Arab countries should wrest back influence in Syria

The world cannot rely on willingness of Russia, Turkey and Iran to reconcile their competing interests.

By Arnab Neil Sengupta

Published: Tue 25 Sep 2018, 8:24 PM

Last updated: Wed 26 Sep 2018, 7:14 PM

As world leaders converge on New York City for the annual UN General Assembly jamboree, there is no shortage of issues for them to address, whether in the General Debate or in meetings on the sidelines. Chances are, one of the most serious challenges confronting the international community will either get little to no attention, or get lost in reams of diplomatese.
Put simply, after the events of the past week, it is no exaggeration to say that the Middle East is merely one small act of incompetence or recklessness away from a major conflagration.
The world may have breathed a collective sigh of relief when the accidental downing on September 17 of a Russian military plane by Syrian anti-aircraft batteries aiming at Israel targets did not touch off a war. But there is no guarantee that common sense will prevail the next time around.
The strong statements emanating from the Russian military even after the leaders of Russia and Israel appeared to close the chapter and move on, reflect lingering unease among the country's air force top brass, which portends serious consequences for Israel should a similar incident recur.
The fact of the matter was perfectly encapsulated by the US secretary of state's statement describing the incident as a reminder of the "danger of tragic miscalculation in Syria's crowded theatre of operations". But can the world afford to be dependent on bilateral trust or good personal chemistry to avert a direct military confrontation?
The Russians presumably have their own reasons for not equipping Syria's air defences with 'friend or foe' identification systems despite supplying the S-200 surface-to-air missile units that brought down the Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft and its 15-man crew. Still, Moscow would be wise to rethink its policy considering the possibility of jittery Syrian air-defence officers shooting down a civilian airliner next.
Be that as it may, it is obvious that, more than seven years after the first protests broke out against President Bashar Al Assad's autocratic rule, Syria's war has its own complex dynamic.
The multi-dimensional conflict has proved resistant to the tough rhetoric of the West and its regional partners, the funnelling of arms to rebels by foreign powers, numerous summits in Geneva and Astana, and countless damning reports by UN officials.
No war zone sums up the lack of good choices in Syria like Idlib province. Even a minor swing in the balance of power there could result in one or another problematic actor gaining the upper hand.
In recent years, Syrians have looked on helplessly as foreign powers carved up their country into "de-escalation zones" and "demilitarised buffer zones" for their own benefit. In fact, at the root of the tension over the loss of Russian servicemen is the role of one such foreign power and its proxies in Syria. Had Iran been a sensible, rational country with a leadership committed to the welfare of its citizens and to cordial relations with its neighbours, things might have been very different in the Middle East today.
In the real world, however, the grand strategy of Iran's "deep state" seems to be directed at ratcheting up hostilities with Israel and perceived pro-Western actors as a way to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of Sunni Arabs after helping to turn the tide of the sectarian war in Assad's favour.
Among Trump administration officials, the hope perhaps is that the combined pressure of economic sanctions, domestic discontent and terrorism (epitomised by the deadly September 22 attack on a military parade in Ahvaz), and Israeli attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria will convince Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's inner circle of the follies of war.
Whether Iran will bend to the mounting pressures or become even more inflexible, only time will tell. But for a devastating direct military confrontation to be avoided, clearly something has to give - sooner rather than later.
Looking to the future, the world cannot rely indefinitely on the willingness of Russia, Turkey and Iran to reconcile their competing interests in Syria or keep their proxy wars from spinning out of control.
Likewise, the tacit agreements that seem to undergird Israeli efforts to contain Iran's military supremacy in Syria can, at the most, buy time for finding a lasting solution to the crisis.
On the upside, the September 17 meeting in Sochi between the Turkish and Russian presidents, which froze the Syrian government's plan to retake Idlib from rebels by force, has effectively given all sides breathing room till the middle of October.
Instead of watching the developments from the sidelines, the US, together with its European allies and Arab and Kurdish partners, should strive to wrest back its lost influence while acting in the best interests of Syria, keeping in mind its society's multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-sectarian make-up long predating the civil war.
Call it what you want - incompetence, nervousness or recklessness - the Syrian air defence mistake that brought down the Russian plane also handed Putin an excuse to dial down his defence ministry's rhetoric.
In Syria's "crowded theatre of operations", the shooting in Latakia could very well have become the spark for another war instead.
-Arnab Neil
Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on Middle East

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