What’s next for Syria?

International actors, intra-rebel violence and tribal affiliations complicate prospects for peace in Syria.

Air raids killed at least 44 people last week in the village of Zardana, in rural Idlib province [Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets/The Associated Press]

“Who is that, guys? That’s a woman. That’s Khaled Sofar. That’s Mohammed Saleh. Who is that? Who is that?” 

A few moments pass, as the camera pans over dust-covered corpses among the rubble.

“Take him out.”

Men cluster over the bodies, wrap them in blankets and take them away.

The scenes have become all too familiar, but repeated themselves last week when suspected Russian or Syrian army air raids killed at least 44 people in the village of Zardana, in rural Idlib province, Syria

Idlib’s residents, who include over one million people displaced from other parts of Syria, have endured years of air raids that have targeted medical facilities, markets and schools. The damaged infrastructure is groaning under the weight of internally displaced people.

The region, one of the last-remaining rebel-held pockets of Syria, is surrounded by Russian, Turkish and Iranian-controlled observation posts that are supposed to enforce a “de-escalation zone” agreement.

But in recent months, residents have coped with rising violence, crime and instability, as well as continued air raids. 

Intra-rebel violence

Local media activists have documented 93 assassination attempts in Idlib since the end of April, mostly targeting fighters and commanders from Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the al-Qaeda affiliate that holds sway in Idlib. 

Although the perpetrators have not been identified, the violence largely results from feuding over strategic and economic assets between HTS and other rebels such as the Jabhat Tahrir Souriya group (Syria Liberation Front), which formed in February.

HTS’ rule is strange to many Syrians, and local activists say that residents consider their governance to be “as authoritarian as the Assad forces”. 

Civilians have also been affected. At least 24 civilians were killed in six separate bomb attacks in Idlib throughout May, while four White Helmets civil defence volunteers in rural Aleppo were killed by an armed gang that ransacked their centre.

“Instead of competing with the regime, [the rebels] are competing with each other”, Haid Haid, research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, told Al Jazeera.

“The changing dynamic is direct confrontation moving to indirect forms such as hit-and-run operations.”

Idlib’s intra-rebel violence is one of the latest characteristics of the seven-year-long Syrian conflict.

The Assad regime has retaken much of the country using starve, besiege and bomb tactics. Government-rebel reconciliation deals have seen communities accept Assad’s rule or face displacement to opposition-held areas of Idlib and Aleppo provinces.

Division of land

Among the main issues now is how deals brokered by the main Syrian and international players will determine the division of power and land. 

Kurdish forces, backed by the US, hold a quarter of Syrian territory in the north-east, which they have gained as ISIL has withered.

In regime-controlled areas, meanwhile, Iran and its proxies are bolstering the beleaguered Syrian Army. Russia is determined to get Syria back on track economically on terms that benefit Moscow, but is less enthusiastic than Iran about maintaining a long-term military presence in the country.

Manbij deal

Deals brokered between the main international players in Syria include a US-Turkey agreement formalised last week to remove the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the city of Manbij in Aleppo province.

Turkey has been incensed at the US support for what it sees a “terror” group linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatists who have fought a 40-year rebellion against the Turkish state.

The Manbij deal is likely a step to avoid confrontation between Turkish troops, who earlier this year vowed to push east to prevent Kurds consolidating ground in northern Syria, and US forces and their Kurdish allies at the strategically significant city.

“Manbij serves as a bridge – for the Kurds, for example, between their western and eastern cantons, and for rebels to the Euphrates [river] and northeastern Syria,” said Ruslan Trad, a Bulgarian Syrian military analyst for De Re Militari, a conflict-mapping journal.

“So, the city was expected to serve as a political exchange coin. The US fulfils Turkey’s desire – in turn, the Turks will become more cooperative.” 

But it is not entirely clear who will now be responsible for the city’s security.

Analysts believe the US and Turkey have not yet hammered out details of the city’s fate.

“This agreement is not clear; [the US and Turkey] have the framework but they haven’t agreed on the details”, Haid told Al Jazeera.

Tribal affiliations

The US decision to put all its eggs in one basket by pulling support for Syrian rebel groups last July and partnering with the Kurdish-dominated SDF to combat ISIL may cause it problems elsewhere in Syria, too.

Analysts believe the international coalition against ISIL has underestimated the importance of tribes in northern and eastern Syria’s dynamics. The US has relied on the SDF in anti-ISIL operations, but its dominance has marginalised other groups and it lacks legitimacy among local populations.

Iranian and pro-Assad forces have played on Syria’s tribal affiliations more fruitfully, highlighting the room for manoeuvre and influence that pro-regime forces enjoy in the north. 

“The Assad regime and, more so, Iran have rather skilfully engaged the tribes in eastern Syria and elsewhere – the formation of a group like Liwa al-Baqir is the most public manifestation of this,” said Kyle Orton, a London-based Middle East analyst.

Liwa al-Baqir is an Aleppo-based pro-regime militia that has reportedly co-ordinated with Lebanese Hezbollah. 

Just as militias launched attacks on US forces in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, in April Liwa al-Baqir warned of, “the onset of the military and jihadist activists against the American occupation and its allies in Syria”.

More recently, pro-regime media reported that northern Syrian tribes have formed Syrian Army support units to “expel occupiers from their country”.

Defeating ISIL

The US and its allies will have to accept increasing pushback from both openly hostile regime forces and from populations whom they freed from ISIL control, but which feel marginalised by the authorities imposed upon them.

Those tensions could be furthered by parallel anti-ISIL operations by US-backed and pro-regime forces in eastern Syria. The SDF last week launched the second phase of Operation Round Up to remove remaining ISIL fighters from the Iraqi border region.

But Syrian army and Hezbollah troops also deployed to eastern Syria on a similar mission, eager to continue the narrative that they, not US-backed forces, are defeating ISIL.

Deraa and Quneitra

Another deal determining Syria’s future is to be hammered out for the southwest, where rebels still control a pocket of territory in Deraa and Quneitra provinces. 

Already the subject of a de-escalation zone agreement between the US, Russia and Jordan last year, the Syrian regime wants to retake the rebel-held area and regain control of the potentially lucrative border crossing with Jordan. But Israel is determined to keep the Iranian militias propping up Assad, who would normally form a key part of any offensive, away from the Golan Heights ceasefire line.

No final agreement has been reached. Reports emerged of an accord between Moscow and Tel Aviv to ensure Iranian forces steer clear of the southwest, only for Syria and Israel to both deny that such a deal had been reached.

The main stumbling block is differences in what the involved parties want from a deal. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem said he would not consider a deal that did not include the US abandoning its military base at al-Tanf. Israel wants to eliminate the Iranian presence in Syria entirely, which is inconceivable given their military support for the Assad regime. 

“There is a lot of talk of a deal [for south Syria] but it might be hard to reach and there are a lot of moving parts,” said Heiko Wimmen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon project director at International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution organisation. 

“It is not entirely clear to me that Israel knows what it wants”, he told Al Jazeera.

“It seems good to have a guarantee from the Russians not to have Iranians running around near the armistice line. But can the Russians really deliver on that, and if they can, for how long?” 

Although the countries’ aims ultimately dovetail, Russia has limited sway over Iran

“Iran simply will not agree to anyone telling them what to do,” said military analyst Ruslan Trad. 

All the same, monitors warn international powers, particularly the US, against allowing the negotiations over southern Syria to drag on too long, urging them to take advantage of a stalled Syrian offensive on the southwest to cut a deal. 

“The Americans, in particular, shouldn’t allow this to drift,” said Wimmen. “We saw on May 10 [when Iran shot at Israel] that things can get very dangerous very quickly.” 

Source: Al Jazeera