While US and European politicians wring their hands and indulge in recriminations over the fall of Aleppo, Russia, Iran and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime are celebrating a “historic” victory they believe has turned the tide in the six-year-old war.
“Is there nothing you will not lie about? Do you have no shame?” demanded Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, accusing the three allies of barbarism and continuing atrocities as rebel territory fell to pro-Assad forces.
Anybody who expected the Russians to show contrition over Aleppo has not studied the denouement of the second Chechen war in 2000. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s then newly installed president, ordered the extermination of separatist resistance. When the siege of Grozny ended, the UN described Chechnya’s capital as “the most destroyed city on earth”.
Until now. Putin employed similar ruthlessness to destroy Aleppo from the air, determined to end the war by military means. Russian diplomats have mostly used on-off US- and UN-brokered peace talks to play for time, running out the clock on the Obama administration while pro-Assad forces advanced.
Now the question arises: what next for Syria? While the conflict may have tilted decisively against the so-called moderate rebel forces backed by the west, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners, it is not over.
Assad’s regime remains weak, and critically beholden to foreign powers. And there are signs his victorious allies are already falling out, like thieves squabbling over the spoils.
Russia, whose forceful intervention in 2015 blindsided the US, may now seek to wind down its costly military involvement, while playing up its role as the premier Middle East power broker. To this end, Putin announced on Friday that he would convene peace talks for later this month, attended by Iran and Turkey but none of the Gulf states or western powers.
He will keep his air and naval bases in Syria. He will keep Assad under his thumb. But he will to try to disprove Barack Obama’s prediction that Russia will be sucked into an open-ended quagmire similar to Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Russia’s current alliance of convenience with Iran could quickly become problematic. Iranian-backed Shia militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan did most of the ground fighting in Aleppo. Tehran is in triumphal mood. It interprets Aleppo as a symbolic victory over its old enemy the US and the Sunni leadership of its arch-rival Saudi Arabia.
There is revived talk of an Iranian “Shia crescent” stretching from Afghanistan through Iraq and Yemen to the Mediterranean. Unlike Moscow, Tehran views its successes through a sectarian prism.
“We see it as our duty to support those trying to force takfiri [Sunni jihadi] terrorism out of their territory,” the president, Hassan Rouhani, told Assad in a celebratory phone call.
The very real prospect of ongoing sectarian struggle in Syria is not attractive for Moscow. It carries uncomfortable echoes of the Sunni insurgency against US and UK forces in post-invasion Iraq. Now that the moderate rebel forces are sidelined and dispersed, Iran’s maximalist approach could strengthen support among Syria’s Sunni majority for Al Qaeda-linked jihadis whose forces are now concentrating in Idlib, south-west of Aleppo. It could even boost the militant Islamic State group, which still controls a large swath of territory around Raqqa in the north.
For Putin, the bigger picture includes indications that the incoming Trump administration may seek an accommodation with Moscow. Unlike Obama, Donald Trump has indicated he could accept Assad remaining in power if it advances the fight against IS. But he and his hawkish new security team are fiercely hostile to Iran.
In return for normalising relations, accepting Russia’s position in Syria and, for example, burying the hatchet over Ukraine, Trump could demand Moscow back away from Iran, end arms sales and nuclear industry cooperation, and help curb IS and Tehran’s sectarian ambitions in Syria and Iraq.
A grand bargain of this kind would suit Israel, where alarm is growing at the likelihood that Iranian-directed militias, notably Hezbollah, will soon deploy along its border with Syria, particularly the disputed Golan Heights. In a warning to Rouhani this week, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, accused Iran of plotting to destroy his country.
“Don’t threaten us. We are not a rabbit, we are a tiger. If you threaten us, you endanger yourself,” Netanyahu warned.
Israel counts Moscow as a kind of ally these days, a reflection of Netanyahu’s bad relationship with Obama. It would probably accept a Russian-imposed settlement in Syria if it brought stability and squeezed out Iran. Doubtless this possibility will be discussed during Netanyahu’s upcoming meeting with Trump and Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pro-Moscow nominee as secretary of state.
Syria’s future integrity and stability will also be determined to a large degree by Turkey, which has established a military presence in the north of the country — the only Nato member to do so.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, is one of the war’s losers. He pressed hard for Assad’s departure. He covertly backed Sunni jihadis. He sought to contain Syria’s anti-regime Kurds, but was thwarted by Washington. And he simultaneously exploited the crisis to suppress Turkey’s indigenous Kurds. His harsh tactics produced a spate of retaliatory IS and Kurdish terrorist attacks on Turkish cities.
Now, with his foe Assad not toppled and his own leadership shaken by last summer’s failed army coup, Erdogan’s priority is security, internal and external. To this end, he has patched up relations with Putin after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane last year. Excluding the western powers, Turkey and Russia arranged this week’s Aleppo evacuation deal.
Erdogan is also cooperating with Iran, majority Sunni Turkey’s historical Persian-Ottoman imperial competitor. Their shared interests include curbing IS and quashing Kurdish autonomy. Like Turkey, Iran has a large ethnic Kurdish minority.
But as a recent analysis by the independent International Crisis Group pointed out, this collaboration may fall victim to old rivalries and suspicions as both countries seek to shape a future Syrian settlement, competing for control, territory and resources.
“The dynamics instead point toward deepening sectarian tensions, greater bloodshed, growing instability across the region and greater risks of direct — even if inadvertent — military confrontation between [Turkey and Iran] where their spheres of influence collide,” the ICG said, pointing to the recent killing of Turkish soldiers in northern Syria, allegedly by an Iranian drone.
For the US and the EU, the fall of Aleppo, Assad’s survival and Russia’s and Iran’s ascendancy represent a generational foreign policy setback. Samantha Power’s attack reflected Washington’s impotent rage. American influence in the Middle East is now at a very low ebb, at the very moment when the region is at its most chaotic.
By general agreement, Europe’s management of the crisis on its doorstep has been nothing short of disastrous. The consequences, in terms of terrorism, migration, instability and the damage done to the EU’s credibility as an international actor will be long-lasting. Over what happens next in Syria, Europe will have little or no say.
By arrangement with The Guardian
Published in Dawn December 18th, 2016