In 2021, five key factors have cast their shadows on Syria and its people. Though they are not equal, the intertwining of these factors will substantially impact the future of the country and people during the coming years.
They will also leave their effects on the decisions of foreign “players” and the five armies (Russia, Iran, Turkey, US, and Israel) in the Levantine country.
For the second year in a row, contact lines in Syria have remained very much the same, distributed among three “microstates” or spheres of influence.
With the help of Russia and Iran, the Syrian regime controls two-thirds of Syria’s territory.
Despite having the upper hand in the country’s center, west and south, Damascus lost what’s sitting on the other side of the Euphrates, where the US-led International Coalition and Kurdish-Arab allies, like the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), control abundant national wealth that is locked in no more than a quarter of Syria’s total geographical area.
Other enclaves in the countryside of Aleppo in the north and at Al-Tanf in the southeast of the country, near the borders of Jordan and Iraq, are also controlled by the US and its allies.
The third sphere of influence is controlled by Syrian factions backed by Turkey and includes three enclaves, one of which is located east of the Euphrates and another two in the north and northwest of Syria. Collectively, the land held by Turkish-backed forces sums up to twice the size of Lebanon.
What is noteworthy is that this area is home to around 3.5 million Syrians. Just as many Syrians are also living in neighboring Turkey, which is now the host of the largest number of Syrian voters, their ballots can swing elections if they are ever held someday.
Since the agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Moscow on March 5, 2020, contact lines between these “microstates” have not changed significantly.
Moreover, lines of contact were strengthened when President Joe Biden took office. After a catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington decided to remain in northeastern Syria, informing Russians and its allies that US presence will stay the same, at least until Biden’s term ends.
Putin had offered the cover needed for Israel to engage with Iranian military targets in Syria. A genuinely remarkable matter is for him to allow Tel Aviv to intensively bomb the Iranians when they are Russia’s allies in Syria and elsewhere.
A military coordination mechanism between the Russian-operated Hmeimim air base and Tel Aviv was activated. Israel escalated its raids in Syria, using surface-to-surface missiles to bombard the Damascus countryside in October, and bombed the port of Latakia on the Mediterranean for the first time.
In the final days of 2021, Israeli sources revealed that dozens of Hezbollah targets in southern Syria had been hit during the past three years without any retaliation. The most recent attack took place on Tuesday, when Israel targeted Latakia Airport, 20 kilometers away from Hmeimim, for the second time in less than a month.
Since Biden took office, the priority of the Syrian issue in his agenda has declined. The US administration was satisfied with setting three goals: providing humanitarian aid to all Syrians, preventing the return of ISIS, and maintaining the ceasefire and the stability of the lines of contact.
Humanitarian aid remained a mainstay on the agenda of Syria talks without going into more profound and more significant political issues, to the extent that the UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen barely succeeded in holding simple meetings of the Constitutional Committee.
Disregard for the political part by the Biden administration left more room for Russia’s insistence to get Arab countries to normalize ties with the regime in Damascus. Moscow pressed Arab nations to recognize the regime as a fait accompli in Syria and urged them to start pumping funds for the reconstruction of the war-torn nation.
Arab Nations Normalizing Ties with Damascus
Since the end of 2011, the Arab League has suspended Syria’s membership. Nevertheless, the Syrian government remained represented in United Nations institutions because the UN Security Council did not take the decision to freeze Damascus’ membership.
Changes that took place over the past decade saw some countries gradually reopening doors with Damascus.
The embassies of UAE and Bahrain in Syria partially returned to work at the end of 2018.
Moreover, Arab officials started taking visits to Damascus and held security and political contacts with Syrian government. But there was no consensus on the country’s return to the Arab League.
Stagnation took over the track of normalizing ties with Damascus, with almost no chance of it attending the Arab League summit scheduled for the end of March 2022.
Many observers say that the reason behind this is that Damascus had failed to provide any concessions to Arab states on the topics of its internal political process, abandoning the Iranian agenda, fighting drug smuggling networks and combatting terrorism.
Crisis and Migration
The sight of Syrians riding “death boats” to escape the war across seas to Europe was shocking in 2015, and it was believed that it had ended.
But recent events paint a different picture, as Syrians arrived at the Belarus-Poland border to “escape hell” in Syria and reach the “European dream.” Social media reported thousands of Syrians in front of immigration institutions to obtain passports.
Most of these Syrians are looking to escape poverty, poor living conditions and hunger as their country’s economy continues to deteriorate.
Prospects and Questions
The stability of the lines of contact did not end the suffering for Syrians wherever they are. Many questions on what the year 2022 will bring remain unanswered.
Will lines of contact remain constant? And for how long? Is the fate of Syria partition, decentralization, or a return to “full sovereignty”? Will any tension in Ukraine affect the US-Russian understandings east of the Euphrates on the one hand, or the Russian-Turkish arrangements in Idlib on the other, and change the size and borders of the “microstates”?