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Fractures in the alliances in post-ISIS Syria

• By Dave McAvoy •  May 22, 2018 

With the Islamic State having ceded control of the South Damascus suburbs of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad and Yarmouk to the Syrian Regime its once vast Caliphate[2] has been reduced to a few pockets of land in the outskirts of Hassaka, Hajin in Der Ez Zor, the Syrian desert and the Yarmouk Basin in the western outskirts of Daraa.[3]


ISIS’s Caliphate was rolled back by two competing coalitions - the US led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS[4] and the Russian led one made up of Syria, Iran and their proxies including Lebanon’s Hezbollah[5] and Iraq’s League of the Righteous[6] [7] among others. Like all coalitions, these are made up of various groups with competing aims working together towards a common goal, which is to defeat ISIS. Once that’s achieved the various actors in the coalitions will work to consolidate and further their own interests in Syria, even at the expense of others.

With ISIS as a territorial entity all but defeated in Syria tensions are starting to appear within both coalitions as it’s becoming more difficult to reconcile the conflicting aims of the groups which make them up.

Mihrac Ural

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, also in the room were Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu. (SANA News Agency, Syria Youtube: 17 May 2018)


Arab media has been reporting that tensions between the Iranians and the Russians are coming to the surface. Bashar Al-Assad made a surprise visit to Sochi in which he told Vladimir Putin he accepted the need to send a delegation to the UN to form a committee to re-draft the Syrian Constitution, something which he had previously opposed.[1] [2] [3]


In the press conference which followed the meeting Assad said, “essentially we’ve focused on [forming] a committee to discuss [amending] the constitution, arising from the Sochi conference.[4] It will begin its work participating with the United Nations. Myself and President Putin have agreed that Syria will send [the names of] its delegates for the committee to discuss the current constitution, and will do so at the earliest possible opportunity.”[5]


Vladimir Putin praised Assad on his army’s military victories over IS saying that this had created the right circumstances to lead the way to a comprehensive political settlement in Syria. He added that following the military victories over terrorist groups in Syria the activation of the political process would mean the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country.


Speaking in the press conference following the meeting Putin said, “The Syrian military successes has provided additional suitable circumstances to resume a comprehensive political process in Syria. We’ve achieved major progress within the Astana process and the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, and now we can take the next steps. The desired goal ahead of us is to rebuild Syria’s economy and to provide humanitarian aid to those in need. Following the Syrian Army’s notable successes in fighting terrorism, and with the activation of the political process, the foreign forces based in Syria will start to withdraw from the country.”[6]


Putin did not specify which foreign forces he was talking about, but according to Sky News Arabia, Putin’s Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentiev clarified the issue saying, “he was talking about all foreign military forces stationed in Syria, including American, Turkish, Hezbollah and Iranian [forces].”[7]


The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman responded by saying that only Iran would decide if and when to withdraw its forces adding, “nobody can force Iran to do that [withdraw] as we have our own independent policies [regarding Syria].”[8]


Later on Russian analyst Vitaly Naumkin rowed back on Putin’s statement explaining that, "A complex diplomatic process is underway and Russia is playing a very serious role in it, I think the project Russian President Vladimir Putin has spoken about that envisages the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syrian in the process of political settlement will take a long time."[9]


Saudi media, specifically Asharq Alawsat newspaper and Al Arabiya’s sister news channel Al Hadath has been focusing on the discrepancy between Russia and Iran’s goals in Syria. According to these reports the differences have emerged following Russia’s plan for a post-ISIS political settlement and how it plans to deal with the parts of country controlled by foreign military and paramilitary forces. These issues formed the basis of the recent discussions between Putin and Assad in Sochi. [10]


The reports state that the rift centres around Russia’s desire to reach an arrangement with the United States, Jordan and Israel in southern Syria. This arrangement involves the opening of the Nasib border crossing with Jordan, avoiding military clashes in the south, the withdrawal of heavy weaponry and Iranian backed militias (such as Lebanese Hezbollah) 25km from the Syria’s southern border, and for the Free Syrian Army to fight Al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates in the south of the country.[11]


Iran, on the other hand, has been pushing Damascus to let it move into and take territory in the South West of the country. It calculates that this would then enable it to form a military deterrence against Israel in case there’s a build up of clashes on the border area. Russia considers this to be a reckless step fraught with danger as Israel will take steps it considers necessary to prevent the Iranians gaining a foothold in Syria.[12] It’s worth noting that Russia has done nothing to prevent Israel from striking Iranian targets in Syria.[13]





CBS News reported that the Trump administration has withdrawn $200 million worth of assistance from North West Syria which was to be spent on, “countering violent extremism, supporting independent society and independent media, strengthening education, and advocating for community policing.”[14]


The report added that the US felt that the aid had little impact and did not represent value for money. It also quoted a State Department official which told CBS that, "$200 million of stabilization assistance for Syria is currently under review at the request of the President. Distinct from that amount, U.S. assistance for programs in northwest Syria are being freed up to provide potential increased support for priorities in northeast Syria, as will be determined by the outcome of the ongoing assistance review, including the D-ISIS campaign and stabilization efforts."[15]


CBS News presented this withdrawal as something which Turkey would welcome as it would be able to consolidate its legitimacy and power in the North West of Syria.


However Arabic news media reports concluded that this withdrawal could exacerbate tensions between the US and Turkey as the US aims to redeploy the money saved in North West Syria into strengthening its military support for the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in the North East[16] and East[17] of the country.[18] Turkey opposes any consolidation of Kurdish positions in Syria as regards the SDF’s main component - the YPG - as a terrorist organisation.[19]


Recently representatives of America’s armed forces met with the SDF’s Manbij Military Council[20] in the very town which Turkey seeks to control as part of its Olive Branch military campaign. According to Al Hayat newspaper, during this meeting the US officials explained that Donald Trump was determined to halt US financial assistance to the regions in North West Syria under the control of Islamist factions loyal to Turkey. The money would be transferred to Kurdish controlled areas recaptured from IS where it would be used to rebuild them.[21] According to Kurdish media the US Coalition’s General Jimmy Gerrard affirmed that the US forces would, “continue their work with the Manbij Military Council and that the Coalition adhered to keep its forces in Manbij, and maintain the security and stability in all of the regions and villages which have been liberated from Daesh”.[22] This commitment was made despite Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent threats to send his forces into Manbij.[23]




According to Russian analyst Vitaly Naumkin, Putin is working to find a political settlement for the Syrian crisis in order to stabilise the country politically and economically. Naumkin was clear that Russia cannot do this on its own stating, "On the other hand, it is Syria’s economic revival and we badly need partners as no country can be able to revive this severely hit country to ensure refugee return, create jobs and restore infrastructure. The parties should be ready to invest in Syria."[24] However the two major stumbling blocks preventing international investment are Assad remaining in power and the continued presence of Iranian backed militias in the country. It remains to be seen if Russia is willing, or even able to square this circle without weakening its own position in the country.


Trump on the other hand has made no secret of wanting to withdraw US troops from Syria[25] and his national security advisor John Bolton proposed replacing US forces stationed in the country with Arab peacekeeping troops.[26] In theory by focusing US resources on eradicating ISIS in its last remaining strongholds outside Hasakah and Der Ez Zor[27] while leaving Turkey to deal with the North West of the country, this would enable the US to leave Syria once it’s finally achieved this aim. However, in reality it would have to maintain a long-term presence in the region to prevent any Turkish incursions into Kurdish held territory and to deal with any emerging ISIS sleeper cells.































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