ANALYSIS – Terrorist violence, regime attacks, migration haunt Syria in 2020
In 2021, Russia, Iran competition to gain influence will give Israel more room to launch aerial strikes inside Syria
*The writer is acting rector of the International Hoca Ahmet Yesevi Turkish-Kazakh University.
Not much attention was paid to Syria in 2020 as many other issues like the COVID-19 pandemic, the US elections, crises in Libya, Eastern Mediterranean, and Nagorno-Karabakh kept the world preoccupied.
The events kept consistently unfolding in Syria, even as a relative settlement was reached between the parties and it was more or less clear who controlled which territory. Recently Israeli warplanes went deep into Syria and bombed the positions of Iranian militias near the Iraqi border, in Deir ez-Zor. Israel frequently bombed Syria using warplanes throughout 2020.
When we look at 2020, the continuation of forced internal migration was one of the most painful events in Syria, where even COVID-19 was not scary enough compared to the war and the conflict. Nearly one million people were forced to migrate, especially, to the northern regions near the Turkish border due to the ceaseless attacks of the regime and its allies. Another most frightening event of 2020 in Syria was the resurgence of the terrorist organization Daesh/ISIS, whom we know from their brutal videos and claiming a so-called caliphate in 2014-2015.
The year 2020 was a year in which the Iran and Russia-backed regime forces suffered great losses. A Russian general also died, in the face of the hit-and-run war of terror group Daesh/ISIS who were active in Syria's Badia (desert) region, which is described as "no man's land". The US preoccupation in the elections, the race between Russia and Iran to gain influence, and the inability to gather intelligence from far off areas resulted in the re-emergence of Daesh/ISIS.
Meanwhile, joint Turkish-Russian patrols proved critical though with some setbacks. Also, it is possible that the continuation of the constitutional talks, though with no progress (of course, as one of the most important political developments) the holding of the parliamentary elections in regions controlled by the regime can be considered as the regime’s efforts to prove its maturity.
Racing for influence
While on one hand the struggle between the two allies (Russia and Iran) to seek influence in the region continued, Russia's tolerant attitude towards the Israeli air attacks which frequently bombed Iranian sites using the Syrian airspace was the most important indicator of this race. Also, most definitely, the killing of Iran's leading actor on the ground, Qasem Soleimani, in Iraq, was another most important development in the Syrian political field within 2020.
Perhaps the most striking event took place in the field of economy. Consuming all of its assets to continue the war in the past 10 years, the Syrian economy, already in crisis, reached a bankruptcy position. This was because of the poor economic health of its biggest financial supporter (Iran), the US's implementation of the aptly-titled Caesar Syrian Civil Protection Law also known as the Caesar Act – that sanctioned the Syrian government, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for war crimes against the Syrian population -- and COVID-19.
For this reason, while the strong supporters of the regime, (Assad’s cousins Hafez and Rami) Makhloufs and the business group owned the relatives of the first lady Esma Esad, entered into a power struggle in a way that they had to be featured in the tabloids. Rami Makhlouf, the icon of the creme de la creme layer who had mounted on the crest of the regime until today, revolted against the decisions of his cousin when the expenses of the war (which he financed) becoming unbearable. There was a saying among Syrians that everyone is either a “Makhlouf” or “Mukhalef” (opponent) to express the power of the Makhloufs in Syria and their support for the regime. However, now even the “Makhloufs” have become “Mukhalef”.
Following these developments, Bashar al-Assad started looking for other businessmen who would finance the war. We can call this a form of domestic debt or switching of bankers. Apart from the economic difficulties, due to the major shortages in oil and other products, the financing of the war is attempted to be carried by businessmen such as Hussam Qaterji, who is also a deputy, who manages the oil exchange between the regime and the YPG / PKK terror groups (as the regime has almost abandoned all hopes of support from Makhlufs).
In the military sense, the alliance between Moscow and Ankara, which had been going on since the Astana Summit in 2017, continued through joint patrols throughout the year, with some setbacks. Russia and Iran-backed regime forces, on the other hand, continued acquiring new areas in the countryside of Ma’arat al-Nu’man and Aleppo. After the unfortunate attack that resulted in the death of 34 Turkish soldiers in Idlib at the beginning of 2020, the situation settled in the region with the Turkish military forces responding more strongly. The regime's attacks on the opposition regions, however, continued unabated.
No takers for Kurdish administrative structures
Our problematic and so-called ally, the US, on the other hand, while continuing its public relation efforts for buffing up the Syrian branch of PKK terror group which goes by the names of YPG/PYD, SDG, etc. in the east of the Euphrates and is hated by other Kurdish groups due to their cruel actions and the dictatorship they have established in the region also continued activities against Turkey by trying to reconcile other Kurdish groups in the region.
However, it is important for Turkey that these negotiations were not very successful. As a matter of fact, all kinds of Kurdish administrative structures in Syria have no takers on the Kurdish street because of what they did (and could not do), making such an alliance impossible.
The high probability of Brett McGurk, a former American diplomat, who occasionally dined with terrorists in Syria and gave a plaque of gratitude to their ringleaders, being appointed as the coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa in the National Security Council during the Joe Biden period indicates that the US will continue its mediation efforts to end the problems between the Kurdish groups and to establish a political entity in the region.
In 2021, while the "frozen” Idlib issue will continue to be a headache, the regime will try to establish a balance between Russia and Iran, who are competing with each other. On the other hand, taking advantage of the struggle for influence between Russia and Iran, it can be predicted that Israel, who bombed the Golan, Al Qunaitra, and Damascus near its borders as well as Deir ez-Zor near the Iraqi border, will continue its attacks on all Iranian and Hezbollah targets within Syria.
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