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Kamran Gasanov

Ph.D, Senior lecturer at People’s Friendship University of Russia

After the defeat of Daesh forces by the end of 2018 and the Russian-Turkish deal on a ceasefire in Idlib, it seemed that large-scale hostilities in Syria were already passed. The United States secured itself at the Euphrates, relying on its military bases in the lands controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Bashar al-Assad conquered 70% of Syrian territory, including East Ghouta, the province of Derya, Homs, Aleppo and Palmyra. Only Idlib and East Euphrates remained out of control of Damascus. On September 17, 2018, Russia and Turkey reached a ceasefire with Turkey. Ankara was obliged to cleanse the north-western province from terrorists of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

Until the problems of Idlib and the north of Syria are resolved, the attention of major players is focused on them. However, in the next couple of years, when these tactical tasks will be solved in favour of one side or another, the problem of the unity and presence of external Syrian players will become crucial in order to avoid difficulties in the future. That is why the process of finding answer to this strategic challenge needs to be launched now.


After the defeat of Daesh forces by the end of 2018 and the Russian-Turkish deal on a ceasefire in Idlib, it seemed that large-scale hostilities in Syria were already passed. The United States secured itself at the Euphrates, relying on its military bases in the lands controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Bashar al-Assad conquered 70% of Syrian territory, including East Ghouta, the province of Derya, Homs, Aleppo and Palmyra. Only Idlib and East Euphrates remained out of control of Damascus. On September 17, 2018, Russia and Turkey reached a ceasefire with Turkey. Ankara was obliged to cleanse the north-western province from terrorists of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

Assad was no less concerned with possible independent “Syrian Kurdistan” than with terrorists-controlled Idlib. But the presence of the Americans prevented a military resolution. The decision of Donald Trump to withdraw troops from northeastern Syria in October 2019 provoked the resumption of fighting. The Turkish leadership regarded the consent of Trump for the creation of “security zones” in this region as a “green light” for attacking Kurdish militants from the Self-Defense Forces (YPG), which are the backbone of the US-controlled Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Ankara began its third operation in Syria, called “Peace Spring”, and, together with the Syrian National Army (SNA), took control of a 120-km section along the border from Tel Abyad to Ras al-Ain. The subsequent advance could lead to conflict with the United States. Mike Pompeo threatened to launch military strikes on the Turkish army, and Donald Trump asked Recep Tayyip Erdogan not to be a “fool” and stop the “Peace Spring”. Otherwise, the US would impose hard economic sanctions on Turkey.

Vladimir Putin's intervention neutralized the escalation between the Pentagon and the Turkish Armed Forces (TSA). On October 22, 2019, another Russian-Turkish deal took place in Sochi. Putin and Erdogan agreed to stop the advance of the TSA, withdraw the YPG from the 30-km zone along the entire Syrian-Turkish border, patrol the 10-km-wide strip and transfer border protection to the Syrian border guards. A ceasefire in the northwest eased Washington's pressure on Ankara.

In general, the situation in Idlib and northeast Syria is frozen. The agreements between Russia and Turkey restrain the threat of escalation. However, in the long run, the deals may fail.

Recent attacks in Tel Abyad testify the difficulties of implementing the second Sochi memorandum. Although the Syrian border guards are taking control of the border, the YPG remains in Manbij, Tel Rifaat, al-Qamishli and other areas outside the operation “Peace Spring”. On the other hand, Ankara was still not able to solve the problem of HTS. Terrorists remain firmly in Idlib and provoke Damascus to consider a large-scale operation. The Russian Air Force periodically carries out air raids on terrorists.

An “equivalent exchange” would be a way out of the problematic situation. Turks do not prevent Assad's invasion in Idlib up to the M4 highway, and Russia allows Ankara to push YPG out of the border area outside “Peace Spring”, Jerablus — Tel Abyad (100 km) and Ras Al Ain — Сizre (220 km).

On the scale of the Syrian conflict, the neutralization of the HTS in the northwest and the withdrawal of YPG in the northeast are tactical tasks. Even if these two tasks would be resolved the strategic problem — the presence of foreign troops remains.

Despite the “betrayal” of the Kurds in the north, Trump is still keeping troops in East Euphrates. He ordered the troops to guard the oil fields near Deir Ez-Zor, where the oil plant of Conoco operates. Turkey, together with the armed opposition, controls the north of Idlib, Afrin, Al-Bab and the territories between Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain. Turks and Americans are not going to leave the Arab country, at least while Bashar al-Assad remains in power.

On the other hand, Russia and Iran are staying firmly behind Assad. They are not going to withdraw their armies, perhaps even after Damascus restores the unity of the country and the US and Turkish troops leave Syria.

At the same time, two great powers — Russia and the USA — and two regional powers — Turkey and Iran — are unlikely to start a local or global war to gain control over whole Syria. In this situation, there are two exits.

A) External players recognize each other's spheres of influence, and Syria repeats the fate of Germany after World War II with three occupation zones: the Syrian Arab Republic under the protection of Tehran and Moscow, the opposition’s North with the leading role of Ankara and the U.S.-Kurdish East Euphrates. In such a scenario, Syria will remain divided until one of the parties voluntarily cedes its sphere of influence. It took 45 years for Germany to unite. How much Syria will need is impossible to predict.

B) The second scenario is more constructive, but also allows a temporary division of Syria. Russia and the United States could hold a major international conference with the participation of representatives from Russia, the USA, Turkey, the Arab League and Iran. They must both commit themselves to guarantee the territorial integrity of Syria. However, the complete withdrawal of foreign troops and unification should occur after the political transformation. It should be based on UNSCR 2254, which implies the resignation of Bashar al-Assad and a nation-wide ceasefire. Russia, the USA, the Arab League, Iran and Turkey can create a single format to bring the representatives of Damascus, the united opposition and the Kurds to the negotiation table. The purpose of the format is to form a transitional government in which all three forces will be represented in accordance with the territory they occupy and the population they serve.

The second option is more but less costly for all parties. It is based on compromises for the common goal — the unity of Syria. The first option is risky. Even if Asad manages to defeat the opposition by force and cracks the SDF down, it will take tens of thousands of human victims. This escalation will automatically lead to a new refugee crisis, and Syria even united may turn into the DPRK recognized by only a few UN countries.

Until the problems of Idlib and the north of Syria are resolved, the attention of major players is focused on them. However, in the next couple of years, when these tactical tasks will be solved in favour of one side or another, the problem of the unity and presence of external Syrian players will become crucial in order to avoid difficulties in the future. That is why the process of finding answer to this strategic challenge needs to be launched now.


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