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It has taken at least 400,000 dead and over 10 million internally and externally displaced Syrians, but we are finally coming to the end game of the Syrian Civil War.
Last week, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan blithely announced in a news conference that Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State, would be the final target of the Turkish invasion. Today, Pentagon sources leaked that the United States might send large combat forces into Syria. This comes on the heels of talks between Iran, Turkey, and Russia aimed at ending the conflict. At long last, a confluence of interest is emerging that is the beginning of the end of the Syrian civil war.
Why is the war ending? Because few have anything left to gain.
In the beginning, the Syrian civil war was a proxy battleground between the Gulf states and Iran, the United States and Russia, and the United States and Sunni supremacism. It was given heat and form through these outside interests: as Iranian guns and militiamen swarmed the country in 2012, so too did Qatari and Saudi military kit and training support. As Russia armed the Assad regime, the United States fumbled about trying to find a reliable ally on the ground.
In the cauldron of competing, murderous geopolitical interests, Sunni supremacist forces, always strongest when states are weakest, grabbed territory, grew stronger, and came to dominate much of the battlefield. The biggest and most ruthless of them, the Islamic State, invaded Iraq, hoping to knock down a weak government on the cheap and gain command of that country’s formidable oil supplies.
Through all the bodies, few gained much advantage, save the Islamic State. The Russians became exposed to a potentially long guerrilla war as they sought to be seen as a reliable ally. The Iranians became dependent on Russian air power to prop up Assad, while the trickle of Iranian dead back home risk a popular backlash to an increasingly unpopular regime.
The Gulf states, meanwhile, ran out of reliable allies, especially now that Aleppo has fallen. They cannot hope to control the Islamic State, and Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch that is the second most powerful rebel faction, is hardly any better. It was, after all, only ten years ago that al-Qaeda launched their own uprising in Saudi Arabia. Thus they have thrown in the towel; Saudi Arabia has a war to lose in Yemen, anyway.
In America, a change of management has meant a change in worldview. The United States under Donald Trump sees Sunni supremacism as a greater threat than a restored Russia, and so has quietly dropped the American demand that Assad must go. Assad himself may still leave, but his regime, and Russia’s stake in Syria, are safe from American pressure, at least so long as Trump rules.
Of all the great powers to stoke this war, only Turkey looks to be coming out better than it went in.
Turkey’s deep push into Syria means Ankara has developed ambitions to return to its old place as a great regional power. Under the secular Kemalists in the Cold War, Turkey saw the world as a dangerous place. Turkey could only survive in the embrace of the West and NATO. But Erdogan is free of Soviet communism and remembers that Turkey has hosted great empires before. His tanks now advancing on Raqqa are the coming of a new Turkey, one that will be far more assertive of its interests than anything since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Should Turkey’s capable army take Raqqa – and there is little reason to presume it won’t, especially if its NATO ally, the United States, sends combat bridges to help – it will place the Turkish flag in the heart of Syria. Turkey won’t annex its spoils of course, but it will use its leverage at the peace table to try to stop Kurdish ambitions for a free Kurdish Syria. It will also establish itself as the champion of Sunni Arabs, shunting aside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
This is the post-NATO, post-EU Turkey long dreaded by diplomats in the West. Turkey once feared the Soviet Union so much it subsumed its foreign policy into the West’s, but there is nothing to fear except instability and chaos on the border. If the West cannot reorder the Middle East, Turkey must try. Unlike the West, Turkey actually has an imperial track record that implies it will do much better than they.
And what of Syria?
Syria’s civil war would have been a lot shorter, and a lot less bloody, had outsiders not provided the fuel for the fire. That isn’t to say that outsiders started the civil war; Syrians began it over deep differences. The Assad regime concluded in its early days that it would murder its way through dissent, and so brought these differences out into the open with all their ugly hatreds. But the Assad regime did not invent a fractured Syria; they just smashed it with a hammer when parts of it asked for a better government.
The peace deal most recently reached in December between Turkey, Iran, and Russia hinged on stability rather than regime change. Assad may go into exile as part of a final deal, but his supporters and his government will remain intact. There won’t be a democracy: none of the great powers see any use in that. Instead, Syria is likely to look a lot like Lebanon in the 1990s, with varying fiefs propped up by outsiders. Even today, Lebanon’s state barely works; Hezbollah, a militia-cum-political party, is a civil war remnant with real teeth. Could Jabhat al-Nusra, or other prominent members of the Syrian rebellion, be to Syria what Hezbollah is to Lebanon?
Erdogan’s invasion is meant to clear the way for the return of millions of Syrian refugees, something that both Europe and the wider Middle East will cheer. The strain of refugees has put politics at risk everywhere from the United States to Germany; even the whisper of Syrians seeking refugee tents is enough to upend elections. Few politicians want to gamble with an open arms policy, as Germany’s Angela Merkel did; they’d much rather the refugees just go home. Ending the civil war as soon as possible neatly solves their problems.
This will surely bolster Erdogan as a Sunni champion: he will claim, with much substance, that he brought Sunnis home, while restoring Arab lands that were recently lost to Kurds.
And as for Syria’s Kurds, they will likely lose much. The United States has put a lot of effort into building the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Force, and the SDF has pushed quite close to Raqqa. But if Erdogan races for the caliphate’s capital, his professional and well-armed forces will surely beat them there. The SDF, for all their effort, will have to tuck tail and return to Kurdistan, leaving the field to Turkey’s whims. Erdogan has already shown a willingness to openly battle Kurdish troops in Syria; with a disinterested U.S. president, there’s little reason to believe he won’t do so again until he feels Syria’s Kurds aren’t a threat.
How long now?
The Islamic State is the only major obstacle to a peace deal. If the United States sends troops alongside Turkey’s, its days will be numbered in this year. Already American airpower paves the way for an eventual conquest, but American, Russian, Turkish, SDF, and Assadist power will be too great for the caliphate to resist for very long. It’s likely it will fall sometime before the end of the year and become an underground movement once more.
Either in the closing days of IS’s defeat, or just after them, the great powers will once again meet to decide Syria’s fate. Turkey’s army will surely stay, as Syria’s army once stayed in Lebanon in the 1990s to secure Damascus’s interests. So too will Russia’s. A handful of token Americans might remain in Syrian Kurdistan, but overall America will want to keep boots off the ground as much as possible once the fighting is done.
Syria will become a patchwork of Russian, Turkish, and American-backed enclaves. There will be one flag still and one seat at the UN. But to call Syria united will be a stretch.
This will not wholly bring peace to the Middle East, but it will go a long way. Much as the former Yugoslavia is riddled with frozen battle lines, so too will Syria. All that remains is to decide where.