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Russia, Iran And Turkey: The Real Power Brokers In Syria

By entering into east Aleppo, it would seem that the Syrian Arab Army and allied forces have prevented their country from suffering Libya's fate. But despite the government victory over the galaxy of Jihadist and "moderate rebels," US Secretary of State John Kerry, among others, does not think control of Aleppo - the commercial and industrial hub of Syria - will in itself end the war. President Assad agrees, telling the Syrian daily Al-Watan, that the rebels' defeat "won't mean the end of the war in Syria." However, he did call it a "huge step" in that direction.

After more than five years of multiple civil and proxy wars wreaking havoc on a biblical scale, and despite some defections and losses, the Syrian Arab Army, supported by Iran-linked land forces and the Russian Airforce, remains compact and effective. Meanwhile, opposition forces, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, are splintered. The rebellion is infected by Salafist Jihadis on the payroll of foreign countries, with their oppression of women, minorities, and dissent of all kinds, lacking any credible plan or agenda. One reason the Syrian Arab Army was able to prevail in east Aleppo is the power shift in Washington, where President-Elect Donald Trump's enigmatic relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin likely portends the end of US aid for the anti-government rebels.

A Divided Syria ?

Like Kerry and Assad, most observers expect the war to continue for the present; nonetheless, the outlines of a tri-partite Syria are slowly forming:
1. The North, dominated by Kurds but lacking territorial continuity to avoid further provoking Turkey;
2. The West and Mediterranean Syria, with most urban centers already, or likely soon, under government control; and
3. The desert-like South and South East, more or less controlled by various extremist groups warring against the government and among themselves, likely for the next 10-20 years.
In this scenario, the rebels lose strength at the negotiation table, while the government gains, at the same time liberating almost 20,000 troops to redirect elsewhere. In the long run, the secularist coalition of minorities (Christian, Alawite, Druze, etc.) supported by a moderate Sunni majority will prevail. In the final analysis, the Syrian conflict is not sectarian in nature but rather a political and geopolitical power struggle, even though all the players use it as a tool.

External Actors and New Balances

United States
Although the Syrian tragedy is mostly the result of interventionism rather than failure to intervene more decisively, the president-elect seems to be an isolationist. Although President Obama has already sought a reduced involvement in Syria, according to the Wall Street Journal Donald Trump has reaffirmed his campaign position that assisting the Syrian government in fighting ISIS should be the US objective in Syria.

Despite the president-elect's isolationist tendencies, the US will likely continue supporting Syrian Democratic Forces, mainly Kurds, yet with sufficient restraint to avoid antagonizing Turkey, which wants to prevent formation of an autonomous Kurdish region on its borders.

Russia
The new Middle East power balance undoubtedly includes a resurgent Russia supported subtly by China. Facing latent Sunni extremism within its borders, Russia could seek to shore up domestic security by taking on the extremists in Syria and in areas of the former Soviet Union.

The military base at Tartus gives continuity to the Russian presence on the Mediterranean and the Syrian arena serves also as an effective showcase for the latest Russian weaponry. Russia is establishing itself solidly on the Mediterranean Sea and in the Middle East at a level not seen even at the height of the former Soviet Union. Putin thus becomes a kind of kingmaker, wielding the Russian Airforce, and promoting multi-party negotiations on Syria. He could leverage Syria as a bargaining chip for broader issues such as Ukraine or to push for the removal of sanctions applied by the West after his annexation of Crimea.

Iran
Although Russian influence has increased after the recapture of Aleppo, Tehran is the real victor according to the Financial Times. The Russian Airforce matters less than the Iranian revolutionary guards and Iran-linked militias.

Iran has supported the Syrian regime from the start, with financial aid, armaments, intelligence advice, and militia on the ground - although it has also criticized the cruelty of Assad's regime. Iran assembled militias and volunteers from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to build battalions of ideologically motivated fighters to combat ISIS and other terrorism in the region. It was Tehran that convinced Russia to enter Syria, despite their competition for European natural gas markets. Of more concern to Tehran is the geopolitical competition from Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia; yet it is necessary to keep in mind that historically all the minorities in the Middle East have at one point or another set anchor in Iran to avoid harsh persecution from the Caliphate's orthodoxy. Iranian regional power thus rises, yet its continuity still depends on avoiding any direct confrontation with Turkey, as well as the Middle East policy of the White House after January 20, when the president-elect takes office.

Turkey
Erdogan's Muslim Brotherhood oriented government in Turkey has deep relations with all the Syrian rebel groups hoping to oust Assad and build a new sphere of influence in the informal space of the former Ottoman caliphate. Based on this logic, Turkey itself become the transit hub of Jihadi extremists moving to and from Syria, and according to WikiLeaks the hub of a dubious and illicit trade even with ISIS. Turkey's relationship with most of the rebel groups active in Syria and Iraq is widely known and acknowledged.

Aleppo, considered by Turkey as its back yard, was seen as crucial to Erdogan's quest for regional hegemony. Therefore, the fall of Aleppo is a game-changer for Erdogan and demonstrates the failure of his neo-Ottoman aspirations. At the same time, by distancing itself further from Europe and its democratic values, and in riskily playing various extremist groups as geopolitical tools, Turkey has itself become a victim of terrorism. With insecurity increasing especially in urban centers, tourism is declining and the economy is contracting. The assassination of Russian Ambassador Andrey Karlov can only exacerbate the anxiety.

Turkey now seems to be setting its sights on the more modest and realistic role as a power broker in forging a political solution for Syria, by participating in the trilateral Russian-Iranian-Turkish summit for peace in Syria.

Saudi Arabia and Allied Kingdoms
The Saudis and their allies along the southern shore of the Persian Gulf have invested a remarkable amount of their petrodollar income in, and tied their regional policy's fate to, the Syrian Salafi-Jihadi rebels. If Syria's al-Qaeda branch was on Turkey's payroll, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have Jaysh al Islam, Ahrar al Sham and other groups. Yet after years of boldness culminating in the ascent of King Salman to the throne, Saudi Arabia has begun to retreat diplomatically. Aside from its regional competitor Iran gaining increased influence, Saudi Arabia has lost an important former/formal ally in the Egyptian general al-Sisi, who openly has supported the Syrian Army against the ideologized rebels. The Saudi war against Yemen has further weakened the aspirations of the petro-aristocracies of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Saudis and their allies continue to dispense resources, putting further stress on their finances. Meanwhile, the international community is eager to prevent the funding and spread of the destructive ideology promulgated by clerics from Saudi Arabia.

A Path to a Comprehensive and Lasting Cease-Fire ?

The tri-partite negotiations among Russia, Iran and Turkey could offer hope for a cease fire and a real settlement. Whether the absence of EU and American participation will help or hurt these efforts remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Russia-Iran-Turkey trio as real power brokers may yet decide the future of Syria.Yet Russia should remember it is a weak super power that, unless it reaches an understanding with the US and the EU, would lack the possibility of achieve a lasting and comprehensive cease fire and resolution of the Syrian war.

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