Published:  12:00 AM, 16 March 2017

Understanding the Syrian matrix


This week marks the sixth anniversary of the Syria war, which started on March 15 back in 2011. Complicating the conflict while prolonging it as well have been a handful of outside players and mercenaries that entered the Syrian battlefield, starting with Iran and Hezbollah in 2012, running through Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in 2014, followed by Russia in late 2015, and more recently, American ground troops that marched into Syria with their military Stryker vehicles across the increasingly porous Syrian-Iraq border in mid-March 2017, taking the conflict to an entirely new level.

They have tentatively been deployed in the strategic city of Manbij, 30km west of the Euphrates and come with a multifaceted agenda, to prepare for what seems to be a major US offensive on the city of Al Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of Daesh, and to make sure that Manbij remains both Daesh-free and Turkish-free, so as not to antagonise US-backed militias on the battlefield, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Established two years ago under Barack Obama, the SDF fighters are still on the American payroll despite a strongly-worded threat delivered last week by CIA officials based in southern Turkey to various rebel groups, freezing US aide and threatening to call it quits completely by the end of the month if they don't unite under one military command - a task that is practically impossible - given the extent of divisions in rebel ranks, between moderates on one side and others affiliated with Jabhat Fatah Al Sham, formerly known as Jabhat Al Nusra, the Al Qaida branch in Syria.

Complicating the conflict is a group of outside players and mercenaries with widely disparate interests that have joined the conflict, transforming it from a power struggle between the Syrian government and its opponents into an international affair with wide-ranging effectsThe Syrian stage is more of a giant chessboard contested by regional and international players drawing up a new Middle East, rather than simply a power struggle between the Syrian government and its opponents, as it was when it all started back in March 2011.

The US troops were conventional - 200 Marines and 75th Regiment Army Rangers, an elite force used in the past for hit-and-run special operations in Kabul, Baghdad and Mosul. For years, the Americans have been trying to distance Syrian rebels from Jabhat Fatah Al Sham, a difficult task because many view it as the most effective all-Syrian fighting force inflicting heavy damage on government forces, unlike Daesh, which is packed with foreign fighters and is on the international community's black list.

The only exception to this ultimatum was the SDF, whose forces rumbled into Manbij last August, purging it completely from Daesh, only to start delivering the city to government troops this March, thanks to a deal hammered out between the Kurdish command and the Russian military.

If this formula sees the light, Iran would get nothing more than "pockets" in Syria, namely the Damascus-Beirut Highway, which is a vital lifeline for Hezbollah, along with Shiite shrines in Damascus, and the entire Kalamoon district west of Damascus, which is adjacent to Lebanon and has been firmly held by Hezbollah for five years now. This is the limit of their share of the Syrian cake - they cannot bite off more territory, due to the lack of a Shiite majority willing to carry arms, and die for their cause, as the case in Lebanon and Iraq.

Not all of the territory east of the Euphrates will fall under control of the Kurds, especially not Al Raqqa, which lies on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, or oil-rich Deir ez Zour, another city that Trump will want to be liberated soon from Daesh. The Kurdish canton will be limited to fully Kurdish cities like Al Malkieh, Al Hassakeh, and Al Qamishly.

While Pentagon officers handle the details of forthcoming battles, outlining who gets what in the Syrian patchwork, the State Department has been remarkably silent over Syria, including Secretary Rex Tillerson, who even skipped the UN-mandated peace talks in Geneva last week - the first time it has happened since their launch in early 2014.

Tillerson has been mute on the Syrian president and his country's position over the political transition, and so has the entire Trump White House. In Moscow, Tehran and Damascus, this is being read as a visible US retreat and an outsourcing of the 'Syria File', at least in its political component, to Vladimir Putin.

In their recently authored constitution, the Russians suggested diluting some of his legislative powers, but said that the president will get to run for two terms as of the next election, which is supposed to take place in 2021. They have also agreed to give ten seats out of a 30-member cabinet seats to the Moscow-backed Syrian opposition, rather than the Saudi-funded High Negotiations Committee (HNC) and have been talking business, not with civilian politicians but with militias of the Syrian north who command a powerful base within Syria.

All sides will return to the negotiating table on March 23 to discuss proposed charter, and expect the process to last throughout what remains of the year. They expect it to see the light before the end of 2017.

The writer is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar

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