No End in Sight: The Syrian Conflict in 2016
Once magnificent cities now lying in ruins. Wailing mothers, holding lifeless infants to their chests. Ghastly images of starvation and pestilence. Beheadings and medieval-style siege warfare. Nearly five years and 250,000 lives into Syria’s cataclysmic civil war, such distressing images continue to flood our screens, eliciting all sorts of reactions. What does 2016 hold in store for a conflict which has devolved into the most severe humanitarian crisis of our times? The answer to this question will be determined by the political elites of capitals far from the smoking rubbles of Aleppo or Homs, by whom the Syrian conflict has been made into a proxy struggle more complex even than the Spanish Civil War.
Two key contestants in the Syrian arena are longstanding regional rivals: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Since the outbreak of the civil war, Saudi Arabia, followed by neighboring Qatar, has been the main source of material support for the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab insurgency against the Iranian- and Russian-backed Assad regime. In the late spring of 2015, the Salafist rebels of the Ahrar al-Sham brigades – working alongside other Islamist factions and Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate – appeared to make the insurgency’s most significant territorial gains to date, expelling regime forces from most of Idlib Governorate.
However, since the escalation last autumn of Russia’s involvement on behalf of its client regime in Damascus, a tide which had tentatively seemed to be shifting in favour of the Saudi-backed insurgency has since violently swung back in Assad’s direction. At best for the Kingdom, the battle to determine Syria’s future has once more degenerated into the military stalemate that has characterized it for most of the last five years.
In the last month alone, the Assad regime has managed, with Russian assistance, to eliminate several prominent leaders of the insurgency. Should the affected Saudi-funded groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, prove to be too internally fractious to survive the targeting of heavyweight commanders, this will not bode well for Riyadh’s strategy of removing Assad from power. Additionally, the mounting fiscal strains that have accompanied the plunge in oil prices and the Saudis’ expensive intervention against the Iranian-backed Houthi militants of neighbouring Yemen could prompt Riyadh to retrench its Syrian efforts: staving off unrest on the home front, where youth employment remains at unseemly levels and 70% of the population is aged 30 and under, may assume heightened precedence. Such considerations must certainly have played a part in the Saudis’ recent acquiescence to Iran’s inclusion, for the first time, in international discussions regarding the Syrian crisis. Growing concerns over recently announced austerity measures also seem to have encouraged a keener interest in diplomacy among the insurgency’s most committed backers.
Nevertheless, any potential retrenchment of Saudi support for the Syrian insurgency in 2016 is likely to be a purely tactical manoeuvre. Despite the recent announcement of a budget shortfall of approximately 15% of GDP, “the largest single allocation in the  budget was [$58.6 billion] to the military and security services, comprising more than 25% of the total – a much higher allocation than that of [sic] 2015 budget.” Indeed, IHS Jane’s forecasts “Saudi Arabian defense-specific spending to increase to around $60 billion a year by 2020,” indicating a sturdiness to Riyadh’s resolve in the face of what it perceives as intensifying Iranian efforts to undermine Saudi interests in the region. The Kingdom’s determination to contain Iran’s regional influence and not see its investments in the Syrian rebellion frittered away will only be reinforced as a result of Tehran’s reaction to the Saudis’ execution of dissident Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr earlier this month.
The nuclear deal agreed between world powers and Iran last spring has the potential to profoundly reshape regional politics along lines that better accommodate the Islamic Republic’s interests. Buoyed by the dual prospects of a windfall from the release of frozen assets and much increased inflows of foreign capital, Tehran may feel it has some leeway in 2016 to escalate its already extensive efforts to preserve the Assad regime, which, unlike Riyadh’s on behalf of the rebels, have involved boots on Syrian soil. Analysts estimate that 2015 saw between 60 and 70 Iranian military or security personnel killed in Syria, out of 140 in total since the outbreak of the war.
Much of the Iranian presence in Syria is composed of officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Directly controlled by Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, the IRGC is a “paramilitary force rolled into an intelligence agency wrapped in a giant business conglomerate with security related interests”. The Guards sit “[a]t the centre of Iran’s establishment”, and its officers are said by several sources to have assumed operational command of Assad’s forces along several fronts, sidelining Syrian officers. The Guards have shown themselves willing to pay significant costs to maintain a friendly relationship with whoever rules in Damascus. (In the past the Assad regime has facilitated the IRGC’s funneling of funds, arms and personnel towards proxy groups across the Arab world.) In October, Hossein Hamedani, an IRGC Brigadier General and the Corps’ Deputy Commander, was reportedly killed by IS militants on the outskirts of Aleppo.
2016 could conceivably witness some change in the nature of Iran’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. The IRGC would be at the centre of any such shift. Ayatollah Khamenei is officially 76 years old, and reportedly suffers from prostate cancer. Iran expert Majid Rafizadeh expects that IRGC leaders will play a decisive role in selecting Khamenei’s successor, and posits that they will select “a candidate who is not a powerful or influential figure, resembling [Khamenei] at the beginning of his rule.” If the Islamic Republic gets a new Supreme Leader in 2016, he will likely be a “lesser-known cleric” who will grant the Guards “free rein in political and economic affairs.” By the time the next Supreme Leader comes into office, Rafizadeh reckons, Iran may bear a much closer resemblance to a conventional military dictatorship.
The consequences of such a shift for the conflict in Syria depend on the ends to which the IRGC leadership will use a potential increase in the Guards’ political and economic leverage. Although the hawkish Guards require the spectre of external enemies in order to justify repression at home (and, aside from the Western powers, the Syrian insurgency, dominated by hardline Sunni Islamists bearing at least some resemblance to the rabidly anti-Shia, anti-Iranian IS, fits this bill perfectly), and relations between the Guards and Iran’s reformist President Rouhani are believed to be icy at best, senior IRGC commanders have openly supported the nuclear agreement. Assuming that Mr. Khamenei does indeed die or is incapacitated in 2016, the consolidation of power at home may stretch the Guards and could conceivably temper their determination to secure a favourable outcome in Syria. However, should 2016 also see the provisions of the nuclear deal produce a financial windfall for IRGC-controlled entities, then the costs of the Guards’ active involvement in Syria at a sensitive time of political transition back home might be significantly offset. In such a scenario, Iranian support for regime forces and allied militias would be maintained at its currently high level, or even increased in the face of mounting rebel losses and in the hopes of dealing a decisive blow to the insurgency.
Iranian interests in Syria are well aligned with those of Russia, whose momentous entry into the Syrian morass late last year has given the conflict an added layer of complexity at the outset of 2016. As discussed by Mitchell A. Orenstein and George Romer in an October article for Foreign Affairs, “most of the foreign belligerents in … Syria are gas-exporting countries with interests in one of the two competing pipeline projects that seek to cross Syrian territory to deliver either Qatari or Iranian gas to Europe.” It is not difficult to see why Moscow should take a particularly keen interest in this issue.
According to Eurostat, in 2013 Russia provided some 33.5% of the EU-28’s crude oil imports and 39% of its imports of natural gas. The Russian state oil company Gazprom sells 80% of its gas to Europe. Moscow thus has a vital interest in controlling European gas supplies. When in 2009 Qatar proposed building a pipeline to transport its gas via Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria to Turkey and further on to Europe, the Russians – fearful of the possible effects such a pipeline would have on Russia’s share of the European energy market – successfully lobbied the Assad regime to reject this proposal in favour of an alternative Iran-Iraq-Syria route, proposed by the Islamic Republic. This alternative pipeline “would pump Iranian gas … out via Syrian ports [on the Mediterranean] such as Latakia”, which happens to be less than 85 km away from the port city of Tartus, site of Russia’s last remaining naval facility since the USSR. As pointed out by Orenstein and Romer, the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline would provide Iran with an opportunity to expand its lacking gas export infrastructure, while “Russia would rather see the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline built or no pipeline at all.” The energy ministers of the three Middle Eastern nations announced a preliminary agreement regarding the pipeline in 2011, with the blessings of a Moscow which “possibly believ[ed] that Russia would have an easier time dealing with Iran (unlike Qatar, not home to a U.S. base) to control gas imports to Europe from Iran, the Caspian Sea region, and Central Asia.”
Russia’s previous military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine were at least partly about protecting its preeminent position in European energy markets, “[a]nd it is reasonable to expect that Russia will go down fighting to prevent a Qatari pipeline from crossing Syria on its way to Europe and to make Iranian exports reliant on Russian support.” Orenstein and Romer claim that “this explains why Russia has chosen to target Qatari- and Saudi-funded rebel groups in Syria in its bombing campaign.” However, as argued by Syria analyst Aaron Lund, despite the focus in the West on the apparent paucity of Russian raids on IS positions in Syria, it must be remembered that “Russia did not intervene against anyone in particular, it intervened for Assad. Who gets hurt depends on who stands in his way.” Nonetheless, while tackling IS is not the principal objective of Putin’s intervention, should the jihadists shift focus from efforts against Kurdish and rebel groups towards assaults on better-fortified population centres held by the regime and affiliated militias, 2016 could see a more decisive Russian contribution to anti-IS efforts.
Skeptics will point out that while the Russians, like their Saudi and Qatari adversaries, are greatly dependent on hydrocarbon revenues, the steep drop in the price of oil since 2014 has probably hit Russia hardest. Combined with factors such as the imposition of Western sanctions over the Ukrainian crisis and consequently exacerbated structural imbalances in the Russian economy, the oil price drop contributed in 2015 to an increase in the proportion of Russian households unable to afford either sufficient food or clothing to 39% – a 17 point increase from the previous year. Real wages fell 9.2% year-on-year in the first 11 months of 2015, and the economy is believed to have shrunk by around 4% over the same period. Surely the Kremlin will not be able to afford any extended overseas campaign?
Despite the penury Mr. Putin’s foreign adventurism has brought upon ordinary Russians, however, the Kremlin is unlikely to scale back its potentially game-changing military involvement in Syria unless severe popular pressure – like that previously seen in the run-up to Putin’s re-election as President in 2011-12 – comes to bear in 2016 (with Putin’s approval rating hovering around 90%, however, this does not seem too likely in the short-run, barring any major crises). For one thing, American analysts believe that the cost to Russia of maintaining the aerial intervention at its current intensity – an annual outlay of $1-2 billion from the total defence budget of approximately $54 billion – is sufficiently low for Mr. Putin to “sustain military operations at this level for years.” Having achieved its preliminary objective of stabilising the Assad regime and halting its opponents’ momentum, Russia will look to use the elimination of several senior rebel commanders to escalate its support for the regime and the affiliated militias, and enabling them to go on the offensive in 2016. The Assad regime could thus exploit the insurgents’ disarray to retake the areas ceded in spring and summer of 2015, although the likelihood of this occurring in 2016 depends as much on the capabilities of the Syrian state and army eroded by years of war as on the rebels’ sorry condition. As Mr. Lund reports, the issuing of “desperate sounding call[s] for outside support and foreign fighters” by rebel groups that, until recently, had aggressively marketed their home-grown credentials appears to have sown further division among the ranks of the Saudi- and Qatari-backed insurgents.
Moreover, Mr. Putin may take further encouragement from recent developments which appear to have put a main objective of his Syrian gambit – ending Russia’s international isolation – within reach. As Ingo Mannteufel puts it, “increased Russian involvement in Syria can be understood only by viewing it through the prism of Ukraine” and the consequences Putin’s intervention in that country have had for the Russian economy and, by extension, the stability of the ex-KGB man’s regime. In the wake of an unprecedented refugee crisis and the November attacks in Paris, Russia has been reasonably successful presenting itself to the European public opinion (and not a few governments) as taking a hard line against the jihadi terror and being a potentially constructive partner in the search for a solution in Syria. 2016 could well spell the end of Europe’s contribution to the debilitating Ukraine-related sanctions regime which has ensnared the Russian bear since 2014. Mannteufel believes that the EU’s “cohesion has been hit hard by the Greek crisis, the refugee crisis, the terrorist threat and the growing strength of ant-European forces”. With relations between the Kremlin and Eurosceptic groups – which may soon be in government across the continent (or will, in any case, be playing a much greater role in policymaking) – getting increasingly cozy, 2016 may well see “a slowly forming pro-Assad constituency” among EU states come to the Kremlin’s rescue in 2016.)
Indeed, some EU diplomats have already stated that Putin’s intervention on behalf of the Assad regime has divided European governments over the issue of EU sanctions against Russia. These sanctions expire at the end of this month and require approval by all 28 of the bloc’s members to be extended. One diplomat told Bloomberg that some member states “have signaled that Europe needs the Kremlin’s help to stop the influx of refugees,” which has become a priority in the European capital, “and may take a softer line.” The EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker recently expressed his belief that “we need to improve out relationship with Russia.” Meanwhile, a report carried by Bild alleges that Germany’s spy agency, despite Berlin’s public denunciation of the Kremlin’s Syrian bombing campaign, “is working again with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s secret service to swap information on Islamist militants”. Another continental heavyweight, France, has appeared to deprioritize Assad’s removal. With IS claiming the downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula just weeks prior to the November 13 attacks in Paris (one of the two major jihadi assaults that roiled the French capital last year), Mr. Putin swiftly sympathized with Russia and France’s shared experiences of the IS terror. As reported by the BBC, “Straight after the Paris attacks, Mr Putin ordered his military to coordinate with the French in the campaign against IS – an unprecedented act given that France is in Nato.” Such moves could indicate that the Assad regime’s Kremlin benefactors will focus diplomatic efforts on wooing Syria’s former colonial overlords this year. “After all, France and Russia … are two great nations lying at either end of the European continent – with a shared interest in preventing its domination by outsiders (the US) or insiders (Germany).”
3 million additional refugees from the Syrian war are expected to head to Europe in 2016, and there is no cap in sight to the flow of foreign fighters to and from the jihadi battlefields of Syria, where civilians have begun to flee in large numbers even from relatively safe government-held areas. The inevitable shift in European priorities prompted by developments in 2015 mean that 2016 will almost certainly bring increasing European tolerance for the Kremlin’s clients in Damascus.
How the Europeans’ desire for stability in the face of unprecedented economic and cultural convulsions, and their possible willingness to cooperate with the Assad regime, translate into developments on the ground in Syria depends above all on the regime itself. While the outflow of refugees from relatively peaceful regime-held cities and towns may simply reflect the fact that Syrians under regime control are mostly urban and, therefore, better able to afford means of escape (unlike rural Syrians in areas under the insurgents’ control), it further signals the erosion of state institutions. The Economist reports that “Many [refugees] come from the regime’s outposts, such as western Aleppo,” which is believed to provide the bulk of those seeking refuge in Europe in 2016. “[R]elying as it does on air cover to maintain supplies, [western Aleppo] feels increasingly fragile. Services have deteriorated even in the richest parts of the capital. A middle-income country has collapsed into one in which 80% of people are “in need”, according to the UN.”
Although estimates put the proportion of the Syrian population under regime control at 50-70%, Mr. Lund rightly points out that should Assad’s government prove unable to muster “the resources or the institutional capacity to rebuild [the] areas” it reconquers under Russian air cover, “then it will rule no more effectively than the rebels.” And if Assad’s battered regime proves too dependent on the radical sectarian militias that have fought alongside it to allow Sunni refugees back into their homes, and “cannot in fact operate as an institutional state and a national government, then President Assad is just a warlord with a fancy title.” (The Iranians have empowered such auxiliary groups as a hedging strategy in case Assad’s regime does buckle under pressure).
Should the strategic balance shift decisively towards the regime in 2016, presenting it with the opportunity to re-impose some semblance of state authority and to resuscitate public institutions in areas it retakes from the weakened rebels, the regime must take it if the conditions of fragmentation and warlordism that have engulfed the Syrian countryside are not to become permanent. It is now or never for the Assad regime.
As discussed above, however, the long-term goals of Putin’s pro-government intervention largely revolve around Russia’s strategic interests with respect to European energy markets. An as yet cash-strapped Kremlin is unlikely to have much interest in footing the bill for the postwar reconstruction of Syria, even if such an undertaking is to proceed under the aegis of its client regime. In all likelihood, Mr. Putin is intent on remedying the prevailing state of anarchic decay only up to a degree where Russia’s strategic needs can just about be met. While Mr. Putin will enthusiastically assist Mr. Assad when it comes to knocking buildings down, he will almost certainly be much less eager to help him pull them back up.
Whichever trajectory Syria’s confoundingly multidimensional conflict takes in 2016, Russia’s intervention on behalf of the regime is likely to be a major driving force behind developments on the ground. Yet the country weighing on many minds in the new year will be Turkey. As the only NATO member-state directly bordering Syria, Turkey has had a long history of geopolitical rivalry with the Russians (old antagonisms seemed to have re-emerged in November, with the Turks’ downing a Russian Su-24 near the Turkey-Syria border and the ensuing standoff between the two countries). Under the leadership of President Recep Tayipp Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has – in conjunction with Saudi Arabia and Qatar – sought to dislodge the Russians’ client regime in Damascus by providing the Islamist-led rebellion with arms and logistical support. A host of reasons, ranging from pipeline economics to grand strategy, explains the Turks’ anti-Assad stance.
Nevertheless, developments in 2015 have made it clear that despite Ankara’s implacable opposition to the Assad regime, toppling the Syrian president has fallen down among its list of priorities. With the renewal last summer of hostilities between the Turkish government and the militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – partly a consequence of Mr. Erdoğan’s own cynical attempts to concentrate power in the hands of a hitherto ceremonial presidency – Turkey’s Kurdish question has once again come to the fore. Daily reports of violence between government forces and militants from Turkey’s Kurdish southeast have polarized the society. The AKP government’s main concern regarding Syria in 2016 will be to prevent Kurdish groups in that country – the most important of which are affiliated with the PKK – from consolidating the mini-state they have carved out along most of the Syria-Turkey frontier.
In his address in June Mr. Erdoğan promised, “We will never allow the establishment of a state in Syria’s north and our south. We will continue our fight in this regard no matter what it costs.” The spectre of an independent Kurdish state just south of the border, and the encouragement this would give secessionists among Turkey’s own Kurds at a time of heightened tensions, has saddled Erdoğan with a dilemma. Christopher de Bellaigue of the NYRB reports: “[i]t’s widely accepted in Turkey that the president was hoping ISIS would crush Kobanî and other self-governing Kurdish cantons; but this would have brought him into disagreement with the US, which saw the Syrian [Kurds] – despite [their] links to the Turkish PKK – as a potentially useful ally against the jihadis.” Indeed, Mr. Lund reckons that developments in 2015 definitively cemented the Kurds’ place as the US’s most effective ally on the ground against IS in Syria. “Militarily,” says Lund, “it is a match made in heaven and the results are impressive. Despite their limited numbers, the Kurds have created a disciplined force that uses [American] air support effectively. They’re chewing up jihadis and spitting them out from Kobane to Hassakeh.” Notwithstanding the alliance between the Syrian Kurds and the US, however, last autumn the Turks struck Tal Abyad , “a largely Arab border town that the Kurds captured from the Islamic State over the summer”. Turkey even summoned the American ambassador to raise its concerns over the issue of US support for the Syrian Kurds.
The Syrian Kurds’ ejection of IS from Tal Abyad last summer “meant ISIS had lost two out of the three crossing points from Turkey through which it could bring foreign volunteers, finance, and weaponry to strengthen the jihad.” Should the Kurds manage to dislodge IS from its final border-crossing point with Turkey at the town of Jarablus in 2016, as appears to be their intention, then they will have secured an unbroken line of communication between all the self-governing cantons they currently hold and establish the territorial basis for an autonomous entity. Should Jarablus fall, then – if the brazen nature of Turkey’s recent military incursion into northern Iraq is any indication – the Turks may well “make a military move into northern Syria” in 2016. Jonathan Steele thinks that much will hinge on whether the US provides air support for any Kurdish offensive on Jarablus. But should Erdoğan and the AKP fail in 2016 to push through the constitutional amendment required in order to establish the presidential system “necessary to adapt to global changes”, a potentially momentous escalation of Turkish involvement in Syria will be all the more likely.
While this report has covered each of the external belligerents in Syria’s proxy war and how their respective priorities may impact the conflict in 2016, many possibilities have been neglected. Most egregiously, the role of the US and the likely election of Hillary Clinton as president later this year have not been discussed – but this is not in the least due to the frustratingly hands-off approach taken by the superpower towards the Syrian catastrophe. Iraqi Kurdistan could formally declare independence in the near future, with major ramifications in the Syrian arena, especially as concerns Turkey and, to a lesser degree, Iran. Although unlikely, the oil price could rise in 2016. Syrian refugees currently residing in neighbouring Arab countries, where the prospects of higher living standards are bleak for many and most are subject to a raft of restrictions, could conceivably engage in some form of unrest, further destabilizing the regional situation. Were anything to happen to President Assad, who may or may not have inherited his father’s poor health, its ramifications will be far-reaching. What is certain, however, is that 2016 will not bring an end to the ordeal of ordinary Syrians.