James Brown
The deepening Syria quagmire

There are Gordian knots, and then there are Gordian knots. And the Syrian conflict, on which Australia’s new government must rapidly find a new policy approach, is a Gordian knot of epic proportions.

At the local level, the Syrian conflict is a battle between nine different groups that has been raging now longer than World War I. A superb 2013 RAND report on Syria authored by three senior United States counterterrorism experts provides a typology for differentiating between them. Loosely grouped, the following are the sides fighting for control of Syria: Baathist/Alawite government forces, irregular pro-government Baathist militias, Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, secular/moderate rebels, Kurdish separatists, traditional Islamist rebels, nationalist Salafi-jihadist rebels, and the transnational Salafi-jihadist Daesh movement.

But of course each of these groups is fractured and fluid in its own way, too.

Take the Islamic Front, an army of somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 fighters formed in late 2013 and most appropriately grouped in the nationalist Salafi-jihadist rebel category. They are financed and supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. Islamic Front is inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and wants to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad in order to build an Islamic state within Syria. They have fought against Daesh, decrying that group’s wanton barbarity and attacks against Muslims. Yet their leader has on occasion praised the forces of al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Islamic Front have also co-operated with the Free Syrian Army, a pro-Western moderate rebel group. But then at one stage Islamic Front forcibly occupied the Free Syrian Army’s HQ and locked up several FSA leaders.

Is there a place in Islamic Front’s Syrian vision for democracy? Well, that depends on which Islamic Front leader you ask. Some have said that as long as the new state is Islamic, there is no reason it cannot also be democratic and inclusive of ethnic minorities. Others in Islamic Front see no room for democracy in their new state, nor for that matter is there room for Alawites, Kurds, Jews or Persians.

RAND’s report outlines just why discerning Islamic Front’s core aspirations and ideology is difficult: “The Islamic Front is a collection of seven groups with differing geographic and ideological agendas: the Aleppo-based Al Tawhid Brigade, the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham group, the Homs-based Liwa al-Haqq, the Idlib-based Suquor al Sham, the Damascus-based Jaish al-Islam, Ansar al Sham, and the Kurdish Islamic Front.”

If a grand bargain is to be had and the Syrian conflict unwound, what would Islamic Front need to come to the table? Well, that again depends on which leader is asked, on which day.

Both of these questions are underpinned by the assumption that the group will stay together at all in the coming months and years. And this is just one of the nine local groups fighting in the Syrian conflict.

But of course, the local dynamics of the Syrian conflict are also being played out across the wider Middle East. The core regional dynamic is the competition for power between Sunni and Shiite: essentially Saudi Arabia and Turkey versus Iran. Against this backdrop, Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan, Lebanon, the border regions of Turkey, Egypt, Yemen and even Libya are channels through which power and treasure ebb and flow. The stakes in this context are substantial: Saudi Arabia and Iran have strong conventional militaries and potential aspirations to acquire nuclear weapons. Turkey, too, is a strong conventional military power with growing political and economic clout – it will host the G20 meetings in November this year. And laced through the regional political dynamic is the vexed and entangling issue of Israel and Palestine.

As Russia triumphantly reminded us this week, there is a third dimension to the Syrian conflict: the contest between global powers. Russia has doubled down on its long-term investment in Syria and the Assad regime. Vladimir Putin moved armoured vehicles and strike aircraft into a northern Syria airfield and pledged at the United Nations General Assembly to help Syria’s government and military defeat the rebel groups and Daesh who have taken over more than half of the country.

Accompanying these political and military muscle movements, a curious deception was played out across global social media – most likely initiated by Russia. As Putin and US President Barack Obama circled each other at the UN, rumours emerged that a taskforce from the Chinese navy had docked at Russia’s Syrian naval base near Tartus. The suggestion that China’s new aircraft carrier had quietly transited across the world to appear in the Mediterranean is ridiculous: the reality is that although China has extensive interests in southern Iraq’s oilfields it has been conspicuously absent from the global fight against Daesh. But someone thought it worth the time to finesse and finance an information campaign designed to complicate Western thinking on Russia’s Syrian intervention. Further complicating Western thinking was the news that Moscow had signed an arrangement to share intelligence on Daesh with Baghdad, Damascus and Tehran. And that Russia’s first air strikes were conducted against Syrian rebels, rather than Daesh.

Outlining the US president’s new Syrian dilemma, Foreign Policy magazine editor David Rothkopf gently chided: “It may be that this is all part of a grand plan on the part of the US president. He wanted out of the region. He did not want to put US boots on the ground. He wanted someone or a group from the region to pick up the slack. And that’s exactly what he’s getting”.

It’s not inconceivable that from the present situation in Syria a grand bargain in the region could emerge, but it’s not particularly likely either. For now, the Russian intervention will buttress the Assad regime for at least the near future. And it is possible that a degree of co-ordination, if not co-operation, on Syria could be achieved between presidents Obama and Putin. After all, they did manage to work together in 2013 to address the issue of chemical weapons in Syria. In his UN General Assembly speech, Obama outlined that he is “prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict”. UN diplomats were this week talking of a “managed transition” to a changed Syrian government. But for the White House, a future Syrian regime cannot be led by Bashar al-Assad.

The question then is which Syrian leader might replace Assad, and be acceptable enough to the US, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Turkey, the European Union and the Gulf states. Many in Assad’s inner circle have been killed or seriously injured during the conflict, including his immediate family members. The Syrian government’s two most senior intelligence chiefs were killed during regime infighting earlier this year. Abdel-Fatah Qudsiyeh, the deputy director of national security, and Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, remain. But both have been integral components of a regime that has barrel-bombed thousands of civilians, and reportedly used chlorine attacks against its own people more than 125 times. Convincing the disparate Syrian groups to accept a regime led by either, even if it was only to control a partitioned Syria, would be a tough sell.

Among the moderate rebel groups, Manaf Tlass, a Syrian general who defected from the regime in 2011, is a possible leader in a new Syria. But he would be unacceptable to the Iranians, who want to guarantee a future regime’s support for Hezbollah, and the Russians, who want to retain their influence and access. The least worst Syrian option emerging for the West is a slightly modified version of the Assad regime, able to limit the spread of Daesh and restore some semblance of control.

Australia’s new government has not yet solidified its position on Syria. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop skilfully avoided clarifying whether Australia supported the removal of Assad at least five times during a doorstop this week. Bill Shorten, too, has been careful to avoid locking in a position, saying, “I do not believe Australia should be picking sides in Syria” and that Labor would be “very careful” before contemplating an ongoing Assad regime. That will hold for now, but not much longer.

At the global level, Australia has a clear interest in supporting the US where it can and if necessary working to limit the influence of Russia – but there are few, if any, places where Australia can materially shift the diplomatic or military balance. At the local level in the Syrian conflict there are small but meaningful things we can do to help the greater powers work their way to unravelling this problem. We are taking a share of Syrian refugees, providing niche tactical assistance in western Iraq and eastern Syria, and contributing to the intelligence-led efforts to target Daesh and its leaders.

None of this compels us to seek greater responsibility in resolving the conflict. It is at the regional level where Australia can help the most. Our guiding principle should be to limit the further harm that this conflict might cause if it were to leap beyond its current geographic boundaries. That means working with allies and partners to manage the concerns as well as adventures of the Gulf states, developing deeper working relationships with Turkey, and sustaining already deep linkages in countries such as Jordan. Without the baggage that the US brings, we might be able to hold conversations with Iran that the US cannot. But two principles should guide Australia’s future engagement on the Syrian conflict: a great deal more diplomatic effort, rather than military; and a much stronger dose of pragmatism. The future options all share a measure of horror and suffering.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2015 as "The deepening quagmire". Subscribe here.

James Brown
is the research director of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.