approach of “starve or surrender,” increasing goodwill towards irregular forces in these regions which are a priority to the regime, and that explains the success of these groups on the Syrian chessboard. On the other hand, international and Arab public opinion is predisposed to accept the idea that the opposition regions are comprised of only extremists. Iron will be the final drug, and Putin’s dictionary includes the recipe of Grozny.

Sixth, the region of Daesh and the Kurds

The region extends from the Palmyra countryside and the middle of the country to Raqqa, Hasakeh, and Deir-ez-Zor. Those who know Obama’s thinking understand that he has one strategy which is to fight ISIS. He has said that Daesh is directly linked to America’s national security, and he is going to be held accountable for defeating the organization in Iraq and Syria. Because of this, they provided military support to troops fighting Daesh in Iraq and Syria, and they set a goal of evicting Daesh from Mosul in Western Iraq or from Raqqa in Eastern Syria before the end of Obama’s term. From time to time, Putin has threatened this “ambition of Obama’s” and put pressure on him in order to get concessions within Syria and the region. Obama wants additional reductions in the Syrian regime and its legitimacy. When he sent the New Syrian Army to the Tanf Crossing on the Iraqi border after providing air cover with American long-range missiles, he was met with a harsh Russian response. On June 12 and July 16 this year, Russian air forces attacked an American and British special forces camp escorting the New Syrian Army near Tanf. Russian air forces almost killed the Americans and British, which angered the Defense Ministers in both countries. However, Obama remained patient, and Secretary of State John Kerry stuck with the diplomatic option.

This is in Washington, Moscow, Ankara, Tehran, and Geneva. As for in Syria, there are six spheres of influence controlled by non-Syrian parties. For Syrians, regime or opposition, the clearest manifestation of this is that they were deprived of their last remaining national decision, that of the truce and relief effort in Aleppo, the second largest city in the country and its economic capital. The ceasefire between the regime and the opposition was not in their hands. The resolution against “Daesh” added fuel to the fire in foreign capitals. One thing they are resigned to are the speeches and big words about “The Syrian Arab Republic” and the eloquent expressions about things that no longer exist…and which will never be. They have been left with “warlords” and warmongers. As for the regional and international players, they are digging their heels in until a new American president arrives in order to test whether he will choose to live with a conflict that may be permanent or push for other options that have greater considerations than little Syria.

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