Caught in the Syrian quagmire

The US and Russia, two world super-powers, and Turkey and Iran, the two regional Islamic powers, are locked into a deadly confrontation with no political issue in sight.

Smoke rises from a target hit by Turkish forces in Afrin, Syria, January 20, 2018 (photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
Smoke rises from a target hit by Turkish forces in Afrin, Syria, January 20, 2018
(photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
There are so many warring sides in the Syrian crisis, it is hard to see how a consensus on a political solution to end the fighting could emerge. Countries such as Russia, Iran and Turkey, bent on clawing long-term strategic gains from the chaos, are now floundering in the quagmire and wondering whether they will be drawn into a new round of bloodshed. Yet only last November, the leaders of Russia Iran and Syria had declared victory over ISIS, hinting that Syria’s most pressing problem had been solved.
Though Assad, with the help of Russia, Iran – and its proxies Hezbollah and Shi’a militias – did reinstate his authority over the greater part of the country, this is not the whole picture. Washington just announced that it would help the Kurds set up a 30,000-man strong “Syrian border security forces” to prevent a resurgence of ISIS and control the border between Turkey and Iraq.
The new army will draw on Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF is a militia mainly composed of Kurdish fighters that conquered, with US military help, the city of Kobane and later Raqqa, capital of the Islamic State. It then surged west beyond the Euphrates River up to the Iraqi border along the Turkish border and reaching to the Iraqi border, altogether 30,000 (11,583 sq. miles), or a third of Syria’s territory. America’s move appears to support a Kurdish autonomous zone, a new step toward dividing Syria.
This was not unexpected. Having heavily invested in SDF, Washington will not easily relinquish the political and military gains achieved and let Assad, backed by Iran, take over that territory. The only question is why it took so long. Perhaps because there had been attempts to make a deal with Russia regarding Ukraine and North Korea that led nowhere. Israel probably pushed for a decision that will prevent Iran from establishing a presence in northern Syria.
Turkey"s operation in Syria"s Kurdish-controlled Afrin region has "de facto" begun with cross-border shelling. (Reuters)
On January 17, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined his country’s policy regarding Syria: “The United States will maintain its military presence in Syria, focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge... the fight against ISIS is not over.... We must persist in Syria to thwart al-Qaida... in northwest Syria.” By al-Qaida, Tillerson meant Fatah al-Sham, which has a strong presence in Idlib. He stressed that not letting Iran extend its malicious influence was no less important. In short, America is adopting a new policy and getting ready for a long stay in Syria.
THERE WAS an immediate outcry from Turkey, Russia and Iran and the Assad regime, all of which protested the creation of a new Kurdish army. It was later said that the US was merely reinforcing the SDF to enable it to assume the task of controlling the borders. But the opposing powers claimed the move ran contrary to international law and was an unwarranted interference in Syrian internal affairs. The delegation of Syrian rebels to the Astana talks also opposed the decision.
Erdogan went a step further and declared that his army would crush the new army in its infancy. Assad immediately threatened to shoot down Turkish planes entering Syria’s airspace. Turkish forces nevertheless advanced toward the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwest Syria at the Turkish border and launched artillery fire. There are conflicting reports on the scope of the attack. Ankara thus entered in a frontal confrontation with the United States, its NATO ally.
Erdogan then held talks with Iran and Russia to try some form of common action. It won’t be easy, since Moscow enjoys good relations with the Kurds and has troops stationed in Afrin. So do the Americans. Turkey must be careful not to harm them.
Russia and Iran intervened in the Syrian crisis at the bequest of Assad. But the Syrian president lost all legitimacy a long time ago as Assad, with the support of foreign forces, survived by using brutal force against his own people. Turkish troops moved into Syria two years ago to fight the de facto Kurdish autonomy zone being created, and that move was contrary to international law. Washington is acting on the strength of the decision of the coalition of 60 countries fighting terrorist organizations in Syria.
So far, the two tracks established to reach a political solution have failed. There is the Geneva process, set up by the UN based on resolution 2254 of the Security Council of December 2014, which voted unanimously for the Russian proposition. The proposal included a road map and a schedule for peaceful solution: form of a transition government comprised of delegates of the regime and the opposition, and hold presidential elections under international supervision within two years. There have been seven meetings so far with no result. The opposition is demanding the immediate ousting of Assad and the regime is refusing direct talks with the opposition. Russia steadfastly insists on Assad remaining in power until the elections. Moscow has therefore initiated a second track to bypass Geneva.
BACKED BY Turkey and Iran, the group convened seven meetings in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana. Its purpose was to achieve a preliminary agreement on a political solution between the regime and the opposition – while asserting Russian, Iranian and Turkish hegemony on drafting the future map of Syria. Four de-escalation zones were determined, providing for a cessation of hostilities against the rebels, though no definition of who the rebels were was given. There would be no-fly zones, civilians would be safe and refugees could return.
But the boundaries of the zones were never delineated, and Assad’s armies did not stop fighting – with Russian help – moderate Sunni opposition groups, under the pretext that those groups were rebels. In the latest Astana meeting in December, Russia nevertheless proclaimed that the process had ran its course. It called for a special convention on January 29 and 30 in Sochi, with 1,600 delegates from all political forces in Syria. Sunni organizations said they would probably not come, since Russia insists on Assad remaining in power and continues its air raids, wounding and killing civilians indiscriminately in spite of the de-escalation agreements.
Should Sochi fail, Poutine will not be able to withdraw most of his troops from Syria as he said he would do. Fighting will go on and Russian troops will be targeted by rebel forces, as happened recently when drones attacked two Russian bases. Russia will be drawn deeper into the Syrian quagmire while having to cope with Turkey and Iran and their contrasting interests. A Turkish operation across the border against the Kurds would ignite the region anew.  What would Russia do in that case? Iran’s intent to entrench itself deeper in Syria and set up advanced missile factories directly threatens Israel and could trigger a war with Hezbollah, Shi’a militias, with even Lebanon possibly taking part. Poutine is well aware of the risks, but does he have answers? Had he considered the risks before wading into Syria?
Meanwhile, fighting goes on and no cease-fire is in sight. Assad, with its Russian and Iranian allies, is making an all-out effort to reclaim more and more rebel-held territories, at times dropping chlorine barrels on civilians while the West looks on.
The US and Russia, the two world superpowers, and Turkey and Iran, the two regional Islamic powers, are locked into a deadly confrontation with no political solution in sight. Iran is stealthily progressing toward its goal of establishing a Shi’a crescent in the Middle East. And the world is inching closer to another global conflagration.
The writer is a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.