here has been a shake-up in Syria following President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from the war-torn country. The lack of clarity in Washington’s exit strategy has sparked a whirlwind of diplomacy as well as a jockeying for position.
This past week has witnessed Arab countries moving to establish relations with Damascus, Israeli airstrikes, a Russia-Turkey meeting and the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) inviting the regime into the city of Manbij for protection from a likely Turkish-backed military operation. While all of the actors in Syria prepare for life without America, the Syrian opposition wonders about its fate as foreign players continue to legitimize President Bashar Assad.
UAE and Bahrain reopen embassies: After eight years of conflict, the dust finally seems to be settling in Syria with conditions conducive for launching a serious political settlement. Work on creating a constitutional committee and designing a road map that leads to free and fair elections top the diplomatic agendas in Astana and Geneva. However, recent moves by the UAE and Bahrain to establish diplomatic relations with Damascus and reports that the Arab League is ready to reinstate Syria could deliver a huge blow to the process. Legitimizing Assad through a premature normalization of ties with Syria before the security situation and the role of the opposition are established, leaves little on the table for negotiations. Strengthening Assad’s hand also damages prospects for a resettlement program deal that would pave the way for millions of refugees that dream of returning home.
Who gets US coalition territory?: Assad, supported by Russian statements and the YPG’s invitation, now views himself as the rightful heir to territory protected by the US coalition. However, Washington wants to coordinate a handover to Ankara and Turkish-backed opposition forces. The confusion and power vacuum created by the US withdrawal announcement could lead to an escalation of tension between the regime and the opposition’s guarantor, Turkey. In the event that Assad does secure control of the area east of the Euphrates, we may very well be faced with the same recipe that ignited the Syrian conflict – an oppressive regime that crushes opposition with violence.
Return of refugees and IDPs: In the upcoming period, as Syria slowly enters a process that prepares it for free and fair elections, the return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) will become a pressing issue. Since the start of the war, more than 5.6 million Syrians left their home country to neighboring states, with more than 3.5 million fleeing to Turkey. As the country prepares to normalize, it’s imperative that the proper conditions are put in place to provide an incentive for resettlement. It’s counterproductive for the voluntary return of refugees to Syria if nearly all territory is controlled by the same regime that caused the migration crisis in first place. After the capture of Homs, Ghouta, Darayya, Zabadani and Qalamoun, the entire region bordering Lebanon came under regime control. However, according to UNHCR only 50,000 of the 1 million refugees in Lebanon chose to return. In contrast, nearly 300,000 refugees were properly resettled after Turkey’s operations in Syria.
If Manbij and the area east of the Euphrates were to come under the control of the Syrian opposition, we foresee conditions being suitable for the return of more than 1 million Syrian refugees and IDPs to the region. Our forecast includes the repatriation of 250,000 Syrians from YPG-held areas that have taken refuge in northern Iraq, more than 300,000 Syrian Kurds in Turkey and the close to 350,000 Arabs in Turkey from the eastern Euphrates cities of Hasakah, Deir al-Zor and Raqqa. The Syrian Stabilization Committee, an office of the Syrian Interim Government, also reports nearly 350,000 IDPs from YPG-held areas who are now living in northwestern Syria. The resettlement of these people would be an important step towards normalization of the country.
Opposition’s role in the political solution: Regime gains over the past two years have put Assad in pole position but he still has not taken any steps to address the issues that started the revolution. The role of the opposition and fate of refugees are still a critical puzzle piece in the political transition process outlined in UNSC Resolution 2254. While a military ousting of Assad is highly unlikely at this point, the formation of a strong constitutional committee that thoroughly represents the Syrian political spectrum can help design a check and balance system for the future.
In order for the opposition to have success in Geneva and Astana, they will have to look to Ankara and Washington for support. Many experts view the US-Turkey coordinated withdrawal as a green light for a Turkish operation against the YPG. But, for the opposition, it’s a final opportunity to level the diplomatic playing field. Approximately 80% of the country’s oil fields and the main sources of grain production are in US-coalition held territory. Opposition control over this land could serve as economic leverage over Assad and trigger a new round of talks where Syrians can represent themselves.
Rebuilding the ruins: Another important step toward normalization will be the rebuilding of a country in ruins. UN estimates have placed the cost of reconstruction at $388 billion. The war has carried an expensive price tag for the regime – and its backers, Russia and Iran, none of whom is in an economic situation to shoulder the bill. Arab countries can be a possible source for funds but any support will come with strings attached aimed at containing Iran’s influence. This positions the EU as the most likely source for financing.
But Brussels has already stressed that it will only assist in reconstruction if Syrian parties initiate a comprehensive and inclusive political transition process. Regardless of who will lead Syria in the future, the major issue they will face is rebuilding the country – and this will require a cohesive effort. While the paths of the regime and the opposition may be far apart, the road to normalization will require an intersection.
Yusuf Erim is a political analyst at TRT World. Omer Ozkizilcik is a security analyst at SETA Foundation.