The ever-expanding war in Syria
BEIRUT - The savage and complex Syrian war, approaching its sixth year, shows no sign of abating despite a UN-led diplomatic push for a negotiated settlement, and, if anything, seems to be even more complicated by the increased involvement of outside powers such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Russia.
The stakes are becoming increasingly high, in large part because of the worsening regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia, leader of the Sunni Muslim world, which seeks the downfall of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Shia Iran, one of the staunchest allies of Assad’s quasi-Shia regime in Damascus.
All have their own strategic imperatives and seem prepared to sacrifice Syria to further those designs and ensure their survival.
The battlefield is growing increasingly confused, with rebel groups fighting each other in ferocious turf wars as well as the apocalyptic Islamic State (ISIS), which terrifies not just Iran and Saudi Arabia but Americans, Russians, Turks (who once lorded over this turbulent region) and the monarchies of the Arabian Gulf.
On the ground, alliances and truces between the diffuse ethnic and religious groups — Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, Turkmen, Druse, Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, jihadists and Salafists to name but a few — are in a constant and bewildering state of flux. The escalating power struggle for dominance of the Arabian Gulf and the wider region between Saudi Arabia and Iran that is being played out in Syria is another factor that dims prospects of a diplomatic breakthrough.
This ebb and flow hamper the quest for an end to a war in which an estimated 260,000 people have been killed and more than half the pre-conflict population of 23 million has been driven from their homes. The flood of refugees is the worst since World War II and is threatening to engulf Europe.
“There is no longer a single war taking place” in Syria, says Middle East analyst Jonathan Spyer, who recently visited the war zone. “Rather, as Syria physically divides into separate entities, so the conflict, too, further subdivides, spawning new conflicts.”
There are at least five: the original conflict triggered by a Sunni Arab rebellion against the minority Alawite Assad regime backed by Iran and Hezbollah; the Syrian Kurds’ battle with the Islamic State; the Sunni Arabs’ war with ISIS; the power struggle between ISIS and Assad; and, most recently, the resurgence of Turkey’s internal war with its large autonomy-seeking Kurdish minority that is dangerously spilling over into the Syrian maelstrom.
In recent weeks, even as the push for peace talks gathered momentum, Syria seemed about to be wracked by another spasm of interference by outside powers in a war that seems to keep pulling in more military forces even as it produces a never-ending stream of refugees.
The Americans are widely reported to be building an air base in the north-east near the Euphrates for their special forces troops to step up the fight against ISIS. It is their first military base in Syria after five years of US reluctance to get dragged into this bruising brawl and comes as President Barack Obama, unshackled in the final year of his presidency, looks like he’s finally unleashing the US military’s “snake-eaters” to get to grips with ISIS’s apocalyptic army while stepping up air strikes by a US-led coalition. This could signal the deployment of wider US “boots on the ground” as Russia expands its campaign to save Assad.
The Russians have set up two new air bases inland from their Latakia stronghold and are providing direct artillery support — including multiple rocket launchers for the first time — for Assad’s army and its myriad militias as they batter Syrian towns and cities with bombs and cruise missiles, indifferent to the rising toll of civilian casualties.
These days, Moscow is even sending in elite infantry units to replace conscripts deployed in September, supposedly for “force protection” but which look like getting into the shooting war.
And now Turkey, which has gone to great lengths to stay out of the Syrian imbroglio, looks like it’s about to send forces into northern Syria to ensure the Kurds, Ankara’s bête noire, do not establish an independent state along Turkey’s southern border that will support the battle by Turkey’s own Kurdish minority for autonomy.
To make matters even worse, the Turkish government, which fervently wants Assad gone, and the Russians, who don’t, are at each other’s throats, particularly since Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian fighter on the Syrian border after it apparently strayed into Turkish air space on November 24th.
Ankara is incensed that the Russians are actively arming the Kurds. Turkish analyst Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says this will stir up Turkey’s internal war against its own rebellious Kurds of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when some of these weapons will end up in the hands of the PKK,” he observed. This presages dark days ahead that will add another layer of complexity to the Syrian carnage.
With the war intensifying because of the ever-increasing participation of outside powers, the prospect of a negotiated settlement seems more remote than ever.
Spyer cautions that, even if Assad were to disappear from the equation, a prospect for the time being curtailed by the firepower Russia is deploying to save the Damascus regime, “The war for Syria’s succession and the suffering of its inhabitants would almost certainly not be at an end.”