Iraq has never witnessed such a situation despite all it has endured. Libya has never experienced it either despite its ongoing chaos. Lebanon, during the worst period of its wars, has also never seen such a reality. The same can be said of Somalia, Afghanistan and other countries whose unity and sovereignty fell victim to foreign meddling.
Syria’s story is different and unique. Never before have all these flags, interests, dangers, armies, militias, internal divisions and regional and international clashes come together on its territories. From the South to Idlib to Hmeimem to Afrin, Syria is like a powder keg. It is at the heart of a complex and vast geo-strategic conflict that is impossible to resolve with force and where losses and rewards will be difficult to predict. This is all unprecedented.
Those who knew Syria before its army withdrew from Lebanon in 2005 realize the calamity that it is experiencing. Prior to that, Syria was a major player in its immediate surroundings and throughout the Middle East.
Diplomats tackling the region’s crises have long described it as the “complication and solution,” “the necessary route” and the “inevitable partner.” Resorting to Damascus was necessary when addressing the post-Saddam Iraq. It was necessary to discuss Lebanon’s future and it was indispensable to the Palestinian cause.
Syria became adept at gathering powerful cards. It hosted many opposition factions, whether Iraqi, Lebanese, Palestinian, Kurdish, Arab Gulf or even Pakistani. It hosted these factions and orchestrated their actions to serve its own interests. It often reaped the rewards of its success in reining in the demons that it hosted and sponsored. This is how Syria played in the territory of others and boasted of its upper hand or negotiated over it.
Syria was Iran’s ally, but it also realized the importance of the Saudi-Egyptian-Syrian alliance that provided a balance to its policies and protected its stancesGhassan Charbel
That Syria was Iran’s ally, but it also realized the importance of the Saudi-Egyptian-Syrian alliance that provided a balance to its policies and protected its stances. Syria was the ally of the Soviet Union without become a “Soviet proxy.”
It sat on both Moscow and Washington’s laps. It assessed international developments and adjusted to them. When Hafez Assad sensed that the Soviet Union was weakening, he dispatched a unit to take part in the war to liberate Kuwait.
Another development demonstrated its skill. During the Iraqi-Iranian war, the Iranians requested surface-to-surface missiles from Syria. Assad did not reply despite his animosity to Saddam Hussein.
History would later show that Iran bombarded Iraqi cities with rockets from Syria’s arsenal. The Syrian agencies advised Iran to refer their request to Tripoli where the rockets were eagerly provided for free by Abdessalam Jalloud and Moammar al-Qaddafi.
Another incident also proved its skill. One day, Iran failed to provide Syria with a full oil shipment, prompting Damascus to prevent the travel of Iranians to and from Lebanon through Syria. The message was clear: the key to Iran reaching “Hezbollah” was in Damascus’ hands.
Syria gathered the cards and used them at the opportune time. It boasted in closed-door meetings that its most powerful weapon was the foreign forces’ inability to possess and properly use cards in Syria.
The card-gathering game added to Syria’s strong geographic position and unwavering stability. Journalists who accompanied Assad on his meeting with Bill Clinton in Geneva in March 2000 sensed that Syria had succeeded in portraying itself as more powerful than its actual abilities.
Syria of the past
The Syria of the past stands in stark contrast to the current reality. The Russian army is credited with saving the Syrian regime from collapse, according to Moscow. Russia enjoys legitimate and declared bases in Syria. The United States also has bases and airports east of the Euphrates River.
The most dangerous American factor in Syria is time, which is working against Russia. Russia has been unable to couple its saving of the regime with a political solution. The past few days have dealt a series of setbacks to Russia. A Russian jet was downed, the Sochi congress failed, and increasing differences have emerged between it and Iran and Turkey.
Add to that the scandal of Russian mercenaries, who were killed by a US attack. This story gets more interesting when it was revealed that their superior is a man dubbed the “Kremlin’s chef” and their main goal was to secure oil or gas fields in exchange for a high commission.
This greed spurred their last attack and gave the US the opportunity to discipline them and expose their role in Syria. The situation is not limited to the Russian and American armies in Syria, which also has its allies deployed there.
The regional aspect should be taken into consideration. Iran is present in Syria through its Revolutionary Guards and militias. It stresses that its presence there is legitimate and based on the regime’s request.
Battles in Afrin
The Turkish army is meanwhile waging battles in the Afrin region to fragment the Kurds and establish a safe zone on the Syrian side of the border. Ankara did not ask for Damascus’ request to enter Syrian territories. It is likely that it received Russia’s blessing to the incursion as a reward for its participation in sponsoring the Sochi talks.
Add to that claims that Ankara proposed to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson American and Turkish military deployment in Manbij in return for the Turkish withdrawal there. Other claims said that Moscow suggested dressing up Kurdish fighters in Afrin in Syrian army uniforms to avert the Turkish attack.
Unprecedented scenes. Israel announced for the first time that its jets targeted Iranian position on Syrian soil. Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu displayed parts of the downed Iranian drone that he said had infiltrated Israeli airspace. He threatened before the Munich Security Conference to target Iran itself and not just limit attacks to its proxies.
Throughout all this, we should not forget those who infiltrated Syria from neighboring and far-flung countries. Fighters from Kazakhstan came to kill the regime backers, while fighters from Afghanistan came to kill its rivals. This clash has its own clear sectarian flair.
The dangers of the Syrian fighter have gone beyond all others fires. Former French Ambassador to Syria Michel Duclos recently wrote in Asharq Al-Awsat that the Dayton Agreement that ended the Yugoslavia war should inspire solutions in Syria and bring all players to a single negotiations table.
The regional and international circumstances do not appear ripe for such talks to happen. The Syrian tragedy is open to the most dangerous possibilities. For the first time, the Syrian is the weakest player in the current game that is unfolding on its land and the decisions that are being taken without him.
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Ghassan Charbel is the Editor-in-Chief of London-based Al Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. Ghassan's Twitter handle is @GhasanCharbel.