Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Political Settlements in Syria: Gains and Losses of Regional Parties

While the resolution of the Syrian crisis will require time, we can expect a series of political settlements between external parties involved.

Political Settlements in Syria
A billboard with pictures of Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi (L) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stands on the road leading to Damascus International Airport on May 3, 2023. LOUAI BESHARA /AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic.

Today, it remains premature to discuss a definitive solution to the Syrian crisis that originated from a widespread popular revolution in 2011 against the Assad regime. This revolution gradually transformed into a civil war, culminating in the partitioning of influence among the regime, regional entities and diverse militias.

Currently, substantial portions of the governorates of Idlib, Aleppo, Raqqa and Hasakah in northern Syria are under the control of Turkish-affiliated militias and certain Islamic factions. Meanwhile, the Syrian Democratic Forces, primarily composed of Kurdish elements, retain authority over northeastern Syria, encompassing approximately one-quarter of the nation’s total landmass.

Even in areas affiliated with the regime, the militias aligned with the Assad regime, particularly those linked to Iran, continue to exert control over numerous territories they have reclaimed from opposition forces. Their presence has become deeply rooted at the local level, with the establishment of a complex network of economic interests. This entrenchment poses challenges for any future withdrawal efforts.

Similarly, Russia wields significant influence over various military and security branches of the regime, while also employing the “Wagner” group as a private Russian military company.

Moreover, Russia exerts further military leverage by collaborating with local militias, formerly aligned with the opposition, who have since reached reconciliations with the regime through mediation by Russian officers. Presently, Russia continues to rely on these militias as a strategic counterbalance to Iran’s security presence within Syria.

Due to these factors, it is evident that Syria’s current state of fragmentation makes the prospect of a comprehensive and integrated political solution highly unlikely in the near future.

On the contrary, the country will undoubtedly undergo a protracted and delicate process of negotiations, intricately intertwined with the exchange of interests among influential regional actors involved in the Syrian conflict.

Moreover, these negotiations will inevitably touch upon resolving the crisis of displacement, which is closely linked to the internal conditions of several neighboring countries. Addressing these complex issues may necessitate extensive negotiations and compromises spanning many years before any meaningful progress can be achieved.

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that there have been significant advancements and progress in the Syrian situation, suggesting that efforts toward regional settlements are underway. While the complete resolution of the Syrian crisis will require time, it is evident that a comprehensive and immediate solution is not within immediate reach.

Instead, we can expect a series of agreements between external parties involved in the Syrian crisis, gradually paving the way for the resolution of various longstanding issues pertaining to Syrian affairs.

One notable aspect of regional developments is the increasing trend among several Arab nations to normalize their relations with the Syrian regime.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had already initiated this normalization process with Damascus, and other Arab countries have followed suit. Syria’s recent re-entry into the Arab League can also be viewed as a significant step toward ending its regional isolation and reestablishing its Arab ties. It is worth mentioning that in recent years, numerous Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, have actively pursued the normalization of relations with the Syrian regime.

Alongside Syria’s gradual restoration of its Arab relations, Türkiye has recently resumed direct consultations with Damascus, facilitated by Iranian and Russian mediation, with the intention of normalizing their relationship and addressing outstanding issues through bilateral agreements. This complex process is expected to gain momentum following the conclusion of the Turkish presidential election.

In this evolving landscape, it is evident that most countries that initially supported the Syrian revolution with the goal of overthrowing the regime have revised their strategies and tempered their ambitions, with the exception of Qatar.

These countries have reestablished communication channels with the Syrian regime, aiming to reach understandings and engage in negotiations to resolve points of contention through a series of successive settlements.

Additionally, these settlements concerning Syria are influenced by broader regional developments, including the restoration of direct communication between Riyadh and Tehran, as well as the convergence of Russian and Saudi interests in various economic and political domains.

As this process of settlements unfolds, it becomes important to inquire about the gains achieved by each regional power throughout the Syrian crisis thus far.

Furthermore, it is essential to examine how these parties intend to safeguard their gains and pursue their aspirations during the settlement stage. Concurrently, it is vital to assess the challenges and losses faced by each regional party involved in this conflict and explore their strategies for addressing them.

Türkiye: Kurdish concerns, refugees and gains in area of influences

For Türkiye, the control it exercises over northern Syria stands as its most significant achievement, encompassing an expansive area exceeding 8,835 square kilometers and comprising numerous towns and villages.

Türkiye has relied on militias and local administrations to govern these territories, while actively working to establish economic and commercial links between this region and the Turkish mainland in diverse ways.

Furthermore, Türkiye has placed considerable importance on establishing military observation points within these areas, aiming to solidify its complete authority and oversee the operations of local militias operating there.

Türkiye recognizes that the Syrian regime maintains reservations regarding its military control over the region, emphasizing in discussions with Turkish officials the importance of linking these areas administratively and ensuring their security under Syrian governance.

Moreover, Türkiye understands that sustaining a long-term military presence in the region may prove challenging if Syria becomes involved in broader regional settlement efforts, as such a presence would contradict fundamental international principles.

As a result, Türkiye will likely need to pursue a future settlement that restores this region to Syrian sovereignty, even if only in a formal sense. This settlement would involve reconciliations in which the militias in control recognize the authority of the Syrian regime, while these militias continue to exist, and Türkiye maintains control over them following the reconciliations.

This scenario closely resembles Russia’s approach in southern Syria, where numerous opposition factions have reconciled with the Syrian regime under Russian mediation, ceasing their rebellion in exchange for remaining loyal as local militias under Russian officers.

While this settlement will secure Türkiye’s influence in northern Syria, it will be viewed as a compromise on Ankara’s part, involving the relinquishment of some of its gains from the Syrian conflict.

However, this concession will not occur without corresponding concessions from the Syrian regime. In this context, the losses and challenges faced by Türkiye, which it aims to address through forthcoming settlements, become evident as Ankara seeks specific commitments from the Syrian regime.

Türkiye faces two significant challenges in the Syrian crisis.

Firstly, there is the pressing issue of the refugee population, which puts strain on the domestic situation within Türkiye.

Secondly, there is the matter of the Syrian Democratic Forces , predominantly composed of Kurds, who control substantial Syrian areas adjacent to the Türkiye-Syria border. Türkiye views the SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it designates as a terrorist organization.

Additionally, Ankara perceives the Kurdish military presence in southern Syria, near its borders, as a potential threat that could fuel separatist aspirations among the Kurds within Türkiye. These challenges represent the primary concerns for Türkiye within the Syrian crisis, and the Turkish regime seeks to address them effectively.

Therefore, in return for its withdrawal from Syria and relinquishing its direct military presence, Türkiye explicitly demands that it engage in negotiations with Syria regarding the refugee issue. Turkish negotiators propose exploring security and political solutions that facilitate the voluntary and safe repatriation of refugees to their respective areas.

Additionally, Türkiye insists on dismantling the SDF presence in northern Syria, coupled with measures to conclude the civil administration imposed by these forces in the region.

Gulf countries: Mixed priorities

It is evident that the Gulf countries have significantly divergent priorities and calculations at present. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia initially played a key role in providing financial support and organizing opposition groups in Syria, with the ultimate aim of overthrowing the Assad regime.

However, it has become apparent that Saudi Arabia has now set aside these ambitions, as it has failed to maintain any meaningful sphere of influence within Syria through the armed organizations it supported. Consequently, unlike Türkiye, Saudi Arabia has not achieved substantial gains that it can leverage in negotiations.

Riyadh today has concerns and losses that it would like to address in this matter, particularly regarding the security threat emanating from Syrian territories.

For years, the Kingdom has believed that its rivalry with Damascus led to the Syrian regime facilitating the smuggling of drugs, specifically Captagon, from Syria into Saudi Arabia. Combating this phenomenon has proven challenging for Saudi Arabia, given the vast desert areas along its northern borders.

According to sources involved in the Syrian-Saudi negotiations, the Kingdom has proposed a deal to the Syrian regime aimed at reintegrating Syria into its Arab environment. The deal entails the Syrian regime committing to combat the production and export of Captagon within its territory, in exchange for a package of compensation and financial aid for Syria. The agreement is expected to include incentives for the Syrian regime, such as increased access to Arab markets for Syrian exports and facilitated trade operations with Damascus.

Looking ahead, the Kingdom aspires to play an investment role in Syria as part of the reconstruction process, but this matter remains unresolved pending a resolution of the sanctions issue against the Assad regime.

Qatar, meanwhile, exhibits a more cautious approach toward normalizing its relationship with the Syrian regime, likely due to its possession of certain gains and leverage that can be utilized before reaching a resolution with Damascus. This is particularly evident through Qatar’s economic and political influence in the northern regions of Syria, currently under the control of Türkiye.

As of now, Qatar has not explicitly outlined its conditions for accepting the normalization of its relationship with the Syrian regime.

However, Qatari interests may intersect with those of its ally, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the future of the political settlement with the opposition in northern Syria. Consequently, Doha finds it prudent to exercise patience and refrain from revealing its hand at present, opting instead to delay the normalization of its relationship with Damascus.

On the other hand, the UAE took the lead among its Gulf counterparts in normalizing relations with the Assad regime back in 2018, recognizing that the regime would remain in power.

Since the establishment of this normalized relationship, the UAE has been patiently awaiting the resolution of U.S. sanctions before engaging in investment ventures within Syria’s energy sector. This eagerness to invest is particularly evident after the signing of agreements in 2021, aimed at strengthening economic cooperation between the two countries.

It is worth noting that the UAE stands as Syria’s primary Arab trading partner and ranks third globally, accounting for approximately 14 per cent of Syria’s foreign trade volume on its own.

Other regional parties: Concerns and gains

Iran emerges as the most influential regional player in the Syrian equation. Not only did its ally, Bashar al-Assad, secure victory and retain power, but Iranian militias also gained significant investments and commercial advantages in various sectors of the Syrian economy. Pro-Iranian militias continue to maintain control over several regions in Syria.

Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia allied with Iran, still holds substantial territory in western and southern Syria. This presence serves as a strategic base for security and military actions against Israel, expanding the fronts that Hezbollah has long maintained against Israel.

Unlike Türkiye, Iran is unlikely to relinquish these gains in the foreseeable future. Instead, it will focus on consolidating and further leveraging its military and economic presence in coordination with the Syrian regime.

As for Jordan, it has not achieved notable political gains in the Syrian conflict, despite its initial involvement in supporting military operations. Similar to Türkiye, Jordan also faces the challenge of hosting a significant number of Syrian refugees.

However, unlike Türkiye, Jordan lacks significant leverage to negotiate with the Syrian regime on addressing this challenge. It is worth noting that Jordan normalized its relationship with the Syrian regime in 2018 and initiated coordination without prior negotiations regarding the refugee issue.

It will likely take several years for Syria to achieve regional settlements capable of resolving the military, economic and political aspects of the crisis.

However, the demands, interests and challenges of each party involved have become apparent, allowing for predictions regarding the bargains that regional powers will seek to achieve in Syria. The crucial question remains whether Syria can achieve long-term economic prosperity and stability, even if regional powers manage to address their differences within the country.

user placeholder
written by
All Dima articles