Catching up: Syria

After a much-needed break, I’m going to try to get back to some regular blogging. But in order to do that, I’ve got to make some sense of what’s been going on while I’ve been away–for my own sake far more than for yours. This is part of a series of pieces over the next several days in which I’ll try to do that.

The state of the Syrian civil war as of April 4 (Wikimedia | NordNordWest and Spesh531)
OK, so should we start with the good news or the bad news? The good news is pretty simple: that cessation of hostilities that lots of people (*ahem*) thought was a bit of a pig in a poke when it was first announced at the end of February has, remarkably, held. By “held” I don’t mean that hostilities have actually ceased, ha ha that’s just crazy talk. Obviously fighting has continued where it concerns ISIS (who were never covered under the cessation to begin with), with the big blow coming at the end of March when Bashar al-Assad’s forces recaptured Palmyra from Baghdadi’s boys. Just a couple of days ago, groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army captured the town of al-Rai, north of Aleppo and close to the Turkish border, from ISIS. That was nice while it lasted, I guess–a couple of days later, ISIS took al-Rai back. It’s also had some success in eastern Aleppo, overrunning a few government checkpoints, collecting a lot of Iranian-supplied weaponry for its trouble, and possibly cutting off Assad’s units inside the city, if ISIS can hold on to what it’s captured.

Also left out of the cessation, on purpose, was Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch. The cessation has forced Nusra to deal with some problems in their own backyard–namely, that people living under Nusra’s control don’t seem all that keen on remaining under Nusra’s control. The decline in hostilities has led to a return of the popular anti-Assad protests that first precipitated this war back in 2011. Which is all well and good–heartening, even, to see that the protesters whose demands for basic human rights and dignity from their repressive government precipitated this war haven’t given up on their original aims after five years of brutality on all sides. But protests have been taking place in cities and towns in Idlib, a province partly/largely under Nusra’s control. That’s a problem for Nusra, because these people are protesting for democracy, and Nusra, while certainly opposed to Assad, isn’t exactly looking to replace him with a democratically-elected alternative. So Nusra started trying to put down the protests by force, which didn’t stop the protesters but did cause them to shift from protesting against Assad to protesting directly against Nusra. They now seem to be trying to appease the protesters by releasing prisoners taken from the Free Syrian Army, but Nusra may very well have done some irreparable damage to the careful work they’ve been doing to set deep roots within the rebellion and within Syrian society.

Talking about Nusra allows us to segue into the bad news. They, along with some other rebel groups (who may actually be covered by the cessation agreement, but who’s counting? no, seriously, is anybody counting?), have been active around Aleppo, particularly on a hill called al-Eis just south of the city. Rebels took the hill early this month, but reports (primarily from Assad-backed media, so grain of salt) had the government retaking it just a couple of days later. During the fighting a Syrian Su-22 jet was brought down by the rebels, possibly using some sort of MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defense System, AKA a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile), which if true means that Nusra (so, not to beat a dead horse, but al-Qaeda) now has access to portable anti-aircraft weapons. The fighting around Aleppo is the biggest current threat to the cessation and whatever hope there is for a new round of peace talks to emerge from it, and it’s getting worse by the day. There have been reports this week that Assad’s forces have resumed dropping barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods in the city, and it appears that they’ve launched an offensive north of Aleppo in a bid to encircle and perhaps besiege it.

Taking a longer view of things, the really bad news is that there’s no clearer path to a political settlement to the war now than there was when the cessation began. First of all, to plagiarize Marco Rubio, let’s dispel with this fiction that there’s actually been a cessation of hostilities even if we leave Aleppo out of the discussion. When I say the cessation has “held,” I mean it’s held politically, in that neither the rebels nor Assad has cried foul and withdrawn from the agreement. But Assad is still pounding rebel positions all over the place, whether ISIS/Nusra are really there or not. For example, Assad’s warplanes reportedly struck the Damascus suburb of Deir al-Asafir on March 31, hitting a school and a hospital, among other targets, in an attack that was bad enough to generate a response from the US State Department (we were “appalled,” if you’re wondering). There’s no evidence that either ISIS or Nusra are hiding in the schools and hospitals of Deir al-Asafir. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that all this fighting is landing hard on people who have already been displaced by the war–thousands have tried to flee overrun camps in northern Syria for the Turkish border, where they may be facing a hostile reception from the Turks, and Nusra and ISIS appear to be directly battling one another for control of the Palestinian refugee camp at Yarmouk (with its remaining residents paying the price).

Which is not to call John Kerry a liar when he says that there’s been a “beneficial reduction” in the violence under the cessation. There has been a reduction, and it undoubtedly has been beneficial for a lot of Syrians. But the violence hasn’t “ceased” by any stretch, nor has the appalling humanitarian crisis facing those in cities and towns that have been besieged. Aid has started to reach those areas, and medical evacuations are supposedly being planned in the coming days, but people are still starving and their relief is still dependent on the goodwill of whichever belligerent party has besieged them. Even the mid-March announcement that Russia was withdrawing much of its forces from Syria, which seemed like an unambiguous good thing from the standpoint of fewer Syrians, you know, dying, may not be as advertised. What really seems to be happening is that Russian planes are being swapped out for Russian helicopter gunships, with little else about the Russian deployment actually changing. Which could be OK! It could mean that Russia expects to be doing less bombing bakeries in rebel-held cities and more close air support for Syrian forces battling…somebody. ISIS, maybe? But this isn’t really a draw down.

At the end of the day, the problem with reaching a settlement to the war is, was, and may forever be the fact that nobody can agree on what Syria’s government should look like after it’s all over. This is a somewhat long-winded way of saying that the problem is Bashar al-Assad. Whatever decrease in violence Syria has seen, and whatever progress Washington and Moscow are trying to get the parties to make on non-Assad issues at Geneva, his future stands between the status quo and a resolution to the war, and nobody’s really budging. There’s been some softening around Assad. The rebels now say that they’re open to sharing power in a transitional government with elements of Assad’s regime–but not with Assad himself. Assad has proposed a “national unity government” that would presumably incorporate elements of the rebel coalition, but would leave him in charge, at least until “the Syrian people” decide on a “new constitution.” If Assad is still running the country when that process happens, there’s virtually no reason to think he’d allow it to go in a direction that actually threatens his power. A collapse in the Geneva talks, which will come eventually unless the Assad question somehow gets resolved, looks like it will bring with it an expansion of US military aid to the Syrian rebels, including (more?) MANPADS units, and it’s a virtual certainty that any new military aid to the rebels will find its way into Nusra’s hands–so America will be arming al-Qaeda. Again.

Assad actually yanked everybody’s chains this week, holding a parliamentary election on Wednesday that nobody but him actually wanted to see. The election, as with all elections under the Assads, was a farce, only held in government-controlled areas and most likely rigged further beyond that. They also contradicted the cessation agreement’s outline for a political settlement (that they came a month after Assad rejected UN calls for a transition leading to open elections just added to the farce) and even alienated Russia. Speaking of which, what’s actually going on in the Assad-Russia relationship these days? Yes, Putin’s announced withdrawal hasn’t actually been much of a withdrawal, but the announcement itself was a political statement. Some of it was undoubtedly meant for international consumption, a statement that Russia had achieved its aims and was declaring victory, but it seems fair to say that there was also a message to Assad in there. Specifically, that all this Russian support isn’t indefinite and Assad can’t simply rely on Moscow to reconquer Syria for him. There are signs from Damascus that the message has been heard…and rejected. Assad believes that Russia simply has no choice but to back him to the hilt–it very much remains to be seen if Russia agrees with that assessment.

You can tell it’s been a while since I last wrote about Syria because we’re 1500 words in and I still haven’t mentioned the Kurds. In mid-March, the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) declared Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria. They did this for two reasons: one, because the PYD, despite controlling a significant amount of Syrian territory with no sign of being dislodged, has been shut out of the Geneva peace talks by Turkey. The Turkish government sees the PYD as an arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, with which Ankara is currently at war, hence the move to bar them from peace talks. Second, the Kurds see a federal Syria as the best way out of the war that preserves Kurdish interests. And while the Kurds have more or less–with some isolated exceptions–operated under an alliance of convenience (or maybe a mutual commitment to ignore each other) with Assad, this is the kind of thing that will sever that relationship right quick. The idea of a federal Syria is a sensitive subject. Done right, it could be a way to get out of the war, protect the interests of the country’s main ethnic and religious groups, and establish a stable Syria moving forward. Done badly, it will just push everybody further down the road to a complete dismemberment of the country. Certainly Assad is not interested in federalizing the country he still plans on ruling in full, somehow.

Also with respect to the Kurds, there are growing questions about the utility of US aid to the PYD, which we’ve talked about before around here. For one thing, there are legitimate concerns that the YPG (PYD’s armed wing), which forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (an alliance of rebel groups put together with US encouragement to fight ISIS), has no interest in pressing the fight against ISIS into Raqqa. Raqqa isn’t traditionally Kurdish, and the YPG has yet to take any action south of that core Kurdish zone along the Turkish border. Conditional US aid might be able to entice them to move on Raqqa, but it’s an open question at this point. Also, there’s the little problem that US-backed Kurdish forces are openly fighting US-backed Arab rebel forces along the Turkish border in the area separating Kurdish-controlled northwest Syria from Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria. Comments that America is “engaged in a proxy war with itself” as its Kurdish proxies fight its Arab proxies are overstated–it’s the Kurds in the northwest who are fighting those Arab rebels, and the US has only been directly aiding the Kurds in the northeast–but only a little. I mean, it’s not like the northeastern and northwestern Kurds aren’t on speaking terms or something. They’re the same PYD Kurds, all fighting for the same goal of a unified strip of Kurdish-controlled land along the entire northern part of Syria, and America can’t really support their goals in the northeast without also supporting their broader goal over the entire area.

So now we’re (I’m) up to date on Syria, I think. Thanks for indulging me.

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