Emerging regional scenario
Turkey’s downing of the Russian warplane is a significant event that will certainly deepen divisions in the region. There will be countries taking a stance with Russia and others with NATO, which could end the open relations that followed the end of the Cold War 20 years ago, or could narrow the margins on the countries that fall between both sides.
But the situation is not likely to deteriorate to the extent of a war between the Russians and the West; there won’t be a WWIII, as some might be thinking. All the wars that have taken place since WWII have been without direct military confrontation between the two superpowers. Despite this, we are witnessing a new conflict between these two great powers, albeit indirectly, which is widening the areas of tension. The West has now pledged to support its ally Turkey and protect its territory, in case the Russians decided to retaliate for their downed warplane. Turkey will fight on behalf of NATO and most probably, proxies will support and fight on behalf of the Russians, such as the Iranian and Kurdish militias. This is an indication that a new chapter in the Syrian war is starting now.
Due to the Syrian situation, the region is witnessing new political blocs and alliances. I believe that Gulf states are facing one of the most difficult challenges right now because Iran, Syria and Iraq are all in line with the Russian camp. Meanwhile, Turkey has the protection of NATO. As for Saudi Arabia and its partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), it is a period of uncertainty, because not all members of the bloc have decided on a stance yet. Historically, they are siding with the western camp and are still associated to it on the military front. But at the same time, they do not see in the United States a reliable ally if the conflict expands and reaches the Gulf region.
This conflict comes at a bad time, as the Gulf states have just begun to establish good relationship with the Kremlin, particularly the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. The Gulf countries do not want to get involved in a conflict between Turkey and NATO on one hand and Russia on the other. However, this neutrality is not an easy option because it might mean compromising the future of Syria and letting the Iranians seize it along with Iraq, which can significantly threaten Gulf interests at a later stage.
As for why the Russians got themselves stuck in the Syrian quagmire, the answer is strange and illogical no matter what is said about the Russian interests there. It was Bashar Assad’s wish for four years to see Russia rush to his aid, but Moscow had been merely responding with remote support. When he found himself unable to cope with the rebels, he convinced the Iranians that they should be involved in the Syrian crisis; he pictured the Syrian war to them as a regional conflict with Saudi Arabia in need of Iran’s support. That was at an earlier stage, when Turkey was still supporting Assad; they had then intervened suggesting ideas for political reforms, so that Assad remains president with the participation of the opposition in the government. Assad, who refused the Turkish solution at that time, had gambled on a military solution, but when he failed, he asked for the help of the Iranians who sent him Hezbollah militias in the beginning. When Hezbollah failed to override the popular uprising, Iran sent the Revolutionary Guard to lead the battle. Thus, the battlefield was widened through the proxies, between Iranians, Turks and Gulf Arabs.
Of course, Iran could have easily restrained itself from entering into an expensive war in Syria, especially that it had Iraq as an alternative ally, which is more important than Syria. Iraq’s oil wealth makes it significant, not to mention that it is more convenient for Iran on the sectarian front, unlike Syria that is not a land that can easily welcome Iranians due to its Sunni environment.
Tehran got involved in the Syrian war because of Assad. It failed to win the war and it is now making concessions, the last of which was its acceptance of power sharing with the Syrian opposition, because Iran is clearly afraid of an aggregate defeat. Assad has also managed to drag the Russians into the quagmire as well, where they thought, though for different reasons, that they will be able to fill the void in the Middle East in light of the American absence. But they have already begun suffering from the first round.
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