As the winds of war beat down on Syria, the shifting sands expose old wounds and challenge regional alliances. Historically, “The Great Game” has been played on this pitch a century ago and the wind-blown sands expose old plays and previous positions as well as identify intentions.
“The Great Game” was the strategic, economic, political rivalry, and conflict between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia. All at the expense of Afghanistan, Persia, and the Central Asian Khanates/Emirates which spans from Syria to India. Turkey is the remaining vestige of the Ottoman Empire, the major loser of regional influence after the first World War and was consequently sliced up under the Treaty of Sevres.
The pawns in the Great Game shift with the sands and play out as an Ottoman manuscript. The Russians staunchly back their historical Ba’athist allies. The Turks wager a new found NATO hegemony appointing Turkey as the new regional center of gravity. In the Russian crosshairs are any opposition to the Assad regime, to include NATO supported Syrian Rebel groups. The legal interpretations of “sovereign” and “governable” are very much at the heart of the new world war.
As the current ceasefire agreement takes hold, Syria is more at chaos than ever before. Russia will likely continue bombing throughout any proposed ceasefires in order to continue to make gains then sue for peace and keep the territory, as evidenced currently in Ukraine. Their strategy seeks to cut off the Turkish support and supply lines in order to cripple the legs of the Syrian Resistance, all resistance to Assad. Syrian Kurds (historically YPG but lately PKK as well) have used the advantage of the Russian cover and are aiding the attacks against the Syrian Opposition in Aleppo in hopes of carving out their own Kurdistan; a decades long endeavor. With Iranian and Russian leverage, the Kurds stand a chance against Turkish aggression. It seems that even Iraq has taken a new dislike to Turkey, rescinding previous, long-standing relations. Turkey’s perceived support of IS has weakened its credibility with many of its neighbors.
So, where are the battlefield pieces lining up in Syria? Studying the opposition, Russia’s regional posturing is clear: they are attacking anyone standing against the Assad regime. Period. Russia hopes to ensure their military projection zone of Latakia Province. This strategic real estate assures control and influence over the Mediterranean Seaways. Just like Crimea, it will be a military outpost for Russia to test out new military technology for proliferation and keep NATO in check.
Iran’s Shiite Militias and Hezbollah factions benefit from extensive, recent battle. Early on in this civilization clash, U.S. airpower covered these Shiite shock troops in order to evict IS from Iraq, many of those troops have now moved North and currently battle U.S. backed Syrian opposition. The U.S. has troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria, straddling both battle zones in hopes of holding some semblance of order and staving off the mass exodus of refugees that overwhelm UN allies. The Kurds (Which Kurds?) are squeezed in the middle, vying for a shot at independent recognition. The proven NATO ally and brave partner during the Iraq wars, the Kurds may soon find themselves on the table opposite NATO foreign policy. While the Kurds are themselves divided into factional camps, there is no argument that all Kurds seek a united Kurdistan and may very well be willing to side with Russia and Iran against the U.S., Turkey, and their NATO allies to do so. The strongest position for the Kurds right now is likely Russia, as President of Turkey, Erdogan has taken to a publicity campaign demonizing Kurds in hopes of building national support for legislative changes to Turkish government organization and a possible presidency for himself.
Turkish troops were on the move this week, for the first time inside Syria and are massing heavy materiel along the border. In a counter to Kurdish troops moving over from Kobani to assist with the Assad loyalists to siege Aleppo, Turkish soldiers have moved into Azaz and began calling artillery fire from Turkey onto Kurdish positions in Tal Rifaat, a village located between Aleppo and Azaz. While Russian leadership may be salivating at a chance to bomb Turkish troops in Syria as revenge for the downing of the Russian fighter jet attacking ethnic Turks in Syria last month, the Russians will likely practice restraint because of the implications of U.S. and NATO protection of Turkey. Would the U.S. retaliate against a Russian attack on Turkey? That has yet to be tested.
To hedge its bets, Turkey granted permission this week for Saudi Arabian fighter jets and light range bombers to use the base in Incirlik for staging. United Arab Emirates and other members of the Gulf States Coalition are conducting military maneuvers on the Syrian and Saudi border this month, raising tensions of a potential ground invasion. The pieces are setting up as the winds whip the sands into an unrecognizable terrain. The Great Game is expanding and growing more dangerous. Regional cooperation between Istanbul and Riyadh to unify efforts in the Syrian desert definitely sound familiar to Ottoman scholars. The rekindling of the Cold War may resuscitate the Ottoman allegiances.
Ambassadors and negotiators of peace need to engage now or agree to be replaced by Generals. Turkey’s recent blaming of the Kurds for bombings in Turkey are equally problematic. On one hand, IS groups have claimed responsibility. On the other, Erdogan needs more nationalist support to push his agenda towards creating a Presidency in Turkey, choosing to blame the Kurds for everything bad in Turkey in order to create more nationalistic fervor. To make the situation more complicated for regional peace ambassadors, Turkey is asking for a safe zone to be established in Aza, Syria, where the main fighters appear to be Nusra Front and IS. It is possible that Turkey has forgone historical alliances in pursuit of regional power, placing NATO countries on the same collision course of the Cold War détente.