US-Iranian clash over Syria only matter of time
DUBAI - The quagmire of Syria is evolving again to sweep aside whatever prospects remain for peace. For years, momentum has swung away from and back towards the government of President Bashar Assad. The Islamic State (ISIS) emerged and expanded rapidly, only to be faced with crushing defeats at the hands of a range of different regional stakeholders.
Russia has established a strategic foothold in Syria it is unlikely to relinquish for a long time. Turkey’s fight with Syrian Kurdish rebels has become its biggest national security priority for at least the next decade. Iran, together with Hezbollah, has not only saved its resistance alliance from collapse but effectively re-engineered its form and trajectory. In that context, it is unsurprising that joint Russian-Turkish-Iranian efforts at establishing new rules at the tactical level and coordinating towards building an environment conducive to incubating a peace process never truly amounted to an alliance between them.
Alternatively, the US strategy in Syria has looked like a scattered approach and for years has been characterised by indecisiveness and a lack of clarity on long-term priorities. Still, the United States cannot be excluded from the endgame in Syria simply because it maintains the ability to play the role of spoiler.
The United States also remains far from being strategically isolated, despite its apparent differences with Russia and Turkey. After all, Israel and the Arab Gulf states remain firmly committed to the leadership provided by America in regional crises of such strategic proportions. That support is pivotal in the wider geopolitical context.
America’s Syria policy as a matter of course has alternated between different principles and goals, yet missing a consistent narrative, ranging from supporting democracy to protecting civilians against state tyranny, as exemplified by the widely reported use of chemical weapons. For the longest period of time, the United States framed its core objectives in Syria around militarily defeating ISIS.
While the United States has not achieved its conceivable or stated goals in Syria in full, it remains a well-immersed contestant among a handful of strategic stakeholders. It is a well-understood reality that among the four major external players in Syria — Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States — none have completely aligned or completely divergent agendas either among themselves or with the Assad government. The space to cooperate is as wide or as constrained as the space to compete.
American policy until a suitable endgame is achieved will now be fixated on working closely with Israel to define the future Iranian role. Such an agenda does not directly undermine Russian interests and even less so Turkish ones. The role and legitimacy of Assad is a question that can be addressed in a Syrian-led peace process at a later stage for Washington, similarly to the position Ankara has taken.
Under the current trajectory, it appears to be only a matter of time before the US and Iran clash. The outcome of any such confrontation will be manifested nowhere more strongly than Syria. The timing of Israel intensifying its targeting of both Iranian forces and Iranian linked targets in Syria so shortly after US President Donald Trump announced the United States’ withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal with Iran, is far from coincidental.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) expanding its reach to the Mediterranean and, especially, into the contested Golan, together with Hezbollah, creates a regional strategic landscape entirely disastrous for Israeli security and, by extension, US interests in the Middle East. With the survival of the Assad regime in Damascus and a long-term presence of Russia in Syria largely assured, the United States will now actively and aggressively work towards creating a safe zone for Israel and ensuring the IRGC is unable to consolidate the type of stronghold it aims for there.
In itself, such an American focus for Syria does not jeopardise Russian or Turkish interests or even necessarily those of the Assad regime. Indeed, the United States has different concessions to potentially offer Moscow and Ankara to appease them or attract deeper cooperation to counterbalance Iran. Yet, miscalculation and a lack of trust between major stakeholders when the stakes have been raised so high could turn what appears to be a manageable trade into a drastically explosive one.