“After Afrin and Sochi:
Envisioning an Endgame in Syria”
International Institute for Strategic Studies
London, February 7th, 2018
In a meeting chaired by Dr. Nicholas Redman, Director of Editorial at the International Institute For Strategic Studies (IISS), Emile Hokayem, the Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, assessed Syria’s military and political battlefields, and analyzed the objectives of the principal groupings and their external patrons. Mr. Hokayem also made reference to the state of the Geneva and Sochi negotiations and speculated about possible likely political and military winners.
Emile Hokayem is an expert on all political and conflict matters in the Middle East. His areas of specialism include key conflict points in the region and the rise of non-state actors, including jihadi groups and Hezbollah. His commentaries are featured regularly in prominent Western and Arab media outlets.
Hokayem’s presentation focused on the political and military power balance in Syria, which is now slowly beginning to crystallise due to the following events:
1. The defeat of the Islamic State caliphate.
2. Russia and Iran having saved the central government and thereby secured a position of relative strength for the Assad regime.
3. Competing interests of external powers, and their Syrian allies, coming into clearer focus, for example, Turkey’s strike against Syrian Kurdish groups in Afrin.
4. Multilateral efforts failing to achieve an acceptable political settlement and a remaining split between Geneva and Sochi, with little progress being made in either location.
Emile Hokayem began his remarks by suggesting that predictions about the region were hard to make and that he did not wish to think about potential endgames in the Syrian conflict. Instead, he focused on assessing the balance of power within the country, which according to him was still developing, as with the crystallization of the interests of regional states, though it was still unclear how the many informal arrangements and formal processes would eventually play themselves out.
However, it was his view that it was unlikely that the central government would reassert its “absolute control” over the country in any foreseeable scenario, as the conflict in Syria was still in flux, with all parties still trying to maximize their returns.
Emile Hokayem said that the fall of Raqqah had symbolized not just the end of Daesh (ISIS) but the end of the ‘Caliphate,’ which he termed as having been a state-building project. Afrin, on the other hand, symbolized ongoing rivalries and brinkmanship to influence Syria’s map, while Sochi symbolized a likely political settlement (however disappointing it may be to some of the current actors). He was adamant that all three of the above mentioned symbols were interconnected.
In Emile Hokayem’s view, success in defeating ISIS had come because politics had been set aside, with all attention focused on a military solution to deal with the issue. He suggested that the fight against ISIS had become a guise, or a race for territory, which was a vehicle for the advancement of local or regional interests. In the process, various rivalries had been superimposed, which meant that they were now erupting in different areas. Meanwhile, certain parties such as the Kurds, who were involved in the war against Daesh, had been able to extend their control over valuable territory with the hope of optimizing their future ambitions (e.g. the Kurds in Iraq). Hokayem said it was predictable that this would not endure in a way that would alter the endgame (something he had himself predicted in his previous writings). As a result, it was his view that getting rid of ISIS did not in any sense ensure that we were likely to have a more stable Middle East.
Emile Hokayem said that since 2015-2016, Russia had had dominance over the Syrian battlefield. He noted that the Russians did not control everything, but that they were able to regulate action taken by other players (including trying to reach out and co-opt some of the rebel forces). At the same time, Russia had undergone a complex relationship with the Turks. He said that Russia, in conjunction with Iran and Turkey, had tried to put into place a de-escalation process, which he described as a scam in places like Hama, Idlib, and the South. Hokayem called it a scam because in his view, instead of trying to achieve a nationwide cease fire (albeit excluding groups like ISIS or the ‘Nosra Front’), it was mainly directed as a way for Russia, Iran and Turkey to manage their relations and exclude other players, or involve them but only at marginal levels.
Hokayem said that the result of ‘Astana’ had served the Assad regime by allowing it to allocate its resources in whatever way it wanted by basically letting it decide where it wanted its battlefields to be. He said that Assad had so far played this card very well, by forcing ISIS in the previous year to surrender key territories in central Syria, including valuable oil fields.
Astana had also served as a way to entangle the UN with an almost bogus humanitarian process and by affording very little visibility to the realities on the ground, which had seen no humanitarian aid at all being provided to desperate people in the course of the last two months. Additionally, Astana had also provided an excuse for Western powers to wash their hands of Syria. This did not mean that they agreed with the process, though it clearly suggested that they did not wish to pay a price for being involved.. Finally, Astana had served as a way to co-opt and split discouraged rebel groups and create more arguments among them. He concluded that while levels of violence had varied, in recent weeks they had increased, and he quoted an international report which said that for every Syrian returning to their place of origin, three were leaving the country.
According to Hokayem, in the last six to nine months, the Assad regime had successfully seized as much territory as possible (though not everywhere) and had been able to prove its own credentials against ISIS. However, in the past two months, the focus had shifted to Idlib (and more generally the area around the ‘M5 Highway’ that connects the Jordanian border to the Turkish border), where rebel Jihadi groups such ‘Nosra’ and other Islamists were entrenched. Control of Idlib (where charges of using chlorine gas have recently surfaced) would provide the Assad regime control over Western Syria. He attributed the regime’s success for having previously been able to cut off Western Hama province from Idlib. However, ISIS forces from Raqqah had now established themselves in Idlib, and this was why the campaign had been attracting so much attention, with Assad’s forces bent on capturing as much territory as possible in Eastern Idlib.
Focusing attention on Turkey’s objectives, Hokayem said that the Turks had used specific rebel groups as proxies in Afrin and were now trying to get them to send extra manpower from Idlib to Afrin. So while some of these rebel forces had been engaged in an existential battle with the Assad regime, they were also being pressured by the Turks to redeploy some of their forces away from Idlib to Afrin. It was his view that eventually the resistance to the central government in Idlib was likely to crumble, which meant that the US, the Saudis and the Qataris were unlikely to alter the situation by coming up with any credible challenges as events moved forward.
Turning to the situation in Eastern Syria, Hokayem said that the People’s Defense Unit (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG) had received substantial armed support, and having fought well, successfully increased its foothold in Eastern Syria, including oil rich provinces and Raqqah itself. However, in the post-ISIS period, certain weaknesses were being noticed, despite the fact that the YPG had captured key resource-rich areas and seemingly tried to strengthen their ultimate negotiating hand for a final deal that would supposedly pit territory against autonomy – something that he described as the dream of all Kurdish strategists. However, it was his view that some elements in the YPG wanted more than just territory, especially given the confidence that their strategic relationship and close collaboration with the US had given them. It remained a fact that the YPG was not in a position to match the strength of other state actors: something that was being vividly displayed in Afrin at this time.
According to Hokayem, complications regarding Afrin were serious and could become highly problematic for the Turks, especially in their relations with the US. However, he noted that the Turks were unlikely to risk their relations with the US over this issue, though they felt strongly that they had been seriously let down by the Americans. At this point in the discussion, he referred to the fact that as a result of YPG’s take over of Raqqah and violation of other red lines, posters of The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan were now being seen everywhere in the city. Nonetheless, so long as Turkey looked at the YPG as a subjective threat, the incentive to use force against them would always remain on the table. He said that there was talk today that Turkey wanted to establish a security zone from Afrin to Monbij, as well as along its border with Syria.
Turning to the recent Turkish operations against the YPG, Hokayem said that Turkish operations were suffering and its forces were under-performing against the Syrian rebels. This under-performance was due to a variety of factors ranging from lack of motivation on the part of the Turkish military, perhaps due to the purges of 2016, to the fact that operations were being carried out at a difficult period, with weather conditions limiting their use of air power, and in very difficult mountainous terrains, where some 10 Leopard Tanks had already been lost by the Turkish forces. It was his view that ultimately, the Turks could live with a situation in which the Assad regime and not the YPG held control over Afrin and its surrounding regions. He said that this was not a preference but merely an acceptable option, though their concern was not limited to the YPG presence in Afrin only and included their presence in any part of northern Syria.
As for the YPG, Hokayem felt that the long-term defense of Afrin was not a likely prospect for them, though they could in the process potentially mobilize and solicit wide public opinion against the Turks. He noted that in the final analysis there was a greater level of commitment on the part of Russia, Iran and Turkey, though the YPG had the possibility of enlisting the support of the Assad regime to defend the borders. This could be done on the basis that they would ultimately reach a deal that would exchange territory for autonomy, or some kind of federal arrangement, as well as dealing with issues such as changing the name of the country from ‘Syrian Arab Republic’ to ‘Syrian Republic.’
Touching briefly on the fact that the Assad regime was anxious to open its borders with Jordan – something that both Jordan and the US were not opposed to — Hokayem turned his attention to Russia and matters surrounding Astana and Sochi. He said that Russia had a few months before it could announce that a victory in Syria had been achieved, though based on what had been witnessed more recently, this declaration seemed somewhat premature. He said that Russia had designed Astana and Sochi processes and was hoping Sochi would be a culminating event.
All in all, it was his assessment that Russia had achieved mixed results, having succeeded in some areas while failing in others:
- Russia had been successful in defining what it wanted in Syria. It did not want new elections or a new constitution. Instead, it wished for the present constitution to be amended and for the next presidential elections to be held when they were next due in 2021, with Assad having the option to run if he wanted. Russia also wanted military reform, though this was something that the Assad regime was not happy about.
- On the down side, participation by various parties in Sochi had been limited. The main Syrian opposition groups had not attended; neither had the Kurds. The US/EU/UK also did not show up. Only the UN High Representative to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, came in the hope of somehow trying to link Sochi with the other international efforts that were taking place in Geneva to end violence and secure peace in Syria.
Emile Hokayem concluded his remarks by saying that overall, Russia had come out on top, and short of a victory that was good enough – something that also had to be good enough for the Middle East.
[‘Q & A’ Session]
- Hokayem said that earlier on in the campaign, the Russians had a military presence in Afrin and were anxious for the Turks not to be there. Today, this was no longer the case. He said previous ‘Israeli coercion’ in the region, with Israel carrying out random bombing raids inside Syria at will, was now being complemented with Russian conflict management. He noted that Netanyahu had been in consultation with Putin on the very day before Sochi.
- Hokayem said that if there was a war in the region, calls would no longer be directed towards Washington but would instead go to Moscow. He said Jordan, Israel and Lebanon all talked with Russia, despite the fact that Russia was not in total control of the game. However, it was his feeling that pressures on Russia would most likely increase.
- On Iran-Turkish relations, Hokayem said that Iran did not want to be near the Turks in Syria and Afrin was not a strategic point for them. He felt that the Iranians were at ease with the Turks going after the Kurds.
- In response to a question by Reza Khazaneh, an Iranian member of the audience, who said that people in Iran were unhappy about resources being diverted from the home front to places like Syria and Iraq, Hokayem responded by saying he did not agree with this view, especially in the aftermath of the emergence of ISIS. He said the notion that ISIS should be fought outside Iran rather than inside the country (reminding the audience of the ISIS attack that was carried out in the Iranian parliament last year) was a highly popular one, especially amongst the ruling elite. He felt that irrespective of everything, Iran was a serious strategic actor in Syria and no matter what the economic circumstances were at home, they would spend whatever they needed to keep their interests intact.
- Hokayem said that the Assad regime was in a ‘win-win’ situation with recent reports that many expatriates were showing signs of wanting to reinvest again and get the economy back on its feet. He noted that the Syrian regime was also eager to put up big shows of legitimacy and not particularly worried that all those who had fled the country should want to come back. He said that President Assad was happy to govern a country with a population of 10 to 12 million.
- As part of the investment made by Iran in Syria, it was noted that Iran had admitted to losing some 15 generals in the war, to date. At the same time, it had displayed complete commitment to the fight and had overseen the development of very effective transnational Shia militias, fully equipped with command and control, logistics and ideology which made Iran a key driver in the region. He said the Iranians were mobile and operated over a large space. The Afghans were the largest contingency, having taken the second largest number of casualties. It was Hezbollah forces that had taken the largest casualty of all. He said that unlike most outside parties, the Iranians were embedded in the conflict and rejected the notion that Syria could be Iran’s Vietnam because of what he said was the careful planning that had gone into Iranian presence and action.
- Hokayem accepted the Turkish claim that YPG and PKK were connected and that no operational differences existed between them. He said that had the Turks entered the fight against ISIS from the outset, in 2014, the present situation with the YPG being in a position of strength and importance would never have arisen.