The overlapping interests in the Syria-Iraq civil war
The Syrian civil war enters in its fifth year of continuous bloodshed that killed over 250.000 people [1. According to the UNSC News Brief from August 17, 2015.] and the Iraqi civil war enters its third year, after almost 10 years of endless insurgency. The 2003 Iraqi war and the 2011 Arab Spring completely changed the MENA region and the geopolitical background lost its fragile equilibrium that lasted for a few decades. The bloodshed will probably continue this year and maybe the few next, as there is no real understanding of the regional situation and no flexibility and availability for strategic compromise from the main actors in the region, especially after the new emergence of Iran, after the end of international sanctions against the regime in Teheran.
The Syrian and Iraqi wars are multi-vectorial, asymmetrical, and with actors that have divergent or overlapping interests. The actors involved in the regional conflict have dichotomous strategic views regarding the future of the region, they are living in different political and ideational paradigms. The different sectarian identities and beliefs, including here the institutionalised anti-Shia Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia and the Daesh eschatological ideology, creates divergences that make impossible or very hard a multi-actor compromise over the main issues in the conflict.
In Syria, the main military-political actors are the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus, who controls about 30% of the territory and over 60% of the population, especially on the Mediterranean coast and around the capital; the moderate rebels, who control about 10-15% of the territory; the Daesh, who rules over about 40% of the territory and up to 15% of the population; last, the Syrian Kurds have about 10-15% of the land, at the northern border with Tukey and Iraq.
The al-Assad regime tends to be inflexible, even under pressure from Moscow to negotiate with the moderate rebels, and wants to settle the conflict by force, hoping that the Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah assistance will offer him the upper hand in the conflict, but he is mistaken. Vladimir Putin wants to keep the al-Assad regime in power, not necessarily with Bashar as the leader of it, but wants the inclusion of the moderate forces in the new regime, making it more flexible, compromising and federative. Putin knows that the dictatorial regime of the past is dead. His military moves in Syria aim to force the moderate forces to accept to negotiate with Damascus. Putin’s interests in the conflict are primary to keep Syria as a regional ally of Russia (and to keep its military naval base there), secondly to increase his bargain hand in Ukraine and in the larger systemic debate with the United States and the West, thirdly to make clear to the Western Power that the Syrian civil war cannot be resolved without Russia, and the last one is to improve the international perception of Russia as a “good actor” that is active in resolving international conflicts.
The Kurds in Syria are a new and significant actor in the conflict, one that creates anxiety in Ankara. They refuse to negotiate with Damascus and seek to obtain at least an autonomous status in the post-conflict Syria, similarly to the one of the Iraqi Kurds. This will be perceived as a major threat by Ankara who will do anything in its power to stop it. The Kurds are prone to support the US-led coalition against the Daesh but I doubt that they want for the Caliphate to disappear too soon. They need more time to improve their military and political force and to be able to be considered a relevant actor in post-conflict Syria, or even to create a proper Kurd state.
The overlapping interests are one of the main reasons for the prolongation of the conflict and the continuous existence of the Daesh both in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, the Kurds want to protect their own autonomous region from the Daesh forces, but they are also interested in the continuous existence of the “Caliphate,” mainly because it makes the central government in Bagdad weak enough to accept a large political and territorial autonomy for the province. The Kurds are afraid that the disappearance of the Caliphate will lead to greater central control from Bagdad and the reduction of their own political and administrative autonomy. Fortunately for them, the Iraqi government is too weak and incapable to fight the Daesh forces, even with significant help from US and Iran.
The Gulf states want a Sunni regime in Damascus and are ready to do a lot to realize this, especially after the end of the international sanctions against Iran. They had or are supporting the moderate and some extremist Sunni groups in Syria, there were speculations about possible financial help for Daesh and al-Nusra front. The sectarian war in the Middle East is causing the end of countless lives and incommensurable destruction.
The West and the United States are directly implicated in the conflict and have an important role in offering assistance to the moderate rebels and the Iraqi government against the Daesh. Even so, the resources allocated to the conflict by the US and the West are insufficient and without boots on the ground is hard to have any long-lasting effect.
Finally, we can see that the region is filled with actors that have overlapping interests, asymmetrical objectives, and not a real interest in concluding the conflict. They are not even interested in destroying the Islamic State because it will create a power and territorial vacuum that they will be unable to fill. The al-Assad regime and the moderate rebels will have to choose between fighting each other until one of them is defeated and then go after the Daesh, or negotiate a national compromise that will create a new – hopefully, a more liberal and democratic – regime that will be strong enough to destroy the Daesh forces and reconstruct the national cohesion.