Can a ground offensive end the Syria conundrum?

Maria Dubovikova
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The moment it seems that the crisis in Syria cannot get worse the greatest optimist among us becomes pessimistic. The country has been embroiled in an extremely complicated conflict the intensity and dimensions of which continue to escalate. It is no longer just about the domestic strife in Syria or even the rise of ISIS; it has also triggered the Turkish-Kurdish confrontation, which appears to be escalating as Kurdish militias strengthen their positions.

In other words, Syrian crisis has regional and global implications and has already got all major powers involved. This involvement is no longer merely political or diplomatic. The initial diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict sounded good in theory but in practice it has all led to an impasse.

Russia’s involvement in Syria marked a turning point in the conflict. It complicated the situation as the targets in Syria seemed far beyond ISIS. This gave an opportunity for Russia’s counterparts to discredit Kremlin in the eyes of the international community and accuse it of being an oppressor, invader, supporter of a brutal dictator and a country responsible for bombing and killing of innocent people.

Russia was also blamed for strikes that hit two hospitals in northern Syria even though it is still not clear who carried out those attacks. It seems that Russia was just the most convenient player to be blamed for it. Russia has also been at the receiving end of global media warfare and sophisticated geopolitical games.

Going by Putin’s saying “if fight is inevitable, throw the first punch”, it seems very likely that Russia and Iran have discussed strategies in advance

Maria Dubovikova

The conflict between Russia and Turkey escalated due to the downing of the Russian Su-24, which was followed by Russian accusations of elements within Turkey supporting ISIS. These developments had their impact on Ankara’s ambitions and perceptions. Since then Turkey has started to behave in a much more aggressive manner.

Turkey aspires to get back areas of Syria and Iraq that once belonged to it. For the country, the Kurds are a much greater evil than ISIS and they even seem ready to strike a bargain to exterminate the Kurds. Meanwhile, Kurdish militias remain one of the key forces in the fight against ISIS.

As a result, Turkish maneuvers seem largely predetermined not by the will to settle the mess in Syria but to solve its problems and address its ambitions. These ambitions do not seem to be in sync with the resolution of conflict within the current borders and with the preservation of Syria as a state. These motives have been extremely counterproductive and have complicated the matter.

Ground operation

Concerns have also been raised about the ground offensive to fight ISIS. There are those who believe that such an operation will target ISIS in the same way Russia has already done with the difference being that the targets will not be rebels but forces loyal to the regime in Damascus. The collapse of Geneva talks and the reactions of mediators of the peace process suggest that diplomacy has been a total failure in Syria and the conflict can only be settled through military means.

Remarks made recently by Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir that Assad could be overthrown through military means makes the prospects of ground operation clear. On the other hand, Russia continuing to maintain that Assad is the legitimate leader of Syria and his stepping down will lead to chaos, as noted recently by its Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, also sounds exaggerated.

Nothing will be legitimate in Syria as long as there is chaos in the country. It is also too early to expect the international coalition members to settle the issue through a ground operation. Such a move may also increase the number of people fleeing the country, increase death toll dramatically and could also mean significant losses for all stakeholders. Instead of resolving an already complex conflict, this could also lead to a full-scale war.

Russia has made it clear that if the forces loyal to Damascus are attacked it will respond. Such a response would most likely not leave space for talks. We should also not forget about Iran, which is backing the Assad regime in Damascus, and will respond if the international coalition puts boots on the Syrian ground.

In recent days, there have been a buzz around Iranian Defense Minister meeting his Russian counterpart in Moscow, including Kremlin’s strong man Putin himself. The talks were held behind closed doors. The two sides have been discussing arm sales and military cooperation. Most likely Syria was also discussed in the light of Saudi Arabia and Turkey’s military drills and the intention to put boots on the ground.

Going by Putin’s saying “if fight is inevitable, throw the first punch”, it seems very likely that Russia and Iran have discussed strategies in advance. The Syrian conflict, maneuvered by hot-headed leaders, is becoming even more dangerous. World powers, including Turkey, the U.S., Russia, Gulf states and Iran were supposed to be the cornerstones of the peace process, but their roles have become mangled.

Meanwhile, cool-headed experts stay mostly unheard, along with voices of the reason from all the sides of this mess. The hawks continue to shout louder than the doves.
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Maria Dubovikova is a President of IMESClub and CEO of MEPFoundation. Alumni of MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations [University] of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia), now she is a PhD Candidate there. Her research fields are in Russian foreign policy in the Middle East, Euro-Arab dialogue, policy in France and the U.S. towards the Mediterranean, France-Russia bilateral relations, humanitarian cooperation and open diplomacy. She can be followed on Twitter: @politblogme

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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