March 19, 2018
U.K.’s expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats, Moscow’s retaliation, Trump administration’s imposition of new sanctions on Russia, the Joint statement from the leaders of France, Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom on the Salisbury attack and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s recent statements is bad news for the people of Syria. Because, these developments signal rising tensions between Russia and the West. Syria’s political transition, on the contrary, depends on their broad cooperation, at least their ability to compartmentalize their disagreements.
The Ukraine conflict dealt a blow to Russia-West relations, more severe than the one dealt by the Russia-Georgia war of 2008. It led to greater turbulence. Because, while Georgia is located at the eastern end of the Black Sea, Ukraine is a European country and four NATO nations, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania are Ukraine’s neighbors. Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia border on Russia. All three are dependent on Russian natural gas and the last two are home to a substantial number of ethnic Russians. In other words, they have reasons to worry.
Georgia and Ukraine conflicts may not be identical. Yet, both have turned into frozen conflicts and South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Crimea are lost to these countries. Although the West often reiterates that it does not recognize the annexation of Crimea, there is little it can do to reverse it. And, Georgia remains beyond West’s reach. While the U.S., China and Russia continue to engage in competition as global powers they appear to admit the impossibility of making decisive interventions in the immediate periphery of the other two as shown by the Georgia and Ukraine conflicts.
Syria is different. It is in an area with a history of major power competition.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria was a game changer. It showed that Russia remains a major actor in the Middle East and has the hard power to make a difference on the ground. However, that could not be the end of a success story. Since President Putin had always been a strong critic of U.S. interventions in Iraq and Libya for having led to chaos and devastation, Russia had to show its peacemaking capacity and the Astana process was launched to help accomplish that on Russia’s terms. Now, however, with rising U.S.-Russia tensions this has become more elusive than ever.
The so-called commitment to Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity reflected in UNSC resolutions cannot possibly take Syria back to the days before the Arab spring. The Trump administration is likely to continue investing in the PYD/YPG. What it promised the PYD/YPG for their withdrawal from the town of Afrin remains to be seen. Moreover, there is a new regional realignment.
On the one hand, Gulf countries and Israel are moving closer to one another and Israel would prefer a fractured/fragile Syria to a united one. On the other hand, İran and Iraq have similar perspectives of Syria. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq empowered the country’s Shi’i majority. However, Iran and Iraq would not wish Syria’s transition to empower the country’s Sunni majority. All regional countries except for Turkey would be loath to see any major role for the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.
In recent weeks Western attention focused on Eastern Ghouta. Yet, what was said about the plight of the Syrian people barely masked the power games dimension of the conflict. So, with rising tensions between the West and Russia and the region divided as ever, Syrians will continue to suffer.