The Syrian Crisis: Aleppo and the Kurds in international geopolitics
The failure of the ‘Friends of Syria’ platform – a Turkish initiative – and the formation of the Syrian National Council (SNC) over the summer of 2011, following Turkey’s warning that called on Syria to make urgent reforms after Turkish Prime Minister Davutoǧlu’s trip to Damascus on 9 August 2011, were instrumental in empowering the Axis of Resistance. The Syrian crisis repositioned the central focus back to the Middle East. Moreover, this crisis revived Cold War alliances and allowed Russia to reclaim zones of influence in the region, and has further strengthened the Kurdish role as intrinsic players in this process of regional restructuring.
Current developments in the Middle East, more specifically the Syrian crisis (March 2011) –culminating in a civil war, has been increasingly significant for both Iran and Turkey. Tehran’s foreign policy has drawn strength from its goal of becoming a catalyst in the region as a dynamic force for change and in more recent times has significantly developed Iranian geopolitical interests in the region. Meanwhile, Ankara is striving to reposition itself in a more favorable light and to improve its relations with the Arab states at a time when Turkish-Syrian foreign policy jeopardized Turkey’s overall Middle Eastern foreign policy. This imbalance between the Iranian and Turkish foreign policies deepened further as Iran took advantage of the regional turmoil, especially in neighboring Iraq which became extremely volatile.
In this context, Aleppo became a prime target as it constitutes one of the few areas where the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been located, in contrast to other strategic locations such as Raqqa – an Islamic State (IS) stronghold. Thus, Aleppo became a key area within the wider context of regional and international competition between the regime’s forces and their most direct allies, i.e., Iran and their Russian partners that would like to see Assad prevails. Compared to IS dominated Raqqa, Aleppo is a battleground of geostrategic significance, close to the Mediterranean Sea and the Kurdish areas, as well as a conduit for arms and more importantly only a few miles away from the Turkish border. The termination of the ‘buffer zone’ agreement between the US and Turkey (16 August 2015) bears its own significance considering its stretching along the Turkey-Syria border from the town of Jarabulus to Marea. Thus, reaching to the outskirts of Aleppo facilitates the US-Turkish coalition air strike to clear the area of IS fighters and place the Free Syrian Army as a counterbalance to the advance of the regime’s forces.
The Syrian crisis has definitely changed the regional balance of power and has given Iranian foreign policy precedence over Turkey so far. Iran has been further empowered by the inclusion of Russia in the Axis of Resistance, but also due to the Turkish foreign policy’s deteriorating relations. Russian involvement has bolstered Iran’s engagement in Syrian affairs.
The role of the Gulf Arab States, in particular Saudi Arabia’s engagement in a potential confrontation with the regime’s forces and their allies within and around Aleppo, clearly indicates a new strategy that aims to curb Iranian influence and which increasingly highlights the Sunni-Shi’a competition in the region. Indeed, the rise of the Islamic State proved advantageous for the Syrian regime. Thus, the threat of IS occurred at a critical moment when Assad’s regime was under serious threat. The rise of IS also assisted Iranian foreign policy in its continued pursuit of controlled chaos and instability in the region, which has so far served Iran well in its attempts to advance its position and role in regional politics.
The battle for Aleppo that resulted in closer cooperation between Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the US might well determine the course of events in Syria. The fight to preserve territories with a Sunni majority of the population could lead to a controlled confrontation with the regime’s forces and its most direct allies. Whereas the fight in Aleppo could pave the way for the settlement of the ongoing hostilities in Syria on the one hand, on the other it could signal the extension and diffusion of the conflict with further regional repercussions in the case that the Arab Gulf States with the aid of Turkey would get even more involved, fighting Iran in Syria directly on the ground.
At the same time, this situation raises the question of the extent to which the IS has been fought collectively by all powers including Iran and Russia. Thus far, it is the Kurdish forces that have primarily confronted IS, and have been victimized as the frontline against the war on terror. This also poses the dilemma of how long Raqqa – a tribal Sunni stronghold – would continue to be under the control of the IS. Today, it is proved how international wars are fought on a national – if not a local level and how alliances are fragile and subject to changes according to foreign policy interests. To a certain extent, the Syrian-Iranian alliance has demonstrated that in where both parties have different agendas, but convergent interests.
Syria is a critical factor which will determine whether Iran can retain its dominant position in the regional balance of power – achieved mainly since the end of the Iraq war and the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. At the same time, traditional US foreign policy expects to see a ‘balances of powers’ in the region, rather than a dominant Iran.
Within a context of international concern about how a post-war chaos could be avoided and how Syria’s future can be best ensured, the Kurds in Syria are called to play a significant balancing role. This role has the potentiality that might determine the consolidation of their newly established de facto autonomous entity provided that a consensus can be reached with the regional forces as events unfold.