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14
Aug
2017

The Future Partition of Syria – An Overview


  • While the Russian intervention in late 2016 was deliberately publicized, the Americans chose to remain under the radar. It was not until mid-2017 that the American flag was shown openly on Syrian territory. The purpose was very clear: to dissuade Turkey from crossing east of the Euphrates to quell both the Islamic State and the burgeoning independent Kurdish state.
  • The Assad regime, backed by the Russians, Iran, and its Shiite satellites (Hizbullah, Afghani, Pakistani, and Iraqi), holds about 40 percent of Syria’s original territory, with the remainder held by Kurds, the Islamic State, and Syrian opposition groups.
  • Facing a possibility of a political settlement between Russia and the Western alliance led by the United States, the different parties involved in the civil war in Syria are trying to improve their positions on the ground to consolidate their positions so that they can be part of the political process that will determine the future of Syria.

Far away from the limelight of the media, Americans and Russians have met several times to decide about the future of Syria. While the Russians’ intervention in late 2016 was deliberately publicized, the Americans chose to remain under the radar. It was not until mid-2017 that the American flag was shown openly in Syria. The purpose was very clear: to dissuade Turkey from crossing east of the Euphrates in its quest to quell both the Islamic State forces and more interestingly, the burgeoning independent and American-sponsored Kurdish entity, which stretches from Hasakah in the Syrian northeast until Kobani (Ayn-el-Arab) northeast of Aleppo.

Angered by Washington’s attitude towards the Kurds, the Turks through their national news agency (Anadolu) published in July a detailed map of the American military presence and deployment in northeast Syria, drawing sharp criticism and accusations from Washington. American officials complained that the information published about the deployment of American air and ground units endangered their very presence, while official Turkey declared that it had no part in the information published by its official news agency (sic).

A bird’s eye view of the Syrian map shows a crystallization of the positions of the different actors in the Syrian civil war:

The Assad regime

  1. Backed by the Russians, Iran and its Shiite satellites (Hizbullah, Afghan, Pakistani, and Iraqis) Assad’s regime holds about 40 percent of Syria’s original territory. Syria’s main cities from Kuneitra in the Golan northwards until the Turkish border north of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast remain in the hands of the regime except for small opposition pockets east of the city of Homs and a sizeable jihadi presence east of Aleppo. This swath of land is limited to a narrow strip stretching from south to north whose width varies from almost 40 kilometers in the Golan area until 150-200 kilometers in the northern part of the country.
  2. The regime has not been able to expand eastwards, areas that are still under the control of the opposition/Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. However, with Russian assistance, the regime is trying to enforce “de-escalation zones” with the opposing rebel factions in the Idlib region (northern Syria) and in the eastern Ghouta area east of Damascus, as was done already in southwest Syria. Westward, toward the Lebanese border in the area between Zabadani and Jaroud-Arsal, the regime will most probably succeed in clearing the border from jihadi/al-Qaeda presence thus restoring the regime’s grip over Syria’s main populated areas. Finally, the regime has embarked on a mission to retake the Deir el-Zor area, thus consolidating its positions in the Syrian Desert facing Iraq.

The Kurds

  1. Kurdish forces are present in two enclaves: one that begins south of the Turkish border and north of Idlib. This area is, in fact, is separated from the main Kurdish areas by Turkish forces, which hold an area south of Turkey’s border with Syria, beginning in the area of Izzaz and ending in Jarablus (almost 90 kilometers long and about twenty kilometers deep in Syrian territory). The Euphrates is serving as a separation line between the Turkish forces and the Kurds.
  2. With the deployment of U.S. forces in 10 strategic locations in the Kurdish-held areas stretched over more than 400 kilometers bordering Turkey, the Kurds are concentrating on their main goal: dislodging the Islamic State from its so-called capital Raqqah and subsequently take control north of Deir-el-Zor, the last Islamic State outpost before the Iraqi border. The Kurds have at this point no intention to storm Deir-el-Zor, targeted by the Assad regime.

Salafist Organizations

The area situated west of Aleppo until the northern fringes of Hama in the south, and west and south of Idlib, is held today by Salafist organizations. The two main groups fighting over controlling the area are Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (formerly Jabhat el Nusra) and the Turkish-Saudi sponsored Harakat Ahrar el-Sham. At present, it seems that the former Al-Qaeda organization, Hay’at Tahrir el Sham, has the upper hand in the area after capturing Idlib and with control of the Ba-el-Hawa border crossing with Turkey.

The Islamic State (ISIS)

ISIS still controls areas in Syria east of Aleppo and southwards along the Euphrates (Raqqa and Deir el-Zor), but it seems that these areas are doomed to be lost to the Kurds. East of Homs, northeast of Damascus, and eastward to Palmyra are contested areas whose control is being fought between forces loyal to the Assad regime and the Islamic State. Ultimately, those areas will fall under the regime.

South of Kuneitra in the Golan and eastwards until the town of Dara’a, the area north of the Jordanian border is held by opposition forces enjoying the security umbrella provided by the United States, and Israel. The Assad regime, assisted by Iran, its foreign legion, and Hizbullah, has tried many times to reconquer the area lost to the rebels. At present, these forces are deployed east and north of Dara’a waiting for an opportunity to infiltrate the area.

Four Players Seeking to Divide the Pie

Looking at the present map of Syria and taking into account the fact that four major players are “calling the shots” in Syria (Russia, the United States, Iran, and Turkey), it is logical to conclude that the future partition of Syria will be the result of the interaction between those four. As a result, this may be the outcome in the foreseeable future:

  1. Kurdish areas stretching from Kobani down along the Euphrates until northwest of Deir el-Zor and the Turkish border in the north.
  2. An area that will be dominated by Turkey and Turkish-sponsored/controlled militias that will more or less become a buffer zone between the Kurdish and the regime areas in northern Syria.
  3. A remnant of the original Syria backed by Russia, Iran, and its satellites.
  4. The Dara’a -Suwayda area in the south of Syria, stretching from south of Kuneitra in the Golan and north of the Jordanian border, has the potential of becoming an autonomous Druze area.

Facing a growing probability of a political settlement between Russia and the Western alliance led by the United States, the different parties to the civil war in Syria are trying to improve their positions on the ground to consolidate their positions and allow them to be part of the political process that will determine the future of Syria. Six years after the beginning of the civil war, Syria has undergone a radical transformation which has had a clear impact on the artificial borders created by the colonial powers at the beginning of the twentieth century.

About Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.

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