Robert Olson: U.S., allies hampered by conflicting goals in ending Syrian war

March 7, 2014 

Robert Olson of Lexington is a Mideast expert and author of The Ba'th and Syria: 1947-1982.

U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice summed up the three-year-long civil war in Syria on Feb. 23 on Meet the Press with the statement: "It's a horrific war." Then, she added, "This is not genocide."

Her statement seemed to suggest that the widespread ethnic cleansing which caused 2.7 million Syrians to flee to other countries and internally displaced 6.7 millon could be tolerated or, at least, managed.

"At the end of day," she said, "unless there is a political solution, this thing is not going to be resolved."

The two international conferences held in Geneva, one in 2012 and one in January, failed abysmally to address the carnage indicating the lack of major players, both internationally and in Syria, who would address the destruction of the state.

Geopolitics is at the core of the international community's inability to effectively address the main issues among the contending parties. The policies of Russia, Iran and the Assad regime are nearly opposite of the United States, the European Union, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAR and Turkey.

Russia wants to maintain and strengthen its position in the eastern Mediterranean. The unrest in Ukraine and Russia's access to its fleet in the Crimea and its ability to monitor effectively the huge oil and gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean from its naval base in Tartus, Syria are essential to maintaining its position in the Middle East.

In order to protect these interests, it is incumbent that Russia supports, if not the Assad regime itself, the Alawite Shi'a community which has dominated Syria the last 51 years. Moscow also has vital interests in preventing Islamic jihadists from gaining influence among the 25 million Muslims in the Russian Federation and in the Caucasus.

Iran desperately wants to maintain its ties with the Assad regime and with the Shi'a Hezballah in Lebanon. This relationship has allowed Iran to be a major geopolitical player in the eastern Mediterranean for nearly 40 years.

Iran is more of a direct player in the politics of Syria than Russia, as it is intimately involved in the sectarian politics of the Middle East and in the polarization between Sunnis and Shi'a.

One of the ironies of the civil war in Syria is that it is also a proxy war between Shi'a Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia for dominance of the Persian Gulf.

As a result, just as Iran supports and arms Assad and Hezbollah, the Saudis do the same for the jihadists and fanatical Sunni Muslim groups.

All of this suggests the deep clashing of interests among the anti-Assad coalition: the U.S and Europe now desire to negotiate a transitional government but the Saudis, Qataris, Kuwaitis, Emiratis and Turks continue to fund the radical jihadists.

Sunni Arabs view the war in Syria as not just a war for geopolitical power, but as an existential contest for Sunni dominance of the Arab world.

Wars, like politics, make for strange bedfellows. This is the case of Turkey and its worries about the Kurds, one of the world's largest ethnic groups without its own state.

A longtime NATO, U.S. and European ally, Turkey engaged in war with the anti-Assad coalition largely because it feared that if the regime was not toppled quickly, it would allow the 1.5 million Kurds of Syria to become autonomous. If so, they could join with the 9 million Kurds across the border in Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq.

So, early in 2012 Turkey began sending arms, furnished by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to the jihadists in Syria. Not coincidentally the jhadists were located in Kurdish-dominated regions. And not surprisingly, in February, the Kurds of northeast Syria proclaimed autonomy.

Rice was correct to call this a horrible war. The carnage, killing, murder, ethnic cleansing, duplicity and lying are almost unparalleled.

The one bright spot is that the fragmentation of Syria has allowed the Kurds to gain the foresight, courage and vision to determine their own fate.

No thanks to Russia, Iran, the EU, the U.S., Turkey or Gulf Arabs.

Robert Olson of Lexington is a Mideast expert and author of The Ba'th and Syria: 1947-1982.

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