With fast moving events taking place around the Syrian city of Aleppo, Global Risk Insights spoke with Dr. Joshua Landis, the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Professor at the University of Oklahoma’s College of International Studies on what is ahead for Syria’s government in 2017 after the fall of Aleppo.
“My hunch is that the government will move up north”
GRI: What do you think will be the Syrian government and Russia’s main priorities in the aftermath of Aleppo?
Dr. Landis: Assad is very eager to regain as much territory as he can. It’s a matter of making the most of momentum. The debate now is whether they moves on towards Idlib or up north. My hunch is that the government will move up north. Syria’s regime is very worried that Turkey could seek to reorganize the moderate Arab militias in the north. The Salafist jihadists in Idlib are not as much of a worry to Assad’s government. It’s the potential for the Turkish-backed militias to be trained into a conquering force that’s the real threat. The Arab militias could possibly take the lands currently held by ISIS. This scenario would be the real threat to Syria’s national integrity and for Assad’s future plans.
“The Kurds and Assad have very different objectives”
GRI: What could unfold between Damascus and the Syrian Kurds in the Hasakah region? 2016 saw clashes between the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian government. Could 2017 see more confrontation between the regime and the SDF or is there potential to reach a political accommodation?
Dr. Landis: President Assad has said that he won’t negotiate autonomy with Syria’s Kurds. Russia tried to intercede and facilitate this and [Assad] rejected any negotiation. This is in large part because Assad believes in the future he could become stronger, both militarily and politically on the ground. Then he would be in a much better position to handle the Kurds. There may be an accommodation, but this would likely also come with a military push and pull which won’t be easy for Assad. The Kurds and Assad have very different objectives. The Kurdish YPG wants something that resembles what the Iraqi Kurds already has, essentially de facto independence. Assad is not going to want this type of autonomy to take hold within Syria – separate schools, separate flag, a separate army. He might have to accept a certain amount of that, but most of the economic resources will not be tolerated. A lot of this is dependent the balance of power with Turkey.
The more difficult the relations are between President Erdoğan and the Kurds of Syria, the more they will be forced back into the arms of President Assad. The Kurds and the Assad forces have kept their distance from each other and have even been working together, as we saw in Aleppo. They both see Turkey as a common enemy. Assad is going to want to use the Kurds against Turkey, and is going to want to move north to Al-Bab and other ISIS-held areas before Turkey does. Turkey would like to spread Operation Euphrates Shields as far south as they can. On the other hand, Assad could present himself as the force that can reign in and prevent the Kurds from gaining their national sovereignty. The Turks could accomplish that with their own army, but they’d prefer to leave the grunt work to the Syrian government.
“Lebanon will continue to sit this out”
GRI: Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah remain close allies of the Syrian government. Do you see any changes unfolding in the dynamics or nature of these relationships? Is there any sign of contention or tension as the government is completely reliant on their help?
Dr. Landis: Of course there are differences in strategic and national ambitions, and there are tensions that emerge from time to time. They may have differences but Iran and Russia will keep these cards close to their chest since they need Syria. They are on a roll, and are likely continue to combine and spread their authority from Lebanon to Iran. This will create a new security architecture in the Middle East, a Shia Crescent, that would be fundamental for their own national security.
GRI: Lebanon now has Michel Aoun as its President, and it is likely Saad Hariri will take on the role of PM. Aoun has promised a hard line with Lebanon’s Syrian refugees. With the pro-Syrian bloc firmly in place in Lebanon’s power structure, how might the country impact (or deal with) the Syrian crisis in the year ahead?
Dr. Landis: Lebanon will continue to sit this out. The Lebanese had their own civil war and there has been some substantial sectarian rebalancing that diminished the power of Lebanon’s Christians. This has created a working three way balance between the Christians, Sunnis, and Shias. None can dominate the others entirely. Hezbollah has an advantaged with its military capabilities, but cannot rule entirely without the others. The real problem Lebanon has is the Syrian refugees – most of which are Sunnis, a direct threat to Lebanon’s Shias. Given this tension, the Lebanese government does not want the refugees to stay and settle down. Beirut would like the Assad to regain complete control so the refugees can go home. Most Syrians fled not because they were combatants but because they were caught up in the insecurity. Is there is security and economic growth comes back, the refugees could go home.
“Assad’s main challenge is to encourage foreign investment”
GRI: There has been a high level effort to promote or show a sense of modern life or some level of normalcy in the regime-held territories. Is there any sense of the social and economic changes that may have occurred with the overall attitude towards the Syrian government?
Dr. Landis: There is going to be a tremendous economic black hole in Syria. Assad’s main challenge is to encourage foreign investment and open up the system to trade. He’s going to be dealing with a terrible spider’s web of sanctions imposed on his government by the West. Assad will try to find ways to get around and defeat these sanctions. The West may ignore violations to a certain degree, but they are not going to completely lift the sanctions. This means that Assad is going need to convince Lebanon and Iraq to break these sanctions, and ultimately he has to convince Turkey to accept him back into their good graces.
President Erdoğan is going to have every incentive to do that. There was a high level of trade and economic vitality between Turkey and Syria before the civil war broke out, which made a lot of Turks rich. Since then, they’ve been deprived. For a while this trade was very good – textiles and tons of business, especially for the small merchants along the border who had a new frontier to work across. If there is stability and refugees begin to leave Turkey, there will be rekindled growth and a return of Turkish investment.
“Assad and his regime is radioactive as far as the U.S. is concerned”
GRI: Do you see the Trump Administration actually being able to work with the Assad regime on some level? Or is it more likely to just be a case of leaving them alone with the U.S. coalition focusing on ISIS?
Dr. Landis: Obviously the Trump Administration or the U.S. military has to work with him just to stay out of his way or not to step on his toes during the campaign against ISIS, but overall Assad and his regime is radioactive as far as the U.S. is concerned. The U.S. and Western media has done a very good job in demonizing him over the last five years and he’s helped himself tremendously in that regard. With this in mind, it will be very difficult for any president to work with him directly. All the think tanks, even the liberal ones, are recommending an intervention.
The new administration will have to decide the policy regarding sanctions. Once it is clear that Assad is staying in power, Washington will need to evaluate their objectives and whether it is better to have him stay in power rather than to rekindle a new civil war. They must decide if they will continue to impose all of these sanctions, which were designed to create regime change by essentially impoverishing the Syrian people so they would revolt. Whether they will depends on if the Americans think that they can get concessions regarding issues such as the Golan Heights, Hezbollah, and Iran through economic deprivation or if they decide it better to pursue policies that create economic growth and encourage the return of the Syrian refugees.
Joshua Landis is Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Professor at the University of Oklahoma’s College of International Studies. He writes “Syria Comment,” a daily newsletter on Syrian politics that attracts over 100,000 readers a month. Dr. Landis travels frequently to Washington DC to consult with government agencies and speak at think tanks. Most recently he has spoken at the Woodrow Wilson Institute, Brookings Institute, USIP, Middle East Institute, and the Council on Foreign Relations.