The Enduring Tragedy of Syria

Geopolitics is at the core of the international community's inability, and/or desire, to effectively address the main issues among the contending parties in Syria. The policies of Russia, Iran and the Bashar al-Assad regime are nearly the opposite of the US, the EU, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Turkey.

Posted on 02/27/14
By Robert Olson | Via Today's Zaman
A man carries an injured child after a Syrian army attack on northwestern Syrian city of Aleppo. (Photo by Freedom House, Creative Commons License)
A man carries an injured child after a Syrian army attack on northwestern Syrian city of Aleppo. (Photo by Freedom House, Creative Commons License)

 

National Security Advisor Susan Rice summed up the three-year-long civil war in Syria on Feb. 23 on NBC’s  “Meet the Press” program with the statement: “It’s a horrific war.”

 

Then, she added, “This is not genocide.” Her statement seemed to suggest that the widespread ethnic cleansing that resulted in 2.7 million Syrians fleeing to other countries and 6.7 million internally displaced could be tolerated or, at least, managed. “At the end of day,” she said, “unless there is a political solution, this thing is not going to be resolved.”

 

The two international conferences held in Geneva, one in 2012 and one in January this year, failed abysmally to address the carnage and indicated the lack of major players, both internationally and in Syria itself, who would address the destruction of the state.

 

The most succinct way to address this horrific war is to characterize its most important components: geopolitics, sectarianism and fragmentation. 
Geopolitics is at the core of the international community’s inability, and/or desire, to effectively address the main issues among the contending parties. The policies of Russia, Iran and the Bashar al-Assad regime are nearly the opposite of the US, the EU, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Turkey.

 

One of the ironies of the civil war in Syria is that it is also a proxy war between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia for dominance of the Persian Gulf, notably called the Arab Gulf by the Gulf Arabs. 
As a result, just as Iran supports, arms and sends billions of military equipment to Assad and Hezbollah, the Saudis send billions to the Jihadists and fanatical Sunni Muslims groups
Russia wants to maintain and strengthen its position in the eastern Mediterranean. The unrest in Ukraine and Russia’s access to its fleet in the Crimea and its ability to monitor effectively the huge oil and gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean from its naval base in Tartus, Syria, are essential to maintaining its position in the Middle East. In order to protect these interests, it is incumbent that Russia supports, if not the Assad regime itself, but the Alawite Shia community that has dominated Syria for the past 51 years. Moscow also has vital interests in preventing Islamic Jihadists from gaining influence among the 25 million Muslims in the Russian Federation and in the Caucasus.

 

Iran desperately wants to maintain its ties with the Shia Assad regime and with the Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon. This relationship has allowed Iran to be a major geopolitical player in the eastern Mediterranean for early 40 years. 
Iran is more of a direct player in the politics of Syria than Russia as it is intimately involved in the sectarian politics of the Middle East and, hence, in the polarization between Sunnis and Shiites.

 

One of the ironies of the civil war in Syria is that it is also a proxy war between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia for dominance of the Persian Gulf, notably called the Arab Gulf by the Gulf Arabs. 
As a result, just as Iran supports, arms and sends billions of military equipment to Assad and Hezbollah, the Saudis send billions to the Jihadists and fanatical Sunni Muslims groups.

 

Saudi and Turkey still supporting Jihadist

Another irony is that after the US and EU purportedly stopped supporting the most notorious and brutal of the Jihadists, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, in spite of their denials, have continued to do so.

 

The above suggests a deep clash of interests among the anti-Assad coalition: The US and Europe now desire to negotiate a transitional government in Syria as indicated by the January talks in Geneva, but the Saudis, Qataris, Kuwaitis, Emiratis and Turkey continue to fund the radical Jihadists.

 

Unlike the Americans and Europeans, the Sunni Arabs view the war in Syria as not just a war for geopolitical power, but as an existential contest for Sunni dominance of the Arab world against challenging Shia whom Sunnis have discriminated against for centuries. Wars, like politics, make for strange bedfellows. This is the case of Turkey — a long-time NATO, US and European ally. It engaged in war with the anti-Assad coalition largely because it feared back in 2011 that if the Assad regime was not toppled quickly, it would allow the 1.5 million Kurds in Syria to become autonomous and position them to join their fellow 9 million Kurds across the border in Turkey and the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. 
Having some 7.5 million autonomous Kurds on their southern border, joining the 9 million Kurds in southeastern Turkey, not to mention another 8-9 million located elsewhere in Turkey, was too much for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). Early 2012 Ankara began sending billions of dollars of arms, furnished by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to the fanatical Jihadists in Syria. Not coincidentally, the foreign Arab Jihadists were conveniently located in largely Kurdish dominated regions. Not surprisingly, in February this year, the Kurds of northeast Syria proclaimed autonomy.

 

Susan Rice was quoted at the beginning of this article stating: “It’s a horrible war.” The carnage, killing, murder, ethnic ceasing, duplicity and lying are almost unparalleled. The one bright spot is that the fragmentation of Syria has allowed the Kurds to gain the foresight, courage and vision to determine their own fate: No thanks to Russia, Iran, EU, the US, Turkey or Gulf Arabs.

 

I think there is a lesson here.

 

Robert Olson is the author of “The Ba’th and Syria: 1947-1982, the Evolution of Party and State: From the French Withdrawal to the Era of Hafiz Al-Asad.” This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman, a leading Turkish daily.

 

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