Even with ISIS gone, Syria has never been a more dangerous theatre of war.
ISIS was, until recently, the most lethal threat to international security in the Middle East. A formidable proponent of asymmetrical warfare, with an unparalleled propaganda machine and the capacity to launch organised and lone-wolf attacks alike through its sprawling European network, it was indeed a formidable force in the region. But with the demise of the quasi-caliphate as a regional power, a new Pandora’s box has been opened in Syria.
Eliminating ISIS was, both under Obama and now the Trump White House, the US main strategic objective in Syria and Iraq, but neither administration had a clearly-defined endgame. With the common enemy gone, the ‘coalition’ of global and regional powers that have united to eliminate the terrorist malcontent have turned on each other. In one corner, there is Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia and Iran. In its current state, Syria is ungovernable, meaning Assad can only survive with the continued support of Tehran and Moscow. In the other corner, the United States and Israel, which continues to declare that it will not accept a Syria under Assad.
Another incident, with Israeli casualties, could push them over the edge
But no war in the Middle East is isolated. Iran’s sponsorship of Bashar al-Assad plays into its larger strategy of prohibiting the spread of Western-friendly regimes in the region, most of which are inexorably tied to Saudi Arabia or Israel. Russia backs Iran for the same reason – it sees a Middle East dominated by American allies on its southern borders as a direct threat to its own national security. Simultaneously Israel fears for its northern border, worrying that an Iranian puppet could provide a platform for attacks on Israeli soil. Then there’s the United States and its European allies, which just want a peaceful, stabile and enlightened democracy, such as those it successfully introduced in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. Neocons never learn.
The most important conflict here is that between Israel and Iran. American soldiers and Russian mercenaries already clashed in February, leaving hundreds of Russians dead, but neither Putin nor Trump has talked about it, as neither side wants an escalation. On the other hand, Israel is convinced that Iran plots its destruction, and Iran has not done much to persuade Tel Aviv otherwise. An Israeli fighter jet was shot out of the sky after bombing attacking Iran-backed militias, putting the two countries on the precipice of all-out war. Another incident, this time with Israeli casualties, could push them over the edge.
It’s hard to exaggerate the extent of such a catastrophe. A war with Israel might also mean a war with Saudi-Arabia, Iran’s other arch-nemesis in the Middle East. After many years of engaging in proxy wars with Iran, Saudi Arabia is on war-footing, and its new crown-prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is suspected of having secretly negotiated with the Israelis about the prospects of military cooperation against Iran. Putting one foot wrong in the a chaos like Syria, and one risks a conflict involving the three largest military powers in the Middle East, two of which have nuclear capabilities. And then there’s Russia and the US. As they are backing different horses in this race, with both Saudi Arabia and Israel staunch US allies and Iran a Russian partner, such a war poses the threat of pitting the two most formidable militaries in the world at loggerheads. This, however, remains unlikely. Both the Washington and the Kremlin know that the conflicts between Shia (Iran) and Sunni (Saudi) states go back decades. And between Jews and Muslims… well, that’s just a different story altogether. The point remains that neither wants a hot war in the Middle East, and will encourage a political solution. Odds of success remain uncertain – peace accords are rarely perceived as binding agreements in that region.
It may well be futile to speculate on the future of the most complex geopolitical landscape in the world, but it is wise to know the risks. While the eyes of the world are locked on Trump and Kim Jong Un’s month-long shouting match, one should remember that the seeds of the next great war may lie in the ruins of Eastern Ghouta.