Peace Negotiations.

Except for a lot of killing, the civil war in western Syria is over.[1]  Backed by Russia, the Assad regime has defeated the rebel forces in the western part of the country.[2]  The siege of the eastern third of the city of Aleppo will grind on.  Horror stories will continue to turn the stomachs of readers of the New York Times.  Still, the die is cast.  Some of the states which have used Syria as a battlefield in larger struggles have now turned to settling the peace terms in this conflict while preparing for the next conflict.

Religion-based alliances have been the common basis of coalitions in the Middle East for a long time now.  During the Syrian civil war, Iran, the majority Shi’a government of Iraq, the minority Alawite government of Syria, and Shi’ite Hezbollah in Lebanon all joined forces to fight the Sunni insurgency.  Conversely, Sunni Turkey and Sunni Saudi Arabia long co-operated against the Assad regime.  Russia gained influence in the region by choosing the Shi’ite side.  The United States may have lost some influence by its unwillingness to choose sides.

However, it appears that identities other than religion offer the basis for alignment.  The Saudis seem to have taken Turkish support as a given in the continuing struggle against Iran.  Iran and Turkey have been backing opposing sides in the civil war, so they should be at daggers drawn for years to come.  In practice, this is not so.  Iran and Turkey both are non-Arab states.  During the 20th Century, both did a better job at fending off direct Western domination than did any of the Arab states.  Beyond this “usable past” (if they care to invoke it for practical reasons of state) the two countries have a problem with the Kurds.

Iran and Turkey (and the soon-to-be-victorious Assad regime) all fear the next problem on the horizon, Kurdish nationalism.   First came the protected zone for Iraqi Kurds created by the US after the First Gulf War.  Then came the near-autonomous region created after the 2003 invasion which gave birth to a proto-Kurdistan in northern Iraq.  Over the last several years, Kurdish militias from Iraq and Syria have done much of the heavy lifting in the fight against ISIS.  Along the way, Syrian Kurds have carved out an enclave along Syria’s border with Turkey.  Kurdish nationalism is burning in Turkey.

Saudi Arabia fears its neighbor across the Persian Gulf, but Turkey feels no real danger from Iran.  Erdogan’s allegations of U.S. involvement in the recent attempt to overthrow him might be taken as window-dressing meant to justify his shift toward reconciliation with Iran.

All this is speculation, not prophecy.  Yet one speculation leads to other speculations.  If the Syrian civil war is winding down and the Kurdish issue is winding up, will all the major players take a moment to concentrate on destroying ISIS?  If the Assad regime and its patrons have won the civil war, then will Turkey close the border to both the inflow of aid to the rebels and any flight by anti-Assad refugees?  If Turkey, Syria, and Iran are about to turn on the Kurds, will Saudi Arabia shift its support to the Kurds as a way of pressuring Iraq, Iran, and Turkey?  If the Kurds see the coalition gathering against them, will they shorten their reach in an effort to hold onto the core of what they have already obtained?  Having been so continually frustrated of late by developments in the Middle East, will American diplomacy profit from the experience and seek new means to achieve American goals?

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Turkey, Iran Get Friendly, Despite War,” WSJ, 7 October 2016.

[2] Whether it will now turn to defeating the Islamic State in the eastern part of the country remains an open question.

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