Now in its fifth year, the Syrian civil war presents horror after horror. According to the Syrian Centre for Policy Research (SCPR) 11.5% of the Syrian population has been killed or injured and 45% displaced. Insecurity and perpetual violence force the choice between a live of slavery or Exodus. The initial civil uprising for democratic rights has morphed into multiple wars including proxy guerrilla actions - a de facto mini world war with all the political and geopolitical players represented: Russia, Iran and related militias support the Syrian government, while Turkey, Saudi Arabia and related sheikdoms, eager to remove the Syrian regime, back opposition forces (including Salafist Jihadis) in varying degrees.
The Syrian conflict could yield the following potential developments:
(a) Negotiations to the bitter end in Geneva, under the direction of UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, with a cease fire which leading to general elections under aegis of UN.
(b) Victory of the Syrian Army, with Russian air cover and help from militias linked to Iran. Security, yet absent a national reconciliation, leaving a large set of problems unresolved.
(c) The mini World War expands, exponentially increasing militarism and global terrorism.
Shunning direct military involvement, US President Obama has been called weak by some; but his multifaceted diplomacy, carried out by Secretary of State Kerry, may in fact be the unique sustainable route to a resolution for this civil war with dire regional and global implications.
The wars in Syria and Iraq are regional conflicts; but Da'esh (ISIS), al-Qaeda and the other extremists spread their perverse, violent ideology, hypocritically covering evil with a religious cloak. The attacks in Sinai, Beirut, Paris, San Bernardino, Jakarta and elsewhere, linked to or inspired by such groups, endanger global security, and demand a coordinated global response.
While the world community looks to institutions such as the International Court of Justice in The Hague to fix responsibility and try those accused of Crimes against Humanity, an effective response must encompass not only the humanitarian catastrophe, but the political and geopolitical aspirations of all the players. A diplomatic response to global security risks could consider:
(a) The Syrian Arab Army, after five years battling Da'esh, Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam and myriad Salafist-Jihidi groups supported by external players, and despite some defections, remains a compact institution in its professional core. Despite its role within an authoritarian system, it is nevertheless a strictly secular institution and pluralistic by Middle Eastern standards, including not only minorities (Christians, Alevis, Druze, etc.) but, contrary to expectations, Syrian Sunnis also - not merely as conscripts, but at its highest command levels. Moreover, even the state bureaucracies have major Sunni representation.
(b) The secular opposition is weak, and in any case most defections flow from the strictly non-secular Salafist or Muslim Brotherhood-style groups, including the Free Syrian Army, toward the more extreme groups, and not vice-versa. The Free Syrian Army itself, born of the pan-Arabism of Nasser's Free Officers, has gradually absorbed a Muslim Brotherhood ideology and, as such, has become the cistern of militants defecting to Nusra Front and Da'esh. Moreover, groups like Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham and myriad like-minded Salafist groups share a basic ideology that makes them available to collaboration with Nusra Front. The coalition Jaysh al-Fath, supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, is the result of these shared Salafist-Jihadi principles. The Syrian armed opposition consists of more than a thousand groups, divided and without any coordinated strategy for governance. Essentially dominated by Salafi-Jihadi extremists, often allied with Nusra Front (the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda) and other terror groups, they are all under pressure from Da'esh.
(c) The success of the Kobani resistance demonstrates that even a democratically motivated minority such as the Syrian Kurds can prevail over the Da'esh killing machine, if supported in the right way (e.g., by US and Russian air cover). The People's Protection Units (YPG), the armed branch of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), are primarily Kurdish militia; but they recruit Arabs, Turks, and westerners and incorporate Assyrian/Syriac Christian units into their command structure (Sutoro and Syriac Military Council). The YPG considers itself a democratic people's army, with a significant number of women fighters in its ranks. It holds elections as a method of appointing officers. The Kobani YPG experience demonstrates that a relatively modern, democratic and pluralistic approach to politics and lifestyle is a lethal poison to Jihadist terrorism. Indeed, the YPG fighters have proven to be, along with the Syrian Arab Army, the most efficient fighters against Da'esh and similar terror groups.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey - Points of Regional Significance
(a) Since its inception as a nation on based on tribal balances, Saudi Arabia has a history of promulgating the Salafist ideology known as Wahhabism. Based on a literalist interpretation of Islam as the ideological pillar of an absolutist tribal authority, Wahhabism rejects all modernism, including the modern concept of a nation-state, it considers any religious diversity, or even any other version of Islam, as rejectionism, heresy and apostasy. Here, then, is the origin, the germ, the source of the sectarian wars that are tearing the region apart.
All Salafist-Jihadi movements are progeny of the womb of Wahhabist ideology, although they even attack their own matrix. In modern times, the petro-aristocracies led by Saudi Arabia have financed most Salafist ideological movements around the globe, while their wealthy private sectors have funneled many financing dollars directly to terrorist groups.
While Saudi Arabia has sought to wield its Wahhabist ideology as a tool to promote its geopolitical agenda, it has perhaps overlooked the risk of losing control over its ideological disciples. The kingdom's policy of indirect interventionism - by exporting ideology through the power of the petrodollar - has been practiced prudently by the House of Saud until the ascent to the throne of King Salman in January of 2015. Salman has restored power to the arch-conservative Sudairi branch of the House of Saud, appointed his young son, the thirty year old prince Mohammad bin Salman, as both Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince, and instituted a policy shift from a conservative interventionism to an authoritarian interventionism.
The Saudi war in Yemen illustrate this shift from a more conservative to more aggressive interventionism. Reinvigorated Saudi aspirations to hegemonic power in the Middle East, with intensified ideological and financial support for radical movements, results in intensified Salafist-Jihadi activity around the world, and most especially in Syria. Yet, since the alternative to the House of Saud could be Da'esh or al-Qaeda, the international community should press the Saudis to undertake controlled reforms to avoid collapse into total chaos. Sending troops into Syria brings the risk of defection to Da'esh by soldiers who already share its Salafist world view, putting international security under further threat.
(b) Turkey is a quasi-European republic with modern institutions, currently governed by a Muslim Brotherhood-oriented regime under which it has experienced an economic boom during the last decade. During the Cold War Turkey as member of NATO has guaranteed the security of the southern front of the alliance. After the crash of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet system, the hope of the international community was that Turkey would extend the European democratic legacy into the Islamic world and towards the Orient. However, a series of problems, including a lack of courage on the part of European democracies, resulted in a de facto rejection of Turkey's application to the European Union (EU), forcing it to look toward the South and East. The failure of the Arab Spring thwarted Turkey's ambition to lead a new Sunni Islamic world within a moderate Muslim Brotherhood ideological framework. The awakening Kurdish autonomy movement was boosted after the closure of EU to Turkish membership, and created additional stress for the Muslim Brotherhood oriented governing elite.
Instead of embracing more democratic principles in order to adhere to EU entrance parameters, under President Erdogan Turkey has begun to move in the opposite direction: Limiting the internal space for free democratic expression, developing an ambiguous relationship with Salafist-Jihadi militias (and according to authoritative sources, even cooperating with some of them) - a policy which could put Turkey at the brink of Pakistanization and put Europe under increased pressure from the flow of migrant refugees - and clashing with the Kurds in southeastern Turkey, to cite but a few illustrative examples. Turkey is an important country and its destabilization could endanger the stability of Eurasia and the surrounding area. The Turkish political elite and citizens are aware that moving toward adherence to the EU and transmitting European democratic principles toward its East and South would be a more likely road to stability and continued prosperity. Moreover, prospects for future EU membership would also go a long way to solving the Kurdish problem.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia have declared their intention to send troops against Da'esh in Syria, yet their commitment to this fight is unclear., Saudi Arabia seems rather to support various militias, all more or less seeking to overthrow the sovereign Syrian state, while Turkey's first act in its supposed anti-Da'esh mobilization was to begin bombarding Syrian Kurdish fighters of The People's Protection Units, who, covered by US air power, have proven to be some of the most effective anti-Da'esh fighters.
The most probable Turkish-Saudi plan seems to be a direct move on Raqqa, the supposed capital of the imaginary Caliphate, to put an end to useless Da'esh and declare a Sunni protectorate. Yet with a Russian de facto no fly-zone, it would be militarily very hard for Turkey - without air cover - to reach Raqqa, while Saudi regular troops risk a direct confrontation with a war-hardened Syrian Army and militias linked to Iran. It is also difficult to believe that the Kurds of Rojava would submit to the weakening of their relative autonomy, or that the Syrians would accept the partitioning of their country. Moreover, the US, Europe, China, and Russia are well aware that any change in Syria's borders could trigger unforeseen consequences, putting in play all national boundaries. Indeed, it seems as though some circles in Turkey are trying to widen the conflict by forcing NATO to assume a major position. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has launched its largest military drill in the region's history. Sooner or later, Da'esh will be eliminated. An autonomous region in East Syria could emerge; yet a lasting security could be ensured only within a sovereign Syrian state.
A solution could emerge from de-escalation and negotiations, not from escalation and more troops. To contain the burgeoning mini world war and prevent a new wave of terror around the globe, the four high-powered diplomats - John Kerry, Sergey Lavrov, Mohammad Zarif and Federica Mogherini, representing the four rational powers, constitute a unique "Quadumvirate" capable of developing and imposing a sustainable solution for the Syrian tragedy as a credible prelude to collective security in the Middle East which could emerge from a collaboration among Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other countries.