What's the endgame for Syria?

By Robert Presser on January 17, 2016

As we were celebrating the new year, the United Nations adopted a resolution proposing a roadmap and negotiations to end the Syrian civil war and create a climate of stability that would end the refugee crisis that uncomfortably invades our TV viewing every night. All the major players involved in the conflict were on board; the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, even relatively uninvolved China expressed support. No one asked ISIL what they thought about losing their caliphate, but no matter, the others plan to degrade and destroy them in any case. This was a major step forward in engagement, but there are serious barriers to this initiative ever producing even a shaky peace. It is, however, a feel-good start to what will probably be another disappointing year for the region.

The situation is already unraveling since Saudi Arabia chose to put to death almost 50 dissidents, including Shiite cleric and outspoken critic of the regime Nimr al-Nimr. The resulting trashing of the Saudi embassy in Tehran by enraged Shiites and the cutting of diplomatic ties between the Saudis, their allies, and the Iranians means that there is no possibility that a peacekeeping force from these nations could ever operate jointly on reconstituted Syrian territory. The Saudis would not want Iran to dominate a post-Assad Syria and the Iranians would not want a Sunni occupying force in one of the few Shiite-dominated countries in the Middle East. Both great powers would prefer to see continued conflict and a power vacuum rather than cede military prestige and territorial control to the other.

Russia is another party that is unlikely to ever withdraw from the region. After spending billions to occupy and upgrade military facilities along the Syrian coast, they Russians now have their own "Guantanamo Bay" in the thick of the action and have a presence to rival the US Naval facility in Bahrain. Any resolution in the region will see these installations in place for decades to come and will provide the Russians with an effective veto over any new Syrian government, similar to the way Syria dominated Lebanon for the 30 years that it occupied the Bekah Valley. The US and the West will have to contend with the Russians as a power broker in the region with a reach far beyond their military encampments.

ISIL is certainly not going to go quietly. They are well financed via oil revenues from their captured territories and the extortion and taxation of populations in their control. ISIL also continues to train, equip and mobilize thousands of new foreign fighters each month. Even if ISIL loses their territory and governmental-style control across Syria and Iraq, they will remain a guerrilla force similar to Al-Qaida in Afghanistan and will cause havoc from the sidelines. Experts have correctly pointed out that Islamist extremism in the region has to be defeated intellectually as well as militarily, and there is no plan in place at the moment for this second, critical stage to their eradication. Figuratively and literally the ISIL dream will live on, in the same way that the caliphate's proponents never forgot that Lawrence of Arabia promised them Greater Syria exactly 100 years ago.

Another genie not going back into the bottle is the question of Kurdish self-determination. The Kurds narrowly failed to obtain Kurdistan at the Paris peace talks of 1919 and their Peshmerga fighters are battling ISIL to gain territory that they regard as their own, not part of Iraq or Syria. While Syria and Iraq may be forced to create autonomous zones for the Kurds in any settlement, Turkish territorial integrity will also be questioned as the Kurds see vast segments of eastern Turkey as their own. When the leader of Turkey's third largest parliamentary group raised the question of Kurdish autonomy, President Erdogan accused him of sedition and treason. It is entirely possible that a Turkish civil war could erupt before the regional borders are decided.

Lastly, let's not forget that there is no consensus on the fate of Bashar Assad, that young London optometrist who found himself promoted to Syrian dictator upon his father's death. He is allied with Russia and supported financially and militarily by Iran. The Russians have been helpful to Assad by bombing forces that oppose ISIL who also oppose Assad's regime, including the Free Syrian Army and the Kurds supported by the US. It is now looking like Assad will not be immediately forced to leave as part of any interim agreement, as even the US is no longer insisting on his removal as a precondition for endorsing a transition plan. With Russian and Iranian political support, the interim agreement could gain an air of permanence and Assad could remain for some time to come.

This scenario is depressing and guarantees that there will be no quick end to dead refugees washing up on Greek beaches. None of the powers active in the region are prepared to make hard compromises to end the conflict because each of them would suffer a loss of prestige and influence as a result. Most of all, for ISIL the question is existential and they are the most motivated to literally fight to the death. The US presidential election cycle risks eclipsing the foreign policy initiatives of the Obama administration, whether you like them or not, and will entrench Congress’ intransigence. 2015 was a bloody disaster; 2016 may be even more so.


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