Last week marked the second year anniversary of the popular uprising in Syria. On its current trajectory, Syria is headed toward geographical fragmentation. As the security situation deteriorates and Washington persists in its refusal to lead, neighboring states will begin to carve out effective buffer zones inside the country. Once that process is complete, Syria will become a unitary state in name only.
Two years in, we’re beginning to see this take place. Having realized that the US has no desire to intervene, Washington’s regional allies have had to adjust their posture. On the one hand, these states don't have the capability to shape the outcome in Syria on their own. On the other hand, they understand that, with the US sitting this one out, they will have to grapple on their own with a protracted Syrian mess. Meanwhile, the Assad regime’s allies have been more aggressive, and have already established a presence on Syrian soil, as we see Hezbollah has done along the border with Lebanon.
In historical terms, this state of affairs is not new or unnatural for Syria. In fact, throughout history, Syria was a collection of buffer and/or satellite states. As far back as the Bronze Age, Syria was the land between regional power centers, namely Egypt and Asia Minor, as well as the powers further east in Mesopotamia and Persia. These powers carved spheres of influence in Syria, governed by local rulers who maneuvered and struck alliances within the confines of this geopolitical balance.
This practice recurred persistently through the centuries. It was replicated, for instance, in the standoff between the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt and the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor. Eleventh-century Aleppo under the Hamdanid dynasty, for example, was one such buffer state. Likewise, in the Crusader period, the County of Edessa west of the Euphrates functioned as a buffer state to protect Antioch against incursions from the east. And so on.
As Brookings scholar Michael Doran reminded us last year, this basic configuration continued into the modern period. For example, the early 1920s rebellion led by Ibrahim Hananu in northern Syria against the French was, in fact, sponsored by the Turks.
The current situation differs slightly. Aside from Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria’s neighbors are mainly concerned with protecting themselves from the Syrian chaos, and are perhaps looking to project limited influence within confined zones near their border. In addition, other than Iran and Hezbollah, none of these neighboring states actually wants to deploy militarily in Syria. Rather, they wish to safeguard against unwanted repercussions and threats from the Syrian war.
Turkey hoped the US would intervene in Syria, only to learn the hard way that it would have to fend for itself. Among other things, Ankara has had to contend with the Assad regime shelling Turkish border towns, and has witnessed multiple operations on its soil by regime intelligence operatives, ranging from kidnappings to bombings. In addition, the Turks have been wearily eyeing the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) consolidate its hold on the Kurdish regions in the north. To contain the PKK, Ankara has relied on its contacts with rebel militias and on its alliance with Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani.
Turkey’s efforts to get the US to impose a safe zone in northern Syria have come to naught. So to push its interests, it has established contacts with most of the major groups operating across the border. Aside from its close ties to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Ankara has facilitated movement and logistical supplies for a number of rebel militias. The battles between Kurdish and Arab rebels in the border town of Ras al-Ayn showcased some of the cooperation between the Turks and the Arab rebels.
Turkey recently made use of its contacts and intelligence cooperation with these groups to send a special ops team into Syria to capture suspects in the car bombing at the Cilvegözü border crossing last month. This type of limited kinetic operations and intelligence cooperation is sure to become more salient as Syria disintegrates.
A similar situation will likely develop in southern Syria as well. Jordan, for example, is already working with Daraa based groups, and Jordanian intelligence has surely developed assets with several of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades operating along its borders, and, indeed, on its soil. Indeed, one FSA commander, Colonel Ahmad al-Na’meh told activists in Hauran last month that Jordanian intelligence was providing them with logistical and intelligence support. He also stressed the common, cross-border family and clan relationships between the Hauran and Jordan.
Al-Na’meh also played a prominent role in arranging the defection of former prime minister Riad Hijab to Jordan. Amman's reported involvement in the distribution in Daraa of Saudi-bought Croatian arms will have increased its contacts, and presumably its influence, with groups in the Hauran. While the Jordanians have yet to (and may not need to) conduct kinetic activity there, this region is likely to become a Jordanian buffer zone, parallel to what Idlib and Aleppo are for Turkey.
It’s probably safe to assume the Jordanians are coordinating closely not just with the US, but also with Israel. The Israelis have a more limited ability to cultivate assets in the same manner as Ankara and Amman for obvious reasons. Israel has little ability or interest, to shape a political outcome in Syria. But it does have a strong interest in ensuring security along its border.
An AFP report last month citing Israeli security sources said that the IDF’s northern command was preparing plans for “some sort of buffer zone.” But the sources stressed that Israel would not “invad[e] Syrian land.” Assad regime propaganda spun such reports to claim that Israel is seeking to replicate in Syria the security zone it set up in Lebanon in 1978. The truth is, however, like Jordan and Turkey, Israel has no intention to deploy militarily in Syria.
That said, the Israelis have shown that they possess good intelligence on the security situation in Syria, and that they will act on that intelligence when the situation calls for it. The strike against the Hezbollah arms convoy ought to serve as a message that Israel is watching closely and will hit anything that it deems a threat. So far, this is being done through air power. However, one should not discount limited operations, with a very light footprint, down the road should the need arise.
The only neighboring actor to have established an open military presence inside Syria is, in fact, Hezbollah. The corridor along the Lebanese border stretching from the Damascus countryside northward to the Homs countryside is, in effect, a Hezbollah-Iran security zone in Syria.
The absence of the US will force Syria’s neighbors to carve out such areas inside the country. However, with the exception of Iran and Hezbollah, these states’ measures are largely tactical and defensive. In the end, only the US has the capacity to shape a strategic outcome in Syria that would keep it as a unitary state, excised of Iranian influence and security zones. However, as long as Washington refuses to assume this role, Syria will revert back to its historical role as a series of buffer zones between regional powers.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.