David W. Lesch



There has been a flurry of activity over the past couple of weeks that could have serious consequences for Syria.  There is, of course, the nuclear deal with Iran, the primary backer of the Syrian regime.  Turkey has belatedly entered the fray directly against the Islamic State (ISIS) by carrying out airstrikes against ISIS targets (as well as Kurdish positions in Iraq), giving the green light to the US to utilize Incalik air force base that greatly enhances the ability of US forces to carry out its own air strikes against ISIS, agreeing with the US to establish some sort of safe zone in northern Syria astride the Turkish border, ostensibly to house Syrian refugees and Syrian opposition forces committed to attacking the IS (and not Assad regime forces), and intensifying a domestic campaign to root out IS elements in Turkey in the wake of IS suicide bombings.  Turkey is the most influential regional player with regard to the mixture of Syrian opposition forces arrayed against Assad.


US and Russian leaders have actually said some nice things about each other, primarily related to the diplomatic success of the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran.  Both the US and Russia, backing different sides in the Syrian conflict and having supported a growing list of international conferences aimed at a negotiated settlement of the crisis, have long been trying to find a diplomatic off-ramp out of the Syrian quagmire that preserves their interests and prevents the situation from spiralling too far out of control. Finally, Assad gave a public speech on Monday that recognized his predicament by admitting to manpower shortages and touting the value of strategic contraction, suggesting that the hawkish elements in the regime are, for now, in remission. Out of this head-spinning stuff naturally sprout opportunities to make some real progress toward a political settlement of a war that has killed over a quarter of a million and displaced half of the Syrian population.  It also creates the potential for missed opportunities.  More alarming, by swinging and missing, diplomats could even make the situation worse.


Let’s examine the component parts and potential possibilities. If the Iran deal survives Congress and is implemented, most believe US-Iran relations could go in one of two directions.  First, the new regional dynamic created by the agreement could lead to more cooperation in the Middle East that could ameliorate several concurrent conflicts (first and foremost in Syria) toward a more realistic regional balance of power. Or, second, Teheran and Washington expended so much political capital (domestically and regionally) in getting the deal through that any sort of diplomatic cooperation will be long in coming as they shore up their domestic political bases and regional allies. The parties should, against the odds, work to make sure the former happens.


To the cynic, Turkey’s actions against ISIS are self-serving.  They are responses to President Erdogan’s weakened domestic position in the wake of the surprising losses suffered by the AKP in recent parliamentary elections amid growing domestic discontent over the government’s Syria policy. The true cynic may even conclude all this is simply cover for Turkish repression of and attacks against the PKK and its allies in Syria and Iraq in its ever-vigilant attempts to prevent the emergence of a viable Kurdish state rising out of the ashes of two failed states.  But maybe Ankara has finally realized that ISIS is its enemy, and any cooperation (the blind eye version) with it would be only temporary before the historic enmity between radical Salafism and Turkish/Ottoman Sunni Islam manifests itself yet again.  The latest IS suicide bombings in Turkey suggest it already has.  Additionally, the Turks are probably quite wary of how the US has tacitly allied itself with Kurdish elements in both Syria and Iraq against ISIS in a way reminiscent of US policy in Afghanistan following 9/11 when the US successfully allied itself with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban.  Perhaps Erdogan believes Turkey had best join the anti-ISIS coalition, thus help control it and gain from it while by default lessening the Kurdish role.  For its part, the US need tread very carefully or else be accused of again abandoning the Kurds on the altar of strategic self-interest.


For Russia and the US, all of these moving parts suggest a joint empowering of diplomatic efforts, led by the UN, to once again try to bring the various parties to the conflict to the table.  As it has been since the beginning, one of the main problems is finding a representative leadership that can speak for a critical mass of the Syria opposition less ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. Various other conservative Syrian Islamist opposition groups have taken pains of late to try to portray themselves as more palatable to Washington.  If the Obama administration and other Western powers can lower the bar for entry into an inclusive opposition front, one that has out of necessity made moves to coagulate over the past six months (with commensurate battlefield success), then, perhaps, there might be something for a UN effort to play with--and of which Damascus will be increasingly wary and with whom it might be willing to negotiate in earnest.  Washington and Moscow also must exert pressure to get their regional allies to play along as well; indeed, if Turkey has shifted its Syria policy based more on strategic interests than domestic politics or anti-Kurdish motives, and if Iran sees the nuclear deal as a bridge toward a more realistic balance of power rather than a stepping stone to deepen their position in the Middle East, perhaps there is diplomatic space for a Turkish-Iranian modus vivendi pushed by Moscow and Washington.   


Anything is a long shot at this point, but can all of this be done while maintaining the myriad of strategic interests of the stakeholders?  Possibly, and we can thank the Islamic State for that. But any end to the conflict is just the beginning of rebuilding Syria, and unless there is a viable and agreeable vision of governance over the long-term that offers dignity and opportunity to everyone, why would anyone sign on?  This is where the work really is done below the level of high diplomacy.  They must be balanced and work in tandem--or else we will all just swing and miss.


David Warren Lesch is a lecturer, author and commentator on Middle East history and politics. He is Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.


© 2018 Centre for Syrian Studies