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Syrian conflict and rethinking ‘Geopolitics in the Middle East’

Earlier this year, the Institute for Islamic Strategic Affairs (IISA) published its Annual Strategic Brief, as part of the IISA Ibn Khaldun paper series, focusing on geopolitics in the Middle East. Our main argument was that state of conflicts and geopolitics in the Middle East is much more complex than conventionally thought, and comprises of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ struggles. The ‘internal’ struggle is between local, regional states and non -states, while the ‘external’ struggle is mainly between Russia and the United States.

The Syrian conflict sits at the crossroads of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ struggles, and that fact has not changed since the publication of that report.

However, there have been some significant developments, including the following:

  • The attempted coup in Turkey and its aftermath (Russia- Turkey rapprochement and Turkish intervention into Syria);
  • US-Russia negotiations (currently ongoing);
  • The Syrian Opposition’s dynamic approach and political vision (launched this week).

The failed coup in Turkey is perhaps the most significant development in the region. Its repercussions are already visible but will be felt long after.  To understand the dynamics of the coup, please read our situation analysis here.

Soon after the coup attempt, the Turkish government decided to take significant U-turns on its positions and policies, including its approach to Russia. President Erdogan travelled to Moscow to iron out some details. Very little is known publically on what actually was discussed between the two leaders; however, Turkish intervention in Syria clearly suggests that Turkey and Russia agreed on the scope of the intervention, and Turks were assured that their forces would not be targeted as long as they operate against Kurdish forces and the Islamic State (IS).

After the  failed coup, the main Turkish interests are internal, i.e. to preserve government and regime security (or if not regime security, to ensure the military does not take power, and that democratic institutions remain intact). Therefore, it can be argued that the main reason behind Turkish intervention in Syria is twofold:

  1. To disallow Kurds to form a state on the Turkish border (which would have strong internal implications in Turkey);
  2. To push back IS as far as possible from Turkish borders.

Therefore, Turkey is looking to do what any sovereign nation state would do: preserve its security. This, however, will come at a cost. In order for Turkey to intervene in Syria, Turkey would have had to give some concessions to Russia; this is where the other two significant developments listed at the beginning of this report come into play.

US and Russian negotiations on ironing out a deal currently hover around a ceasefire and then hitting out on Al Nusra and IS targets. The potential for transitional government is also under discussion.

The vision of the Syrian Opposition, however, contradicts the proposed US-Russian formula. Assad’s stay in power is a non-starter and the emphasis is on establishing a transitional government, after the ceasefire.

So in essence even if US and Russia agree to a deal (which looks very difficult, as there’s absolutely no trust between them), and even if Turkey backs Russian efforts (to an extent), the Syrian Opposition has different set of demands which reflect their position and the position of the Syrian Revolution.

Despite the complexity of the opposing visions discussed above, there are even further complexities that must be considered. For instance: IS and the upcoming assault on Mosul (expected before November); Iran’s significant role in the Syrian conflict; and the ground realities (i.e. siege of Aleppo, and growing humanitarian crises).

It is safe to say that Syrian conflict epitomises the very complex nature of ‘Geopolitics in the Middle East’. The Syrian conflict and this complex nature of geopolitics on multiple fault lines will persist and continue. While readers browse through bold headlines and statements thrown out by big powers; our Annual Strategic Brief and this small but concise report, which rethinks the conventional dynamic, may serve as a reality check.