Syrian war ‘Phase 4.0’ to start with Trump
With the latest news of human tragedies coming from Aleppo, one phase of the Syrian civil war is about to be closed.
U.S. President Barack Obama had planned to close this chapter with the taking of Raqqa from the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) with the help of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) militia, which is the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). However, that is not likely to happen before Obama hands the keys to the Oval Office over to president-elect Donald Trump.
Instead, Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to close the phase by delivering what is left of Aleppo to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus, with the help of Shiite militia under the influence of Hassan Rouhani’s Iran (or rather under the orders of Iran’s religious leader Ali Khamenei and his man in Syria and Iraq, major general Qasem Soleimani).
The first phase of the war started with the al-Assad forces opening fire on protesters early in 2011 and turning the wave of protests into a fierce civil war with sectarian and ethnic dividing lines.
Turkey’s then prime minister - now president - Tayyip Erdoğan and then foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu believed that al-Assad would fall in six months. They invested in the Syrian opposition with armed units with the Muslim Brotherhood as their backbone, amid the Brotherhood’s simultaneous rise in Egypt as a result of the Arab Spring.
However, this was followed by the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after a military coup, the decomposition of the Brotherhood, the rise of al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra, and the emergence of ISIL in early 2013 with brand new methods of terror following al-Assad’s strategic release of extremist prisoners in an attempt to show the West that his oppressive but secular rule was preferable to that of ISIL.
Ankara was slow to see that some of the rebel groups in Syria that were receiving support from Ankara had gradually been changing sides to ISIL and al-Nusra. The fall of Raqqa to ISIL was a key milestone in this process, combined with the fall of Mosul in Iraq.
The second phase of the war was perhaps the bloodiest, with the worst human tragedies. This phase saw mind-blowing violence performed by ISIL, indiscriminate mass killings of regime forces, mass migration from the country with heartbreaking stories every day, the fall of Syria’s second biggest city Aleppo to various rebel groups, the trapping of the al-Assad regime in a Mediterranean strip amounting to only around 20 percent of Syrian territory, the forming of the U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition, Turkey’s opening of bases for the anti-ISIL coalition in mid-2015, the PKK’s abandoning of dialogue with the Turkish government and resumption of its acts of terror, and the rise of U.S. cooperation with the PYD as its ground force against ISIL.
The third phase started when Russia physically entered the game in Syria in September 2015.
There were two particular factors behind Putin’s decision to enter. One was the lack of determination he sensed in Obama regarding the future of the Syrian civil war; the other was the efforts of Tehran in convincing Moscow that al-Assad really may be in danger, together with Russia’s naval base in Tartus (its only remaining military facility in the entire Middle East, Mediterranean and Africa region).
After Russia decisively entered the game, the Syrian army was able to advance with its air support and state of the art defense systems, while Turkey and the U.S. continued to quarrel over the latter’s use of the PKK, which Ankara regards as an existential threat. Right after a Turkey’s thwarted military coup attempt on July 15, the Turkish military entered Syria in support of the Free Syria Army (FSA) militia in order to clear its border of ISIL and also to drive a wedge between the PYD/PKK forces in the eastern and western sectors of the 910-km Syria border. That blocked U.S. plans to remain a step ahead of Russia in Syria, compounded by the defeat of Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, which put Obama’s Syria policy in jeopardy.
Now the Syrian forces’ and Shiite militias’ taking of control in Aleppo with Russian support, amid heavy human rights violations, is set to close the first big chapter of the war.
The cards are due to be completely reshuffled in line with the new positions of al-Assad, Putin, Erdoğan, Rouhani and, of course, Trump. With the Trump administration scheduled to start on Jan. 20, 2017, “Phase 4.0” will start in the Syrian war, which is now entering its sixth bloody year.