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US incremental disengagement from Syria will pave the way for total victory for President Assad’s government

11 Aug 17

On 1 August, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the US and Russia were working to prevent another war in Syria, that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should not have a role in a future Syria, and that co-operation with Russia is conditional on Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) and other militias leaving Syria.

IHS Markit perspective

Outlook and implications

  • The US is decreasing pressure on the Syrian government and delegating responsibility for Syria to Iran, Russia, and Turkey.
  • The Syrian government is benefiting from de-escalation zones, allowing it to capture additional territory in the country that would pave the way for re-establishing its patronage and governance.
  • The Syrian government is increasingly likely to achieve total victory, although Iran’s success in achieving its regional ambitions is still dependent on taking control of the Iraqi executive. If victorious, the Syrian government would prioritise obtaining Chinese, Iranian, and Russian investments in agriculture, energy, and infrastructure


Civil War; Terrorism

Sectors or assets

Energy; Infrastructure; Cargo

This follows statements from Tillerson reaffirming former President Barack Obama’s view that the fight in Syria is against the Islamic State, and by implication not against the Syrian government.

US parting ways with rebels

US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin meet at the G20 in Hamburg, Germany, on 7 July 2017.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

US officials told the Washington Post in July that US President Donald Trump had ended the CIA-funded programme to train and equip Syrian opposition groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad in northern Syria, initiated by President Obama in 2012. The change in strategy indicates that the US is seeking to extract itself from the Syrian civil war after the Islamic State loses the ability to capture and hold territory in Syria, probably by 2018 (see Syria: 26 May 2017: Astana agreement plan facilitates Syrian government push to secure Iraqi border crossings, a key Iranian objective). IHS Markit has previously assessed that any further US action taken to weaken the Syrian government’s already severely overstretched forces will inadvertently benefit the Islamic State and other jihadist groups (see Syria: 17 April 2017: Further US operations to weaken Syrian government would extend life of Islamic State's "caliphate").

The US had reportedly also told its proxies in southern Syria that they must focus exclusively on fighting the Islamic State and refrain from fighting Syrian government forces. On 27 July, rebel group Liwa Shuhada al-Qariyatayn released a statement announcing it had cut its relationship with the US and would continue fighting against President Assad, to which the US responded that it would seek to recover the equipment it had supplied to them. Liwa Shuhada al-Qariyatayn forces are concentrated in southern Syria near the Iraqi-Jordanian-Syrian border.

US strategy

The US appears content to allow Iran, Russia, and Turkey to take over managing the situation in Syria, via the Astana negotiation process, which replaced the Geneva negotiation process in December 2016 (see Syria: 3 January 2017: Kurds among likely losers in event of Syrian deal between Iran, Russia, and Turkey). The US and Russia have committed to taking into account Israel’s security concerns, chiefly, reducing the presence of Iran and non-state armed groups it sponsors in Syria, although Israel asserts that measures taken to assure this outcome do not go far enough, and are likely to still allow Iran continued presence in Syria after the civil war ends. US support for the Kurds, specifically the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria is nevertheless unlikely to be withdrawn after the Islamic State is defeated. Continued US support for the SDF will probably be required to deter the Syrian government from seeking to re-establish control over majority-Kurdish areas by force after it consolidates its position elsewhere. The US will probably work with Russia to ensure the Syrian government agrees to some decentralisation and acceptance of local governance for the Kurds in northeast Syria.

Jihadist consolidation and Turkey

Transnational jihadist faction Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra) has consolidated its control over Idlib Province along the Turkish border, at the expense of Turkish Sunni Syrian proxy group, Ahrar al-Sham. This will probably eventually prompt Syrian government operations in this area on the basis that HTS has rejected the de-escalation process. It will also allow Turkey to continue its military operations in northeast Syria, including Idlib Province, with the aim of fighting jihadists as needed. Turkey’s priority nevertheless remains containing Syrian Kurds and preventing them from supporting an insurgency in southeast Turkey.

Hizbullah and Iran

Hizbullah has extended its reach in Syria to include the entirety of the Lebanese Syrian border; pro-Hizbullah Lebanese media is openly bragging that Hizbullah can now store weapons in these regions. The group has also expanded its presence in southern Syria, including in the Golan. Syrian government forces with the support of Iranian-backed Lebanese and Iraqi militia are also continuing to put pressure on the opposition, including jihadist factions excluded from the de-escalation process, in critical areas like the capital Damascus and southern Syria, particularly near the Syrian-Jordanian border and approaching the still US-controlled Tanf border crossing to Iraq.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government is continuing to benefit from the Astana de-escalation agreement and concentrating its efforts, with Iranian and Russian support, on securing central Syria, having already pushed the Islamic State back in Homs province. The Syrian government is advancing through central Syria to relieve the besieged garrison in Deir al-Zour. These advances will restore government control of critical energy infrastructure and agricultural land, which would allow it to re-establish its patronage and governance over the rest of the country more effectively.

Outlook and implications

The US can no longer rely on Turkey as a partner, given the Turkish government’s previous record of support for Islamist militias in Syria and its hostility to the US’s main proxy force, the Kurdish dominated SDF. Despite the US’s declared intent to exclude Iran from the vicinity of Israel’s border, the US has lost any practical means of actually doing so without significantly expanding its military engagement in the country at an unacceptably high risk of direct confrontation with Russia. IHS Markit assesses that this increases the risk of Israel taking military action to secure its interests, subject to US approval and Russian acquiescence (see Israel – Lebanon: 26 Jun 2017: Risk of Israel-Hizbullah war rising, given high preparedness and risk of unintended escalation, most likely over Syria). Instead, the US is likely to focus on propping up Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government in Iraq, in collaboration with Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia to obstruct Iran’s ambition to establish a land bridge between Iran and the Mediterranean (see Iraq – Saudi Arabia: 2 Aug 2017: Iraqi Shia leader’s visit to Saudi Arabia likely to deepen divisions between Iraq’s government and militias). The US decision to gradually disengage from Syria as the Islamic State is defeated over the course of 2017 will pave the way for Assad’s forces to eventually regain control of the entire country, preserving the integrity of its borders, and achieving military victory over the opposition. In this scenario, the Syrian government (and probably Iran) would have little incentive to negotiate a peaceful exit for Assad from power. Although the US will probably prioritise working with Russia to guarantee decentralisation and acceptance of local governance for the Kurds in northeast Syria, and continued US military presence in this region, Assad and Iran are unlikely to accept such an outcome. This would pave the way for future Russian – Iranian divergence over the composition of Syrian forces post conflict. The Syrian government is likely to focus on reopening the border with Jordan, attracting critical investments in the energy sector and to support reconstruction efforts post-conflict to solidify its grip on power (see Syria: 10 Jul 2017: De-escalation plan for southern Syria likely to lead to reopening of border with Jordan and secure zone).

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