Reasons to (not) be cheerful in 2016…Deadly rivalries in Syria, Iraq and Turkey

After a turbulent 2015, members of DSD’s Regional Security Research Centre (@KingsRegSec) look forward to the coming year and examine the issues that they believe will be prominent in 2016, including the US presidential elections, continuing instability across the Middle East and the various coalitions seeking to counter IS, talks between India and Pakistan on Afghanistan, the UK referendum on membership of the EU and continuing concerns about Russian activity in eastern Europe.

Bill Park

The politics surrounding the Syrian and Iraqi crises are a mess. The recently announced Saudi-backed coalition of Syrian opposition groups is riddled with deadly rivalries and serves only to intensify the sectarian flavor of Syria’s struggle and of the region’s politics. Furthermore, it incorporates jihadi groups that are barely more tolerable than Islamic State (IS) and that undoubtedly intend the west harm. NATO member Turkey backs some of these groups, partly because of their role in fighting regime forces but also in the hope that they can obstruct the Syrian Kurdish fighters of the PYD from advancing further westwards and controlling yet more of the Turkey-Syrian border. However, a consequence of Turkey’s shooting down of the Russian bomber is that Moscow has embarked on a massive bombardment of these Ankara-sponsored groups, which serves both to strengthen the PYD’s position and weaken the opposition to Assad. Given that Washington regards the PYD’s fighters as the most effective force on the ground against IS, this aligns Russian and the US with the Syrian Kurds and against Turkey. On the other hand, Washington’s focus on degrading IS but by and large leaving other opposition groups unscathed, despite the jihadi and anti-western nature of many of them, serves to align the US with Saudi-backed sectarian Sunni groups and entices it towards a forlorn search for ‘moderates’ amongst them. Furthermore, while supporting the PYD despite Turkey’s disquiet, the US simultaneously supports Ankara’s vicious campaign of bombings, curfews and political repression against the PKK, sister party to Syria’s Kurdish PYD. No end to this campaign is in sight, and it is threatening to take on Grozny-like proportions as well as erode what is left of Turkish democracy. Ankara’s campaign extends to PKK bases inside northern Iraq, which is increasingly embarrassing to the KRG leadership, which number amongst Washington’s best friends in the region. Then again, the KRG’s peshmerga, regarded as the best ‘boots on the ground’ against IS in Iraq, are weaker than they could be because the US will only arm them via Baghdad, and which opposes the provision of heavy arms to the KRG. This continuing US commitment to Baghdad in effect aligns it with Tehran, and has led Washington to join Baghdad, Tehran and Moscow in demanding the withdrawal of Turkish forces from a Sunni-supporting base near Mosul. However, unlike those capitals, Washington does not support the Assad regime.

Confusing? Things will get still more so if IS ever is ‘degraded’, which in any case is a meaningless hope as the problem is less IS than jihadiism throughout the Muslim world. Syria’s Sunni groups will fight each other as well as the regime – which Moscow and Tehran will ensure remains in place in some form. The US and its regional allies will struggle to find themselves on the same page in such an intra-Sunni struggle. To add to the complexity, the more the US accepts the reality of Damascus – and it is now showing signs of doing just that, and needs to if a diplomatic agreement is to be found – the more it will alienate its regional Sunni allies. The US will feel obliged, under Turkish pressure as well as that of almost all Syrian Sunni Arab groups, to betray the PYD, which can see the writing on the wall and is already shifting towards Moscow, which will support a decentralized Syria as the best means of maintaining an Alawite presence in the country’s governance, and will also cherish the opportunity to spite Ankara. In Iraq, the territorial struggle between Baghdad and Erbil will resume, only this time Tehran-inspired Shia militias will provide the chief opponents to the peshmerga on the ground. In fact, this fight has already commenced. Which side will Washington take in this struggle? Only the next US president might know, and none of the likely Republican candidates appear to know anything at all about the region’s complexities. Russia will have incurred the wrath of the region’s Sunnis – in fact it has already done so – while the US will be puzzling over how it managed to simultaneously find itself uncomfortably on the same side on so many issues as Moscow, Tehran, and Baghdad, yet also distrusted by its regional Sunni allies for not joining them emphatically enough against Assad and, in Turkey’s case, Syria’s Kurds, and for leaving Iraq’s Sunni Arabs still disenfranchised. Meanwhile, any ‘degraded’ IS will simply reappear, perhaps in a new guise, in other trouble spots – Yemen, Sinai, Afghanistan, Tunisia, most frighteningly Libya, as well as the west’s cities of course. This is what we have to look forward to in 2016 and beyond.

Image: the Za’atri camp in Jordan for Syrian refugees as seen on July 18, 2013, via wikimedia commons.

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