Syria. The very word is enough to conjure images of a country in turmoil, torn apart by war. Yet the civil war, now entering its sixth year, won’t last forever (although most likely it will last a very long time). The military stalemate will be broken (it’s only a matter of time) and some kind of peace will be restored. However, how this will happen is far from certain. At this point, the Assad government is too weak to take over the whole country, the rebels too fractured, and all foreign players are either unable or unwilling.
Despite the uncertainty in other areas, the military elimination of ISIS is not only a precondition for ending the war, but also a near-inevitability. All that remains unsettled is the circumstances under which this will happen. Ultimately, the most likely scenario is that ISIS as an organization isn’t destroyed entirely, but is merely driven underground. This future ISIS would function much like other terrorist organizations which don’t control territory (that is, to say, nearly all of them). Its Iraqi holdings, revolving around Mosul, will likely fall soon to the Iraqi military. In Syria, the primarily Kurdish SDF, with indirect help from the Assad government and various rebel groups, as well as American and Turkish airstrikes, will finish the job. If President Trump (despite Turkish pressure) agrees to arm the Syrian Kurds, the SDF will pose a formidable threat to ISIS. Even if he doesn’t, there’s no doubt that the SDF will be the group that will destroy ISIS on the ground.
This arrangement will be extremely beneficial to the Kurds in Syria, and their new de facto state (the “Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria”, or the NSR). The NSR will expand its borders significantly, and will end up controlling many non-Kurdish areas. If successful, the NSR’s loose federal model of government can eventually become a reality in all of Syria.
The Assad government will also benefit from the defeat of ISIS. While until now, it has been fighting a war primarily on two fronts (one against the rebels and another against ISIS, as well as limited operations against the SDF), the elimination of the hated ISIS will mean the Assad government will only have to fight a single war. In addition, it will relieve the burden placed by Assad’s allies to concentration on ISIS first and the rebels second. Also, it is important to note that the SDF does not have serious plans to attack Assad’s government after defeating ISIS, as by doing so, it would bring nearly all of Syria’s Kurdish areas under its control. If Assad chooses to go to war against the NSR, it will be entirely his choice (and it will likely be influenced by his degree of success against the rebels). Of course, the rebels will continue to present a problem for Assad, especially since they too will be rid of an enemy.
Civil wars are terrible for national unity, and Syria is a prime example of this. Even the rebels, supposedly a single united front, are split into nearly a hundred groups, factions, and battalions. However, the rebels can be divided into two primary categories – the Syrian opposition, a diverse coalition of secular, religious, and Islamist groups (all of which support some kind of democracy), and the theocratic Islamists, mostly united under Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). This division means that the rebels can’t even agree on basic matters such as military strategy, On the flip side, the Assad government maintains a single military (the Syrian Armed Forces), and as such, doesn’t have to deal with infighting.
On the surface, this means that the Assad government is a strong candidate to unify Syria (aside from the NSR). This, however ignores the fact that the Syrian Civil War actually began with protests against the Assad government, and many Syrians, as well as much of the international community (including some powerful actors in the region) harbor deep antipathy towards President Bashar al-Assad. This means that short of utterly annihilating his domestic enemies and forcing powerful states of the likes of the US and Turkey out of Syria, there isn’t much Assad can do to take reconquer all of the country. He could ask for Turkish aid, thus submitting to the status of a Turkish puppet, but this is a far-fetched scenario. In addition, the task of governing a country in which a large portion of the population hates him will prove nearly impossible for Assad.
Since the Assad government essentially forfeited ever being able to rule a unified Syria (even without the NSR), Assad’s resignation and subsequent dissolution of his government remains the only peaceful option (alternatively, he could be forcibly removed from power by the United States). This is where Iran comes in. Iran is one of Assad’s few sovereign allies (arguably, his only one). And it is Iran, and Iran alone, that can convince Assad to voluntarily relinquish power. The government of Iran vowed to shield Syrian Shias from ISIS attacks and contends that supporting Assad is the best way to do this.
However, a defeat of ISIS would mean that Iran would no longer be bound by its obligation to keep Assad in power. Certainly, Iran would prefer an Iranian puppet in Syria, but it also has other regional alliances to think about. As such, demanding Assad’s resignation is something Iran will have to do if its government is truly interested in ending the war. It will also increase Iran’s influence in the new Syria, because no matter which government comes to power, it will be indebted to Iran. Meanwhile, if Iran does make this leap of faith, Russia will follow, given the fact that Russia, while in support of Assad, ultimately supports a strong Iran even more. If Iran doesn’t, US-supported rebels will simply remove him from power themselves.
Assad’s resignation (or forced removal) will also be beneficial for the two remaining parties involved in the civil war, namely, the rebels and the Kurds. Thanks to the power vacuum that will exist, the NSR will be able to slip away peacefully, quite possibly organizing itself as the first Kurdish state in hundreds of years. Meanwhile, the rebels will have the opportunity (although most likely not the unity or the political clout) to reestablish Syria according to their (conflicting) ideals.
After Assad’s resignation, Syria will enter its “great unknown”. The rebels are extremely fractured, as previously mentioned, and it would be nearly impossible to get all the rebel groups to sit peacefully together in a parliament-like setting. Regardless, regional, ethnic, and religious (Sunni vs. Shia) tensions (one of the primary causes of the civil war) are unlikely to subside any time soon. Even if they do, they will also no doubt flare up again, dooming a new Syria with a strong central government to certain failure. There are two alternatives: a partition of Syria, and the establishment of a loose federation. Vaguely, either of these possibilities would involve the creation of an Alawite (Shia) region in the west, a Sunni region in the sparsely-populated center, and perhaps a Druze region in the south. This would be similar to the solution adopted under the French Mandate after WWI, which established an Alawite state, a Druze state, two majority-Sunni states, as well as the country now known as Lebanon.
Despite the impending secession of the NSR, the issue of the Kurds remains far from solved. A future independent NSR would likely have sizeable non-Kurdish minority, and regardless, Kurdish territories exist outside of Syria in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. The Iraqi Republic is in no way capable of preventing Iraqi Kurdistan from leaving, and the region will actually hold a referendum on independence this year. However, both Iran and Turkey are regional powers who won’t voluntarily relinquish control over their Kurdish regions. In addition, it is important to note that the dominant Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is very militant, and as such, has difficulty finding international support. In fact, the PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization not only by Turkey but by NATO, the US, and the EU. This means that Turkish Kurds won’t secede from Turkey any time in the near future. In Iran, the situation in slightly more complex, as some of the Kurdish groups in Iran have international support and Iran itself as few powerful allies. Regardless, it is unlikely that Iranian Kurds will gain full independence.
There is, however, an alternative to Kurdish independence in Iran and Turkey: Kurdish autonomy. In fact, pushing for autonomy, not independence, has been the primary Kurdish foreign policy strategy for the past two decades. Autonomy would mean not only self-rule, but also a recognition of the Kurdish language, culture, and religious autonomy. As such, it would still require a significant change in Iranian and Turkish policy towards the Kurds (both countries consider the Kurds “one of their own”, in Turkey as “mountain Turks” and in Iran as Iranic peoples). However, at least in Turkey, there is possibility that an open American alliance with the SDF will essentially make Erdoğan more willing to negotiate with the PKK. If an agreement is reached, it be something along the lines of autonomy in exchange for disarmament on part of the PKK.
Ultimately, the fate of Syria will be decided on the battlefield, not on the negotiating table. The precise borders of the various regions of the country will be drawn by soldiers holding strategic positions, not bureaucrats in Damascus. There are also other issues, such as the refugees, which will continue to be sources of debate. And there are many radical factions (not just ISIS) who will refuse a peaceful settlement under any circumstances. These groups will continue to create instability in Syria, dooming the country to some form of conflict for years to come.
Originally published at thelakta.com.