By Zvi Mazel
The US and Russia, two world super-powers, and Turkey and Iran, the two regional Islamic powers, are locked into a deadly confrontation with no political issue in sight.
There are so many warring sides in the Syrian crisis that it is hard to see how a consensus on a political solution which would put an end to the fighting could emerge. Countries such as Russia, Iran and Turkey, bent on clawing long term strategic gains from the chaos, are now floundering in the quagmire and wondering whether they will be drawn into a new round of bloodshed.
Yet only last November the leaders of Russia, Iran and Syria had declared victory over ISIS, hinting that Syria’s most pressing problem had been solved. Though Bashar Assad, with the help of Russia, Iran – and its proxies Hezbollah and Shi’ite militias – did reinstate his authority on the greater part of the country, this is not the whole picture.
Washington just announced that it would help Kurds set up 30 000 men strong “Syrian border security forces” to prevent a resurgence of Isis and control the border between Turkey and Iraq. The new army will draw on “Syrian democratic forces -SDF-” a militia mainly composed of Kurdish fighters, which conquered, with US military help, the city of Kobane and later Raqqa, capital of the Islamic State, and then surged west beyond the river Euphrates up to the Iraqi border – altogether 30 000 square kilometers, or a third of Syria’s territory, along the Turkish border and reaching to the Iraqi border. America’s move appears to support a Kurdish autonomous zone, a new step towards dividing Syria. It was not unexpected. Having heavily invested in SDF, Washington will not easily relinquish the political and military gains achieved and let Assad, backed by Iran, take over that territory.
The only question is why it took so long.
Perhaps because there had been attempts to make a deal with Russia regarding Ukraine and North Korea which led nowhere. Israel probably pushed for a decision which will prevent Iran from establishing a presence in northern Syria. On January 17, Secretary of State Tillerson outlined his country’s policy regarding Syria: “The United States will maintain its military presence in Syria, focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge… the fight against ISIS is not over. … we must persist in Syria to thwart al-Qaeda.. in northwest Syria.” By al-Qaeda he meant Fatah al-Sham which has a strong presence in Idlib. He stressed that not letting Iran extend its malicious influence was no less important. In short, America is adopting a new policy and is getting ready for a long stay in Syria.
There was an immediate outcry from Turkey, Russia, Iran and the Assad regime who protested the creation of a new Kurdish army – though it was made clear later that it merely the reinforcing of the SDF to enable it to assume the task of controlling the borders. It was claimed that the move ran contrary to international law and was an unwarranted interference in Syrian internal affairs. The delegation of Syrian rebels to the Astana talks also opposed the decision.
Erdogan went a step further and declared that his army would crush the new army in the bud. Assad immediately threatened to shoot down Turkish planes entering Syria’s airspace. Turkish forces nevertheless advanced towards the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwest Syria touching the Turkish border and launched artillery fire. There are conflicting reports on the scope of the attack. Ankara thus entered in a frontal confrontation with the United States, its NATO ally.
Erdogan then had talks with Iran and Russia to try some form of common action. It won’t be easy since Moscow enjoys good relations with the Kurds and has troops stationed in Afrin. So do the Americans. Turkey must be careful not to harm them. Russia and Iran intervened in the Syrian crisis at the bequest of Assad, but he has lost all legitimacy a long time ago since his regime survived through brutal force against his own people and the support of foreign forces. Turkish troops moved into Syria two years ago to fight the de facto Kurdish autonomy being created, and that move was contrary to international law. Washington is acting on the strength of the decision of the coalition of 60 countries fighting terror organizations in Syria.
So far, the two tracks established to reach a political solution have failed. There is the Geneva process, set up by the UN based on resolution 2254 of the Security Council of December 2014, voted unanimously upon Russian proposition. It included a roadmap and a schedule for a peaceful solution: formation of a transition government comprising delegates of the regime and of the opposition and holding within two years presidential elections under international supervision.
There have been seven meetings so far, but with no result, the opposition demanding the immediate ousting of Assad and the latter refusing direct talks with the opposition. Russia steadfastly insists on Assad remaining in power until the elections. Moscow has therefore initiated a second track to bypass Geneva.
Backed by Turkey and Iran It convened seven meeting in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana to achieve a preliminary agreement between the regime and the opposition regarding a political solution – while asserting the Russian, Iranian and Turkish hegemony on drafting the future map of Syria. Four de-escalation zones were determined, providing for a cessation of hostilities against the rebels, though no definition of who were the rebels was given.
There would be no-fly zones, civilians would be safe, and refugees could return. But the boundaries of the zones were never delineated, and Assad’s armies did not stop fighting with Russian help moderate Sunni opposition groups, pretexting they were rebels. In the latest Astana meeting in December, Russia nevertheless proclaimed that the process had ran its course and called for a special convention in Sochi on January 29-30 of 1600 delegates from all political forces of Syria. Sunni organizations said they would probably not come since Russia insists on Assad remaining in power and continued its air raids in spite of the de-escalation agreements, wounding and killing civilians indiscriminately.
Should Sochi fail, Putin will not be able to withdraw most of his troops from Syria as he said he would do. Fighting will go on and Russian troops will be targeted by rebel forces as it happened recently when drones and attacked two Russian bases. Russia will be drawn deeper into the Syrian quagmire while having to cope with Turkey and Iran and their contrasting interests.
A Turkish operation across the border against the Kurds would ignite the region anew.
What would Russia do? Iran’s intent to entrench itself deeper in Syria and set up advanced missile factories directly threatens Israel and could trigger a war with Hezbollah, Shi’ite militias and even Lebanon taking part. Putin is well aware of the risks, but does he have answers?Had he considered the risks before wading into Syria?
Meanwhile fighting goes on and no cease fire is on sight. Assad with is Russian and Iranian allies is making an all-out effort to reclaim more and more rebel-held territories, at times dropping chlorine barrels on civilians while the West looks on.
The US and Russia, two world super-powers, and Turkey and Iran, the two regional Islamic powers, are locked into a deadly confrontation with no political issue in sight. Iran is stealthily progressing towards its goal of establishing a Shi’ite crescent in the Middle East. And the world is inching closer to another global conflagration.
The writer, a Fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.