By Abraham R. Wagner
August 16, 2018
As expected, the Assad regime has been cleaning out the last of the rebel resistance after seven years of horrible death and refugee displacement in the Syrian civil war. The pocket in Southern Syria is now firmly back in Bashar Assad’s hands, as is the area in the Golan Heights of great concern to Israel. Recently rebels have been permitted to flee to the northern province of Idlib, which the last remaining area of resistance is, and a set of complex issues. While this tactic has saved many rebel lives that would have been lost in these areas, it may exacerbate the remaining issue in the north.
Until now it was widely assumed that even in “victory” Mr. Assad would never be able to reclaim all of the territory that was Syria before the civil war, and most experts believed that the strength of rebel and Kurdish forces in the north around Idlib would preclude this province from being retaken. Currently this assumption is open to question. With the conflict in other areas largely over, Syrian forces and heavy equipment, backed by Iran, Russia and the Hezbollah are moving north in what promises to be a major offensive against the remaining rebels and Kurds.
For its part the United States has been exceedingly careful about the nature and scale of its involvement in Syria. The 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria have largely focused on an anti-ISIS campaign, which has been successful, and does not run counter to either Syrian or Russian objectives. While the United States did not intend to aid Mr. Assad in the conflict, eliminating ISIS was clearly to his advantage, and has been a key area of U.S.-Russian cooperation throughout the conflict.
At the same time the United States has made efforts to provide clandestine and other support to various rebel groups opposing Mr. Assad. Some of these were mythical moderates who no longer matter — if they ever did. The Kurds are a different story and continue to matter, without question they have been the best trained, equipped and most effective of all forces opposing the Assad regime.
Kurdish forces are not seeking regime change in Syria, which nobody sees as realistic, but territory in the north — independent not only from Syria but Turkey as well. Herein comes a major rub. While the United States has strongly supported these Kurdish fighters, Turkey sees them as a terrorist group and ongoing threat to the Turkish government. Having survived one major coup attempt within the past two years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoan sees this as a huge issue. As a NATO member Turkey sees this U.S. support for a major opposition group with great concern at a time of rapidly deteriorating U.S.-Turkish relations.
This puts the United States between a rock and a hard place, without an obvious solution to a sticky policy problem. For several years it has been clear that this problem would ultimately come to a head, and it has been a can “kicked down the road” as the Syrian civil war dragged on and didn’t need to be faced. Unfortunately, the end of that road is rapidly approaching, and the issue needs some effective policy. The United States will be hard pressed to abandon the Kurds now, and at the same time a major break with Turkey would be a difficult policy choice.
A possible option might be found in a negotiated settlement involving the Assad regime and at least the Kurds. For much of the seven years of this war negotiations between the Assad regime and various rebel groups have taken place and, in a nutshell, have gotten absolutely nowhere. Now that Mr. Assad has basically won the war and the rebels largely destroyed, he doesn’t need to concede much of anything. Demands for regime change; new elections; a new constitution and other changes are no longer credible.
In light of this history and current reality serious attention needs to be given to what Mr. Assad might be willing to accept, and what the various parties could encourage him to do. For their part, the Kurds want an independent territory that is neither Syria nor Turkey. For his part Mr. Assad wants an actual end to the war, as well as aid in the reconstruction of Syria. Therein lies the heart of a deal that could be made. Demands for any major change in the Syrian government simply won’t fly and need to be left off the table.
This is a deal that can and should be made quickly, before a major loss of more life in Idlib. Possibly the best way to make this happen is for a cooperative U.S.-Russian approach. Neither the United States nor Russia has anything to lose in such an agreement. The Russians certainly have some ability to deal with Mr. Assad, and without them would never be in this position. Indeed, the most recent Russian statements have been about the costs of reconstruction, although they are certainly not in any position to cover much of it,
The United States has the ability to deal with not only the Kurds, but Turkey, Israel, Jordan and a host of other Arab nations that might help in Syrian reconstruction and resettlement. End of the day, it might cost Mr. Assad some land in the north, but it would help stabilize his regime and get much needed help in reconstruction started.
• Abraham Wagner is a senior fellow at the Centre for Advanced Studies on Terrorism.