The battle for the new Syria
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The battle for the new Syria

Although the conflict is winding down, regional players will ensure instability for the foreseeable future

A Syrian rebel fighter from the recently-formed "National Liberation Front" takes part in combat training at an unknown location in the northern countryside of the Idlib province on September 11, 2018, in anticipation for an upcoming offensive by government forces. (AFP Photo/Aaref Watad)
A Syrian rebel fighter from the recently-formed "National Liberation Front" takes part in combat training at an unknown location in the northern countryside of the Idlib province on September 11, 2018, in anticipation for an upcoming offensive by government forces. (AFP Photo/Aaref Watad)

As the fate of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria’s brutal seven-year war, goes through new twists and turns, public discourse on the future of the whole of Syria is already focusing on the possible short and long-term winners and losers and the political, social, economic, and strategic implications. Definitive answers are doomed to fail because of the direct and indirect involvement in the Syrian conflict of numerous regional and external state actors as well as domestic rebels and foreign fighters. Indeed, each party represents distinct and frequently conflicting interests and concerns for post-war developments.

If history is any guide to better understand Syria’s current dilemmas, we are reminded of geopolitical events recorded over a century ago. The French mandate over the Levant that was established formally in 1920 resulted from the initial political arrangement of the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 between Britain, France, and Russia in the midst of World War I. Furthermore, the 1920 San Remo Conference assigned to France the mandate over Syria, which the League of Nations endorsed in 1922. During the Second World War, French officials in Syria supported the pro-German Vichy government, leading Britain to invade Syria and Lebanon jointly with the Free French forces in 1941. By mid-1946, France withdrew its garrisons from Syria and the country became fully independent.

Israel is not idly sitting by. In the past year and a half, the Israeli military has carried out more than 200 airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria

Several key developments are significant in the history of modern Syria, including the defeat of the army in the Palestine War in 1948; the 1958 union between Egypt and Syria forming the United Arab Republic (UAR); the Six Day War of June 1967 and the occupation by Israel of Syria’s Golan Heights; the Soviets’ vast supplying of modern weapons to Syria in 1972; the Yom Kippur War of 1973; the takeover of Lebanon by Syrian troops in 1976 in an attempt to “restore peace”; the 1982 attack on the Sunni Islamic opposition in Hama which killed 20,000 civilians and destroyed the city; and, following the death of President Hafez al-Assad in 2000, the assumption of power by his son Bashar al-Assad in an uncontested election. It is against this historical background that the Syrian Civil War, which began in 2011 and is currently escalating into its final stage, must be assessed.

The Assad regime, Russia, and Turkey are caught up in the immediate situation in the Idlib region. Currently this amounts to an agreement by Turkey and Russia to create a demilitarized zone there by October 15, separating Syrian government troops from rebel forces, bringing to a halt preparation for a pending battle starting with a Russian bombardment of Idlib from the sea. One provision is that “radically-minded” rebels would withdraw from the buffer zone, which is to be patrolled by Russian and Turkish troops. The agreement coming into play would greatly lessen the threat from waves of Syrian refugees crossing the border into Turkey, which already shelters 3.5 million Syrians.

For Iran, Idlib is a convenient distraction. Away from this hectic scene, Iran is solidifying its position for the longer term by continuing to build factories with the purpose of producing weapons of mass destruction targeting Israel and other adversaries. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, while contributing support through its allies to the Syrian Army, is concentrating heavily under Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s leadership on establishing its influence throughout Syria. Furthermore Iran’s proxy Hezbollah, while contributing some fighters in support of Assad in Idlib, is concentrating its control over Lebanon and upgrading its rocket forces pointed at Israel.

Israel is not idly sitting by. In the past year and a half, the Israeli military has carried out more than 200 airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria to disrupt the growing Iranian presence. In September 2017, Israel reportedly bombed and heavily damaged the Scientific Studies and Research Center at Masyaf in the Hama region of west-central Syria that developed precision guided missiles and rockets for the Syrian army and for Hezbollah, as well as chemical weapons for the Assad regime. The latest attack, on September 17, was a strike by the Israeli Air Force on a Syrian military facility in Latakia that manufactured weapons to be transferred to Hezbollah.

The number of sites attacked is a clear indication of the range of Iran’s growing regional ambitions. Iran is reported to have supplied short and medium-range ballistic missiles – Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zulfiqar – to Shiite proxies in Iraq and the capacity to build more there. The Zulfiqar has a range of 750 kilometers, within striking distance of Tel Aviv. Recent satellite imagery from the Wadi Jahannam area in northwest Syria shows construction underway for a new surface-to-surface missile factory identical to factories at Parchin and Khojir in Iran.

The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions was driven by these concerns and has greatly strained relations with Iran. However, the move offers new opportunities for broad-based negotiations between the two countries for striking a deal. Areas of concern for the United States include: moving to stop the outbreak of a war in Idlib that would lead to many deaths, streams of refugees, and the use of chemical weapons; negotiating with Iran to ensure Syria not become a forward military base for Iran that could facilitate arms transfers to Hezbollah in Lebanon; and offering incentives to Iran to limit its nuclear program beyond the provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the JCPOA.

In sum, the only certainty about winners and losers in Syria is a complex guessing game. Tragically, the ancient Arabic proverb that “peace is the dream of the wise and war is the history of man” will prevail in the former “cradle of civilization” tomorrow and thereafter.

Yonah Alexander is a professor emeritus at the State University of New York and currently director of the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies {ICTS) at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Virginia. Milton Hoenig, a nuclear physicist, is a consultant to the ICTS.

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