Syrian forces having already retaken the northern city of Aleppo and as they continue securing Syria’s southern border with Jordan and Iraq west of the Euphrates, leaves the mainstream militancy backed by Washington, its European and NATO allies, as well as its Persian Gulf partners all but defeated.
Remaining is the northern city of Idlib. It has become the final destination for militants as they flee or are evacuated under government-brokered deals from other contested areas across Syria. The city and much of the surrounding countryside link directly to the Syrian-Turkish border where militants are still receiving supplies, weapons, and reinforcements from NATO territory.
With the nature of Western-sponsored militants now fully exposed and with Russian and Iranian forces present on the battlefield and deeply invested in Damascus’ victory, it is all but inevitable that virtually everything west of the Euphrates will return to Damascus’ control.
Political attempts to preserve Idlib as a militant stronghold will be difficult considering the overt terroristic nature of the groups holding the city, including those operating openly under the banner of Al Qaeda.
East of the Euphrates
East of the Euphrates lies the city of Raqqa which serves as a battlefield for US-backed Kurdish forces and the US-Saudi armed and funded militants of ISIS.
Beyond Raqqa, a vast expanse of territory is being claimed and tenuously held by these Kurdish forces, with the Syrian military still occupying areas of control in Qamishli and Al Hasakah.
Across the Euphrates, east of Dier ez-Zor is a recently launched offensive by Kurdish fighters likely aimed at preventing the Syrian military from crossing the river.
Reuters in an article titled, “Syria army, U.S.-backed forces converge on Islamic State in separate offensives,” would report that:
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces alliance of mostly Kurdish and Arab militias (SDF) said it had reached Deir al-Zor’s industrial zone, just a few miles to the east of the city after launching operations in the area in recent days.
The article also reported that:
Sunday’s advances mean that U.S.-backed forces and the Syrian government side, boosted by Russian military support, are separated only by about 15 km (10 miles) of ground and the Euphrates River in Deir al-Zor.
Syrian forces crossing the river – taking and holding territory east of the Euphrates – will make attempts by the United States and its proxies to balkanize the nation more tenuous still. With Syrian government positions scattered across Kurdish militant-held territory, and with a solid position in Deir ez-Zor east of the Euphrates, Kurdish fighters would be required to undertake a dangerous and costly campaign to push Syrian forces back to finalize the nation’s division.
It would require direct US military assistance, risking a direct confrontation between the US and Syria’s allies Russia and Iran. It is unclear as of now, how far the United States is willing to go to fulfill its secondary objective of dividing Syria.
What Cards are Still on the Table?
US policymakers have – since the conflict began in 2011 – sought to divide Syria and carve out “safe havens” that could be used to perpetuate instability and seek regime change in Damascus over the long-term once immediate regime change failed to materialize.
For the US – the prospect of carving out territory west of the Euphrates now looks very unlikely. Even attempts to grab territory south of Damascus along the Syrian-Jordanian and Syrian-Iraqi border appear to have failed. However, east of the Euphrates with America’s Kurdish proxies, permanent and sizable “safe havens” are much more likely. Their utility in effecting regime change in Damascus, however, is negligible.
Attempts by the US and its proxies to seize as much territory as possible before the endgame may also fail to materialize any long-term benefits.
Falling short of regime change, the US has indeed significantly weakened Syria. With much of eastern Syria threatened with balkanization – a region where much of Syria’s oil wealth lies – socioeconomic recovery will undoubtedly be complicated.
However, areas US-backed Kurdish fighters have moved into including Raqqa and now Deir ez-Zor, are not home to Kurdish populations. The ability for US-backed Kurdish fighters to overwhelm ISIS militants does not translate into Kurdish fighters also being able to hold and administer territory. While the US claims Kurdish fighters are cooperating with Arab militants, the durability of this alliance post-conflict remains to be seen.
America’s dubious track record for “nation building” is also an important factor to consider regarding proposals to divide and control eastern Syria.
Two Possibilities for Eastern Syria
The United States only has perpetual conflict to offer its Kurdish and Arab allies in eastern Syria – either with the Syrian government itself, or Turkey, or endless ethnic conflicts between America’s Kurdish and Arab allies themselves.
Additionally, the notion of an “independent” Kurdish state completely dependent on US support and protection is at face value a paradox. The likelihood that Syria’s Kurds will end up subordinated to US-backed Kurds in northern Iraq also undermine notions of “independence.”
Syria and its allies, on the other hand, have a more sustainable future to offer its Kurdish minority. It is one predicated on stability within the borders of a unified Syrian state. It is an offer of protection from Turkish aggression in the north and instability from ongoing tensions between US-backed Kurds in Iraq and Baghdad in the southeast.
Syria and its allies – Russia and Iran – are also in a much stronger position in the region to underwrite such an offer than the United States – a foreign invader.
What to Watch For
In the next several weeks and months, how far the Syrian military goes and how sustainable its gains are before reaching the limits of its tactical and strategic reach will determine for certain just how tenable US designs are to permanently balkanize the country.
Attempts to drive wedges between Damascus and its Russian and Iranian allies are underway – particularly with Israeli strikes inside of Syria and attempts to portray Russia as beholden to Israel. The use of Israel as a provocateur to pressure Damascus and divert political, financial, and military capital away from critical battles will continue.
Attempts are also underway to alienate Syria’s Kurdish minority as much as possible to poison any attempt by Damascus to offer a more attractive future than serving as American proxies toward balkanizing the nation.
Finally, attempts to isolate Syria and its allies from the international community also continue – particularly with repeated accusations of chemical weapon use. Despite a lack of success in using this tactic, the United States – through the United Nations – has repeatedly accused Syria of using chemical weapons in an attempt to justify a broader conflict directly with Damascus.
In addition to the pivotal battles and lightning campaigns unfolding across Syria’s territory, analysts should expect to see tense diplomatic maneuvering on all sides as the endgame approaches.