Syria Becomes Ever More Complicated

Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran effectively have to be seen as a single geo-strategic arena in which hundreds of local and national actors engage one another—and many have links to other regional players and global powers.

The failed military coup in Turkey and the country’s many links with key regional actors in Syria, Russia, Iran, and NATO clarify how difficult it has become to achieve political solutions to individual conflicts, because local, national, regional, and global interests of any single party do not line up nicely in a coherent and clear balance sheet of desirables and undesirables.

The astounding reality today is not just that events in Syria and Turkey are intimately linked, but also that Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran effectively have to be seen as a single geo-strategic arena in which hundreds of local and national actors engage one another. They also all keep their links open to regional players like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and global powers who are militarily engaged in the region, especially the U.S., Russia, UK and France.

The heart of this complex regional situation remains Syria. In the past few days American and French air strikes allegedly killed over 100 Syrian civilians in the area around the strategic town of Manbij being contested by forces of the Islamic State (Daesh) and American-backed and -vetted Syrian rebels in the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces. This has caused other Syrian rebels to ask the foreign powers to stop their air attacks that kill civilians.

That would be a problem because such air power, combined with local fighters, has been critical in halting and reversing the expansion of Islamic State in parts of Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Syrian arm of Al-Qaeda, has emerged as probably the strongest and most effective rebel group fighting to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. It has consolidated its presence in several parts of the country, especially in the Idlib governorate and the pockets in the north-west mainly. Recent credible reports indicate that it has grown significantly in recent months, may field 15,000 trained fighters, and is considering transforming its territory into a formal province (emirate) of Al-Qaeda, giving it a new major leadership base in the heart of the Middle East. Its success reflects its close links with many other fighting groups on the ground, and working out mutually beneficial relations with local communities who share its goal of toppling the Assad government.

In principle, the United States and other foreign powers want to attack Nusra forces, but in reality such attacks run the risk of killing other rebel groups and civilians whose lives, positions, and facilities are deeply intertwined with it. Weakening Nusra also weakens other rebels. Nusra on-and-off also fights against Islamic State (Daesh), but largely focuses on entrenching itself among Syrians and fighting to topple the government. Until the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey and other foreign actors appreciably bolster the non-Nusra rebels and protect civilians, Nusra is likely to maintain its leading role on the ground and among many Syrians.

Russian and Syrian air forces simultaneously constantly attack all these forces that challenge the Syrian state, including Nusra, Islamic State, U.S.-supported rebels, other major rebel forces like Ahrar Al-Sham, and the remnants of the Free Syrian Army, and ordinary civilians who pay the highest price in the end. The latest twist in this drama is that the United States and Russia are negotiating an agreement to coordinate their military attacks against Nusra and Islamic State, hoping to weaken or destroy them so that a political transition can get underway in Syria and end the war.

The possibility of actual achieving this is zero, because of the massive contradiction between the many different aims of the several principal camps that now face off in the country. Russia, the U.S. and the Syrian government seem to want to defeat Nusra and Islamic State; but the U.S. supports other Syrian rebels who want to topple the Syrian government; and many of these rebel groups and their local support communities are closely linked to Nusra’s fighting capabilities and their common aim of toppling Assad.

Turkey further complicates this situation by fighting against some of the Kurdish forces in Syria that the U.S. supports in the battle against Islamic State and Assad. The Turkish government has three strategic priorities in Syria that often are in contradiction—destroying Islamic State, toppling the Syrian government, and preventing the establishment of an autonomous proto-state by Syrian Kurds who are the most effective ground troops in the battle against Islamic State.

The interests of Iran, Israel, NATO, Saudi Arabia and others also come into play on most of these issues, making it virtually impossible for any power like the United States, Turkey, or Russia to achieve any consistency or clarity in their policies. The Syrian government siege of Aleppo that is now taking shape is likely to add new pressures on all parties, as humanitarian tragedies pile up, refugee flows spike again, and the bitter consequences of everyone’s contradictory existing policies become more clear.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global