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War without end: Who will be king-maker in Syria in 2022?

Dynamics of geopolitics and Turkiye, Russia, US relations will decide the future of the embattled nation
Peace is a relative term in a battle zone. Like Syria in 2021. After years of a crippling war, the devastated country found some breathing space after a proposed military operation by Russia, Iran and the Assad regime on Idlib was averted. And a counter-terrorism operation by Turkiye and the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) against the terrorist group YPG was postponed after CENTCOM opened the airspace for Russia. 

Moreover, reconciliation efforts with the Assad regime too gained progress. In the backdrop of these events, is there light at the end of the tunnel for the battle-scarred country in 2022? 

The Syrian civil war has turned out to be a long-drawn one, dragging on for more than a decade despite several attempts for a negotiated settlement. But analysing the main dynamics of the conflict might give some insight into the possible contours of the civil war in the near future. 

The first point is the efforts to normalise the Assad regime. The uncertainty of the Biden Administration’s Syria policy and its official positions on those trying to normalise the Assad regime will continue to be a strong dynamic. 

While the US Senate formulated the CAATSA law and other forms of sanctions against the Assad regime, the Biden administration seems to be willing to provide waivers and exempt states from them. The Interpol’s decision to allow the Assad regime to rejoin its network, the United Arab Emirates’s (UAE) diplomatic outreach and economic deals with his government regime, as well as Jordan’s increasing normalisation were key drivers of the ongoing efforts to give him legitimacy. 

Especially, the difference on this issue between the US State Department and the National Security Council led by Brett McGurk provides a window of opportunity to normalise the Assad regime. However, a harsh public speech by the UN representative of Saudi Arabia against the Assad regime was seen as a strong signal that the normalisation efforts in the Arab world would not go unchallenged.

If the Assad regime is invited back to the Arab League, the prospects of a political solution in Syria could become even more remote. The work of the constitution committee may be hindered. The Assad regime and its backers may be further motivated to seek a military solution. In such a case, Turkiye might use diplomacy to prevent the normalisation of the Assad regime to prevent a military solution to the conflict. The pressure on Turkiye as the sole actor that keeps the possibility of a political solution alive would increase further.

The second dynamic in the Syrian civil war is the Turkish-Russian negotiations and Moscow’s protection of the YPG. Russia seemingly uses its air superiority in Idlib as leverage against Turkiye by targeting Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps and creating a new mass migration wave toward Turkiye. Russia increased its air activity in response to Ankara’s drone sale to Poland, which was seen as an export of the Turkish model in Syria, Libya, and Karabakh on how to counter Moscow without the aid of the US.

The renewed escalation calmed after a summit between Erdogan and Putin. On the other hand, Russia has not fulfilled its obligations regarding the YPG presence in Tal Rifaat, Manbij, and the 30-km-long strip east of the Euphrates. On the contrary, Russia continued to protect and aid the YPG. The YPG conducted 192 car bomb attacks since June 2018 and engaged in attacks against Turkish soldiers,  thus, prompting Turkiye's Foreign Minister to accuse both the US and Russia of supporting the YPG.

The US can still become a kingmaker in Syria

In 2022, Moscow may continue to use Syria as leverage against Turkiye. The strategic shift of the U.S. toward the Indo-Pacific region may be regarded by Moscow as an opportunity to increase pressure on Turkiye, especially on Idlib, and the presence of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Russia may try to push for Turkish political concessions in its role as the guarantor of power to the Syrian opposition. On the other side, one may expect Turkiye to pressurise Russia on the YPG. Therefore, it could be expected that this duality in Syria may result in a deal. However, the overall aspects of Turkish-Russian relations and possible new developments in Ukraine and the Turkic world can change prospects for Syria. 

A change in the broader Turkish-Russian relations would require both nations to re-calculate the balance in their complex relations. Therefore, Syria will likely not be the trendsetter in the relations, but its fate will depend on them.

The third dynamic of the Syrian civil war is the US policy on Syria and CENTCOM’s aid to Russia. In 2021, after the increasing rhetoric and preparations by Turkiye and the Syrian Interim Government, CENTCOM opened the airspace for Russia. For the first time since the American-Russian partition of air-control, Russian fighter jets entered east Syria and conducted military exercises to prevent a new Syrian-Turkish military operation against the YPG. This move by CENTCOM strengthened the Russian power projection capacity in Syria and provided Moscow with leverage in the Turkish-Russian negotiations. In contrast to the past, Turkiye has to calculate a Russian air presence east of the Euphrates where the Russian S-400 air defense systems’ range is limited.

In the coming year, the US policies in Syria may determine the outcome of the other dynamics. The current status quo in Syria is maintained between Turkiye, Russia, and the U.S. While the political elite in the U.S. has little interest in Syria, or no political vision, CENTCOM has impersonated their client, the YPG, and either act in the interest of their client rather than the US. A possible change in the U.S. policies may break the stalemate. 

A continuation of the current policies may contribute to the gradual strengthening of Russia. CENTCOM providing Russia with incentives just to protect the YPG will strengthen Russia’s position in Syria and may push forward a Russian-American agreement that foresees the re-normalisation of the Assad regime. However, if US policy-makers formulate a Syria policy to ensure a political transition in line with UN Resolution 2254, abandons the YPG to work with Turkiye and the legitimate Syrian opposition, and incorporates the Roj Peshmerga into the mix, the US can still become a kingmaker in Syria without abandoning the Syrian Kurds.

In short, the fate of Syria in 2022 seems to depend on two independent variables. The first of which is Turkish-Russian relations and how conflicts in other spheres between both may affect Syria. The second is the US policy on Syria, which will determine the future of the normalisation efforts with the Assad regime and the power balance between Turkiye and Russia in Syria.

Omer Ozkizilcik is a foreign policy and security analyst.

TRT World, Omer Ozkizilcik
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