Media Appearance

The Captagon problem has been one of the most critical security dilemmas for Jordan, due to the increasing attempts of drug and weapon trafficking into its borders that became a threat to Jordan’s national security according to a formal assessment paper, along with the ineffectiveness of the current mechanisms to deter the actors involved in Captagon, particularly Iran-backed militias and the Syrian regime. Although the 2017 de-escalation agreement is supposed to grant Iran-backed militias being pushed back 40 km from the Jordanian border, Russia has not completely fulfilled its pledges. The Russian-sponsored settlements of 2018 and 2021 have failed to introduce a security-providing environment through the DDR process of opposition armed groups in Syria’s Daraa. 

The security dynamics of the settlements have played a crucial role in creating a Captagon-friendly environment i.e. the absence of a hegemon actor with the involvement of Russia, Iran, and the regime, in addition to former opposition groups which underwent a transformation process in terms of their motivations (political or economic) and objectives of the use of force (zero-sum or variable-sum). Many of the armed groups that had fought fiercely against the Syrian regime gave up on their political aspiration and became involved in Captagon trafficking. This article provides insight into the security landscape, particularly the interconnection between security and Captagon, as a war economy dynamic, in Syria’s Daraa, and ultimately proposes alternative policy scenarios. 

The Status Quo of the Settlements

The settlements of 2018 and 2021 between the Syrian regime and opposition factions under Russian auspices resulted, mainly, in the piecemeal return of the regime’s security apparatuses to the governorate, and the integration of many opposition fighters into these apparatuses, without achieving concrete progress vis-a-vis the detainees or forcibly-disappeared persons in regime’s prisons. Since the first settlement, Daraa has been characterized by a fragile security with the prevailing wide scale, politically motivated to a large extent, violence against various civil and armed individuals, let them be affiliated with the opposition or the regime.

Assassinations and detentions, at which dozens of individuals are targeted monthly, have been the regime’s tools to eliminate his opponents relying, for the most part, on the Military Intelligence Branch of Daraa/Swayda, led by  “Loay al-Ali”– an EU, UK, and Canada sanctioned Brigadier-General who was promoted to his current position before the 2018 settlement after he served head of the military intelligence/Daraa section between 2011 and 2018.

Thus, the regime rested on a variable-sum use of force to strengthen its territorial control, eliminate opponents, benefit economically from Captagon trafficking, and underpin its central role in the settlement status quo. Yet, even the transformation of regime behavior from zero-sum to variable-sum is mainly a result of Russian diplomatic coercion and the externally imposed status quo in Syria i.e. the relatively frozen conflict that started to arise in 2018.

The Transformation of the Opposition Armed Groups

Former opposition armed groups in Daraa have pursued different survival strategies to cope with or counter-balance the increasing security leverage of the regime in the governorate. Their transformations have generated different types of armed groups with varying motivations and objectives. While the 8th brigade became mainly motivated by preserving the settlement’s status quo that granted the brigade territorial control over some localities and a maneuvering ability to expand influence; other groups, many of which became associated with the regime, have relinquished their political motivations for economic ones through getting involved in Captagon trafficking and/or thuggery activities.

The 8th brigade led by the former opposition commander, Ahmed al-Oda, and composed mainly of former opposition fighters of “Sunna Youth Forces,” has maintained its territorial control in Eastern Daraa’s Busra al-Sham since its establishment under Russian auspices in the aftermath of the first settlement in 2018. Given the relatively secure environment with the lowest assassination rate and the better governance services in areas under its control in comparison with other areas in Daraa, the brigade has managed to preserve social support and counterbalance the regime’s influence seeking to preserve the settlement status quo. Yet, the brigade increased its leverage through variable-sum use of force.

The 8th brigade conducted multiple security operations against ISIS or groups accused of ISIS affiliation in different parts of Daraa such as Jasim in Western Daraa in August 2022 and Daraa al-Balad neighborhood where the operation eliminated the Hafo-Harfoush militia in December 2022. These operations were conducted after the regime’s escalation and threats to launch offensives in these areas under the pretext of ISIS cells, in which the 8th brigade capitalized on the social rejection of the regime’s interference and its connections with local Sheikhs and dignitaries. In addition to its previous intermediary role between the regime and local communities to ease escalation such as the cases of the 2022 March escalation in Jasim and the 2020 February escalation in al-Sanamayn city Northwestern Daraa. Moreover, the 8th brigade has also targeted other groups involved in Captagon trafficking in Northeastern Daraa including a group affiliated with Fayez al-Radi, a former opposition commander assassinated after an escalation with the 8th brigade.

Other groups such as those led by Mustafa al-Masalmeh and Imad Abu Zureiq, the two former opposition commanders, have not only given up their political struggle against the regime after the settlement but also became affiliated with the regime, as they became motivated by economic motives under the new status quo, where the regime became superior. As such, they have been involved in trafficking Captagon drugs, imposing levies on locals, and conducting assassinations against regime opponents on behalf of the military intelligence – which is managing militias and receiving levies from them.

By April 2023, both Abu Zureiq and al-Masalmeh were sanctioned, along with Assad family-affiliated individuals including his cousins, by the U.S., EU, and UK for their involvement in the production and export of the Captagon. However, al-Masalmeh was later killed after several attempts on his life by local factions due to his involvement in assassinating numerous opponents of the regime.

Hafo-Harfoush militia is another armed group led by two former opposition commanders Muhammad al-Masalmeh and Moayad Abdel-Rahman who -unlike other opposition groups- rejected the settlements and refused to be displaced to Northern Syria. They were, territorially, located in Daraa al-Balad neighborhoods until getting defeated by local factions supported by the 8th brigade in November 2022, for their links to ISIS cells, implication in assassinations against opposition figures based on revenge motives, and involvement in thuggery activities such as theft and imposing levies on locals. All of these security dynamics illustrate the overlap of security and war economy, notably the Captagon trade.

Alternative Policies: Addressing the Captagon Dilemma

Sanctions have not been effective in impelling the regime to make concrete concessions or changes such as in the case of the military intelligence in Daraa and similarly had no impact on the former opposition commanders, currently affiliated with the regime. The Arab engagement with the Syrian regime has not only failed to make progress in countering the Captagon trafficking, but the trafficking itself also increased after the normalization talks that led to the regime’s return to the Arab League in May, let alone the increasing technological capabilities of drug traffickers such as the use of drones

For regional policy implication: First, Jordanian national security should be considered vital for regional security by Jordan’s international and Arab allies against the Iranian aspiration for a next domino after Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. Second, the assumption that the Syrian regime possesses the willingness and/or the capacity to counter the Captagon problem or disassociate from Iran should be reconsidered. Third, policy options should account for the interconnection of regime-affiliated security actors and Captagon trafficking, and the increasing capabilities of Captagon networks. The May statement by the Jordanian foreign minister on the prospect of taking military action to counter the Captagon threat in Syria and the three Jordanian airstrikes targeting drug smugglers and factories in May, August, and December, highlight an alternative policy based on coercive means that can and should be adopted in countering drug trafficking.

Given the lack of a comprehensive solution, three alternative policy scenarios can be illustrated:

  • Strengthening state institutions: The interconnection between the regime and the smuggling networks, its use of the Captagon as a weapon, and the current inability to enforce security sector reform on the regime render the latter unreliable in countering the Captagon.
  • Proactive targeting of Captagon networks: The Jordanian previous airstrikes were reactive in nature and limited in scale. A proactive strategy shall, rather, be focused on targeting the factories operating in different locations across Syria as well as the Captagon barons. Such a strategy requires U.S. and regional support in addition to coordination with Russia.
  • Buffer zone: A demilitarization process in Southern Syria that necessarily requires a new status quo i.e. a new agreement with Russia and a new settlement that involves demilitarization. Such a scenario would prevent a potential spillover of the Gaza war to Southern Syria – which is, perhaps, in the interest of all parties involved. However, the technical challenges in enforcing and monitoring such settlement will not be easy to deal with.

Finally, the dynamics of the settlement in Daraa, its security repercussions, and its interconnection with the war economy can no longer be ignored, especially with the outstanding risk of spillover into the neighboring Sweida that has been gripped by a state of unrest since August.

 

The Source : Politics and Society Institute

Article link: https://bit.ly/3GZZjSc

Published in Articles

General Summary

This report provides an overview of the key events in Syria during the month of November 2023, focusing on political, security, and economic developments. It examines the developments at different levels.

  • Politically, the political stance of Assad's regime towards the Israeli aggression on Gaza was aligned with Iran's approach of non-escalation and was consistent with the prevailing Arab official stance, attempting to use the event to increase interaction with the Arab and regional surroundings. However, the issuance of a French arrest warrant against Bashar al-Assad and other officials may negatively impact Assad's efforts to break his diplomatic isolation.
  • Security, the ongoing war in Gaza cast its shadow over the security situation in Syria. Israel intensified its airstrikes against various military and logistical sites, notably the Damascus and Aleppo airports, which were put out of service again, while Iran-backed militias continue to expand their influence and move their forces to Syria's southern borders.
  • Economically, inflation rates rose by over 800% in the last quarter of this year. The regime's government began exporting citrus crops from the coastal region to Iraq, marking a first-of-its-kind step between the two countries. The Chinese government also plans to provide support to the regime in telecommunications and solar energy.

Syrian Political Landscape: Assad's Diplomatic Maneuvers and Opposition Movements

Bashar al-Assad attended the Arab summit held in Saudi Arabia's capital. During his address, he denounced the Israeli aggression in Gaza, calling for an immediate halt to these acts and the facilitation of urgent aid to Gaza. Assad engaged in bilateral discussions at the summit with the leaders of Iraq, Egypt, Iran, and Mauritania seeking to mend ties with Arab and Islamic nations to alleviate his diplomatic seclusion and attempt to shift focus from his own human rights violations in Syria.

Simultaneously, Prime Minister “Hussein Arnous's” participation in the World Climate Summit in the UAE showcases the regime's keenness to engage in global forums, aiming to reintegrate into the international community and alleviate economic sanctions.

However, this diplomatic outreach coincides with a French arrest warrant issued against Bashar al-Assad, Maher al-Assad, and other Syrian officials, signifying a new chapter in the pursuit of justice for war crimes. This development poses a potential setback to Assad's diplomatic re-engagement efforts.

Domestically, Bashar al-Assad issued Legislative Decree No. 36 of 2023, offering a general amnesty for crimes committed before November 16, 2023. This move, not the first of its kind, seems to be an attempt to placate Arab and Western governments demanding such actions, and to reinforce the regime's stance on Arab initiatives for resolving the Syrian conflict. However, statistics show that less than 5% of opposition detainees have benefited from such amnesties, leaving over /135,000/ detainees still incarcerated since the revolution.

On the Syrian Opposition front, there has been a notable increase in meetings with envoys from various countries and international entities, with a focus on humanitarian issues and calls for enhanced European support, particularly in education. Key meetings include:

  • The Syrian Negotiating Commission (SNC) Chairman met with the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State.
  • The SNC delegation met with envoys from the USA, UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, EU, Turkey, Italy, Denmark, Canada, Egypt, Qatar, and UN envoy Geir Pedersen in Geneva.
  • The National Coalition of Syrian met with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs delegation in Istanbul.

Israeli Strikes in Syria: A Strategic Overview

Since the beginning of the Israeli aggression in Gaza, there have been about /23/ Israeli strikes targeting various locations in Syria, including /9/ strikes in November across the Damascus countryside, Daraa, and Homs. A notable strike was at Damascus International Airport, causing a temporary shutdown. Concurrently, Russia permitted Iranian flights from Tehran to land at the Khmeimim Air Base, as Damascus and Aleppo international airports were inaccessible. Additionally, these strikes hit air defense systems at Mezzeh military airport.The Israeli strikes were executed for several reasons:

  • Retaliation against unidentified shelling from Daraa's countryside towards the occupied Golan Heights.
  • Intent to impede the movement of Iranian officials into Syria.
  • To deter the Syrian regime and Iran from escalating the conflict with Israel.

In Southern Syria, Iranian militias have expanded control near the occupied Golan border, transferring fighters from the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and local militias from Deir Ezzor to the southern frontlines, meanwhile the regime's recent arrest campaign in southern Syria neutralized Russian-affiliated military personal, expanding by that the security gab in the southern region, while will allow Iran’s militia to expand and in increase its presence over there, posing a constant threat and serving as a leverage tool against the international community concerning Tehran's nuclear program and support for the Assad Regime.

In North-Eastern Syria, to secure the Syrian-Turkish border, prevent PKK infiltration, and combat drug and human trafficking, the Ministry of Defense of the Syrian Interim Government deployed 3,000 Syrian National Army members in border guard brigades. The National Liberation Front in Idlib province merged with smaller factions, reducing their number for more effective ground forces.

In Eastern Syria, “Tribal Forces” attacked Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) positions in Deir Ezzor's eastern countryside. Turkish drones also conducted air raids in Hasakah province, resulting in casualties among the SDF.

Amid the global preoccupation with the war in Gaza, and in order to achieve field gains for the benefit of Assad's regime, Russian warplanes conducted several raids in different regions in Syria:

  • /30/ raids in Idlib and Hama countryside targeting Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and Ansar al-Tawhid, and supply lines in the al-Ghab Plain, claiming to target a drone depot in Idlib. HTS conducted /64/ operations against the regime, resulting in nearly /30/ fatalities among the Regime fighters.
  • /60/ raids against ISIS hidden cells areas of presence in Hama desert, Homs, Deir Ezzor, and Raqqa, killing /13/ ISIS members. Meanwhile, in response to the 17’s ISIS cells recent attacks in Homs, Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, and Aleppo, causing /73/ fatalities, predominantly regime forces.

Syrian Economic Turmoil: Central Bank Struggles, Regional Partnerships, and Local Challenges

In the Regime Held-Areas, The Central Bank of Syria has been continuously floating the Syrian Pound's (SYP) value against foreign currencies, devaluing it by over 300% since the start of the year. The Syrian Pound’s recent valuation stands at /12,600/ SYO against the U.S. $, covering both cash exchange and foreign transfers. This strategy reflects the Central Bank's struggle against foreign exchange shortages, funding scarcities, and the challenge of combating the black market. This devaluation is a sign of the Central Bank's inability to stabilize prices, with inflation in Syria soaring to 800% in the last quarter of 2023. This dramatic inflation is attributed to the regime's diversion of resources to the military, production paralysis, scarcity of commodities, and international sanctions.

In a move to bypass sanctions and strengthen banking and trade relations, the Governor of the Central Bank of Iran, “Mohammad Reza Farzin”, visited Damascus. Both nations agreed to use local currencies in trade and establish communication channels between their central banks. Iran also plans to open its first bank in Syria soon.

Following Bashar al-Assad's visit to China, the Chinese government intends to support Syria in communications and solar energy, including expanding maritime digital transport equipment in Tartus and enhancing the international gateway.

Simultaneously, the Syrian regime is working to enhance economic relations with neighboring and allied countries. This includes updating a 1969 air transport services agreement with Iraq and initiating citrus fruit exports from Syria's Sahel region to Iraq, a first between the two countries.

In Latakia, the Farmers' Union warns of the potential extinction of cattle breeding due to soaring production costs, especially for fodder. Dairy and cheese prices have escalated, and the regime has increased fertilizer prices by about 200%, leading to higher food product prices. The meat market is also affected, with chicken prices in Homs governorate hitting /35,000/ SYP per kilo, leading to the closure of 75% of poultry farms due to financial losses.

As food and other product prices rise, the regime government has increased the cost of “unsubsidized” bread by over 100%.

In the SDF Held-Areas, transportation fares between northeastern Syrian cities and towns have been raised by 25% for the second time in two months.

Farmers in Deir Ezzor's eastern countryside face agricultural production challenges due to water scarcity and the Administration's failure to provide irrigation water and fuel distribution, threatening the effectiveness of land cultivation.

In the Opposition Held-Areas, the Ministry of Agriculture of the Syrian Interim Government launched a wheat crop support project in Aleppo's countryside, aiming to cultivate /2,000/ hectares with the support of the Trust Fund for the Reconstruction of Syria. The project encompasses several cities and towns, including al-Ghandoura, al-Rai, Bza'a, Marea and Azaz

Additionally, a 2-million-euro solar energy project for drinking water pumping stations was inaugurated in al-Bab city, funded by the Syria Recovery Trust Fund. This project, the largest of its kind in northern Syria, will serve 200,000 people with 2547 solar panels. Lastly, the “Sakan Foundation” continues its “Safe Haven” project in Kafr Taanour village, constructing /400/ residential houses for /2,396/ beneficiaries.

Published in Reports

Early recovery in Syria stands out as one of the most significant variables that has started to take shape in recent years. There are indications of varying dynamics in early recovery in the current areas of influence, which are distinct in terms of local actors, needs, resources, and capabilities, as well as variations in local, regional, and international approaches to this variable. In this context, the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, in collaboration with Mardin Artuklu University, is organizing its second research conference titled “Early Recovery in Syria: Realities and Future Perspectives”.

Therefore, we announce the commencement of receiving research proposals for participation in the conference in Arabic, English and Turkish. The deadline for submitting research proposals is  January 31, 2023.

The conference is scheduled for May 17-18, 2024.

For more details:

-        Main Themes and Subscription Criteria: https://bit.ly/47N6clq

-        Conference Background Paper: https://bit.ly/47Jap9A

-        Submission Link: https://bit.ly/3Gf1rFg

 

Published in Events

Abstract: The Syrian uprising took the regional powers by surprise and was able to disrupt the regional balance of power to such an extent that  the Syrian file has become a more internationalized matter than a regional one. Syria has become a fluid scene with multiple spheres of influence by  countries, extremist groups, and non-state actors. The long-term goal of re-establishing peace and stability can be achieved by taking strategic steps in empowering local administration councils to gain legitimacy and provide public services including security.

Introduction

Regional and international alliances in the Middle East have shifted significantly because of the popular uprisings during the past five years. Moreover, the Syrian case is unique and complex whereby international relations theories fall short of explaining or predicting a trajectory or how relevant actors’ attitudes will shift towards the political or military tracks. Syria is at the center of a very fluid and changing multipolar international system that the region has not witnessed since the formation of colonial states over a century ago.
In addition to the resurrection of transnational movements and the increasing security threat to the sovereignty of neighboring states, new dynamics on the internal front have emerged out of the conflict. This commentary will assess opportunities and threats of the evolving alignments and provide an overview of these new dynamics with its impact on the regional balance of power.

The Construction of a Narrative

Since March 2011, the Syrian uprising has evolved through multiple phases. The first was the non-violent protests phase demanding political reforms that was responded to with brutal use of force by government security and military forces. This phase lasted for less than one year as many soldiers defected and many civilians took arms to defend their families and villages. The second phase witnessed further militarization of civilians who decided to carry arms and fight back against the aggression of regime forces towards civilian populations. During these two phases, regional countries underestimated the security risks of a spillover of violence across borders and its impact on the regional balance of power. Diplomatic action focused on containing the crisis and pressuring the regime to comply with the demands of the protestors, freeing of prisoners, and amending the constitution and several security based laws.

On the other hand, the Assad regime attempted to frame a narrative about the uprising as an “Islamist” attempt to spread terrorism, chaos and destruction to the region. Early statements and actions by the regime further emphasized a constructed notion of the uprising as a plot against stability. The regime took several steps to create the necessary dynamics for transnational radical groups (both religious and ethnic based) to expand and gain power. Domestically, it isolated certain parts of Syria, especially the countryside, away from its core interest of control and created pockets overwhelmed by administrative and security chaos within the geography of Syria where there is a “controlled anarchy”. It also amended the constitution in 2012 with minor changes, granted the Kurds citizenship rights, abolished the State Security Court system but established a special terrorism court that was used for protesters and activists. The framing of all anti-regime forces into one category as terrorists was one of the early strategies used by the regime that went unnoticed by regional and international actors. At the same time, in 2011 the regime pardoned extremist prisoners and released over 1200 Kurdish prisoners most of whom were PKK figures and leaders. Many of those released later took part in the formation of Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS, and YPG forces respectively. This provided a vacuum of power in many regions, encouraging extremist groups to occupy these areas thus laying the legal grounds for excessive use of force in the fight against terrorism.

The third phase witnessed a higher degree of military confrontations and a quick “collapse” of the regime’s control of over 60% of Syrian territory in favor of revolutionary and opposition forces. Residents in 14 provinces established over 900 Local Administration Councils between 2012 and2013. These Councils received their mandate and legitimacy by the consensus or election of local residents and were tasked with local governance and the administration of public services. First, the Syrian National Council, then later the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces were established as the official representative of the Syrian people according to the Friends of Syria group. The regime resorted to heavy shelling, barrel bombing and even chemical weapons to keep areas outside of its control in a state of chaos and instability. This in return escalated the level of support for revolutionary forces to defend themselves and maintain the balance of power but not to expand further or end the regime totally.

During this phase, the internal fronts witnessed many victories against regime forces that was not equally reflected on the political progress of the Syria file internationally. International investment and interference in the Syrian uprising increased significantly on the political, military and humanitarian levels. It was evident that the breakdown of the Syrian regime during this phase would threaten the status quo of the international balance of power scheme that has been contained through a complex set of relations. International diplomacy used soft power as well as proxy actors to counter potential threats posed by the shifting of power in Syria. Extremist forces such as Jabhat al-Nusra, YPG and ISIS had not yet gained momentum or consolidated territories during this phase. The strategy used during this phase by international actors was to contain the instability and security risk within the borders and prevent a regional conflict spill over, as well as prevent the victory of any internal actor. This strategy is evident in the UN Security Council Resolution 2042 in April 2012, followed by UNSCR 2043, which call for sending in international observers, and ending with the Geneva Communique of June 2012. The Geneva Communique had the least support from regional and international actors and Syrian actors were not invited to that meeting. It can be said that the heightened level of competition between regional and international actors during this phase negatively affected the overall scene and created a vacuum of authority that was further exploited by ISIS and YPG forces to establish their dream states respectively and threaten regional countries’ security.

The fourth phase began after the chemical attack by the regime in August of 2013 where 1,429 victims died in Eastern Damascus. This phase can be characterized as a retreat by revolutionary military forces and an expansion and rise of transnational extremist groups. The event of the chemical attack was a very pivotal moment politically because it sent a strong message from the international actors to the regional actors as well as Syrian actors that the previous victories by revolutionary forces could not be tolerated as they threatened the balance of power. Diplomatic talks resulted in the Russian-US agreement whereby the regime signed the international agreement and handed over its chemical weapons through an internationally administered process. This event was pivotal as it signified a shift on the part of the US away from its “Red Line” in favor of the Russian-Iranian alignment, which perhaps was their first public assertion of hegemony over Syria. The Russian move prevented the regime’s collapse and removed the possibility of any direct military intervention by the United States. It is at this point that regional actors such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia began to strongly promote a no-fly zone or a ‘safe zone’ for Syrians in the North of Syria. During this time, international actors pushed for the first round of the Geneva talks in January 2014, thus giving the Assad regime the chance to regain its international legitimacy. Iran increased its military support to all of Hezbollah and over 13 sectarian militias that entered Syria with the objective of regaining strategic locations from the opposition.

The lack of action by the international community towards the unprecedented atrocities committed by the Syrian regime, along with the administrative and military instability in liberated areas created the atmosphere for cross-border terrorist groups to increase their mobilization levels and enter the scene as influential actors. ISIS began gaining momentum and took control over Raqqa and Deir Azzour, parts of Hasaka, and Iraq. On September 10, 2014, President Obama announced the formation of a broad international coalition to fight ISIS. Russia waited on the US-led coalition for one year before announcing its alliance to fight terrorism known as 4+1 (Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah) in September 2015. The Russian announcement came at the same time as ground troops and systematic air operations were being conducted by the Russian armed forces in Syria. In December 2015, Saudi Arabia announced the formation of an “Islamic Coalition” of 34 largely Muslim nations to fight terrorism, though not limited to ISIS.

These international coalitions to fight terrorism further emphasized the narrative of the Syrian uprising which was limited to countering terrorism regardless of the internal outlook of the agency yet again confirming the regime’s original claims. As a result, the Syrian regime became the de facto partner in the war against terrorism by its allies while supporters of the uprising showed a weak response. The international involvement at this stage focused on how to control the spread of ISIS and protect each actor from the spillover effects. The threat of terrorism coupled with the massive refugee influx into Europe and other parts of the world increased the threat levels in those states, especially after the attacks in the US, France, Turkey and others. Furthermore, the PYD-YPG present a unique case in which they receive military support from the United States and its regional allies, as well as coordinate and receive support from Russia and the regime, while at the same time posing a serious risk to Turkey’s national security. Another conflictual alliance is that of Baghdad; it is an ally of Iran, Russia and the Syrian regime; but it  also coordinates with the United States army and intelligence agencies.

The allies of the Assad regime further consolidated their support of the regime and framing the conflict as one against terrorism, used the refugee issue as a tool to pressure neighboring countries who supported the uprising. On the other hand, the United States showed a lack of interest in the region while placing a veto on supporting revolutionary forces with what was needed to win the war or even defend themselves. The regional powers had a small margin between the two camps of providing support and increasing the leverage they  have on the situation inside Syria in order to prevent themselves from being a target of such terrorism threats  of the pro-Iran militias as well as ISIS.
In Summary, the international community has systematically failed to address the root causes of the conflict but instead concentrated its efforts on the conflict's aftermath. By doing so, not only has it failed to bring an end to the ongoing conflict in Syria, it has also succeeded in creating a propitious environment for the creation of multiple social and political clashes, hence aggravating the situation furthermore. The different approaches adopted by both the global and regional powers have miserably failed in re-establishing balance and order in the region. By insisting on assuming a conflictual stance rather than cooperating in assisting the vast majority of the Syrian people in the creation of a new balanced regional order, they have assisted the marginalized powers in creating a perpetual conflict zone for years to come.

Security Priorities

The security priorities of regional and international actors have been in a realignment process, and the aspirations of regional hegemony between  Turkey, Arab Gulf states, Iran, Russia and the United States are at odds. This could be further detailed as follows:

•    The United States: Washington’s actions are essentially a set of convictions and reactions that do not live up to its foreign policy frameworks. The “fighting terrorism” paradigm has further rooted the “results rather than causes” approach, by sidelining proactive initiatives and instead focusing on fighting ISIS with a tactical strategy rather than a comprehensive security strategy in the region.
•    Russia: By prioritizing the fight against terror in the Levant, Moscow gained considerable leverage to elevate the Russian influence in the Arab region and an access to the Mediterranean after a series of strategic losses in the Arab region and Ukraine. Russia is also suffering from an exacerbating economic crisis. Through its Syria intervention, Russia achieved three key objectives:
1.    Limit the aspirations and choices of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey in the new regional order.
2.    Force the Iranians to redraft their policies based on mutual cooperation after its long control of the economic, military and political management of the Assad regime.
3.    Encourage Assad’s allies to rally behind Russia to draft a regional plan under Moscow’s leadership and sphere of influence.
•    Iran: Regionally, Iran intersects with Washington and Moscow’s prioritizing of fighting terrorism over dealing with other chronic political crises in the region. It is investing in fighting terrorism as a key approach to interference in the Levant. The nuclear deal with Iran emerged as an opportunity to assign Tehran as the “regional police”, serving its purpose of exclusively fighting ISIS. The direct Russian intervention in Syria resulted in Iran backing off from day-to-day management of the Syrian regime’s affairs. However, it still maintains a strong presence in most of the regional issues – allowing it to further its meddling in regional security.
•    Turkey: Ankara is facing tough choices after the Russian intervention, especially with the absence of US political backing to any solid Turkish action in the Levant. It has to work towards a relative balance through small margins for action, until a game changer takes effect. Until then, Turkey’s options are limited to pursuing political and military support of the opposition, avoiding direct confrontation with Russia and increasing coordination with Saudi Arabia to create international alternatives to the Russian-Iranian endeavors in the Levant. Turkey’s options are further constrained by the rise of YPG/PKK forces as a real security risk that requires full attention.
•    Saudi Arabia: The direct Russian intervention jeopardizes the GCC countries’ security while it enhances the Iranian influence in the region, giving it a free hand to meddle in the security of its Arab neighbors. With a lack of interest from Washington and the priority of fighting terror in the Levant, the GCC countries are only left with showing further aggression in the face of these security threats either alone or with various regional partnerships, despite US wishes. One example is the case in Yemen, where they supported the legitimate government. Most recently in Lebanon, it cut its financial aid and designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Riyadh is still facing challenges of maintaining Gulf and Arab unity and preventing the plight of a long and exhausting war.
•    Egypt: Sisi is expanding Egyptian outreach beyond the Gulf region, by coordinating with Russia which shares Cairo’s vision against popular uprisings in the Arab region. He also tries to revive the lost Egyptian influence in Africa, seeking economic opportunities needed by the deteriorating Egyptian economic infrastructure.
•    Jordan: It aligns its priorities with the US and Russia in fighting terrorism, despite the priorities of its regional allies. Jordan suffices with maintaining security to its southern border and maintaining its interests through participating in the so-called “Military Operation Center - MOC”. It also participates and coordinates with the US-led coalition against terrorism.
•    Israel: The Israeli strategy towards Syria is crucial to its security policy with indirect interventions to improve the scenarios that are most convenient for Israel. Israel exploits the fluidity and fragility of the Syrian scene to weaken Iran and Hezbollah and exhaust all regional and local actors in Syria. It works towards a sectarian or ethnic political environment that will produce a future system that is incapable of functioning and posing a threat to any of its neighbors.

During the recent Organization of Islamic Cooperation conference in Istanbul the Turkish leadership criticized Iran in a significant move away from the previous admiration of that country but did not go so far as cutting off ties. One has to recognize that political realignments are fluid and fast changing in the same manner that the “black box” of Syria has contradictions and fragile elements within it. The new Middle East signifies a transitional period that will witness new alignments formulated on the terrorism and refugee paradigms mentioned above. Turkey needs Iran’s help in preventing the formation of a Kurdish state in Syria, while Iran needs Turkey for access to trade routes to Europe. The rapprochement between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates as well as other Gulf States signifies a move by Turkey to diffuse and isolate polarization resulting from differences on Egypt and Libya and building a common ground to counter the security threats.

Opportunities and Policy Alternatives

The political track outlined in UNSC 2254 has been in place and moving on a timeline set by the agreements of the ISSG group. The political negotiations aim to resolve the conflict from very limited angles that focus on counter terrorism, a permanent cease-fire, and the maintenance of the status quo in terms of power sharing among the different groups. This political track does not resolve the deeper problems that have caused instability and the regional security threat spillover. This track does not fulfill the security objectives sought by Syrian actors as well as regional countries.

Given the evolving set of regional alignments that has struck the region, it is important to assess alternative and parallel policies to remain an active and effective actor. It is essential to look at domestic stabilizing mechanisms and spheres of influence within Syria that minimize the security and terrorism risks and restore state functions in regions outside of government control. Local Administration Councils (LAC) are bodies that base their legitimacy on the processes of election and consensus building in most regions in Syria. This legitimacy requires further action by countries to increase their balance of power in the face of the threat of terrorism and outflow of refugees.
A major priority now for regional power is to re-establish order and stability on the local level in terms of developing a new legitimacy based on the consensus of the people and on its ability to provide basic services to the local population. The current political track outlined by the UNSC 2254 and the US/Russian fragile agreements can at best freeze the conflict and consolidate spheres of influence that could lead to Syria’s partition as a reality on the ground. The best scenario for regional actors at this point in addition to supporting the political track would be to support and empower local transitional mechanisms that can re-establish peace and stability locally. This can be achieved by supporting and empowering both local administration councils and civil society organizations that have a more flexible work environment to become a soft power for establishing civil peace. Any meaningful stabilization project should begin with the transitioning out of the Assad regime with a clear agreed timetable.

Over 950 Local Councils in Syria were established during 2012-2013, and the overwhelming majority were the result of local electing of governing bodies or the consensus of the majority of residents. According to a field study conducted by Local Administration Councils Unit and Omran Center for Strategic Studies, at least 405 local councils operate in areas under the control of the opposition including 54 city-size councils with a high performance index. These Councils perform many state functions on the local level such as maintaining public infrastructure, local police, civil defense, health and education facilities, and coordinating among local actors including armed groups. On the other hand, Local Councils are faced with many financial and administrative burdens and shortcomings, but have progressed and learned extensively from their mistakes. The coordination levels among local councils have increased lately and the experience of many has matured and played important political roles on the local level.

Regional powers need domestic partners in Syria that operate within the framework of a state institution not as a political organization or an armed group. Local Councils perform essential functions of a state and should be empowered to do that financially but more importantly politically by recognizing their legitimacy and ability to govern and fill the power vacuum. The need to re-establish order and peace through Local Councils is a top priority that will allow any negotiation process the domestic elements of success while achieving strategic security objectives for neighboring countries.


Published In The Insight Turkey, Spring 2016, Vol. 18, No. 2

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