Cyprus Mail
Guest ColumnistOpinion

Stakes in Syria higher than ever

President Obama’s refusal to use force when his own red lines were breached by the use of chemical weapons only emboldened those bent on violence

By Farid Mirbagheri

The complicated labyrinth of West Asian tragedy is claiming more innocent lives amidst the deadly rivalry in the high politics of religious sectarianism in the region. It is not so much what the regional power brokers aim to achieve but rather what they wish to prevent that is causing the calamity.

Syria, the current global centre of killing and carnage, reflects that matrix. Saudi Arabia, the champion of Wahabism in Islam, does not wish to see Bashar Assad any longer in power. Iran, the centre of Shi’a political Islam, however, views such a prospect most unfavourably and works to prevent it. Turkey’s chief aim is to preclude an independent Kurdistan whilst Israel’s objective focuses on not allowing its enemies to gain strategic advantage over it.

In the meantime, Washington’s primary concern is not to get involved in the conflict and Moscow’s preeminent goal is to impede any move towards the establishment of a pro-Western government in Damascus.

In short, as the stakes have got higher over the past five years the conflict has escalated in parallel: from seeking a more representative government in Syria in 2011 to a deadly struggle to topple the Assad regime, to the linkage between the outcome of the war and the future of the Kurds, as well as the prospects for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and of course to the potential impact of the end result on Russia’s ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The situation in Yemen and Iraq echo the Syrian impasse to varying degrees.

If the political goals of the protagonists could be converted from their negative and destructive trend to a more positive and collaborative framework, things could look different. How? Both Iran and Saudi Arabia could come to the understanding that their proxy wars in the region will in all likelihood produce no clear winner in the long run and will only deplete their resources. The example of Libya with its hundreds of billions of dollars missing somewhere in the international banking system should serve well to remind them of that. A stable and peaceful Syria, after all, governed in a more representative fashion, would pose less risk and provide more predictability to both Tehran and Riyadh.

Ankara could come to accept that violence against the Kurds, whether directly or via proxy, will not in any shape or form diminish their ethnic ambitions. Instead the need for a political solution that could accommodate Kurdish aspirations and Turkey’s territorial integrity should be emphasised.

The US should also face up to its global responsibilities. The vacuum left by its hasty withdrawal from Iraq has already led to the emergence of ISIS. President Obama’s refusal to use force when his own red lines were breached by the use of chemical weapons only emboldened those bent on violence. It is high time some unwritten rules were brought back into play in West Asian politics.

And Russia should not forget the fate of the Soviet Union. More powerful than the present Russian Federation, the USSR eventually had to succumb to the low politics of the people. Accordingly, Moscow should heed the wishes of people of the target countries in its foreign policy, wherever they may be. Public diplomacy nowadays has the last word on international politics.

Though the strong sense of nationalism in Russia could well be appreciated after several years of instability and relative decline, hostile rivalry with the West is unlikely to favour Moscow’s interests in the long run.


Professor SM Farid Mirbagheri is professor of international relations and holds the Dialogue Chair in Middle Eastern Studies in the Department of European Studies and International Relations at the University of Nicosia

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