Tuesday, February 23, 2016
Syria Boils Over: Obama Sleeps
The Syrian Cauldron Boils Over - Jonathan Spyer
Russian intervention which began on September 30, 2015 and which is now rolling across northwestern Syria announces the arrival of a growing de facto alliance between Moscow and the Islamic Republic of Iran. This alliance currently works to the benefit of both parties...
In Syria, the abilities and needs of the Russian and Iranians are complementary. Russia brings an air capacity to the Syrian battlefield against which the Sunni Arab rebels are effectively helpless. But airp ower is of limited use without a committed ground partner. The Russians have no desire to become bogged down in a large-scale commitment of Russian ground troops.
The Iranians lack anything close to the Russian ability in the air. But what they possess, via the skills of the Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, is a currently matchless ability to create and mobilize sectarian paramilitary proxies, and then to move them to where needed across the regional chessboard. Hence, the ground partner for Russian air power in northern Syria is today not only or mainly the Syrian Arab Army of Bashar Assad. Rather, Lebanese Hizballah, the Iraqi Shia Badr Brigade, the Afghan Shia Fatemiyun and IRGC personnel themselves are all playing a vital role.
It is not at all clear that this alliance will be able or even willing to complete the reconquest of the entirety of Syria – which remains the goal of the regime as stated by Bashar Assad last week. However, it will certainly be able to preserve the Assad regime from destruction, and may yet deliver a deathblow to the non-IS rebels in the northwest, center and south west of the country.
The potency of this emergent Russian-Iranian alliance is made possible only by the willed absence of the United States from the arena. Russia felt confident enough to launch its attempt to destroy the rebellion because it calculated that the prospect of the United States extending its own air cover westwards to protect the rebels (whose goal it ostensibly supports) was sufficiently close to zero. The Obama administration appears strategically committed to staying out. The US and its allies are making slow progress against the Islamic State. But west of the Euphrates, the United States is an irrelevance.
This brings us to the third salient factor apparent in the situation in northern Syria: namely, the relative impotence of the Sunni powers when faced with the superior force of Russia.
Syrian Kurdish performance both militarily and politically is worthy of note. Militarily, the YPG remains one of the most powerful forces engaged. Politically, the Kurds appear currently to be performing a balancing act whereby east of the Euphrates they partner with US air power against the Islamic State, while west of the river, they seek to unite the Afrin and Kobani cantons in partnership with Russian air power against the Turkish backed rebels – with the acquiescence of both powers.
So put all this together and you have a fair approximation of the current state of the Middle East, as reflected in miniature in the cauldron that is northern Syria: emergent Iranian-Russian strategic alliance, US non-involvement, hapless US-aligned Sunni powers flailing as a result of this absence, state fragmentation, the emergence of powerful 'successor' entities, the domination of Arab politics at a popular level by Sunni political Islam and the emergence of the Kurds as a militarily able and politically savvy local power.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.