Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff is the Executive Director and co-founder of People Demand Change Inc, a socially responsible aid and development startup that focuses on monitoring and evaluation of humanitarian aid and development programing, supporting the capacity of nascent civil society organizations and providing long-term aid and development solutions in the MENA region, including work in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, and Tunisia. The former Executive Director at the Syrian Emergency Task Force and a journalist with Congressional Quarterly, Mr. Ghosh-Siminoff was living in Syria and attending an immersion Arabic program at Aleppo University when the Syrian revolution broke out in early 2011 and had the unique opportunity to experience Syrian society right before, at the beginning and then immediately after the commencement of the revolution. Before Syria, Mr. Ghosh-Siminoff worked on and completed a Masters degree of Middle East Studies at the University of Exeter, UK and conducted fieldwork in Israel and in the Palestinian Occupied Territories of the West Bank. Mr. Ghosh-Siminoff has been a guest analyst discussing Syria and its wider implications for the MENA region on a number of international media outlets and has also published several articles on the topic. Mr. Ghosh-Siminoff also has provided his expertise on the subject of Syria to various international institutions and governments, including the US Government, the Government of Canada, The Government of the Federal Republic of Germany and various think tanks based in Washington DC. Mr. Ghosh-Siminoff currently works with an extensive network of activists, local technocrats, civil society activists, academics and analysts from across the Middle East and maintains and particularly plugged-in network within Syria, Iraq and Libya, and has continuously advocated on behalf of nascent civil society operating in the MENA and on behalf of those affected by the Syrian conflict overall.
KAMRAN BOKHARI: Hi, my name is Kamran Bokhari. Welcome to another edition of The Lodestar, which is the Center for Global policy’s podcast series. Today in our office in Washington, I have with me Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, who is the executive director of People Demand Change, or PDC. It’s an aid and development firm based in D.C. but has multiple offices in the Middle East, and they do extensive fieldwork inside Syria. He has, you know, spent many years there. He is fluent in Arabic and he is a rock star as far as it comes to making maps. Maps are near and dear to myself and of course CGP, because we’re all about geopolitics and you can’t have geopolitics or geopolitical analysis without having an understanding of maps, so I’m very excited.
The good thing about PDC is that PDC, even you know throughout the height of the conflict till this day, has ongoing operations inside Syria trying to help people deal with conflict. Today, what we’re going to talk about specifically is the northwestern province of Syria, which is kind of like the epicenter of the entire conflict right now, called Idlib. Idlib is a multiplayer battle space. You have the Russians, the Iranians, the Syrian regime, the Turks, jihadists, other Syrian rebels — all are there in this tiny space and I’m going to hand it over to Sasha. Sasha, thanks for doing this, and just take it away.
SASHA GHOSH-SIMINOFF: My pleasure. Thank you for having me today. I would say overall first and foremost what people need to grapple with in terms of understanding this space is the complexities with which we are dealing with in terms of, as you’ve mentioned, all the actors in the field. Idlib as an area has been under opposition control for eight and a half years now, so it’s been quite some time, but it has expanded and contracted in terms of geographic space over the years, and when we talk about Idlib we were really talking about “Greater Idlib.” So it’s Idlib Province plus sections of other provinces that are under opposition control.
KB: For example, Aleppo.
SGS: For example, Aleppo. We, at one point, also there’s still a piece of Hamah Province and a piece of Latakia province …
KB: Latakia, which is a regime stronghold.
SGS: Exactly. So you have little bits and pieces here and there that still remain under opposition control. So oftentimes when people talk about the space either expanding or shrinking, they’re just thinking like physically about Idlib, but it’s more than just Idlib. And that’s important when we discuss like the amount of space that you have 3 million people living in. So, for example, 10 months ago, when the Assad regime, with the backing of the Russians, began this current campaign their first act was to attack northern Hamah Province, which was under the opposition, and take that. So the first wave of IDPs [internally displaced persons] who entered Idlib were coming from Hamah Province, and they had been displaced several times before because Hamah Province and that area has been a frontline for the entirety of the conflict practically. So from that perspective, it’s important to understand that this space has expanded and then it shrunk then it’s expanded again, depending on the fortunes of the different geopolitical players and their proxies on the ground. At the moment, obviously, the space is shrinking to a degree that’s putting certain actors in a very difficult position, Turkey being the main one.
But the reality is that the people who are suffering the most are the civilians, and there’s 3 million of them, of which around like 60 to 80 percent are women and children. It’s hard to know exactly what that number looks like. But all of our estimates that we have looked at and that the U.N. keeps track of and everyone keeps track of its between 60 and 80 percent. So it’s a very large number and it points to two very important things. Number one, just how many men in this conflict have died or are no longer present with their families. It points to a major weakness in this propaganda campaign that Russia constantly proposes where it says, we’re not attacking civilians we’re attacking terrorists. Okay. There are al Qaeda–aligned groups in Idlib. They are not the majority by a wide margin. And when you look at what the Russian campaign is focused on doing, they’re focused on basically carpet bombing major towns and cities that are by and large civilian with the direct idea that they will force people to flee. So this has never been about any sort of broad military strategy to defeat a “terrorist organization.” This is about emptying a piece of geographic space of people who oppose the Assad regime.
And since Idlib has been the depository for defeated rebels who refused to reconcile with the regime over the last few years, the people who have then been deported to Idlib over the years are literally people who have no choice, right? They, they cannot live under the regime. They don’t feel they have the capacity to reconcile for moral or ideological reasons, and they also had nowhere else to go. It’s not like they were given sanctuary in other neighboring countries. They were not allowed to leave Syria. They were just told your option is to go to Idlib.
Now Turkey is in a difficult position, because they already have 3 million refugees from Syria and the thought of taking another three just is not doable. It’s not doable for a couple reasons. One, the economy. Turkey’s economy is not doing well right now. Their relationship with Europe and the United States is dicey at best, so it’s not like they’re in a position in to ask for a lot more financial support from either party because it may or may not be granted. They have domestic political considerations in Turkey. Some of this plays into Erdogan and the AKP and their upcoming election. Some of this has to do with realities that the way Turkey’s national identity has sort of been put together over the years. It’s hard to add a new ethnic or linguistic group into the mix and expect that they’re going to assimilate easily into the Turkish national identity
KB: And their numbers have already swelled to 3 million.
KB: So it’s complicating a pre-existing, complicated, complex situation.
KB: Let me ask you why – you mentioned that, and this is clear from reporting, that for some odd reason the Syrian regime was happy to allow lots of these Rebels and their families to go to Idlib because Idlib was out of the reach of the regime at the time, for example, when they took Aleppo in late 2016.
KB: So they allowed these people to go there – A, why, what was the, you know, military logic or demographic logic? And B, where are these people from inside Syria?
SGS: Correct. So number one, the Assad regime’s ability to tackle this revolution–turned–civil–conflict-turned-regional–proxy–war–turned–global–proxy–war has always hinged on their ability to only deal with one front at a time. When the regime was forced to split up their military and use it to fight multiple battles at once, it lost ground very quickly. It was fighting the opposition groups who were neither coordinated nor organized across the entire country. They didn’t have the manpower. Much of the regime’s military, at the very beginning of the war in 2011, like, the average soldier is a Sunni conscript, Sunni Arab conscript, and a lot of those people defected. And those who didn’t defect literally were kept at gunpoint to continue fighting for years without being able to leave or see their families or do anything. Later, when it became clear that the regime was really in danger of falling, 2014-2015 time, number one, Iran ramps up its support in recruiting people from Afghanistan and Pakistan, from Iraq and …
KB: Wasn’t this happening already much earlier?
SGS: It was happening already much earlier in the form of first, Hezbollah entering this space …
SGS: Hezbollah actually arrived in 2012 but they did it undercover and they were there to help with very discreet operations by 2012-2013. You have the first Iraqi special groups show up who had fought the Americans during the U.S. occupation In Iraq, and they were there under the guise of sort of religious order, to protect Shia religious sites …
SGS: The shrines, exactly. But of course they did more than that, and they helped establish relationships and they also began training local militia units called the National Defense Force – the NDF – in an attempt to help deal with the manpower issue that the regime is facing. Also the regime started conscripting people en masse from all communities. Christian, Alawite, Druze, Sunni, it didn’t matter. They were gobbling up people as quickly as they could. A number of minority communities like the Christians and the Druze started sending their young military–aged men out of the country to keep them safe because everyone knows that if you get conscripted into the regime’s army and you get sent to the front line, the chances of you coming back are not very good, and while people in those communities may have concerns about the opposition they may have concerns about the future of Syria if there’s not someone like Assad in charge, they weren’t prepared either to send their sons to go fight and die for … for a cause that seemed to have no end and no benefit for their community ultimately.
Obviously, it’s different for each community in Syria. I mean the Alawite community, for example, over the last couple decades have been pushed to be part of the security services. They’re entrenched within the military and Assad and his family have worked to really glue their fortunes to his so if he goes down he’s taking the Alawite community with him, basically. So there might be a feeling of sort of an existential crisis within the Alawite community in terms of Assad falling, which is understandable from their perspective, but on the other hand, they’ve sacrificed, you know tens of thousands of their community members to fight this war …
KB: Who’ve gotten killed.
SGS: Who’ve gotten killed, right. So we can’t say that any specific community has fared well as a result of this conflict. On the other hand, the majority of the people who died in this conflict have been Sunni Arab. So …
KB: Are there still well, I mean, it’s only reasonable to assume that Sunni Arabs from other places who have now flocked to Hamah. Well, they’re obviously in the sort of anti–Assad, not necessarily rebel or much less, you know the jihadist camp, but it would be reasonable to assume that there’s still a lot of Sunni Arabs who have sort of staked their fortunes or their future with the regime.
SGS: Without a doubt, as many people inside Syria will say the regime couldn’t do what it has been able to do without some support from the Sunni community. There’s a lot of business elites who had ties to the Assad regime and ties to the Assad regime like ties to the Assad family itself and they stake their fortunes on staying with the Assad regime or they hedge their bets and they said well, we’ll see how it goes.
This is especially true for number of families in Damascus and Aleppo because Bashar al-Assad, when he came to power, he worked very hard to create connections with business communities of Aleppo City and Damascus City to keep them on his side because he wasn’t sure about his future because he sort of walked into the job of being the new man in charge when his brother was killed in a car accident, so he had a lot of work to do to ensure his own ability to stay in power and he made concessions and made compromises with certain entities within the elites to keep that going. On the other hand, as jumping back to what we were discussing before, because of this manpower problem, the regime just couldn’t take everyone on at the same time. The original military structure, how it was designed was to defend against an incursion or attack from Israel. So a lot of their defensive capability and offensive capability was solely aimed at Israel.
SGS: South. Suddenly you have fighting in Deir Ez-Zor and Hamah and Homs and Hamah and Aleppo and Idlib, and they had to suddenly redistribute and redisperse their military to handle that and also more in a, in a more difficult sense, they used to rely right on the on the security apparatus, mukhabarat, to do this. But there’s more and more people are joining protests and the people who are part of the local mukhabara, maybe they’re seeing that their families are joining or maybe they’re hearing that like they’re if they’re not from that province that their community was attacked by maybe some regime soldiers or forces and it got really difficult to rely on local mukhabara to be loyal to the regime and a lot of them did start defecting.
KB: When you say mukhabara, you’re specifically talking intelligence services or also local law enforcement?
SGS: A mixture of both. Um, and in both instances in places like Idlib like the first people to defect were the police and the local mukhabara because they couldn’t face their fellow community members who well knew who they were and what their job was while they were in the middle of a protest suddenly being gunned down by … local, like a local constabulary. So all of that created the, the initial core of resistance in a number of these areas, Idlib being one of those areas. There was a massive defection of soldiers in June or July of 2011 because Idlib was a very relatively sparsely populated province. It was close to the Turkish border, which was a quite porous border at the time. People who defected in Idlib could run to the border and get across into Turkey. So when we had defections happening you start seeing people doing their best to get to Idlib first, so they could eventually cross into Turkey. And so a lot of the initial elements of the “Free Syrian Army,” they end up in Idlib and/or across the border in Turkey. So Idlib has always had a prominent position within this conflict because of how they facilitated both military defections and how they facilitated people getting out but also people and aid and material and weapons getting in via the Turkish border.
KB: Has the regime ever taken this province back at any point in time since the conflict began?
SGS: On this scale, no.
KB: Bits and pieces of it.
SGS: Bits and pieces here and there that they’ve lost, but after 2015 when they lost control of Idlib city and the M4 Highway, which is a strategic highway that runs from west to east throughout through the entire north of the country, that was kind of the point where they basically ceded control of most of Idlib. They had already lost the upper third of Idlib by 2015 after 2015. It is staying there was just untenable and then you really start … start to see the opposition expand. In terms of their control both in Hamah in parts of Latakia and Idlib and Aleppo half of Aleppo City had already been under opposition control for some time. But also you have the rise of ISIS also, which puts pressure on the regime. And again, it’s like the regime is now having to decide who to deal and who to take on first and around this time. Then you have Russian Intervention when the Russians really, really come to grips with the fact that probably the regime is going to fall unless they don’t do something.
KB: With the aircraft and all.
KB: So what is the current sort of if you had to sort of quickly summarize the local landscape of actors, so we know the Turks are in there, but that’s an external Force. We know that Russians are involved and Iranians are backing in their regime troops and Personnel fighting but going back to what you said that the Russians and their allies are saying well, we’re fighting terrorists and these are all Hayat Tahrir al-Sham which used to be called Nusra. Then there’s Hurass al–Deen and then there’s a medley of other groups, and so there aren’t really any rebel groups as per this narrative. What have you seen on the ground?
SGS: So on the ground, over the years, I mean at one point we had across here a list of, you know, maybe a couple thousand different militias.
KB: Wow, that’s a large number.
SGS: Yeah. I mean they spanned from people from units as small as 20 to units as large as 2,000. They made different alliances and they fell under different umbrellas in various pieces of time. Those alliances will last maybe for a few months, or they would be designed just to fight one specific battle against the regime and then they go back to squabbling amongst themselves. Over the last couple of years there’s been a massive consolidation in the northwest pocket in terms of military control. One has been the consolidation of a large pieces of Idlib under HTS and it’s not just Jabhat al-Nusra but also groups that decided to align themselves with Jabhat al-Nusra.
KB: Ahrar al–Shaam and all those other guys.
SGS: Ahrar al–Shaam and others, they actually formed something called the National Liberation Front which was lightly backed by Turkey. So it was sort of Ahrar al-Shaam and the remaining Free Syrian Army units who then all band, banded together. They did fight HTS for a brief period of time, but Turkey never really provided them the means to really defeat HTS, and ultimately they were not successful. They sort of have faded into the background. They still exist and they still do some fighting, but to a degree they’re a nonentity. On the other hand, there’s always been one unit that’s been strongly backed by the Turkish government that’s been Faylak al-Shaam and they’re still fighting, and they’re the ones recently who it seems were able to take down two helicopters two regime helicopters with anti-air …
KB: This is just recently.
SGS: Yeah, so it’s likely that Faylak al-Shaam. Although we don’t hear much about them in the broader media these days they’re still there. They’re still fighting. They’re probably a still a go–to force for the Turks. On top of that, when Turkey entered Syria physically in 2016 to fight ISIS or fight the Kurds, depending on which side of the coin you’re on about their intentions — in my opinion they went to go fight both — they formed a new military umbrella which they called the Syrian National Army or the SNA. They took a whole bunch of Free Syrian Army units — some had been units that have been ejected from other parts of Syria. So going back to your original question where these people from, they’re from Homs, they’re from Hamah, they’re from Daraa,
KB: All the way in the south.
SGS: Yeah, they’re from RIf Dimashq. They all of these areas that eventually were liberated and then fell to the regime again, had some people who were eventually pushed out you have also even some people from Deir ez-Zor and Raqqah who fought and lost trying to fight ISIS and then they ended up in Aleppo. All of this mishmash of groups ended up being molded and put into the SNA.
KB: I just want to point out to our listeners that this is the same area more or less, or the province, the broader province, where the United States finally caught up with ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, so ISIS was in the mix as well.
SGS: Right. So Aleppo’s always been an interesting province in this regard because it’s always, under this current conflict, been cut up under multiple spheres of control. I mean at one point we had we had ISIS with one piece. We had the regime with another piece. We had the Turks with another piece. We had the Kurds with another piece, and with the opposition with another piece. So keeping track of that dynamic just in Aleppo province is a job in and of itself. And Aleppo province is an extremely important province both economically and in terms of trade. Aleppo city is the second city of Syria, some people argue it’s the most populous city. And of course there’s that Damascus–Aleppo rivalry, historic rivalry.
KB: Isn’t it the economic hub?
SGS: It definitely was historically the economic hub. If you speak with people from Aleppo they will explain all of their economic ties to Turkey, including all the businesses and manufacturing and industry that they had overlap with with their … with their Turkish counterparts, and a lot of those people during the war have left. They’ve gone to Turkey, spoken with their Turkish counterparts, and opened up businesses basically in Turkey. So basically taking their businesses out of Aleppo and moving them to the safety of Turkey. So that connection runs deep and it’s been there for a very long time. On the other hand when with the situation with Turkey, when they entered in 2016, they took over this this piece of territory in Northern Aleppo along their border. The area that they took mostly on that time at that time was held by ISIS. So they kicked ISIS out of that area. They set this area up and they started accepting refugees and rebel units and their families who are then deported by the regime after they surrender. Those people first came, this was starting late 2016. Turkey works on establishing their foothold firmly
KB: The Zone.
SGS: The Zone, which basically is between the western bank of the Euphrates River next to the town of Jarabulus all the way to the town of Azaz. And the town of Azaz has the other major humanitarian crossing point into Syria, Bab al-Salameh, so keeping that crossing point open and free of ISIS was actually a very important situation because ISIS got very close, very very close, to taking Azaz and …
KB: That would have been very close to the Turkish border.
SGS: I mean ISIS was already on the Turkish border in other areas but to lose Bab al-Salameh crossing at the time would have been a humanitarian disaster. It would have cut off a major artery of international aid into the country and it would have made it that much harder to figure out how to defeat and push ISIS back eventually. So there was definitely utility in the Turks entering and keeping this space free of Isis. However, um, what they did next was more controversial.
SGS: They … not Manbij, actually, but Afrin.
SGS: Yeah. So after that, there’s next to Azaz District in Aleppo province is neighboring Afrin District, which is a Kurdish–majority district
KB: It’s kind of like a canton by itself … disconnected from the main hub of Kurdish population.
SGS: Correct and this … and this area they … they from a military perspective, they supported the YPG and they were under the auspices of the “self-administration authority,” which was — which is, because it still exists — it’s a Kurdish-led semi-autonomous governance structure that whose military wing is the SDF. I’m boiling this down to make it simple, but ostensibly this is the relationship. And so the self-administration authority, the YPG, basically ran Afrin District as an semi-autonomous canton up until the point where Turkey said, we’re invading it. They consider the YPG an offshoot of the PKK and they said we are not going to allow PKK to remain on our border. They took their newly formed Syrian proxy force, the SNA, and they invaded. And within two months or so, they kicked the YPG out and with it they kicked out most of the Kurdish population and those people have not had the ability to return.
KB: Where are they now?
SGS: So there’s an area next to Afrin District whose major town is Tall Rifat — we call this the Tall Rifat pocket. It now houses quite a number of those people. At one point. I had heard between 150,000 to 200,000.
KB: This is to the east of Afrin.
SGS: Yes. So roughly at the time we had heard a 150 to 200,000 of those people from Afrin and had fled to that pocket in the hopes that they’d be able to return, even if it was under Turkish occupation. My understanding is until now they have not been able to return and they are stuck there during the battle with the Turkish military. And their Syrian proxies the YPG accepted help from the Assad regime and there were some militia units, notably from the towns of Zahraa and Nubl, which are two Shia majority towns that then sided with the YPG and sent forces to help them and support them. This was sort of a unique scenario, but it also highlights that people in this conflict may not always be on the same side, but when they’re faced with an existential crisis they’ll work with whoever they need to work with to survive. And this has happened many times throughout the Syrian conflict. So some people are in that pocket and the rest have either gone into the regime’s territory and Aleppo or they made their way over to the SDF controlled territory in the northeast and …
KB: All the way to Hasakah.
SGS: Yeah all the way to Hasakah. Yeah.
KB: So if you were to sort of divvy up and give us sort of like a snapshot of the battlespace today, how would you do that? If we were to say, okay, how much of territory is under Turkish control, Syrian regime control, and then where are the, you know, the jihadists in this mix?
SGS: So if we’re talking specifically about the northwest opposition pocket, we can say that over the last 10 months the regime, with the help of Russia and Iran, have taken back I want to say almost half.
KB: Half of the province?
SGS: Half of the … half of the territory under opposition control in the northwest,
KB: Which includes parts of Latakia, parts of Aleppo and parts of Hamah.
SGS: Correct. So they took all of the almost all of the portions of Hamah that were under opposition control. There’s still a small sliver left. They took a large segment of southeast Idlib Province, and then they took a large segment of, recently, in the last five days of opposition-held Aleppo Province. So the space that these 3 million people that have been living in this area has been cut in half.
Now we need to remember that during this entire period of time, or at least since 2015, but even before, either the regime or Russia has been bombing this area, so it’s not like there. was really good infrastructure available to support these people before this current campaign. There wasn’t. Electricity grid heavily damaged, healthcare system almost non-existent, education system heavily damaged or non-existent. Many people, if not all of them, are dependent on some form of international aid. They have very few prospects in terms of, like, independent economic capacity and whatever they can do to scrape by. You never know when a regime or Russian helicopter or jet is going to show up and bomb your house. So things were already bad before this current crisis. They’re immensely worse now.
And unlike in previous conflicts, where the regime would make a parry to take a piece of land, maybe they would hold it for a little bit, and then maybe the opposition would take it back, so people would leave for a brief period of time and then come back — this time, the feeling is that there is little to no hope that they will ever return to the area taken by the regime. They do not know whether regime is going to go all the way to the border with Turkey. They do not know how this conflict is going to pan out. They don’t know if Turkey’s really going to enter and … as they’ve been posturing recently that they’re going to enter and fight and push … push the regime back to the original cease–fire line that … that Turkey, Iran, and Russia agreed at Sochi in 2018.
So people are now just fleeing all the way to the border. They said we’ve been displaced, you know, five, six, seven times. There’s no point. We go to the border and we wait. So we’ve got a million people now sitting at the Turkish border, strung along the border in about 1,300 IDP camps.
KB: And these IDP camps are still within sort of Turkish–controlled areas on the Syrian side.
SGS: Sort of they’re literally right against the border wall. So they’re up against the border with the hope that Russia will not be stupid enough to bomb them because gets way too close to Turkey.
KB: So they’re betting on a Russian–Turkish understanding
SGS: Correct, especially after the incident some years ago …
KB: When the plane was shot down.
SGS: When the Russian plane was shot down. So …
KB: Was it in the same area?
SGS: It was it was I believe if I recall it was in this area closer to the Latakia-Idlib border if I remember correctly, but it was an area under opposition control. So, and very close to the Turkish border. And remember, when we’re talking about flying planes at very high speeds, you know, 5, 6 kilometers is not enough space to be careful and not enter, you know, Turkish airspace. So there’s a lot of room for error in these instances. Now Russia has been working very hard to use the divergence of U.S. and Turkish policy to try and push Turkey into its camp. I mean, I believe that the ultimate goal of what Russia is doing with Turkey and Syria is to push Turkey out of NATO. I think if that’s their end game they’ve been working on it. pretty consistently. They worked to cater to Turkey’s needs and interests within the conflict on a variety of issues even while they strengthen their own hand in the conflict. the United States and Turkey, because they’re not on the same page about a number of issues when it comes to Syria, Turkey feels like they’ve been kind of on their own dealing with the Syrian conflict without much help. They’re pretty resentful of the fact that they took 3 million refugees while you know, Europe complained about 800,000 refugees that came for all of Europe, of which the bulk went to Germany. So Russia has played its hand well, and without the United States willing to confront Russia and tell Russia that they mean business and that they’re not playing around, and that Syria is important, the message that the United States has sent to Russia over the past nine years of this conflict about Syria’s is eh – second — Syria’s second priority. It’s important but not that important.
KB: Would it be fair to say, to add to that point is you just made, is that it is not in the interest of the United States that the Assad regime falls and has a vacuum, a greater vacuum than the one that already exists and therefore, okay, so the Russians are making sure that that does not happen, so that’s good enough for us. And I would like to extend that argument to say while the U.S. and turkey are not on the same page on many issues — as you rightfully pointed out, many issues Syrian — but you know, if the United States is not going to deploy — and this is a bipartisan thing here – a large number of troops to, you know manage the crisis in Syria, then, you know, the only other available military force objectively speaking are the Turks. So let them deal with it. So in many ways it’s kind of like it explains the United States sort of saying okay the Turks are there, the Russians are there, let them sort of record it up. What do you make of that argument?
SGS: So I think realistically, the policy — if we can say it’s a policy of the United States government of the last nine years towards Syria — has been one of containment without proactively seeking a long-term solution to the to the conflict. So in all the discussions that my colleagues and I have had with U.S. government over the last nine years about the Syrian conflict, they always circle back to the same issue. They say okay, if Assad is gone tomorrow, who takes over? And this is the argument that they’ve used repeatedly to say if Assad falls and there is no organized opposition, and there is no plan, we will have a much worse situation in Syria than what we have now. I disagree. I think a lack of inaction and a lack of serious policy toward Syria has created an immensely complicated and catastrophic conflict that has sucked the entire Middle East down with it and has had unintended consequences for the political situation in Europe. All of these unintended consequences have not helped us as a country. They have not helped our national security. They have made relationships with regional allies more strained and more complex. They have complicated our efforts in other countries that are of the same priority or importance, such as Iraq. They have complicated our relationship with a key NATO ally, Turkey, and they have provided an opening to Russia to really enter the Middle East in a way that we have not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse. So while I respect the fact that the United States population is war-weary and has PTSD as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sometimes there needs to be some sort of proactive intervention of some kind because the cost of doing something sooner outweighs the cost of doing something later.
And when you look at Syria and the fact that it borders so many important other countries in the region, I just find it very hard to understand how anyone thought just letting this country collapse into oblivion was a good idea. I understand there may not be good solutions, but a solution of containment and just doing nothing, I don’t think, is the answer, either. And while I understand that the United States does not agree with this strategy that Turkey has employed over the last you can say four to five years in Syria, before that Turkey begged the United States to create a plan and a strategy with them that would deal with what they saw coming down the road. And that’s on the United States, because the United States basically ignored Turkey’s pleas to do something serious about Syria and told them eh, it’s going to be okay. Well, we’ll figure it out.
So on the one hand, it’s true that, I think, for the United States, it’s really about keeping a NATO ally within the NATO column and all other issues become secondary. I understand there’s wider geopolitical issues at stake. But on the other hand, for me, Syria has become sort of a litmus test about, you know, kind of U.S. ability to proactively engage in a complex conflict and really lead and come up with durable long-term solutions, which means having a durable long-term policy, and that does not bode well for the future if the United States can’t do that anymore. It cedes a lot of space on the global stage to Russia and to China, which people may or may not be happy with in the long term. Everyone in the United States says that they, you know, don’t want the United States to be the world’s police anymore. Again, totally understand, and I empathize with that sentiment. On the other hand, if we do cede this global space, who are we ceding it to, and are we going to be happy with those results? My … prognostication is that the answer is no, but we won’t know that until it’s already done, and once it’s done it will be very hard to claw that influence and that position on the global stage back from whatever actor supplants us. So for me, Syria is sort of a test of what’s to come in terms of U.S. global capacity and political dominance.
KB: You raise the altitude of this conversation very very quickly, and I thank you for that, but I want to sort of come back to a little lower level and I want to sort of ask you about where do you see … so you talked about a litmus test for the United States. I think it’s a litmus test for Turkey as well, Idlib, in terms of how much power projection will Turkey engage in in the future. It all depends on how it performs in Idlib. And obviously there’s the Russia complication. It’s not a bilateral well, we’re going to go after the Syrians because, you know, our historic rival Iran is supporting them. There’s the Russia factor as well, given the economic dependency, especially natural gas, that Turkey has on the Kremlin. So do you see, you know, right now it seems like the regime is sort of clawing away territory from the rebels. Do you see the Turks, especially after today, the two Turkish soldiers that were killed and Erdogan made a statement — he’s been threatening and obviously rhetoric goes only so far, but you see the Turks really investing heavily and diving into Idlib.
SGS: I mean, this is the $50 million question, and none of us are exactly sure what Turkey will do because Turkey has a tendency for hyperbole and very, very maximalist posturing only to back down when it really matters. However, in this circumstance, I feel like there’s a lot more riding on what happens for a whole variety of reasons that frankly have more to do with Turkey’s domestic political situation and less to do with Syria itself. On the one hand, because Erdogan is in the current situation he’s in politically, he can’t afford to look weak, he can’t afford to take a loss, but more importantly he cannot afford to have these refugees entering Turkey. And while there is a very large border wall that separates Turkey from Syria now, as we all know, there’s always ways around that, and if people feel that they’re going to die anyways, so they might as well die trying to get over this wall and into Turkey, then so be it, then that’s what’s going to happen. And then you’ll just see people, you know tens of thousands of people just climbing over the wall.
KB: Especially if Erdogan does not want to be seen as shooting refugees coming into his territory.
SGS: Exactly. So he’s in a tight spot. Russia is put him in this tight spot on purpose. So the Sochi agreement bought him, like, a little bit over a year of time. But ultimately, I suspect Russia does want to push the needle forward. They want to extract more concessions on the ground from the opposition. They want to be able to create more economic viability for the regime because the regime’s economy is in tatters, and they need the M5 and the M4 highways to function again in part to do that. So there’s specific reasons why Russia is doing what it’s doing. The question is … can Turkey swallow those reasons or they going to have to do something that they’ve never done before, which is confront Russia?
Everyone who studies Russia has different conclusions about Russia’s motivations and how one “deals” with Russia. I don’t think anyone has a clear idea about like what is the best strategy because I think Russia remains sort of a mercurial opponent on purpose, so you … it’s hard to figure out what they’re going to do. However, a friend of mine who’s been a Russia observer for many years, he said to me once well Russia likes to probe their enemies with a bayonet — they shove it in and see how far they can go until they hit something hard. I.e., they’ll go as far as you let them, but the minute they see that an adversary is serious and they’re willing to take them toe-to-toe, they would prefer not to because then the opportunity cost is … is quite high and they’re not going to risk permanent or substantial damage if they can get and extract some other concession that’s good enough in the process.
KB: It’s also mission creep for Russia. I mean the right now ,they’re very comfortable in flying these planes, doing these barrel bombings and other forms of airstrikes, but do they really want to commit more forces? And … and if the Turks push harder than they may have to do that. So to me, that’s an opening for the Turks.
SGS: There have been some chatter that if Turkey goes for a head-on–head fight with the regime, Russia with withdraw its air, that they do not want a direct military confrontation with Turkish forces. They’re happy to let their client battle it out with Turkey …
KB: Or the Iranians.
SGS: They’re happy to let the Iranians supply as many bodies as they want to front lines, but a direct military confrontation with Turkey is not in Russia’s interest. And I think that also, pragmatically, I don’t think that Russia sees that it’s a good idea for the regime to be responsible for an additional 3 million people, right? Regime, if they took over all of Idlib, all of the northwest opposition territory, it would inherit a completely shattered set of infrastructure plus 3 million refugees. The United States and Europe have made it clear they will not pay for the reconstruction of Syria, and they’ve made it clear that they’re not going to do anything above provision of humanitarian aid to help mitigate, you know, the worst of the emergency.
KB: Just keep people alive,
SGS: Keep people alive, and that’s it. So the regime cannot count on anyone showing up to help support this area which the International community, for better for worse, has been doing up until now. However, the regime especially you know, Bashar al-Assad is very arrogant, and as people in Syria might say, the regime looks at Syria as its farm and its people as its cattle and they cannot stomach some of its farm animals deciding to take a piece of the farm and say this is ours now go away. This doesn’t work. So we have to weigh the impulsive nature of the regime and its arrogance versus how much Russia can keep them in check. and I’m sure Russia can do quite a bit but I don’t think Russia has final veto power over what the regime does — in part because Russia is fighting for influence within the regime vis-à-vis Iran. So there’s other elements there that might be pushing the regime to do … to do more than they really can or should
KB: Do the Russians, do the Iranians, and does the regime take comfort from the fact that that third element, HTS and the medley of jihadist groups, they’re going to keep the Turks busy?
SGS: Well, that’s the thing. I mean Turkey … so part of the Sochi agreement was opening the M4 and M5 to traffic and “dealing” with …
KB: Regime traffic.
SGS: They left it … they left it vague, but I assume regime traffic. Latakia and Aleppo City finally have consistent trade through the shortest major route that they could, but realistically the bigger issue was … in the Sochi agreement about you know, making … making it so that “terrorist entities” would no longer have a place in Idlib and to clear Idlib of HTS to take control of the M4 and the M5 and provide security that would basically require Turkey to physically administer all of opposition-held northwest area directly. You couldn’t do some piecemeal thing where the Turks come in, take control of a piece of the highway, and then they just sit there with no logistical supply line and no way to really guarantee anyone’s security.
I mean even their observation posts which they set up as part of the Sochi agreement, you know, you’d have these convoys come in and the Turks would have, you know, this long conversation with all the … the opposition and militant groups on the ground saying okay, we have a military convoy going in to resupply our observation post. Let’s be clear: Do not touch our convoy. If you touch our convoy we will have to respond. So it’s a complicated series of logistics just keeping those observation points in place, let alone talking about, you know, controlling and securing a 200 kilometer … 200 kilometer–wide road. I mean it’s nearly impossible. So they would have to have taken all of Idlib to do this, which I think if Russia want it, if … if that was the end goal of Russia, they think I think they would have been happy … doing that as well, because yes HTS would have been a problem.
Under the current circumstances. Let’s see if HTS stays in place. We … we’re edging now more towards a conversation that your colleague Hassan Hassan is more equipped to discuss, but I believe that if HTS feels that it can no longer operate openly as a solid centralized movement, they can simply dissolve. They can go to ground. They can let Turkey administer Idlib or the greater Idlib area, and they can work on continuing to message and change … the new generation of Syrians who are living in all these IDP camps, and they’ll still win. I.e., their movement, their ideology, will remain entrenched within Syria for decades simply by working to … to prey upon a very vulnerable population that is trapped inside Idlib with nowhere to go and no real access to the outside world.
KB: So are you saying that they would sort of kind of like, okay, you know Turkey’s here. We’ll work around it. Is that what you’re saying?
SGS: I think so, and it makes sense whenever they’ve been put under immense pressure as a group, they’ve always found a way to change. So they were Jabhat al-Nusra and they had ties to al Qaeda This was a problem. They say, okay., we’re no longer tied to al Qaeda, or we’re independent.
KB: We’re now Syrian nationalists.
SGS: We’re Syrian nationalists and were an independent franchise and don’t worry, we don’t have any kind of ties to al Qaeda anymore. So they’ve evolved to suit the nature of the conflict, and I think they’ve done that because unlike ISIS, which had this very rigid sense of okay, we’re going to convert everyone to our ideology and we’re and … and if they don’t like it they can die. Well, as we’ve seen, that strategy only takes you so far, but HTS’s ideology which says no, we want to transform the society — to transform the society so that people organically agree with our ideology and support our movement. It’s more insidious, but it’s a much longer-term plan.
KB: What is their ideology anymore? If it’s not caliphate, emirate, AQ, what is it?
SGS: Well, I think that I that those pillars of the ideology still exist, but I think like other Salafi-jihadi movements they figured out that it’s not just enough, you know, it’s not just enough to hold territory and … and have like a movement that’s above ground. What’s more important is that people truly believe in their ideology. And for their luck, if you look at how the Syrian conflict has evolved over these last nine years and Syrians are looking around and they say look, it feels like there is a very big global conspiracy to keep us trapped in this death camp that Syria has become, well some of what the ideology of … that these people are espousing suddenly makes a lot more sense because what … what do Jabhat al–Nusra or HT or turned HTS tell everyone? They say look it’s global conspiracy against Muslims. It’s a global conspiracy against you guys, and Syrians specifically. You notice no one came to help — they’ve left you here to die at the hands of the Assad regime and the Russians and everyone else, and why do you think that is? Why is it that they will do, they will they will do things for other countries, but when it comes to you Arab Sunni, they leave you here to die?
Well we can go through as an educated person with access to information from the outside world and we can explain the series of events that led to this conflict. But when you’re you know, a 15–year–old Syrian who may or may not have had any consistent education, or access to education, over the last nine years, you’ve been displaced five times you’ve had three family members killed in a Russian airstrike, you have no real hope for a positive future and you look around and you say, like, why am I stuck in this situation? Who’s to blame? Why am I stuck? And then some people from HTS show up and say, well we can tell you who’s to blame, and who’s to blame is one, two, three. Well, that becomes very compelling. And I don’t know how one sifts through the psychology required to undo that kind of Insidious brainwashing. But I do know that leaving 3 million people, the majority of whom are young people, at the mercy of this ideology with no outlet, no hope, and no ability to have any sustainability, have any stability, no ability to plan for a future, we have a long, long–term security crisis and a long-term regional crisis that we were all going to have to contend with for decades to come. And that’s on us because we didn’t do what we needed to do to find a real proactive solution to this conflict.
KB: I don’t like to end on sort of like a, you know, pessimistic note and notes, but time is running out and Sasha, you know, I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation with you and I’m sure that our listeners will also enjoy it and benefit from it. You have, you know, an incredible amount of knowledge granular knowledge of Syria, specifically you know the current conflict in Idlib ,and you have an ability to sort of raise altitude and say what does this mean for those who are not following the details, you know, on a day-to-day basis. So I really thank you for this, and I am sure this is just the beginning of several conversations that we’re going to be having with you. Folks, that was Sasha Ghosh–Siminoff, the executive director for People Demand Change. It’s an aid and development firm based in D.C., and they have done a tremendous amount of work in Syria, and they continue to do it. This is Kamran Bokhari signing off from the Center for Global Policy. You’ve been listening to the latest episode of The Lodestar. Thank you.
Although transcription is largely accurate, there could be some inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.