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What Syrian President Bashar Assad Stands To Gain From Conflict In Northeastern Region


Northern Syria is once again a war zone. Just last week, President Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops, opening the way for a Turkish attack on Kurds in northern Syria. Now Turkey, Russia and Syria are all trying to gain leverage in a region where the U.S. used to ensure a fragile peace. We're going to focus now on what Syria's president Bashar al-Assad has to gain from this situation. Faysal Itani is an expert on Syria at the Atlantic Council, and he's here in the studio.


FAYSAL ITANI: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What is Bashar al-Assad's goal in this part of the country? What is his hope for this region?

ITANI: Bashar al-Assad has been single-mindedly focused on two tiers of goals, if you like. The first one was to survive the forces arrayed against him in the conflict, which he did thanks to Russian and Iranian intervention - a few other things, too. And the other thing is to reclaim control over Syria. As he sees it, he's still the sovereign leader of the country.

SHAPIRO: And this is an area that he did not have control over until last week.

ITANI: Absolutely. This is - we're talking about a third of the country. It's pretty resource-rich as well, so it's important for many reasons.

SHAPIRO: Do you think Assad's government is strong enough to stabilize this region and take back control of these territories?

ITANI: I think it's strong enough to take back control because there is no fight that they have to fight to get it. It's basically being handed to them because the Kurdish forces would rather them than the Turks.


ITANI: Governing and stabilization is a completely different matter. No, I don't think the Syrian regime is capable of governing and controlling all this territory. I don't think it has the capacity.

SHAPIRO: The Kurds are caught in the middle of this, and over the weekend, they made a significant decision to sign a deal with Bashar al-Assad's government. What did the Kurds give up in that deal?

ITANI: For them, it seemed realistic at some point in partnership with the United States that they would finally have autonomy - not independence as such, but basically be running their own affairs...


ITANI: ...Secure from the regime and everybody else. Now they go back into the fold of the regime. I'm assuming their hope is that they'll be able to strike some sort of middle ground bargain where they can run some of their local affairs. Personally, I don't think the regime would ever accept that as an end state, even if it tactically sort of agrees to some stuff temporarily while it reasserts itself. But with the regime, there's no middle ground.

SHAPIRO: So what they're giving up is kind of their dream of independence, autonomy and freedom, in a way.

ITANI: That's absolutely true, yeah.

SHAPIRO: This region has a lot of Syrians who fled to be close to the Turkish border to escape the influence of Bashar al-Assad. What does it mean that his military is now coming into this region?

ITANI: So some of these people, like you said, are being displaced for the second or actually third time. Their relationship with the regime - what usually tends to happen when the regime takes over areas is it's tended to send people away to the northwest of the country, where kind of refugees have been piling up and the regime has decided they're going to deal with them later. That may happen to some of these refugees, but people who are accused of being in the opposition, cooperating with the Americans, being in ISIS or with ISIS - they're going to be persecuted and either put in prison or forced to join the Syrian military.

So it's bad news for everybody in that way. Everybody else - the non-male population or non-military-age population are just going to be trying to survive, frankly. And in a way, ironically, once you get conquered by the regime, the United Nations has access to this territory because they work through the government, and it's, at least in principle, possible that they might get aid. But the regime is not going to prioritize those areas.

SHAPIRO: Russia brokered this deal between the Kurds and the Syrian government, and throughout this long civil war in Syria, we have seen Russia help Bashar al-Assad keep his hold on power. Does Assad have autonomy independent of Russia, or is Russia really propping him up here?

ITANI: Well, Russia is propping him up, but he gets to the degree to decide what the game being played is. So if Russia wants him to stay out of a territory but he wants to take it and he starts to launch military operations to take it like happened in the northwest, then they have to support him because otherwise, he'll lose. So he's kind of got some kind of leverage, even though he can't survive without the Russians. It's a strange situation, and no one has, I think, total dictatorial control over the course of events.

SHAPIRO: Now that the Kurds have signed a deal with Bashar al-Assad and made an alliance with the Syrian government, do you expect that the Turks will respect that and back off, or are we about to see a real confrontation between Turkey and Syria?

ITANI: I think this is not ideal for Turkey as an outcome. What they really wanted was to create a zone of influence and a buffer zone in northern Syria, partly to keep the Kurds away, but also so they could send all the Syrian refugees they're hosting back. That isn't going to happen, obviously. The kind of territory they're going to take is going to be quite limited. Will they go to war with the regime for it? No, for the simple reason that Turkey also prefers the regime to Kurdish control.


ITANI: So...

SHAPIRO: So Turkey may not want to see Bashar al-Assad have control, but they would rather that than the Kurds have a degree of independence.

ITANI: Yeah. That's the irony. Both sides prefer the regime to one another.

SHAPIRO: Faysal Itani is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Thanks for coming in today.

ITANI: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.