Every day, the latest clash or attack or kidnapping in the Syrian civil war makes headlines. In many parts of the world, the difficulty is trying to find an event or action that is of strategic, economic or political importance. In the Middle East, and specifically in Syria, the challenge is different: Every day, many small things happen, and because of the nature of war and violent conflict, we have a sense that consequential things are happening all the time.
But this is not the case. Rarely does one day's battle or action determine the course of an entire war. The job of an analyst is to see past the things that are not important but that we are programmed to feel are important because they involve death and destruction. At the same time, we cannot lose our capacity for wonder — the ability to stop and identify one key point as unlocking a new possibility.
Monday was an active day in the Syrian civil war. The Jaish al-Fatah rebel group took full control of the northern Sahl al-Ghab plain in Hama province, setting the stage for the battle over Joureen and the middle Sahl al-Ghab plain. The group also continued attacks on the last remaining government forces in Idlib province concentrated in the Shiite towns near Binnish. Islamic State forces remained stalled around al-Qaryatayn, which they took on Aug. 6, but are still poised to threaten loyalist forces in Homs province. Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate and arguably the strongest of the Syrian rebel factions, declared it would retreat from northern Aleppo around the Islamic State-free buffer zone that Turkey and the United States intend to create.
Step back from this detailed view and more events come into focus. The morning of Aug. 9, six U.S. F-16s, two support aircraft and 300 U.S. personnel arrived at Incirlik air base. U.S. operations out of Incirlik against the Islamic State will begin soon. Meanwhile, Stratfor believes that the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front, a Marxist organization with deep roots in Turkey's radical leftist circles, was responsible for two attacks in Istanbul on Aug. 10. In the Sultanbeyli district, a car bomb struck a police station, and assailants attacked responders to the scene, killing at least one police officer. Outside the U.S. Consulate, armed assailants reportedly associated with the same Marxist organization attempted an attack but failed to inflict casualties or damage the consulate. In the Kurdish hinterlands of southeastern Turkey, Kurdistan Workers' Party militants conducted two separate attacks, killing four police officers and a soldier.
Take another step back and diplomatic activity comes into focus. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had strong words for U.S. activities in Syria on Russian television Aug. 9, lambasting Washington's insistence on disposing of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Lavrov will meet with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir on Aug. 11 to discuss Syria and follow up on last week's tripartite meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Doha. Meanwhile, Syrian state television reported Aug. 10 that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif would visit Damascus this week to discuss the conflict with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, who visited Zarif in Tehran last week. Iran claimed last week it would be submitting a peace plan for Syria to the United Nations soon, but as of yet nothing has been revealed about the mysterious Iranian proposal.
Most of these events are by themselves not determinative and are not worthy of being written about in our diary, which is supposed to catalogue the most important event in the world that day. The politicians can continue their diplomatic discussions all they want, but until the rebels and loyalists on the ground with the guns actually agree to negotiate, the regional discussions are little more than wasted breath. The militant attacks in Turkey and the movement of U.S. forces into Incirlik are notable events but not decisive. Rebels controlling the Sahl al-Ghab plain or the Islamic State holding the town of al-Qaryatayn will not be remembered even 10 years from now.
There is only one event in this cluster of activity that should give us pause: Jabhat al-Nusra's decision to withdraw from areas north of Aleppo. It demonstrates that the Turkish-U.S. partnership may have legs. One of the chief things Washington needs from Ankara is Turkey's ability to work with rebel groups so that the rebels the United States favors can succeed. Getting Jabhat al-Nusra to withdraw is the first demonstrable sign that the buffer zone will be created, though the group's official retreat from the area tells us nothing about which rebels will actually do the fighting. The creation of the buffer zone would introduce a new dynamic into the conflict, weakening the Syrian Kurdish position and freeing up Syrian rebel groups to focus their attacks on government forces rather than trying to constantly watch their flank and fight essentially a two-front war against al Assad's forces and the Islamic State. Though Jabhat al-Nusra's announcement of its tactical retreat was terse and critical of Turkey for pursuing its own interests, the group did what the United States and Turkey wanted. It is the first substantial good news for the embryonic agreement between Ankara and Washington to cooperate in Syria to achieve shared objectives.
Even so, Jabhat al-Nusra's strategic withdrawal comes with other challenges. Leaving areas north of Aleppo near the proposed buffer zone means the rebel group can concentrate its forces against Aleppo, or some other government target, and perhaps achieve enough gains to make its already strong standing among the myriad Syrian rebel groups even stronger. Jabhat al-Nusra may have retreated from the immediate vicinity of the buffer zone, but the United States still has no answer for dealing with the group overall and will have to face that difficult issue at some point, especially if the al Qaeda affiliate grows stronger.
War involves the full gamut of activity from tactical gains on the battlefield to ethereal diplomatic talk with little connection to the situation on the ground. In a slowly unfolding civil war like Syria's, in which the combatants' firepower is similar enough to sustain a protracted conflict, a holistic sense of developments is necessary to cut through the noise and find the one event that could fundamentally alter the landscape — and then approach that potentiality with a healthy dose of skepticism.