Charles Laffiteau's Bigger Picture
2018-03-01 16:40:00 -

In the last remaining rebel held Syrian province of Idlib, the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) Islamist alliance, aligned with al-Qaeda, has been battling the Syrian Liberation Front (SLF), which was formed by a merger of the two largest remaining rebel groups in northwestern Syria, Ahrar al-Sham and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement. 


Neither of these groups have any chance of toppling the Assad regime, nor of regaining any of the territory in southern Idlib and western Aleppo provinces that Assad and his Russian, Hezbollah and Iranian allies have retaken from Daesh and other rebel factions. So why are these Islamist rebel groups continuing to fight each other and kill innocent civilians in the process? Because they only care about gaining territory and control over the land, resources and people in it for their own benefit, rather than for the people of Syria that they claim to care about. 


The current dilemma in Idlib also serves as a warning to the United States and its allies about trying to facilitate regime change in the Middle East. As we have already seen in Iraq and Libya, trying to topple an authoritarian regime that doesn’t have a viable and unified opposition in place is a recipe for disaster.


On the other hand, Turkey’s assault on Kurdish forces in Afrin is all about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s obsession with the Kurdish PKK insurgency that Turkey has been dealing with for decades. Erdogan has been using anti-Kurdish rhetoric to stir up nationalist anger in Turkey and to justify the increasingly authoritarian measures he has used to muzzle his democratic opponents. Erdogan doesn’t care about the people of Syria because he is now fighting and killing Syrians in order to create a buffer zone in Syria rather than allow this Kurdish enclave in Syria to be controlled by Kurdish forces.


The conflict around Afrin also exposes the competing interests of the powers that remain in Syria now that Daesh has been emasculated. The Syrian Kurdish militia or YPG had established a semi-autonomous zone called Rojava around Afrin but did not have US backing like it did in eastern Syria because Daesh didn’t control this area. Turkey regards the YPG as terrorists aligned with the Turkish PKK, and is angry that the YPG has already established a state in eastern Syria on its southern border.


For its part, the Syrian regime sent pro-government Iranian militias to Afrin in support of the Kurdish forces there, not because Assad is in favour of autonomy for the Kurds, but because he hopes that by doing so he will gain control of the area. Assad could then use this as leverage when he negotiates with the Kurds for control of the Kurdish territory and its oil fields in eastern Syria. Iran is opposed to the Turkish intervention in Afrin but its real interest in limiting US influence there. Iran thus hopes to establish a foothold there and use it to maintain friendly relations with both Turkey and Syria’s Kurds.


Like Iran, Russia’s main interest is limiting the influence of the United States and establishing itself as the main foreign arbiter in the Syrian conflict. But because Russia was in control of the airspace in the region around Afrin, Turkey could not have gotten away with bombing Afrin without Russia’s consent. Russia had formally recognised the YPG and invited it to participate in the peace conference in Sochi, so it wasn’t too worried about straining those relations. So Russia gave its tacit approval for the Turkish offensive in an effort to curry favour with Turkey and create tension within the Nato alliance.


As for the United States, the offensive in Afrin put it in a very awkward position, because the forces of the YPG, our most reliable partner in the fight against Daesh, were pitted against those of our Nato ally Turkey. A split with one of our Nato allies would only serve to further Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interest in replacing the US as the one great power in the Middle East. Because it only directly co-operates with the YPG in the other semi-autonomous zone in eastern Syria, the US has thus far avoided taking sides and has instead attempted to mediate the conflict and quietly end it.


The renewed assault on the eastern Ghouta region by the Assad regime, and his Russian and Iranian allies should hardly come as a surprise to observers inside or outside of Syria. The civil war in Syria is basically over, and thanks largely to the support of Russia and Iran, the Assad regime won. The rebel factions that at one time controlled large swathes of territory across the entire country are now confined to relatively small pockets of land in the south, near the Golan Heights and Jordanian border; the north-west in the area around Idlib and Al-Bab; and the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta.


Eastern Ghouta has been a thorn in the side of the Assad regime because its proximity to Damascus has allowed rebels to use rockets and mortar rounds to kill hundreds of civilians in that city. Since many of the rebel fighters there are also from the area, the rebels have been able to maintain some popular support from the other inhabitants. But with most of the 400,000 civilians still living there suffering from shortages of food and medicine, why are the rebels still prolonging their suffering? Is it because they care about the well being of these people? No – I contend they only care about themselves.


Charles Laffiteau is a US Republican from Dallas, Texas pursuing a career in public service. He previously lectured on Contemporary US Business & Society at DCU from 2009-2011 and pursued a PhD in Public Policy and Political Economy.



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