A Syrian Peace Puzzle

Even if the US troops withdraw from Syria, there is no end in sight for the conflict that has killed more than 5 lakh people.

In March 2011, a few months after protests swept the Arab World demanding democracy and justice, the city of Daraa, Syria, witnessed a violent showdown between the army and the public. Scores of people were killed or injured. Instability seeped into a country that seemed immune from any kind of forced change. While turmoil in the other countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain settled down without creating sovereignty issues, in Syria the civil war continues to rage.

Eight years of war has made the country look unrecognizable, both, in reality and cartographically. Around 5,00,000 people have died and millions have been injured or displaced. Aerial bombing, artillery fire and bazookas have flattened old cities like Aleppo and Homs. Without anyone formally acknowledging it, Syria has been vivisected in different ways. Now Israel, Turkey, US plus a motley number of Islamist groups have carved out this middle-east nation depending on their strategic and commercial interests. Syria reclaimed the area in which the Russian defense forces intervened in September 2015. The other major portion is under the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF), which is the Kurd militia backed by the US military advisors. Turkey, which is a member of NATO and extremely prickly about the irredentists Kurds enlargement in Syria has strategically occupied the town of Afrin and backs a ragtag militia called National Liberation Front in the province. In September 2018, Turkey brokered an agreement with Russia to stop Syrian forces from attacking Idlib province.

In November 2018, the US President Donald Trump announced a victory over Islamic State and announced his plans to pull out its 2,000 odd troops/advisors. This means that the area under American control could now fall to the Turkish troops, who are planning to move to the city of Manbij. Earlier, the Turkish army had captured Jarabalus, Al Bab, Dabiq as an attempt to buffer itself from Kurdish expansion that was taking place with the help of US.

After the December phone call that US President Donald Trump made to Turkish President Reccep Erdogan and announced his army’s withdrawal from Syria, it was also stated that Washington was abandoning its ally, SDF, that had been used to fight Islamic State to eject them from their “capital” Raqqa. Turkey, who had been amassing its troops to launch its military operation to eject the Kurds to the east of the river Euphrates could now have a free run once the US troops return home. Turkey is promising that there would not be much dislocation for the local people if the Kurdish militias retreat from these territories.

Till now, the Turks have occupied those areas that were earlier held by their proxies. When they captured Jarablus or Afrin from the Islamic State in 2016, eyewitness accounts suggests that the militants of Daesh, Arab term for Islamic State, had already left the town. Many critics of Istanbul have alleged that these proxies were occupying these areas to serve their strategic interests. The area under the SDF-US occupation also nestles Syria’s biggest oil field, al-Omar. When Islamic State was holding this part of the country, the Russian forces had satellite images of tankers from these oil fields snaking their way to Turkey. There were allegations that these tankers were feeding the business of President Erdogan’s son. There were other allegations, too: the destruction of Aleppo was planned to de-industrialise Syria as many key factories were shipped across the border.

Much of Turkey’s enlargement in Syria was prompted by Recep Erdogan’s ambitions to be the new Ottoman, which to him meant reclaiming the old Empire. For Erdogan it meant undoing the Sykes-Picot agreement that was stealthily signed by the French and British in 1916 to divvy up the Arab region of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. The Bolsheviks exposed the contours of the agreement after they ousted the Tsars in 1917 and discovered the document in a drawer. The document was first published in Communist party publication, Izvestia. As an author, Peter Mansfield wrote then, “The British were embarrassed, the Arabs were dismayed and the Turks were delighted.”

The Sykes-Picot agreement reshaped the entire middle-east without any regard for ethnic or religious differences resulting in conflicts that have endured for more than a century. The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) as Daesh or IS was known earlier endeavored to erase the Sykes-Picot line and end the Anglo-French conspiracy. It remained unstated, but the Turks were never averse to the territorial objectives of ISIL as Saudi Arabia was not against its Wahabi dimension.

In every which way, the Turks and the NATO forces were on the same page on Iraq and Syria till the Russians stepped into save their ally, Syrian President Basher-el-Assad. In September 2015, the Russian airforce bombarded IS bases. The Russian attack was targeted unlike the farcical ones that were routinely conducted by US and allied forces on the Islamic State. When US Presidenr Barack Obama announced in 2014 that his forces would diminish the terror organization — just the opposite happened. IS came close to even capturing capital Damascus. It was apparent that the US, along with England and France were covertly helping the IS reach its strategic objectives to reorder the middle-east. Russia did not want the fate of Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi to occur to the Syrian President. Russia was also cognizant that a loss of its bases in Tartus- Latakia would diminish its long-term ambitions and turn them into a proxy of the US-led NATO.

Russian forces backed by Shia militia, Hezbolla and Iran’s revolutionary guards began to reclaim lost grounds by ousting the IS. For a while the contestation happening on the ground was packaged as Shia-Sunni, till something dramatic happened on 16 July, 2016.

While on a holiday to Antalaya, a section of the armed forces tried to overthrow Erdogan and his party from power. Russian President Vladimir Putin is believed to have told Erdogan about the coming coup. The intelligence chief, perhaps tipped off by the Russians, also knew six hours in advance that a conspiracy to oust the President was underway. The coup failed leaving Erdogan fuming about the role of the Americans. He shut down the Incirilik base of the US in his country that has 50 nuclear warheads and is meant to keep Russia in check. The coup brought about the biggest change in the line up of forces in the Middle East. Turkey, Russia and Iran drew closer and the US suddenly found its influence shriveling and its allies asking hard questions.

Saudi Arabia, which had been used by the US to fund operations in the Syria broke off with an ally, Qatar, for its links with Muslim brotherhood that Riyadh perceives as extremely hostile. The Saudis were also upset with Qataris for punching above their weight in the region and trying to engage in hostile activities against their kingdom. Qataris, flush with cash due to their gas reserves, walked into the willing embrace of Iran, Turkey and Russia. It helped in preserving its heft in the region, but what it really did was to break up the grand Sunni alliance that had been propped up against the Iranians in the wake of civil war in Syria.

The estrangement of Erdogan from NATO represented a tectonic shift in the regional politics and its implications could be visible in the new Middle East when the guns fall silent. Turkey’s shift away from US-led NATO helped in building the narrative that Syria should not split and its sovereignty should be preserved. Israel that was hoping to legitimize its occupation of Golan Heights in the event of Syrian dismemberment found the resurrection of Assad and his government a setback. Israel, which routinely bombed Syria on the pretext that it was trying to prevent the Hezbullah from acquiring weapons from the Iranians has been chastened ever since Russians gave Damascus the anti-missile system, S-300. The Syrians will get this system going in February.

There are still many moving pieces in this jigsaw puzzle. If US does withdraw, then what happens to the fears and anxieties of the Saudis and Israelis about the rise of Iran? For long, Iran was the reason for US, Saudis, Qatar and the Israelis to intervene in Syria. The grand design to vivisect Syria was not just to control the passage of the gas pipelines, but also to ensure that the Assad and his Shia friends remained confined to the Latakia enclave far away from Golan Heights and the threat that they may constitute to the Israelis. If Syria is not breaking up and the Iranians manage to spread their influence — despite the sanctions by the US — then it could be a setback to the Israel and its backers in US. Saudi Arabia’s geo-political emasculation has been aggravated by the murder of Jamil Khashoggi. Meanwhile President Donald Trump has been tweeting furiously on how he has managed to ensure the fall of oil prices or raised funds for Syria’s reconstruction-all by arm-twisting Saudis.

Before peace returns to Syria, there are few more conflicts that have to be settled. Could that mean return to the status-quo that existed before 2011? Only time will tell.

About the author

Sanjay Kapoor

Sanjay Kapoor is the Editor of the Delhi-based Hardnews Magazine, which is the South Asian partner of French Publication, Le Monde Diplomatique.
Sanjay follows South and West Asia closely. He has authored a book on corruption and is a regular commentator on Indian and foreign TV channels.