The recent assassination of a Russian ambassador to Turkey and the terror attack on a Christmas market in Germany give a clear indication that Europe cannot avoid fallouts of Islamist terror. As it has become increasingly difficult for the European countries to escape the consequences of state collapse in West Asia, “smaller” nations in the continent will have to think seriously how to help Syria, Iraq and other countries in the region in restoring peace.
While Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia are concentrating only on their contradictory geopolitical interests, America and Russia have only added tinder to the sectarian flames that burn Aleppo and other major Syrian cities. It is a fact that Russia militarily intervened to stop the Islamic State (IS) from capturing Syria, but the killing of the Russian ambassador in Turkey indicates that Russia (just like the US) has become a target for Sunni Muslim anger.
“Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria”, screamed the assassin of Russian diplomat Andrey Karlov, whose killing in Ankara has inspired disturbing comparisons with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914, which was a trigger for WWI, and prompted speculation that the regional conflagration could spin out of control. So, how the forces ranged against each other in Syria in the wake of the battle for Aleppo, the city that was retaken in the second week of December, by pro-Assad forces is crucial.
Turkey, one of the major power in the region, is trying to befriend with Russia despite its anti-Assad, anti-Kurd and anti-Iran stand. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who wants Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to go, backs rebels who were holding Aleppo. However, he did nothing to weaken the offensive, enabling Assad’s forces to retake the city. Turks are trying to mend ties with Russia and that explains why President Erdogan described Karlov’s killing as a conspiracy to hit Ankara’s ties with Moscow. The president, like his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, also blamed the western forces for the diplomat’s killing. Worried by the IS and Kurd terror strikes, Turkey wants to push IS and Kurds out of a strip of land on its border.
Like Turkey, Kurds are also anti-Assad and anti-IS. The ethnic group, spread over Syria, Turkey and Iraq, maintains healthy ties with the US. As the Syrian Kurds are fighting for their autonomy, the Turks fear Kurdish separatism and call the Syrian Kurd outfit ‘YPG’ a terror group. The Syrian Kurds, who call Turkey the abuser of rights, have already formed an autonomous region – Rojava – in northern Syria. YPG, along with other rebels, even captured the town of Manbij, prompting Ankara to change its strategy against the Kurds.
Iran, popular for its pro-Assad, pro-Russia, anti-Saudi and anti-Kurd stand, is helping the Syrian president hold on to power. The retaking of Aleppo has come as a big boost for Tehran because the top Iranian political leadership has ambitions of a Shia crescent of influence, stretching from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. The Iranians are also helping pro-Assad militia groups in waging war against the IS.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is helping the pro-Islamist fighters in Syria as it wants President Assad to go. Because of its anti-Assad and anti-Iran stand, the Sunni-ruled kingdom is critical of the Aleppo offensive. Saudi Arabia considers its regional rival Iran as making a bid to expand its influence in West Asia. Although Riyadh provides military aid and funds to several Islamist rebel outfits active in Syria and Iraq, the Saudis have joined the US-led coalition air campaign against the IS only to corner Iran in the region.
Russia, which has played a major role in taking back of Aleppo, maintains friendly ties with the Assad regime and Iran. But, Moscow is also interested in Turkish friendship and it seems President Putin is ready to forget that the Turks had downed one of Russian fighter jets on November 24, 2015.
As far as the US is concerned, it has a complex set of interests in West Asia. America, which is anti-Assad and pro-Kurd, has strained ties with Turkey. Americans not only back Ankara’s foe (Kurds), but also support Syrian rebels some of whom are anti-Kurd. Still, the US jets are using Turkish bases to bomb IS targets in Syria. Washington has been trying to balance Kurdish interests with Turkey’s since its efforts with Russia for a peace deal in Syria flopped.
Creating a stable state structure in West Asia is beyond any single country and the scenario could strain even the most comprehensive international coalition. All the parties, involved in the Syrian crisis, will have to work together. Turkey and Russia, bitter rivals only a few months ago, have realised the fact. Now, it is up to the US and Saudi Arabia to decide whether to co-operate with Russia, Iran and Turkey or to serve their “own” interests. If they use their involvement in Syria as a proxy war with their “own” enemies, then the crisis will deepen.