Prospects for Syria

By Brian Durrans

The eradication of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and other imperialist-backed militias in Syria, achieved by government forces and invited assistance from Russia, Iran and Hizbollah, is a political defeat for the US strategy of ousting the Assad government. That aim was always meant, however, as only the first step to weakening the country via a polarising ‘Salafist principality’ that would cut through both Syria and Iraq.

Comparable ends – populations too divided either to resist US designs or to attract rival exploiters or supportive friends - were achieved in Libya by toppling Gaddafi and seem to be being met in Afghanistan by the alternative means of endemic conflict with the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the local branch of IS. As the US committed more troops to Afghanistan, the Washington Post on 16 September ran a headline claiming that after 16 years of military involvement in the country, the US and NATO are still trying to map out a strategy. Only a Pentagon mole could confirm that, and the top brass or field commanders may well need a refresher course, but managing (that is, perpetuating) instability may still suit the managers. The uncertain future of Afghanistan is a problem not just for Afghans (over 1500 civilians killed during 2016-17 up to September) but also for its neighbours, two of them - Russia and China - respectively the main obstacles to America’s regional and global dominance.

The US is reportedly concerned that Russia and Iran are involved in talks on the future of Afghanistan, and Chinese support for Afghanistan in the form of humanitarian aid and professional training is rising from the $250m level of 2001-2013.[1] Both Russia and China are affected by how events unfold in the middle east as a whole: Russia because of its geopolitical position, and China also geopolitically because it shares a short border with Afghanistan but mainly because of its plans to link its economy through the region and into Europe via its ambitious ‘Silk Road’ partnerships: ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR).[2] Syria, however, has proved itself very different from Libya and Afghanistan, so the US must find some other way of undermining the country or at least of neutralising its regional influence. There seem to be two complementary ways to ensure that result: on the one hand, diplomatic and economic pressure; and on the other, the threat of (or full-scale) war. But each has its drawbacks. 


According to the World Bank, restoring the Syrian GDP to its pre-conflict level would cost $180bn. [3] Russia is currently working hard for an international agreement that would reinforce Syrian independence and share responsibility (including financial responsibility) for upholding it. President Putin is prudently consulting with the US president about these diplomatic endeavours.  A meeting to broker such a deal on Syria with Iran and Turkey has been announced for some weeks but at the time of writing has yet to happen, one problem reportedly being Turkish concern about Kurdish participation in the national reconciliation meeting of Syrian government and opposition representatives planned to follow it.

That may be difficult because Syrian success on the battlefield and at least a temporary setback to their own separatist aspirations have shifted Kurdish opinion away from the US towards Russia. Even so, the prospects for a binding agreement within the country are improved by the resignation of some of the more radical elements from the Syrian opposition’s negotiating team. [4] None of the nations currently interested in an accord that could set Syria on course for recovery, however, could afford to fund it alone; arguably, China might be able to do it, but would resist, probably with good reason, any unnecessary wrangling with the US, with which it has problems enough elsewhere and not yet military parity.    

As for an anti-Syrian war, this could be triggered with the help of residual US forces still illegally occupying parts of Syrian territory, together with their diminished but not yet disarmed local proxies. In the northeast governate of Idlib, local anti-Assad groups have turned on each other but central authority is likely to prevail in the coming months. [5] 

The US chooses to retain a significant presence in southeast Syria, which not only includes oil and gas reserves but is also strategically-placed near the Iraqi and Jordanian borders, the practical value of which might prove itself, if and when the bluster of the new ultra-reactionary Saudi, US and Israeli coalition takes concrete form. That bluster is ostensibly aimed at Iran but Iran’s neighbours and local allies would also be in the firing line. [6]

For the moment, however, the reality is that of all regional players supporting stable, non-sectarian outcomes against US-sponsored adventurism, Russia alone has the military clout for its diplomacy to be taken seriously, a course of action deserving widespread support. 


[1] Zhao Huasheng, ‘Afghanistan and China’s new neighbourhood diplomacy’, International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House), vol 92, no 4, July 2016, pp.891-908 [903]).

[2] ibid., p.895;

[3] quoted in Neil Quilliam, ‘Syria is not lost yet’, International Affairs, 15 March 2017: By ‘not lost yet’, Quilliam seems to mean ‘not yet lost as a Western asset’.

[4] Patrick Wintour in the Guardian, 21 November 2017. Wintour supposes that Syrian and Russian military success convinced Saudi Arabia to abandon its previous insistence that President Assad’s removal would be a precondition for government-opposition talks.   


[6] Patrick Cockburn, ‘As Wars End’, London Review of Books, 14 December 2017, pp.17-19.