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The Coming Syrian Regional War? A Full Briefing

11/09/2015 15:50 BST | Updated 11/09/2016 10:12 BST

The current question before the political leaders of the USA's allies such as the UK is 'how can we address the refugee problem at source, and how far should our escalating military efforts against ISIS and the Syrian regime go ?'.

At least, that is the kind of formulation they are given to promoting.

However this is misleading at best. In order to understand better this terrible Syrian conflict, and three related conflicts, it is necessary to examine the motivations of the USA and the various participants in these wars. Without a better understanding it is impossible for politicians and the public they represent to assert any common sense or to consent or otherwise to the major wider war which looms.

Moreover, it is necessary to assert that these wars are not only politically avoidable and almost certainly capable of being resolved by negotiation, they have been for at least five years. The absence of efforts to reach a settlement among the participants in that time, is not the point. The point is that these wars have been encouraged by the USA and its allies, and the main regional participants have been unofficially aided. The Russians have contributed to the conflicts too by their ill-judged rigidity, and unwise obsession with promoting their leader as 'invincible strong man'.

First, Syria. Dislodging the Syrian regime, with its support for attacks on Israel and its close relationships with Russia and Iran, has long been a regional strategic aim of the US. During the Cold War this was impossibly risky, with Russian bases and support for the Assad regime. In any case, the colonialist Sykes-Picot agreement after WW1 had led to an ethnic and religious patchwork of a country held together by strong leaders, by economic divide-and-rule, and from the 1960s by a vicious Moscow-trained state security apparatus.

The chances of disrupting the state from within were close to nil. Two things changed that.

First, in 2000 President Hafez was succeeded by his son, Bashir, consolidating minority Shia Muslim control. Bashir attempted reform but was defeated by the security state and by poor management of the tribal economic divide-and-rule system. But some economic liberalisations did prevail, and state control was weakened. Second, a decade later the 'Arab Spring' came to Syria's cities, and was brutally but ineffectively oppressed. Without the prospect of concessions to anti-Assad political groups, and with the 'tribal balance' economic system under threat, the uprising was easily coaxed by Bashir into a fight by Sunni Muslims against Shia and others, helping to fuel his 'terrorists against the state' narrative.

Both the USA and Israel were in two minds. There were fears that a more liberal and democratic Syria would be a threat to Western interests in the region, and disrupt an 'accommodation' that had been established between Israel and Bashir Assad. Turkey, a NATO member, was concerned about the Kurdish region of Syria making common cause with Kurdish separatists in Turkey's South East and in Iraq, if under a reformed Syria they had more autonomy.

On the other hand the prospect of expelling Russia from their Mediterranean submarine base at Tartus, and removing an ally of Shia Iran, was hard for the USA to resist. While militarily insignificant, Russia's president had unwisely made Tartus a litmus test of his prowess - believing that they could get Bashir to hang on militarily and that Western resolve would be weakened by conflating rebels with Islamic terrorists.

The AKP government in Turkey also wanted to get rid of Bashir, and not just because he was an enabler of Russian support for Kurdish separatists in Eastern Turkey. There were other, older animosities; these were lands which Russia had historically coveted..

These developments were occurring against a background of a major shift in the Middle East, which was to transform the Syrian conflict.

In 2013 a new government took over in Iran, paving the way for a rapprochment with the USA and EU countries. The relatively conciliatory and patient approach of Iran's new leaders, and closer economic ties with China and Russia, made a new relationship between Iran and USA almost inevitable. This created something akin to panic in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, who feared loss of influence as well as troublemaking from Iran among their restive Shia populations.

The US Presidency thus faced a problem. How to complete the rapprochement with Iran, and splice US oil firms into the Iranian petroleum & gas sectors, whilst keeping Saudi Arabia and Gulf states happy, (and while dealing with Israeli objections) ?

The result was Saudi acceptance of the inevitable with Iran, but a green light and some support to Saudi and Gulf state proxies to reduce Iranian influence in the Mid East. That meant the removal of Bashir Assad from power, and the domination of anti-Assad forces by Gulf-sponsored Islamists. It also meant creating problems for the Shia-led government in Iraq, and the eventual defeat of Syrian-supported Hizb Ullah in Lebanon. The result was ISIS/Daesh, (with unofficial Turkish, Gulf state and Iraqi Sunni support); a conventional army with sophisticated US military kit and weaponry, and led by experienced officers from Iraq and elsewhere.

For the USA and its allies like the UK this was an approach fraught with dangers. Could ISIS be contained ? Would the Shia government in Iraq be overthrown ? What about the US allies in Northern Iraq - the Kurds ? Many in Washington's inner circles questioned the US government's ability to manage the complex situation and contain ISIS.

For example, with help, (eg US air cover) the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and the Syrian Kurds, proved to be more effective than the Iraqi army at containing ISIS in the north and keeping them out of Kurdish territory. US military support for Pershmerga and Syrian Kurds to contain any ISIS northern push, upset the Turkish AKP leadership, made worse when Turkish Kurds started to cross the border to fight ISIS alongside their Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish brethren.

Many in Washington's inner circles began to see the conflicts spiralling out of control.

Even thought Turkey took a permissive approach to ISIS they understood the US need for containment. However the threat of Kurdish unity led to negotiations with the USA. The result was the US being able to use the Incirlik air base in SE Turkey, long denied the US military.

More dangerously, the Turkish leadership appeared to have agreed with the USA a 'safe zone' inside Syria on the Turkish border. Ostensibly to create a place for Syrian refugees to escape to. The border area in question was controlled by Syrian Kurds. It appeared that the Turkish leadership had persuaded the US to halt support for Kurds fighting ISIS and instead to remove the Kurds from the Syria-Turkey border.

It also appeared that the USA had decided to 'replace' the Kurds, with their own military might, in order to contain ISIS. A step up of US and allied military involvement was thought to have two advantages. First to ensure that ISIS could be contained and kept away from Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad. Second, it would provide a basis for the US and allies to break the stalemate and topple Assad, at least in theory.

Russia, however, saw the safe zone as a proposal for Turkish annexation of parts of Syria, especially after Turkish officials hinted that Aleppo could be annexed by Turkey. In addition, the Russians believed that the US using the Ircirlik air base would facilitate a major attack on Syria. The result was that Russia stepped up their support for Assad and the Syrian government. During the first week in September 2015 the Russians started a military build up. More Russian advisers were accompanied by ground troops and equipment, including extra fighter planes available.

The US plan for a stepped-up direct Western military effort was reinforced when the UK, Canada and Australia announced that they would be stepping up their bombing campaign into Syria and other military activities.

A by-product of all these Iran-related developments was Yemen. The Yemeni version of the Arab Spring resulted in, with US mediation, the removal of quasi-Shia Houthi president Saleh (formerly US-supported), with strong Saudi approval. He was replaced by a compromise Presidental choice, Hadi, reputedly weak and ineffective.

However Saleh had kept the loyalty of much of the military, and with the help of Houthi rebels, the ex-President's tribal friends and half the military marched on key main towns and took control of much of the country. President Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis and the Gulf states, fearing one piece of the plan to reduce Iranian influence would fail, attacked the Saleh supporters and Houthis, with US advisers in the background. The effect on the already-poor population has been cruelly devastating.

Those in Washington's inner circles who feared the US presidency would lose control of the situation started to become more vocal. The US Presidency countered by stressing the importance of the rapprochement with Iran, and the necessity of keeping Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and Turkey, on board and Russia and China at bay.

The problem remains however that this may lead to war with Russia. More immediately perhaps the approach being taken by all sides suggests there is no prospect of the wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen coming to an end any time soon, and this has fuelled the refugee crisis. And now the Turkish government, having negotiated reduced support for Kurds, and having whipped up anti-Kurd nationalism in Turkey with another election looming, Kurdish unity is all but assured, with unpredictable consequences (ie. across Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and even Iran).

So how should the US and its allies respond differently ?

By any measure it's a terrible mess. US policy on Iran is being driven by a different group with an economic and diplomatic agenda, relative to the Mid East, and Saudi relations. The latter group is dominated by a 'military-first' approach; with plenty of folk who are against the Iran rapprochement and for a more belligerent stance with Russia.

Are these wars worth the Iran rapprochement ? Certainly not in loss of life, and in strategic US terms, it depends on the eventual outcome. Many suspect that the political aim is to neutralise Syria, Lebanon and Iraq by bogging them down in 'permanent' war. It didn't have to be that way, especially since the core 'Iran problem' (intentions to build nuclear weapons) has been wildly inflated politically since 2003, with spectacularly effective help from Israel (contrast with the US formal position and US NIEs since 2003).

US allies may not have a choice, but ideally the UK should stand back from further military involvement in Iraq and Syria, and work with European partners to build a consensus for a negotiated settlement, via a regional conference backed by the US, Russia, and China.

For years, analysts have known the probable shape of a settlement (see my article here from 2011).

The Russians will ask for guarantees over its Tartus base, and a future role for Syrian Ba'athists (not necessarily Assad). Syrians will almost certainly go along with a new regionalised constitution. Turkey will seek guarantees over the shape of Kurdish unity. Saudi Arabia will require assurances over its Shia population, and a power-sharing settlement in Yemen, which will probably exclude Hadi's and Saleh's militias. Hizb Ullah will be asked to withdraw from Syria. Saudi/GCC and Turkish overt and covert financial and military support for ISIS will have to be ended, and the supply lines through Iraq disrupted. Iraq's government will certainly be asked to reform its two-way leadership (Kurdish/Shia) towards a proper three-way arrangement (Kurdish/Shia/Sunni). The Euphrates Iraq/Syria border will have to be strengthened, perhaps with UN troops.

Peace will not be simple, but a way must be found to unwind this mess. The arrogance of all parties is to blame. It's time for a bit of humility.

The prospect of a devastating a major war involving Russia and the US is real, and the dangers should be properly understood. Such negotiating points (or something like them) will take months to conclude, while people perish. The effort and patience deployed by the US, Russia, Europe and China to reach agreement over Iran, must be applied equally to Syria, Iraq and Yemen. This means abandoning the 'military first' approach, even though this is a loss of face for its proponents.

I don' want people to read this article in sadness two years from now, in the midst of a major global war.