November 2016
War in Syraq spearheading Middle East reshuffle

The complicated if not messy military state of play in Syria and North Iraq where conflicting forces are fighting each other has resulted in a very strange political configuration. Unbelievable and unexpected previously alliances have emerged and unsuspected rivalries flourished on the ground making the finale of this drama totally unpredictable. However, the final outcome would determine the shape of the whole region for decades to come.

First of all, is there a possibility of a comprehensive military solution to the crisis or only a political settlement is the realistic option? All yearlong major players were affirming that no military solution is possible, especially in Syria, and the US and Russia were negotiating diplomatic and political arrangements. None was finally worked out and applied with warring sides accusing each other of breaking commitments and scrapping the negotiated measures. Meanwhile, all the actors on the ground were whipping up hostilities in search of a military victory. 

Second, who are the actual players in this part of the Middle East? The US and Russia are the main extra regional powers with a huge influence on events, with the Chinese starting to get a military foothold in Syria in order to physically eliminate Islamist fighters that originated and arrived here from Western China. The European countries have a modest military presence but do not play an independent role.

Regional powers are also very much engaged in the conflict: Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and, to a lesser extent, Egypt. All of them have their own agenda. There are also different non-state military units of different national origin, including Syrian, Turkish and Iraqi Kurds, and of different religious profiles. There are Shiite (Lebanese, Iraqi, and Afghani) and Sunnite forces, coming from Europe, Russia, Central Asian republics, and China.

The United States is officially supporting the democratic opposition in Syria, which is fighting a civil war against the local regime and its Shiite allies, and wants removal of Bashar al-Assad from power. They US also declared commitment to fight jihadists from different organization, especially belonging or linked to the Islamic State (IS). In Iraq, the US renders assistance to the Iraqi army (mostly Shiite) and, mostly involuntarily, to Baghdad’s Shiite allies, and that is Iran, in their fight against IS. Americans are considered to be the main allies of the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, but, through NATO, they US is allied to Turkey, which considers Syrian Kurds as terrorists, but maintains good relationship with the Iraqi Kurds who are also fighting against IS. The US Air Force and their European peers support anti-IS fighters in Iraq but they are performing a controversial mission in Syria where, apparently, the Western coalition has some land troops and even military facilities on the ground. In Syria, the Islamists remain the dominant military force within the anti-Assad opposition with smaller groups of fighters often switching their alliances and affiliations. This kind of fluid environment makes it almost impossible to separate jihadists from moderate militants.

Russia is officially fighting the IS but is mostly providing support to President al-Assad regime whose main military opponents are various jihadists’ groups. In Aleppo, the battle is mostly between the Syrian Army (mostly Sunnite) and Shiite military allies, on the one side, and the local branch of al-Qaeda, which is changing names from time to time, on the other side.

The Russian intervention in Syria turned out to be the military game changer: in 2015, it saved the regime and created conditions for the push back by al-Assad forces, which now are in control of the biggest chunk of territory of the so called ‘utile’ Syria: the maritime stretch, the fertile and densely populated areas.

Iran has some ground forces on the ground backing al-Assad and has the intention to preserve the ‘Shiite territorial continuity’ it was creating step by step after the US intervention in Iraq in 2003: it stretches from Iran through the Shiite part of Iraq, then to Syria and Lebanon where the influential Shiite movement, Hezbollah, has a stronghold. So far, Iran is achieving this strategic goal, but it is suspicious over the growing Russia’s influence in the region despite being military and politically dependent on Moscow’s support. In the predominantly Shiite Iraq, the Iranians have the upper hand and are basically the main ally of the government in Baghdad, which at least officially remains an US ally…

The regional Sunnite players, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, got involved in the Syrian ‘grand game’ as partners, with Saudis and Qataris providing financial and ideological support, and Turks looking after the logistics. Riyadh is believed to be ‘leading from behind’ the local al-Qaeda movement, while Qatar is the sponsor of the Islamic State. To a certain extent, these movements were in competition with each other and sometimes were even entangled in conflict. Turkey was pursuing a neo-Ottoman agenda with expansionistic ambitions and an anti-Kurdish agenda, which compelled Ankara to prop up affiliated paramilitary formations in Syria and support other anti-Assad rebels. In Iraq, Turkey also tried to get a foothold but achieved a relatively modest success. The paradox is that in Iraq the Turks have good relations with local Kurds while fighting their Syrian ethnic kin.

Recently, Turkey seems to have changed long-term strategy both in Iraq and Syria, especially after the Russian intervention. Ankara tried to push Russians out and for this purpose downed a Russian military jet. But after a failed military coup in Turkey, the government in Ankara, in a drastically aggravated environment, decided to reshape its foreign policy priorities and normalize relations with Russia and Israel. In Syria, the Turks and the Russians still have different ultimate goals but are nevertheless attempting to find common ground. It was illustrated during the recent offensive by Turkish troops in Northern Syria aimed at curbing Syrian Kurd’s advancement. However, Turkey remains the main route for logistical and military support for the anti-Assad militants. Turkey also tries to play a certain role in the battles raging in Northern Iraq, in Mosul, but with limited success.

Qatar and especially Saudi Arabia find themselves in a sticky wicket. Both face the decline in oil revenues, and, additionally, the Saudis are not winning their own war in Yemen. On the Syrian front, they also failed to overthrow the laic al-Assad regime and to install a Sunnite power in Damascus while watching Iraq become governed by its Shiite majority. On the ground, the jihadists militias, which they support, are losing momentum and are close to being defeated in Aleppo and Mosul.

To put it in a nutshell, in Syraq it is a fight in the ‘melee’ style with everyone against everyone. Alliances are broken and forged anew. Priorities reconsidered and once again reconsidered.

The change of the US Administration might give way to a new and a more realistic approach to global agenda, and in particular to the solution of conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Eventually, it would produce a radical reshuffle of regional alliances and a redrawing of borders. 



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