Syria’s Future and the End of the Civil War

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.

The defeat of ISIS in Mosul will accelerate the group’s retreat

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.

Cooperative in Kurdish Syria

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.

Rebels training near Idlib

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.

Ethnic and religious composition of Syria

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.

Demystifying the Kurds

The Kurds are a Middle Eastern national group with a history going back centuries. They inhabit areas of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Between these territories, the Middle East is home to 15–20 million Kurds. During the Muslim conquest of Persia and the Arabization of much of the Middle East, they fiercely resisted conquest. Eventually, however, the Kurds were subjected through a series of surrenders by individual Kurdish feudal lords. Despite having converted to Sunni Islam after these events, the Kurds never considered themselves to be Arabs. In fact, they speak one of a number of Kurdish languages, rather than Arabic and Persian which are so prominent in the region.

In the following centuries, the Kurds did have a number of nominally autonomous political entities. However, like Bohtan for example, they were always under control of the Ottoman Empire or another caliphate. The only notable Kurdish polity which existed during this time was the Ayyubid dynasty of Kurdish origin. It was one of the many sultanates which controlled a large part of the Middle East. However, it was thoroughly Arab, not Kurdish, in nature.

During the late 19th century, a rise in Kurdish nationalism coincided with similar movements in Europe. The Ottoman Empire, which controlled the vast majority of the Kurds at the time, cooperated with the more moderate of these nationalists (the Committee of Union and Progress) in their quest for autonomy. After WWI, and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Treaty of Sèvres opened up the possibility of an independent Kurdish state. However, objections, primarily on the part of Persia and the newly-formed Republic of Turkey, made this a geopolitical impossibility (with the exception of a number of small, nominal Kurdish states which existed immediately after this treaty was signed).

In the modern era, the Kurds have been divided between the countries of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran/ Persia. In each of these states, the Kurds have received vastly different treatment. In Turkey, the Turkish government considers them to be Turks, and refuse to give the Kurds rights as a minority (but still consider them to be equal citizens). The situation in Iran is nominally better, with major politicians recognizing the Kurds as an independent people (without an political autonomy of course). In Syria, there is an independent de facto Kurdish state, Rojava. However, it has no recognition from the weakening central government in Damascus.

Finally, there is Iraq, which experienced a dramatic shift in its treatment of the Iraqi Kurdish minority. During the eight-year long Iran–Iraq War, the Kurds mostly supported Iran. Because of this, Saddam Hussein, who ruled Iraq at the time, punished the Kurds with persecution and even government-orchestrated massacres. However, following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Iraqi Kurds have been given the Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region within the rebuilt Republic of Iraq.

Today, the Kurds are mostly noted for their fight against ISIS. However, this is oversimplifying the situation on the ground. There are many Kurdish political parties, and two major armed militias: the Peshmerga and the YPG. The Peshmerga is a highly organized military under the control of Iraqi Kurdistan. It heavily supported by the United States and was said to have played a critical part in the capture of Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, the YPG is the slightly less organized militia of Rojava. It is closely affiliated with the PKK, a Kurdish militant group operating in Turkey. Because Turkey is an American ally, the United States distanced itself from the PKK and the YPG.

Although hopes remain high for an independent Kurdish state, it is unlikely to happen any time soon. Iraq and Syria may be in shambles, but Iran and Turkey, where the rest of what is supposed to become Kurdistan is located, are regional powers which are unlikely to give up pieces of their territory an time soon. In addition, there are far too many Kurdish factions, some of which are in direct opposition to each other. It would take a gargantuan effort to get them to negotiate, let alone sit together in a democratic government. However, Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava are likely to gain more independence when the Syrian Civil War and the associated conflict in Iraq come to an end.