Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Battle Lines in Syria

Writing at War on the Rocks, Beirut-based Sam Heller paints a picture of the current state of play in Syria. He suggests we ignore the literally hundreds of armed groups and focus on the large groupings. Some key thoughts:
Syria’s war is complex, but it’s not random.

The three main opposition enclaves are disconnected geographically. (snip) Yet these opposition areas are also disconnected politically, each run by a different mix of factions sponsored by their own respective international backers. Only one of the three opposition enclaves, Syria’s rebel-held northwest, is reliably motivated and able to fight the regime.

The relationship between the Assad regime and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – the dominant political force in those two Kurdish areas – is not properly adversarial. (snip) Importantly, the PYD has always set its ambitions for local autonomy below the threshold of secession or regime change in Damascus.

The picture is of a sort of non-aggression pact between internationally backed regime and Kurdish-led forces that are dividing the country amongst themselves before, potentially, coming to their own accommodation. The mixed opposition and the Islamic State have lost, by international consensus, and are being edged out of a future Syria.

How the regime’s various paramilitary auxiliaries relate to the central regime-state – and whether the Syrian regime and state still exist at all – is one of the most hotly contested and relevant debates on Syria today.

My understanding is that those militias – which, without context, look like a teeming, undifferentiated horde – actually fit into existing regime networks of control: a set of official and unofficial strings that all run up to the single, pivotal locus point, Assad himself. These sub-factions enjoy substantial autonomy to engage in criminality and local predation, but when those strings pull taut, they can be puppeteered in sync.

Winding down sections of the war, and America’s involvement in them, is going to require Washington to engage Syria as it really fits together and operates – Syria as it is, not as we want it to be.
Bottom line: Heller believes Assad will not be beaten, meaning any talk of regime change needs to stop. Backing groups that will lose makes no sense either.