Good news: The UN security council has agreed on a resolution to bring peace to Syria and Iraq, reestablish order in the Middle East, and introduce a cease-fire between Damascus and the Syrian opposition.
The plan is historic, as it brings together an array of different interests under the common goal of fighting the Islamic State and bringing peace to the countries of the Middle East.
But so-far very little details have been worked out. There is still a long way to go and while opposition to ISIS (IS, ISIL or Daesh) serves as a unifier for the time being, deep running differences will have to be worked out eventually, if the plan is to be successful.
The war in Syria is one of the most complex conflicts of our times. Not since the end of World War 2 have we seen such a great number of regional players and world powers involved in the same violent conflict on opposite sides. Syria pits against each other old rivals, such as Russia and the US, and puts severe strain on established friendships, like those between Western countries and Turkey. At the same time, those of the Western countries that are affected more severely by the consequences of the war, with a never ending stream of refugees flowing towards Europe, are precisely those that are involved far less in the military side of the crisis than their American counterparts.
In a sense, the presence of ISIS simplifies the situation greatly. We have to be aware that the conflict predates the Islamic State, and without the common need to fight the vile caliphate it would have been much harder to bring all relevant players to the table. But any plan for Syria that has the chance of bringing lasting stability to the region will have to satisfy the interests of al the different actors who now met in New York to find a solution. The challenge to find a compromise is great, but not impossible to attain. Here is what it will have to include at minimum:
Russia: Moscow will not agree to anything that endangers it’s presence in the region. The Kremlin has its only foreign base in Syria and has followed the same geopolitical strategy of retaining a foothold to the south for centuries. At the same time the Russians feels besieged by Western powers. Putin’s paranoia regarding the establishment of Western institutions, rule of law, and democratic civil society has even led to war in Ukraine. He won’t let Russia be pushed to the sidelines in the Middle East. ISIS means Russia can further it’s own goals under the pretense of fighting ISIS.
Europe: Europe doesn’t have a foreign policy. It would like the refugees to stop coming to its shores and will agree to basically anything that can make this happen. This means stability. And stability means peace. Because of ISIS Europe can now justify at home a more forceful military engagement in the region that might eventually help bring stability and give the people of the middle east chance to stay in their home countries.
U.S. The US used to have a strategy but the Iraq war proved too costly to continue a large presence in the area. There are more factors that are leading to a repositioning. Oil prices have come down considerably, making any continuos engagement less relevant to the prosperity of Americans. Containment of China requires a shift of perspective to the Pacific. The close alliances to Sunni Arab countries which had shaped US strategy in the region for decades, have given way to grater flexibility, a development that is underscored by the nuclear deal attained with Iran. Allies are worried that it has become harder to ascertain what exactly the US is trying to achieve in the Middle East, and some even say that Washington is not really sure itself. ISIS means, that the US once again has a clear target in the conflict, and collaboration with Russia is now feasible, based on the common theme of fighting Islamic Terrorism.
Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia: The Iranians don’t have many friends in the region. Just two to be precise. One is Hezbollah, and the other is Assad. So it is clear that in the contest over regional dominance they are trying to keep the Syrian dictator in place. They share this goal, ironically with their greatest regional rival Israel. The Israelis fear that toppling Assad could bring to power even more hostile and irrational actors. A the same time Netanyahu will fiercely oppose anything that increases Iran’s weight in the region. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia is going through tough times. With oil prices much lower, and its principle ally, the United States, reducing its commitment to Riad, the Saudis are fighting to stay relevant. In part responsible for the rise of extremist Sunni Islam, they are now trying to put together a coalition that is designed to fight ISIS, while at the same time reaffirming Saudi leadership of Sunni states in the region and countering Iranian influence.
Assad: the Syrian dictator is now in position where the only alternative to power appears to be death. The fate of Gadaffi is not one he wants to share. At the same time he is responsible for the Alevi minority which has been ruling Syria for generations now, and which could face severe repercussions were he expelled from power. Any deal that banks on Damascus laying down its arms, will have to guarantee safety to the President, his family, and those who surround him. Much could be learned from the example of South Africa, where Nelson Mandela achieved a peaceful transition without large scale violence against the former ruling class.
The Kurds: The largest fighting force against ISIS is not represented at most talks, because it lacks the means of representation, namely a state of its own. Deeply split between Kurds in Turkey, who’s main concern is carving out a space for themselves, and those in Iraq and Syria, who have already done so and are now fighting to protect it, the Kurds do not present a unified front. This makes it possible for the West to look the other way while Turkey is waging war against the Kurds in the regions bordering Turkey, while the US is at the same time supporting those factions fighting against ISIS. Any lasting agreement will have to balance between the Kurds claim to self-representation and statehood on the one side and Turkey’s, Iraq’s, and Syria’s claim to sovereignty and the defense of their state territory. Restraining Turkey on the one hand and keeping in check Kurdish demands on Turkish territory on the other, will not be easy.
The Syrian opposition: Made up of former Syrian military forces on the one hand, regional clans, and religiously motivated fighters who oppose ISIS, this is the most unstable constant in the conflict. It is to be assumed that some groups could be bought off while others will have to be fought eventually, and still other wil have to be integrated in a future political structure. Determining which is which here, and finding a way to to face this ragtag group of rivaling forces with a united front is one of the most serious challenges the international community is facing. But, you know, for now we are all fighting ISIS.
For now ISIS is the great unifier of all these different positions. It is not unlikely that the rouge caliphate will be defeated militarily in 2016. But once the barbarism of Daesh has been eradicates, the security council will once again face a tough challenge to build lasting peace in an area prone to turmoil and conflict.