Syria: A convoluted game of thrones

After seven years of a long, deadly and brutal war in Syria, apparently it seems as if its outcome has started to appear.

The massive genocide and war crimes carried out by the regime forces and its allies reveals the strength and seriousness of the international community, including the Muslim world, towards human rights.

Within a span of just 12 months, twice the regime used sarin gas (chemical weapons) over the civilian populated areas. While heavy aerial strikes causing massive civilian casualties along with the prolonged sieges denying basic food and health supplies and humanitarian aid, is a routine practice.

The situation at the moment is that Bashar al Assad is still in power, consolidating his power base and regaining the territory that he lost to the rebels.

ISIS is reduced to small disintegrated pockets, opposition groups including Jabhat Fateh as Sham, an Al Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria, are on a run.

Russia secured Tartous, its naval base and only Mediterranean port, and has significant presence in a highly strategic land of Levant.

Iran restored and expanded its axis of resistance that it established in 1980’s, after the emergence of Hezbollah in Lebanon, stretching from Iran, Syria up till Lebanon. Back then Syria’s strong man Hafez al Assad, Bashar’s father and predecessor, was its ally and a much stronger player, often used to dictate his own terms, not to mention the hurdle of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. However, now through its proxy militias Iran’s axis of resistance goes through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon with a much stronger presence and influence— as it had never been in the recent times.

In the Syrian theater, Iran and Russia have been successfully utilizing the “grey zone” to not only project their own power but to subvert US’s interests as well.

In the modern fifth generation or hybrid warfare the “grey zone” mechanics, as explained in a special report “Future of War” in Economist, “sought ways to reap some of the political and territorial gains of military victory without crossing the threshold of overt warfare”. Through this strategy revisionist powers like Russia and China, and Iran ‘exercise aggression and coercion without exposing themselves to the risks of escalation and severe retribution’. Mark Galeotti, a researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, termed this method as ‘guerilla geopolitics’.

This could be witness well as again after Assad crossed what the US termed as redline (use of chemical weapons), its response whether of a cruise missile attack at Shayrat airbase a year ago or recent precision strikes and US-UK-France’s joint action against their chemical weapons facilities had nothing but a symbolic value.

On the other hand, for Saudi Arabia it is important that some form of US’s military presence must remain in Syria as recently expressed by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in his latest interview to Time magazine.

It’s important for Israel also since Iran’s strong strategic depth in Levant is a direct threat to its security.

Most importantly, the developments over the last 4 years in Syria have shattered US’s interests in the region. About 2000 US military personnel are stationed there. Already up till now the war cost almost 30 billion dollars that includes the financing of its proxy forces i.e. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and appealed for another 13 billion dollar for the upcoming fiscal year.

Nevertheless in Syria, US is encircled by adversaries from all corners including its NATO ally Turkey, since the two countries have conflicting interests in this war. Turkey’s operations against US sponsored Kurdish militias in Afrin are another source of trouble for it.

Regarding Syria, there is a state of confusion and chaos in US. The State Department and the Pentagon are divided. Pentagon wanted military presence (even before James Mattis took charge) and some hawkish segments are urging for a greater military activity while the liberals themselves are divided. Liberals like Libertarian Senator Rand Paul were of the view that US should remain away from interventionism.

Additionally, the conservatives too are not on the same page. A faction ever since the arrival of President Trump had been having a soft corner for Russia, notably for President Puttin due to numerous reasons most probably for their financial and business interests especially in its shale projects that were greatly affected after the sanctions were imposed.

Last year, Rand Corporation in a policy paper “Preventing state collapse in Syria” did elaborate the prospects for US-Russia cooperation for the long term solution of the crisis. However, the events afterwards led to the widespread Russophobic proposals across US. Nowadays, consistently their research papers and reports are drawing serious threat assessments of how Russia is directly posing a threat to US and western global order.

Withal these stakeholders and their conflicting interests more knots are being fueled in the already complicated puzzle. Policy advisors and experts throughout the world are pressing the global power brokers for the settlement of war. Dr Arshad Zaman, a leading strategist and international affairs expert, in early 2017 argued the most possible outcome of this war to be the outsourcing of the Middle Eastern region in accordance to the World War I pattern. The French Mandate would come in Russia’s share and US would keep the British Mandate for itself.

What they are not understanding is the fact that a Congress of Vienna or Yalta Conference kind of a model for Syria would not be a sustainable solution. Though the war in Syria is a much smaller in comparison to Napoleonic Wars and World War II, still its scope is much broader and with transnational players operating on ground over the course of spiritual ideologies, it’s a much complex war calling for a great civilizational conflict.


The writer is a Research Analyst at an Islamabad based think tank.


Ali Rauf Jaswal

Ali Rauf Jaswal

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