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Syria’s next battle: the jockeying for influence by outside powers

Why We Wrote This

It seems just a matter of time before the last rebel stronghold in Syria's civil war is crushed. But Syria is now a country in which many countries have a foothold, and their competing interests pose a tough new challenge. A weekly "Patterns" column. 

Presidential Press Service/AP
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, center, flanked by Russia's President Vladimir Putin, left, and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, pose for photographs in Tehran, Iran, ahead of their summit on Sept. 7. The three leaders began a meeting to discuss the war in Syria.

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As Syria’s President Assad appears poised to attack rebels’ final stronghold in Idlib, a new battle is taking shape, this one among outside powers. How that ends will have implications not just for Syria but for the wider Middle East and Europe and for the balance of power between Russia and the United States. Russia intervened in 2015, once it became clear neither the US nor its European allies would act. It has since achieved its most significant Middle East footprint since Soviet times. Iran, Mr. Assad’s other indispensable ally, also has a ground presence and has expanded its influence. But Israel, to Syria’s south, wants to keep Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria. Meanwhile, Turkey, to the north, has troops in northern Syria and is pushing hard to prevent a full assault on Idlib. It has sealed the border to drive home its determination to prevent a further mass flight of refugees. Europe shares that interest. Then there’s Assad. The US, Europe, and Turkey all wanted him out. But Russia appears to support him. As long as that’s the case, it is hard to see how he will be forced to step down.

Only two grisly questions remain in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fight against his civil war rivals: how long before the last major armed resistance, in the northwestern province of Idlib, is defeated; and the fate of the estimated 3 million civilians who are in effect trapped there.

Yet even amid preparations in recent weeks for a final assault, a different battle has been taking shape: among outside powers in the seven-year war, each with its own interests. How that ends will have implications not just for Syria, but the wider Middle East, Europe, and for the balance of power between Russia and the United States.

Even were this political wrangling to resolve itself, it could be years before Syria recovers, much less reconciles. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed, many in attacks on residential areas, hospitals, and aid workers. More than half the country’s pre-war population of 22 million has been forced to flee: to neighboring Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon; to Europe; or elsewhere inside Syria.

But the postwar geopolitics could prove almost as daunting, given the number of powers involved and their rival agendas. It’s the equivalent of three-dimensional geopolitical chess, with a scorecard needed merely to make sense of what may lie ahead.

Vladimir Putin is central. Having provided arms to the Assad regime, Russia intervened directly in 2015, once it became clear neither the US nor its European allies had the political stomach for doing so. Mr. Putin’s move carried relatively little military risk. It largely involved air strikes against rebel-held areas with little or no missile defense. Russia’s gains, however, included a beefed-up naval presence at the Mediterranean port of Tartus, an airbase near Latakia further up the coast, and its most significant Middle East footprint since Soviet times. Without Russian air power, Mr. Assad’s Army would not have been able to turn the tide in the war.

 Next, there’s Iran. Its forces and client militia fighters – chiefly Hezbollah, from neighboring Lebanon – have been Assad’s other indispensable ally. Iran now has a presence on the ground, part of a potential “land bridge” of military and political influence stretching from Tehran through to Lebanon.

Israel largely stayed out of the war, but has a core strategic interest in Syria: to keep Iran from establishing a permanent military presence, or funneling more powerful weaponry to Hezbollah. In a relationship driven by realpolitik on both sides, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Putin appear to have struck an understanding that is holding at least for now: we will attack Iranian forces and facilities we deem a threat to our own security, but will make sure not to hit Russian forces.

Turkey, bordering Syria, has a dozen observation posts in Idlib. With NATO’s second-largest army after the US, it has forces inside northern Syria. Turkey’s interests include ensuring that Kurdish fighters there – key US allies in the fight against ISIS – leave. It has been pressing Putin, Iran, and Assad to hold off from a full-scale assault in Idlib. And this week, he appeared to have won a key concession: an agreement with Putin to create a buffer zone in the province between Syrian government and rebel forces. If indeed the Russian president’s reported demand that “radically minded” jihadists pull out of the area is met, a final military showdown could yet be averted. In the meantime, having sealed off the border, Turkey has also been driving home its determination to prevent a further mass flight of refugees. Some 3.5 million are already in Turkey.

Europe is equally concerned to avoid a new refugee crisis. Just such an exodus, in 2015, empowered stridently anti-immigrant politicians in a number of European Union states and has caused lasting fissures within the EU.

The United States may have the most complex challenge of all. The US has some 2,000 Special Forces troops in Syria, as part of its campaign against the Islamic State. President Trump has said he wants to bring them home. But he has also made curbing Iran’s widening regional influence a foreign-policy priority. His hope, presumably, is that a combination of Israel’s military power, Turkey’s, and Russian cooperation can achieve that. But he is embroiled in a tariff war against Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan over his failure to release a US cleric. And US military and security figures have been arguing for a need to restrain Russia’s resurgent influence and assertiveness.

Assad, himself, seems on course to emerge unchallenged as Syria’s leader, something that looked highly improbable before Russia’s intervention. Yet whether he remains for the longer term will depend on the key outside players. The US, Europe, and Turkey were all against his staying in power during the early stages of the war. At least for now, however, Putin seems in favor of Assad staying. As long as that’s the case, it is hard to see how anyone else will, or can, force him out.

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