Big-power rivalries deepen Syria’s fragmentation

Spheres of influence, carved out along sectarian and ethnic lines, perpetuate the conflict

Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters in Al Bab in Aleppo. Proxies backed by outside powers are active in different regions of Syria. Photo: AFP
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When Farhad, a Syrian-Kurdish aid worker, tried to reach his Aleppo village this week to visit his mother, Turkish intelligence agents stopped and interrogated him.

Since 2017, the rural region has been part of the sphere of influence Turkey has carved out in northern Syria, after taking territory from Kurdish militias and ISIS.

Thousands of Arab refugees, many of whom had fled areas recaptured by the Syrian regime in the civil war, have moved to the region, near the city of Al Bab, in the past five years.

A cluster of Kurdish villages is now surrounded by Arab encampments. Among them is Farhad's home village.

“There is lots of lawlessness but the Turkish security presence is keeping a lid on things,” says Farhad, who manages a western-funded aid project in north-eastern Syria, which is in the US sphere of influence.

With the Syrian conflict entering its 11th year in March, the international powers that have played a major role in shaping the civil war have been consolidating large zones under their control.

The Turkish, Iranian, Russian and US zones have been used by each power to checkmate each other. This unresolved international scramble has frustrated the regime of President Bashar Al Assad's stated aim of regaining control of the country.

These zones experienced major socio-economic shifts as different forces took control and expelled local populations, deepening Syria's fragmentation and undermining the chances of a political solution.

A UN process to find a resolution has been officially ongoing since the US, Russia and other countries agreed on a vaguely defined political transition in July 2012.

The conflict started in March 2011 with peaceful protests in the southern city of Deraa against five decades of Assad family rule.

Rival statelets

Farhad is one of the few Syrians with permission to travel from the US zone to the Turkish zone. The American sphere is mostly in the Euphrates basin and is run by Kurdish militias.

He crossed to northern Iraq, took a plane to Turkey and went by car from southern Turkey to Al Bab, where he had to apply for a civil ID from the local administration.

It is controlled by the Sultan Murad Brigade, a proxy force for Turkey comprising anti-Assad fighters.

“There are local councils and civil departments but without a security clearance from Sultan Murad I would not have gotten my papers,” Farhad says.

He said the nominal administrative set-up in Turkish-held Aleppo is similar to the one in the US zone in the north-east.

There, local power lies with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian-Kurdish militia, and its ally, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the military backbone of the Kurdish presence in the region

Both the Kurdish militias and Turkey's Sunni proxies have been undermined by their patrons for geopolitical gains.

But they have little choice but to stick with their backers.

Turkey has made tacit deals with Russia that led to the Syrian regime retaking territory in the north. This was in exchange for Turkey taking nearby territory in Aleppo and Idlib governorates from Kurdish militias.

The YPG and PKK had hoped to capture enough land with US and Russian support to form a continuous fief along the border with Turkey, stretching from the edge of Iraq to the Mediterranean coast.

Iranian gains

The changed map has been accompanied by population expulsions along sectarian lines that could maintain the conflict regardless of any UN deal.

Syrian Sunnis fear that Iran is creating a so-called "southern suburb" in its zone of influence on the outskirts of Damascus by buying Sunni land and populating the area with Shiite militias from Iraq, and their families.

Many in the opposition to the Assad regime said the area is beginning to resemble Hezbollah's stronghold in southern Beirut, a de facto statelet financed by Iran.

Tehran has also attracted Sunni tribes in its sphere of influence in the Deir Ezzor governorate in eastern Syria. This was done by recruiting them to guard parts of a supply line from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon that runs through Syria.

Between 2008 and 2010, proselytising led by Iran converted at least 20,000 Sunnis in Deir Ezzor to Shia Islam, as Iran distributed food aid and cash handouts in the poverty stricken area.

Most of the 20,000 converted back to Sunnism when anti-Assad rebels captured the area in 2012-2013, highlighting the vulnerability of local forces when their patrons disappear.

A Syrian officer who defected from the regime’s military and operates from an Arab country said Iran “is playing it smarter”.

He is comparing the Iranian approach to its policies before 2011, which fuelled resentment against Tehran among Syria's Sunni majority

“They are using more money, and legitimate means such as land purchases, with less outright focus on pushing their ideology,” the former officer said.

Russia's image

In some cases, the Iranian drive for influence has contradicted Russian interests, although the two countries are allies when it comes to Syria.

Arab security officials said pro-Iranian militias in southern Syria, a Russian sphere of influence, are the main actors in the production and smuggling of Captagon into Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula.

Russia has sought in the past decade to boost ties with Jordan and the Gulf countries, which regard the Captagon trade as a threat to their security. Moscow's forces moved into southern Syria in 2018 after a tacit deal with Israel and the US that centred on curbing pro-Iranian forces in the region.

In September last year, pressure by Moscow forced rebels in the southern provincial capital of Deraa to surrender to the regime.

But tit-for-tat killings between the regime and rebels, who had given up most of their weapons, have reignited.

This instability is undermining Russia's image as the ultimate power in Syria since its intervention in 2015 on the side of the regime.

Uncertainty among US allies

During his short stay in his home village, Farhad was afraid of being kidnapped by gangs for ransom – not because he is a Kurd.

In the nearby Kurdish region of Afrin, almost all of the region’s population fled when Turkey overran the rural area in 2017 and installed the Syrian National Army, another of its Sunni proxies.

Support for anti-Turkey Kurdish militias ran strong in Afrin, unlike the more mercantile region of Al Bab, where Kurds constitute a minority, Farhad says.

He says Turkey has a political interest in shielding Kurds in Al Bab “to show that its safe zone model can be inclusive”.

Masses of Sunnis have been displaced from the north-east since the Kurdish militias took over the region in 2012.

But some Sunni tribes have co-operated with the new rulers, and joined the Syrian Democratic Forces, a military formation dominated by the YPG and PKK.

Speculation increased after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan this year that Washington could also pull out from Syria, weakening its Kurdish allies.

Brett McGurk, White House co-ordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, told The National last month that “we intend to stay”.

But Mr McGurk would not be drawn on the future of the region, beyond saying that the American forces would continue to fight ISIS in Syria.

Since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, Kurdish militias have been seeking more talks with Assad representatives about a long-term accommodation with the regime, western diplomats said.

They have also opened power-sharing negotiations with the National Kurdish Council, a pro-Turkish grouping of Kurdish parties. The group is also supported by Masoud Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdish leader who controls his own fief in northern Iraq.

A Syrian opposition figure who works with Turkish intelligence said the pragmatism shown by Kurdish militias since 2011 "will not save them" if the US ultimately withdraws from Syria.

“The regime will renege on any deal, and a deal with the Kurdish National Council means ceding to Turkey," the opposition figure said from Istanbul.

He said Sunnis in the north-east, even those who joined the Syrian Democratic Forces, also "have a scores to settle" with the Kurdish militias.

“None of the options available to the Kurds look good," he said.

Updated: January 06, 2022, 7:02 AM