January 1, 2016


Outside the box: a Sunni endgame in Syria, Iraq?  : A series of related events point to a possible endgame scenario in Syria and Iraq. (Fernando Betancor, 12/31/15, openDemocracy)

In October, a group of 53 Saudi imams unaffiliated with the government called for a jihad against the Russian, Iranian and Syrian governments. The group went even further than official condemnation and likened the Russian intervention to the 1980 war in Afghanistan--which led to the birth of Al Qaeda, in case anyone has forgotten. It is significant that the Saudi government allowed or was not able to stop the communication; the former would indicate approval of the intensified message while the latter would imply weakness and the desire of the Saudis to avoid internal dissension from the more radical clergy. [...]

Also on 9 December, Syrian opposition groups agreed to a Saudi-proposed framework for talks and to unify in the face of a Russian-backed loyalist resurgence. The road remains rocky as many of the rebel groups courteously despise each other, but the possibility of a unified Sunni rebel front is highly significant.

These events occur in the context of a significant offensive by Assad's loyalist forces, backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, to recapture the initiative and retake critical territory around Hama, Aleppo and Homs. The fighting has been intense and the progress has been slow--mainly because of the anti-tank guided weapons the Gulf states have been providing to the Syrian rebels--but progress is being made. The immediate threat to Latakia and the Alawite heartland has eased; the beleaguered garrison of Kweiras AFB has been relieved after a two-year siege; and the threat to the strategic north-south supply lines has been pushed back. It is not victory; but for a regime on the point of collapse just three months ago, it is an important turnaround.

Many of the rebel groups courteously despise each other, but the possibility of a unified Sunni rebel front is highly significant.

This has put a great deal of pressure on the Saudis. Their Syrian proxies are suffering serious setbacks; in Iraq, the victories are being won either by Shia Hashed militias (Bayji, Ramadi) or else by the Kurdish Peshmerga (Sinjar). The Gulf states don't have any beef against the Kurds per se, but the Iraqi Shia militias are being openly trained and supplied by Iran. King Salman is not secure enough on his throne to suffer grievous loss of prestige lightly; he faces the very real possibilities of either a palace coup or a radicalisation of his already radical subjects should his leadership lead to a Sunni defeat in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey is also under pressure. President Erdogan faces plenty of domestic opposition due to his authoritarian manner and the vast corruption of his AKP apparatchiks; only by picking a fight with the Kurds and taking a hardline in Syria was he able to secure a narrow parliamentary majority in a November second election, after the previous one delivered a hung parliament. Furthermore, the country faces a resurgent Russia that has thrashed Georgia, occupied Crimea, is playing footsy with Azerbaijan and Armenia, and now has the better part of a frontal aviation regiment in Syria with ground troops to defend their bases. After 400 years of fighting off the Russians, the last thing the Turks want is to be encircled by them.

These setbacks seem to have brought the 'Sunni coalition' closer together. Goaded on by the United States, the Turks and Saudis may be prepared to move beyond supplies and munitions to use of ground forces in an effort to redress the situation.

Posted by at January 1, 2016 9:44 AM