In the past few weeks, the map of the Syrian conflict has been dramatically redrawn. The changes followed a period in which the conflict appeared to have been heading towards a settlement shaped and directed by Russia. Up until the end of last year, commentary on the conflict overwhelmingly reflected how the situation appeared to be playing out.
The regime was apparently winning. Vladimir Putin made a triumphant visit to Syria to declare that the war against ISIL was over, thanks to the Russian support for the Syrian government. Moscow even wanted to follow up the military victory with a political triumph, in Sochi, where a conference, including members of the opposition, would seal the gains made through the close cooperation between Russia, Turkey and Iran.
That narrative now seems to be in the distant past. In January, the regime launched a brief offensive to retake Idlib, with limited success. In mid-February, the regime shifted focus to Eastern Ghouta through an intensifying offensive to recapture areas just outside the capital, Damascus. Meanwhile, last week, Turkey completed the capturing of areas along its borders near the Kurdish region of Afrin. It has concurrently linked the rebel pockets in northwestern Syria, including the only major pocket that the rebels seized from ISIL since the summer of 2014, with the support of Turkish forces.
The lesson from these changes is not that the regime is losing or that Russia will not achieve its goals. Rather, the lesson is that the Syrian conflict can still produce game-changing surprises. Future scenarios are probably being written in areas that observers view as static or ones with a clear trajectory.
One such scenario could be written in northwestern Syria, and possible surprises could affect countries that currently view that region as a Turkish and Russian affair. This scenario relates to a question many are asking these days: where might the next extremist challenge emerge in Syria?
In the north west, moderate rebel groups have come under increasing pressure for several years. Extremist groups turned against each other to establish primacy over each other. A campaign by the Syrian regime in 2016 culminated with the takeover of Aleppo in December of that year, which led to the weakening of several groups that once presented themselves as forces capable of balancing against extremist groups like ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra.
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The regime's takeover of Aleppo also meant that the Idlib governorate and rural areas of Hama and Aleppo adjacent to it became the new centres of the rebels in the north. In those areas, for various reasons, extremists found favourable conditions to establish primacy over moderate and less radical factions.
At the backdrop of the steady weakening of the latter forces, Turkey's intervention in northern Syria in August 2016 slowly steered the rebels into a new direction, focused on fighting ISIL and the Kurdish YPG, or the People's Protection Units.
More to the point, the rise of extremists in that region and the dramatic changes in Turkey’s policies in Syria opened the door for militants to benefit financially. Turkey changed its priorities from toppling the regime of Bashar Al Assad to ending the YPG’s autonomy project in Syria. This abrupt change naturally carries risks of unintended consequences, especially favouring those most prepared to benefit from them.
With the general weakening of the anti-Assad forces and Turkey’s increasing and forceful presence in that region, extremists will likely choose to lay low. They are unlikely to confront Turkey. Instead, the region could emerge as a major financial source for extremists by virtue of Ankara’s fixation with the Kurdish expansion in Syria. This possibility applies to groups with an existing presence in that region, such as Jabhat Al Nusra, currently known as Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, as well as ISIL operatives that may be looking for new areas to find new sources of funding, sanctuaries and arms.
Such a scenario is not speculation. Well-placed sources inside Syria speak of some senior extremist figures abandoning the fight in northwestern Syria to shift to money-making activities in the Euphrates Shield zone that Turkey established in 2016.
This area has also emerged as the site of a newly-organised branch of Al Qaeda in Syria. The new group consists of extremist veterans who once established some of the early cells for what is now known as ISIL in Iraq, after the invasion in 2003. Those members are predominantly Jordanians and old associates of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the founder of ISIL.
The only notable Syrian within the group, Abu Hammam Al Shami, was another associate of Al Zarqawi, who reportedly was in charge of safe houses for jihadis that entered northern Iraq through Syria after the war in Iraq. He was also part of what the Americans dubbed the Khorassan Group, reportedly the operatives within Jabhat Al Nusra with an international agenda.
If for no other reason than to keep a close eye on these developments, northwestern Syria requires renewed attention from countries like the US. Currently, different areas are relevant to different countries for different reasons. For the US, eastern Syria is the focus to prevent the resurgence of ISIL. For Turkey, the northern parts are vital to curtail the Kurdish expansion. For Israel, southwestern Syria is a critical region to preempt an Iranian presence there. But, as events over the past few months demonstrated, there could be surprises in areas they currently view as a distraction.