Ever since a deal was struck in the Kazakh capital of Astana early this month to de-escalate the conflict in western Syria, all eyes have been turning east. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies have just launched an operation to “take control of the eastern desert in Syria”. It is not just about driving out the Sunni extremist group known as the Islamic State, but also about preventing other rivals from filling the void.
The Astana agreement is less a driver of this new logic of war, in which all sides seek to position themselves for maximal gain in a fragmented Syria, than a reflection of new realities. Though al-Assad’s opponents remain reluctant to say so in public, they increasingly operate under the assumption that Russian and Iranian support has succeeded in saving his regime in Damascus and the pertinent questions now are: Which areas will he be able to retake – when, how, and from whom?
The presence of American, Jordanian, Turkish, and other foreign advisers among some insurgent groups has raised the spectre of Syria’s partition. Not in the sense of a formal division, but as a “frozen conflict” in which outlying regions may remain independent of an otherwise dominant Damascus due to de-confliction deals negotiated between foreign governments. Well-founded or not, such fears appear to play a prominent part in the thinking of al-Assad and his Iranian allies, who worry that US-backed Kurdish fighters in the Syrian Democratic Forces will seize northern Syria while other US-backed rebels take control of the rest of the Iraqi border.