Syria Update August 2013: Part II

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chemical attack missile

One of the alleged chemical weapons used in Damascus on August 21, 2013. Image from brown-moses.blogspot.co.uk.

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The events in Syria in past weeks show that the civil war has transformed into a greater regional sectarian conflict. Because of the nuanced and complex nature of this conflict, a deeper look at many aspects is required for an adequate analysis. This analysis is the second of two parts. The first focused on al-Qaeda operations and Iranian influence in Syria; this second part focuses on the Balkanizing of the Syrian state, Kurdish autonomy, and the implications of potential US intervention in Syria after the large-scale use of chemical weapons.

With the civil war in Syria well into its second year, a picture is forming of a fragmented series of controlled zones: a Sunni rebel enclave, an area under regime control, and a Kurdish autonomous region. While the assessment of Sunni activities in the first part of this analysis focused on al-Qaeda, it should be noted that Sunni rebel groups are increasingly cooperating with each other. While media outlets highlight the secular or moderate nature of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), it is often overlooked that they frequently support, fight with, and even fight under the command of al-Qaeda and similar Salafist-jihadist rebel groups. Although there are many examples, the most recent high-profile rebel victory was the takeover of the Minnagh airbase near Aleppo in early August. Nine different rebel groups participated in that operation, including multiple FSA brigades, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), the Muhajireen Army who beheaded a catholic priest last month near Aleppo, and others. Although there are instances of rebel infighting, this seems to be the exception to the rule. Now that the Sunnis have been pushed out of Qusair and northern Latakia province,  they are steadily holding their territories in Aleppo and Idlib in the north, and Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour in the east.

Regime forces have made significant strides in establishing boundaries in the western and southern parts of the country, particularly since their strategic victory at Qusair in June. This victory gave the regime enough momentum to effectively take over Homs. Although many spectators suggest this is a meaningless victory as the “Syrian Arab Army is on the retreat in the North, Aleppo, Idlib and now some high points East of Latakia as well…. [it actually] points not to a rout or collapse, but to the consolidation of cantons that have been emerging out of the fragmentation of Syria for over a year.” The regime simply does not have the logistic capability to hold territory while simultaneously fighting across the whole of Syria. When the regime moved forces into Homs, Sunni rebels capitalized by conducting operations in Damascus. “The fact that the regime cannot conduct simultaneous operations on multiple fronts suggests that a military stalemate will persist, as the regime and rebel forces trade victories depending on resource allocation and reinforcements.” Though it would seem that the rebels could exploit the logistical weakness of the army, the regime has been able to establish permanent control in many areas of Damascus and Homs. By transforming Alawite popular committees into the National Defense Force, a civilian militia similar to Iran’s Basij, the regime is able to consolidate its gains while giving its troops frontline support. These developments suggest that government forces will be able to hold their current territory and slowly secure areas of conflict, such as in Damascus, thus establishing a solid Alawite state within Syria.

The third state developing in Syria is the Kurdish autonomous area in the northeast. Until recently, the Kurds were united with the Sunni opposition, including JN and ISIS units. However, when al-Qaeda broke the tenuous treaty with the PKK-aligned Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG), the Kurds expelled Sunni rebels from their territory and established complete autonomy in their part of Syria. It is important to understand that this is not an isolated issue, but one that has important regional implications. Kurds from Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey have begun an unprecedented move towards internal stability and unity. This is evidenced by the level of military cooperation in Syria:

Kurds from Iraq, Turkey, and Iran have united to support the Kurds in Syria in battle against Arab forces. Syrian Kurdish fighters are trained in Iraqi Kurdistan… and then sent back to protect their territory from pro-and anti-government fighters in Syria. Similarly, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), an Iranian Kurd militant group, has deployed 6,000 forces to Syria to support the PYD. The PKK is also fighting side-by-side Syrian Kurd forces.

The Turkish leadership has begun to embrace this move, including high level talks between the Syrian Kurdish leadership (PYD) and Turkish Intelligence officials at the end of July. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s support of the Syrian Kurds is vitally important for several reasons. First, Turkey will maintain its influence in Syria as it battles Assad through proxies; second, supporting PKK-aligned groups in Syria will help facilitate Turkey’s peace deal with the PKK, ending a decades old war; third, supporting Kurds in Syria will win Erdogan points with Kurds in Turkey. This is necessary as he needs their support for a new constitution. “In return for new found Kurdish rights, Prime Minister Erdogan is expected to demand that Kurdish politicians support a change in presidential powers.” This new presidential system would be less like the US presidency, but more like the authoritarian version in Russia’s government, giving Erdogan extensive control over the country. Finally, Erdogan will support Syrian Kurds because of the economic stability Turkey would enjoy. The Iraqi Kurds are “set to overtake Germany as Turkey’s largest trading partner, and more critically, the anticipated oil and gas pipelines will allow the landlocked Kurdistan Region to export its vast oil reserves via Turkey much more efficiently than the current ‘trucker trade.” Therefore the development of a Syrian Kurdish autonomous region will help shape future political realities in the Middle East. Turkey’s influence will grow and be able to compete with regional powers such as Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

syria map

A detailed map of the zones of control in Syria. Image from SNAP/ACAPS.

Finally, with the reality that chemical weapons have been used by the Syrian government, it appears inevitable that Western governments will engage in a limited military operation against the regime. Media outlets close to the White House are saying that the operation “would probably last no more than two days and involve sea-launched cruise missiles—or, possibly, long-range bombers—striking military targets not directly related to Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.” In essence, the operation would not land a crippling blow to the al-Assad government. It would likely constitute a setback for regime forces that would cause a stalemate in current conflict areas in the regime’s core areas. Thus, it would further solidify the Balkanizing process within Syria.

As the future of the Syrian state becomes clearer, several policy options should be considered. First, policy makers should not engage in any intervention beyond a limited strike scenario. Second, resources should be allocated to both Turkey and the nascent Kurdish autonomies in the region. This would strengthen US influence in the northern areas of the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

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