The witches brew in the Syria cauldron continues to bubble. The Assad government’s initial violent suppression of domestic political protests opened the door to multiple external interventions. Its derecognition by major Western powers on human rights grounds politically “legitimized” internal resistance and set in motion regime change efforts by outside actors with varying motives and means. 

With major Western powers committed to Assad’s removal because of his regime’s alleged brutalities, including chemical weapons use, the Gulf states funding extremist Islamic groups to oust an ally of Iran, and Turkey, seeking to realize Erdogan’s Muslim Brotherhood and Ottoman-era ambitions in Syria (and beyond), the Syrian cauldron has been boiling with toxic ingredients. With the complicity of key Gulf states, Turkey’s opportunism and complaisance of some Western quarters the most noxious product has been the Islamic State (IS). Because of its horrifying excesses in Syria (and Iraq) those that sponsored it in order to drive a Sunni wedge in the “Shia crescent” were eventually compelled to decimate it.

If Russian military intervention prevented the Assad regime’s collapse and ensured the survival of the Syrian state, albeit truncated, geopolitically the ground situation got complicated further because of collapsing Russia-US/Europe ties. Russia becoming indispensable for any resolution of the Syrian conflict only deepened Western concerns about its resurgence as a power. Any future solution that protects Russian equities could well be seen as a strategic defeat of US/Europe and their protégés. Escalating US-Iran tensions, rooted also in Iran’s regional role in Syria and connected Israeli concerns, point to roadblocks to peace ahead.

While Russia and Iran, with Iraqi collaboration, crushed the IS in Syria, US Special Forces and the Kurdish militia together have cleaned up its presence in northern Syria. Some questions about the legality of US military presence in Syria without approval of Damascus have, however, fed the Syrian cauldron. 

The Russia-Iran-Turkey partnership in managing the endgame in Syria has seen Russia accommodating Turkey’s concerns about the Syrian Kurdish presence along its southern border and discouraging Iran from using Syrian territory to target Israel in the Golan Heights. Israel has added to the turbidity of the Syrian cauldron by its air attacks against Iranian assets in Syria and reports about its understandings with some major Gulf countries on Assad’s ouster. 

Since 2011 many peace initiatives taken to resolve the Syrian crisis, including by the Arab League, the UN Special Envoy for Syria (the Geneva process), Russia, Kazakhstan (the Astana process), and the Vienna process (US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) have been unsuccessful. The September 28 Idlib memorandum between Putin and Erdogan creating a buffer zone in Idlib (protecting Turkey-supported radical Islamic groups from Damascus), and the August 2019 agreement between US and Turkey creating a new demilitarized zone in northern Syria to preempt a Turkish invasion of a largely Kurdish-held enclave have not prevented a major churn in the Syria cauldron.

Trump’s sudden announcement to withdraw US troops from northern Syria has green-lighted Turkey’s invasion of Syria in gross violation of international law. Expected Kurdish resistance, human rights violations by Turkey, resettlement of Syrian Arab refugees in Kurdish areas by Ankara, IS terrorists escaping from Kurdish custody, Erdogan blackmailing Europe on refugee flows, the possible breakdown of the Russia-Iran-Turkey axis, all risk muddling the Syrian conflict further. UN Security Council discussions on Syria at Europe’s instance have once again exposed the divisions within the permanent membership, inevitably prolonging Syria’s agony.