Syria: Conflict is not ending but spreading
The multi-national conflict in Syria seems to be widening both territorially and militarily. The latest twist came with Turkey’s decision to deploy its armed forces in Iraq in the name of countering Islamic State (IS) there.
It is an interesting debate to engage in to see how effectively various actors involved, in one way or the other, in the conflict have effectively utilised the “terrorism” discourse to justify their various policies and strategic decisions.
Russian authorities can be seen implicitly justifying their military campaign in the name of (apart from the fact that Assad did invite them to Syria) the threat IS can directly pose to them by inciting militant elements in the Central Asian State (CAS).
The West (the US and its European allies) can be seen justifying their military action in the name of protecting democracy, which is supposedly under ‘threat’ due to Assad, and in the name of eliminating IS, the strongest militant and jihadist organization the world has ever seen.
For Turkey, the target is somewhat different, yet it, too, is relying on the same “terrorism” mantra to justify its military and intelligence operations against Kurds, or KPP specifically.
Despite fighting against the same enemy, the Russian and the US-led blocks continue to as much tackle each other as they are apparently tackling IS. The famous ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ principle of international politics seems to have failed in uniting the two blocks in managing the crisis in Levant.
That the Russian military drive has considerably off-set the US-led campaign in Iraq and Syria is quite evident from the developments that have taken place during the past one month or so. Broadly speaking, it has caused two major consequence.
On the one hand, it has forced the US into bringing in its best ally, the ‘Great’ Britain, along with Turkey and France to join hands in Syria against IS, as also against Russia.
On the other hand, these very developments have led to intensification of the Russian campaign itself, marking a counter-balancing Russian maneuver in the wake of British and French direct involvement in the war. In simple words, broadening of the US-led coalition has, as could be expected, been followed by an enhanced Russian military presence in Syria.
The anti-IS conflict has thus taken on an anti-Russian or anti-Western direction as far as Russian and Western positions vis-à-vis each other are concerned.
If, for the West, the Russian presence is strengthening Assad’s position in Syria, for Russia, the West and its allies are directly strengthening IS in Levant not only by providing it military assistance by not bombing it, but also enabling it to earn more than $1 billion a year by buying oil from the group.
The war in Syria is, therefore, not merely a part of global “war on terror.” On the contrary, it has assumed an altogether different colour. It is already a war between two coalitions and the developments taking place there clearly and unambiguously attest to it.
For instance, the latest deployment of Turkish armed forces in Iraq and the support the US-led coalition, or NATO, has expressed for it point to this very changing dynamics of the conflict in Levant. It is quite evident that having been put under immense pressure created by the Russian campaign against Islamist terrorists in Syria, Turkey has now moved into Iraq to counter-balance Russian advances and to potentially checkmate Russian success in Syria and the support it has been providing to Iraq-based anti-IS militant groups.
It is not an isolated policy decision; rather, it is part of a well thought plan that the US and its NATO allies have drawn up in the wake of heightened Russian campaign and increased military presence in Syria — developments that took place in the wake of the downing of a Russian jet.
After a brief halt, the US strikes are back and did hit Syrian army this time on Dec. 6. The incident took place in the village of Ayyash in Deir Ezzor province. Coalition spokesman US Colonel Steve Warren denied US involvement in the deadly raid although the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that the air strike hit the military camp. According to the observatory, “This is the first time that a strike from the US-led coalition killed Syrian government troops.”
Warren’s denial, which is the reflexive Pentagon response to any claim of culpability, suggests that the attack was a deliberate provocation intended to trigger retaliatory strikes from Russia that would, in turn, justify a larger commitment of US troops and weaponry to the four-and-a-half-year-long Syrian war. If the US is planning something like this in Syria, it has delegated its role in Iraq to Turkey which, following in the footsteps of the US, pushed its military inside Iraq without any authorization or invitation from Iraqi Government, said Iraq’s foreign ministry.
The ministry went on to label the incursion of Turkish troops as an “invasion’, stressing that any military operation that has not been agreed on with the government in Baghdad is illegal. Although the US officials did categorize this activity as no part of NATO policy, it cannot be gainsaid that the US, or NATO for that matter, has not raised any objection against it.
Were the US to take this invasion as “illegal”, it should have responded, satirically speaking, in a different manner. Neither has Washington levied sanctions on Turkey, attacked its currency or financial markets, or threatened it with war as it did with Russia during the Crimea crisis. So much for Turkey’s ‘NATO status!’
Ironically speaking, it was not long ago when the mainstream Western media was so concerned about the “possible breach of Turkish airspace”, allegedly for a few seconds by a Russian airplane, that it was ready to justify not only the downing of the jet, but even the murder of one of the pilots.
However, the Western media’s ‘logic’ seems to have underwent a dramatic change now as it appears to be bent upon justifying the violation of Iraq’s sovereignty by Turkey. On similar lines, instead of reprimanding Turkey, the US State Department’s spokesman John Kirby urged the intruder and the occupied to “work together,” and settle the issue on a bilateral basis.
Notwithstanding the US or NATO’s stance on this clear violation of Iraq’s sovereignty, it is obvious that the Turkish invasion is meant to off-set Iraq’s own anti-IS campaign in co-ordination with Russia and Iran.
As a matter of fact, Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), or al-Hashd al-Shabi, which are now part of Iraqi forces, are effectively controlled and backed by Iranian-backed political groups in Iraq such as the Badr Organization, and ultimately by the Qods Force, a branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Some PMU elements fought against US troops during the Iraq war and were only rolled into the anti-IS campaign as a result of Sistani’s 2014 fatwa, which called for defensive jihad against IS, and was legitimized by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s subsequent establishment of a government ‘PMU Commission.’
That Russia has been supporting this force is signified by the fact that Qassem Soleimani, leader of the powerful Quds Force brigade — the military wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp — did travel to Moscow in July to work out an alliance in Iraq against IS. Since then, a certain degree of enhanced co-operation has been observed between Iran and Russia in both Iraq and Syria.
In this context, the recent Turkish incursion into Iraq, which according to Iraqi sources does have support of Kurds based in northern Iraq, seems to serve two purposes.
First, it seems to be aimed at providing a counterweight to the anti-IS alliance between Iraqi Shiites and Iran, formed under Russian leadership. This explains Turkey’s efforts to shape an alliance with the KRG and Sunni Arabs led by Mosul’s Nuceyfi tribe to balance the growing Shiite power in Iraq. Defending Turkish military deployment, Erdogan minced no words in stating this cardinal aspect. “What will happen to Sunnis? There are Sunni Arabs, Sunni Turkmen and Sunni Kurds? What will happen to their security? They need sense of security,” he added.
Second, by placing its own boots in Iraq, Turkey is now far better placed than ever to facilitate greater cooperation between the KRG and the Sunni bodies in Syria. By doing so, it is trying to forge Iraq and Syria into a common front.
The picture that thus emerges out of this quagmire can be reduced to two simple yet critical points. First, it no longer is enough to describe the conflict in Syria as “war on terror” as it has already become a multi-national conflict. Second, states involved in Iraq and Syria are longer merely fighting different proxy groups; they are equally facing one another directly.
This is evident from Turkish army’s position against Iraqi forces, the US bombing of Syrian forces and the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey. These instances clearly indicate that after almost four-and-a- half year into fighting, the Syrian conflict is, by no stretch of imagination, nearing its end; it is spreading both territorially and militarily. And, as such, it has assumed an even more complex character.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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