The civil war in Syria, complicated by interventions of major regional and global players, became a turning point in the geopolitical narrative of the whole Middle East.
After the catastrophic failure of two projects, the Big Middle East and the Arab Spring, a new stage of the regional grand game unrolls. The originally assigned roles of all the involved parties are now being upturned, the preconceived goals inverted, and the actual stakes (and costs) reconsidered.
The game changer was the Russian air force intervention, launched on 30 September 2015, on the request of President Bashar al-Assad, with the declared aim to fight terrorists. In the Syrian patchwork of fighters’ groups (more than 7,000 as a whole), with the tradition of changing sides and alliances, it was not easy to find targets acceptable to each and every one. However, Moscow’s military intervention allowed Syrian government troops to avoid a total defeat (reports in the US media were forecasting the fall of Damascus to IS regularly from May to October 2015) and to start a Reconquista of the territory.
The new realities on the ground translate into two factors to be taken into account.
First of all, the Western alliance accuses Moscow of targeting mostly the moderate opposition in Syria to assist the advancement of al-Assad’s troops. However, the US-led coalition fighting IS does not provide the Russians with information on the location of the Syrian moderate opposition so as to prevent attacks on it. Some experts in regional affairs claim the “moderates” cannot back up their status with a significant military force to be reckoned with. Moreover, some opine that the bulwark of the opposition fighters bent on toppling Bashar al-Assad are in fact the more or less radical Islamists, sponsored either by Turkey or/and the Sunnite Arab monarchies. There is a fair chance that the ceasefire agreement, worked out by the US and Russia and introduced on 27 February, would enable to determine the location of the moderate Syrian opposition, since for the first time Washington and Moscow started to exchange data and draw lines and circles on the maps.
The second factor is that Russian intervention has strengthened the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his Shiite allies, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah whose fighters joined the battle in Syria to prevent the collapse of the regime. However, Iranians and their proxies might not be interested in a peaceful end of the crisis. They might prefer to have al-Assad on the defensive, which is guaranteed by perpetual hostilities. In this respect, the partition of the country could be an acceptable option for Teheran, because it would assure a Shiite territorial continuity up to Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea, while keeping the remains of Syria in a weak and dependent position.
Another line of thinking suggests that Tehran would be happy to keep their Sunnite foes, mostly Saudi Arabia, in the present uncomfortable position, under a strict scrutiny and pressure from the US, and in the status of a military looser in Syria where Riyadh supports the jihadists.
Another winner in the present regional balance of power is the Kurds. On one hand, they are the only US-backed fighting force on the ground. On the other hand, they are, to a certain extent, coordinating their military operations with Damascus, meaning al-Assad whom the US loathes and hates. The Syrian government is supporting the idea of a larger Kurdish autonomy within a unified country, and this what makes the two sides allies of convenience.
The Kurdish militias (People's Protection Units, or YPG) are successfully capitalizing on the momentum: they extend control over the border with Turkey, cutting the flow of weapons, ammunition, food, and new fighters to join the jihadists in Syria, and also preventing the smuggling of hydrocarbons from the IS-seized oil wells back to Turkey.
It should be noted that the Kurds as a sizable ethnic group are not politically united. Iraqi Kurds maintain good relations with Turkey, but are not on fraternal terms with their Syrian kin. Syrian Kurds are closer to Kurds in and from Turkey (proved by connections with the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK), and the Turkish Government classifies them as terrorists. This is the motive for Turkish leadership to order artillery attacks on YPG’s trenches despite the fact that the Syrian Kurds are effectively cleaning up the territories occupied by the radical Islamists.
Anyway, the Kurds are also winners in the ongoing conflict. However, they are apprehensive that once IS and other jihadists are defeated, their contribution would be forgotten and they once again would be left marginalized.
Who are the losers in yet another “mother of all battles”? The losers are, obviously, the Sunnite regional powers, the Gulf monarchies with Saudi Arabia and Qatar at the top of the list, and also, to a greater degree, Turkey.
In 2011, bets were placed on a rapid fall of al- Assad and his regime; the forecasters believed he would not last longer than 6 months. So far, the war in Syria is entering its fifth year while the al Assad and his government in Damascus is still intact.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia had divergent goals in mind when decided to render support to the anti- Assad revolt. Ankara was pursuing a renewed New Ottoman agenda, dreaming to rebuild it’s dating back to imperial times large zone of influence in the region, based on the Sunnite version of Islam. The ejection of the Damascus regime, with whom Turkey has built earlier a
very close relationship during the Zero Problems with Neighbours policy launched by the then Prime Minister Erdoğan, was viewed as the key to the final success. There were reports that the Turks were already considering taking over the second biggest Syrian city, Aleppo, and incorporating it into Turkey proper, as their war trophy.
Today, Turkey has been pushed into a corner. President Erdoğan raised the stakes by shooting down a Russian bomber. At the same time, Ankara triggered off a mass exodus of Middle Eastern refugees to Europe. These moves were aimed to blackmail Europeans and to provoke a larger NATO-Russia standoff, but it failed. The US provided a minimal vocal support for its NATO ally, and later Washington raised its objection to a ground operation in Syria by Turkish armed forces.
Now Turkey is in a fix. The original war objectives in Syria are beyond reach. Relations with Russia are ruined with substantial economic and political losses for Ankara. Western powers, and the US in the first place, do not support any direct Turkish military involvement in Syria. There is a standoff with the US on the Kurdish issue. The Americans are supportive of the Syrian Kurds who are fighting IS, while the Turks have recently restarted the war against radical Kurds, a term often loosely applied to innocent people, inside the country, and are attacking the US allies, the Kurds in Syria.
It’s not clear what course the internal political evolution in Turkey would take, but something is already cooking under the cover. It’s enough to mention that the Turkish military were originally opposed to a ground operation in Syria. The economy is contracting. The aspirations of Turkey to become a major regional energy hub are fading. The coming tourist’s season might be a disaster spelling bankruptcy for many in this high revenue-earning sector etc. Even the Saudis are not in a hurry to assist Ankara in launching a military operation in Syria, limiting its stance to declarations and diplomatic gestures.
What can the West do in such a quagmirish situation? Not much. It can no longer be assumed that al-Assad’s regime will fall soon. There are no serious allies on the ground, except for the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, but the latter are on good terms with Damascus and on bad terms with the NATO member state, Turkey.
Moreover, two important events contributed to a change of the mind in Europe: The refugee crisis and the IS terror attacks on Paris in November 2015. Basically, Europeans are paralyzed and cannot count as an important actor in the Syrian conflict.
Meanwhile, the US is hesitant. The Americans do not have ready-made answers to crucial questions. Do they want to confront Russia in Syria? If yes, what might be the end goal? Does the US need a full-scale war in the region with major Sunnite powers picking up a fight with their Shiite foes? What could be the outcome of such a Third World War in its light regional
version? What is more dangerous to the US strategic interests in the region: a brutal secular regime in Damascus or an expansion of unstoppable Islamic jihadism beyond the borders, which would have a strong impact on the Muslim population in Western countries? Would it not lead to a permanent red-hot terrorist alert and a pervasive sense of fear of Western citizens? What would be left then of the US leverage in the region?
Apparently, Washington decision-makers decided that the US did not want direct military involvement in Syria with an unsure
unpredictable outcome, since there is no capability to change the present course of the war. In that context, the best option seems to be to look for a truce and a political settlement through negotiations. On this terrain the US can act as a strong player and obtain important concessions. The practicability of such an approach would be appreciated in mid-term depending on the results of the agreed ceasefire in Syria.
George is Editor of the "Energy International Risk Assessment" (EIRA) independent monthly newsletter, a specialised on-line publication, originally launched in May 2103 as a digital edition to a wide audience of readers. Together with the eiranews.com website, they focus on risk assessment and the geopolitics of energy in South East Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and adjacent regions. A retired diplomat, he has worked for 35 years as a Press Counsellor at the Greek Embassies in Washington DC, London, Moscow, Prague, and the UN Greek Mission in New York City.