War in Syria: Two Coalitions, Two Approaches

The general outline of the Russian-American competition will be similar to Soviet-US conflicting relations during the Cold War that were engendered not only and not so much by the Arab-Israeli strife, as by the tough confrontation between Arab “conservative” and “progressive” regimes.

The domestic situation in Syria has changed the structure of relations between the external players involved in it. It led to the emergence of two coalitions with two contrary approaches: rejection or support of the official regime. Proceeding from the need to combat their common enemy – the “Islamic State” – both coalitions are striving to reach one and the same goal: to preserve the immutability of the state and territorial arrangements that the Middle East inherited from the post WWI-era. The spheres of their actions overlap only partially. The US Air Force (in cooperation with the aviation of its Arab allies) is bombing mostly Iraqi territory while Russia is dealing strikes on Syrian territory. Despite the appeals by some Iraqi Shia politicians (which are adamantly rejected by the Kurds and by Sunni politicians in Iraq) to extend Russian strikes to Iraqi territory, the borders of the spheres of actions remain unchanged for the time being.

In the absence of a UN Security Council mandate, appeals merely to the agreements and requests of the Iraqi and Syrian governments (the former enjoys full international recognition, while the latter, even though recognized by the UN and two permanent members of its Security Council, has no relevance for the Arab regional community) raise doubts about the legitimacy of the actions by both coalitions. Moreover, both coalitions have been brought into life not only and not so much by the current US-Russian rivalry as by the Arab Spring, which has destabilized the Middle East and enhanced the opportunities of regional forces and local non-government actors.

Russia’s appearance as an active non-regional force is defined by its efforts to coordinate military-political steps with Iran. Russia’s assistance to the Assad regime, which is “fighting against the Islamic State,” merely attests to its desire to promote cooperation with Tehran. The formation of the contrary coalition, which required “the overcoming of US self-isolation,” is interpreted by Riyadh as a success of Saudi diplomacy, which is currently trying to alleviate the consequences of the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program reached with Washington’s participation. Non-regional forces (which are naturally also striving to protect their own interests) merely entered the field of Saudi-Iranian regional confrontation when their struggle against ISIS transformed into the background against which this confrontation was deepening.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, rather than the United States, are fighting against the Assad regime under the pretext of opposing Lebanese Hezbollah (“an instrument of Iran’s expansion") and the units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards that are operating in Syria. The Saudis are providing financial and logistical support to the “moderate” opponents of the regime. They have become tougher critics of Russia’s air strikes on Syrian territory than Washington. Meanwhile it is not the United States but Iran that is fighting against ISIS, following in the steps of its Saudi “strategic enemy” as regards the Iraqi army and welcoming the formation of the Russian-Iraqi-Iranian Coordination Center in Baghdad.

The Saudi-Iranian conflict does not seem exhausted today. Perhaps this primarily and fully applies to the positions of Riyadh and Tehran on the Assad regime and the Haider Al-Abadi Government. Each of these regional powers will continue to increasingly involve its allies (either Russia or the United States) into confrontation around Syria and try to extend it to Iraq. Both Riyadh and Tehran will be allergic to the actions of the major non-regional players aimed at coordinating their efforts in the struggle against ISIS, making the proclaimed goal of its destruction largely hypothetical.

The only result of such developments will be the growing transformation of the Middle East into an arena of Russian-American competition. The general outline of this competition will be similar to Soviet-US conflicting relations during the Cold War that were engendered not only and not so much by the Arab-Israeli strife, as by the tough confrontation between Arab “conservative” and “progressive” regimes.
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