Still Fighting Who in Syria’s Eight-Year War
Glen Carey, Donna Abu-Nasr, Selcan Hacaoglu, and Henry Meyer
President Donald Trump has ordered
the withdrawal of the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria though it remains
unclear when they might go. Their departure would leave plenty of other
combatants still on the battlefield as the civil war approaches its eighth year. Government
forces backed by Russia and Iran are pummeling the few remaining rebel-held
areas. Turkey has reinforced troops on its border to battle both Kurdish
fighters and remaining jihadists, who are down but not out. Here’s a look at
who’s still fighting and why.
The U.S. for years provided covert support to
Syrian rebels fighting the regime, with the aim of pressuring President Bashar
al-Assad into a political settlement, but it ditched that program in mid-2017.
The American military has directly
attacked the regime rarely, in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons. The main role of the U.S. has been
fighting Islamic State. It began an air
campaign against the group in 2014 and sent in ground troops the
next year to assist Kurdish forces fighting the jihadists. In announcing plans
for a U.S. pullout in December, Trump said the U.S. had “defeated” Islamic State in Syria. He later qualified the statement to say the group had lost
territorial control of the caliphate it
declared in 2014. The jihadists took responsibility for an attack in mid-January
that killed four U.S. service members, according to
Forces loyal to Assad, backed by
Russia, Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, have managed to reclaim most of
the terrain once held by Syrian rebels. But the battle-hardened troops will get
no respite until they’ve taken it all back. Assad has defied international
pressure and made no concessions to the rebels, insisting they are all
“terrorists.” A decisive victory in the war would put him in a favorable
position for a redrafting of
the Syrian constitution, which the United Nations is pushing for
early this year as part of a political process to end fighting.
Under relentless bombing by Russian
and regime forces, the rebels, who once aspired to overthrow Assad, have lost
ground and now maintain control over areas in the northwestern province of Idlib.
Islamist fighters linked to al-Qaeda, once regarded as among the most effective
rebels, are no longer the force they once were. Still, this year Hayat Tahrir
al-Sham, a coalition led by a group once known as the Nusra Front, became the
dominant force in Idlib in a sudden advance that threatened to unleash new
instability. The group is fighting to create an Islamic emirate and enforces
Islamic law where it controls territory. Its secular counterparts among the
rebel forces are struggling to stand their ground in the hope of securing a
meaningful role in future peace talks. The likelihood of that happening
diminishes as the regime continues to advance militarily.
The jihadists of Islamic State, who aim to create a puritanical Islamic society, have lost nearly all the
terrain they once controlled. They’ve been pushed to an ever-smaller area
along the Iraq-Syria border by U.S.-assisted Kurdish forces and Russia-backed
Syrian troops. Given that Islamic State considers it anathema to negotiate with
the regime, which it regards as heretical, the battle looks fated to continue
until the group has lost all its territory. Hundreds of Islamic State fighters
have been captured and face an uncertain future in the hands of Kurdish forces.
For those who escape the battlefield, the game plan calls for melting into the
population to wage an insurgency or relocating to another staging ground for jihad.
Turkey has played a complex role in
the war. A U.S. ally and supporter of the Syrian rebels,
recently it’s worked with regime backers Russia and Iran to formulate joint
approaches to the conflict. Turkey is part of the U.S.-led coalition against the
Islamic State, but it’s repeatedly attacked the bloc’s most effective ground
force, the U.S.-armed Syrian Kurdish fighters of the People’s
Protection Units, or YPG. Turkey considers the YPG an enemy because it has roots in
the Kurdistan Worker’s Party,
or PKK, which has battled for an autonomous region inside Turkey on and off
since 1984. After Trump’s withdrawal announcement, Turkey reinforced its
troops along its border with northwestern Syria. It said it was prepared to
clear out remnants of Islamic State. But it also had its eye on the YPG, which,
with the U.S. gone, would be bereft of an important protector.
The YPG seeks autonomy for
Syria’s Kurds and has shown a willingness to work with any power capable of advancing that goal. It’s
been a force in the battle against Islamic State but not directly against the
Assad regime, which has supported the
related PKK. The YPG’s successes against the jihadists, and a unilateral withdrawal of
regime forces from several Kurdish-majority areas, enabled it to establish
control over about a third of Syria, in the northeast. Now, the regime wants it
back, not least of all because of the many oil
fields there. That, plus Turkey’s mobilization and the
announced U.S. pullout threaten the YPG’s position. Restarting suspended negotiationswith the regime over autonomy
arrangements for Kurdish-majority areas could offer the group a way to advance
its cause, although it has lost leverage.
Having achieved its main objective
of ensuring the survival of the Assad regime, its main ally in the Middle East,
Iran’s interests now are in locking down postwar benefits. Iran, which
deployed its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to Syria, is expected to keep forces
there. It is said to want to establish a land
corridor stretching from Iran to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria
so that it can more easily transport arms and equipment to its client, Hezbollah,
the militant Lebanese group that’s played a major role in the Assad regime’s
triumphs. On other fronts, Hezbollah serves as a proxy forcefor Iran. It can attack targets associated
with Israel and the U.S., which Iran considers its greatest foes, without
provoking the reaction such a move by a state would precipitate.
Israel, which regularly clashes
with Hezbollah on the Lebanon border and went to war with the
group in 2006, wants to prevent Iran from creating that corridor,
establishing a permanent foothold in Syria, and providing Hezbollah with
precision-guided missiles or the means to build them. Accordingly, since the war
in Syria began, Israel has frequently attacked targets there -- “thousands”
of them, outgoing military chief Gadi Eisenkot told the New York Times in
mid-January -- including Iranian ones.
Having turned the war in
favor of the Assad regime with its bombing campaign starting in 2015, Russia is
the premier power in Syria, and Trump’s decision to remove U.S. troops
strengthened its position. Russian officials say they doubt Islamic State has
been decisively defeated, and they still want to see the country made whole.
Toward the latter goal, Russia faces the complicated task of mediating among the
regime, the Kurds and Turkey. President Vladimir Putin’s Middle East envoy
said in an interview in December that once Assad regains full control of Syria,
Iranian-backed forces should leave. Iran is likely to have a different view,
possibly setting up a postwar conflict between the patrons of the winning side.
The Reference Shelf
QuickTake explainers on Syria’s civil war, the YPG, the Kurdish people, the fight against Islamic State and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
The International Crisis Group explores the conflict over
Another ICG report explains the risk of an escalation between
Israel and Iran.
The Council on Foreign Relations profiles the groups fighting