The coming three months will shape the world of tomorrow, and the starting point will be Syria. The recent US strike on a Syrian air base was not a game-changer, but it did contribute to increasing tensions among all parties involved in the conflict. The stakes are high, and future developments are more difficult to predict than ever.
The current situation is characterized by some major trends. First, there is an imbalance in Syria between the opposition and the regime, and between global powers. The US missile strike shook the status quo and showed that it is ready to act outside international law and institutions, and even beyond its domestic legal framework.
Another trend is the unpredictability of US moves, which makes it difficult for opponents to counter them. This breeds mutual distrust, which could cause a dramatic chain reaction at any time, possibly triggered by the tiniest movement by any side. Thus the proxy war will continue, creating fertile ground for further escalation.
Since the strike, Russia and the US have somewhat retreated to their old positions. This is the only more or less positive result, but it is unlikely to continue for long. As such, the imbalance and mistrust are likely to grow; this will determine further developments in Syria.
The cease-fire may collapse, burying hope for a political solution and leading to growing international confrontation over Syria, with pro-regime powers forming a losing minority that will face strong pressure from the opposite side and have little to respond with. Iran will most likely increase its sectarian games in Iraq and Syria, exacerbating sectarian tensions. The proxy war will involve more players on all sides.
Since the strike on a Syrian air base, Russia and the US have somewhat retreated to their old positions. This is the only more or less positive result, but it is unlikely to continue for long.
There are several scenarios for Syria, determined more by global players than Syrian ones. Most likely, the moment of truth will come at the end of Ramadan. Before that, the players will try to distance themselves from dangerous red lines.
In about two weeks, a trilateral meeting between UN representatives, the US and Russia is expected to take place in an attempt to harmonize positions. Meanwhile, the new round of Geneva talks, planned for the start or middle of May, will most likely be postponed.
As long as the US and its Western allies are back to the mantra that Syrian President Bashar Assad should go, the efforts of UN envoy Staffan de Mistura and the whole Geneva format are significantly threatened. Most likely, the result will be an impasse.
One can expect to see the accomplishment of the previously announced plan to set up buffer zones in Syria, which are staunchly opposed by Russia and Iran. The US will likely proceed with the idea without listening to Damascus, Tehran and Moscow. US ground involvement, with support from regional allies, can develop either as a limited or full-scale operation. More panic and aggression from Damascus and its allies will lead to deeper US involvement.
Together with establishing buffer zones, there will be counter-terrorism interventions. The risks of direct involvement in Syria could include direct confrontation between Russian and US forces. This possibility is making US political and military circles expect Russia to show restraint and limit its reactions to appealing to the UN Security Council, along with possible military deliveries to Damascus that would hardly harm the US.
Buffer zones are supposed to create safe havens for refugees and civilians, but these zones could at any moment turn into a regime-change adventure. This is what Russia and Iran are concerned about. By intervening, the US and its allies will try to take Iran out of the equation and isolate it, but this is unlikely to work and may produce unwanted results.
All powers will try to minimize the humanitarian crisis and ensure the safety of civilians, while prolonging the conflict as much as possible, with fighting Daesh the main focus. The cynical thing about the Syrian conflict is that it has evolved to such an extent that peace in the country poses a bigger threat to regional powers than continuation of the conflict.
The core problem is a potential Kurdish state, which makes issues unsolvable and is likely to bring about the collapse of the Sykes-Picot agreement. This would lead to uncontrollable reshaping of national borders and bloodshed with deep regional and global shocks.
The problem regarding Syria now is not reaching a settlement, or even trying to avoid the collapse of the regional system and reshaping of borders; that is likely inevitable in the medium term. The possibility of World War III and a direct clash between two nuclear superpowers dwarfs the threat of global terrorism and any regional bloodshed.
• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). She can be reached on Twitter: @politblogme.