Even before the discovery of the vast oil reserves in the region, the Middle-East had been the stomping ground of the global powers of the time. The past century has seen the region embroiled in convoluted conflicts that have simmered and altered shape, but have never really been brought to a complete or desirable conclusion. However, in the past few decades the situation has become incomprehensible with fundamentalist Islamic extremism increasingly engulfing every aspect of life for the people of the region, which has now become the centrepiece in global politico-economic and security considerations.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, international attention has been focused on the manoeuvrings of global powers in the region. Adding to this political confusion is the inherent religious and sectarian divide that has plagued the region for centuries. The Middle-East is the powder keg that could blow the world apart.
The region has given rise to the most violent jihadist movement that the world has yet seen in the form of the Islamic State (IS). The reasons for its rise and how it can be defeated are vexed issues that defy answers and the debate on both counts is on-going. It will be of interest to analyse the objectives of the different nations involved in the regional war and understand the reasons for the prioritisation of these objectives by the respective countries. The participants in the melee are many and cannot easily be placed even within broad groupings—the US-led coalition consisting of NATO and other Western nations; the regional nations, some functioning within the US coalition and some outside; Russia, Iran and the Hezbollah; the legal government of Syria; the rebel groups fighting to oust the Syrian regime; IS, Jabhat al-Nusra and a horde of other Islamic extremist groups; and the Kurds. The interaction between these nations, groups and jihadists are complex and not always openly visible. There are wheels within wheels rotating in the Middle-East and the Pandora’s Box is open.
The United States and its Western Allies
The US has been involved in some manner or the other in the Middle-East from the end of World War II and through the long trek of decolonisation in the region that followed. Even though the US intervened militarily in 1991 to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the one single event that changed the complexion of the Middle-East, ushering in unmitigated chaos. Almost all the developments of the past 15-odd years can be traced back to that ill-advised and ill-conceived military action.
When the Civil War started in Syria as a movement to oust the Basher al-Assad regime, the US was quick to support the rebels. It wanted to effect a regime change in Syria but at the same time also avoid another Iraq and Libya, nations that are still reeling under the consequences of US-instituted regime changes. Four and one half years into the Syrian Civil War, the conflict is without doubt or exaggeration, a bigger mess than anything witnessed before—no one clearly knows who is fighting whom and why; there is no differentiation between the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys, since perceptions vary with the view of the beholder; half the population of the country is either dead or displaced; the nation has no civilian infrastructure to speak off; the Assad regime is holed up in Damascus and continuing to kill its own people; and the US is hated as never before, both within Syria and in the broader region. If this is not a mess, what is?
For the US and its allies, the lack of direct approval by the United Nations and the questionable legality within International Law for their intervention are becoming increasingly awkward issues to explain away. At the same time ‘victory’ in the conflict, however it is defined, is receding into the horizon. In this situation, where the definition of victory is amorphous, mission creep is setting in and the US is deploying more Special Forces to partner with Iraqi forces, the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish fighters. Once again, the ultimate military objective of this deployment remains obscure.
The US is also embroiled in the region’s power play between the Sunni Muslim Arab monarchies and the Shiite, non-Arab Iran. At the fundamental level Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf monarchies have two points of commonality—they are vociferously opposed to Assad continuing as the legitimate ruler of Syria; and they will not willingly cede even an iota of influence to Iran. These nations continue to be part of the US-led coalition, at least on paper, although they have been ‘missing in action’ for the past few months. Apart from the military actions, the US is negotiating a tortuous path in Middle-Eastern politics. It now appreciates that only a negotiated settlement in Syria can bring some semblance of stability to the region. Towards this end it has taken two steps. First it has softened its position regarding the removal of Assad, and second it has tacitly accepted that without the participation of Iran, there can be no viable negotiation. Both these issues are sticking points for the Arab nations—they do not want Iran to participate in any peace deal and they want Assad to step down as a precondition to commence negotiations. The fact remains that there is no possibility of arriving at a negotiated peace without the active involvement of Iran, however much Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Muslim Arab allies hate it.
In the recent past both the British and German parliaments have voted in support of initiating military action against the IS in Syria and Iraq. This may not significantly increase the coalition capabilities in terms of the quantum of military weight that can be brought to bear, but the political and moral factors indicate a strong current against the IS in Western democracies as well as the willingness to fight a common threat. Further, even though there is no UN sanction for the military action, by increasing international participation it bolsters the legitimacy of the intervention. For the Western coalition destruction on IS is the highest priority objective. France’s President Francois Hollande has been doing the diplomatic rounds in an effort to create a grand coalition that would include Russia to confront and defeat global terrorism. However, the effort has not borne any fruit so far, the political and ideological gap between Russia and the West and the differences in their strategic objectives are far too broad to be filled easily.
Pragmatism regarding issues of religion and the concept of religious tolerance has never been Saudi Arabia’s strong suite. Their rigid sectarian stance on matters of religion and blind support for, and propagation of, the puritanically extreme version of Salafist Wahabi Islam has gradually changed the Western nations’ attitude to Saudi Arabia. The genesis of IS can be traced to years of Saudi support for the proliferation of this particularly virulent form of Islam. The Western nations, so far complacent about Saudi Arabian activities in the religious sphere, have started to wake up to the reality of the menace being created. Now there a visible, although subtle, shifts in policy; clear statements by senior politicians for Saudi Arabia to change course; and directly hostile articles in mainstream media accusing Saudi Arabia of fomenting religious extremism and jihadist attacks. This loss of political influence is accompanied by a weakening of Saudi economic influence in the wake of the drop in oil prices.
Even so, Saudi Arabia is still being handled with kid-gloves by the Western governments, for two reasons. One, Saudi Arabia is a crucial market for Western arms sales—just in the last 18 months the US approved the sale of $24 billion worth of weaponry to the kingdom. Two, and a critical reason for the reluctant support to the Saudi monarchy, is that it is a fact of life in the Middle-East that when one bad regime falls or is removed, it is invariably replaced by a worse regime. In the case of Saudi Arabia the main opponents to the monarchy are not liberal democrats, but hard-line Islamists. The fall of the House of Saud will be accompanied by the chaos of a failed state that the world can ill-afford at this juncture.
While this consideration does hold back definitive action against Saudi Arabia, results in reigning back the desert kingdom will only be achieved if the gloves are removed. This may be a hard act to carryout, since the West needs to work collaboratively with Saudi Arabia to curtail their on-going support to global jihadists. A first step would be to insist that religious tolerance be practised by Saudi Arabia in a similar manner to their asking for such tolerance in other countries.
The double standards that the Saudis have practised for decades, where they go around building mosques and propagating a particularly reprehensive form of Islam around the world while denying any other religion even a place of worship within the kingdom, has to stop. The liberal democratic world must now insist that the religious freedom that the Islamic faith expects in all parts of the world must also be reciprocated in Saudi Arabia. The other option will be to curtail and stop Islamic activities in other parts of the world. The fundamental Wahhabi strain of Islam cannot be allowed to spread any more than it already has in the world, thanks to Saudi Arabia. This will be a first step in bringing Saudi Arabia in line with ‘normal’ nations.
Turkey has so far played an ambiguous but definitely self-centred role in the developing imbroglio although it is a reluctant and late-entry member of the US-led coalition. Turkey can be considered at par with Saudi Arabia as a terrorist support centre and the Islamic zealotry of the ruling party can no longer be hidden under the platitudes of its leadership. It is also focused single-mindedly on ensuring that the Syrian Kurds do not prevail in obtaining autonomy so that their own long subjugated Kurdish citizens will not aspire to something similar. Turkey is also paranoid regarding the increasing regional influence of Iran and Russia, while its commitment to fighting violent jihadism is questionable. Its ‘impulsive’ actions have complicated matters in the region—the shooting down of the Russian fighter aircraft, and more recently the deployment of a 400-strong Commando battalion into Iraq on 4 December 2015 carry the hallmark of a maverick.
Turkey’s hypocrisy was demonstrated with the shooting down of the Russian fighter aircraft that had violated its sovereign airspace for a mere 17 seconds by its own admission. Compare this to the report that Turkey has been responsible for 2000 air violations into Greek airspace in 2014 alone! In these circumstances, NATO nations must consider a future situation where Turkey will initiate precipitate action, possibly against Russia, which will not be as restrained in its response as it was during the Su-24 incident in late November. The dire consequences of Turkey being a NATO member is becoming amply clear to other nations. The NATO alliance is one of peaceful democracies and at least for the time being, Turkey is neither. It is not at peace with any of its neighbours and it can at best be described as an ‘illiberal democracy’ which does not afford protection to any dissent.
Turkey also wants the immediate removal of the Basher al-Assad regime and the establishment of a ‘safe zone’ in Syrian territory. This is a euphemism to steal Syrian territory and protect its proxy warriors, the Turkmen, in that region. Regime change in Syria is one of the fundamental objectives of the US-led coalition and of Turkey itself. The difference is that the US wants to remove Assad after defeating the IS, whereas Turkey wants it done irrespective of the status of the IS. The dichotomy in priorities is clearly visible. There is also divergence between the so-called allies in their dealings with the Kurds. Turkey is fighting their own Kurdish population represented by the PKK, a group that espouses violence to gain independence. The US supplies and supports the Syrian Kurds—aligned with the Turkish PKK—as the only element on the ground in Syria with any noticeable traction in the conflict. Allies at cross purposes.
Despite their recalcitrant attitude and the differences of opinion regarding Syria, the Turkish leadership was able to strike a politico-economic deal with members of the European Union to stop the flow of immigrants to Europe. This deal displayed on world stage the shallowness of ‘political integrity’ and the fact that the term itself was an oxymoron. Turkey will continue to look after its narrow and sectarian interests and will muddy the waters when events that are not conducive to its perceived interests take place. Perhaps it is time for NATO to take good hard look at the pros and cons of continuing to have Turkey within the alliance, if the ultimate objective is to further world peace.
Russia has accused Turkey, and President Erdogan personally, of profiting from the oil trade with the IS. It is a known fact that bulk of the IS oil is exported through conduits in Turkey. It is now time for NATO and Europe to ensure that Turkey abandons its diplomatic ambiguity and targets the IS funding mechanism, based on oil trade carried out through Turkish territories. This is a critical step that has to be taken at the earliest, if the defeat of IS is actually a strategic objective.
The Russian intervention has without doubt created some effects and elicited reactions from the Western coalition. However, for Russia the campaign continues to be a risky gamble, primarily because the infrastructure necessary to mount a successful air campaign is lacking in Syria and is still to be built up. The Russian agenda in Syria is to regain the status of an influential regional player that was lost to Russia at the breakup of the Soviet Union and to protect the Basher al-Assad regime. Within this two-pronged initiative, the defeat of IS is only a sub-set of the broader strategy. It is more important for Russia at this juncture in the Syrian Civil War to defeat the rebel groups who are directly opposing the Assad regime. President Barak Obama has called for Russia to choose the welfare of the Syrian State rather than the Assad regime. However, from a Russian perspective, it is far too early in the intervention to make this call.
The call by the French President to create a grand coalition is similar to the overtures that President Putin had made in the early stages of the intervention. However, the deteriorating Russia-Turkey relationship, has been a step backward and could become a show stopper in bettering relations with the West. There is also the difficulty in aligning the strategic objectives of the US and Russia—defeat of IS is the first priority for the US, whereas protecting the Assad regime is the priority for Russia. Russia has also proposed creating clear spheres of influence akin to what existed in the post-World War II decades. Some of the European nations have indicated that they are not averse to examining this proposal. What is to be watched is the kind of balance between advantages that cooperation with Russia will bring and the price that the Western nations are willing to pay for it. In this equation the future of Ukraine is being left unsaid. There is a belief in some quarters that the military intervention in Syria was a Russian ploy to divert the spotlight from Ukraine. This is incorrect, Russia is only protecting its national interests by the employment of its military forces in Syria. Any chance of the West and Russia working together to defeat the IS will depend entirely on the West’s ability to delink Ukraine and Syria in their dealings with Russia.
There is a perception in the Western media that Russia is ‘returning’ to the Middle-East. This is wrong. Yes, there was a loss of status as mentioned earlier, but Russia had never ‘left’ the region. Syria was a steadfast Soviet ally during the entire Cold War and Russia is only standing by an old and trusted friend. In stark contrast to the US abandoning Mubarak in Egypt, under less stressful conditions, by standing by the Assad regime in extremely difficult circumstances Russia is demonstrating its commitment to its ‘friends’ for the Middle-Eastern leadership to see. Moral of the story—Russia can be trusted and is loyal to its friends without any hidden caveats. Russia has been engaging with the Middle-Eastern nations and the continuing dialogues strengthens its strategic stance in the region. There are two sub-sets of the intervention that is often overlooked. One, Russia has shown that it not averse to taking bold, decisive, and difficult decisions; and two, it has proven the sceptics, who had written off the Russian military as incompetent, completely wrong.
Russia, amongst all the external intervening powers, seems to understand best that the collapse of the Assad regime will mean the beginning of a far greater and messier conflict and the establishment of another Libya-like situation, not peace and stability to the region. Syria is Russia’s long term strategic investment in the Middle-East, starting from the 1950s. While it protects the Assad regime, Russia has indicated that it is not particularly beholden to Basher al-Assad or worried about the future leadership that will emerge in a negotiated settlement as long as its strategic interests in the region are protected. This is pragmatic real politic at its best.
After one of its fighter jets was shot down by Turkey, Russian reaction was measured. While enforcing economic and political sanctions it has embarked on a single-minded campaign to isolate Turkey from the West. It has asked the UN Security Council to discuss Turkey’s involvement in the military operations in Syria and Iraq and unleashed a barrage of propaganda regarding Turkey’s dubious oil trade. Turkey is clearly in the crosshairs of the Russian rifle.
The future of Syria is a core national interest for Iran—it is the only route for Iran’s materiel support to reach the Hezbollah; and Syria is home to a number of Shiite religious sites that are important for Iran. The religious angle is a factor that is not often considered or articulated. It is obvious that Iran cannot afford to have a hostile Sunni government ruling Syria. Even a change of leadership from Basher al-Assad carries too high a risk for Iranian strategic interests. Focusing on this key objective, Iran has developed a modus operandi that has so far been successful. It has created a powerful Shiite militia that is loyal to Iran and more powerful than the traditional Syrian Army. This force has been successful in keeping the rebel forces at bay from the core areas around Damascus for more than four years. In case required, this force will be able to replace the Syrian government.
Iran wants a future Syria that continues to maintain an anti-Israeli stance and continues to be a conduit for support to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This is the primary reason why Iran cannot, and will not, compromise with the US-led coalition regarding Syria’s political future. Iran shares with Russia a commonality in the envisaged short-term future of Syria, although the approach to achieve this is distinctly different. Russia has made some sort of a deal with Israel, for the short-term and Iran is out of that equation. However, the long term future that Iran and Russia would like for Syria is completely divergent from each other and there are no chances of them ever merging. For Iran, the Syrian Government has to remain a Shiite entity, whereas for Russia the religious inclination is immaterial as long as it continues to wield the same strategic influence in the country.
Fighting the IS – Defining Victory
Victory in war is defined contextually and encompasses all power projection capabilities of a nation. The military is only a small but critical part of the whole. Even military victory is perceived in different ways by the participants. In the fight against the IS, the current state of affairs is such that only the military aspects of the conflict are being addressed although it constitutes only a small part of the larger picture. There is a visible reluctance amongst the liberal democracies to question the Islamic ideology in the conflict with the IS. In some cases, such as this, ideological confrontation is the best way forward to ensure victory. Such a stance by the secular democratic nations of the world could also act as an impetus for the Muslims of the world to reject the questionable religious ideology that is being propagated by the IS as the one and only ‘true’ interpretation of the Islamic faith.
There is enough historical evidence to support the idea that the IS cannot be defeated purely through military means. Obviously the first step to obtain a military victory against the IS is to seize the offensive from it. This can only be achieved by land operations that disrupt the ability of the IS to communicate and conduct operations at will. Air power is dominant in the region now and disruption can be effected by Special Forces functioning behind and around the IS strongholds. Simultaneously, initiatives have to be put in place to making the popular support for IS vanish. What would this involve, especially when both Turkey and Saudi Arabia continue to indirectly support IS activities? The offensive on this front has to be three-pronged: deprive IS of its ability to sell oil and create finances to support itself, gradually starving it of resources; target its ability to provide basic civil services to the people in the territories that it controls, which might involve neutralising purely civilian facilities; mount an ideological campaign against the violent Islamism being advocated by the IS.
The counter offensive against IS religious propaganda is a prerequisite for any of the other initiatives are to succeed. Perceived political correctness that stops mentioning Islam in discussions of terrorism is as bad as blaming all Muslims for terrorist attacks. Secular democratic leaders have to carefully, but strongly, articulate that Islamist extremism is behind acts of terrorism and human rights abuses across the world, a fact that most ‘moderate’ Western Muslims tend to deny. This head in the sand attitude has to confronted and set right through a concerted effort. If this changed strategy is to work, the Sunni Arab nations of the Middle-East will have to look beyond the here and now and accept that Basher al-Assad and Iran are not the ultimate enemies to their well-being, but that the IS is. Only a comprehensive defeat of the IS will pave the first step towards stability in the region.
The Future of the Military Campaign
Currently there are two distinct coalitions operating within Syria and Iraq—the US-led coalition of NATO and some Arab monarchies, and the Russia-Iran combine. The ease of understanding the situation on the ground ends with the above statement. The IS is the fundamental and most powerful adversary that is being fought by the US-led coalition, at least officially. There are a number of other rebel and Islamist groups in the conflict that are supported by some of the coalition members while some others target the same groups. Jaish al-Fath, which consists of Jabhat al-Nusra an al-Qaeda affiliate and Harkat Ahrat al-Sham, is the next powerful grouping supported politically and materially by both Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The difference between IS and this group is only in the level of violence and barbarity that they perpetuate. At least for the moment, Russia seems to have distinguished between IS and Jaish al-Fath and also clearly sees the danger of either of them coming to power in Syria.
The military campaign in the Middle-East lacks a coherent and overarching strategy, is completely uncoordinated, and has some elements within the Western coalition supporting rebel groups with unsupportable objectives. The two opposing coalitions will have to work together if a military victory is to be achieved. Although there are a number of difficulties in creating such an alliance, they are certainly not insurmountable or irreconcilable if there is the political will to do so. The stumbling blocks will be the nations contributing the least to the military effort against the IS at the moment, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
A recent and interesting development has been the Syrian Government’s declaration that no further violation of its airspace will be tolerated. The Russian forces have deployed highly capable S-300 and S-400 air defence systems in the more volatile areas and therefore this declaration has to be taken seriously. When it is clear that the US-led coalition is operating within Syrian airspace illegally, the any further action ensuing from this warning will have to be considered show stoppers. Immediately after the shooting down of the Russian fighter aircraft by a Turkish jet, the US President had supported the action by releasing the statement that Turkey had the right to defend its airspace. If Syria opts to act on its warning, the same logic can be applied to defending its airspace also; the chicken has come home to roost rather fast! Only the Russian military is operating in Syria legally.
The Future of Syria – A Notion of Peace
In the frenzy of fighting the IS and other assorted groups creating chaos in Iraq and Syria, none of the intervening powers have even attempted to articulate a vision of the future for Syria. At least for the moment the only discussion taking place is regarding the future of the Assad regime. The Civil War in Syria, which started as a rebellion against the current Government more than four years back, has now become a conflict of multiple inter-locking layers. There is disagreement within the coalitions, disputes within the anti-Assad rebels, and even between different Islamist jihadists. Enveloping this scenario is the region-wide conflict between Sunnis and Shias.
What kind of a Syria will emerge from this mess, if one emerges at all? There are few certainties that can be listed. First, a return to its original borders as a cohesive country will be impossible. Second, there cannot be a strong successor government to the Assad regime since there are no mechanisms that exist to support such a government. Third, there can be no peace in Syria till Russia and Iran are brought into the circle of negotiations. Working against their intentions is unlikely to succeed even in the long term. Fourth, if and when a negotiated settlement takes place and a post-Assad political process is initiated, the IS with its virulent ideology can never be part of that process. Fifth, the current Turkish leadership will never permit autonomy for the Syrian Kurds for fear of the concept spreading to their own Kurds.
At the end of the Civil War, Syria can only emerge as a confederation with a weak central authority that ties together various autonomous sectors ruled by separate individual institutions. This is perhaps the only way forward to avoid complete disintegration that will in turn usher in greater chaos and anarchy than existing now. Even this situation will be unachievable if Turkey and the PKK both do not exhibit at least a modicum of flexibility, since one of the autonomous regions in Syria will have to be controlled by the Syrian Kurds. Any semblance of stability in the region hinges on the possibility of creating the atmosphere to put in place a workable confederation.
Basher al-Assad’s streak of stubbornness and his intransigent nature that has so far made him refuse to heed calls for his resignation will also be a factor that will slow the negotiations when they take place. Saudi Arabia has convened a conference of various Syrian rebel groups to iron out their differences and create a coherent opposition. There seems to have been some success in this attempt. However, given the sectarian interests at play, it is too early to consider it even a glimmer of hope.
Since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the world has been witnessing an erosion in the traditional concept of sovereignty, mainly because of the US-led Western military interventions, especially in the Middle-East. These forces have carried out proxy wars supported by concerted media campaigns that have led to illegal regime changes in designated ‘rogue’ enemy states. By the actions that have been initiated by the US and its allies from the beginning of the 21st century, a perception has been gradually built-up that the Western nations take military action, even without UN sanctions, against regimes that are inflexible to their demands and obdurate in their dealings with the West. In the current situation there is a feeling also percolating that the air strikes are being carried out to cover up Western and Turkish collusion with some of the terrorist groups. In the Syrian Civil War the US claim that they are fighting the IS to defeat them is viewed sceptically since there seems to be a lack of immediacy and commitment to stabilising the region. Clearly this is a case of too little too late.
A start has been made to negotiate the way forward in Syria to end the conflict and then solve the issue of governance. The International Syria Support Group, which consists of all the nations involved in the conflict, has announced the convening of a meeting on 1 January 2016 of the Syrian Government and opposition representatives under the auspices of the UN. This move could, if successful, be a step forward to bridge the gap between the Western coalition and Russia. However, Iran continues to be an enigma in all these moves.
Within a broad analysis it is clear that an end to combat activities in the current Civil War is a long way away for a large number of reasons.
One: there are far too many warring factions with varying ideologies and motivation on the ground that will hamper the chances of the rebels creating a unified negotiating position.
Two: the opposition is far too fractured to be able to come to an agreement in giving the lead representation to a single group in the negotiation process.
Three: the Kurds, especially the PKK in Turkey, will push for increased and guaranteed autonomy that will not be forthcoming, which in turn will act as a catalyst for continuing the conflict.
Four: even if hypothetically it is accepted that all rebel groups, the Government and the intervening nations lay down arms, the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra will continue to exist and take violent action to further their interests.
Five: the external interventionists are divided regarding whom to attack and whom to support, both morally and materially.
Six: putting an end to support for belligerent rebel groups will be a complicated process and highly unlikely to succeed because of the differing objectives and priorities of the nations that make up the Western coalition. Each nation will continue to support their own proxies, all of whom claim to be fighting the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, and will want their favourite group to have an advantage at the negotiating table.
Seven: there is no unanimous agreement on the future of Basher al-Assad, with different views being expressed for the short term and no convincing position being articulated for the period after a transition of power takes place.
Currently two groups of nations with almost diametrically opposed objectives are involved in military actions in Syria over which the legitimate Syrian Government has no control. The future of the nation, if it continues to exist as one, is at best bleak. The obstacles to reaching a reasonable settlement point are so many that such a situation is not even a speck in the far horizon in Syria. An extremely sad but true statement.
This analysis was first published at the blog www.sanukay.com