Just hours after a deadly chemical weapon attack killed at least 70 people and wounded at least 300 in the rebel-held province of Idlib, Professor Ross Harrison was at the Duquesne Club delivering a talk entitled “The Syrian Conflict Today: What it means for the Middle East and beyond,” for the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh.
Harrison, a life-long Pittsburgher and a member of Rodef Shalom Congregation, is a renowned expert in the Middle East, a professor at both Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and in the political science department at the University of Pittsburgh. He is also a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., a center of research that provides policymakers and their constituents with knowledge about a region that is constantly in flux.
The situation in Syria is unlike other civil wars and is, in effect, a complicated mess, making the potential for resolution elusive, Harrison explained.
Harrison has met with major players in the conflict, including Russian commanders and government officials, rebel groups and senior officials in the foreign ministry of Iran and Saudi Arabia.
“I can tell you that none of them really have a clear view of the overall situation on the ground,” Harrison said. While they all understand various pieces of the conflict, “no one has a comprehensive picture of what’s going on.”
Despite its complexity, Harrison provided a “snapshot” of the overall situation in Syria to his audience, beginning with a description of “the scope of the human tragedy of this conflict.”
More than half a million Syrians have been killed since the war began, he explained, with that number continuing to mount each day. Moreover, not only has the war begot 5 million external refugees who have migrated to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Western Europe, but an additional 5 to 6 million Syrians have been internally displaced, becoming nomads. About 40 percent of the housing stock in the country has been destroyed or damaged beyond repair, and many cities have been “decimated.”
The seriousness of the tragedies engendered by the war are matched by the complexity of the conflict itself, which, Harrison explained, is “four conflicts rolled into one.”
The first conflict “is the one we are most familiar with, and that is the battle on the ground between President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian rebels,” he said. On one side is the Syrian government, backed by Russia as well as local regional actors, including the terrorist group Hezbollah.
“On the Syrian rebel side, it’s a bit more complex because it’s more fragmented,” Harrison explained. And the most powerful of the rebel groups have an “Islamic flavor.”
“It’s not the ‘mainstream Syrian opposition.’ It is Islamicized groups,” he said. Those groups include an al-Qaeda affiliate that split from the Islamic State, or ISIS, earlier in the war, as well as ISIS.
“The Syrian rebels are fragmented, they’re disparate, and they are moving in a radicalized direction.”
Most of the Islamist rebel groups are not invited to or involved in political negotiations geared toward a resolution of the conflict, including the most recent track opened up by the Russians in Kazakhstan.
“What that means is that if there is any kind of attempt at negotiating a settlement, the main sources of the rebel power are outside that tent,” Harrison observed.
The second layer of the conflict “is a regional power game,” he said. The regional powers involved — Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — “have a particular stake in the outcome of this civil war, with Iran backing the Syrian government.”
The Middle East, he noted, is a regional system, with interdependent countries. The problem, however, is that “their dependency is conflict-based.”
Each one of the regional actors is “trying to jockey for a position and for advantage inside the Syrian conflict,” he said. “And the idea is whoever wins that game wins a regional advantage.”
And yet, the regional players “don’t really have a clear picture of where it’s going. They can only see so far ahead.” They push for a short-term advantage, “even though long-term, the Syrian civil war serves no one’s interests in terms of security, stability or prosperity. But they are sucked into the conflict trap. They are escalating the conflict and adding gasoline to the conflict that started without them.”
The third layer of the conflict is the “international layer,” Harrison said, noting that in September 2015, the Russians entered the playing field.
“Up to that time, most of the regional actors looked to the United States for guidance,” he said. “Then the Russians came in, and very quickly, the center of gravity moved toward Moscow. Russia grabbed the advantage from the United States.”
Both Russia and the U.S. see their involvement as a “zero sum game,” he said, with an advantage to Russia amounting to a disadvantage to the U.S., and vice versa.
Another layer of the war, and the “strangest one,” is the battle against ISIS, Harrison said. “This is the one we hear about in the news. What’s strange about it is that it is almost like a separate battle detached from the main game.”
The Syrian civil war poses a number of dangers to the region, the West and to the United States, he said. Those dangers include the risk of the entire region becoming engulfed in war, refugee pressures and the specter of terrorism.
“What starts in the Middle East today, doesn’t stay in the Middle East; it globalizes,” he said.
Although he could not predict a timeline, Harrison noted three ways the civil war could end. One way could be a “clear victory,” with one side prevailing over the other, which the expert sees as “highly unlikely.” Another is a negotiated settlement, which he said is “also highly unlikely.”
The third option, Harrison said, “is a perpetuation of the status quo, which is really a sad state of affairs.” In such a scenario, Assad would maintain his own territory, and each rebel group would have informal control over a particular piece of Syria.
“The best we can hope for in this moment in time is a stalemate and almost a de facto partition. If that happens you break some of the momentum in terms of the fighting; you allow civil society organizations to come out and actually speak out to protest some of those Islamic groups, and it would allow for humanitarian aid to come in. That’s probably the best scenario I can see at this point.”
In an interview prior to the Duquesne Club talk, Harrison discussed options for U.S. involvement in the conflict. He noted that despite President Donald Trump’s campaign promises, his strategy in Syria is mirroring that of President Barack Obama.
“Up to this point, the differences between Obama’s approach and Trump’s approach are more of style and degree,” he said. “Trump said in his campaign that he would withdraw any support from the Syrian rebels and collaborate with Russia to fight ISIS. We don’t see much of that happening, although there seems to be an increased commitment on the ground against ISIS in the north. But it is basically a continuation of what Obama did.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.