Syria’s war: Who is fighting and why
Tensions around Syria: an assessment of the situation from Washington
Analysts in the United States believe that the differences between Turkey and Russia, which supports the Assad regime, will not escalate into a military conflict
The latest news from Syria creates a sense of confusion at the points of contact of various forces and growing tensions, the main difficulties as a result of which Turkey is experiencing.
The Turkish military in Syria has recently suffered losses from the actions of the Syrian troops, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed not only Damascus, but also Moscow for this: according to him, more than 1 million refugees went to the Turkish border “due to the attacks of the Syrian regime to which Russia turned a blind eye “.
At the same time, Erdogan does not want to seriously spoil relations with Vladimir Putin. On February 4, the two presidents spoke on the phone, after which the Kremlin said that “mutual concern was expressed about the aggravation of the situation in the Idlib de-escalation zone,” and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said: “Turkey will continue cooperation with Russia on the situation in Idlib, will look for ways solutions together with Moscow. Turkey’s goal in Idlib is not Russia, but a ceasefire. “.
However, this week Turkey effectively abandoned joint patrols with Russian forces in northern Syria..
In this situation, the United States is only watching closely what is happening: as James Jeffrey, Special Representative of the State Department for Syria, said at a recent briefing, Washington would like Russia to “change its policy” in the conflict zone and stop acting aggressively in the Idlib region, but in fact admitted that it was Russia is now determining the fate of Syria, whose authorities, without Moscow’s support on the battlefield, “would not have held out for weeks.”.
Special envoy Jeffrey also said that Washington’s demand is not to overthrow Assad, but to change the behavior of the Syrian authorities. According to him, in this regard, Russia could take “various political measures” aimed at resolving the Syrian conflict – for example, “implement UN Security Council Resolution 2254”, which envisaged a political solution to the Syrian crisis and the creation of a transitional governing body in the country, as well as facilitate the removal of from Iranian forces region.
Military analysts and experts on the Middle East, interviewed by the Russian service of the Voice of America, say that it will not come to a real conflict between Ankara and Moscow, but there will be no simple solution to the increasingly protracted crisis knot.
US no longer demands the departure of Bashar al-Assad
The fact that the demand for Assad’s departure was removed by Washington from the agenda is not at all surprised Michael Carpenter (Michael Carpenter), Director of the University of Pennsylvania Biden Center:
“What Jeffrey announced has been happening without an official announcement for some time, and if there was such a goal before – to achieve regime change in Syria, it has recently been very clear that it is not being achieved, and resources have not been spent on it. … The Obama administration did indeed arm the Syrian opposition, but even under it, a situation began to emerge when regime change became extremely difficult – in particular, after the start of Russia’s military intervention there in 2015, and given the role played by Iranian troops of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards there. ”And Hezbollah. With such an alignment, one could only dream about the removal of Assad, in practice it was already clear that this could not be achieved. So the goals of the United States there are now different – among other things, to prevent the “Islamic State” from regrouping and regaining its strength. “.
James Jeffrey’s statement looks realistic, says the director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute Richard Weitz (Richard Weitz): “The United States at different times in Syria had different tasks: to prevent the use of chemical weapons, to achieve the establishment of a government there that takes into account the interests of the population, to reduce the influence of Iran, to close access to oil resources for terrorists. But now the United States has de facto admitted that Assad will remain in power for some time, and there is little they can do about it. “.
Director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Seth Jones (Seth Jones) emphasizes that although the United States has not yet completely withdrawn from Syria, now the situation on the ground is really determined by Russia, which supports Assad: “I think by this the United States wants to clearly show that its interests in Syria are now very limited, especially after how the “Islamic State” lost control over the territories there. Yes, this means that Russia has most of the cards to play in Syria, but not all: the United States remains concerned about Iran’s actions in Syria and some concern that IS may recover, so our absolute withdrawal from Syria is not yet happened”.
All players have different goals
Richard Weitz describes the difference in goals among the countries involved in the Syrian crisis as follows: “For Turkey, they are quite simple – to prevent the influx of new refugees from Syria into its territory and to eliminate the threat from the Kurdish armed formations. For Russia, they are more complicated – here is the desire to show that in the case of Assad, it “does not abandon its own people”, and diplomatic goals in the entire region, and a demonstration of military power, there is a lot of everything. Iran has similar goals: to strengthen its network of influence in the region with the help of those it controls, to prevent the strengthening of US influence in the Middle East. And Trump is also quite simple: he wants to maintain relations with Turkey, minimize the US presence in the region “.
Yes, there is a difference, confirms Seth Jones: “We see how the difference of interests of Russia, which was the main military force in the restoration of Assad’s control over the country, and Turkey, is now manifesting in Syria. This is exactly what is happening in a region where the war continues, and the different governments involved in it have different goals. Russia also had disagreements with Iran over Syria, including over the movement of missiles and their components there, as well as over pro-Iranian armed groups. It didn’t always go public, but it’s all to be expected. “.
At the same time, the CSIS expert does not think that Moscow and Ankara will have a serious quarrel: “The main goal of the Turkish authorities is to protect their territory from the units of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and other Kurdish groups operating in Syria. Russia has completely different interests there: to protect the Assad regime, to provide access to Latakia and Tartus, and only to a small extent – to fight terrorism. So, the more forces Turkey will introduce into Syria, the more often Russia will hear from Assad how dissatisfied he is with Ankara’s actions. But all this will not lead to a military conflict between Russia and Turkey, as, for example, the fact that the Turks shot down a Russian military plane in 2015 did not lead to it ”.
Erdogan is experiencing difficulties – and creating them
“Erdogan has no good options in this situation,” says Michael Carpenter. “I spoke about this when he concluded this agreement with Russia on the creation of a security zone in northern Syria.”.
The director of the Biden Center recalls that Turkey never had the opportunity to really rely on Russia in the Syrian crisis: “Suffice it to recall how Russia and Assad acted in relation to other forces in Syria itself or around it: both with the United States and between Russia and Turkey. there were already several agreements on the creation of de-escalation zones, and these agreements allowed the opposition to move for a short time to a safe area, and Assad to strengthen his forces. And then Assad attacked each of these de-escalation zones, violating the agreement and always using the same argument: terrorists, extremists have gathered there, and they must be destroyed “.
“It’s not that this excuse is completely false: in the areas where the anti-Assad opposition is grouped, there really is an extremist stratum. But this all allowed Russia to help Assad gradually increase control over the entire territory, and now Idlib is the last haven of the opposition. Obviously, Russia and Assad are trying to clean it up, and for Erdogan, the consequences of this can only be negative, and he cannot do anything about it, ”says Michael Carpenter.
Richard Weitz, in turn, emphasizes that the Turkish president himself, as they say, is not a gift: “Erdogan is unpredictable, his actions are difficult to foresee. On the one hand, he is very dissatisfied with the offensive of the Syrian army and Russia’s unwillingness to contain it; he is also with Russia on different sides of the conflict in Libya. On the other hand, he is angry with the United States for a variety of reasons, and now relations between the American and Turkish military are now the worst in many decades. Erdogan simply turned the Turkish policy 180 degrees, which previously, with rare exceptions, was to maintain normal relations with everyone: on the contrary, he has a conflict with everyone. “.
According to an analyst at the Hudson Institute, Erdogan partly needs this conflict for internal use: “He can continue this war of his with everyone, he most likely needs it to strengthen the image of the ‘tough guy’, which is well received by his core electorate. We also remember that he is emotional, it is rather difficult to do business with him, he easily quarrels, but he also uses this to show that Turkey cannot be ignored in world politics, and so on. His party recently lost the local elections in Istanbul, and I think his harshness may be due to his desire to maintain his popularity. “.
Will Syria become Moscow’s second Afghanistan?
All experts give a negative answer to this question. Seth Jones talks about the serious difference between the Afghan campaign of the USSR and Putin’s actions in Syria: “In Afghanistan, the USSR had in some years more than 100 thousand soldiers, 15,000 of them died there, and Moscow’s strategy at that time was to suppress the mujahideen with the help of a powerful military presence. Russia has a completely opposite strategy in Syria: it uses aircraft there, but the Syrian army, Hezbollah, Shiite militias and military groups like the pro-government Tigers operate on the ground. Russia used special forces there and private military companies such as the Wagner Group, that is, its forces in Syria are few and not as vulnerable as they were in Afghanistan. “.
At the same time, the analyst draws attention to the fact that economic difficulties in Syria can cause increased instability: “It should be borne in mind that the Assad regime in Syria is unpopular, it is still a minority power, there are huge economic problems and social disunity. Rebuilding the country will be very slow, especially in areas where the authorities believe the population does not support them. And the task of maintaining the stability of the Assad regime and its protection from a variety of threats, which has arisen before Russia, seems to me quite difficult “.
Richard Weitz also points to the impact of the economy: “Russia speaks of its actions in Syria as a success, and here we can agree, given that it all cost it quite cheaply, comparing its Syrian campaign, for example, with the actions of the United States in Afghanistan. However, the economic question remains: Russia does not have the money to pay for the reconstruction of Syria, the United States will not pay for this either, if Moscow’s ally remains in power there. “.
However, Michael Carpenter believes that Moscow will not fall into a kind of “Afghan trap of the 80s” in Syria precisely because Russia does not care about the post-war reconstruction of this country at all:
“I don’t think Syria can become the second Afghanistan of the 1980s for Russia. Many thought so – for example, Obama said that Russia would get bogged down there, and this is because the logic of US actions in the world for some reason is attributed to Russia. And this is wrong. So I am sure that Russia has no intention of rebuilding the infrastructure in Syria, spending billions on it. She is not going to do this, she has other goals: to strengthen the Assad regime, to help him consolidate power, to secure her access to the bases in Khmeimim and Tartus, and to have her share in the oil profits of Syria. Syria has always been a stronghold for Russia in the Middle East, and Moscow wants it to stay that way. “.
Reporter for the Russian Service «Voices of America» in Moscow. Collaborates with «Voice of America» since 2012. For a long time he worked as a correspondent and presenter of programs in the Russian service of the BBC and «Radio Liberty». Specialization – international relations, politics and legislation, human rights.
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