The civil war in Syria has exceeded its fourth year, as the conflict continues bloodier, crueller and destructive than before. No indications in the horizon to the Syrians and the world, the fate of things in the country, and its fate, or which is the party that will be able to resolve things in it. It seems that the Syrian civil war has created its own dynamics and its own tracks, and which has surpassed the issue of the Syrian regime change. Syria has turned to a dangerous site tampering with the terrorism and extremism, transforming the remnants of the country to one of the most important centres of instability in the region and the world.
Media reported on 04/09/2015 that the Russian troops have begun to establish a base in Syria, specifically near the Syrian city of Latakia which is located by the Mediterranean Sea and is characterized by Alawite predominance.
This confirms that a new Russian approach towards the Syrian crisis recently began to take shape more clearly and publicly than it has been in the past. This approach comes after steady confluence of information that the regime of Bashar Assad has become more vulnerable than it has been, which has become a recognisable part to the conflict being fought, in a battle with dozens of Syrian organisations that are fighting among themselves; each according to its own agenda and the regional party which it supports. Ranges indicate to regional interference in the equation of the Syrian conflict, regardless of goals and objectives of this intervention, will pave way for a new roadmap of Syria, which may very well re-form the country just as drafted by France for Syria during the French mandate between the years 1920 to 1924.
The regional and international stances toward the Syrian crisis
Stances of countries toward to Syrian conflict vary, strategically and tactically, reflecting the lack of a crystallised position or a common will to end the Syrian civil war, despite the risks of excessive persistence on the security and stability of the region and their countries.
The United States, which seems to be moving in line with a multi-directional “containment” strategy in Syria, does not seem urgent to develop a clear policy to stop the conflict. For it is moving in a way that makes ISIS (The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq) and the other parties to the Syrian conflict under control, that in turn does give any party the ability to resolve the situation to its favour (including ISIS). It also appears that Washington is counting on turning Syria into “Vietnam in the Middle East” draining Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah; despite the fact that countries seeking to overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad, including Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are also deeply involved in this bloody conflict which means to the depletion of resources and moral balance to their countries.
In addition, the United States does not want to pay the price for the change in Syria, as it previously did in Iraq. It appears that the United States views the mass migration waves, which have swept through Europe because of Syrian crisis, may awaken the Europeans toward the seriousness of the situation in the region and make them more seriously inclined to support any effort led by the United States in the future (after the appointment of a new rule in the US administration in Washington in 2017), in proposed strikes against ISIS, or toward any change to the formula of its approach to the conflict in Syria.
But Europeans too do not agree on a clear strategy to stop the Syrian civil war, or the defeat of ISIS. In spite of the intense pressure faced by Europe due to the constant inflow of refugees into it (mostly Syrians), who account to more than half a million people, according to the latest statistics of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the growing number of jihadists from its nationals who are estimated in thousands according to a report published by the US Congress in 09/28/2015, and who have already joined the ranks with ISIS. Therefore, Europe finds itself inevitably obliged to intervene to find a solution to the Syrian conflict and to fight ISIS more effectively because the complexities of this conflict have begun to affect the national security of their countries, including terrorist operations carried out by ISIS jihadists in the heart of the French capital Paris targeting Charlie Hebdo newspaper and claiming the lives of dozens of people.
Paris, London and Berlin do not agree completely about a unified European approach toward Syria. Paris, which has a historical legacy in the formulation of modern Syria, decided to participate in targeting ISIS sites in the Iraqi and Syrian territory from air, as it also implicitly supported the establishment of a buffer zone, including in fly ban in Syrian airspace, according to the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’s statement, in New York on 09/29/2015.
In contrast, the German position rejects the establishment of such a buffer zone, because of the German sensitivity to the possibility of turning this region into a safe haven for militant groups which receive hidden support by the Turkish government, and exposes the Kurdish presence in the northern region to the Turkish border to danger. Germany provides support for the Kurds in Syria and Iraq and does not directly participate in operations against ISIS in Iraq or Syria.
As for London in spite of its participation in the international coalition to fight ISIS from air, is still moving toward weakening the regime of Bashar Assad, in a way that paves space for its collapse, but not before drawing up political arrangements of the situation in the region.
It seems that these countries, in addition to their regional allies who are in favour of seeing Bashar Assad’s regime fall, are concerned to consider the possible alternatives for the fall, including the rise of ISIS rule and control of the reins of power in Syria and the region. Thus, all operations are moving in the sphere to create a military balance to serve their interests through the principle of win-win.
It could be argued that there are three bases fighting by proxy in Syria. Firstly, the supporter of the regime of Bashar al-Assad camp and supported directly represented by Iran and Russia, secondly, an anti-Assad camp system led by the United States and other Arab countries, that seeks slowly to bring it down, and thirdly, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, countries seeking hastily end the regime.
This conflict will most likely generate new complexities of the situation in Syria and the region, and make the possibility of splitting Syria more likely. The Syrian civil war even it opened a strategic window for many international and regional powers to find the opportunity to pursue their interests in the region and the world, over the medium and long term.
French Mandate – the roots of the Syrian division
After the San-Remo Conference, and the defeat of the King Faisal in the Maysaloon battle with the French army, France pursued to divide Syria in 1920, which was already under its mandate to six countries, namely, Damascus, Aleppo, the Alawites, the Druze Mountains, the Sanjak of Alexandretta (currently known as Hattie and is located in Turkey), the Greater Lebanon, which has become the Republic of Lebanon, and each had a flag and parliament of its own. However, in 1922 France changed the divisive situation into the creation of a fragile federal state between Damascus, Aleppo and the Syrian Alawites under the name The Syrian Federal. This Federal did not include the other mini-states. The Federal quickly broke away from the Federal State of Alawites after Aleppo and Damascus agreed to form the Syrian state in 1924. The Syrian state was established in 1930 with a new constitution.
It seems from this brief historical review that Syria as a state since the beginning of its establishment was carrying signs of disintegration, and in spite of a central control system of the state in Syria since 1930 up until 2011, yet the Syrian community was not united on sectarian and ethnic levels, as some may think, as unification was enforced in accordance with mechanisms of harsh dictatorship.
With the weakness and collapse of the power system in some areas, scenarios of division and increased odds emerged with the continuation of the civil war, particularly as Syria is actually divided on the ground according to variables that emerged from the civil war. The French solution of the twenties of the last century may be, in addition to the Kurdish factor, as one of the possibilities that can be put forward to face the turbulent and bloody intractable situation.
Russia’s new role
Russia has since the ignition since the Syrian crisis in 2011 one of the most important countries in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. Russia supported Assad politically and militarily, sometimes directly, and indirectly at other times, via the support of Iran; the main ally of the regime in the region. Russia has a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus. But the establishment of air bases in the city of Latakia adds additional attachment and deeper Russian presence in the Alawite areas.
The choice of the city of Latakia, to create the new site of the Russian military base, did not come out of thin air. For Latakia City is the capital of the upper region, which extends on the Syrian coast on the Mediterranean Sea, is considered relatively secure from the civil war turmoil. Strategically, the Russian base or bases that have been or are being created in Latakia, are not far from the largest British military base in Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea. Additionally, these bases will be adjacent to the borders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to the south. This means change will be brought to the strategic balance of the region, and Russia’s relationship with NATO. This can be linked with the changes taking place between Russian and Ukraine since over a year ago in political developments. This comes especially after the Ukrainian parliament voted in December 2014 to cancel the neutral position, which was adopted by Ukraine, and paved way for a greater level and deeper cooperation with NATO, which may qualify it to enter the alliance in the coming period. Russia is deeply concerned to such a move, which would make NATO bases on its western border directly, obliging it to seize the Crimean naval base and the establishment of a buffer zone, not subject to the Ukrainian government and inhabited by Russian population that separates them from Ukraine. With the establishment of these Russian military bases in the volatile region like in Syria, may have changed rules of the game in the region, may very well drive the dimensions of the conflict in the region to the most dramatic phase during the foreseeable future.
Russia is seeking to gain a permanent foothold in the Middle East. Despite the high cost for these kind of strategies, and despite the financial difficulties in the Russian economy as a result of the fall in world oil prices, and blaming Saudi Arabia for this collapse, yet Moscow seems to have become more willing than before toward taking the risk to intervene directly in a region experiencing unrest and conflicts and instability, despite its previous bitter experience in Afghanistan.
The Syrian civil war is a strategic benefit for Moscow to pose pressure on NATO, and pressurise some areas of power and regional influence in the Middle East; whether these areas are countries or political or armed groups that operate outside the framework of states, through the use of military bases policy. The Russian armed presence in the region is likely to add to the sheet of influence in the Russian foreign policy credentials.
One cannot specifically draw the expected effects of the establishment of Russian military bases in Latakia City. But what is certain is that the Russian bases have already generated an international mobility to politically deal with the Syrian civil war, according to the frameworks and contexts that now appears to be different from what it was expected during the period preceding the announcement of the establishment of these bases. In spite of the importance of not rushing to judgment on the nature of the current political moves with respect to the Syrian affairs, Russian, American and European, however, the statements have become more realistic about many of the expressions to the complex Syrian scene, including the leader of the Syrian regime.
Ankara will find itself in an inconvenient situation with the presence of Russian military bases only a few kilometres from its southern border, especially as Ankara is considered an important player in the Syrian conflict, and one of the stubborn most supporters to remove Bashar al-Assad, who currently enjoys the support of Moscow. Turkey aspires to an inauguration of a government that supports it in Damascus. The Russian military presence could lead to a change in Turkish-Russian relations towards a more negative direction. Turkey has tried hard to create a buffer zone inside Syrian territory but without avail. Russian presence in Syria will disable the impact of any attempts to impose a buffer or no-fly zones in Syria areas.
The extent to which Russia will continue to support Bashar al-Assad’s regime is unknown, but it is certain that the presence of Russian military bases in the city of Latakia will be a long-term presence, regardless of what will accrue to the situation in Syria. Rather, Russian military bases may contribute to accelerate the division of Syria and the establishment of Allawite mini-state allied with Russia in the medium term process.
Saudi Arabian, it seems Saudi Arabia to be dissatisfied by the recent Russian actions. The Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir declared, on 29/09/2015 in New York, the Saudi Arabian rejection of the Russian position even saying that the Syrian regime could face dislodge by a military option. This is considered a clear challenge to the Russian position in support of the system. It is certainly clear that the manifest in the Saudi and Russian positions will leave a big impact not only on the Syrian conflict scene, but on the entire situation in the region. As Saudi Arabia does not want the Arab enter into direct conflict in the region with Russia, especially as it is already embroiled in a proxy conflict with Iran in the Syrian civil war and other areas. Saudi Arabia believes that the Russian military presence in Latakia City offers additional support to Syria and Iran in the region and would oblige it to possibly directly act against its interests. Returning to the Saudi foreign minister, who refused Russian single operations in Syria and the organisation, the Saudis probably understood that any success achieved by the Russians against the organisation will lead to curtail their influence in the region, especially that their influence in Syria is based on the support of some of the hard-line Islamist factions that operate against the regime.
ISIS has recently became the most widely used and popular card in political, military and security moves in the region, as the terrorist group is used as a cover or mask for hidden agendas of the policies that countries do not prefer to explicitly publicise. For Turkey launched a military campaign under the fight against ISIS to attack the Kurdish Labour Party for political reasons concerning the status of the Justice and Development Party. Other countries use the justification of the ISIS fight to expand its regional influence. Western countries are also using the ISIS fight card for the purpose of consolidating its military presence and influence in the countries of the region. Other countries are this validation to push for the implementation of their own agendas, by providing logistic, material and media support for it. It appears that Russia also took advantage of this card to extend its influence and to establish a permanent presence for it in the region. Information about the methods adopted by Russia to carry out any operations against the organisation cannot be attained. What if such operations will succeed in reducing the expansion of the terrorist organization and its growing strength in Syria and the region? Or continues to succeed in its support for the survival of Bashar al-Assad for a longer period in office? But what is certain is that Russia will greatly benefit from this card to legitimise their presence in the region, under the pretext of defending its interests and to protect its national security.
Politically, the reality of the Syrian fragmentation is shaped in a way that will be difficult to mould it to as it was in the past. ISIS controls large areas of Syria, and there are various armed groups that have already created exclusive independent regions for them, as there are also areas now inhabited and dominated by the Kurds. Then there comes regional intervention to increase the country’s disintegration into further fragmentation. Iran supports the Syrian regime, Turkey supports Islamist groups and others are seeking to overthrow the regime. Then there’s Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United States, and other countries. The Russian military presence in these circumstances makes things only moving towards more of a fragmented and divided reality on the ground setting the future of Syria and the region.
With the depth of the civil war in the Syrian society, and the deepening regional and international interventions in this war, and increasing competition, increases the likelihood of conflict to the current fragmentation of the Syrian state into mini-states, in which each party shares its own mini-state that it supports. It is also noted that all the regional or international parties have already drawn the extents of their interests and influence in Syria. Every country intervened directly or indirectly in the Syrian conflict in the area or geographically considers it vital to its interests in Syria. Iran and its allies are working their operations to the protection of the Syrian capital, and the roads leading to and from it, and securing the border areas with Lebanon including roads and areas that link the Syrian coast through to Latakia City.
As for Turkey including its interest to collapse the Syrian regime by focusing on Damascus, has interests the region in areas the lie near the border like Allepo, and areas inhabited by Kurds. Jordan too, is interested in Dara’a and nearby areas to it in the region. As for the area adjacent to Iraq, it seems for unknown reasons left completely in the hands of ISIS to act in it as it wishes. It seems that the Russian forces launched air operations against ISIS, specifically in Homs, to secure the Syrian coast areas and the passageways to Alawite areas, where Russian military bases are situated.
The economic side of the game cannot be ignored in specific interests in the Syrian conflict. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) report, the so-called “Levant Basin” in the Mediterranean Sea, which part of it runs into the Syrian Coast, contains what is estimated at 1.7 billion barrels in oil reserves and 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The report indicated that the natural gas reserves can cover the needs of the region’s natural gas “indefinitely”.
Here one may gather that the reasons for the Syrian conflict, is to control the future important sources of energy for potential oil and gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea. Turkey is known for its attempts to ensure a stable and cheap source of energy to cover its ambitious development plans in the future. Just as Russia is known, Iran and Qatar are some of the most important gas exporting countries in the world. As for Saudi Arabia, it is clear that they depend on oil as the resource to reserve its position as a state. Additionally, headquarters of the most important multinational energy companies under the management of United States, Britain and France are situated in this region, as United States and Europe are known to be one of the most important consumer markets for oil in the world.
Potential effects on Iraq
Historically, Syria has had direct important effects on Iraq. Such effects date back to the first decades of the Islamic era in the region. These effects persisted until modern times, as Syria has been a matter of concern and disruption against the government of Nuri Said until the end of rule in 1957. The Baath party in Iraq was led by elevated leaders of Syria, who offered strategic planning and presented the ideological and political cover it needed. The Syrian negative impact on Iraq continued to affect the security and political situation after the fall of the regime of the Baath Party, as the Syrian regime supported terrorist tools and harboured fugitive Baathist leaders’ to attack the new order that emerged in Iraq after 2003. ISIS derives most of the elements of its movement by its presence and operations in Iraq from Syria; from logistical support, arming and its men. The organisations capital is currently in the Syrian city of Raqqa. In summation, Syria has always been a source of instability for Iraq. Observers wait with anticipation if the Russian role will change this equation in the Syrian negativity toward Iraq.
It is no secret that the conflict in Syria cast a shadow over the situation in Iraq. However, the two countries share similarities in many areas, including the drafted standards set by the French and British Mandates in their authoritative standards. As the Syrian conflict continues, the area of instability accommodated in the region, will elongate into Iraq, no matter how hard Iraq tries to avert itself from it. The ghost of that hangs over the division of Syria, the fall of large areas under the control of ISIS, the deepening regional interventions, the weakness of state power, the spread of the culture of violence and extremism and proxy wars are all present in Iraq but in a less severe case than that in Syria.
The announcement of soon opening of the joint Office for the Coordination against ISIS that includes Iraq, Iran, Syria and Russia came as a surprise to the followers of the Iraqi affairs. This announcement coincided with the Russian move in Lattakia City and the beginning of Russian military operations in Syria. This means that Iraq has actually joined to the new regional security hub.
Despite the fact that Iraqi interests that should be the standard in any decision taken by Iraq, especially with regard to its security and stability, yet, this move will apparently will not pass without some reactions from its neighbouring countries. As Western responses are expected to be less severe, given the existence of unwritten agreements between the United States, Russia and Iran in the fight against ISIS, will be according to the distribution of spheres of influence between them in the region. Convergence of Iraq and Russia in conjunction with the Russian military is expected to lead to presence in Syria to negotiations over the complexity of the political situation in Iraq on sectarian and ethnic lines.
Internally, the initial reaction of the Union of the Sunni Iraqi forces came in line with the Saudi position in rejecting any Russian role in the region, as rejection of such coordination has been announced, as it fears that this coordination is directed against “a specific Iraqi component”.
Here, the Iraqi government is required to send reassuring messages of the political Iraqi reality and to its neighbouring countries that this convergence does not put Iraq in part of a wider state of Russian strategy in the region or under any label, and that the only objective for Iraq is to fight ISIS and eliminate its presence on its territories. The Iraqi government is also required to coordinate on all levels of cooperation as it deems appropriate with any country or alliance to ensure Iraq’s national security in a way that does not make it lose any efforts or assistance from any country that would like to provide it assistance against ISIS. Iraq should not be part of any alliance or security system that is formed against a country or specific countries. Iraq should not to be supportive of any system rejected by his own people in Syria or other political systems.
From an optimistic perspective, any success achieved by the international community and regional cooperation in the elimination of ISIS will create a more calm atmosphere to resolve the internal structure of crisis in the region’s environment, away from the violence and extremism of the organisation.
The Iraqi government should work harder to strengthen the position of the Iraqi state, because strengthening the state will inevitably mean placing more restraints in areas of external interference in Iraqi affairs; preventing conflicts turning into proxies, or achieving a new political polarisation in Iraq.
With the fragility of the Syrian situation, as it turns into a multilateral order of influence and hegemony and proxy conflict, it is interesting to see how things will turn out in Syria, especially as recent changes made by the civil war in Syria may lead to its division faster than expected and every part of Syria will be looking for a strong ally to lean against in an attempt to protect itself in the future.