Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The centrality of Syria’s civil war

Everything pivots around Syria. Well, at least everything necessary for a broad realignment in the Middle East after last month’s Iran nuclear deal. But at the moment, that is everything.

As with any deal, some players stand to benefit and some do not. The immediate effects of the deal, however, are not the most crucial. It is the second and third order effects keeping analysts up at night. The fundamental concern now is how Iran’s neighbours will manage its re-entry into the international community.

Down in the South Pacific, Foreign Minister Murray McCully says New Zealand should benefit from its existing conciliatory relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The opportunities are “significant in the short-term and even bigger long-term”, and he says the deal could “reset” relations in the Middle East leading to a quicker resolution in war-torn Syria.

As good as that sounds, resetting relations doesn’t always work out as planned. New Zealand wasn’t deeply affected by the sanctions on Iran. This country, along with the six world powers which negotiated the deal, does not have to live next to a reinvigorated Iran either. Those that do are already facing a series of recalibration decisions which won’t be easy or violence-free.

One might think, given Iran’s rhetoric over the years that Israel is the centre of Mesopotamian existential anxiety. And it is true that Iran’s financial, ideological and military ties with militant group Hamas – which currently controls the Gaza Strip – could receive an influx of funds and attention from Iran in the coming months and years. But Israel is peripheral to the emerging structure.

Saudi Arabia also has mixed feelings about Iran’s new-found freedom, and is a bigger player than Israel. Riyadh has already reached out to Persian Gulf partners and Egypt in an effort to construct a Sunni Arab counterweight. Former Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser attempted a similar approach decades ago, and it appears Riyadh now sees some wisdom in the idea.

The Saudi monarchy is already financially and militarily engaged with various Salafi-jihadist groups and militants. With Iran’s chains now lying on the floor, Riyadh sat down with the Hamas leadership recently to discuss a shift in the group’s patronage. And earlier this week, 3000 Saudi-backed forces began a ground war in Yemen, another indication of Riyadh’s existential fretting.

Turkey has its own regional interests and last month became involved in the turmoil when its domestic politics demanded a show of strength. The government is stalling a political after a game-changing election result in June. It clearly thinks intervention in Syria against the Kurdish separatist movement ticks enough boxes to make strategic sense.

Between all these players lies the largest intelligence and covert operations melting pot on the planet, otherwise known as Syria. This is the battleground where the eventual balance of Middle Eastern power will be decided. To many, the fragmentation of Syria is an unavoidable consequence.

Both Lebanon and Syria are long-time allies of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And considering how terribly the civil war is faring for Syria’s President Bashar al Assad as hundreds of regime men are killed each month, most people expect some of Iran’s newly acquired $150 billion will flow to Syria in the form of fresh materiel and fighting forces.

Bulking up the Syrian regime may tilt the military initiative back on the side of Mr al Assad, potentially reversing recent rebel gains in the south near Damascus and in the northern city of Aleppo. It will also help the regime retake strategically important towns controlled by the Islamic State. But Iran is not the only country with interests in Syria.

Far too many diverging and overlapping dynamics colour Syria to gain a clear strategic picture of how this war might end. But end it must eventually. In the meantime Syria is a convenient space for dozens of powerful nations to duel in quiet. In a world of instant video and media, the fog of war is an ideal place for those who hide in the shadows to fight their battles.

What happens after Syria’s war is important, as it will decide where the lines of control are drawn and how the region’s players may interact over the medium term. But what is happening right now in this riven and angry country is equally important. Geopolitics is moving quickly in the Middle East.

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