The Dangerous Road to Damascus

What started off as a regional civil war almost half a decade back in Syria is now on the verge of expanding into a major international crisis which is slowly drifting towards an all-out war between regional powers involved in this geopolitical quagmire.

Since last September, the Russian air force and Navy (via the Caspian primarily) have been targeting ISIS compounds and facilities located inside Syria as they boasted of killing dozens of ISIS fighters. The international community including Turkey, NATO, and their gulf allies were well aware that Russia was not only bombing ISIS targets but also anti-regime rebels fighting to ouster Assad from his throne in Damascus which effectively tilted the balance of power in Russia’s favor.

Meanwhile, another alliance was has been forged; that of the Saudis and the Turks. As we speak, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are considering to put boots on the ground in Syria to allegedly fight ISIS. Hypocritical as was Russia’s insistence that it is in Syria to fight ISIS exclusively, both Turkey and Saudi Arabia want to secure their regional interests which is primarily to see Assad out of Syria. For the Saudis, Assad represents an extension of Iran which is terrorizing the Gulf Kingdoms as it is in effective control of 4 major Arab capitals i.e. Baghdad (Iraq), Beirut (Lebanon), Damascus (Syria), and Sanaa (Yemen).The Turks on the other hand are worried that the growing confidence of the Kurdish fighters (YPG) in Northern Syria – armed and supported by Iran,the US and quite possibly Russia – will ultimately transform into an outright independence movement which is bound to travel across border to Turkey where the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) is already at war with Turkey.

The Geopolitical Quagmire:

The Middle East is the worst it has been in the last 50 years according to John Brennan, the CIA Director. The reluctance of the US to stand tall against Russian belligerence in Syria is being interpreted in both Ankara and Riyadh as an obvious sign of American priority to not confront Russia directly in this conflict. But the grievances goes far deeper than this.

For Ankara, the support that US is providing to the Kurds in Northern Syria to fight ISIS is a troublesome situation. Indeed, the Kurds in Northern Syria have not only formed an alliance of necessity with Assad, but also are being directly supported by Iran and the US. Ankara fears that just like Washington supported the Kurds in Northern Iraq and helped them form what is now known as an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, the same will be followed in Syria, and then ultimately to Turkey where the Kurds will most definitely step up their resistance to Ankara’s rule following the footstep of their Syrian and Iraqi cousins.

Riyadh which itself has been involved in a regional Cold War with Iran, eyes the US-Iranian détente along with a comprehensive nuclear deal signed between Iran and the West as a worrying sign. Planners in Riyadh sees any concession given to Tehran by the West as a zero sum game. Riyadh has been wary of the new US-Iran alliance which has effectively given Iran access to both Iraq and Syria thereby legitimizing and consolidating Iran’s presence from the Persian Gulf all the way to the Levant.

Dangerous Overtures:

Prime Minister Davutoglu of Turkey in his parliamentary address to the ruling party gave a clear warning to Russia, Iran and Assad; we will defend Aleppo.

Immediately afterwards, Turkey began shelling Northern Syria targeting both Assad and the Kurds – the biggest and the most effective NATO allies against ISIS. Turkey, which is the most important and powerful NATO member in the region is now gearing up to intervene in Syria which is bound to put it vis-à-vis Russian aerial and ground forces. Just last November, the Turks shot down a Russian jet which was allegedly flying inside Turkish airspace. Now, when the time comes and Turkish planes infiltrate deep within Syrian territory, Russia will most probably return the favour to the Turks. It is to be remembered that Russia currently operates as a de facto and de jure air force of the Syrian regime as the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, “We view Syria’s territory as the territory of a sovereign state. Any incursion into the territory of a sovereign state is illegal”.

This belligerent attitude of the Turks is seriously putting strain on NATO as a whole. At the moment, Turkey is responsible for not only shelling the Kurds – who are the prime NATO allies against ISIS – but also might trigger a war with Russia. If indeed Russia and Turkey come into collision, article 5 of the Washington Treaty (collective security clause) will effectively come into play which will transform this Russo-Turkish war into a NATO-Russia war with nuclear weapons at stake.

Winners and Losers:

The obvious winner in this entire situation is Russia regardless of whichever way you look at it. By provoking NATO and Turkey, Russia is essentially trying to prove NATO’s ineffectiveness and impotence. Indeed, if a war is to take place between Turkey and Russia, there is a high chance that NATO will not support Turkey in the situation. As the SPIEGEL International writes,

“We are not going to pay the price for a war started by the Turks,” says a German diplomat. Because decisions taken by the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s primary decision-making body, must always be unanimous, it is enough for a single country to exercise its veto rights, the official says. But, the official adds, it won’t get that far: there is widespread agreement with the US and most other allies that Turkey would get the cold shoulder in such a case.”

If Turkey does ‘get the cold shoulder’ in the wake of a war with Moscow, NATO will effectively loose its legitimacy thereby eliminating the core deterrence to Russia’s growing geopolitical might. If however Turkey decides to give up its plan to enter Syria, Russia will continue to consolidate its position by keeping air dominance and shielding Assad.

Either way, Moscow is all set to exploit the obvious split in NATO and her allies in Syria as the US passively observes allowing regional powers to naively dictate terms whether it be the Saudis with their naive suggestions to put boots on the ground in Syria or the Turks who are gearing up for a Russo-Turkish encounter in the Levant.

About the Author
Syed Wajahat Ali is just another Machiavellian living in an Orwellian society based in Pakistan.