Staring into the abyss

This magazine has always advocated that Western nations should stand aloof from inter-Arab Middle Eastern religious and national conflicts as they have developed in Syria but that did not absent them from devising means of their resolution.
It is now clear that such abstinence would have served Syria well five years ago if it had been left to resolve its own civil war when it was a relatively simple affair. The map of conflict is now so complex and interwoven with outside interests, not least those of two of the most powerful nations in the world at either poll of the confrontation, that bringing peace and some kind of governing structure would now seem to be beyond imagining.
Even an official ceasefire excludes attacks on those considered ‘terrorists’ by the different combatant groups and each has their own definition of who constitutes the worst ideological or religious enemy.
Whatever one’s opinion of President Obama’s policy, or lack of it, up to this juncture the result has been that it has opened Russia’s first major geopolitical opportunity to challenge the West since the downfall of communism. And it is in support of a long-standing historical and strategic ally, Bashar al-Assad, who was at least elected to office.
Moscow’s dramatic military intervention in support of Assad has shifted the balance of the conflict in favour of the Syrian leader and exposed some of the double dealing by NATO member Turkey, which had been trading cheap oil from Islamic State terrorists until a convoy of their tankers was attacked by Russian jets on the Turkish border, thus exposing the hypocrisy.
The Sunni clique, led by Saudi Arabia, bases its opposition to the Shia-affiliated Alawites of Damascus on their determination to build their religion up against their Shia opponents and to eliminate the influence of their regional nemesis Iran. Saudi Arabia has been driving the Sunni alliance fighting in Syria along with forces from the Gulf and has also committed air power.
The Americans came onto the scene committed to supporting the ‘moderate’ opposition to Assad, though in reality they have been few in number and politically and ideologically on a par with al-Qaeda. This policy appears to have been a slow starter at the beginning but is now yielding some success with reports of the encirclement of the ISIS capital of Raqqa. It has left Washington with one of the more curious bedfellows of the conflict though the real stripe of their allies would never be admitted even if their true allegiance were known.
Moscow’s intervention has completely changed the balance of the conflict and brought Assad and his allies large areas of regained territory, putting their combined efforts within striking distance of recapturing rebel-held cities along the periphery of the battle zone while bringing them into conflict with the interests of Turkey who are fighting their own war with their long-time nemesis the Kurds, even to the point of shelling the Kurds on Syrian territory. The latter are considered more dangerous in Ankara than the Assad regime since, if allowed to flourish unopposed, they are seen as serious threats to the integrity of the state.
The apparently striking success of the Russian Air Force campaign compelled Washington to respond and even accusations that their aircraft have been hitting civilian targets and hitting hospitals does not seem to have affected their momentum. So there is now the high-risk scenario of both major powers having bases on Syrian territory with the concomitant risk of a clash between the two.
The risk is all the more concerning because the Syrian conflict zone involves so many different parties operating independently and without reference to each other. There remains the risk of a shoot-down of a Russian aircraft, as happened when the Turks destroyed an SU34 fighter-bomber, but which could be a much more serious incident in the now-intensified heat of the battlefield.
This is now no longer a localised Middle Eastern conflict with major outside forces distantly engaged. All have men on the ground within striking distance of each other on the ground and in the air but in the fight to prove a big bigger point about the global influence of their nations.
It behoves all parties to try and take some of the pressure off, perhaps even to try and freeze the battlefield in place ahead of substantive peace talks. This is particularly important in trying to contain the spread of ISIS which should be the overriding concern of those with the true interests of the people of the region at heart rather than the spread of destructive, mindless radicalism on the back of aggressive regionalism.
This must mean that Russia tempers its understandable triumphalism at its geo-political success and looks forward to consolidating a viable regime in Damascus, even if it has a much smaller footprint. The Americans are already hinting that Assad might be allowed to remain as part of the deal.

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