The US-imposed sanctions on Syria under the so-called “Caesar Act”, which entered into force on 17 June 2020, entail the risk of partitioning Syria and changing its strategic position. This would constitute an introduction to a geographical reformulation of the country after the war had contributed to tearing its national fabric and destroying its capabilities of political recovery and overcoming the destructive consequences of the war.
The problem with the US sanctions, at this timing, lies in the fact that they pave the way for a new phase of the conflict. They coincide with a complicated problematic situation only to make it more complicated and awkward, with the likely strong drive towards establishing the reality of the current influence zones in Syria.
The partition strategy
Actors in Syria have been adopting interim strategies. Having controlled the greater part of the Syrian strategic scene, Russia has sought to develop those strategies in its favour. It has engaged with the other actors in agreements that have transformed Syria into bits and pieces. It seems, however, that the Russian calculations were inaccurate. Russia did not accurately read the power balances, which made it face the possibility of the transformation of those pieces into an integrated landscape under its control.
On the ground, Syria has been heading towards the drawing of demarcation lines between influence zones divided among multiple players, namely Turkish, Iranian, Russian and US influence zones. Those players do not have the intention of giving up their positions in the near future. It is not coincidental that the demarcation lines were drawn along ethnic, sectarian or ideological lines: the areas controlled by US forces are mostly Kurdish-controlled areas; Turkish-controlled areas are mostly areas of insurgents and extremist organizations; and Iranian-controlled areas are concentrated mainly in the western countryside of Damascus where they constitute the safety area of the eastern Beqaa in the setting of Hezbollah which has seized more than 15 thousand square kilometres of al-Qalamoun, and in south Aleppo where the Shiite Nubl and al-Zahraa are located.
The Caesar Act will reinforce this situation through its distinction between the areas afflicted by the sanctions and areas that are exempt or excluded from them. This will in turn lead to the attachment of each Syrian “piece” or region to the power controlling it under a devastated nationalism and images stereotyped by the war media of the intellectually, and probably ideologically, different others. For example, statistics indicate that more than 30 percent of Syrians now deal in the Turkish lira (constituting the total of those living in the Turkish-controlled areas in Idlib, Afrin, al-Bab, Jarablus and Ras al-Ayn). In areas east of the Euphrates, which are under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD), wheat products are now priced in dollar and there is a tendency to make the dollar replace the Syrian lira. Such approaches weaken the common denominators of the Syrian people after the war has undermined a significant proportion of those ties and common factors, given that those areas now have different symbols, flags, slogans and liberation and resistance heroes.
Syria as a theatre of a geopolitical war
The Caesar Act cannot be viewed outside of the context of the ongoing war of geopolitical projects on Syrian territories. This conflict is essentially a conflict of geopolitical projects. Unfortunately for Syria, those projects were concentrated on its territories, rendering the country a part of those projects, namely Iran’s project to access the Mediterranean and link the region from Tehran to Beirut; Russia’s project to access the warm waters and set up its own bases within the framework of its Eurasian project and protecting its national security by controlling the Eurasian perimeter with its Syrian southern gateway; China’s “Belt and Road” project and the “String of Pearls”, that is linking a series of global ports together; in addition to the everlasting US project of protecting Israel and standing in the way of the Russian and Chinese expansions.
The war has revealed that Syria, a country that had remained marginal in international strategies until recently, boasts a strategic treasure whose details have suddenly unveiled in front of the players. This is attributable to technological and economic changes whose emergence coincided with the start of the Syrian war. The rival parties have discovered that Syria’s ports can make it the transporter, supplier and importer of a region that extends from Iraq and Iran to Azerbaijan, Russia and countries of Central Asia, and that at least it can service a population of more than 200 million people. In addition, its routes, that are often overlooked by economic maps, are the link between Turkey, Europe and the Arab world. The M5 highway extends from Gaziantep in Turkey to Nasib at the Jordanian border, and onwards to Egypt and the Arabian Gulf. The M4 highway crosses Iraq to Iran and beyond. Those two highways constitute an important part of the trade traffic among those worlds. In addition, the Syrian territories constitute a crossing for energy lines that would change the equations, especially in the European market that is more appealing for the world’s oil and gas producers.
Deepening the devastation: the Caesar Act and establishing the partition
The existing complexity of the Syrian crisis indicates the increasing awareness by the actors of Syria’s geopolitical importance and the difficulty of giving up to the other parties, considering that this concession would give power cards in terms of managing the geopolitical conflicts in the region. Apparently Syrians, and by extension Arabs, have fell victim to the clichés released by the diplomacy of the actors involved in the Syrian crisis, including the assertion that conflicting regional and international parties in Syria disagree on the ruling regime and who should govern but agree on the country’s “territorial integrity”, although the operational power of those parties have leant towards sharing the strategic yield provided by Syria.
The initial forms of partition were manifested in the privileges collected by Russia and Iran by putting pressure on the ruling regime and in return for protecting the regime and preventing its downfall in the face of the powers of the western alliance, according to the Russian and Iranian accounts. The privileges were mostly in the form of the reimbursement for the costs of the military tasks which became unpayable debts by the ruling regime after the war has depleted its treasury. This is a new pattern of dealing with allies initiated by China which has started to recover its debts by acquiring the strategic assets of the debtor countries (ports, airports, oil and gas fields), as was the case with Sri Lanka, Pakistan and some countries in Africa and Latin America.
Intended to obtain the largest amount of value-added provided by Syria’s strategic location, these policies will result in destroying Syria’s strategic value by sharing it among multiple parties, after having transformed what is temporary into permanent, and what is tactical into strategic.
The sanctions philosophy imposed by the Caesar Act is based on the logic of freezing the values obtained by US rivals, converting them into useless, and perhaps in the future costly, values for its rivals in the region. Indeed, this is a translation of the US power, which is distinct from other global powers that compete with it using traditional tools (military and diplomatic powers) while overlooking the fact that the US economic power and its control over the world’s main currency (the dollar) provide the US with a power margin that none of its rivals has. This is a power that cannot be combated with nuclear warheads or intercontinental missiles.
Consequently, the Caesar Act establishes facts that are already on the ground in Syria, giving them a de facto legitimacy. The likelihood of exiting this crisis will be costly since it could lead to the outbreak of wars among major players. The other option would be the decay of the current conditions, transforming Syria into hot pockets. The country, whose infrastructure was almost entirely destroyed, whose cities were reduced to rubbles, and whose productive machinery were disabled by the war, is in need of a miracle to come out of this historical dilemma. However, the advent of the Caesar Act under the circumstances means that the Syrian crisis will only head for more annihilation.
Amr Abdelatty | 29 Jun 2020
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