The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, which will have been in effect for two years on June 17th, remains a source of controversy and debate over Syria’s future.

The fact that Syria’s despotic ruler, Bashar al-Assad, has managed to hang onto power, despite the sanctions and the increasingly dismal humanitarian situation has led experts to advocate for sanctions relief in Syria. At the same time, more grassroots movements are highlighting the failure of the sanctions to dismantle Assad’s wealth and power.

The Biden Administration has so far largely avoided any major policy changes regarding the United States’ role in the Syrian crisis. However, the news that the White House had ordered sanctions exemptions for certain parts of Syria outside of the Assad regime’s control was met with both positive reactions and some level of concern.

These new anxieties primarily reflect the possibility that, rather than heading towards a political solution that can peacefully end the conflict, Syria is now on the path towards a long-term division. For years, foreign policy experts have floated the idea that the war-torn country cannot be patched back together and is on track for a permanent division along political party[?] lines.

Syria is presently under the control of four separate military forces: the Assad regime and its allies; Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS); the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA); and the areas in the northeast under the rule of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The latter is composed primarily of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia.

Though largely out of the media spotlight, Syria’s 11-year war remains unresolved. Economic and military risks both present challenges for the country’s security and long-term sovereignty. How the four military factions are able to maneuver and the choices they make in order to survive in the next round of violence will determine Syria’s political future as either a divided county or a unified nation under a single governing framework.

Limited Economic Prospects for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES)

On May 13, General Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the SDF, tweeted, “We appreciate the US General License for #AANES areas to rebuild infrastructure and support our economy, a step that will counter ISIS and give hope to all Syrians. We welcome all companies to invest here.”

Despite this optimistic pronouncement, it is unlikely that the sanctions exemptions will have a strong impact on the AANES while there is still a deteriorated security situation across the country. Furthermore, the long-term political outlook for Syria as a whole remains unclear.

Karam Shaar, a Syrian professor in economics and director of research at the Operations and Policy Center (OPC), told Inside Arabia, “The overall impact of the sanctions exemptions is very limited. While the sanctions did indeed impede investments, they weren’t the only impediment. Say you’re a private investor who is interested in establishing a project in northeast Syria, would these exemptions now make it enough for you to start investing? I definitely don’t think so.”

Shaar pointed out that there were no laws that governed investments in the AANES and the possibility that a new constitution or political settlement to eventually end the conflict could reunite the SDF-held areas with the regime would keep any significant investments at bay.

“Given the lack of clarity about the future of the country, politically and economically, why would an investor spend money in that region? The overall impact of the exemptions is positive but very, very limited,” Shaar said.

In addition, the prospects for foreign investment in the oil fields is off the table in the AANES. Delta Crescent Energy, asmall U.S. energy firm with ties to Republican politicians, had been granted a license to extract oil from the SDF-controlled area during the final years of the Trump Administration. The Biden Administration decided against extending the sanctions waiver for this company.

Shaar also noted that the United States did not want to be viewed internationally as the country that is pillaging the resources of another country. “This creates reputational damage for no good reason to the United States,” Shaar said, noting that the overall impact of oil revenues from Syria would be very limited for the United States.

“However, these revenues are very significant for the SDF, for the AANES. According to their budget, about two-thirds of their revenues comes from that oil and the United States doesn’t want to legitimize that extraction due to reputational damage,” Shaar said.

A Maze of Military Trip Wires Ready to be Triggered

The threat of a new Turkish military intervention into northern Syria this summer is likely to push the regime and SDF closer together, a goal that Assad’s ally, Russia, has been pushing for over the last few years.

Although the SDF and the Assad regime have largely refrained from engaging in large-scale fighting with each other during the war, recent developments show there are still major tensions. In mid-April, the SDF put the the regime-held neighborhoods of Qamishli under siege and took over the local bakeries that were serving the civilians in the districts of the city that the regime controlled.

This was allegedly in response to the regime cutting off food supplies to the Kurdish-dominated Sheikh Maqsood neighborhood in the regime-held city of Aleppo. The city of Qamishli, although mostly Kurdish, still had a small number of pro-Assad security forces present in certain neighborhoods as well as the city’s airport throughout the civil war.

While the SDF eventually backed down in Qamishli, only limited amounts of high-priced food and supplies have been permitted by the regime to enter the Sheikh Maqsood and Ashrafiya neighborhoods in Aleppo.

However, the SDF fears the mounting possibility of a renewed Turkish military offensive into the territory it holds in northern Syria. Since the beginning of June, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has indicated that he is preparing to launch a new military operation to wrest the towns of Tal Rifat and Manbij away from the SDF’s control.

The United States is strongly opposed to Erdogan’s desired operation. The SNA militias would play a central role in a future Turkish-led military offensives against the SDF. In the last stage of combat between the SDF and SNA in 2019, the Turkish-backed forces were accused of committing war crimes.

The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas Greenfield, while on a visit to Turkey’s province of Hatay, warned against the move, saying, “We have engaged with the Turkish government. We have indicated our opposition to any decision to take military action on the Syrian side of the border. We think that nothing should be done to break the ceasefire lines that have already been established.”

Both Russia and the United States have supposedly been sending military reinforcements to the SDF areas. In March, Moscow sent additional units to the AANES as well as strengthening its position at the Russian base at the Qamishli airport, the Tabqa Airbase, and another base near the Kurdish-held city of Kobani. In early June, the U.S.-led International Coalition allegedly sent 30 vehicles to Hasakah Province.

Like the United States, Moscow has also voiced its disapproval of Turkey’s military plans. Such a move would see Turkey bring in thousands of additional Syrian refugees that are staunchly opposed to Assad to settle in these newly conquered areas. This would subsequently make it much more difficult for Assad to reclaim total control over all of Syria for many years.

This comes as Russia has been trying to increase diplomatic pressure on Turkey to end its support for the SNA and other anti-Assad armed groups. During a UN Security Council meeting in late May, Russian diplomat Dmitry Polyansky said that Russia was “not okay” with the current situation and that Moscow would not “turn a blind eye to the fact that terrorists from HTS” could “usurp the authority and manipulate humanitarian assistance.”

The Enemy of my Friend is my Friend?

The currently military situation demonstrates the complex web of alliances and difficulty that the Syrian crisis presents. The United States and Turkey were supposedly set to rekindle a friendship after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February. However, although both sides may be loathed to admit it, there is now a potential for Russia and the United States to cooperate on some level to jointly ward off a Turkish assault.

Russia has pushed for the Syrian regime’s soldiers to take control of the northern borders in the areas under the SDF’s control, a solution that was previously agreed to back in 2019 by Russia and Turkey. In early June, Gen. Mazloum suggested that the Syrian army could work with the SDF, including positioning air defense systems to help ward off a Turkish invasion.

With respect to the Assad regime’s economic concerns, the United States still maintains its position of keeping the sanctions in place.

Other Arab countries are still waiting for Washington to give the green light for an ambitious pipeline project that would deliver natural gas through Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Jordan and Egypt are looking to secure assurances that they would be granted sanctions waivers for their involvement in the project, but none has been forthcoming.

It would be very difficult to neatly divide Syria into spheres of control when each of the four factions retains significant influence, power, and foreign support. With Assad on track for normalization with the Arab World and the future of the United States, Russia, and Turkey in Syria unclear, it will ultimately be up to the Syrians themselves to work out how their external borders will be managed, and that will depend on which Syrians are left standing when it comes time for those discussions.