Ten developments and files, both local and foreign, will determine the fate of Syria in 2023. The resolution of these files will have implications for years and perhaps even decades to come. They will determine the fate of the three “statelets” in Syria after they remained largely unchanged in the past three years.
1 – Turkish normalization: The Syrian and Turkish foreign ministers are expected to hold a meeting in mid-January to follow up on the military and security talks that were held in recent weeks. The aim is to reach Russian-sponsored joint arrangements in northern Syria, starting from the US zone of influence east of the Euphrates River.
Here, one must monitor the roadmap drafted by Moscow for Damascus and Ankara that should culminate in a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections are held in June.
There is no doubt that the results of the roadmap will have massive political and economic repercussions on Syria and its surrounding. Will deals be struck? Will concessions over geography be made in exchange for political and economic gain?
2 – Kurdish concerns: One of the main common points of agreement between Moscow, Ankara and Damascus is weakening the Kurdish entity and their autonomous administration in northeastern Syria. They believe that these Kurdish institutions are an “existential threat to Syria and Türkiye.”
Joint Syrian-Turkish military operations and Russian pressure are being exerted to dismantle these Kurdish institutions and keep them at a 30-kilometer distance from the Turkish border.
One must monitor the positions of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) over these developments. The SDF has said that it has withdrawn its heavy weapons and Kurdish People Protection Units (YPG) from the border region in line with the 2019 Sochi agreement reached between Russia and Türkiye. It has, however, refused to pull out its Asayish security forces and local councils.
The SDF is banking on Erdogan’s loss in the elections and continued American support and military presence. Ankara is insisting on the dismantling of all Kurdish institutions and is not opposed to the deployment of Syrian border guards, forces and institutions on its border.
3 – US cover: The SDF has been allied with the US-led international anti-ISIS coalition for seven years. They succeeded in defeating the group geographically in Syria. The US, meanwhile, set up military bases in Syria that have given it clout in negotiations against Russia, in curbing Iran’s entrenchment in the war-torn country and in offering logistic support to Israel.
Contrary to the former administration of US President Donald Trump that had made a surprise call for the pullout of American troops in Syria, current President Joe Biden has maintained the troop presence. There are signs that the US, which is involved in the war on Ukraine, needs Türkiye and NATO and will not wage a war against Ankara because of the Kurds.
The American position must be monitored in wake of efforts to normalize relations between Türkiye and Syria.
4 - Arab normalization: The bilateral steps of normalization that had taken place between Arab capitals and Damascus, and the collective steps between the Arab League and Damascus, were somewhat put on hold in 2022. Syria did not attend the Arab summit in Algeria due to objections by influential Arab countries.
Some countries, such as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and others, that had kicked off normalization also put these efforts on hold last year for various reasons, such as the bitter experience with Damascus in controlling its border and halting the smuggling of Captagon narcotic pills. They also yielded to American and western pressure to freeze the normalization. The US Congress had issued new resolutions against Damascus, limiting economic support towards it.
The Arab position must be monitored in 2023 in the leadup to the next Arab summit set for spring and in wake of the changes taking place in relations between Arab countries, the US, China and Russia. The position will likely be impacted by the normalization between Ankara and Damascus and Damascus’ behavior in regional files and its ties with Iran.
5 – Ukraine war: Russia’s involvement in the war has had a major impact on Syria. The conflict bolstered the cooperation between Ankara and Moscow and Presidents Erdogan and Vladimir Putin. Putin now needs Erdogan, whose country is now Russia’s economic and political gateway.
The Russian leader has also been pushing for a meeting between Erdogan and Assad so that they could resolve their differences and open a new chapter in relations. He has also been keen on Erdogan winning the upcoming presidential elections.
On the economic level, the Syrian conflict has largely been forgotten with the world focused on Ukraine. Donor funds are now being pumped in Ukraine instead of Syria, deepening its economic crisis.
6 – Israeli strikes: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government kicked off the new year by carrying out strikes against “Iranian targets” in Damascus International Airport, leaving the facility out of service for several hours.
Israel has carried out hundreds of similar raids against Iranian positions in Syria over the years. Last year, it expanded the scope of its attacks throughout the country. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented 32 Israeli raids in 2022 that destroyed and struck 91 targets, including buildings, weapons caches and vehicles. Eighty-eight military personnel were killed and 121 wounded in the attacks.
One must monitor the impact of Netanyahu’s return to power on Syria in 2023. How will his hardline government tackle the Iranian nuclear file? What will happen to understandings reached between Israel and Putin and the hotline for military coordination between Tel Aviv and Russia’s Hmeimim base in Syria? How will Israel’s position on the war on Ukraine and the military cooperation there between Moscow and Tehran impact its stance on Syria?
7 – Iranian alliance: Tehran believes that it helped “save” the Damascus regime when it intervened in the Syrian war in late 2012. It offered massive military, security, economic and financial support to Syria and wants a price for it. It has been stalling in “saving” the regime from its economic crises without extracting a price: “sovereign concessions” that include the establishment of permanent military bases in Syria and securing economic agreements related to oil, gas and phosphates.
Tehran is taking advantage of the economic crisis in Damascus, Moscow’s preoccupation in Ukraine, the possible normalization of relations between Türkiye and the Arabs with Syria, and the Israeli raids to reap major privileges in Syria.
One must observe the developments between Damascus and Tehran, most notably since Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was set to visit Syria last week and amid claims of a Syrian-Iranian “divorce” or a “redefinition” of the relationship.
8 – Economic crisis: Syria has been destroyed by 12 years of war. The United Nations says half the Syrian population have been displaced from their homes and a third of them have sought refuge abroad. Ninety percent of the population is living in poverty, 80 percent suffers from lack of food security and 14.6 million people rely on aid. The cost of the food basket rose 85 percent in 2022 and the Syrian pound has lost over 80 percent of its value.
The catastrophe is massive. One must monitor the developments related to the extension of the international resolution on the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid later in January. One must note Russia’s position on the resolution that is the lifeline for nearly four million people in northern Syria. The extension of the resolution would ease a financial burden on Damascus.
9 – Syrian collapse: Syrians living in government-held regions have said the situation there was worse in 2022 than what it was in 2011, the start of the conflict. They noted how the government has sought to shed economic costs by extending holidays and occasionally suspending work at institutions and hospitals.
There are deep concerns over a major collapse in Syria that will impact the government, army and security forces. The normalization of relations between Türkiye and Syria will have an impact on the economic crisis. Will the crisis force Damascus to take painful political decisions and implement UN Security Council resolution 2254 or will it lead it to loosen its relations with Iran?
10 - “Step for step”: UN envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen had focused his efforts in recent years on holding meetings of the Constitutional Committee, believing it to be the foundation for the implementation of resolution 2254. Russia, Türkiye and Iran had banked on this path through the Astana process.
In wake of the Ukraine war, Russia has made logistic conditions related to the Constitutional Committee that has led to the suspension of its work for months.
Pedersen therefore, revived an old suggestion – the “step for step” approach – that calls for Damascus to carry out measures in return for western countries to offer incentives and waivers. Syria had never showed interest in this approach, but this stance has now shifted. This was evident during the latest meeting held between Pedersen and Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad in Damascus, which wants to know what is on offer and what countries are offering them.
Discussions are ongoing over simple issues, such as western countries taking steps to resolve the electricity problem or granting visas to Syrian diplomats, in return for Damascus taking steps towards prisoners and amnesty.
This path must be monitored, as well as the next meeting between Pedersen and Mikdad and the extent it may impact the normalization between Ankara and Damascus and just how committed it is to the envoy’s mission.