Salman Shaikh: Syria is a ‘Broken, Fragmented, Divided State’

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

“There is a belief that if you can move beyond Assad and those immediately around him, you would be able to starve the oxygen that ISIS and other extremists live off of.”

Last year was the deadliest yet in Syria’s four-year conflict, with over 76,000 people killed, including thousands of children.

No single player in the war has significant momentum going into 2015 – with ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian government, Kurdish forces and various rebel groups competing for power and territory.

“We have to recognize that Syria is now a broken, fragmented, divided state,” says Salman Shaikh, a Syria specialist and director of the Brookings Doha Center.

*Two rounds of U.N.-led talks between the Syrian government and opposition leaders failed to arrive at a political solution, with both sides unable to come to a consensus over the fate of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.*

Salman Shaikh spoke to Syria Deeply about the state of the conflict and whether we’ve reached a point of political ripeness that could make way for a political solution in the country.

Syria Deeply: There is little centralized authority left in Syria. The Assad regime, ISIS and Nusra are all vying for territory and power. To what extent do you expect to see their power increase or decrease over the coming year?

Salman Shaikh: I think we are going to see a fluctuating situation on the ground. The Assad regime, ISIS and Nusra are going to be the three main players on the ground holding some territory. All three of them are vulnerable, which points to a picture of greater fragmentation inside Syria. We’ve seen this fragmentation take shape with the involvement of outside powers over the past two or three years.

I suspect we will see a widening of targeting against ISIS in Syria in 2015 because the current efforts [against them] are not enough and we don’t have the fighting forces on the ground we need to diminish ISIS. They may be losing manpower but they aren’t losing territory. By many accounts, they are replenishing their manpower by more than 50–100 a day, whether with Syrians themselves or people coming from the outside.

Jabhat al-Nusra is vulnerable because it is increasingly under the international coalition and regime’s attacks.

The Syrian regime is extremely vulnerable and we may see that accelerate in 2015. The economy is in tatters in regime areas and the Iranians and the Russians have given a huge credit advance to the regime to prop the economy up. But the biggest concern for the regime comes from the military side. The Alawite community is deserting the army in great droves; by some accounts, 50,000 Alawites are deserting the army a year. We are also hearing reports of forced conscription. I don’t think there are any Druze areas that support the regime anymore. This is an unsustainable situation for the regime.

The story of 2015 may well be that we start to see the regime begin to crumble, at least in certain strategic areas that it’s managed to hold until now. The bad news is that this may be under pressure from ISIS. The regime has not usually come out well in places where ISIS and the regime have clashed on the ground.

The Kurds, with the support of the international coalition, may be the ones who actually manage to consolidate more of their territory in Syria than others.

Syria Deeply: What battles, what issues do you see playing a pivotal role in 2015?

Shaikh: On the political and diplomatic side, there has been a vacuum for some time and no political initiative from the international community. The Russians and Iranians have stepped into that vacuum, but the fate of Assad is going to be the main political battle at the start of any effort to begin a serious political process.

The official opposition is saying they want to pick up where they left off, with discussions of a transitional governing authority along the Geneva principles, but it seems as if the Russians and certainly the Iranians want to move away from that framing. Meanwhile, the U.S. is absent from the debate. It hasn’t indicated what it thinks about the Russian moves or more broadly what a political process should look like.

Another aspect of the discussion will be whether it should be internationally facilitated or not. The Syrian regime has talked about a Syrian–Syrian process that is facilitated by the Russians. It seems to exclude a broader role for the international community, even the U.N.

What is clear is that the fragmentation of the country means we can’t waste much more time. All players – whether Friends of Syria, those backing Assad or even the U.N. more recently – have thought that this conflict could be managed. You can’t manage this conflict. We’ve seen the unintended consequences play out disastrously in 2014. And 2015 doesn’t promise to get any better – in fact, things will probably get even worse.

Therefore, the big question is: Have we reached a point of diplomatic or political ripeness that will enable a serious political initiative to take root? I think we will see the Russians trying to start something in January, but whether it bears fruit will depend on how much the parties and particularly those who back them are willing to recognize the realities of what’s going on and move forward.

Syria Deeply: Is there a future for the FSA? To what extent have the moderate opposition been pushed out?

Shaikh:There has been an increasing trend toward a more Islamist frame of reference that really took hold over the past six months. Moderates are becoming more diminished on the ground. Since the international coalition [against ISIS] started its work in Iraq and to a lesser degree Syria, the moderates have stepped back because they haven’t seen any real support and see that the coalition is ignoring Assad.

The great tragedy is that we aren’t able to move beyond this point of whether Assad stays or not. If there is a meaningful effort to move beyond Assad, to preserve the Syrian state and its institutions, and to find a way of accommodating the regional powers and their interests, then we may be able to find a solution.

Syria Deeply: Has the U.S.-led coalition attempt to weaken ISIS in Syria failed? How has Jabhat al-Nusra gained traction as a result?

Shaikh: Yes, because of the simple fact that Syrians themselves are more focused on the Assad regime. The Assad regime is killing ten times more Syrian civilians than ISIS. The Syrian regime is starving, bombing and torturing Syrians more so than ISIS, even though ISIS has been doing terrible things in Syria. For now, given the choice between Assad and ISIS, the focus is on Assad because he is seen as the cause and ISIS the symptom of the problems taking place. There is a belief that if you can move beyond Assad and those immediately around him, you would be able to starve the oxygen that ISIS and other extremists live off of. ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are seen as partners because they can claim they are focused more on the Assad regime. As long as the international community continues to ignore Assad, this will remain the case, I’m afraid.

Syria Deeply: Will U.N. Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura’s local ceasefire plan work? Is there still potential for a political solution?

Shaikh: There is potential for a political solution but it requires a set of compromises we haven’t seen from the international community, as well as a greater degree of cohesion and organization from the Syrians opposing Assad then we’ve seen up till now.

De Mistura is a very capable diplomat. He’s been part of some of the most difficult tasks the U.N. has taken on in the past 15 years in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.

He is a doer, which is why he has pursued this predominately humanitarian-led effort to try and freeze the conflict around Aleppo and get in humanitarian aid support. It is the first part of a broader endeavor that would lead to a political effort focused around a Syrian national dialogue. The problem for de Mistura is that he is dealing with an extremely sensitive population inside Syria. Many people have reacted quite suspiciously to an effort they see as being driven by the regime and the Russians rather than one that is good for all Syrians. De Mistura has tried to communicate directly with the opposition to try and win over the idea of a freeze.

We have to recognize that Syria is now a broken, fragmented, divided state. It is going to a very long time and a hell of a job for Syrians to put their country back together, even if Assad goes.

Syrians still see themselves first and foremost as Syrians, who can work through their problems. Enough of them don’t see themselves divided up according to tribal, ethnic or religious lines. What stands in their way first and foremost is 40 years of Ba’ath rule, Bashar al-Assad and the group around him. There has to be an international facilitated Syrian dialogue. The divisions are too wide and the suffering too deep to exclude the international role that needs to be played in the dialogues.

This interview was originally published in Syria Deeply.