Written by Feodor Lukiyanov; Appeared in Bulgarian at A-specto, translated by Valentina Tzoneva exclusively for SouthFront
The Turkish army – probably not without the agreement of the major players in the Syrian theatre of war, the USA and Russia – started military operations in northern Syria, which were supported by the USA through direct hits from the air. At the same time, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, without formally commenting on Ankara’s actions, announced that it was concerned about “the further worsening of the situation in the conflict zone,” considering the possibility of civilian victims and the “aggravation of inter-ethnic conflict between the Arabs and the Kurds.” Unofficially, it said: ”The anti-terrorist actions in Syria are needed now more than ever, especially in the region of the Turkish-Syrian border.” From this, we can conclude that the Turkish actions are not in conflict with the recent agreements between Moscow, Berlin, Paris, Washington, Ankara, Tehran and probably Damascus. Six months ago, everyone was concerned that northern Syria would become an arena for a direct clash between Turkey and Russia. The relations after the downing of the Russian bomber deteriorated sharply. Ankara was concerned that the change in the situation on the Syrian front in favor of Assad and his allies would put an end to Turkish interests in the region, and for this reason, considered the possibility of a military intervention. Instead of this, however, an initiative for the “termination of hostility” by the Russian and the USA presidents was announced. According to statements made by American commentators, Washington agreed to cooperate not because its interests coincided with those of Moscow, but mostly due to fears of a Russia-Turkey war. A war would have increased the tension to an extreme, and neither the USA nor NATO would have been able to stay away from the conflict. Apart from that, a conflict between Russia and Turkey on Syrian territory would cause a judicial collision for the alliance. An answer must be given to the question to what extent the guarantees for collective security are applicable.
Today the relations between Moscow and Ankara have taken a reverse direction, but Washington’s position is wavering. With this, we are not able to say that the Syrian plot is undergoing a qualitative change. The fight against the Islamic State remains the major problem, which no one contests, and it appears as though everyone is participating to resolve it. However, there is another theme. The theme for the future structure of Syria and its potential participants, although it may look strange, only partially depends on the fight against the Islamic State. This theme is important in principle, albeit in a different way, for the participants in the Syrian conflict because it is directly connected to the question of the prospects for Bashar all Assad. The disagreements between the external players on the question of whether the opposing Damascus groups – including Jabhat al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fatah ash–Sham) which has been recognised as a terrorist group – are legitimate or not, have not been finalised.
To draw a simple diagram of the events in Syria is impossible. Two events are taking place simultaneously between the different players: on one hand, there is coordination for limiting and destroying Islamic State, while on the other, we are witnessing sharp competition between the countries which hold the groups fighting on the battlefield in their hands. Everything changes at a kaleidoscopic speed. It is enough to look at the zig-zagging maneuvers of the Syrian Kurds. On one side, they are pressurised by the war with Islamic State in which they practically have the support of all other countries; and on the other side, they are threatened by the conflict with Turkey, in which the external forces are sometimes on the side of the Kurds and other times against them, depending on the current conditions of the relations with Ankara.
And this boiling pot is not a result of the escalation of military activities, but as it is popular to say today, is due to the “new norms.” Therefore, the situation there won’t become clearer because to undo the ball of conflicts requires a number of participants of different calibres to make hundreds of compromises. Actually, there is one component which, regardless of all the contradictions, can be viewed in a long-term plan as a strategic circumstance. A hundred years after the secret agreements between the great powers for sharing of the Middle East, the region is returning to a new version of behind-the-scenes deals. And the external factors take precedence over the internal ones, because the regional participants are not able to do anything on their own.
In May this year, Islamic State made a special statement dedicated to the centennial of the so-called Sykes-Picot agreement to partition the Ottoman legacy after World War I between the British and French Empires. For the Islamic State, this document symbolises the unpardonable interference of the “crusaders” in the internal affairs of the Muslim world, and is the epitome of a vicious principle for state structure through an irregular outline of borders and the creation of artificial “nations” on the living body of the caliphate. Not surprisingly, in his planned sermon made in the summer of 2014 immediately after the Islamists took over Mosul, shocking the whole world, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that “this blessed march will not end until the final nail is hammered in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot scheme.” Two and a half years later, the Iraqi army together with American support, slowly but surely moved closer to Mosul and the zone controlled by Islamic State became smaller; its military defeat now looks quite possible. Apart from that, the “caliph” reached the goal that he announced in 2014. The Islamists hammered enough nails and the Middle East will never be what the western diplomats planned a hundred years ago. But the big hopes of the Islamists are empty, too. The Arab world is not united and it has fallen into a more confusing dependence of the big players. Turkey’s direct involvement in the Syrian conflict has turned Syria into an arena in which external forces interact with one another. In other words, everyone has declared support for the unity of Syria and the other states of the Middle East. In practice, however, to imagine the restoration of the Syrian state in this range and this degree of manageability as it was six years ago, is impossible.
We can imagine that the fighting will stop at some point; the parties will realise that victory in the war is unreal and will be forced to fix the situation. Let this be a relatively steady partition, justified by an ethno-confessional and political point of view, where the conditional “subjects” of the future Syria will start negotiations for a new state structure. But the main problem is that none of these subjects will be capable of doing so without the support of one or another external force. This applies as much to Assad’s regime – which will crash without Iran and Russia’s military support – as well as to the “moderate opposition” – helped by the West and Saudi Arabia; the same applies to the Islamists to whom even now there is a flow of sometimes genuine and sometimes ad hoc support. In other words, the degree of involvement of foreign interests in the Syrian disagreement is such that it has become an inseparable and necessary part of any construction, regardless of whether we speak about war or peace. With the new historic background, the situation is returning to the time when in 1915-1916, Sir Mike Sykes and Francois George Picot partitioned the Middle East. At that time, despite the secret character of the agreement, its contents were not a secret to anyone. Now, the colonial tendencies of the big players are unlikely to pass. A century of Arab nationalism has not been in vain. However, the regional players cannot cope on their own. They curse foreign intervention which ruined everything, but at the same time, provokingly attract the West and Russia, and now even China, in their conflicts.
The next deal in the spirit of Sykes-Picot (and why not “Kerry-Lavrov”) is believed to be ideologically unacceptable. After the Cold War, the progressive humanity angrily rejected the very idea of “spheres of influence.” The alternative is a further internationalisation of the conflict and turning it into a “global war of the authorised” (Proxy World War). The opposing coalitions are starting to form. One of them is grouping around the Russian military machine and the second around the American. Nevertheless, we must not forget that a bad peace is better than the best war. And in principle, this is not only related to the war in Syria.