Why the War in Syria Is Only the Beginning

Kurdish Fighters Syria
Iraqi Kurdish fighters pose holding the flag of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in the village of Sultan Mari in northern Iraq on March 9, 2015 after they reportedly re-took the area from IS jihadists. The Kurdish fighters are allied to the both the US-led coalition and Russia. MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images

The Fog of War that Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz famously mentioned in his breakthrough book On War (1832) is visible in the Middle East. In 2011, when the Arab Spring reached Syria, most western policymakers and analysts underestimated the resilience of President Assad’s regime, mistakenly predicting a quick defeat of his forces. Their assumption was that Assad would suffer the same fate as the former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and become yet another hated dictator overthrown by his people.

The regime, which is based in the capital city of Damascus, has succeeded in mobilizing certain factions such as the minority Islamic sect the Alewites, Christians and urban-based Sunnis to fight for its survival. These communities do not see much of a future in a post-Assad Syria and will fight to the end. The Syrian regime has also capitalized on its long-standing relationship with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Iran. As a result, Lebanese Shia fighters and Iranian Revolutionary Guards are leading the fight against the Syrian armed opposition. The Iranian security agencies have also recruited large numbers of Afghan and Pakistani Shias to fight in Syria. In short, the Syrian regime has outsourced the war to Shia allies who have huge human resources. Further support for the Assad regime comes from Russia, which is committed to keeping the president in power and sees it as a test of their credibility.

This war has become a regional crisis involving great powers such as Russia and the U.S., neighboring countries—Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel), semi-autonomous militias (Hezbollah)—and jihadi groups such as ISIS, and al-Qaeda. In a conflict with so many foreign and domestic actors peace negotiations are likely to be protracted.

A partial victory seems assured for the Damascus-Moscow-Tehran axis. The Assad regime has almost reestablished control over important urban centers such as Aleppo. The opposition forces are losing ground and are demoralized.  Thanks to the Russian planes and the highly experienced Shia fighters, Damascus will participate in the future negotiations with an advantage. But it will be foolish of Assad to expect a return to the previous status quo. If the principle of borders’ inviolability and territorial integrity is to be respected, the Syrian state can only survive as another Bosnia: one country on the map but in reality divided into different entities.

There is a new awareness among foreign powers that the war cannot continue on the same devastating scale. The US and Russia, who dominated the Geneva peace talks which led to the first major ceasefire, are keen to stop the Syria crisis spiralling out of control and sparking a Turkish invasion of northern Syria. While it is an exaggeration to claim that the U.S. and Russia are negotiating a new “Sykes-Picot agreement” (the original secret 1916 pact between the British and the French led to the partition of the Ottoman Empire), a new balance of power is clearly in the making in the Middle East. Syria is likely to remain partly under Russian influence, with the U.S. maintaining a strong presence in Iraq.

In this scenario, the biggest loser will be Turkey. Erdogan has envisioned a hegemonic role for post-Kemalist Turkey in the Middle East. The ongoing Turkish assault on Syrian Kurds is a desperate move to save the opposition forces in northern Syria and stop the Kurds’ drive to statehood. However, the Turkish strategy is bound to fail because the Kurds are America’s best and only friends in the region. They also enjoy strong support from Russia and Israel. If the Turkish assault continues, the large Kurdish diaspora in Western Europe will mobilize and European governments will feel the heat. The refugee crisis has already widened the gap between Brussels and Ankara, leaving Erdogan’s Turkey more isolated than ever.

The new dynamics of the Middle East have created the preconditions for the righting of an historic injustice against the Kurds—the world’s largest stateless people. Kurdish autonomy in Syria and Iraq will lead, sooner or later, to full independence. If Kosovo and South Sudan are sovereign states, why not Kurdistan? Ironically, the establishment of a Kurdish state could sow the seeds for a new conflict where former enemies will become allies. Turkey may ally itself with Iran (which has its own restive Kurdish minority) to stop the new state from becoming the nucleus for a greater Kurdistan. A mini-war between pro-Assad forces and Syrian Kurds is also a possibility when their tactical alliance is over.

Middle Eastern politics are defined by instability and shifting alliances. The lack of natural borders and the predominance of zero-sum thinking, where one state’s loss is another’s gain, have reinforced mutual suspicion and mistrust. Today’s war in Syria is only the beginning—more regional conflicts lie ahead.

Emmanuel Karagiannis is a Senior Lecturer at King’s College London’s Department of Defense Studies.

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