Akram Bunni

Costly and Delayed Wars in Syria

Talk of a broad battle being prepared to decide Idlib’s fate is gaining steam, amid periodic Russian airstrikes, Syrian artillery bombardment and news of the arrival of Syrian regime reinforcements to the east of the city… Increasing indications of an imminent Turkish military campaign against the Kurds in Northern Syria, with artillery being fired from both sides and soldiers being deployed on several fronts… The persistence of Israeli airstrikes on advanced Syrian regime positions and Iranian militias’ headquarters and warehouses...

In theory, all of the above indicate that a war erupting on one of these fronts in Syria is likely. However, in practice, it seems to be a delayed war, whether it is because the belligerents cannot afford the costs or out of fears of hurdles that could complicate them or uncertainty regarding their outcomes.

It is true that the tensions between Israel and the so-called axis of resistance have come close to boiling points at several junctures. The parties to this axis were left fuming after seeing the damage Israeli airstrikes inflicted on their positions and Tel Aviv’s insistence on going to great lengths in order to prevent advanced weapons from reaching Hezbollah and to foil the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s plans to establish military bases for its militia near Israel’s border.

But it is also true that both sides are aware of the price that would be paid for because of such a war. Tehran’s rulers cannot open the door to war with Israel while its conflicts for regional influence, for which they are fully prepared to drown Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen with blood and devastation, continue to drain it.

They are also wary of what that war could cost them, as well as the threats it would pose to the stability of their system of domination, perhaps even leading to the disintegration of their alliances and the weakening of their control.

Meanwhile, nothing about the persistence of the game of bombarding from afar bothers Israel, as that allows it to contain Iran and militias’ military presence in the region, and invest in what remains of that presence to paralyze political life in the Levant, crush every opportunity for the development for Levantine countries, and keep the Arabs distracted and besieged.

True, Western neutrality and the US retreat and the implications of its military withdrawal from Afghanistan have incentivized the various factions with influence in Syria to rearrange their priorities and shares, even if war is imposed. It is also true that the situation in Syria, in light of its economic and social collapse, makes Russia’s realization of its vision and objectives impossible.

It needs to change, and that could maybe be achieved through a war that ends Ankara’s insistence on maintaining its positions and influence in Syria, with a shift in the situation on the ground, which has been frozen since the agreements reached between Russia and Turkey in March, in Idlib.

However, decision-makers in Moscow probably don’t want to wage a war that would be extremely costly, as they are aware that any attack on Idlib would undermine the Astana Agreements, which the Russians consider the only alternative for a Syrian settlement to the path of Geneva and UN resolutions.

Russia is also aware that war would threaten its various economic ties with Turkey, including gas pipelines. On top of all of that, Moscow is skeptical of the Syrian regime and Iranian militias’ ability to swiftly impose their authority on the area and ensure its stability, and it worries about how the European Union, which would face massive waves of refugees among the millions of Idlib’s inhabitants, could react.

Furthermore, Russia needs Turkey to be involved in Syria to contain the growth of Tehran’s role, a role that is becoming increasingly problematic and leading to the increased exacerbation of behind-the-scenes tensions between the leadership in the Kremlin and Iran’s rulers over privileges and spheres of influence in Syria.

Despite Turkey’s proclamations on the need for a war, which it threatens to wage in the north and east of the country to contain the threats posed by the Kurds’ military presence, it is unlikely to follow through. Doing so, occupying the cities and towns in Syria that the Kurds have governed autonomously for years, would be a dangerous gamble given the generalized Kurdish hostility to it that this step would imply and the Kurdish forces’ mastery of gang warfare, which is how such a war would be fought.

Waging it is also likely to undermine Turkey’s reputation and cost it dearly in human lives, which would reflect on the Justice and Development Party’s popularity before the upcoming parliamentary elections. This option also obviously clashes not only with the stance of the United States, which is opposed to any large-scale military operation against its Kurdish allies, but also Russia’s stance, which seems more vehement because this war could leave the Syrian scene changed in a manner that is not to Moscow’s liking and undermine its objectives and ambitions.

We also shouldn’t forget that such a war would push the Kurdish Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria to accelerate the fortification of its ties to the Russian forces and the Syrian regime. Moreover, it could also reflect on Moscow, leaving it more aggressive on the Idlib front, with the developments that this implies for Ankara and the risk of open war on several Syrian fronts that it poses.

Could we, then, conclude that Turkey is merely trying, through its threat of waging war, to discourage Russia from pushing forward in Idlib and perhaps prevent the emergence of an agreement between Moscow and Washington- in the event that the latter pulls its forces from Syria- which doesn’t account for Turkey’s interests? Alternatively, is the aim to push in the direction of Moscow becoming the guarantor of the containment and subordination of the Kurdish forces, as well as ensuring that they do not cause damage on the border with Turkey and that the 1998 Adana Agreement is reinstated in the event that the regime in Damascus regains control over Kurdish areas?

Could we, therefore, see these threats as an attempt by Ankara to win over and appease Moscow by pressuring Islamist groups in the city of Idlib to expel foreign militants. The most unambiguous indication of this is the campaign against them in rural Latakia launched recently by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, during which it arrested Abu Musa al-Shishani (the Chechen), the brother of a leader of Jund al-Sham Muslim al-Shishani, along with Abdullah al-Benkisi al-Shishani and Abu Abdullah al-Shishani, as they were trying to escape to Turkey.

Everyone is threatening to wage war, and everyone is careful, in practice, to avoid it and is wary of its costs and implications. Meanwhile, Syria is likely heading for increased disintegration and destruction. Based on the experiences undergone over the past few years, this war remains unlikely or delayed, though that doesn’t mean escalation, bombardments and assassinations will not increase and break out from time to time; nor does it mean that battles will not erupt here and there. However, these battles will be limited and tactical, mostly waged to strengthen positions and buy time.