On Nov. 22, Russia, Turkey and Iran – the powers with major stakes in the Syrian conflict – are holding a summit to address the problem of finding a peaceful solution to Syria’s conflict. The chiefs of general staffs are also holding a meeting. Before that, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to talk about the future of Syria, as the military operation is coming to an end. “As for our joint efforts against the terrorists in Syria, this military operation is nearing completion,” the Russian leader emphasized, as the stage is set for a switch to political process. The two leaders discussed details of the Syrian People’s Congress, which is to take place on Dec.2 in the Russian resort city of Sochi. It is expected to bring together around 1,000 people.
Clearly, the main focus in Syria is now switching from the battlefield to the negotiating table. President Putin expressly uses the terms “political process” or “political management”. Can the process encompass the opposition? Looks it is already happening. The opposition forces are in a state of disarray, as the US and its allies have come to terms with the notion of a Syrian ceasefire deal that doesn't demand Assad's immediate removal from power. On Nov.20, Syrian opposition figure Riyad Hijab announced his resignation as chair of the Saudi-backed umbrella group, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC). Several other members also left.
The move was welcomed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who believes that “the retreat of radically minded opposition figures from playing the main role will make it possible to unite this motley opposition – internal and external – on a more reasonable, realistic and constructive platform.” The resignations came as the committee was gathering for a meeting in Riyadh on Nov.22 to select a delegation for the upcoming round of UN-sponsored Syria peace talks in Geneva next week. A Russian special envoy will oversee a meeting of Syrian opposition in Saudi Arabia.
With Islamic State routed, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (former Jabhat al-Nusra – an al-Qaeda branch) is the only group staying out of the negotiation process. Its days are numbered and its influence is insignificant. It controls only a part of Idlib province and is suffering losses while fighting another group – the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement – its former ally.
Russia, Turkey and Iran are major actors that no solution to the problem can be found without. But the Syria’s situation is increasingly seen through the prism of broader conflict. On Nov.19, the Arab League strongly condemned Iran at the meeting of foreign ministers in Cairo. The ministers decided to "brief" the UN Security Council on Iran's destabilizing policies in the region, with a view to submit at a later stage an anti-Iran Arab resolution. "We are not declaring war on Iran at this stage," Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul-Gheit said, hinting that the declaration of war was an option. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Djibouti spearheaded the offensive, while Lebanon and Iraq stated their reservations about the harsh text of the resolution.
Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Bahrain's Foreign Minister, urged strong action against Iran. According to him, if such support is absent, his country would have no choice but to rely on the protection of the West. He cited the US 5th Fleet headquartered in Bahrain and naval ships patrolling the Persian Gulf. This is a call to a military action and the United States is mentioned as an ally. Such a statement is hardly thinkable without previous consultations with Washington. Is it a coincidence that the US military presence in the Middle East grew 33% in the past four months?
It’s worth to note that the Arab league meeting came a few days after Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli Defense Minister, extended the hand of friendship to Arab countries, calling on them to form an alliance against Iran. He has made statements that Israel will not allow the establishment of a Shiite axis in Syria. On Nov.18 Lieberman wrote on his Facebook page that the Middle East region requires an anti-Iran coalition. “40 years after his (Sadat’s) historic visit to Israel, I call on leaders in the region to follow the path of President Sadat, come to Jerusalem (al-Quds) and open a new chapter, not just in terms of Israel’s relations with the Arab world, but for the whole region,” the minister stated.
His comments were made came two days after Israeli military Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot expressed the regime’s readiness “to exchange experiences with moderate Arab countries and exchange intelligence to confront Iran.” In an interview with the Saudi-owned Elaph online newspaper, Eizenkot claimed that Iran was the "biggest threat to the region,” noting that Tel Aviv and Riyadh were in full agreement about Iran's intentions. Recent reports suggest an Israel-Saudi rapprochement.
With the threat of Islamic State almost gone, a powerful alliance is gradually emerging comprising Sunni Arab states, the US backed by many of its NATO allies, and Israel. Hezbollah and Syria will take the side of Tehran, with the Kurds and Druze siding with the anti-Iran coalition. If shooting starts, the Middle East will be exploded. The war between Shiite and Sunni Muslims will spill over the boundaries of the Middle East.
There will be many repercussions – all of them negative. Some can be predicted right now. For instance, Iraq will not fight against Iran. Willy-nilly the US will have to rely on Sunni militias and play the “Kurdish card”. Turkey will not like it. And it will do its own thing, no matter what Washington says. If the war lasts too long, Baghdad may side with Tehran. Syria and Iraq will plunge into the quagmire of civil wars.
Afghanistan will be affected, with the Hazaras and the Ismailis, both belonging to the Shia branches of Islam, joining the fray on the side of Iran to strengthen the hand of the Taliban and other anti-Western groups.
All the hard efforts applied and successes achieved in Syria so far may go down the drain. The global threats will multiply. While Russia, the only actor to announce its intention to partially withdraw military forces from Syria, is leading the peace process applying each and every effort to end the war and bring peacemaking and nation building to the fore of the international agenda, the Middle East region is being pushed to war.