The Middle East is on the threshold of a radical change whose contours are still evolving. One certainty is that when the firestorms that have been raging die out, and they will, the region will be different. Syria is the battleground where all concerned forces, and associated demons, are playing out.
The fourth round of intra-Syrian negotiations ended in Geneva 2 March after almost 10 days of Russian and United Nations efforts to bring the parties to an agreement on negotiations in the next rounds. The fifth is due 25 March in Geneva. This time, the negotiators will have an agenda that will guide them, hopefully, to chart a way forward for their country torn by six years of mayhem and destruction. The agenda falls within the framework of Security Council Resolution 2254 of December 2015, that has laid down a roadmap for a political solution in Syria. The agenda that will be discussed is centred around four crucial questions; namely, governance, a constitution, elections — both parliamentary and presidential — and fighting terrorism. The last item was included at the request of the Syrian government after some resistance from the members of what is known as the Riyadh forum. Interestingly, the Syrian government welcomed the results of the fourth round of the intra-Syrian negotiations, an unprecedented position since the political talks between the two parties began back in January 2016. And a welcome one that augurs well for the future.
But while the Syrians — whether we are speaking about the government or the opposition, with its different and competing factions — are grappling to work out a political solution, there is, on the ground, a battle among foreign and regional powers to shape the future of Syria in the absence of Arab powers. The leading powers having a direct and an unmistakable impact on the ground are Russia and the United States, on the one hand, and Iran and Turkey, on the other. Each power has its own interests and plan to project and defend, while Israel is intervening with both the United States and Russia to make sure that the Syria of tomorrow will not be a launching pad for Iran. The Israeli prime minister was in Moscow 9 March to discuss with President Vladimir Putin of Russia this particular question, among other topics.
In the same period, the United States sent 400 Marines with 155 howitzer guns, the most powerful of gunnery in the American arsenal, to northern Syria. A first for the United States since Washington started to take a direct interest in Syria after 2011. The Marines went in without prior coordination with the Syrian government, exactly like the Turks had done when they deployed their ground forces on Syrian territory 24 August 2016. They are still fighting in northern Syria against the Kurds. On 10 March, the Syrian government asked the United Nations for the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Syria. This request could be interpreted as an indirect warning to the Turks that would be followed by raids and attacks on Turkish forces in northern Syria. If this scenario would come true, a major regional war would erupt in Syria that would pull all powers into the battle, including the Israelis, who would resort to whatever means to prevent an Iranian victory. The Arabs will be on the sidelines, save those who have thrown their lot with the Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and lined up with Ankara against some Arab powers who happen to be on good terms with the Iranians. This region-wide war would be fought on national, ethnic, sectarian lines, something that we have never witnessed in the last 100 years. The Arabs in their next summit in Amman, at the end of this month, must do their utmost to save the Middle East and the Arab world from such a devastating scenario. The Turks, the Iranians and the Israelis have nothing to lose. They will be fighting for regional hegemony on Arab territories, and secured within their respective borders. It is the Syrians and the Arabs who would be on the losing side. Neither Syria nor Iraq will have the same frontiers. And the Arab world, particularly the Middle East and the Gulf countries, will be reduced to the role of bystanders while foreign powers would be dictating Arab borders and politics.
The battle lines in Syria have been drawn, finally, the moment the US Marines went into Syria early March. For the last four years, the Americans have been involved in Syria via third parties, sometimes through the perfidious Erdogan government, and other times through some Gulf monarchies. This time around, the United States has boots on the ground ready to fight. But the question is, who is the enemy? It is not clear yet. The Syrian president, Bashar Al-Assad, said in an interview mid-March that although the Trump administration promised to fight the so-called “Islamic State”, so far no American strategy to carry out such a mission has been announced. It remains to be seen whether the deployment of the 400 Marines in northern Syria is temporary and mission-specific, or is the firing shot in long-term military strategy to fight Islamic State and other Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist groups operating in Syria.
In seeking an answer to this question, the statement of the US envoy to Syria, Michael Ratny, on 11 March could be of help. In a very straightforward manner, he blasted Al-Qaeda-affiliated “Al-Nusra Front” and its leader, Mohamed Al-Golani, who by the way was the terrorist buddy of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, another Al-Qaeda leader and the founder of the so-called Islamic State. The US envoy made clear that Al-Qaeda and what has become to be known as the “Levant Liberation Front” will not succeed in its efforts to get American recognition. He went further and accused Al-Golani of trying to highjack the “Syrian revolution” to ultimately bring Syria under the rule of Al-Qaeda. Never has an American official been so explicit and unequivocal in describing the terrorist organisation led by this notorious terrorist Al-Golani. The aim of the American deployment in the north of Syria could be this, but I would argue that it will not be easy today to imagine when the withdrawal of this fighting force would take place. Hopefully, it would be linked with the inking of a UN-sponsored agreement on a political solution in Syria. So will be a similar withdrawal of Turkish troops.
When the Arab countries gather in Amman at the end of March they should be clear on their strategic priorities away from ethnic and sectarian considerations that have wrought havoc in the Middle East and shaken their security and political stability.
One thing is sure. Regardless of the outcome of the Amman summit, when the dust will settle, and it will ultimately, the Middle East will not be the same and Israel will be near achieving the status of a regional hegemon. Turkey and Iran will not become clear victors but not net losers either. The Arabs will be on the margins. The only power that could make a big difference is Egypt. Will it play its cards well? This remains to be seen.
The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.