Looking at the pace, type and complexity of unfolding events in Syria in the last five days, I would not think that I’d miss ‘good old days’ just a year ago when so-called ISIL was common enemy.
At the very least, when all state and non-state actors were fighting against ISIL in Syria, changes in the operational picture on the ground were relatively slower and the actors’ strategic preferences/behaviors were more predictable. In the post-ISIS setting, however, uncertainty, arbitrariness, and the most frighteningly, increasing rivalry between the US and Russia both over the control of Syrian air space and territory have became three key drivers of unfolding events in Syria. The rivalry between the US and Russia has long ago been proxified/militarized in Syria. Now, we all talk about the likelihood that this rivalry will turn into a full-spectrum armed between these two great powers in broader sense. This possibility, as the sword of Damocles, has been not only hanging over the attempts of translating de-escalation efforts into a sustainable peace in Syria but also feeds the nightmarish scenarios of the emergence of new ‘hot’ Cold War just across the Turkish border.
Defining the Current Context in Syria
4 mega trends shaping the post-ISIS setting in Syria;
– New revisionism(s) prevailing in the post-ISIL Syria: All state actors (particularly U.S. and Russia and regional actors such as Iran, Turkey) have started preparing for the post-ISIL setting with a revisionist stance, meaning that not a single state actor seem to aim at turning back to the pre-ISIL status quo in Syria. Furthermore, all Syrian actors like the Esad regime, Syrian Kurds, Sunni opposition and pro-Iran Shia groups seem not having appetite to turn back to pre-ISIL status quo. The diverging proposals for the future of Syria feed the armed conflict.
– Emergence of New ‘Hot’ Cold War Between the US and Russia: Through the rhetoric of fighting against ISIL, both the US and Russia first increased their military presence on the Syrian soil between 2015-2018, hijack the control of Syrian air space (In the current picture, US has the full air space dominance in the east and Russia in the west of Euphrates), find, train and equip local proxies, and mobilized Private Military Companies (PMCs) for less footprint and then applied their mostly contending, sometimes conflicting, stabilization efforts in the post-ISIL setting. I am inclined to think that, in the post-ISIL setting, the security bureaucracy in the US tend to turn Syria into Afghanistan 2.0 so as to be able to exhaust Russia militarily and degrade Russia’s already crippled economy; and therefore, they are so eager to stay in Syria despite Mr. Trump’s rhetoric of ‘getting out Syria.’ Russia, on the other hand, seems trying to shatter US’s Central Command (CENTCOM) whose area of responsibility involving Middle East, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, Caucasus, Turkey and Eastern Mediterranean into pieces by both dominating the Syria’s whole air space and expelling US soldiers from Syria, which is the critical country constituting the primary node of CENTCOM’s area of responsibility in geographic terms.
– Structural factors shaping the characteristics of risk environment:
These changes are the implications of sub-state actors, proxifying of armed conflict, need for implementing capacity building efforts and Counter-terror (CT) operations simultaneously, localization of armed conflict from state-centric to city-centric understanding, urbanization of the conflict, forced migration on a mass scale and demographic changes.
– Increasing ethnic/sectarian tension in Syria:
Indeed, the very first factor feeding the armed conflict in Syria is the zero-sum game among three types of motivations non-state in nature and leading armed mobilization. These are:
- Sunni/Jihadi motivation still having moderate (limited/local perspective, claim to respect to democracy/elections, appetite to sit at the negotiation table with other religious, ethnic and sectarian groups) and radical (non-compromise and global perspective for full-fledged armed Jihad against all infidels) sentiments.
- Kurdish ethno-nationalist motivation with leftist/secular sentiment and romantic/revolutionary roots,
- Pan-Shia (territorial expansionist) and pro-Iran motivation.
For me the overall problem at hand in Syria is the state actors’ desire to proxify these motivations to one another for the pursuit of their self-interests. For instance, US’s proxifying of YPG (+1 for Kurdish ethno-nationalist and -1 for Sunni/Jihadi) for capturing Raqqa and Turkey’s Afrin Operation (+1 for Sunni/Jihadi motivation -1 for Kurdish ethno-nationalist) would be good examples. I would like to emphasize the need for first diminishing and then eliminating these three non-state motivations causing armed mobilization in a SYNCHRONIZED fashion so as to disrupt this zero-sum-game among them and also plan to provide some policy recommendations about a potential mechanism that can provide this. Alas, neither the US nor Russia seem to have appetite to establish a mechanism to disrupt this zero-sum game.
Fast unfolding events in the past 5 days:
– April 7: Syrian activists, rescuers and medics say a poison gas attack on the rebel-held town of Douma near the capital has killed at least 40 people. The Syrian government and Russia reject the allegations, saying the purported evidence of a chemical weapons attack was fabricated.- Trump cancels his visit to South America to monitor response.
– April 9: Trump says he will decide on a U.S. response to the Douma attack “probably by the end of today.”
– April 9: two Israeli fighter jets crossed into southern Lebanon and launched a number of missiles at Syria’s strategic T4—or Tiyas—airbase in Homs province.
– April 10, 2018: Syria says it has invited the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to send a fact-finding mission into the country, as government forces across Syria go on high alert in anticipation of a possible U.S. strike. OPCW says it is sending inspectors to Syria to investigate the weekend suspected chemical weapons attack, a move that could throw a wrench in Trump’s plans to quickly respond “forcefully.”
– April 10: Saudi Arabia FM signals that they can join the multinational force with US, France, maybe UK
– April 10: Russia already jamming US drones in Syria in fear of retaliation
– April 10: In addition to USS Donald Cook, the U.S has now dispatched USN Carrier Strike Group 8 to the Eastern Mediterranean (Please note: despite scheduled deployment, the decision not to delay reflects US’s determination to escalate the tension)
– April 10: UK makes seemingly preparatory moves on its airbase in Greek Cyprus
Characteristics of Rivalry between the US and Russia in Syria
Russia has two strategic objectives in Syria:
– Expelling US military out of Syria as soon as possible,
– Establishing a negotiation table for political transition having all Syrian actors, and Turkey and Iran as guarantor states. Russia, first, aims to make Esad representing the center and PYD representing primary periphery sit on her side of the table as they have pro-Russian, secular and leftist sentiment. Russia, then, with the support of Turkey, after gathering all Sunni opposition groups in Turkey-controlled areas in the northern Syria and turning Sunni opposition into a monolithic political entity, making Sunni opposition seat on the other side of the table as secondary periphery under Turkey’s tutelage. Russia also seeks to tame Iran to keep those pro-Iranian local and foreign Shia groups currently creating a Shia power hub in the south of Aleppo under control as the third sub-state actor representing periphery.
In contrast to the fragile yet plural negotiation table involving all sub-state actors in Syria and Turkey and Iran, Russia has been very ambitiously attempting to establish itself in the west of Euphrates, the US prefers to have a ‘solo dance’ with the PKK-affiliated PYD, and its military wing YPG in the east of Euphrates. The US has been very fervent to maintain this solo dance at the expense of alienating decades-long ally Turkey.
Whereas the US seem very determined to disrupt the very fragile negotiation table Russia has been trying to establish for a while in the west of Euphrates particularly exploiting the April 7 chemical attack in Douma, Russia has been eyeing for opportunities on how to first end the US’s solo dance with YPG in the east of Euphrates and then disengage PYD and YPG in the east assuming that this would be the very first step of the strategy of expelling Americans out of Syria. Thus, I am inclined to think that Russia realizes benefit of nudging Turkey on to Manbij where the US and French military are currently patrolling and establishing temporary military outposts.
The decision to be on the side of either the US-led Western security block or Russia and Esad in this crisis will be very critical for Turkey. Which course of action should Turkey follow? It is time to render big decision, which will carry the consequences affecting the course of Turkey in the coming decade. Leaving the answer of this question to Ankara, I would like to underline one more time that Ankara’s strategic preference in this crisis; namely either to stand with the Western security block or Russia, will not be a mere foreign policy choice but will be a decisive preference deeply affecting Turkey’s strategic culture and near-term threat perceptions.