Middle East power balance continues to fluctuate
Divergence among Washington’s powerhouses on whether the US should remain in Syria seems to be unresolved. It may remain so for some time to come. When this uncertainty comes to an end, it will be easier to guess what the other important players in the region will do, but the situation may remain fluid until the November US presidential election.
In light of the present indicators, President Donald Trump seems to have made his decision on northeast Syria. He has decided to withdraw from this area and give the Kurdish fighters the mission of protecting the area’s oil wells. Therefore, both the oil wells issue and the protection of the Kurds seem to have been resolved.
As for the Tanf area in southeastern Syria, Washington will probably maintain a military contingent there because it is on Hezbollah’s supply route from Iran, through Baghdad and Damascus, to Lebanon. Amid the growing uneasiness about the continued presence of the US in Iraq, it is difficult to tell whether Washington will be able to impede the flow of supplies through this corridor. There were, in the past, minor clashes between Russian and American forces in this area. Because of apparent Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria, we do not know how far Moscow would go to oust the US presence from there, but it may ultimately ignore Iran’s interests in this area and reach an agreement with Washington.
In Idlib, there is little hope that the US and Russia will agree on a common policy. There is a new US attitude regarding this province. It has started to use a narrative that does not outright blame Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, the biggest Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organization in the area. If this attitude remains unchanged, it may lead to a new policy: Washington may provoke Turkey to escalate the clashes between Ankara and Syria, which could lead to a confrontation between it and Russia.
A new phenomenon in Idlib is the involvement of China. Though indirectly, Beijing felt compelled to become a party to the clashes because of the presence of the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria (TIP). This is a branch of a group that is based in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The estimates on its number of combatants in Syria vary between 4,000 and 7,000. This figure is much higher when family members and child soldiers are included. The group is settled in the Jisr Al-Shughur area, mostly in the houses vacated by Christian and Alawite families that fled the Daesh threat. The party’s ultimate goal is to gain fighting experience in Syria before returning to China’s Xinjiang province with the aim of liberating it from Beijing’s control.
It is difficult to tell what the outcome of the competition between the US, Russia and China in Syria might be
China will not, of course, remain indifferent to such a direct threat to its country. It was reported back in 2017 that China would deploy troops in Syria to fight alongside the Syrian government. It closely follows the developments and is supporting Syria both because of the TIP’s operations and because Damascus could become an important post-crisis partner in its Belt and Road Initiative. Furthermore, China may also become the most important contributor to Syria’s reconstruction, both financially and because of its expertise in construction.
It is difficult to tell what the outcome of the competition between the US, Russia and China in Syria might be. The US’ interests are different from those of both China and Russia. Therefore, these two countries may lean heavily against Washington in the Syrian theater.
The Eastern Mediterranean has become another area of rivalry after the discovery of big offshore oil and gas reserves. Russia will be very much part of this rivalry because Syrian offshore exploration will probably be carried out by its state-owned companies. Moscow is also interested in the explorations of other littoral countries of the Eastern Mediterranean. This involvement will probably be in the form of cooperation or joint ventures with Western companies.
Similar competition may also take place over Libya’s onshore and offshore oil and gas reserves. Unlike in the Eastern Mediterranean, the competition in Libya may be in the form of proxy wars, since there is already fighting between the rival sides in the country.
Turkey may become party to the bargaining in the Eastern Mediterranean because of the potential oil and gas reserves within its maritime jurisdiction zones. But, in Syria and — to a lesser degree — Libya, Turkey has no means of assuming the role of a game changer.
*Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar