Editor’s Note: This Deep Dive was adapted from a piece originally produced for the Valdai Discussion Club, an institute devoted to analyzing Russia’s place in the world. The full version can be accessed here.
It’s useful to look at the past to predict the future. Little that happens in the world is truly new, and lessons can be learned from the way things transpired before. So, in trying to picture Syria’s future, observing the events that shaped present-day Lebanon is a useful exercise. Lebanon is much smaller than Syria, and its ethnic groups were more evenly proportioned before its civil war. Even so, in 1975, it went to war – and at war it stayed for 15 years. We expect Syria’s civil war – which is already midway through its sixth year – to last at least as long.
Lebanon’s post-war years haven’t exactly been peaceful either. Syria’s will be worse. The U.S. and Russia are working under the public supposition that Syria can be put back together once the fighting stops. They want a lot of the same things: to defeat the Islamic State and al-Qaida, then to build a new political system in the country. But Russia also wants to destroy any other rebel group fighting the Syrian regime, which Russia maintains is the legitimate government in the country, while the U.S. wants to form a new political system that is democratic and that excludes President Bashar Assad. They’re both likely to be disappointed. Syria is a broken country, and no amount of diplomatic handwringing or bombing is going to put it back together.
The reason is simple: ethnic and sectarian chaos. The single-largest population group within the country is Sunni Arabs, whose main political forces are the Islamic State, al-Qaida and the Free Syrian Army (not counting the large number of Sunnis who still support the Assad regime). The U.S. and Russia will not accept a political system built around either of the first two forces, and the Free Syrian Army is too weak to defeat the radical Islamists or the Assad regime.
It is impossible to know the exact demographic breakdown of the country today because of the fighting and migration, but before the war, roughly 68 percent of Syria was Sunni. Of that, 10 percent was Kurdish and the rest was Arab. Alawites made up another 11 percent of the total population. We can assume that the country remains divided between three groups: Alawites, Syrian Kurds and Sunni Arabs. The Alawites are loyal to Assad; the Syrian Kurds are loyal to the People’s Protection Units, or YPG; and the Arabs are divided – some Islamist, some champions of Assad, and all competing for influence.
The Assad regime, the Alawites and other minorities that Assad protects will never consent to democracy in Syria. To do so would open those communities to certain reprisal by Sunni Arab forces should they come to power. The same is true of the Syrian Kurds, who, despite being the smallest and newest Kurdish population in a Middle Eastern country, have secured a de facto state for themselves and are taking as much territory as they can to try to lend strategic depth to their indefensible position on the border with Turkey. Even if an agreement emerged that all sides agreed to, the system would collapse just as the U.S.-backed political system in Iraq collapsed.
Many of the areas dominated by Sunni Arabs are in the desert, in cities hugging the Euphrates River. Attacking these cities is difficult: It requires long supply lines through the desert, which invites the kind of guerrilla tactics at which IS excels. Similarly, the Alawite stronghold on the coast is mountainous and thus very defensible. Little suggests that these dynamics will change soon.
The most likely scenario is that Syria will eventually be divided into three main areas. The first area will be controlled by the remnants of the Assad regime, which will maintain authority over the major cities and the coastal strongholds that are the Alawites’ core territories. The second area will be the Syrian Kurdish territories. There are two main pockets of Syrian Kurds: an isolated and small group in Afrin canton and a larger group in northeastern Syria, which before the breakout of war had significant natural resources and decent farmland. The Syrian Kurdish territories are on a relatively flat plain and are vulnerable to attack, both from IS and from Turkey, which has thus far not attacked the Syrian Kurds besides the occasional artillery shelling.
The third area will be a lawless swath of Sunni Arab territory. The precise names of the groups and the ideologies they employ are almost impossible to track, but they will be fighting each other for supremacy in these areas, as well as launching opportunistic attacks against Assad forces and Syrian Kurdish forces. Fighters will continue to move across the porous Iraq-Syria border and will increasingly put pressure on neighboring countries.
IS, al-Qaida and the Power of Ideas
This Sunni Arab territory deserves a closer look, specifically at the future of jihadist forces not just in Syria but throughout the region. The Islamic State and al-Qaida are the most substantial of these forces today, but this will not always be the case. Eventually, IS and al-Qaida will lose their strongholds. They will melt back into the civilian population until foreign forces leave. Another group may arise in their place, or they may regenerate their fiefs and even try to grab more land to the south, greatly straining two Sunni Arab countries that have thus far stayed out of the fray: Jordan and Saudi Arabia. They will not be able to stay on the sidelines forever.
At its height of IS expansion, the lands it controlled amounted to roughly 50,000 square kilometers (19,500 square miles), roughly the size of Croatia. Taking into account the sparsely populated deserts and other areas where IS can operate with relative freedom, even though it is not directly in control, this territory expands to approximately 250,000 square kilometers, roughly the size of Great Britain.
The U.S. State Department boasts on its website that U.S. coalition partners have recaptured 62 percent of IS territory in Iraq and 30 percent in Syria. In war, such statistics are meaningless. What matters is not the size of the territory but whether that territory is strategically important. So far, anti-IS forces in Syria and Iraq have not conquered enough territory from the Islamic State to cripple its ability to operate.
The Islamic State’s core territory is the stretch of land from Raqqa to Deir el-Zour in eastern Syria. The most recent Syrian census, done in 2004, estimated that close to half a million people lived in these two cities alone. In recent weeks, this territory has come under serious threat. Syrian Kurdish forces have closed in on Raqqa, and despite the Islamic State’s diversionary attacks, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have advanced methodically on the city. Meanwhile, the Russia-backed Syrian army has been making gains of its own. Syrian government forces crossed into Raqqa province at the beginning of June, and more important, they have begun an offensive into eastern Syria targeting Deir el-Zour and al-Mayadin.
All evidence seems to indicate that the Islamic State has chosen to retreat from Raqqa to reinforce its position in Deir el-Zour and al-Mayadin. The SDF has made progress in Raqqa, but notably, it left the main highway heading east out of the city open. For months, reports have said IS fighters were leaving the city. When IS convoys have attempted to head west, Russia has made a point of targeting them, but there seems to be a coordinated effort between U.S. and Russian allies on the ground to push IS into a smaller area in eastern Syria that will eventually be attacked head on.
This would all seem to suggest that the defeat of the Islamic State is nigh. That would be a premature judgment. The hallmark of the Islamic State’s military capabilities has been its ability to avoid costly defeats. IS routinely retreats from positions it knows it cannot defend, regroups and then launches new attacks where its enemies are unprepared for them. If it turns out IS cannot protect its territory against the approaching forces, the most likely course of action is that IS fighters will withdraw or blend into the civilian population and give up the city without a fight. For all of the Islamic State’s religious bravado, it has shown itself to be pragmatic in its approach to war, and it would be out of character for it to make a suicidal stand against incoming forces. IS uses suicide bombs for offensive purposes; it does not view suicide in defense as any more noble than defeat.
Even if the physical caliphate is destroyed, the Islamic State’s ideology will persist in a region that is ripe for recruitment. The attacking armies are united in their opposition to IS but will find little in the way of a common cause if the Islamic State’s territorial integrity is broken. They will instead take to fighting among themselves, opening up new spaces for IS to capitalize on and return. The forces will eventually have to withdraw from formerly IS-held territories to attack al-Qaida and other targets in Syria as well, which will mean IS can bide its time. The Islamic State is playing a long game, and its religious ideology can and will preach patience to the faithful. It will not conceded defeat.
Al-Qaida’s position in Syria is more tenuous than the Islamic State’s, and as a result, al-Qaida is not seen as an equal threat and has been able to fly much more under the radar than its territorially focused offshoot. In Syria, the group has changed its name several times (the latest incarnation is Tahrir al-Sham), but it would be a mistake to call it anything but what it is: al-Qaida in Syria. Al-Qaida in Syria has tried to forge connections with other Syrian rebel groups and has captured fiefdoms of its own outside of Aleppo and Idlib. It has fewer fighters than IS, but like the IS fighters, they are extremely capable and have proved much more successful on the battlefield than any of the moderate Syrian rebel groups.
Al-Qaida is surrounded, however, by Syrian government forces. It is only a matter of time before the regime turns its attention to the group. The U.S. has said repeatedly that it plans to solve the IS problem before targeting al-Qaida, and one reason it can afford that approach is that it knows Assad and Russia view al-Qaida, which is closer to the heartland of the regime, as their more pressing problem. Once the Assad regime focuses the bulk of its forces on al-Qaida’s territories in and around Idlib, al-Qaida will gradually have to retreat and blend into the civilian population. The operation to retake these areas will come with mass executions and purges of all suspected al-Qaida sympathizers and collaborators.
The result is that likely in the next one to three years, the entities in Syria currently known as the Islamic State and al-Qaida will be dislodged from full control of their possessions. But the problem is not defeating these groups or taking their lands; with sufficient manpower and foreign support, these groups’ grip over their territories can be loosened if not broken entirely for a time. The problem is that unless a foreign force occupies these territories, the groups will reconstitute themselves and recapture the land they lost. And there is no country in the world whose strategic interests are served by holding territory in the middle of the Syrian and Iraqi deserts indefinitely.
Fighting groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaida takes place on two levels. The first is the military level. Tactical difficulties stand in the way of victory, but they can be overcome. The second level, however, is the realm of ideas. That radical Islamist ideology has a force of its own is indisputable at this point. For whatever reason – the lack of economic opportunity, the history of colonial oppression, whatever – this ideology has given meaning and organization to a generation of people.
In this sense, then, the Islamic State, al-Qaida and the myriad other groups that have sprouted up out of the power vacuum left by the civil war are unbeatable, because it is impossible to defeat an idea. This is a civil war between Muslims in the Middle East. The religious wars of Europe around the time of the Enlightenment each took decades if not centuries to play out before a somewhat stable system of political entities emerged. (And even this system eventually became so unbalanced that in the 20th century it twice brought the entire world into war.) There is no reason to expect that the Muslim wars will take less time than that, nor is there reason to believe that the U.S. or Russia or any outside power will be able to subdue these forces with the right combination of coalition fighters.
The best that can be achieved is containing these forces where they are. For the U.S., preventing their spread south into countries it counts among its allies is of prime importance. For Russia, preventing their spread north into the Caucasus is the bigger priority. Either way, the two sides share an interest in keeping these religious wars confined, as much as possible, to the deserts of the Middle East, rather than the streets of Manhattan or the subway stations of St. Petersburg.
Smoke billows in the embattled northern Syrian city of Raqqa on Sept. 3, 2017, as Syrian Democratic Forces battle to retake the city from the Islamic State. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images
When it comes to Syria, then, the U.S. and Russia are already working together even if they don’t include each other in their coalitions. The tacit coordination in the Raqqa and Deir el-Zour offensives is evidence enough of that. Neither wants to see radical Islamism spread into its spheres of influence. Neither wants or has the forces available to commit to conquering radical Islamism in Syria and Iraq – and policing the territories after the fact. The U.S. and Russia do not see eye to eye on the legitimacy of the Assad regime, but the U.S. does not have the luxury of pushing for Assad’s downfall; what would arise in his place might be far worse. The U.S. will continue to search for partners to keep IS in a cage, and Russia will continue to prop up Assad as he eventually moves on to targeting al-Qaida. And while Russia and the U.S. continue to butt heads in other parts of the world, in this part of the world, they will quietly work, perhaps not quite together, but still in pursuit of a similar goal.
Great Power Politics
But the Syrian civil war will not stay contained in Syria. Even if the U.S. and Russia succeed in keeping radical Islamism bottled up in the country, Syria has become a battleground for proxies supported by countries around the Middle East. Here, too, Russia and the U.S. share an overarching goal, but occasional disagreements may arise. The only way this could be derailed is if both sides fail to put their Cold War rivalry behind them.
The balance of power in the Middle East mattered during the Cold War – when the region was responsible for a much greater share of global oil production than it is today, and when the balance of power in all regions mattered. The region’s wars were not just local; they were between the U.S. and the USSR. But those days are over. Now, Russia is back to Soviet-era levels of oil production. The U.S. has become one of the top oil producers in the world and no longer depends as much on the Middle East. And despite U.S.-Russia tensions since the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, there is no current conflict between the two that has the same weight as the Cold War.
Russia in 2017 is smaller, weaker and less ideological than its Soviet predecessor. This does not mean Russia has given up its position as a global power, but it does mean that a region like the Middle East is less important than it once was. Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia – all former Soviet lands – are far more important for Russia’s continued power. What the Middle East offers, however, is a chance to distract the U.S. from interfering in the regions where Russia cannot afford to lose influence, as well as the potential to inflate the price of oil – Russia’s top export – by hampering Middle East producers.
The U.S., meanwhile, has been desperately searching for a way out of the Middle East since 2007. The Bush administration tried to end the Iraq War with the overwhelming force of the troop surge, which had no lasting effect. The Obama administration tried to do as little as possible, and when it did act, its policy was largely incoherent. The Trump administration now seems to be contemplating a kind of surge of its own, which is sure to be ineffective. If Russia wanted to take over management of the Middle East and its crises, the U.S. would welcome it. The point is that the Middle East is no longer a battleground for world power. It is an annoyance that neither Russia nor the U.S. particularly wants to face.
The main threat for the U.S. is that a country or group of countries will come to dominate the entire region. Besides the threat of Islamist terrorism, the U.S. views IS and its sister groups as potential unifiers of the Sunni Arab world against the United States. It also views these groups as a direct threat to the countries the U.S. depends on to maintain a balance of power in the region, particularly Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Egypt is an economic basket case with an active IS insurgency of its own in Sinai. That Jordan has gone this long unscathed is a minor miracle. According to the U.N. refugee agency, Jordan has received over 650,000 Syrian refugees since 2011 – and those are just the registered ones. Syrian nationals now make up more than 20 percent of Jordan’s population. Saudi Arabia has built the legitimacy of its political system on all the generous services that petrodollars can buy. The decline in oil prices and the kingdom’s diminished share of global production have already manifested in significant cuts to social services and to the privileges of the royal family. Saudi Arabia is a breeding ground for the types of Islamist ideologies that have broken Syria and Iraq apart, and the Islamist groups want little more than to control the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
The U.S. upended the regional balance of power in 2003, and in recent years it has tried to re-establish it on the backs of four states: Turkey, Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel is too small to balance against Turkey and Iran, which makes Saudi Arabia a crucial part of the equation. Without the Saudis, the region devolves into a contest between the Turks and the Iranians, and Turkey has the edge in military strength, economic heft and geography. It would win out in the long term. The U.S. and Turkey have been allies for many decades, and Turkey is a NATO member, but Turkey is strong and growing stronger, and more and more it is disagreeing with Washington on major issues of national interest. Turkey is not yet strong enough to challenge the U.S. on these issues, but that time is coming. When it does, the U.S. will want to be sure that the Turks cannot dominate the Middle East unimpeded.
This is another area where the interests of Russia and the U.S. converge. Turkey and Russia have a long history of war between them. The most recent major incident between them was in 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft over northern Syria. They have since resolved the dispute, but relations remain uneasy and complicated. As Russia weakens and Turkey rises, Turkey will start to challenge Russian influence in the Caucasus and the Balkans, areas that for Russia hold greater strategic significance than any country in the Middle East.
This is why Russia and the U.S. have both, to varying degrees, reached out to Syria’s Kurds. In March, the Syrian Kurds said Russia had agreed to build a base in northern Syria and to send military personnel to train the YPG. Russia’s Ministry of Defense disputed this depiction, saying it was setting up a “reconciliation center.” Whatever it is called, the construction is a symbol of closer relations.
The U.S., for its part, has come to rely on the Syrian Kurds as the largest ground force in Syria that is both able and willing to take on the Islamic State directly. The Obama administration tacitly supported the Syrian Kurds, but the Trump administration went a step further in May when it announced that it would supply them with weapons to fight the Islamic State.
Russian and U.S. support has not gone unnoticed in Turkey’s capital. In the same way that Ukraine is of fundamental importance to Russia, or that Cuba is to the U.S., the Kurdish issue is crucial for Turkey. It is also the one issue that could significantly complicate Turkey’s rise to power. The Kurds in Syria are not the problem – at least, they are not the only problem. The issue is that Kurds, with all their separatist ambitions, make up about 18 percent of Turkey’s population – about 14 million people – and most of them live in the southeastern part of the country near Syria. The Kurds are not a monolithic group; the roughly 29 million to 35 million Kurds in the Middle East speak different languages, have different tribal and national loyalties, and even have different religious faiths. But Syria’s Kurds are closely related to Turkey’s Kurds. In Turkey’s eyes, the YPG is the same level of strategic threat as IS or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party militant group, or PKK.
Both the U.S. and Russia have an interest, then, in preventing Turkey from intervening in Syria in any capacity beyond fighting the Islamic State. For one thing, Turkey is anti-Assad, and the rebel groups with which it is closest are ideologically incompatible with the U.S. and Russia. For another, Turkey would try to destroy the Syrian Kurdish statelet that has popped up during the war for fear that the spirit of independence might spread into Turkey’s own Kurdish region in the southeast, which has seen more and more clashes in the past two years between the PKK and Turkish security forces. The stronger both the Syrian Kurds and the Assad regime are, the harder it will be for Turkey to extend its power into the Levant, and the greater the balance against Turkey in the region will be as its strength grows over the next two decades.
Iran is another part of the equation, and here the intersection of U.S. and Russian interests is more complicated. The U.S. signed the nuclear deal with Iran because it needed Iran’s help to contain Islamic State forces in Iraq, but the U.S. also does not want to see Baghdad and the Shiite parts of Iraq become de facto provinces of Iran. The Americans need Iran’s help – and over the long term need Iran as a counterweight to Turkish power – but they will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. They will block any attempt by Iran to establish regional dominance, just as they would stop Turkey from forming a unified Sunni Arab force.
Russian relations with Iran have historically been fraught, but at the moment they are positive. This is in part because Iran supports the Assad regime and views every group in the region that is not Sunni as a potential proxy group. Iran’s Shiite proxies, such as Hezbollah, are also important for keeping up the fight against the Islamic State. Unlike the U.S., Russia is not too concerned with Iran’s westward expansion. It would not, however, tolerate Persian influence in the Caucasus any more than it would accept Turkish influence there.
The U.S. and Russia are not in total agreement in the Middle East, but their disagreements are not close to reaching the scale of the Cold War. And they both share a desire to limit the spread of Islamist ideology and to prevent any country or group in the Middle East from rising to challenge their interests. They will continue to compete in some ways – supporting groups in Syria that are fighting groups the other supports, for instance – but they ultimately want the same thing: for the Middle East’s problems to stay in the Middle East.
Syria’s immediate future, then, is bleak and will be marred by more years of war and Islamist insurgency. IS and al-Qaida will suffer defeats but will not be defeated. Turkey will rise. Saudi Arabia will fall. Iran will scheme. The Kurds will fight. And neither the U.S. nor Russia will be able to wash their hands of the region as this chaos unfolds.
The U.S. and Russia took different routes to Syria – the U.S. through the war on terror and a botched invasion of Iraq, Russia through a revolution in Ukraine and an unexpected drop in oil prices – but both are there to stay. They are at odds in many parts of the world, especially in Eastern Europe. But in the Middle East, they will work side by side – if not together – to eliminate IS and al-Qaida and prevent the emergence of any dominant regional power. The U.S. and Russia face different challenges from an unstable Middle East and will disagree over many of the particulars, but at the broadest level they will be working toward the same goal: a predictable balance of power. The Cold War is over, but for great powers, the world is a small place. The U.S. and Russia cannot help but run into each other.