NIRAJ SRIVASTAVA | 9 NOVEMBER, 2017
Endgame Begins in the Syrian War
US might yet face first defeat in West Asia
The 3rd of November marks an important turning point in the Syrian war, which has been raging for more than six years. It was on that day that the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies captured the provincial capital of Deir Ezzore, most of which had been under the control of jihadi groups during the last five years. The Nusra Front controlled it for two years [from 2012 to 2014], while the Islamic State (ISIS) held it for the last three years.
However, even during the above occupation, the SAA defended a part of the city, inhabited by around 100,000 civilians, with a force of just 7000-odd soldiers. The residents of this portion were supplied by humanitarian airdrops of food and other supplies by the World Food Organisation and the Syrian Air Force.
Despite considerable loss of life due to the fighting and shortage of essential supplies, the SAA managed to retain its part of Deir Ezzore for five years—a remarkable feat.
With the liberation of Deir Ezzore, the supply lines of the SAA are secured, and it is marching towards the last urban area in Syria held by ISIS— the town of Abu Kamal, near the Syrian-Iraqi border. On the other side, Iraqi government forces have captured the vital border crossing of al-Qaim, and are in the process of liberating the town itself.
Once the SAA liberates Abu Kamal, it aims to secure the Syria-Iraq border crossing, linking up with the Iraqi forces on the other side. That is a major strategic objective of the SAA which it will try hard to achieve, and will likely succeed.
Deir Ezzore was also coveted by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which consist of mainly Kurdish and some Arab fighters. They had captured the ISIS headquarters of Raqqa, and some oil and gas fields in the area last month. The US game plan was to capture substantial territory in northeast Syria using the SDF as foot soldiers. Syria could then be partitioned, with the Kurds controlling eastern Syria, which has most of Syria’s oil and gas fields.
US military bases could then have been set up in the Kurdish territory [mentioned above] to destabilise the Assad regime and disrupt the “Shia Crescent,” extending from Iran to Lebanon. With the liberation of Deir Ezzore, that cannot happen anymore. Syria’s strategic objective of liberating all areas occupied by hostile foreign forces and unifying the country appears to be within reach, though it may take some time.
In fact, there are reports that the SAA will march to Raqqa soon, to take it from the SDF. There are also reports that the SDF has agreed to hand over some oil fields, currently under its control, to the Russians.
Meanwhile, Turkish forces are clearing up some jihadi groups in the western Syrian province of Idlib, under an agreement reached between Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Syria in Astana, the Kazakh capital. The Astana talks, whose seventh round was held recently, have helped significantly to coordinate action on the ground in Syria among the major players in contrast to the UN-brokered talks in Geneva, which have hardly produced any results.
The geopolitics of the Syrian war has also been reconfigured in the last few months. The US and its Western allies have reluctantly concluded that regime change in Syria is no longer possible. Last May, Trump officially ended the CIA’s covert operations in Syria [which were funding some major jihadi groups], though the Pentagon continues to illegally operate several US military bases in the country, in the hope of partitioning Syria. That, too, looks increasingly unlikely, as explained above.
Turkey, which was the main conduit for pumping arms and fighters into Syria, has changed sides. It is now in the Russian-Iranian camp, after realising that Assad cannot be overthrown. It is also greatly disillusioned with the US, and the West in general, after the unsuccessful coup attempt against Erdogan in July last year, which had tacit US backing. Its relations with the EU are in very bad shape; there are grievances on both sides.
Jordan, too, is looking for a face-saving formula to mend fences with Assad, after watching the situation turn in his favour. It had no choice after the big players changed their moves.
The falling out between Saudi Arabia and Qatar last June has also had a major impact on the situation in Syria. These two countries provided the funding for jihadi groups fighting in the country. After the Saudi-Qatar breakup, funds from them to the jihadis have dried up.
In an explosive interview to a Qatari TV channel on 25th October, former Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabir al-Thani revealed that Qatar, along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the US, began shipping weapons to jihadis in Syria from the very moment events “first started” [in 2011]. Thani was in charge of Qatar’s Syria operations until 2013.
Thani also said that Qatar has “full documents” and records proving that the war was planned to effect regime change in Syria. He claimed that both King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and the United States placed Qatar in a lead role for orchestrating covert operations to conduct the proxy war. He said that when the war began in Syria, “all of us worked through two operations rooms: one in Jordan and one in Turkey.”
Moreover, one day before the Thani interview, a US publication, “The Intercept,” released a new top-secret NSA document from files leaked by Edward Snowden. These documents clearly show that the armed opposition in Syria was under the direct command of foreign governments from the beginning of the war, which has now claimed half a million lives.
The continuing acrimony between Qatar and Saudi Arabia is likely to result in more washing of dirty linen in public between the two sides, furnishing more incriminating information regarding the role of foreign powers in igniting the war in Syria. Russia, Iran, and Syria will be its beneficiaries, as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) implodes and more information tumbles out.
Saudi Arabia also has, for all practical purposes, given up its regime change objectives in Syria. Saudi King Salman’s visit to Moscow last month was evidence of the changed Saudi priorities.
The large-scale, and unprecedented, arrests of many prominent Saudi princes, ministers, and businessmen ordered by the Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Sultan (MbS) on 4th November has plunged the country into a major internal crisis which will keep Saudi Arabia preoccupied for a long time. The Saudis are unlikely to have any time for Syria. Their hands are full with their internal problems.
It is therefore not unthinkable that Syria, despite remaining challenges, may one day be unified, and peace restored to that country. If that happens, the Syrian war will mark a significant inflexion point in global geopolitics—the war which saw the military defeat of the US and its allies at the hands of Syria and its friends, especially Russia. This defeat would be the first after a string of successful regime changes—in Iraq (2003), Libya (2011) and Ukraine (2014)— engineered by the US, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
It would also mark the re-emergence of Russia as a major power which could balance the US and restrain it from doing whatever it wanted—as the US, in fact, did, during its “unipolar moment,” beginning 1992. That would probably be a good development for world peace.
( Niraj Srivastava is a former Ambassador of India who has severed in several countries including Syria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. The views expressed are personal ).