The fresh round of fighting in Syria is the result of a new alliance, between Turkey and Russia, which is serving to exclude the USA from the region, and thus return the region to an earlier era, when the Black and Aegean Seas, along with the Mediterranean, were European lakes. However, the two allies have different motives, and thus the result of the fighting has merely been more bloodshed. Because the two countries’ aims do not mutually exclude the other’s, their alliance has been possible, but it has also meant that they have not contributed directly to each other’s aims.

One of the most important reasons for this alliance has been something the two share with the USA, which has so far been excluded from the proceedings, after having taken a very prominent role, which is that there is no alternative leadership in Syria to President Bashar Al-Assad. It is not so much that there is no alternative, as that the alternative is not acceptable to either the USA or Russia.

It should be remembered that Syria is not just about that country and its people. The USA has an interest in Syria because of Israel. Because of that, it had to conduct an air campaign, for which it needs boots on the ground. As it could not send in its own troops because of adverse public reaction at home, it used Kurdish Peshmerga. These were nationalists, who had formerly been communists under the PKK, or Partiya Karkaren Kurdistane (Kurdistan Workers Party).

This created the Turkish interest. It would be interested in Syria, because of their common border, but the US enlisting of Kurdish help was crossing a red line. Kurds were subsumed under the Ottoman Caliphate under its rule, except for those who lived in the Persian Empire. After the Caliphate was abolished, the Kurds in it were divided between Turkey, Iraq and Syria. All three countries had a policy of forcing them to adopt the dominant culture. This was most rigorously followed in Turkey, which was not only facing a post-Caliphal world, but was also trying to create a Turkish identity. However, the desire for a separate state existed. For Turkey, Kurds are no small matter. They are about half of the Kurdish population. Other Kurds cannot ignore them, for they constitute about half of the total Kurdish population. They have always been ‘outsiders’ used against the Ottomans, both by the Czarist Russians and the Persians.

Another problem for the Turks has been the increased autonomy of north Iraq, including the oilfields of Kirkuk, which would provide a source of revenue. American backing of Kurds was not something that went down well with Turkey. Turkey’s differences with Russia dated back to the Ottoman and Czarist days, over many issues. One of them was the Kurds. The USSR did not let up, backing a shortlived Kurdish soviet republic after World War I, and Turkey could not maintain its neutrality, joining NATO after World War II. The USA got a key country, one which allowed it to aim at the ‘soft underbelly’ of the USSR. How essential to US strategy was Turkey was the fact that, apart from NATO, it was also part of SEATO, and thus a crucial ‘joint’ country. Turkey had been able to oppose Russia when it was the core of the Ottoman Caliphate, but as an independent country, it needed the prop of US support.

However, the USA seemed to back the Kurds, both by its support for an autonomous region in Iraq, and as part of its strategy in Syria. The USSR had also collapsed, and Turkey was just the easternmost member of NATO, no longer crucial in the crusade against godless Communism. Indeed, Turkey could not count on US support against Greece, another NATO member. The situation was ripe for Turkey to cozy up to Russia. It did, at the Erdogan-Putin Summit last August in St Petersburg. This was despite Turkey having shot down a Russian plane which it claimed was intruding in its airspace.

Russia has an abiding interest in Syria, because of the naval base at Tartus. Technically, it is just a Support and Replenishment Point, but it allows the Russian Navy the ability to operate in the Mediterranean without having to send its ships back to Novorossiysk on the Black Sea Coast. This base is to be expanded, and only in 2017 an agreement was signed for a further 50 years. It had originally been established in 1971, during the Cold War. Russia also has an air base near Latakia, but it is the Tartus naval base that really matters.

Another area where Russia needed Turkish blessings was its takeover of Crimea. Turkey has taken an interest in all Russian Turkic possessions, whether the Central Asian republics, or the former territories of the Golden Horde, which constitute Tatarstan. Crimea was included, and while under the Khans, owed the Ottomans allegiance, having to be conquered by Russia. Crimea was the scene of a war in the 19th century between the two, in which the UK and France also took part on the Ottoman side. Russia had taken over Crimea from Ukraine, to which it had fallen when the USSR broke up.

Russia had also acted in Syria because it wanted to show that it was a global power which could not be ignored. It had demonstrated that the antigovernment forces could be defeated by bringing to bear overwhelming military might against them. The terrible slaughter nowadays going on in Ghouta was preceded by similar displays of overpowering force in Aleppo, Palmyra and Deir-ez-Zor.

The brutality of the assault is at odds with the Russian claim as early as December 2015 that it had stabilized the Assad regime. The need to smash the resistance does not bode well for the future. It should not be forgotten that the brutal suppression by the current President’s father, Hafez Al-Assad, of the uprising in Hama in 1982 by the Ikhwanul Muslimeen, bought peace only for less than 30 years, with the current civil war having entered its eighth year, having led to an estimated 350,000 dead and half the country’s population displaced.

What is the motive force of this uprising? It is ascribed to the resentment of a Sunni majority against the Alawi Shia Assad rule. The depth of sectarian solidarity can be seen from the Turkish-Kurdish example, where belonging to the same sect has not prevented Turkish forces from attacking the Kurdish stronghold of Afrin in North Syria. Now that they have taken it, the question does arise of what they want to do with it, but for now Turkey seems to have stopped the Kurd nationalists. The ascription of the Hama uprising to sectarian motives is an inadequate explanation. The motivation of the Syrian resistance is Islam, and it is because of this that the USA is tolerating the brutal suppression of the Syrian people.

However, the use of such thuggish methods, while consistent with Russian military doctrine, does leave the Bashar regime a problem. Once he has won the Civil War, how does he get back to ruling the people with a modicum of the consent needed, even if it only dumb insolence? The ultimate solution may well be akin to Hitler’s notorious Final Solution. Only when there are no more Syrians will there be peace in Syria. Or at least that seems to be the assumption the Russian forces are working on.

 

n          The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.

It should be remembered that Syria is not just about that country and its people.