February 2016 – SYRIA – The Syrian conflict is on the verge of resembling a mini-World War III. Since World War I, never have as many actors with rival agendas and operations been involved in a conflict as they are in that of Syria. If this conflict is not contained and resolved soon, it carries the potential to result in direct military clashes, either by accident or by design, between some of the main regional and international actors, with horrendous global ramifications. World War II was fought between two clearly defined opposite alliances. This was also largely the case with the subsequent Korean and Vietnam wars, and any of the Middle Eastern conflicts as well as the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War as we know it.
With the Cold War bipolar stability gone, the 2001 and 2003 US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq respectively saw a clear shift in America’s position to one of unilateralism as a means to conflict resolution. America’s bitter Afghan and Iraqi experiences helped President Barack Obama reverse America’s policy approach to multilateralism, with a clear aim of not only retrenching America’s involvement in the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts, but also giving primacy to diplomacy and to distant controlled military operations by such means as air (including drone) attacks. This approach has had mixed results. It has proved instrumental in securing a resolution of the Iranian nuclear dispute and in keeping a conflict-ridden Afghanistan afloat. Otherwise, it has failed to stem the tide of Muslim extremism, as was first exemplified by Al Qaeda’s 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US.
It has also made no difference to the ongoing Iraqi, Syrian, Libyan, Yemeni, and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, which have generated more favorable conditions for the growth of more extremist groups, such as the so-called Islamic State (IS), and massive human tragedies. In the process it has deeply disillusioned all those forces who once regarded the US as a supporter of freedom and democratic change, especially in the wake of the “Arab Spring” uprisings, and concurrently also discomforted the US’s traditional conservative Arab allies, led by Saudi Arabia. The latter could no longer have full confidence in the US as a security provider and embarked on a process of counter-revolution measures against the Arab Spring.
Although IS is repeatedly presented as the biggest threat to regional and global security and civility, enabling an array of outside actors to act against it in the Levant, it is the Syrian situation that poses the most formidable danger. Syria today is not just fragmented between the dictatorial and uncompromising government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus and various extremist and moderate opposition groups. It has also been injected with various rival regional and international actors that have come to the aid of these forces – all in the name of fighting IS. Two international coalitions are at work in Syria: one is, led by the US, and includes many of America’s Western allies and regional friends in opposition to the Assad regime; another. is the rival Moscow-Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Hezbollah axis that wants to ensure the survival of the Assad regime against not just IS, but all opposition forces.
The member states of each coalition are not entirely united in their purpose. For example, in the case of the US-led coalition, whereas the main actor and its Western allies have grown to be more wary of IS and the Russian-led axis, the same cannot be said to be entirely true about the regional components of the coalition. Saudi Arabia and its Arab partners are most concerned about the possible success of the axis that could further strengthen Iran’s Shia sectarian and geopolitical influence in the region. Turkey shares this concern, as it is deeply troubled by Russia’s Syrian military adventure, given Ankara’s historical distrust of Russians, and also by any development that could enable the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting for the self-determination of Turkey’s substantial Kurdish minority, to gain support from Syrian and Iraqi Kurds. Whilst relations between Ankara and Moscow, and between Riyadh and Tehran, have hit rock bottom, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have lately announced that they will dispatch a joint military force to Syria to “fight IS” – something that Tehran has vowed to oppose.
All this points to the burgeoning of an ominous situation that could easily lead to military clashes between various outside forces on the ground, as there has already been one between Turkey and Russia. In the event of such a development, the US and its allies will be forced to back Turkey and Saudi Arabia, especially given the status of Turkey as a critical NATO member. The Syrian conflict is not just highly complex and tragic; it has now also reached a very dangerous peak, with too many competing fingers in its conflicted pie. It has so far defied a viable political resolution. However, for a resolution to work, it has to be based on an interlocking national, regional, and international consensus. Otherwise, Syria’s killing fields, and its destruction and human suffering are set to continue to haunt the world, but also more dangerously may result in a wider regional and international crisis. –Sydney Morning Herald