October 1, 2015

Decrypting the Syrian War and its International Complexities – Part II

Solving the issue locally: Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia

The last year has seen middle-eastern states become more involved in the regional conflicts. Hezbollah out of Lebanon increased its support to Assad while Iran, already at the latter’s side, became more involved in the fight against ISIS both in Syria and Iraq, where its successes also raised concerns about the Iraqi army and the Sunni/Shiite divide. Saudi Arabia formed its own coalition to fight the Houthi in Yemen in the hopes of restoring the ousted president; Finally, Egypt and Gulf states like Qatar and UAE have gotten involved in the Libyan civil war, notably with a series of air strikes.

The Americans have a role in all three theatres of operations, but they are not spearheading the campaigns and are strongly limiting their involvement. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been taking charge and asserting their positions in the various conflicts, which is a stark difference to the last 40 years where the USA’s foreign policies strongly influenced geopolitics in the Middle-East.

One cannot talk about American policy in the Middle-East without discussing Israel, and even this country changed the dynamic of its relationship with the USA. The Obama administration has not been as close to Israel as its predecessors, and 2014 has only increased the division between the two countries. The spat surrounding Netanyahu’s U.S. visit in March made the quarrel public, and the negotiations with Iran on its nuclear development programmes and ensuing accord confirmed the change in U.S. priorities in the region. Whether this change only lasts as long as Obama is in the White House remains to be seen, but the current effects are clear: Both parties are looking for new partners.

Israel’s new partner of late is Russia. Both countries have long ties through the Russian-Jewish diaspora, but politically the summer of 2014 has seen a rapprochement – especially in terms of security – between the two countries. This is visible in the current Russian intervention in Syria, where the IDF and Russian army have set up task forces to discuss all things Syrian including aerial, nautical and electro magnetic tasking. Additionally, the IDF was also warned an hour in advance about the Russian strikes around Homs. Israel is also concerned that Russian involvement in Syria might jeopardize some of its operations in the region and therefore feels all the more compelled to coordinate with Russia to ensure that its own interests are protected. Again, regardless of the length of this collaboration, the fact is that Israel is for the time being more aligned with Russian initiatives than American ones.

The joker in this situation may very well be Saudi Arabia. Politically and militarily emboldened by its war in Yemen, the Wahabi kingdom has become much more assertive in its foreign policy in 2014 and the repercussions are felt throughout the region. It is distancing itself from Americans and conducting its own proxy wars against Iran, especially in Yemen. Interestingly, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia clearly stated that Assad must go by any means necessary. In the context where the status of Bashir Al-Assad is the main point of contention, with rumours suggesting that European countries like the United Kingdom would be willing to compromise, this is a very bold statement, especially from a country on the war path. Regardless of the outcome, Gulf states, with Saudi Arabia at the forefront, are trying to influence the outcome of the Syrian war, and this represents a strong geopolitical shift, whose effects are most likely to be long-term.

Amongst regional powers Iran may well be the greatest beneficiary of Russia’s intervention in Syria. It has excellent ties with Russia, openly supports Assad and now has the capacity to divert some resources elsewhere. Add to this the lifting of the sanctions and suddenly Iran is in a better position to (re-)assert its influence on the region, something that will neither please Saudi Arabia nor the United States. How it will use this strength remains to be seen, but its use will undoubtedly be felt in Syria and Iraq.

The EU and the United States’ incapacity to intervene

The conflict in Syria has been going on since 2011. Many opportunities arose for Western powers and the United Nations to intervene and influence the direction of the conflict. For a variety of reasons, including domestic and international concerns, EU member states and the U.S. chose to get involved via proxies, supporting rebel groups and fighters like the Peshmerga with weapons, money and training.

To describe this strategy as a disaster is almost too weak, as it only fuelled divisions and provided terrorist groups with training and weapons they would otherwise struggle to obtain. In fact, the last three weeks of September have revealed the numerous failures of the proxy group training programs, including their ability to fight or giving their material to other rebel groups and terrorists. The only positive effect of this strategy is visible with the Kurdish Peshmerga, who have been able to use the weapons and training to fight ISIS, but have themselves become involved in the conflict between the Kurdish PKK and NATO member Turkey.

The conflict in the Ukraine made it clear: The West will not respond militarily to an aggression. This is for all to see and all the parties involved in Syria know it. Despite all the talk about fighting ISIS, the coalition has limited itself to air strikes and any other type of intervention is unlikely. Therefore, the door is open for Russia to support its ally with a minimum of western reprisals.

The EU is divided, both on its stance on Assad and on military intervention. France wants Assad out while the UK and Italy may be willing to compromise. Germany will most likely not support military intervention, as it is domestically politically dangerous. And all of this in a context of crises with the Euro and the refugees.

As for the United States, it is simply exhausted militarily and has little success in fighting wars in the Middle-East this century. Combined with election year 2016, it will be extremely difficult for the Obama administration to convince Congress and/or the American public of the need to send troops to Syria.

The West does not have the capability or the desire to act unilaterally the way Russia and its President can. As such, their capacity to deter is limited and benefits many of the parties involved in the Syrian war, not least of which is ISIS.

The Syrian war’s actual winner: ISIS

ISIS aka ISIL aka Islamic State aka Daesh has rooted itself and grows in areas of conflict where a void emerges: Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria and other parts of West Africa. It benefits greatly from the lack of cohesion and in-fighting of its enemies, as it is able to wage its wars in a more organised manner.

Russia is targeting the rebels who are fighting ISIS, whereas Turkey is targeting the Kurds who are also fighting ISIS. The “Anti-IS coalition” has waged a year long aerial campaign that slowed down the Islamic State’s progress, but did not stop it. And now with the various campaigns needing to be coordinated, especially over Syrian skies, the rhythm of the operations will be affected and the likelihood of “blue on blue” casualties will increase, thus directly affecting the effectiveness of the coalition’s operations. All of which will benefit ISIS.

This post is not about advocating war, but rather to better understand a portion of an extremely complicated conflict. Russia is using the U.S.’ reluctance and the EU’s divisions to its advantage, taking the opportunity to assert its interests and policies in the Middle-East while American influence in the area is dwindling. By doing so, Vladimir Putin is able to dictate the terms and force Assad’s opponents to compromise, resulting in a foreign policy victory for Russia.

As I observe the dismay of the USA and the EU at Russia’s intervention, I am reminded of former U.S. President Richard Nixon’s words when addressing the peace talks on the Vietnam war: “Peace, but peace with honour”. This was a polite way to say “retreating while saving face” and this may very well be the position the U.S. and the EU find themselves in in dealing with Syria. Barring direct intervention, this will be Russia’s war, and the West will likely focus on minimizing its losses, finding a way to contain Russian influence in the region and deal with the streams of refugees the conflict has created.

Tragically, regardless of the war’s development, the Syrian people have already lost.

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