Illustration: iStock
Illustration: iStock

After seven years of civil strife manifested in intense fighting between Syria’s armed forces and the rebels, more than 400.000 deaths, widespread destruction, and half of the population displaced, Bashar al-Assad’s regime has survived.

He has regained most of Syria’s territory. The only two regions that are not controlled by Damascus are Deraa province in the south, near the border with Jordan, and Idlib province, which borders with Turkey in the northwest.

The challenge to Assad’s rule by local, regional and international actors did not prove to be strong enough to force him to step down. This is because of two interconnected reasons: The first is the determination of his allies (Russia, Iran and Hezbollah) to keep him in his post and the second is the extreme force employed both on the ground and in the air.

Catalysts for Assad’s survival

The Russian intervention in Syria in September 2015 was a pivotal point in the Syrian civil war since it proved to be the major catalyst for Assad’s political survival. The Russians identified Assad’s rule as essential to their geostrategic interests in the eastern Mediterranean. It is well known that Russia’s naval facility at Tartus allows it to project power beyond the Bosporus. In this regard, Russia views Tartus as a vital strategic asset and a special logistical support point for the Russian navy’s Sevastopol-based Black Sea fleet.

Having the backing of a great power, Assad could play ball on his terms. He was in a position to reject all proposals that involved a political transition for Syria that did not include him

Having the backing of a great power, Assad could play ball on his terms. He was in a position to reject all proposals that involved a political transition for Syria that did not include him.

Another important moment was the postponement of the American intervention in Syria in 2013 in favor of an international agreement with Damascus for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons.

Furthermore, the threat that ISIS posed to the regional state system and international security turned the world’s attention away from the Syrian civil war and toward ISIS. In this respect, while Russia and the US were supporting different sides on the ground in Syria, at the same time they were fighting against the same threat that Assad was also trying to counter in the war-torn country.

Foreign troops in Syria

The situation in Syria is complicated by the Turkish intervention in the north and the US presence there – approximately 2,000 troops east of the Euphrates River. The Turks and the Americans are trying to reach a common understanding regarding the Kurdish presence in Manbij town and elsewhere in northern Syria, but what exactly will happen is uncertain, although some reports indicate that Ankara and Washington have come to some kind of an agreement on the issue.

According to what has been announced, the two countries are working on a “roadmap” that will permit the Kurds to depart from Manbij. Moreover, Iran’s growing influence in Syria through Hezbollah’s presence there creates the conditions for general instability in the Near East, especially if we take into consideration Israel’s strategic sensitivity on the issue. The Shiite organization possesses approximately 120.000 rockets in Lebanon. In the event of an Iran-Israel confrontation, Hezbollah is believed to have the potential to be one of the main supporters of Tehran’s offensive against Israel on a tactical level.

A post-war Syria

During the various phases of the war there has been much talk among analysts and politicians about the potential federalization of Syria. However, such a development does not seem to be realistic at the moment given the current situation on the ground. As Assad is on the offensive, seeking a full military victory over the rebels, any hope for a settlement of the conflict in the form of a federation is not realistic.

The equation becomes more complicated for a variety of reasons. Nobody knows exactly what the Turks are planning to do in Syria. Are they going to stay or will they withdraw their army in the near future? For their part, the Iranians seem determined to stay in Syria despite Israeli threats and attacks on military sites housing Iranian personnel. Lastly, what will happen with the Kurd’s ambitions in northern Syria?

On the other side of the Atlantic, US President Donald Trump has pledged to withdraw American troops from Syria as ISIS is totally defeated. However, Iran’s growing influence in Syria and Israel’s objections to that may change the strategic landscape and his plans as well.

In conclusion, all the actors involved in Syria are walking a tightrope. A wrong move by anyone may shuffle the deck in a way that could shatter the general stability of the war-torn country and threaten international security.

Nicos Panayiotides

Dr Nicos Panayiotides is the head of the Geostrategic Observatory of the Middle East (GEOPAME), journalist and assistant professor of political studies at American College in Nicosia. He is also Research Associate at the Center for Oriental Studies (Panteion University). His academic interests focus on the Cyprus problem, Middle East politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is author of several scientific publications in academic journals and four books on the Cyprus and Palestinian problems.

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