Syria Faces Brittle Future, Dominated by Russia and Iran

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Turkey is threatening to invade Syria to eradicate Kurdish fighters. Syrian forces are rolling toward territory the Americans will soon abandon. Israel is bombing Iran-backed militias deep inside Syria. And Russia could soon move to crush the last vestige of the Syrian anti-government insurgency.

The Syria that the United States military is vacating on President Trump’s orders is a Balkanized version of the country that plunged into a calamitous civil war nearly eight years ago.

Now, with the American troop withdrawal and the demise of the insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad, Iran and Russia will be even freer to flex their power in Syria.

“Welcome to the post-American Middle East,” Richard N. Haass, a longtime diplomat and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a Twitter post on Wednesday.

A look at the changing complexities of the Syria conflict:

After years of bloodshed set in motion by the Arab Spring protests that had inspired hope for democratic change, the most likely Syrian future, Middle East analysts project, is a far more brittle version of what existed before the war: Mr. Assad leading a repressive government puppeteered by Russia and Iran.

Both countries are longtime allies of Mr. Assad’s. By rescuing him with Russian airpower and Iranian manpower, they have embedded themselves even further.

Shiite Iran, which competes with Sunni powers led by Saudi Arabia for influence across the region, has sent tens of thousands of Iranian and proxy fighters to Syria. It is building Shiite shrines and strengthening Shiite militias that it hopes to use as leverage against Israel.

Russia, which already exerted considerable political influence in Syria, holds sway over its foreign policy, military and security services. That is part of the price Moscow exacted for having protected Mr. Assad, a brutal autocrat once described by Western leaders as finished.

Although they may find staying in Syria costly, frustrating and unpopular back home, Russia and Iran have secured an advantage from outlasting the United States: regional clout.

For both countries, this is “the dream scenario,” said Daniel Benaim, a fellow focusing on the Middle East at the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group in Washington. “They get to tell the story that they’ve been telling to every actor on the ground — America’s friends and America’s foes alike — that America is no longer a reliable partner in the Middle East.”

Two thousand Americans were deployed in northeast Syria, collaborating with Kurdish-led forces to wipe the Islamic State from the area. But that partnership angered neighboring Turkey, which sees the autonomy-minded Kurds as a dangerous enemy.

How — or even if — the fight against the Islamic State in Syria will now proceed remains unclear. An estimated 30,000 Islamic State adherents are believed scattered in the country.

Many experts anticipate that a hasty American pullout could spawn another major battle, either as Turkey moves to crush its Kurdish foes, or as Mr. Assad’s forces retake the northeast, or both.

It is possible that the Kurds and Mr. Assad could come to a deal first. If not, a new round of fighting could send new waves of refugees — Kurds and others — fleeing toward Iraq in a new round of mayhem that could also help incubate the Islamic State’s revival.

“That’s absolutely a possibility, the risk of total chaos,” said Aron Lund, a Syria analyst and fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank, “when the thing that’s been keeping the situation stable — not saying it was good or bad, but stable — just disappears in a puff of smoke.”

According to the Institute for the Study of War, Russia, Iran and Iran-backed militias, including the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, are well-positioned to seize territory in northeast Syria abandoned by the United States. They occupy 29 nearby positions, according to the group, and a further seven across the Iraq border.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks Syria’s war via a network of citizen monitors, said on Sunday that the Syrian government had dispatched thousands of fighters toward the Islamic State’s last patches of territory in the northeast.

The last major redoubt of the rebels opposed to Mr. Assad are crowded into Idlib Province in northwestern Syria, neighboring Turkey. Russia may help Mr. Assad’s forces retake the province eventually. But Russia also is expected to first negotiate with Turkey, which has supported anti-Assad groups and has a vested interest in what happens along its border with Syria.

Analysts say Iran can now link Shiite partners in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in a unified front against Israel. In Syria, Iran and Hezbollah aim to strengthen a military presence near the Golan Heights, annexed by Israel after it was captured in the 1967 war.

Israel has made clear it will not tolerate an increased threat from Syria, which the Israelis demonstrated on Tuesday with airstrikes near Damascus.

The Russians, who have good relations with Israel, have tacitly allowed it to conduct such operations in the past. Still, the Kremlin protested on Wednesday what it called Israel’s “gross violation” of Syrian sovereignty.

The Iranian-led Shiite partnership in Syria faces a basic shortcoming: few Shiites in a Sunni-majority country. Still, Iran has extended its influence among both Syrian fighters and civilians.

In some parts of Syria, Iran has distributed cash to pay for housing to people displaced by the war; in others, it has established Shiite shrines that, according to the Observatory, have drawn visitors from Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Defying the Syrian government’s historic secularism, Iran and Hezbollah have infused parts of the country with a strikingly religious tint. It was rare in the past, for example, to see celebrations for Ashura, a major Shiite holiday, in non-Shiite areas of Damascus. Now, however, Ashura parades and rituals are much more visible.

Some soldiers in the historically secular Syrian army have become more religious after joining Iran-backed Shiite militias. Others have switched to such militias for nonreligious reasons. Fighters in Iran-backed groups receive better pay and more days off than the army offers, and joining a Shiite militia does not necessarily mean converting to Shiism. But it is a marked shift from the old way.

“It’s no longer purely secular,” said Ali Rizk, a Beirut-based analyst who writes about Iran. He said Iran and Hezbollah have spread their Shiite beliefs among some of the Syrian forces. “It’s only human — after all, these units were coordinating with each other, fighting side by side.”

Russia has cemented ties with Syrian leaders, strengthened relations with Turkey and eclipsed the United States as the power to contend with in the Middle East.

The Russians have also demonstrated a canny understanding of Syrian sensitivities — dispatching military policemen from Russia’s predominantly Sunni Muslim Chechnya region, for example, to negotiate rebel withdrawals and keep the peace in Sunni areas retaken by Mr. Assad’s side.

On a visit to the formerly insurgent-held southern suburbs of Damascus in October, three Russian military policemen were patrolling with a green armored vehicle that bore the Russian flag. Syrians greeted them in Arabic, sometimes throwing in a “privyet” — “hi” in Russian.

Many have welcomed the Russians, preferring them to the government’s security enforcers or to Shiite militiamen backed by Iran. Those in the area who still opposed the government said they were heartened in the spring, when a YouTube video showed Russian military policemen arresting Syrian soldiers accused of looting. Then, in June, when Shiite militiamen arrested two Sunni men, the Russians pressured the militias into releasing them, residents said.

The incidents helped persuade residents that Russia has no interest in stoking Sunni-Shiite frictions, and could counter any moves by Mr. Assad’s forces to exact revenge on the opposition.

“Iran has a sectarian project,” said Ahmed al-Buqa’a, 55, who had three sons fight with the rebels, “but Russia doesn’t care about people’s ethnic and religious backgrounds.”

Iran and Russia are already in a competition, with Russia wanting a self-supporting Syrian government weaned from Russian military and financial help, and Iran preferring something weaker, analysts said. Both countries have already begun placing advisers in Syrian security agencies, said Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East program director for the International Crisis Group.

But both face challenges to staying in Syria. Neither can afford Syria’s reconstruction, which by some reckonings could exceed $200 billion.

The Russians “want to find an exit from Syria basically, militarily, leaving in place their two bases and their own people within the security apparatus, and Russian companies to help with reconstruction,” Mr. Hiltermann said. “They don’t want to get bogged down militarily.”

The Iranian government has faced opposition to its military adventures in Syria at home, where the economy has been deeply strained by American sanctions.

Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington research group, said the Iranians had so far exercised power deftly in Syria, “but it’s going to be a lot harder for them to do that given the economic straits they’re in.”

Both patrons may find Syria’s stability hard to re-establish under Mr. Assad. Already, peaceful protests against him have been staged in areas where he has reasserted control, analysts said.

“Peacetime will present challenges that the war let him paper over,” said Alexander Bick, a lecturer and research scholar at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who oversaw Syria issues at the National Security Council under the Obama administration.

“The Russians are very keenly aware,” he said, “that Assad’s position is fragile, the economy is totally destroyed, and politically it’s a mess.”

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