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The Strategic Defeat of Syria’s opposition and the Safe-Zone Project

While additional factors are adding up to draw the curtains on the Syrian opposition, all but strategically defeated, we will start first with four on-the-ground developments there which deserve to be looked at. The first is the intra-fight between two main camps in the opposition, one led by Ahrar Al Sham and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the other is led by Jabhat Al Nusra or Jabhat Fateh Al Sham (JFS). The second development is the advance of Assad forces towards ISIL’s strong hold in Al Bab while Turkish supported forces led by the Euphrates Shield (ES) failed to achieve any breakthrough in its progress towards the city. The third is the situation in Dair Al Zour where the US air force continues to hammer ISIL fighters in and around the city. The fourth is Assad’s success to recapture Wadi Barada, hence the resumption of water supplies to Damascus.

We will, however, focus only on two developments: the intra-fight between the opposition groups and the developments taking place, not on the ground, but on the diplomatic track, particularly the Trump administration proposal to declare a safe-zone in northern Syria. The reason is that those two things stand to be, firstly, inter-connected, and secondly, of qualitative significance in the general course of the Syrian crisis.

All the Syrian opposition allies abandoned it. And in its slide towards defeat we see all signs of decay. JFS formed Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (The Committee to Liberate the Levant-HTS), which included multiple opposition groups to fight against “selling-off the Syrian revolution to Assad and the Russians”. The main trigger of the split of the general body of the opposition was the progress of the serious diplomatic effort sponsored by the Turks and the Russians. We predicted repeatedly in MEB that any similar serious diplomacy will automatically split the opposition.

HTS is a force to reckon with. It should not be taken lightly. And while the intra-fight puts additional pressures on the Turks and Russians to expedite their diplomatic effort in order to be able to shape the result of the conflict, the opposition is steadily sliding from bad to worst. In fact, all the opposition will ultimately be reduced to this Front led by Al Qaeda, though we still believe that HTS will go through many splits in the future as the process progresses.

It is obvious that if the search for a solution drags on for months, the HST may be ultimately able to expand its control. If this happens, chances of a successful solution will be less than they are now.

The other side, Ahrar Al Sham, the FSA and their allies should also expedite their preparedness for Geneva. Obviously, it was a public relation blunder from the Russians to publicize their proposal of a draft constitution for Syria. The public step offended many proud Syrians. But Russia walked back their blunder by saying that the draft was merely a proposition. The Astana opposition said they will consider the draft but will put their own version.

The ultimate solution is more or less what we described two years ago: decentralized Syria where regions enjoy larger degree of determining their own local affairs so long as they guarantee that their areas are free of terrorists and illegal organized armed groups. Either this will be called confederation or federation or nothing at all, it will be based on the same content regardless of the name.

However, analysts fall into two mistaken assumptions: Firstly, they assume that Russia and Iran could be, at any point in the future, opposed to each other in Syria. Secondly, they still believe that Assad have a role independent of Tehran. Both assumptions are wrong by virtue of the facts on the ground. Iran controls the situation in the regime’s territory very tightly. Underestimating Iran’s control over Syria is a common error. It was, in fact, a lesson in how to expand a foreign power’s grip on a country that far.

On the other side, the ultimate objective would be to build a joint effort to fight those who refuse peace. But for this to work, the definition of peace should be made very clear to all Syrians. If Syria is to go back to pre-2011 years, this will bring back violence much as what happened in Iraq when Al Qaeda was defeated there in the fight of 2006-2010.

The safe-zone proposed by President Trump is still an unclear proposition. Will Assad be part of it? Will the Russians? How could those zones be protected against the armed groups in both sides? Does the US have to send troops to defend those areas? In all cases, it will impact the dynamics within the opposition group as it will impact the progress towards the Russian-Turkish-Iranian solution.

The right approach could be to start a limited safe-zone in northern Syria, provided Turkey and Russia are taken as partners in defending it. If it works there, it will work anywhere else in Syria. Ankara said it accepts the idea. Moscow said it will approve it only if Assad (read: Iran) is on board.

But the reality is that, in any case, Russia will not feel comfortable if American troops are based, officially, on Syrian territory. Iran will oppose the idea tooth and nails unless Moscow says it obtained enough guarantees from Washington on the limits of the operation. Until now, Russia is the designated care-taker of the country while Iran is the de facto controller. To see the US involving itself there may be perceived in Moscow is a step back from its monopoly over Syrian affairs. Undoing the mess that the Obama administration did in Syria and the Middle East will take time and prudence.

The whole concept of announcing a safe-zone in Syria requires first a joint strategic framework that clarifies what new Syria are all the relevant parties seeking, and how to get there. We wish that Secretary Mattis study all options carefully and focus on a safe-zone in the north, that is where the human tragedy is indeed out of control. It will hurt more than help if the US implements an approach that early and ends in failure. If the safe-zone concept is not anchored in a multi-party strategic framework accepted by all concerned, it will certainly lead to unwanted results.

The concept of safe-zones is invisibly connected to the diplomatic track being pursued since Astana. When this track progresses, it also changes certain aspects of the project to build a safe-zone. In other word, the safe-zone project is shaped, among other things, by the extent of success on the diplomatic track. As this process is still fluid, the rush to assume any constants on the ground will be a mistake. If “something” should be done, due to political considerations in Washington, a limited safe-zone could be announced in the north of Syria in coordination, operationally speaking, with the Turks and the Russians.

In all aspects, we are beginning a new phase in the story of the Syrian crisis. We hope that the main losers in this story, the ordinary Syrians, will at least survive the nightmare they have been though for six years just because one far day in 2011 they went to the streets chanting “Freedom”. In return, they lost their loved ones, their homes, and ultimately their country.

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