While the United States and Iran risk all-out war with their game of chicken in the Persian Gulf, their proxy war is still playing out in Syria. Iranian ally and Syrian President Bashar al Assad won the war two years ago, but his victory was incomplete. Al Assad secured his throne, but two large swaths of the country remain beyond his reach. The Turkish army and rebel militants control the northwest. The mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, supported by a small but unspecified number of U.S., British and French special forces, hold the area northeast of the Euphrates River near the Syria-Turkey-Iraq border triangle. Al Assad has said he will not give up the struggle until both areas revert to his dominion. The only other part of the country under foreign occupation is the Golan Heights, but al Assad is in no position to expel the Israelis.
Combat rages on the periphery of Idlib province in Syria's northwest, where hundreds of civilians have lost their lives and as many as 300,000 have fled to relative, if uncomfortable, safety since the Syrian army launched its latest offensive two months ago. Rebel leaders told Reuters that Russian special forces were fighting alongside Syrian troops, although Russia has yet to comment on the allegation. What is known is that Russian warplanes from the Hmeimim air base have bombed towns in the rebel-held areas. On the rebel side, dependence on Turkish army protection, logistics, communications, ammunition and other supplies balances Russian help to al Assad. The Turks expelled the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia, the People's Protection Units and Kurdish civilians from Afrin province near Idlib last year. That left a large zone abutting government-held areas around Aleppo, Hama and Latakia under Turkish occupation with local and foreign fighters to sustain pressure on al Assad's forces.
Nowhere Else to Go
An estimated 3 million people — about half of them displaced from other areas in Syria — dwell in the Turkish zone. Added to their number are 60,000 rebels, according to Charles Lister, who has tracked the Syrian opposition from early in the war for the Washington-based Middle East Institute. "About half of that number," Lister writes, "owe their allegiance to factions from the broad-spectrum opposition mainstream, and the other half belong to jihadi groups, some loyal to al Qaeda." Primary among the al Qaeda affiliates is the rebranded Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formed from the merger of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, and other militant groups in 2017. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham enforces Islamic State-like control in its areas, where Armenians, other Christians, Yazidis and Kurds endure murder, rape, torture and other crimes. Many Arab Sunni Muslims, however, have adapted to the Turkish-jihadi presence and do not welcome the return of al Assad's army.
For al Assad to dislodge the jihadists and other fighters from their last bastions in Syria, he cannot replicate his successful removal of them between 2016 and 2018 from Aleppo, Homs and the Damascus suburbs. In those encounters, the Syrian government besieged the militants and offered them what it called "reconciliation." That meant a choice of safe conduct to rebel-held areas, removal to displaced-persons camps or giving up their weapons and remaining at home. Tens of thousands chose to ride buses with their families, observed for their safety by the United Nations and Russian troops, to Idlib. With only Idlib and the surrounding areas left to them, there is nowhere else to go. Turkey, despite having enabled them to cross its frontiers into Syria in years past, does not want them back on its territory. One Syrian security source admitted to me, "They have no use out of the chessboard, and now they are squeezed in a corner." That leaves them little choice but to fight or die unless Turkey and Russia contrive an imaginative solution. While relations between the two formerly hostile powers have improved with the sale of Russia's S-400 air defense missiles to Turkey, they have not brought a resolution any closer in Syria.
The Kurds still rely on U.S. guarantees to maintain the autonomy they enjoy from Damascus and protection from a Turkish offensive.
In the northeast, al Assad has discussed a peaceful restoration of government sovereignty with the Kurds without achieving an agreement. He and the Kurds have consistently avoided attacking each other, undoubtedly in the belief that the Syrian army will return one day without a fight. The Kurds still rely on U.S. guarantees to maintain the autonomy they enjoy from Damascus and protection from a Turkish offensive to expel Kurds from the northeast as it cleared them from Afrin. The United States, despite its pique over NATO ally Turkey's purchase of Russian weaponry and its retaliatory cancellation of F-35 stealth jet sales to Turkey, is discussing a buffer zone between Turkey and the Kurds. At the same time, American observers fear that Turkish mobilization near Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn in Syria presages an assault against America's Kurdish allies that the United States must either ignore or oppose.
A Broken U.S. Policy
Four American officials with newly coined titles — James Jeffrey, Joel Rayburn, William Roebuck and David Schenker — are coordinating U.S. policy in Syria. But the policy has yet to gel. "The bottom line is Syria policy is broken, but the proliferation of diplomats taking charge only makes matters worse," former Pentagon adviser Michael Rubin, an American Enterprise Institute fellow and advocate of war with Iran, wrote in the Washington Examiner. Rubin maintains that the Syrian Kurds negotiating with the plethora of American diplomats have no idea who is in charge or what the plan is.
Hezbollah, which has been Iran's surrogate in the Syrian war, is redeploying some of its shock troops home to Lebanon. "We are present in every area (of Syria) that we used to be," said party chief Hassan Nasrallah on his Al-Manar TV channel. "We are still there, but we don't need to be there in large numbers as long as there is no practical need." The unstated element is that Hezbollah's experienced warriors may be needed in Lebanon to support Iran by threatening Israel with its store of surface-to-surface missiles in the event of a U.S.-Iran conflict.
So, the war in Syria grinds on, denying Syrian civilians peace and keeping the United States, Turkey, Russia and Iran with daggers poised at one another's throats. It is not unreasonable to ask whether those countries should end one war before starting a new one. Or perhaps avoid war altogether? If anyone thought the wars in Iraq from 2003 and Syria from 2011 were disastrous, just wait for the Iran debacle.