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Syria: Geopolitical Tragedy

Syria: Geopolitical Tragedy

Friday, 22 October, 2021 - 04:15
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

Desperately trying to retain a modicum of relevancy in the Syrian imbroglio, the United Nations has shaken an old ghost out of slumber to claim a few headlines. The UN Special Envoy on Syria Geir Pedersen has brought the so-called “Constitution Committee” out of its two-year hibernation to “start drafting for constitutional reform.”


Notice the words “to start”, “drafting” and “constitutional reform”. This means that after two years of real or imagined deliberation the committee is no further than the starting point. Even then, what is planned isn’t the actual writing of a new constitution but “drafting” unspecified “reforms” to a non-existent constitution. If this sounds like diplomatic gesticulation, don’t be surprised because it is exactly that.


To reduce the role that the United Nations could potentially play in helping bring Syria out of the current deadly impasse to mere gesticulation is regrettable to say the least.


Syria today isn’t a constitutional problem.


The tragedy that has claimed almost half a million lives and made nearly half of the population refugees or displaced persons wasn’t caused by a defective constitution and won’t be concluded with a constitution dreamed by Pedersen ad is associates.


The truth is that Syria has ceased to have effective existence as a nation-state. At the same time, however, it cannot be regarded as a classical “ungoverned territory” because different chunks of it are under some measure of governance by foreign powers and their local surrogates and allies.


That makes Syria a complex geopolitical problem that cannot be solved with pie-in-the-sky legalistic gambits.


Today, Syrian territory is under some measure of control by five different players.


One segment is run by Russia, partly through private security companies, with the remnants of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as its local façade. Another segment is controlled by Turkey and its local Muslim Brotherhood allies. The United States and some NATO allies control a third segment with support from local ethnic Kurds. The Islamic Republic of Iran and its Afghan, Pakistani, Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese “foreign legions” control a fourth chunk. The last chunk is held by the remnants of the ISIS and former foes turned allies among anti-Assad groups.


The five segments have been tuned into laboratories for different, at times diametrically opposed, experiments in political organization. In the Russian-controlled sector one still finds an echo of the typical military-security based Arab despotism that was backed by the now defunct Soviet Union during the Cold War.


As long as it can keep its military presence, notably bases on the Mediterranean, Russia isn’t interested in political engineering in Syria. President Vladimir Putin is also determined not to allow Syria to become a base for exporting terror to parts of the Russian federation where Muslims form a majority.


Putin is persuaded that with the possible exception of Turkey, all other players in Syria are bound to drop out or be pushed out of the game sooner or later. Helped by frequent Israeli air raids on Iranian positions, he is already paving a path with banana skins for Iran which has begun to reduce its footprint in several locations.


Putin may be wrong in thinking that the US is also preparing to quit Syria. Such a move would have been more likely under Donald Trump or if President Joe Biden hadn’t been stung by his fiasco in Kabul.


Putin regards his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan as his only worthy partner in deciding the future of Syria. Turkey has a national security interest in creating a buffer zone along its border and preventing the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish enclave in Syria.


While Pedersen and his group have been hibernating Putin and Erdogan have discussed a new constitution for Syria on a number of occasions, most recently in a summit in Sochi. Putin wants a secular constitution for Syria with no mention of a state religion.


Erdogan, however, insists that if a state religion is to be mentioned it should specify the Hanafi version of Sunni Islam. Yet, that would mean antagonizing Syria’s Nusairi (Alawite) Ismaili, Ithna-ashari, and Druze minorities not to mention Christian communities.


The two leaders also disagree on the issue of an official state language being mentioned in a future constitution. By casting himself as protector of Turkic minority in Syria, less than one per cent of the population, Erdogan wants Turkish to be recognized as one of the official languages along with Arabic but is vehemently opposed to granting Kurdish, language of some four per cent of Syrians the same status.


For its art the Islamic Republic in Iran has offered musings of its own on a putative Syrian constitution. Ayatollah Mohsen Araki, the man in charge of propagating the Iranian brand of Shi’ism in Syria, proposes the creation of a new “Fatimyoun” identity which would encompass the Iranian brand of Shi’ism along with the Alawite, Ismaili and Druze faiths. However, the scheme faces a hurdle in the form of traditional Shi’ite authorities in Qom and Najaf still considering the Syrian sects as heretics.


The United States, for its part, doesn’t seem to have any long term view of what it is doing in Syria. President Trumps sulkily expressed desire to withdraw from Syria dealt a big blow to local Kurdish and other allies of the United States.


Trump, however, quickly backpedaled, and has been followed on that by Biden, at least for the time being. Nevertheless, what is still lacking is a clear American strategy for reviving Syria as a nation-state, the only outcome that can contribute to regional peace and help the long-term interests of the United States and its allies. Without US leadership the European powers won’t be able to play the crucial role they could and should claim in helping end the Syrian tragedy.


By ignoring the geopolitical aspect of the Syrian problem and by limiting the Syrian people’s involvement in shaping the future of their country to a few Assad pawns and a handful of self-styled opposition figures, the UN may be making a double mistake.


If Syria is recognized for what it is, that is to say an ungoverned territory, the UN’s role would have to help restore sovereignty to the Syrian people who should have the final say on how they wish to be governed and by whom. And that can’t be done by diplomatic gesticulations in a hotel suite in Switzerland.


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