SYRIA, now in its fifth year of a murderous civil war, has produced yet another twist to its convoluted conflict. Over the years, observers have struggled to follow the many combinations and permutations of the states, rebel groups and jihadist organisations that have been fighting over the space vacated by the Syrian state.
After the initial uprising of mostly secular activists that was put down with great brutality by Bashar al-Assad’s security forces, the civil war has attracted neighbouring states and Islamist groups like a festering wound pulls in flies. Initially, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the United States supported the mostly Sunni groups that had coalesced to topple the government that was dominated by the Alawites. Weapons and cash were brought in via Turkey, but from the very outset, the Americans placed an embargo on heavy weapons. Understandably, they feared that anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles could be used by jihadist groups against Western targets.
Supporting Assad throughout the conflict has been Iran that fears losing a Shia ally that links Iran to Lebanon via Iraq. Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards have been key elements in the civil war, and have been crucial in Assad’s battle for survival. And just as the Syrian dictator seemed to be weakening, Russia stepped in with a powerful aerial presence. Its objective was to retain its only naval base in the Mediterranean, and maintain the status quo. It also wants to prevent the success of a radical and violent Islamic movement.
Turkey, once seen as secretly supporting the militant Islamic State group, has distanced itself from this barbaric group following its terrorist attacks against soft targets in Turkey that have killed hundreds. Now, units of its army are on the outskirts of Manbij in support of its Arab allies, and are threatening the IS capitol, Raqaa. Facing them are Syrian Kurds, supported by the Americans and the Russians. Thus, there is an odd stand-off between forces backed by the US and Russia on the one hand, and those supported by Turkey on the other. All three powers are allies in this struggle, and yet find themselves on opposing sides.
The reason for this misalignment of forces is that the Turks hate and suspect the Kurds more than they do IS. They see the Syrian Kurdish force as being an offshoot of the PKK, the Turkish Kurd party that is currently the target of a major military operation following the breakdown in talks a couple of years ago. The Americans, on the other hand, view the Kurds as a secular, highly effective fighting force. The Russians, too, have backed the Kurds, and are now in talks with Turkey to shape a joint policy. Erdogan is in Moscow as I write this, and the outcome of his talks with Putin will determine the regional balance for some time to come.
The Americans, too, have raised their stakes by sending 900 Marines and a battery of heavy artillery to take their place in the forces lining up to expel IS from Raqaa. Currently, they are interposing themselves between the Turkish-backed Arab rebels and the Kurds who are supported by the Russians around Manbij. The Syrian army, too, has been invited by the Turks and the Russians to join. It is a combination of these forces that will go on to attack the IS in its lair.
In all this, the big losers have been the rebels who had once enjoyed the backing of the Americans and the Turks. Both states had declared it their goal to get rid of Assad, but have gradually switched to the Russian and Iranian point of view. And the relationship between Russia and Turkey, once in deep freeze because of the downing of a Russian jet by the Turkish air force, has thawed to the point that they are coordinating their policies.
The real change in the Turkish attitude towards Russia came when Putin declared that Russia supported the territorial integrity of Syria. The Turks saw this as a declaration that Russia was against the establishment of a Syrian Kurdish state on its border. Once it received this assurance, it brought its policies closer in line with Russia’s. These moves have served to marginalise the Syrian rebel groups that were earlier in the forefront. An example of this new alignment was the fact that Ankara remained silent when Russian planes and Syrian ground forces, helped by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, finally broke the siege of Aleppo and cleared it of the various rebel and Jihadist groups that had infested it, and caused a huge number of civilian casualties.
Now it’s a matter of time before the IS is thrown out of Raqaa, It has almost lost control of Mosul in Iraq, and was recently kicked out of Palmyra where it destroyed so many priceless archaeological artefacts. Squeezed on all sides, it has done something unexpected by causing a possible realignment of forces that may change the direction of the Syrian conflict. Once the Syrian army, the Russians and the Revolutionary Guard have defeated IS in Raqaa, they will be able to focus on the remaining rebel groups in western Syria along the coast. Now that the Americans and Turks appear to accept the continuing presence of Bashar al-Assad, they are unlikely to further arm the rebels. This could finally end the bloodletting in Syria, although it will take a long time for the wounds to heal.
But defeating IS in Raqaa and Mosul will probably not end the threat this malign entity poses. Chances are that it will morph online and underground; but at least it will be denied a base from which it can attract young radicals from around the world. And finally, its myth of invincibility will be broken.
Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2017