The Superpowers Flex Their Muscles

After seven years, there is less and less of a civil war and more and more of a proxy war between the superpowers in Syria. Illustrating that are the battles for Aleppo, Raqqa, Ghuta, and Afrin.

When trying to find a symbol of foreign domination, you always have to look at the sky. It was so in Afrin. People stopped or slowed down, shaded their eyes from the sun with one hand and pointed the other at the sky and exchanged a brief “oh, look, an airplane” or “oh, look, a drone.” The former frequently drew attention to themselves with the roar of the engine, they hovered low over the city. You never know if the pilot does not intend to drop the bombs just where you are in a given moment. Drones provoked less fear. They were well visible to the naked eye. They were really big and languished lazily over the city. They were watched carefully. A drone always heralds something bad—a potential air raid or artillery fire. Airplanes and drones ew over the city with impunity, because the Kurdish militias from Popular Protection Units and Women’s Protection Units, better known by the acronyms YPG and YPJ, do not have air fleets or anti-aircraft weapons. So people could only watch and hope that somehow it would be possible to avoid death from the air.

The Changing Fortunes of the Kurds

Afrin is a city and region of the same name, located in North-Eastern Syria. According to the UN, 323,000 people, mostly Kurds, lived in the region until recently. It was one of the most peaceful places in Syria, side-lined by most of the terrible events which have been going on since 2011. This changed on January 20, 2018. Turkey and the militias supported by it began the operation “Olive Branch,” targeted at “terrorist nests,” that is Kurdish militias. Ankara treats YPG and YPJ as branches of the Workers Party of Kurdistan (PKK), which is regarded as a terrorist organization in Turkey, the United States, and the European Union.

Initially, Arab and Turkmen fighters along with the Turkish army very slowly occupied successive territories. It seems that they were unable to achieve the de ned goal, which is a 30-kilometres wide bu er zone that would separate the Turkish border from the territories controlled by the Kurds. However, once the mountains were crossed, everything went smoothly. Kurdish militias were leaving one area after another, as they were unable to defend them. All their moves were watched and attacked from the air. The air zone over Afrin is controlled by Russia, which opened it for Turkish aircraft. Two and a half thousand people died in the battles for Afrin. It was di cult to find anyone among the killed and wounded Kurdish fighters and civilians who suffered bullet injuries. Usually, it was shards. Finally, on March 18, Afrin was taken by Turkey and the rebels.

The Kurds turned out to be just as defenseless in Afrin as the fighters of the so-called Islamic State in the battle for Raqqa in 2017. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), that is an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias supported by an international coalition headed by the United States, were quickly occupying successive areas around the city after launching an operation against Isis. Despite numerous tunnels and strategies aimed at undermining their air advantage, the Jihadists had no chance.

Afrin was one of the most peaceful places in Syria, side-lined by most of the terrible events which have been going on since 2011.

There were days when over one hundred bombs were dropped by American aircraft on Raqqa. The city quickly turned into rubble. After more than four months of offensive, the fighters remaining in Raqqa reached an agreement with the SDF. Their convoy left the city and went to the province of Deir ez-Zor, were Isis occupies some territories until today. The SDF managed to do that only thanks to the active support of the international coalition. Were it not for the air raids, the Islamic State would have possibly remained in northern Syria for a long time.

Rescuing Assad

As we remember, anti-government protests in Syria broke out on the wave of the Arab Spring on March 15, 2011. Many Syrians demonstrated then against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, against poverty, unemployment, and lack of prospects. Some also demanded democracy. Peaceful protests quickly turned into a bloodbath. Weapons appeared on both sides of the conflict, the authorities and the protesters. Three months later, people spoke about a civil war. In seven years, at least 400,000 people were killed in Syria. Over 11 million, that is half of the population living in the country before the war, had to leave their homes. Of that number, 6.5 million are still in the country.

With each passing year, this war is becoming less and less a civil war. The new dynamics of the conflict results from the involvement of other states, which are more and more active in Syria. Back in 2015, it still seemed that the days of President Assad’s regime were numbered. Government forces were losing successive areas and the fighters threatened even Damascus. This changed when first Iran and then Russia decided to actively support the regime. As a result, scattered groups without a centralized command were forced to retreat and gradually ceded territory to the regime. An example of that was the battle for Aleppo.

It is the largest city in Syria, with around two and a half million people living there before the war. The first districts fell into the hands of the rebels in 2012. The city became a scene of endless fights. It was only the involvement of Russia, raiding the city with barrel bombs, as well as Iran that enabled Assad’s army to surround the anti-government forces and four and a half years later to crush them and force them to surrender. According to the data of the Syrian Human Rights Observatory based in London, 21,452 civilians were killed during the fighting.

A “Hell on Earth” in Ghuta

Similar developments occurred recently in eastern Ghuta, a suburb of the capital city of Damascus, controlled since the beginning of the war by anti-government militias. It was one of the worst humanitarian crises during the conflict in Syria. UN Secretary-General António Guterres described the situation as “hell on earth.” Almost 400,000 people were imprisoned in this enclave controlled by the opposition. In February 2018, regime forces with their allies launched an attack and managed to crush the defenses of anti-government forces.

This happened after a dramatic battle in which hundreds of people were killed and the suburb was razed to the ground.

In April, the last militias left eastern Ghuta. Most of them, including Ha’yat Tahrir al-Sham associated with Al Qaeda, took refuge in the Idlib province, controlled by anti-government forces. Only Jayash al-Islam (the Army of Islam), whose number is estimated at 10,000 fighters, went to Jarabulus, located in Turkey-controlled area called the Shield of the Euphrates. The name comes from the first Turkish intervention in northern Syria in 2016. Its official aim was the fight against the Islamic State, but above all it was intended at preventing the Kurds from incorporating Afrin into territories controlled by them.

Geopolitics Has Captured Syria

At present, Assad’s regime controls more than half of Syria. It would not be possible without its foreign allies, Russia and Iran. Turkey also creates an umbrella under which scattered militias can find shelter. They have to reciprocate with implementing Ankara’s policy. They were in the vanguard of the battle for Afrin and suffered losses there.

Turkey is very active in building its position in north-western Syria, and local militias are used for this purpose. It is possible that soon they’ll have to take part in the fight for the city of Idlib, the presence of Al Qaeda splinter groups offering a great excuse for that. Another potential target is Kurd- ish-controlled Manbij. For now, the attack is impossible, because international coalition forces operate there, but if President Donald Trump makes good on his announcements of a quick withdrawal of American troops from Syria, the Turks will certainly not hesitate to take the city.

Paradoxically, the only forces which can claim not to be directly connected with any foreign power are the jihadists. Smoldering concentrations of fundamentalism still pose a big threat. The Islamic state, various Al Qaeda splinter groups, and newly emerging organizations are waiting for a convenient moment to return. It is possible that they will be stronger than before.

Paweł Pieniążek

is a Polish journalist based in Syria. He has reported on the protests in Russia, the Ukrainian EuroMaidan revolution, the war in Donbas, the refugee crisis, and the Kurds’ fight against the Islamic State. He is an author of two books Wojna, która nas zmieniła and Pozdrowienia z Noworosji, which was recently published in English (Greetings from Novorossiya).

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