War drums are sounding amid overlapping regional and global interests in Syria. But is open global conflict on the Syrian battlefield really unavoidable? We spoke with Mouin Rabbani, a Palestinian researcher and collaborator of the think tanks Jaddaliyya and Al-Shabaka. He worked in the Political Affairs Department at the office of the U.N. envoy for Syria.
After the Monaco agreement on cessation of hostilities, which was negotiated without the participation of any Syrians at the table, the conflict has intensified. What is the reason for this escalation?
I do not think it’s a reaction to the agreement. The Russian raids enabled the Syrian army and the allied militias to achieve significant results in the last two weeks. It is possible that the escalation we have observed in late January, after the restart of negotiations in Geneva, was a deliberate provocation of the opposition, to force them to leave the table. But the subsequent intensification, after Monaco, is not related to the agreement: Russia has said from the start that it would continue bombing against terrorist organizations excluded from the ceasefire. They did not need an excuse.
The two sides on the battlefield use military means to impose their will at an eventual negotiating table. Are these mere threats, or is military solution to the conflict imaginable?
It is a difficult question: No defined coalitions are currently working on the ground. On the government side, Russia, Syria, Iran and Hezbollah have common positions but different opinions: Damascus is opposed to any political process because it knows that the start of a transition will mark the end of the regime; Moscow, on the contrary, would like to see moderate elements of the opposition participating in a unitary government.
If you look on the other front, the U.S. has agreed on broad terms of the Russian agenda, but other players are determined to eliminate Assad at all costs. This is reflected at the negotiating table: In recent months, Moscow and Damascus have taken advantage of the advances on the ground to influence the dialogue. If the risk of a real collision is not likely, it is still possible for a number of reasons. First of all, the role of Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
And now we come to Turkey: Ankara is attacking the YPG, America’s allies against ISIS, and is threatening to begin ground operations. Is Prime Minister Erdogan a loose cannon, or is he moved by the interests of NATO?
The Kurds play an increasingly important role in northern Syria and Turkey, in addition to its opposition policy against Assad. Erdogan sees this expansion as a direct threat. There are so many local, regional and international interests at stake creating internal conflicts. Also within NATO, two of its members, Turkey and the U.S., which publicly say they are pursuing the same end, support local proxy organizations in conflict with each other: Jaysh al-Fatah, supported by the Turks, and the YPG, supported by the Americans. On the other side on opposite fronts, there are the U.S. and Russia, which seem to have incompatible agendas in Syria. Both are supporting Kurdish forces.
The Saudis also threaten interventions, but they are in a position of economic and diplomatic weakness.
The Saudis suffer from a sense of abandonment, particularly by the United States, following the agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue. They must prove their own credibility and push for action to save themselves from oblivion. By bringing together these elements, the Russian-Turkish conflict and the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is conceivable that — accidentally or deliberately — they’ll come to a direct confrontation. It is true, however, that in the last five years, every time one party has made a provocation, the other side has not reacted.
Meanwhile, the opposition came together in an extremely diverse federation, from the Salafis of Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam to lay people in ELS. How can they create a credible alternative?
In recent months, the opposition groups have come under enormous military pressure that led to alliances of convenience and prompted some players to take advantage of the situation to get rid of rivals. The Saudis have been working to ensure that “their” opposition would become the leader of the delegation at the Geneva table. Qatar and Turkey have done the same and achieved their goals: Ankara imposed the exclusion of the Kurds, and Riyadh has ensured that the historical opposition, in exile in Istanbul, represent only a small part of the larger anti-Assad front, increasing its influence on the negotiations.
The support by Israel to the Syrian opposition also pops up. How does Israel insert itself into the crisis?
Israel wants this conflict to last as long as possible, without winners, until Syria as a society, as a state, as a military entity, falls apart and therefore will be unable to object to Israel’s strategic plan in the region. But Tel Aviv is also aware of the dangers: If Assad wins, he will still be in a weak position and will be more susceptible to Iranian influence. Iran and Hezbollah will have more room for maneuver on the border between Syria and Israel — more than ever before.
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