How long will foreign troops stay in Syria?
There are four major powers who have military forces in Syria.
Two of them, Iran and Russia, are there on the invitation of the Syrian regime - while the other two, Turkey and the United States, are not. These four powers all have different objectives, and, at present, it remains unclear which will stay for the long-run and which will withdraw.
Israel and the United States have in recent months been pushing to ensure that the Iranian presence in Syria is removed. This is primarily in light of the regime's recent push to recapture Daraa, the cradle of the Syrian uprising eight years ago, which Israel fears will result in Iranian forces on the frontier of the Israel-occupied Golan Heights.
Both Israel and the US seem to think Russia is key to resolving these fears: Israel has acquiesced to the Syrian regime's takeover of Daraa, claiming that Russian President Vladimir Putin had in turn succeeded in keeping Iranian-backed forces out of the offensive and away from the Israeli frontier. Furthermore, Israel doesn't have any major concerns with President Bashar al-Assad remaining in power.
Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump is also reportedly contemplating offering Russia a deal whereby the US military withdraw from eastern Syria in return for a Russian promise to work towards limiting any "Iranian elements" near the Israeli or Jordanian borders.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's top aide, Ali Akbar Velayati, declared last Friday that Iran would retain forces in Syria for as long as Damascus welcomed them. Damascus is unlikely to request Tehran withdraw forces since it is, by far, Assad's staunchest supporter, particularly financially, and has been since the beginning of this war.
In his wide-ranging May 31 interview-slash-propaganda-effort with Russia Today Assad sought to downplay the Iranian presence, insisting there were no "Iranian troops" in Syria. "We never had, and you cannot hide it," he claimed. He did confirm that "we have Iranian officers who work with the Syrian army".
Assad also claimed the series of Israeli airstrikes targeting Iranian targets in Syria in recent months were responsible for the deaths of "tens of Syrian martyrs" but "not a single Iranian". He offered no proof of his assertions.
Of all the foreign powers in Syria, Iran's presence is arguably the least overt. Its Lebanese proxy Hizballah has fought in the country since 2013 while other "advisers" and paramilitary forces have entered the fray in more recent years.
The New Arab recently learned that the Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella group of Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militias, have begun establishing up to 40 permanent bases and outposts as far as 30km into Syrian territory. Baghdad does not sanction the PMF's involvement in the Syrian war, and it appears the group is taking orders instead from Tehran.
Israel was reportedly behind an airstrike last month that killed at least 22 Iraqi PMF fighters near the border. Just before that incident, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu revealed that Israel was actively targeting Shia militias backed by Iran in Syria, claiming Tehran had recruited and sent approximately 80,000 non-Iranians, including Afghan and Pakistani Shia, to fight on its behalf.
"Over the past few days, 13 aircraft, 14 helicopters and 1,140 personnel have been withdrawn. All of them are people who have experience and have passed the test by fighting," Russian President Vladimir Putin declared at the end of June. The Russian president did not specify if this was part of a gradual drawdown from the country or simply another rotation of forces.
|Russia has helped Assad win every major offensive he has undertaken since decisively intervening in the Syrian conflict on September 30, 2015|
Moscow previously announced in March 2016 and January 2017 that it was withdrawing from the Syrian conflict. In both cases it quickly became self-evident it was actually rotating its forces as it continued to directly support Syrian regime offensives with ferocious firepower.
More recently, in December 2017, Putin ordered a partial withdrawal of Russian forces. At the time Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said a withdrawal would "depend on the situation" in the country. Since then, Russian jet fighters have helped Damascus reconquer East Ghouta and, just this month, the southern region of Daraa - in each case thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.
Russia has helped Assad win every major offensive he has undertaken since decisively intervening in the Syrian conflict on September 30, 2015. It would therefore not be surprising if Russia also assists in a future Syrian regime offensive against the northwestern province of Idlib.
Russia has also secured the rights to use its airbase and naval depot in Syria for another 49 years if it so wishes. Consequently, even if Moscow withdraws the bulk of its forces and retains a small residual presence it could quickly reestablish a formidable force presence in the country anytime it chooses - so long as it has a friendly client in Damascus which honours this agreement.
Turkey has maintained a sizeable military presence and has occupied significant swathes of northwestern Syrian border territory for the past two years. This began in August 2016 when it launched Operation Euphrates Shield against the Islamic State group, while also targeting and clashing with the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in the vicinity, in a 60-mile-wide band of border territory.
The operation saw Ankara and its allied Free Syrian Army (FSA) militiamen capture the towns of Jarablus and Azaz on the border before culminating in the drawn-out urban battle against entrenched IS militants in Al-Bab, 30 kilometres south of Turkey's border.
Euphrates Shield ended in late March 2017. Since then Turkey has extolled the stability it has brought to these regions, where displaced Syrians have taken refuge. Ankara has also trained hundreds of Syrian police officers to consolidate control over this region.
"After years of civil war, the local Syrian population has welcomed the takeover for the measure of stability it has brought," wrote Umar Farooq in The Los Angeles Times on Friday. "But some also worry that the area will permanently lose its Syrian character and in effect become a Turkish colony."
Turkey plans to build an industrial zone in Al-Bab to jump-start a sustainable local economy in this region. It also reached a deal with the United States in June over the Arab city of Manbij, which it hitherto long threatened to attack if the YPG weren't compelled by the US to withdraw. It has since undertaken a series of coordinated patrols in the area.
None of this indicates that Ankara is willing to pull out any time soon, either unilaterally or through international pressure.
|Ankara claims it is planning to give the region back to locals through the establishment of 'necessary civic institutions such as local councils'|
The same is the case in the nearby region of Afrin in Syria's north-west corner. One of the three cantons held by Kurds, Turkey attacked the YPG - which it sees as an offshoot of the outlawed PKK militant group which has fought a bloody 34-year insurgency against Ankara - and invaded the entire enclave earlier this year in a two-month offensive.
There too Turkey is training police officers to consolidate control and has scoffed at the notion that it might return the territory to the Syrian regime. Ankara claims that it is instead planning to give the region back to locals through the establishment of "necessary civic institutions such as local councils".
Kurds and other critics, however, say Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has distorted the Kurdish-majority demographics of the region as cover for an ethnic cleansing campaign, aimed at "Arabising" Afrin by relocating displaced Syrians from across the country there. The future status of Afrin and the Turkish presence there will likely be affected by events in neighbouring Idlib, where any future operation by Damascus could result in as many as two and a half million Syrians fleeing into Afrin and Turkey to escape yet another devastating offensive.
An analysis of the Carnegie Middle East Center noted that while temptations to annex these territories may be great for Ankara, given the resources it has put into capturing these territories and their strategic value, "the burden, both political and military, will eventually prevent the Turks from staying the course".
The United States
US President Donald Trump has made no secret of his desire to pull all US forces from Syria. He voiced this intent quite forcefully last April, insisting that Washington would withdraw once IS was utterly defeated. Presently, the US and its Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) ally is making headway in clearing out the remnants of IS' stronghold in the eastern Syrian province of Deir ez-Zour.
The latest phase of "Operation Roundup" is seeing SDF forces attacking IS in the town of Hajin, one of the group's last strongholds in Syria. The Iraqi Air Force has also targeted IS positions in recent weeks in support of these operations and is coordinating with the SDF to ensure IS is firmly removed from the border.
US and Iraqi forces even briefly set up an artillery firebase in Iraq south of Sinjar last month to fire shells at IS positions across the border in Syria.
With the current pace of operations the US may well withdraw from Syria in the near future if Trump lives up to his word. This would entail pulling out approximately 2,000 troops - mostly special forces and advisers to the SDF - as well as vacating a network of bases and airfields the US has established there to support its anti-IS operations.
US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham visited Syria earlier this month and told local leaders in the marketplace in Manbij: "You're friends of the United States, and if we leave it will be terrible."
"I will tell President Trump that it is important that we stay here to help you," he declared.
A US withdrawal from Syria could well see either Damascus or Ankara, or both, feel emboldened enough to attack the SDF there.
It's unclear at present what Washington will ultimately do. President Trump could make a deal with Putin that would see him withdraw in the near future. Or, hawks on Iran in Congress could convince the White House to maintain its foothold in eastern Syria and repurpose its focus to fighting Iran's presence in the country.
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.
Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon