Considering the quantity and virulence of the groups taking part in the Syrian war, which has been going on uninterruptedly for six years, in principle there are two possible scenarios.
An unstable peace that will disrupt the Syrian political and territorial system – as is currently happening in the Lebanon – or a long war of attrition, as in the Balkans of the 1990s or currently in Ukraine or the Horn of Africa.
A “long war” hiding the strategic and geopolitical void of those who have organized it.
Initially the aim of the conflict was to prevent Syria from being open to the Iranian power projection onto the Mediterranean region but, in the event of a long war, no one will gain and no country will ever be in a position to obtain a geopolitical surplus from the current conflict in Syria.
The cultural and military rifts are well-known: the division between Sunnis and Shiites – often craftily manipulated by both religious groups – the divide between religious and “secular” power – insofar as this distinction can be drawn in the Middle East – the division between the two emerging powers in the region, namely Turkey and Iran, and finally the division among the 68 old Western powers of the Coalition led by the United States and the Russian Federation.
Hence the size and shape of the new Middle East will result from the analysis of the Syrian war.
The West, which no longer has a true theory of war, interpret the clashes only through the headlines of its newspapers and the psychotic and irrational obsessions of its voters.
As I have long been maintaining, terrorism is never a strategic concept – the sword Islam operates against the “infidels” through the jihad, which also uses terror, but is not just terrorism.
Here lies the US geopolitical paradox in Syria, where the Muslim Brotherhood’s rebellion against Bashar al-Assad and the subsequent jihadist actions against the Baathist regime deprive the United States of reliable support on the ground for the project designed to bring democracy to the Arab and Islamic world.
The Arab rebellions were not similar to those of the democratic groups operating within the Warsaw Pact before 1989. The Arab rebellions during and after the Arab “springs” were mainly economic rebellions, linked to the end of Nasser’s or nationalist Welfare State. All this happened while the Arab States’ fiscal crisis, caused by the measures imposed by the Monetary Fund and the World Bank, was stifling public spending.
Moreover, the US support to the Free Syrian Army – often made up and supported by jihadist groups – and the autonomous strategy of Turkey, which is no longer interested in NATO, as well as Russia’s effective support to Bashar al-Assad, are all factors that further complicate the situation in Syria.
While the United States trained “rebels” who did not carry out operations – or, worse, went to swell the ranks of Daesh-Isis – or joined the Kurds, thus creating very harsh tension with Turkey, Russia correctly identified both the friend and the enemy: the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the friend who could win with the Russian support, and the primary enemy, namely the jihadism of the Syrian-Iraqi “Caliphate”.
Obviously, in the future, the Russian foreseeable victory in Syria will not enable the United States and the EU to make acceptable concessions to Russia in order to solve the Ukrainian issue.
This was certainly a hidden motive of the Russian decision-makers.
It is, however, a good start: in fact, currently Russia is militarily credible, while the United States and its allies have not really made a good impression in the Syrian-Iraqi region.
Hence – reverting to our analysis on the future of Syria after the conflict or, rather, after the end of the harshest phases of the conflict – we will have to deal with an Alawite regime which will hold the main cities and the Mediterranean coasts, as well as the Kurdish region, divided between the Afrin and the North-East plains, an area that could make the US and Russian interests meet.
Finally, both Russia and the United States want to control Turkey, which cannot and above all must not become the power of reference for all Sunni Syrians who are the majority of population.
Here also the Kurds are good as mass of manoeuvre since they can protect Israel from the North.
There is also the Sunni region, which will long still be in the hands of the many jihadist groups that currently operate between the so-called “Caliphate” and the Free Syrian Army, while the border with Iraq could enable these groups to avoid clashes and gradually rebuild their war potential.
Furthermore, Isis-Daesh – now caught between Deir-Ezzor and Raqqa – has still the potential to cause further problems and recruit new Sunni militants from abroad and from Syria’s wide Sunni region.
In particular, the United States also wants to avoid a single group of countries dominating over the whole Middle East and jihadism becoming decisive in the arc of countries that have always strategically supported the United States in the region.
However, we must be careful: Egypt, weakened by the usual and silly “Arab Springs”, is currently very different from Mubarak’s Egypt; Jordan hosts so many Syrian refugees who now account for 20% of its population; Saudi Arabia – considering the current oil prices – can no longer afford its military and soft power initiatives.
Iran wants above all to create its own protection and control area from its borders towards the Mediterranean, by supporting its friendly States (Qatar and Oman) and making its threat to the great Sunni powers credible.
Another factor not to be forgotten is that the current US Presidency thinks that the control of Iran moves and the possible clash with Iran in Syria are one of its primary goals in the Syrian-Iraqi region.
Nevertheless, President Putin will never accept this situation because, in Syria, Russia is largely guaranteed by the Pasdaran on its Eastern and Southern flank and by the Iranian “volunteers’ forces” often composed of Afghan or Iraqi Shiites.
Hence Iran wants to secure its internal stability in Syria, in view of Ali Khamenei’s forthcoming death, and to create a new and strong deterrence against Israel, as well as become the primary security provider for the Syrian regime, the Lebanon and the Shiite “Axis of Resistance” units, without ever forgetting the Palestinian units.
For the Shiite units, the attack on Israel will be from Golan, the Lebanon and the border with the Palestinian Authority, with actions for saturating the combat field capable of causing many problems to the Jewish State’s forces.
This is the scenario which is emerging also in Syria.
Iran also wants to definitively oust the United States from Iraq and, in the future, from the Sunni areas traditionally close to the United States.
Furthermore, Iran will not fully mobilize to support Assad’s operations in Southern Syria as, for the time being, it does not want to create the conditions and the opportunity for a final confrontation with Israel.
As far as Daesh-Isis is concerned, it is highly likely that – in the coming months – a series of terrorist actions will be launched by the “Caliphate” in Europe, with a sequence of operations also in Russia.
The more some European countries have been scarcely affected by jihadist terrorism, the more attacks in those areas will be likely, namely in Germany, the Baltic countries, as well as again in Great Britain and – when the new “covert” networks are created – also in Italy.
In all likelihood, the Caliphate’s first actions on the Syrian soil will be clashes between the forces of what remains of the Caliphate and Iran – probably in the Diyala region – in order to isolate Russia and weaken it on the front in which the Caliphate is most interested, which is the one linking Syria to Iraq.
Daesh-Isis may also carry out a widespread action to destabilize Jordan, while al-Qaeda’s network will have the primary aim of maintaining, protecting and expanding the terrorist networks already present in Syria and its neighbouring countries, with a view to later using them in Afghanistan to prevent the stabilization of the Afghan regime, or in Saudi Arabia, which could be currently weak enough to be hit by a large-scale terrorist attack.
As already partially noted, Turkey is present in Syria mainly to prevent the creation of an autonomous Kurdistan, which would act as a trigger for the Kurdish region currently within the Turkish borders.
Obviously, Turkey does not even want Russia to further expand in Syria, while it remotely controls the presence of Iran that is Turkey’s true competitor in the region.
Furthermore, Turkey is present in Syria to reduce NATO’s political and military impact on its foreign policy – hence also the clout of the United States and of the Turkish Armed Forces that President Erdogan keeps on not fully trusting.
Turkey is present in Syria also to strengthen its strategic cooperation with Russia and reconnect itself with China’s current power projection onto the Middle East.
President Erdogan is fed up with NATO’s strategic void and intends to connect with both China and the various Central Asian countries, with a view to building his new neo-Ottoman hegemony.
The Turkish AKP’s geopolitics is also cherishing the idea of becoming the power of reference also for the Sunni world in the Middle East, at a time when Saudi Arabia and Egypt are declining both at economic and at political and militarily levels.
Nevertheless, there are other factors to be considered in our Syrian strategic equation: whatever happens, Assad has not the ability to “hold” Syria – fully or partly – without stable Russian or Iranian support.
Furthermore, the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia could break out and radicalize at any time, especially if Jordan became unstable and the Palestinian networks – now all linked to Iran – were to start destabilizing the Saudi regime.
Not to mention the possible radicalization of the Kurdish issue, which would oblige Turkey to be more present in Syria and to launch a sequence of repressive actions inside it, which would probably isolate Erdogan’s regime at international level.
Hence no solution is devoid of dangers for the stability of the Mediterranean basin and the EU but, obviously, no EU government seems to become aware of the far-reaching effects of the Syrian tensions.
GIANCARLO ELIA VALORI
Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France