The war in Syria can seem impossibly complicated. Depending on the level of detail or abstraction you apply, there are dozens, hundreds, or thousands of individual factions and sub-factions vying for control of part or all of Syria.
Yet those thousands of elements aren’t somehow just bouncing off each other like atoms. They move in identifiable patterns, drawn along by how they’re linked to each other and to a handful of international poles. Syria’s war is complex, but it’s not random.
I’ve become increasingly convinced that much of the analytical and policy debate over Syria has lost sight of how the country’s pieces, in aggregate, fit together. Whether in terms of the real dynamics of power and control within the war’s opposing camps or the country’s more holistic strategic picture, it’s how the war’s elements relate to each other that tends to actually explain the conflict.
Making any predictive sense of Syria and identifying where the United States and other outsiders ought to engage is not just about seeing the individual nodes of the war, but about identifying what connects and animates them.
A Divided Map
Jonathan Spyer, the director of the Rubin Center and Jerusalem Post columnist, made waves in May when he returned from a reporting trip inside Syria’s regime-held west and argued that “the state known as Syria has effectively ceased to exist.”
Spyer’s thesis overlapped only in some respects with that of analyst Tobias Schneider, who has contended that the Syrian state and regime of Bashar al-Assad have dissolved into a stew of out-of-control, semi-criminal militias (more on which below). Spyer focused on the regime-state’s diminished sovereignty and, in particular, on the broken map of control nationwide. He dismissed the regime of Bashar al-Assad’s ambitions to reverse Syria’s fragmentation and restore its territorial unity, noting the country “is today divided into no less than seven enclaves: the territory controlled by the regime, three separate areas of rebel control, two Kurdish cantons, and the Islamic State area.”
But these enclaves are not somehow on even footing. Nor do they exist in a state of equidistant mutual antagonism, like something out of realist international relations theory.
The three main opposition enclaves are disconnected geographically. They are studded into the edges of the regime-held west, the most populous, economically vital part of the country. Yet these opposition areas are also disconnected politically, each run by a different mix of factions sponsored by their own respective international backers. Only one of the three opposition enclaves, Syria’s rebel-held northwest, is reliably motivated and able to fight the regime. This will likely prove its undoing. In fact, the discombobulation of the opposition nationwide is what might save some of it. In Syria’s southwest, it’s possible to imagine a stable de-escalation in part because rebels there have been deliberately isolated from toxic dynamics elsewhere in the country, ranging from jihadist infiltration to factional dysfunction.
The contest between the regime and the opposition is not a single fight, with three opposition areas teamed against the regime. It is three (or more) fights, each pitting the one big regime – critically, bolstered by its allies – against a smaller, outclassed opposition enclave.
Meanwhile, the relationship between the Assad regime and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – the dominant political force in those two Kurdish areas – is not properly adversarial. Regime and Kurdish areas are distinct but entangled, not just territorially, but also in terms of economic life and shared state institutions. Importantly, the PYD has always set its ambitions for local autonomy below the threshold of secession or regime change in Damascus, which has kept the PYD’s relationship with the regime fraught but functional. It is these latter two camps – the regime and Kurdish-led forces – that have secured robust great-power support. The opposition’s backers, on the other hand, are incoherent and unmotivated. And the Islamic State is dying alone.
The picture nationwide, then, is not of a Syria broken into seven enclaves. That’s not how these sections of the map fit together. Rather, the picture is of a sort of non-aggression pact between internationally backed regime and Kurdish-led forces that are dividing the country amongst themselves before, potentially, coming to their own accommodation. The mixed opposition and the Islamic State have lost, by international consensus, and are being edged out of a future Syria.
The same lesson also applies within Syria’s warring camps: It’s not their respective parts, it’s how those parts fit together.
The PYD is only one party in the various overlapping political umbrellas that cover Syria’s Kurdish areas, from the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) and the Autonomous Administration to the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria and the Syrian Democratic Council. But it’s the PYD – or, more precisely, a set of cadres trained by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – that exerts effective authority and keeps things functioning. Likewise, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the PYD’s armed parallel, is only one faction of many within the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by the U.S.-led coalition. But U.S. officials have told me it’s the YPG that makes the SDF reliable and effective. The SDF’s other components function as auxiliaries to the SDF’s “backbone,” the YPG, which ensures effective, unitary command and control.
The PYD and YPG’s lead organizing role is why these structures work, and what makes them an attractive, useful partner for the U.S.-led coalition. It’s also why they may be doomed: The PYD and YPG’s extensive links to the PKK mean neighboring Turkey is determined to crush them. Turkey also recognizes the real power dynamics inside the SDF, as I’ve been told by American and Turkish officials. That’s why Turkey hasn’t been reassured when America has offered to ethnically dilute the SDF with more Arab units subordinate to the YPG.
This power dynamic inside the SDF is why proposals to shear the YPG from the SDF and produce a more purely Arab force to capture Arab-majority areas have been understood, inside the U.S. government, to be non-starters.
Likewise, mooted plans to weaken and marginalize jihadists in Syria’s northwest have little to do with how these factions actually relate to each other. There are a number of insurgent factions in the northwest, centered on Idlib province, ranging from “Free Syrian Army” nationalist units to Islamist movement and opposition faction Ahrar al-Sham to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the latest iteration of former Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah. And if you look at a categorized list or an infographic of these factions that divides them neatly into moderates and jihadists, the policy answer seems clear: back the moderates. Periodically, one of these factions is still retailed to outsiders as the basis of a counter-jihadist project.
But that’s not how the pieces are put together in northwest Syria. Local Free Syrian Army factions, in practice, mostly align under either Ahrar al-Sham or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (as do many civilian actors, by necessity). These Free Syrian Army rebels exist under the protection or at the pleasure of these larger, more powerful Islamist factions. Ahrar al-Sham is the only countervailing force to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and even Ahrar’s effectiveness as a counterbalance is undercut by issues of will and ideological confusion. And all these factions, of all stripes, are tangled up in complicating familial and personal relationships. The result is a rebel milieu from which it’s impossible to mold a force that is wholly separate from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, much less a counter-jihadist “awakening.”
As for the Assad regime, how the regime’s various paramilitary auxiliaries relate to the central regime-state – and whether the Syrian regime and state still exist at all – is one of the most hotly contested and relevant debates on Syria today.
Tobias Schneider has been the most influential proponent of the “militiafication” thesis, that the Assad regime has mostly been replaced by a mess of paramilitary factions. In one particularly well-read August 2016 article, Schneider keyed into a number of examples of militias run amok – examples which no one seems to dispute – but then, more controversially, extrapolated that the national Assad regime is a “fiction” and “the Syrian state is gone for good.” The corollary to that argument, as Schneider presented it, was that if the regime no longer exists, the United States and allies should just expediently decapitate it and cut to the end of its slow implosion.
Schneider’s argument found a ready audience among opposition boosters, including wish-casting Western diplomats. The Syrian opposition has itself made a similar case that the regime no longer exists and has been replaced by a jumble of Russian and Iranian forces and proxies.
That was not my impression when I visited Damascus last year, nor the impression of the various diplomats and other interlocutors whom I’ve met who regularly enter Syria’s west and interact with the regime. My understanding is that those militias – which, without context, look like a teeming, undifferentiated horde – actually fit into existing regime networks of control: a set of official and unofficial strings that all run up to the single, pivotal locus point, Assad himself. These sub-factions enjoy substantial autonomy to engage in criminality and local predation, but when those strings pull taut, they can be puppeteered in sync.
People I’ve spoken to who regularly enter Damascus, some of whom are responsible for overseeing relief distribution or appealing for humanitarian access, say the challenge they face is not a weak or nonexistent state. The actual structure and inner workings of the Syrian regime-state are opaque to the point of incomprehensibility. But the regime – in particular, its various security services – is very much present and in charge, even if its appendages now have a less regular look to them.
The security services still have matters in hand, from their supervision of more prosaic meetings and social interactions to their security control, regardless of which state or para-state element happens to be manning a given checkpoint. “They dominate the rules of the game,” complained one diplomat about a long battle for aid access.
Contrast the integral regime with the rebel opposition’s factions, which have proven mostly impervious to unification under a single effective command or political reference – part of why external powers shopping for local proxies have opted for either the regime-state or the YPG.
If we want to imagine a future for Syria and aim U.S. policy accordingly, we’re obliged to consider Syria in holistic terms – not just the country’s warring parts, but how they fit together and comprise a unitary state.
To that end, we have to think in terms of what you could call the “center.” All elements and players in Syria are defined, to some extent, by their relationship to the national Syrian state in Damascus – the center. This center consists of the institutions and symbolic international legitimacy of the Syrian state.
In 2017, the Assad regime’s control over the center is unchallenged. This is not a testament to the legitimacy or virtue of the regime, it is a statement of fact. No relevant international actor wants to displace or break the regime. There is no valid reason to expect the regime to change or to think that it can be substituted with another regime that is somehow more amicable and reasonable, whether through some implausible political settlement or under pressure from Moscow.
The regime’s hold on the center has made it the hub to which all Syria’s spokes connect and to which, as it retakes more of the country, additional regional spokes can be reconnected. There is no alternative center. Repeated attempts to create one have failed.
The Syrian opposition committed early on to capturing the center, which meant the stakes in the regime-opposition axis of Syria’s multi-sided war were zero-sum and existential. The opposition entered a conflict in which, for the most part, it would either win or lose; it is now in an accelerated stage of losing.
The PYD-YPG, on the other hand, set its sights on sub-state autonomy and local control in a way that didn’t obviously threaten the center, something that allowed for a different, semi-cooperative dynamic between the regime and the PYD-YPG. Over the long term, of course, Damascus still views that sort of local autonomy and devolution of power as a threat to its centralized control nationwide and will likely try to snuff it out. Still, it’s at least possible to envision some midpoint compromise between the two parties, in which one isn’t ultimately destroyed and subsumed by the other.
All parts of Syria, no matter how restive or far-flung, will eventually need to define some functional relationship with the center if they want to enjoy the minimum benefits of a modern state: public sector employment, networked utilities, accredited education, public healthcare, passports. The alternative, for sections of the country with a broken or nonexistent link to the center, is a sort of low-functioning, no-state purgatory. It’s also possible, in theory, for these areas to be hived off from Syria, formally or informally, and oriented towards a new center in Amman or Ankara. None of Syria’s neighbors currently seem to have the requisite irredentist appetite, however.
It remains to be seen whether some opposition-held sections of the country can adjust their ambitions downward – committing to less threatening local control, rather than regime change – and approach a more tenable, survivable relationship with the regime while avoiding outright defeat and surrender. And if so, it is also uncertain whether these areas can ultimately be re-linked to the center without opening themselves to its more unappealing elements – the coercive security apparatus, regime-linked gangsters, and Iran’s proxy appendages. In this respect, the U.S.-Russian condominium now being negotiated in Syria’s southwest will be a key test.
It does not make sense for the United States to invest resources and effort – to say nothing of American lives – to create new opposition enclaves that cannot later be reconciled to the center. The United States should not attempt to turn a section of the lower Euphrates River valley into an American protectorate that will need to be defended and subsidized indefinitely and that will exist in a sort of permanent no-man’s-land hostility to Damascus and every other political-military force around it.
It’s already an open question whether existing opposition-held areas can be reintegrated into a regime-led state on terms that aren’t retributive and horrible. Washington should not sacrifice American servicemen and women to create new question marks.
Syria As It Is
The above points are just a few examples of how, to my understanding, Syria is actually put together, with all the constraints that entails for Syria policymaking. The Syrian war is not a set of pieces that can be joined into new combinations or smashed against each other per the needs of outside powers. The country and its various warring camps have their own dynamics and relationships that limit and define how they can be used as implements of U.S. policy, and that are now delineating the broad arc of the war.
Washington’s Syria policy needs to be calibrated to the war’s second-order connections and linkages if it’s going to work – particularly if the United States wants to ultimately leave Syria, not just wage unlimited rounds of proxy war to no obvious end.
That’s not to say that America ought to embrace and invest in all these dynamics. Just because the Assad regime is winning, for example, doesn’t mean the United States should help. It shouldn’t. But as Washington gauges where to selectively, productively engage in Syria – with an eye on extricating the United States from what’s still likely to be a slow-burning, years- or decades-long conflict – it shouldn’t necessarily resist some of Syria’s native mechanics. If a PYD-regime accommodation over the administration of al-Raqqa shores up the relationship between the PYD periphery and the regime-held center and brings the country closer to a more sustainable, stabilizing equilibrium, then America doesn’t have an obvious interest in frustrating that.
Policymakers and analysts need to approach Syria with a realistic, nuanced view of how the country is organized – which, counterintuitively, is probably more comprehensible than any attempt to catalogue hundreds of armed factions. Understanding Syria is not about counting the number of enclaves, or rebel brigades, or pro-regime militias. It’s about understanding how they relate to each other, to the whole of the country, and to the historical course of the war.
More than half a decade into Syria’s war, America ought to be taking the long view and pursuing de-escalatory arrangements that allow America to safely exit. Those arrangements, if they are going to last, cannot be totally, defiantly at odds with Syria’s internal organization and logic.
Winding down sections of the war, and America’s involvement in them, is going to require Washington to engage Syria as it really fits together and operates – Syria as it is, not as we want it to be.
Sam Heller is a fellow at The Century Foundation and a Beirut-based writer and analyst focused on Syria. Follow Sam on Twitter: @AbuJamajem.