After nine-and-a-half years of fighting, the Syrian civil war is at a lull, although probably a temporary one. There is little chance of Bashar al-Assad relinquishing power and Islamic State no longer holds significant territory. But the country remains divided into three parts: that ruled by Assad with the help of his Russian and Iranian allies, that held by Kurdish-led forces assisted by U.S. troops, and that held by Turkey and various Turkish-backed Islamist groups, the local al-Qaeda affiliate among them. Jonathan Spyer takes stock of the situation, and what it means for Israel:
U.S. policy in Syria, despite the erratic statements of President Trump regarding the [American military] presence in eastern Syria, is not without coherence. Its intention, via sanctions and pressure, is to keep the regime “boxed in,” unable to reconstruct the country, unable to reconsolidate its rule. Through such means as the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, the U.S. is seeking to use its financial muscle to prevent the Assad regime from obtaining sufficient funds to begin to rebuild. In so doing, the U.S. is acting against the Russian and Iranian projects to entrench and expand the regime’s control.
Alongside the weakening of Iran, it is in Israel’s interest that Syria too remain isolated and weak, to enable this continued degradation of Iranian capabilities to continue. There is no reason to believe that a reconstituted and strengthened Assad regime would differ in its regional policy by even the slightest degree from the stance taken prior to March 2011 and the outbreak of the uprising. In the decade prior to the civil war, Assad pursued a policy of alliance with Iran and its “resistance axis” and uncompromising support for Lebanese Hizballah.
Both the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, meanwhile, are in favor of the rehabilitation of Assad, as part of a larger strategy of rebuilding the diplomatic center of the Arab world. This general project . . . is also good for Israel, since it is an effort to build an Arab alliance around a core of pro-Western states with de-facto or de-jure normalized relations with Israel.
However, it is erroneous to believe that Assad’s Syria can be a member of such an alliance. His interests and preferences will keep him firmly in the pro-Iran bloc and in close alliance with Russia. He will be happy to take any advantages offered by Arab diplomacy while retaining this orientation. Israel will need to make this case to its Arab partners in the period ahead.