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US won’t confront Russia in Syria, but compromise is too remote – Former Dutch envoy to Syria

The war on Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) may be entering its final phase in Syria, but a resolution to the country’s wider civil war is not yet in sight. Will the deadly grind continue, or can the warring parties be finally brought to the table? We ask the former Dutch Special Envoy to Syria Nikolaos van Dam, author of “Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria”.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Mr. van Dam welcome to the show. Islamic State holds no more than a few small towns in south-east Syria - a stunning reversal from the times when it stretched from Aleppo to Mosul. You might expect ISIS to revert to guerilla tactics and underground terrorism now. How dangerous will the terror group be after its military is defeated?

Nikolaos van Dam: There will be underground organisations which are more difficult to conquer, they will try to maintain terrorist operations, perhaps, not in Syria, but elsewhere in the world.

SS: Where do you think they are going to get resources for that?

ND: That’s the point. Since they don’t have any oil income any more they have less resources. But you don’t need much resources to carry out a terrorist attack.

SS: Well, you don’t need much resources to carry out an attack, but you do need resources to keep an organisation together, you have to feed the people...

ND: Yes, but I think they will have their cells or even people, who are really not part of the  organisation, willing to carry out attacks on their own separately from any cells.

SS: The Syrian forces fighting ISIS are taking heavy losses in Deir ez-Zor. Where is Islamic State getting this strength and motivation from to make a tough last stand in their remaining Syrian territory? Why aren’t they folding like a deck of cards right now?

ND: They are militarily defeated. They are, perhaps, still stretched out at various dessert areas within Syria or, perhaps, small parts of Iraq. But, an organisation which doesn’t have an army can still carry out all kinds of terrorist attacks all over the world. And, as we have seen in Western Europe, for instance, there have been various attacks committed by people who grew up in Europe. They are not being sent by the so-called Islamic State but they are already there and sometimes for several generations.

SS: Why is ISIS more resistant to Assad’s troops than the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces after the fall of Raqqa? The so-called Caliphate struck a truce recently with the SDF, according to the reports from the 'Inside Syria Media Centre'...

ND: I think it’s the same. Let’s say the Syrian regime wants to attack the Islamic State just as well, but over the past few years it has used other forces to eliminate one another. It’s a kind of war economy. So the Syrian regime has been accused of coordinating with the Islamic State several times, but it was the case at all, it was part of their military strategy to eliminate other enemies. I think it is still going to happen in the province of Idlib in the north-west. There you have the successor of Jabhat al-Nusra and they will be attacked by the Americans, by the Turks and by the others. So, as long as other countries, other armies do the work for the Syrian army it’s alright with Damascus. They use these other forces, like the Kurdish forces in the north. They received arms of the Syrian regime in the past not because they were friends with the Syrian regime but because at that stage it suited the Syrian regime to use the Kurds to attack others and eliminate them. So once these other forces is eliminated, just like the Islamic State, then, I think, the Syrian regime will switch to other enemies, like the Kurdish forces in the north.

SS: It seems like the race to take credit for victory against ISIS is on, who can claim to be the ultimate winner here? For example, French president Macron has already said “We" have won in Raqqa... does he mean a general victory?

ND: I think there is no country that can claim a sole victory because there are so many countries involved in the fight against Daesh (ISIS):  the Western alliance, the Arab countries, the Syrian regime, the Iranians, the Hezbollah. These are just political statements that politicians want to make, claiming that he or she is the only responsible for winning over ISIS. It has been the process of several years.

SS: What does the end of ISIS mean for the local groups on the ground in Syria - are the Syrian Kurds and Assad’s forces going to go against each other once the common Caliphate enemy is no more - or will we see a de-facto partition of Syria between the Kurds and Arabs?

ND: I think nobody wants partition of Syria. But the problem is that everyone wants to have power in Syria. So here’s the main big question now: once Daesh is defeated militarily and the regime troops and the opposition forces confront each other with the help of Russia and Iran on one side and the Americans on the other, how much are the Americans prepared to support those people they had been supporting before? Or will they lose the whole interest and try to avoid the confrontation with Russia in Syria, and probably not the other way around?

SS: There’s all this talk of a future political transition in Syria, and how Assad may be gone after a peace deal is hammered out. Now we keep hearing about the opposition and what they want, but what should we do with those who fight for Assad, are they going to just accept something they fought so hard to prevent?

ND: The main forces fighting for Assad on his behalf or supporting him are Russia, the Hezbollah and Iran. None of them wants to lose their strategic ally so they will keep supporting him.

SS: What about the Syrians who are supporting Assad? What will happen to them?

ND: They will wait until there is a new situation when Syria is peaceful. So, they will keep supporting the regime while many others will keep opposing it. There will be the negotiations,   the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva, as long as both sides still want to eliminate one another.  The opposition wants Assad to leave, at least, although they say they have no such precondition, and the Syrian regime wants to get rid of the opposition. The Syrian regime is getting even stronger militarily. And, the stronger one party is the less willing it is to make any concessions. 

SS: After President Assad’s visit to Russia, Vladimir Putin discussed peace in Syria with Donald Trump - do you think Washington and Moscow can really come to a consensus on Syria, seeing how their relations in all other areas are just abysmal?

ND: I think the relations between Moscow and Damascus and Washington and Damascus are fully asymmetric. Russia is the friend of President Assad and America is in fact his enemy with whom he had very negative relations not only during the civil war but also in the past. So, it’s very difficult to find a real compromise between the United States and Russia.

SS: If you have noticed, Mr. van Dam, for the past half year or so Americans are not so adamant about Assad leaving as a precondition to anything anymore. Because they do understand that they need Assad right now in order to have some sort of a peace settlement in Syria. And, I don’t think Russia is so insistent on Assad’s staying once the transition is done. I don’t think Assad is so important as a person to Russia…

ND: No, Assad is not important as a person at all. But he is important as long as his leaving poses the risk for the regime to fall apart. The Americans may be much less adamant in making him leave, although they keep saying this from time to time. In the end, I think, most countries will have to accept that he stays. There is talk that he will have to leave in the beginning of the transitional period. But there must be a transitional period in the first place. ‘Transition’ is some sort of a dirty word for the regime. They want a reform rather than any transition. As long as they stay in power, it’s ok for the regime. But gradually even the Gulf States, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey - all those countries which wanted to topple him - have now come to a different point of view because supporting the opposition cost them (Turkey, in particular) a lot of damage and gave the Kurdish forces a chance to occupy a big part of Northern Syria.

SS: The U.S. has a lot more troops on the ground in Syria than they care to admit - and it seems that there’s no plans for any immediate withdrawal. What will the American military presence mean for the final act of the Syrian war when it comes?

ND: It is, hopefully, open-ended whether the Americans want to stay there and confront the Syrian regime and the Russians. I doubt very much, whether they really want to continue this war, which has already taken almost seven years, and to continue military actions against - whom? They might defend the opposition but I don’t think they are going to attack the Syrian army in any way. They may be using these forces to eliminate extremist forces in Idlib, for instance, together with the Turks and others, but I don’t think they are willing to fight the regime anymore. There will be a so-called cleaning-up operation against the extremist forces. But this is both in the interests of the regime and the moderate forces of the opposition.     

SS: You’ve mentioned Turkey and I want to talk about it. The country has recently established another Syrian foothold. Is Ankara just going to keep its troops on Syrian territory for as long as it pleases? Are they playing a stabilising role there?

ND: I think the main thing for Turkey is to get rid of any powerful position of PYD, the Kurdish party which has power there, and PKK. So, if they can neutralise the role of the Kurds in Syria it’s ok for them. And, of course, if Turkey suffers from terrorist attacks that would emanate from the northern Syria they will attack those forces as well. I think the Turks already regret that they interfered in Syria at all, because if they hadn’t the Kurdish factor wouldn’t have been that strong. I think they will cooperate with the regime to eliminate the Kurdish forces in the north because that’s in their common interest. But it’s quite a switch from wanting to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad together with other forces to now coming to cooperate with him against the Kurdish forces which have now achieved quite a lot of independence.

SS: What is Saudi Arabia, accused of sponsoring rebels across the region, going to do about al-Qaeda protégés being defeated? Will they just abandon them?

ND: I think the Saudis are much more focused on the role of Iran than any other force. They want to diminish the strength of Iran for strategic reasons, and for that they have now established contact with Israel which also wants Iran to get out of the Syrian territory. The Saudis wanted, at first, to topple the Syrian regime, but now they have accepted it. They are much more interested in the strategic issue of Syria because they hadn’t had any problem with Syria in the past. But since the American occupation of Iraq and its aftermath the Iranians have significantly gained ground in the whole region: in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, etc. I think all the countries, which have directly or indirectly interfered militarily in Syria, have had very unfavorable side-effects. Now they are concentrating on eliminating these factors. It is the Kurds for Turkey and Iran for the Saudis.

SS: Since we’re talking about all the parties involved, Iranian-sponsored manpower is crucial to Assad’s success, all those advisers, militias, etc. If Assad stays in power and eventually wins the war, is that going to give Iran virtual mastery over Syria, will Assad have to become Iran’s client?

ND: I don’t think so. Assad wouldn’t want the foreign forces in his country, except in a kind of way like Russia, having a military base, but not to dominate the regime. This is not something he wants at all. They helped him but once he is back to power over the whole Syria, he won’t need them anymore. The Iranians are concerned with Israel, of course. They want a military base in Syria to attack or defend themselves against Israel. The Israelis don’t want this at all so the Iranians will have to withdraw once they are not needed anymore. The countries that support the regime cannot dictate to President Assad what they want him to do. That’s a mutual thing: they want to keep their ally, but their ally is not really going to do what his supporters want if it’s not in his interest.  

SS: In Iraq, the Kurdish population is in a face-off over lands won back from the ruins of ISIS. Kirkuk is in Baghdad’s hands, but it is restless and it all comes on the back of a recent independence referendum. Can a post-ISIS war break out in Iraq over the Kurdish question?

ND: After the referendum the Kurdish Democratic Party under Barzani claimed not only all Kurdistan which was having autonomy, but also the controversial areas which they conquered in the battle against ISIS, like Kirkuk, for instance. So I think, as long as the Kurds under the leadership of Barzani or anyone else stay within the territory, which has the official autonomy, there’s no reason for war. But if they stayed in Kirkuk not just because of oil which is also very important, and refused to leave that would be a real reason for war. But this reason is gone with their withdrawal.

SS: The Iranian-Saudi rivalry is what’s shaping the Middle East lately. Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri quit his post very abruptly while in Saudi Arabia. Some say he was kidnapped, the Saudis claim that Lebanon declared war on them, then Hariri returned and is now Prime Minister again. A bizarre turn of events that included visits to Paris, Cyprus and Egypt... What is going on here? Is this all connected to the Iranian-Saudi stand-off?

ND: What Prime Minister of Lebanon said was that he had problems with Hezbollah. And Hezbollah, being part of the Lebanese political equation, is dominant. It has much bigger military power than the Lebanese army. I don’t think Hezbollah wants to dominate all of Lebanon. It would be very unwise. But it can be that in the perception of Saudi Arabia Hezbollah wants a much bigger role in Lebanon than the Saudis want them to have. And this is all interlinked - Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Hezbollah…

SS: But if you say Hezbollah, being part of the Lebanese political establishment, is the problem, and now Hariri is back as Prime Minister, can we assume that the problem is gone?

ND: Hezbollah being very powerful militarily is not that bad for the government of Lebanon as long as the group doesn’t threaten them.

SS: Is the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar part of the Saudi-Iranian cold war? Is Qatar going to cave in - or move to Iran's camp pushed by Saudi hostility?

ND: I think the Gulf States in general have taken a very anti-Iranian stance. Some states like Qatar and Oman have more open relations with Iran and this is harshly rejected by Saudi Arabia. But if there’s a conflict and you want to solve it, it’s better to have some relations, if not good then just hostile relations. And, I think, in this respect Qatar is playing a kind of intermediary role. Because of the other Gulf Cooperation states’ estrangement, Qatar has moved in the direction of Iran. Oman has rather good relations with Iran. I think this attitude towards Iran can be changed from animosity to more reconciliatory attitude. But one of the Saudi princes told me that the Saudis have hostility towards Iran in their DNA.

SS: We’ll see how this will play out. Mr. van Dam thank you very much for this interview. We were talking to Nikolaos van Dam, former Dutch special envoy to Syria, about the civil war in Syria and the waves it’s sending across the wider Middle East.

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