In the first week of August Russian Military Police began to establish eight observation points along the Golan heights overlooking the 1974 ceasefire line between Israel and Syria. It was a symbolic end to the fighting in southern Syria where the last rebel pocket in the south was easily defeated in the same place where protests first broke out in 2011 against the regime during the Arab Spring.
A month of fighting in July saw the Syrian regime return to the Jordanian border and the ceasefire line on the Golan. Most of the rebels agreed to reconciliation with the regime, an acceptance of being reincorporated into the Syrian state. Around ten thousand others were bussed north to Idlib province, a process of bussing and reconciliation that has become common in the last year of the war. The regime has gained strength, confidence and power over the last three years since Russia began to intervene in strength in Syria. Now the Syrian conflict is divided between three areas that are under the air power of three major coalitions. In the east is the U.S.-led coalition and its Syrian Democratic Forces partners, in the north Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies, and in the center and rest of Syria the regime is backed by Russia and Iran.
The Syrian civil war is over. The war now enters a new phase that will be marked by decisions in Ankara, Washington and Moscow. Hints of this change were already clear when Russia began talking about “de-escalation” zones and hosting talks in Astana with Iran and Turkey. Now those talks have matured and the remaining power vacuums that were held by independent rebel groups, such as in eastern Ghouta or southern Syria, have been filled by the regime. In addition ISIS areas have been reduced to around one percent of what they were. The ISIS pocket on the Golan, in Yarmouk and in the Syrian desert near the Iraqi border have been defeated. The Syrian Democratic Forces have launched the third phase of Operation Roundup in the Euphrates valley and will soon clear out that last hundred square kilometers ISIS holds.
The Syrian regime’s goal is clear. It wants to re-conquer all of Syria and its allies in Iran and Moscow agree that Syrian sovereignty must be restored. The timetable on how long it takes Damascus to get back its borders is the central question. “If the war isn’t over, the trajectory is clear,” former U.S. Ambassador Robert S. Ford said in an interview with the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. He says Damascus will work to eject Turkish and American forces, but it’s unclear what role Moscow will play. “I cannot imagine that Russia is going to reject Assad’s efforts to put pressure on Turkey in Idlib,” he said. The Assad regime has to be careful not to provoke conflict with Turkey and achieve its goal over a long process.
If the Syrian regime’s view is clear, then the Turkish view on the long-term role in northern Syria is opaque. Turkey is investing in educational initiatives in Jarabulus, Afrin and al-Bab and it wants the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey to return. Seventy-five thousand have gone home but Turkey, which says it has spent $30 billion on camps, hopes to see more. Will northern Syria become a kind of Northern Cyprus, or will the Syrian regime and Turkey find an accommodation. Already Damascus is preparing an offensive to chip away at Idlib province where Turkey has observation points. If Turkey intends to stay, then it will draw a red line somewhere.
Turkey’s intervention in Syria was only carried out in part to support the rebels. It was conducted in Jarabulus to check the advance of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) which Ankara accuses of being “ terrorists” linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The YPG is one component of the SDF which is a partner of the United States anti-ISIS coalition. Turkey has been seriously fighting the PKK since a 2015 ceasefire broke down and Turkey has launched raids into Iraq to strike at the group. It has threatened to attack Manbij where the U.S. coalition is present alongside the SDF. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ankara hammered out a road map in Manbij that has seen twenty-two independent patrols by the United States and Turkey near the city. According to the Coalition these patrols have gone well but it is unclear if rising tensions over the detained U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey will cause a crises. Such a crises could destabilize Manbij. The important issue here is that Turkey’s role near Manbij is not just about supporting the rebels against the regime, it is about moving the SDF back across the Euphrates. If the United States were to leave eastern Syria, for instance, and the regime returned to eastern Syria, Turkey’s reason for staying in the north would be reduced.