Syria: What is Next?

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Hakan Cem Cetin, PhD

hakanc.cetin@gc4ss.org

Senior Expert
Global Center for Security Studies

The Syrian civil war which has been going on for seven years seems to be near its end. Since the not-much expected Russian involvement in 2015, the course of the war has changed dramatically for the Syrian President Besser al-Assad as well as rebels fighting against the Assad regime.  With this last-minute Russian help, President Assad has come back from the brink of a total collapse and gained an upper hand over its adversaries. Such that, he now controls three quarters of the country, excluding only the Idlib province and the Northern part of Syria, which is under the control of the Syrian Kurdish group (YPG). News that the Assad regime has begun talks with the YPG over the inclusion of the Kurdish regions in Syria with a prospect of autonomy is another breakthrough success for the Syrian president.

This military adventure would open the Pandora’s Box and let the catastrophic events spread all over the region such a magnitude that has never been seen before

The last major hurdle before Assad is apparently an ambitious Turkey over the future of Syria in which Turkish President Erdogan’s grudge against him is very palpable and a substantial obstacle Assad should take into account in his next move. The Turkish President is giving signals that he is not up for giving the territory he has carved up from Syria. For Erdogan, who once dreamed of performing prayer at the Omayyad mosque, it is very difficult to take a step back and accept the reality on the ground.

On the other hand, it seems that there are two contentious issues for President Erdogan, which are closely intertwined with each other, with various power centers. One is the fate of Syrian Kurds, whom the US is not ready to abandon because of their loyalty and more importantly of their precious service in the fight against the ISIS, when especially Turkey fixes its eyes on the Syrian city of Manbij, captured and run by the YPG. Although the US and Turkey have temporarily had an agreement on the day to day military activities, it is far from a comprehensive deal that satisfies Turkey. It is obvious that even if President Trump is apparently counting on days for withdrawing his forces from Syria he, most probably, does not want to give an impression that he is abandoning his loyal ally after the US has reached its target, defeating the ISIS. It would be a major setback for the US, if it does not guarantee the security of Kurds against a hostile Turkey, which is seemingly ready to act whenever it finds an opportunity.

The second issue is the future of Idlib, the border province with Turkey, where there are currently 2.5 million people living, half of them displaced by fighting in other parts of the country. Most of Idlib is controlled by rebels and jihadists led by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, but it is claimed that the ISIS also has a number of cells in the province. After President Assad has warned that government forces intend to retake Idlib, regime forces have intensified the artillery and aerial bombardment of southern Idlib and sent reinforcements to nearby areas they control. Turkey has so far supported rebels controlling Idlib and is vehemently against Syrian offensive for capturing this last rebel strong-hold. Despite President Erdogan himself has made a personal appeal to Russian President Putin for preventing the Syrian offensive against Idlib, as being never shy on backing Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov declared that Syria has had a right to defend itself and Russia would support Syria in its efforts to retake the province from rebel groups.

Turkey is in a real dilemma. On the one hand, if it bows to the Russian pressure and Syria goes on this offensive with taking Idlib back at the end, hundreds of thousands of people running away from Syrian forces would end up at its border, increasing Syrian refugee crisis which is already being severely felt by Ankara. It is obvious that among these new refugee wave there might be thousands resentful jihadis infiltrating Turkey in disguise of refugees with the belief that Turkey did not help them against Assad even though it had promised before. In such case, jihadis might easily put Turkey on the target so as to take their revenge. If Turkey, on the other hand, do not consent to Syrian offensive and launches a military operation against Syrian forces, it might find itself in a full-scale war with Syria, backed most probably by Russia and Iran.

In the meantime, while Turkey is facing economic crisis, there is another danger in the horizon. If Turkey would not be able to cope with this crisis and economy goes into bankrupt, President Erdogan might prefer to take steps to divert attention from economic crisis. In that case, the best possible scenario would be a military incursion into Syria that may well cause disastrous cost for Turkey, one of which is spill-over effect of the incursion, paving way for a devastating civil war in Turkey involving different ethnic groups and Syrians or uprising of Kurds living in Eastern and South-eastern parts of Turkey. Without any doubt, this military adventure would open the Pandora’s Box and let the catastrophic events spread all over the region such a magnitude that has never been seen before. For preventing these catastrophic consequences, international community should step in and do serious efforts restraining all parties.

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