The civil war in Syria is now just over a decade old. Unrest in the country began in March 2011, with demonstrations in Daraa Province in the southwest. These rapidly spread throughout Syria. After a minor attempt at cosmetic reforms in April and May, by summer the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad sought to crush the protests. This led to the formation of militias on the side of the protestors. By the end of 2011, the first rebel-controlled enclaves emerged, and the civil war was underway.
Ten years on, what is the situation in Syria, and what is the direction of events? Are significant changes underway, and if so, are they likely to benefit or harm Israel’s interests in Syria? What are Israel’s goals in Syria, and are the current dimensions of activity sufficient to achieve them? This article will seek to address these issues.
Frozen conflict and areas of control
Since 2019, no major combat operations have taken place on Syrian soil. The last significant engagement was the Turkish “Operation Peace Spring,” which saw the Turks capturing an enclave from the Kurdish-controlled Autonomous Authority of North and East Syria (AANES) in October and November 2019. The area taken was east of the Euphrates, from Tal Tamr to Ain Issa.
While the global pandemic may partly explain this lull, the main reason lies elsewhere. With the conquest in June-July 2018 by regime forces of the southwestern Deraa and Quneitra provinces, the last rebel areas were returned to Damascus’s control.
The Islamic State’s area of control was an outgrowth of the predominantly Sunni Islamist rebellion. Its territory was reconquered in mid-2019. At this point, the civil war was, of course, still not over from the Assad regime’s point of view. Just under 40% of the territory of Syria remained (and remains) outside of its rule. But the remaining non-regime areas were “guaranteed” their continued existence, underwritten by powers too strong for the Syrian regime to challenge.
The remaining parts of Idlib and Aleppo provinces that remain outside of government control in northwest Syria are guaranteed by Turkey. Together, they constitute around 10% of the country. The last remnants of the Sunni Arab Islamist insurgency against the government may be found in this area. These elements have become military and administrative contractors for the Turkish interest in Syria, directly organized by the Turkish Armed Forces in the 90-100,000 strong Syrian National Army (SNA) framework.
The geographical area underwritten by the Turkish presence is itself divided into two de facto authorities, namely the Syrian Interim Government, which is an amalgam of opposition forces under Turkish tutelage, and the Syrian Salvation Government, which is an entity created by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a Salafi jihadi insurgent organization with roots in al-Qaeda.
Turkey has approximately 15,000 troops in Syria. There are also Turkish positions surrounding the outer edges of this geographically contiguous region.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish-dominated AANES has its existence guaranteed by around 900 U.S. troops within the framework of the Global Coalition against Daesh (ISIS). Moreover, the United States has demonstrated its willingness to use force to resist attempts to enter this area without its consent. For example, in February 2018, it destroyed a Sunni tribal force led by Russian military contractors of the Wagner company, which tried to seize a gas field at Conoco, east of the Euphrates.
Similarly, the base at Tanf and the area surrounding it are defended by U.S. forces, though it has recently been targeted, notably, by Iran.
The long-term commitment of Turkey and the United States cannot be assumed, but it is probable that for as long as either country wishes to remain in these areas, the Syrian regime will not try to expel them by force.
As a result of this reality, the frontline areas separating the various enclaves have largely stabilized since March 2020, with some friction remaining along the lines of a frozen conflict. Within these areas of control, and in the area controlled by the regime, external powers are in many ways more potent than the local agent with which they work. The external powers of consequence in the regime areas are Russia and Iran. The survival and continued existence of the regime has been and remains dependent on their support.
The Arab attempt at rapprochement with Assad
While Syria is currently in a stalemate, this does not mean that the situation is entirely static. Official diplomacy has made little headway. The United Nations-sponsored Syrian Constitutional Committee, which includes both regime and opposition representatives, has unsurprisingly proven unable to agree on even the most basic joint texts.
The Russian-managed “Astana Process,” bringing together Iran and Turkey under Russian auspices as an alternative track to the U.N.-sponsored talks, constitutes a vital communication channel but has not produced significant change.
The most significant political process underway concerning Syria is the attempt by several Arab states to secure the diplomatic rehabilitation of the Assad regime and the normalization of relations with Syria. This comes even as the government has yet to assert its authority over the entirety of its territory. This process is being pioneered by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Jordan. Other key states supportive of this effort are Saudi Arabia and Egypt. These countries are noteworthy because they constitute the central axis of Arab diplomacy.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia initially supported the Syrian rebellion. Jordan, too, allowed Syrian rebel groups to organize on its soil, though it never closed the Syrian embassy in Amman. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government, on the other hand, has leaned toward the Syrian regime’s cause since he took office in 2013. By 2016 and 2017 it became clear that the war had turned decisively in the regime’s favor. As a result, the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018 and has since pioneered efforts to bring Syria back into regional diplomatic forums. In addition, Bahrain reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2019, and Kuwait followed suit in 2020.
Why the about-face of the Arab states? Firstly, the challenge of Sunni political Islam has been no less urgent than the issue of Iranian regional ambitions. From this point of view, the Assad regime may appear as a bulwark against a common enemy. This, indeed, has been the view of the Sisi government throughout.
Second, Arab efforts at rapprochement with Assad appear to constitute a response to the perceived drawdown of the United States in the region. The hasty American withdrawal from Afghanistan has led to the widespread perception that no U.S.-led regional security architecture can stand against Iranian ambitions, Turkish disruption and Sunni Islamism. This conclusion leads key Arab states to seek alternative strategies. According to this view, Arab states must use leverage to limit these challenges. This is the reasoning behind the notion that Assad’s regime should be drawn back into the Arab diplomatic fold and offered economic incentives to counterbalance Iranian influence.
Assad remains subject to the U.S. 2020 Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act that imposed sanctions on the regime. European countries are unwilling to engage with him or aid reconstruction in Syria until a political process begins, per U.N. Resolution 2254. This leaves a window open for Arab-led diplomacy. In return for moves regarding Iran or other issues of importance, Assad could be rewarded with economic projects, diplomatic re-engagement and financial aid.
The expectation here is not that Iran would withdraw entirely from Syria. Indeed, given that the UAE and Saudi Arabia are currently engaged in talks with Iran itself, the move toward the Iran-dependent Assad might more coherently be seen as part of the general effort at rapprochement with Teheran rather than any genuine effort at balancing. Still, defenders of this effort hope that the Iranian link and presence can be lessened by offering the regime benefits that the Iranians cannot provide. These include financial aid for reconstruction, economic projects and a return to regional and perhaps eventually global legitimacy. On this basis, the UAE and its allies have been active in recent months.
In October, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan spoke with the Syrian president by phone. Later, in the most high-profile step to date, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited Syria on Nov. 9 and met with Assad. The two discussed the “UAE’s support for all efforts made to end the Syrian crisis, consolidate stability in the country, and meet the aspirations of the brotherly Syrian people,” according to a report by UAE’s state news agency WAM.
However, this visit does not necessarily indicate that the UAE is drawing close to Assad. Instead, it forms part of a more general effort by the UAE to open communication channels with states with which it has had problematic relations in the recent past. For example, the crown prince visited Turkey in November, after which he pledged to invest $10 billion in the country. The outreach to Damascus and Ankara constitutes an element in Abu Dhabi’s efforts to reshape regional diplomacy along bilateral and commercial lines, in place of ideological rivalries and other considerations.
This strategy is already yielding practical results; It is expected that at the next meeting of the Arab League, set to take place in Algiers in March 2022, Syria will return to become a full member of the organization. Meanwhile, in late October, an agreement was reached to transfer Egyptian natural gas via a pipeline routed through Jordan and Syria to Lebanon to boost its electricity output. The agreement disregards U.S. sanctions and international efforts to isolate the Assad regime, yet the United States appears to have tacitly accepted it. Walid Fayad, Lebanon’s energy minister, was quoted by Reuters on October 27 as saying, “The Americans have given the green light to the project.”
This American acceptance of the move despite its contravention of sanctions indicates the extent to which U.S. policy on Syria remains unclear and in flux. A review of U.S. Syria policy was announced following the inauguration of the Biden administration, but no clear stance has yet emerged. At present, the lines of U.S. involvement appear to be stable. The U.S. maintains 900 troops in the country, underwriting the AANES area and maintaining the Tanf base and the area surrounding it. At the same time, Biden has introduced only one round of new sanctions. In addition, new rules have been introduced, loosening restrictions on NGOs operating in Syria and maintaining contact with the authorities as part of humanitarian activity.
Meanwhile, the AANES leadership recently visited Moscow for high-level meetings. The Russians favor negotiations for the re-integration of the AANES area under Damascus’s control. The AANES leadership would not have undertaken this visit without American approval. So, this indicates that while making clear that it has no immediate plans to quit its presence in Syria, the U.S. also appears to have no long-term diplomatic strategy.
The Israeli interest
Israel avoided taking sides, while formally calling for Assad’s resignation early in the Syrian civil war. Instead, Jerusalem’s overriding concern has been the ongoing attempt by Iran to establish and advance its military infrastructure in Syria, and its efforts to use the country to transport equipment to Hezbollah as part of its Precision Guided Missile Project. To combat this, Israel has, for the last eight years, been involved in a campaign to combat and degrade this effort. This effort is often referred to as the “campaign between wars.” Israeli strategists have expressed satisfaction at the successes achieved and consider the Iranian project far less advanced in Syria than it could have been.
At the same time, legitimate questions remain regarding the strategic direction of this campaign.
The Iranian project in Syria is broad and reaches deep into the formal structures of the Syrian state. The Iranians have created structures such as the National Defense Forces, organized along the lines of the Basij militia, which today form part of the formal Syrian security forces. They have established Hezbollah-style militias on Syrian soil, such as the Quwat al-Ridha and the 313 Brigade. These recruit from among Syrian citizens, including Sunnis, but are mustered and trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hezbollah.
Iran also works closely with certain elements of the Syrian Security Forces, such as the powerful Air Force Intelligence and the 4th Armored Division. In addition, evidence has emerged of Iranian efforts to buy property and land in southwest Syria, in a manner analogous to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
The IRGC and its Lebanese Hezbollah client work within the structures of the Syrian Arab Army. In particular, the 90th Brigade, which is deployed in Quneitra Province, is known to cooperate closely with Iran. The Brigade’s commander, Brig.-Gen. Hussein Hamoush, was singled out as a collaborator with Iran in leaflets dropped by the IDF’s 210th Bashan Division on Oct. 21. The commander of the 90th Brigade’s reconnaissance company, Bashar Hussein, was also named in the leaflets.
Lastly, and with more limited success, Iran promotes and spreads its Shi’ite Islamist ideology among Syrians, notably in strategically important Sunni tribal areas in Syria’s impoverished south.
Given the depth and breadth of this Iranian project and the extent to which it is embedded into elements of the Syrian state, it is deeply questionable whether it is susceptible to being destroyed or dislodged by an aerial bombing campaign. This is particularly the case given the limitations of the Israeli bombing campaign. In addition to avoiding strikes on Lebanon, out of a desire to avoid escalation with Hezbollah, the campaign seeks to prevent hitting targets associated with the Syrian government.
As seen in both Lebanon and Iraq (though not in Yemen), in Syria Iran seeks to create and control a deep-state-type structure that exists partly within the official state and partly outside it. Therefore, any attempt to undermine such a project which does not take this aspect into account is liable to succeed tactically, but not strategically.
Following the meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Oct. 22, it appears that Israel has received approval from Moscow for the continuation of its aerial campaign. Russia shares Israel’s interest in limiting Iran’s influence in Syria. However, this shared interest is unlikely to extend to active Russian efforts to expel the Iranians. Russia is committed to the survival of the Assad regime. The Iranians played a crucial role in this, but Russia has no interest in assisting the Iranian project and appears willing to turn a blind eye to Israeli actions against Iran on Syrian soil.
However, the Emirati, Jordanian and Arab efforts at rehabilitation for Assad appear to counter the continuation of the campaign. Suppose the Arab efforts succeed in the complete rehabilitation of the Syrian regime and the ending of Assad’s isolation. This might eventually lead to international and western pressure on Israel to desist from its current military campaign.
In this regard, the current U.S. stance is significant. The United States is acquiescent regarding Israel’s actions in Syria, and it is in Jerusalem’s interest to preserve this stance. The emergent regional context of protracted and unsuccessful talks over Iran’s nuclear program is an optimal environment for achieving this.
As noted above, there is a lack of clarity regarding the direction of U.S. policy in Syria. As a result, the basic contours of the U.S. position remain unchanged from the Trump and Obama eras.
First, U.S. policy aims to maintain a small military presence in the northeast and at the Tanf base in the south to influence any future political arrangement in Syria.
Second, U.S. policy seeks to maintain sanctions on the Assad regime.
And last, U.S. policy seeks to maintain humanitarian assistance to the country.
Beyond this, the United States appears to have no end game or desired outcome in Syria. This stance is itself an element of changing U.S. foreign policy. The Middle East is of declining importance to America, and outcomes in Syria and elsewhere in the region are no longer of primary interest to Washington.
Nevertheless, the United States appears to have no immediate intention of quitting Syria. The response to the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan may act as a disincentive to further withdrawals. It is notable that Brett McGurk, the architect of U.S. policy regarding northeast Syria and support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, is still serving as the Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council.
Yet, without any clear goal in mind, Washington also appears ready to allow other countries to lead in diplomacy. Jordanian and Emirati efforts are proceeding apace. Russia, too, is promoting its initiatives. These include brokering negotiations between the Assad regime and the U.S.-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The stances of the United States and Russia remain sharply divergent on core issues such as the future of autonomous arrangements for the Kurdish area and the future role of the SDF. Namely, the question is if they would continue to exist as an element of the Syrian army in a postwar Syria or whether they would dissolve and become absorbed into the existing military frameworks. But the dialogue, brokered by Russia, appears set to continue. Thus, the strong alliance between the United States and the Kurdish area seems to have no actual diplomatic horizon. Nevertheless, the United States is ready for its partner to engage in a prudent process brokered by Russia, should it perceive this in its interest.
Prospects and recommendations
The current situation in Syria does not threaten Israel. However, the trend lines are far from ideal, for several reasons:
Israel’s closest regional partners, the moderate Arab states, do not at present share the Israeli view of the urgent necessity of degrading and turning back the Iranian project in Syria. Indeed, they are pursuing a path of diplomacy that, if successful, is likely to produce a situation in which, as previously seen in Lebanon and Iraq, an Iran-controlled deep state exists alongside a nominal government. Like the Lebanon War of 2006, such a diplomatic backdrop is the least optimal from Israel’s point of view for the continued conduct of undeclared operations in Syria or larger-scale operations in the context of a deterioration in the situation between Israel and Iran.
The United States deployment in northeast Syria and at Tanf is to Israel’s benefit in that it prevents Iranian consolidation in Syria. In addition, Tanf and its surroundings block contiguous Iranian control of the road from the Albukamal border crossing with Iraq to Quneitra and Lebanon.
Meanwhile, the AANES area acts as a partial buffer zone against Iranian and allied militia encroachment from Iraq. It is thus in Israel’s interest that this presence is sustained.
Given the general direction of U.S. regional policy and the absence of clear U.S. goals in Syria, it remains unknown how long these deployments will continue. Israel will seek allies in Washington to preserve America’s presence. These include not only the AANES’s small representation in Washington but also northern Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, which for its reasons favors the preservation of current arrangements in north Syria.
The effectiveness of the Israeli strategy in Syria remains open to question. Undoubtedly, facilities and weapons systems have been identified and destroyed. For example, the Iranian effort to transfer components to Hezbollah as part of the Precision Guided Missile Project has been disrupted. But evidence suggests that an extensive Iranian-controlled infrastructure meant for future conflict against Israel has been established in southern Syria.
Israeli diplomatic strategy should be centered on shoring up the U.S. position on Syria and preventing change. Given the broader strategic trend lines, it may not be possible to assist the emergence of a coherent U.S. strategy. But given the low cost and success of the U.S. intervention in Syria, arguing for maintaining the status quo should be achievable.
The differences over Syria should not interfere with the budding relations between some Arabs states and Israel. The stance of these Arab states may derive from a feeling of abandonment by the West, resulting in a sense of desperation to adapt to Iranian preferences. However, Iranian actions are such that this is unlikely to produce the desired results.
The contours of Israel’s “campaign between wars” should be carefully considered. Israel operates within diplomatic realities. The Russian presence in Syria and Moscow’s underwriting of the Assad regime, along with America’s lack of commitment, may preclude a comprehensive broadening of the scope of Israeli military activity. At the same time, the present parameters raise the risk that Israel will fail to address a central element of the Iranian project—namely, the transformation of southwest Syria into another front against Israel, one which increasingly resembles south Lebanon.
There is also some evidence that the efforts to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon have not been successful. Effective action against this emergent Iranian infrastructure can only be carried out if Syrian regime positions are also targeted in this area. Israel’s target bank should therefore be expanded to include relevant positions of this kind. The effort by the Iranians to use the Syrian military as a cloak should not be accepted.
A major question remains: Is Syria’s status quo sustainable?
In this regard, much is likely to depend on the direction of U.S.-Iran relations. If the United States reaches an agreement with Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, Washington may seek to extend further its process of withdrawal from the region, including from Syria. The most likely scenario is that no resolution is reached in the ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna. In any case, the likelihood of the Assad regime disengaging from Iran is extremely low.
The ending of isolation of the Assad regime would benefit Iran and damage Israel’s ability to continue military operations against targets in the country.
Despite efforts by some Arab countries, the consensus in the United States and Europe is to maintain the status quo. With its partners in Washington, Israel should be making all available efforts to ensure that the status quo prevails.
Dr. Jonathan Spyer is the author of “Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars,” and “The Transforming Fire: the Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict.” He is a regular contributor to “Jane’s Intelligence Review,” has published in leading journals and media outlets, including “Middle East Quarterly,” “The Times (of London),” “Foreign Policy,” “The Wall Street Journal” and “The Guardian. He is an expert at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.