Conflict in Middle East continues to heat up

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The multi-front war in the Middle East continues to heat up. After the American assassination of Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and the deputy leader of the Iraqi military’s Popular Mobilisation Committee at the start of the year, and the subsequent refusal of the US to heed the Iraqi Parliament’s request to end its occupation, the focus has recently moved back to the Syrian front.

President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan leaves following a meeting with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at number 10 Downing Street on December 3, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Here, the situation is complicated by a number of parties, all with their own agendas. The Northern Syrian Province of Idlib has been under the control of Western and Saudi backed militants claiming allegiance to a radical interpretation of Sunni Islam since 2015. As the Syrian government has retaken more and more of the country, Idlib has become the sanctuary for an alphabet soup of competing militant groups, often at war amongst themselves as much as with anyone else (at one stage the Pentagon and CIA were each funding rival groups who were at each other’s throats).

The Assad government has now launched a major operation, Idlib Dawn, to attempt to retake the province and, in particular, clear the arterial M5 highway running north-south through the length of Syria. So far, the assault, featuring considerable Russian air support, has been largely successful.

This success has caused something of a problem for Syria’s northern neighbour, NATO member Turkey. President Erdogan has been running two separate agendas in Syria, with varying success — support for Islamist rebels and opposition to the Kurds.

On the first front, Erdogan is a Turkish nationalist who feels some affinity with the declared religious motivation of the Idlib rebels and has been keeping supply lines open for them in order to destabilise his enemy, President Assad, and make a tidy profit off the latter’s mineral resources, where possible. With things going poorly for Turkey’s allies in the war, Erdogan now faces blowback as disaffected rebels, now squeezed in Idlib, press up against his border.

He has been trying to cope with these pressures by simultaneously negotiating with Russia (and, through it, Syria) for an area of Turkish intervention in the north of the country, in which he would be allowed to deploy troops and contain both allied rebel groups and potential refugees — in exchange for preventing militant attacks on Syrian and Russian forces. He has also been sponsoring 'surplus' Syrian fighters to fight with Islamist forces against the Libyan government.

 

'This deal, however, is fraying at the edges. With Turkey now seeking to protect its rebel proxies, and making no attempt to restrain the militants, bringing it into ever more direct action against the Syrian army, the Syrian government has less and less incentive to cooperate with Turkey in ensuring the North East remains peaceful.'

 

The Libyan fight has not, by all accounts, been going well. In addition, the (always nominal) ceasefire has broken down completely and the troops Erdogan has deployed in Idlib to protect the rebel gains and establish a cordon sanitaire against the ongoing Syrian government offensive have now become a liability. They have established fixed 'observation posts' nominally to observe the ceasefire but more practically to serve as a deterrent against a Syrian government advance.

The Syrian government has responded by bypassing the observation posts in their assault on the militant groups, leaving the Turkish troops surrounded where they stand. It would appear that the Turkish soldiers who were killed this week died in a failed attempt to break this encirclement.

The situation of the Kurds and their relationship with both Turkey and Syria has been even more fraught. They live in a wide area straddling Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. In the early years of the Syrian war, the Kurds of Northern Syria sought as much independence as they could get, again with the backing of the US and its allies. This, however, put the US at odds with its own NATO ally, Turkey, who saw the Kurds’ aspirations as an inspiration to those living within its own borders and hence as a threat.

The US’ partial withdrawal to the east of Syria last year, in order to shorten supply lines while still enabling it to play a spoiler role by blocking the Syrians and Russians from Syria’s oilfields, left the Kurds exposed. They were forced to either come to terms with the Syrian government (which many have) or to withdraw with the US to assist in garrisoning the oilwells against the Syrian army. For the Turks, this was a qualified win. Those Kurds who remained would have to disband their army, the YPG, and reassimilate with the Syrian army, foreswearing ambitions against Turkey. Accordingly, in a deal brokered by the Russians last October, the Syrians and Russians guaranteed the security of Turkey’s border.

This deal, however, is fraying at the edges. With Turkey now seeking to protect its rebel proxies, and making no attempt to restrain the militants, bringing it into ever more direct action against the Syrian army, the Syrian government has less and less incentive to cooperate with Turkey in ensuring the North East remains peaceful. At the same time, Erdogan has been dialling up his anti-Russian rhetoric, publicly visiting the Ukraine and declaring his opposition to the Russian government. It may be that this veteran opportunist has now shifted his weight to the other side of the fence and hopes to shore up Western backing for a cause which is no longer well served by his deal with the Russians. If so, it remains to be seen whether it will have the desired effect.

 

 

Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ has a licentiate in canon law from St Paul University in Ottawa. Before entering the Society he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Main image: President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan leaves following a meeting with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at number 10 Downing Street on December 3, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Syria, Turkey, Russia, Libya, Tayyip Erdogan, Middle East

 

 

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The contemporary Middle East is like a toxic witches' brew sitting atop several tons of dynamite, with live fuses of various lengths attached by the different vested interests. Can the explosion be stopped or, at least, its effects be modified? The latter may be more easily effected. I would recommend they also make some accommodation with Iran. The Iranians are very keen to make this accommodation. What to do about the Kurds? They won't get their nation state, but they could do with some protection. I would also not endorse Trump's 'peace plan' regarding Palestine. It is ludicrous and has already been rejected by the Palestinian authorities and restarted the remorseless cycle of violence. I would stay right out of Libya.
Edward Fido | 05 February 2020


Intricate and confusing, isn't it. Thanks for your explanation Justin, it can't be easy figuring out assumed motivations. It's like every man/ideology for themselves and the people who are killed and maimed are collateral damage. Syria's recovery will be fraught and long. If Syria is ever allowed to recover.
Pam | 06 February 2020


Thank you, Justin. Your articles on Syria and surrounds stand out for their clarity, historical footing, and broad perspective - so much of what is readily available in the media lacks all of these qualities. The next step is to build on that foundation to identify a sensible approach that can be recommended to the Australian Government.
Denis Fitzgerald | 07 February 2020


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