The blood-dimmed tide

Syrian chaos reflects the conclusive breakdown of the post Cold War regional order.

TRUCKS CARRY belongings of people fleeing Maarat al-Numan, in northern Idlib, Syria, this week. (photo credit: REUTERS/MAHMOUD HASSANO)
TRUCKS CARRY belongings of people fleeing Maarat al-Numan, in northern Idlib, Syria, this week.
A number of significant developments under way in Syria reflect the confusing strategic situation in the region, as a variety of players compete for supremacy. The forces engaged include global powers, regional powers and sub-state forces – and combinations of the above. No player or group of players is currently able to conclusively vanquish the others and then arrange affairs according to its will. This situation reflects the conclusive disappearance over the last decade of the post Cold War order in the region, and the emergent fierce competition to fill the vacuum it has left.
On December 20, the Arabic service of the Turkish pro-government Anadolu website reported the arrival of “dozens” of Saudi troops to the al-Omar oilfield in the east Syrian province of Deir e Zur. According to the report by journalists Ibrahim Khalil and Mohammed Misto, the troops are tasked with providing security for 15 Saudi and Egyptian engineers and technicians from the Saudi Aramco Company who had arrived the previous week, in order to “rehabilitate the field, increase its oil production and train its workers.” The Omar field is the largest oil field in Syria.
Aramco denied the reports in a statement to the Saudi Al-Arabiya website. But while they cannot be confirmed with 100% certainty, it is noteworthy that a delegation of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces visited Saudi Arabia in early December, at the invitation of the kingdom, in order to discuss further cooperation between this force and Riyadh. The SDF is the force associated with the de facto ruling authority in northeast Syria.
The Saudi move would fit with the shape of US policy regarding Syria. Having pulled back forces from the Syrian-Turkish border in mid-October, the US is currently maintaining its presence in Deir e Zur, and would clearly value the increased involvement of the Saudis, as well as the increase of the oil production capacity in the area.
North east Syria, two months after the US redeployment and the subsequent Turkish invasion, now constitutes a chaotic kaleidoscope of opposing forces. No less than eight separate armed forces may be discerned in the area. These are the SDF, the US Army, the Turkish Army, the Turkish associated Sunni Islamists of the Syrian National Army (SNA), the Syrian government army (SAA), the Russians, the IRGC-supported Shia militias, and of course the Sunni jihadis of Islamic State. The Saudis, if indeed they are there, would constitute a 9th force.
DURING A reporting visit to this area in late November, this reporter noted that while Assad’s army and its Russian allies crossed the Euphrates on October 14, as of now no effort appears under way to reimpose Damascus’s authority on the ground. The SDF retains control of the vital Semalka border crossing. This is its doorway to the outside world. It also enables it to sell oil to clients other than the Assad regime (to whom it also sells). But more broadly, there are no regime roadblocks or checkpoints in the area, except those that were present prior to October – namely, in the regime-maintained “security squares” in the cities of Hasakeh and Qamishli, and at the military airport outside Qamishli.
For now, the Kurdish-led administration remains responsible for all civil affairs and policing, while the SDF is the main armed force. The Americans are patrolling, and not only in Deir E Zur (this reporter witnessed an American convoy outside Hasakeh). The regime forces and the Russians are deployed in the border areas, to maintain the partially-observed “ceasefire” negotiated between Russia and Turkey on October 22. Currently, there are daily exchanges of fire at points along the lines of separation, but the lines themselves are largely static.
Further south, the Iranians have carved out an area of de facto control of their own, in the area just west of the Euphrates. Tehran, of course, nominally supports the Damascus government. But at the Albu Kamal border crossing; the Imam Ali base with its tunnel system for the storage of missiles and heavy weaponry; and in the villages around Mayadin, the Syrian government is nowhere to be found. The IRGC and its militia allies, including Lebanese Hezbollah, are the de facto ruling force. This area, unsurprisingly, is a particular focus for air activity attributed to Israel: The most recent air raid took place on Wednesday.
This stretch forms a key node on Iran’s area of control (or “land bridge” – a term the Iranians themselves do not use) which extends deeply across southern Syria. In various forms, Iran is present all the way to the border with Israel.
In Syria’s northwest, meanwhile, a bloody fight is under way as Assad’s army and the Russians push into southern Idlib province. They are seeking to reduce the last remaining area under the exclusive control of the Sunni Arab rebels. The jihadis of the Hayat Tahrir al Sham group are dominant in this area, which lies south of a Turkish control zone. Some 80,000 people have been displaced from their homes in the wake of Russian and government air and artillery bombardment. Assad’s forces are heading for the town of Maarat al-Numan, located on the strategic M5 highway which links Aleppo with Damascus.
Turkey, notably, is pressing Russia for a ceasefire in the area. A Turkish delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal is in Moscow to discuss the matter as well as other issues of joint Russian and Turkish interest.
SO WHAT might be grasped regarding the strategic balance of the Middle East from the confusing mass of interests and conflicts currently being played out on Syrian soil?
Firstly – and most importantly, in Syria as in the region as a whole – there is no hegemon. No single country or group of countries can impose its will in entirety on the others. East of the Euphrates, one may discern a loose alliance of common interest taking in the SDF, the remaining US presence, and (reportedly), Israel and Saudi Arabia. Those three countries share opposition to the advance of Iran (the SDF leadership is neither for nor especially against the Islamic Republic). All four of these elements are opposed to Islamic State and Sunni political Islam.
But it would be wrong to identify an “alliance” here – there is nothing so solid. The US is there but not as part of a clear and discernible strategy. The other three may have common immediate enemies, but the prospects for cooperation between them are limited.
Secondly, further west, events in Idlib showcase the contradiction in Russia’s efforts to satisfy the Assad regime’s desire to reimpose Damascus’s sovereignty over all of Syria, while at the same time draw Turkey closer to Moscow.
Iran’s separate project to build its own independent center of power in Syria also runs in contrast to Moscow’s desire to return a semblance of normality to the country. Again, neither of these projects is strong enough to cancel out the other. Rather, they appear set to continue in uneasy coexistence.
So goes Syria, and so goes the region. As 2019 draws to a close, the good news from Israel’s point of view is that it is not currently faced with a potent, focused and united enemy camp – in Syria or in the region more generally. Iran is a powerful enemy, Turkey a determined adversary. But both are beset by problems and contradictions requiring their urgent attention.
The less good news is that Israel is also no longer an ally of a regional or global hegemon – since no such leading power exists. Things have fallen apart; the center indeed has not held. The result, however, is not mere anarchy, but rather renewed and determined competition between a variety of clearly discernible players, the outcome of which cannot presently be foreseen.