Middle East: Syrian imbroglio

Tariq Niaz Bhatti

SYRIA is going through a turmoil. As per UN report it has 6.5 million internally displaced people and 5.6 million refugees sheltered in neighbouring countries specially Turkey. Syrian civil war which started as protests against Assad’s regime in 2011, is continuing amongst competing interests both regional and international with no end in sight. So far more than 400,000 civilians have lost their lives to conventional and chemical attacks. Competing interests broadly include Iran, Turkey, Russia and US, UK and France who operate in close proximity to each other thus further complicating the civil war. Syrian Government Forces, Syrian Democratic Forces and Free Syrian Army have their own aims to achieve in the ongoing civil war on behalf of their mentors.
Post First world War Sykes-Picot agreement, brought Syria under French mandate. France promoted marginalized Alawites community specially in the Syrian armed forces in the name of Syrian unity that paved their way for seizing Damascus in the mid twentieth century. The arrangements worked well until the rise of Sunni militant organizations in the Middle East in the wake of US invasion of Iraq. The rising militancy shattered the political balance and unleashed sectarian wars in both Iraq and Syria. Due to the civil war in Syria the Alawites hold over power and their efforts to maintain delicate balance between Sunni majority and Shia minority is in shambles. The Syrian unity under Alawites has lost its attraction to Sunni rebel forces who had declared Alawites as infidels and vowed to fight them to the last.
US has over 2000 troops in Syria as part of international coalition. It supports Syrian Democratic Forces through training and supply of arms to prevent resurgence of self-proclaimed Islamic State near Syria-Iraq border. In 2013, Islamic State began seizing control of Syrian territory and had to face over eleven thousand coalition air strikes with the support of Turkey, KSA and other gulf states in years to come. In September 2015 on request of Syrian Government, Russia also conducted air strikes against Islamic State targets using its military facilities in Syria which helped Syrian Government Forces to reclaim lands and important towns from rebel groups. Turkish troops have also been targeting the Islamic State since 2016 and had been fighting armed Kurdish groups in northern Syria.
Turkey’s successful military operation specially its victory in Northern Syrian Town of Afrin in March this year, has helped create alliance amongst Turkey, Iran and Russia. The Alliance had pledged to protect the integrity of Syria and work towards an early cease fire. As of now 98% of the lands previously occupied by the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria have been reclaimed by the respective government forces but fighting between government forces and antigovernment rebel groups across Syria continues. UN backed Geneva Peace talks failed to reach agreement between Syrian government and antigovernment rebel groups due to lack of mutually acceptable terms. Even Russian backed cease fire could not hold on for very long due to fragile security situation.
The cold war is back in Middle East with vengeance and difference as there is no longer symmetry, balance or respect between the US and Russia: major parties to the dispute. Israel has its own axe to grind in the evolving situation. With Islamic State losing most of the areas under its occupation in both Syria and Iraq, the Tehran-Damascus land bridge is strengthening Iran’s position in Syria. Early election results are showing Hezbollah gains in the Lebanese general elections which is complicating the security situation for Israel. Qom-Najaf confrontation between Iranian supreme leader Khamenei and Supreme Shia religious leader Ayatollah Sistani is not a good omen for theocracy in Iran and causing internal political weakening. On the other hand, Israeli PM Netanyahu faces serious corruption charges against self and his wife. Defending Israeli red lines in Syria at the cost of war with Iran will yield massive political mileage for Netanyahu in Tel Aviv. Moreover, in presence of Knesset approval authorizing the PM and Defence Minister to declare war and Netanyahu aggressive showcasing of Iranian nuclear program documents, the chances of further escalation are getting brighter. Khamenei also wants to avenge killing of its soldiers in Syria during last month multiple Israeli air strikes to gain much needed political mileage at home.
US president holds the key to diffusing the situation in the region. His likely withdrawal from Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), expected any time, will further darken the war clouds looming over Syria. Question remains whether war between Israel and Iran would remain confined to Syria or it reaches their respective soils through long range missiles or air strikes with standoff weapons. The outcome would anyway adversely affect the entire Middle east and part of South Asia. It will surly have devastating social, political and economic effects for both the regions.
— The writer is freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

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