The net result has been that instead of the passionately hoped for new political and economic dawn, the people of Syria and Yemen are going through the darkest ever period in their modern history. West Asia has become deeply polarised due to a particularly noxious sectarian feud and a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is being chillingly exhibited in the blood soaked, exceedingly destructive developments in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. A vicious war has broken out within Islam. Muslims are killing other Muslims in an orgy of fanaticism with unprecedented ferocity. Radical Islam and terrorism in the name of Islam have become rampant and are creating mayhem even beyond the region.
All this was epitomised in the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) and its “Caliphate” in Iraq and Syria in June 2014 with its capital at Raqqa, Syria. Actions and policies of Turkey (which has been proactive); Saudi Arabia; the brazenly sectarian (mis)governance of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq; policy omissions and commissions of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the US have been the main contributors to the advent and rise of this anachronistic phenomenon. At the peak of its power, the Islamic State controlled 40 per cent of Iraq and over 50 per cent of Syria; it is now less than 10 per cent in Iraq and less than 25 per cent in Syria.
But the third outcome is perhaps the most startling. The US, the world’s most powerful country after World War II, has been the architect and guarantor of security and stability in West Asia since then. Despite continuing to be the world’s leading economic and military power, continuing to have a strong military presence in the region, with its regional allies armed to the teeth with the latest state-of-the-art US equipment, the end of 2016 finds Washington in the rather bizarre and completely unfamiliar and unimaginable situation of being virtually marginalised in meaningfully influencing the shape of the emerging strategic landscape of the strategically vital West Asian region. This is not because other players have edged the US out but an almost inevitable consequence of outgoing US President Barack Obama’s very deliberately adopted (and trenchantly criticised both within and outside the US; but this author views it as statesmanlike for the longer term) retrenchment approach and refusal to get militarily involved in new conflicts in West Asia. The vacuum has been filled by Russia, which has emerged as the new power broker in West Asia with Iran becoming the most influential regional power.
Credible estimates suggest almost 500,000 people have died in the many wars raging in Syria since March 2011; approximately 5 million people have fled the country and over 6.5 million people are internally displaced, cumulatively comprising over half the total Syrian population in 2011. The utterly devastating destruction of housing and infrastructure in its cities has left Syria a completely broken country where normalcy will not return, if ever, for decades.
Robust Russian military intervention since September 2015 in favour of Assad, and Iran’s consistently growing support and commitment to Assad – compelled by evolving circumstances; the steadily dwindling support for rebels from Turkey; Gulf Sunni States and the West; Assad’s finally taking full control over the psychologically and strategically vital Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and erstwhile commercial and financial centre, enabled by a ceasefire and evacuation of rebels brokered by Turkey and Russia; the focus of all major players increasingly shifting towards defeating the Islamic State – are all factors that have ensured that Assad can no longer be overthrown by military means.
In August 2016, Turkey launched operation Euphrates Shield, which envisages the creation of a Turkish military controlled ‘safe haven’ of over 5000 square kilometres of territory inside Syria to prevent any possibility of the Kurds creating an unbroken corridor under their control extending across the entire Syrian-Turkish border. In the closing weeks of 2016, a rather improbable and opportunistic alliance emerged consisting of Iran, Russia and Turkey, which has taken control of efforts to bring about peace in Syria, with the US and European countries being deliberately excluded from its meetings.
The multiple ongoing wars in Syria between Assad and Salafi/Jihadi/al Qaeda affiliated rebels; between Assad and other ‘moderate’ rebels; between Assad and the IS; between the IS and other rebels; between the al Qaeda affiliated rebels and other rebels; between various foreign countries and the IS; Turkey’s war against the Kurds scaled up by operation Euphrates Shield, etc., will continue but the intensity of these different wars will diminish significantly except for the war against the IS, which will be ratcheted up, as well as the Turkish war against the Kurds. Assad will remain in power.
Justifying these developments as Iran posing an existential threat, Saudi Arabia, without any credible basis whatsoever, launched operation Decisive Storm on 15 March 2015, in alliance with a few GCC and other Sunni Arab countries. In a complete reversal of traditional under the radar foreign policy, this new muscular approach was initiated by the extremely ambitious, brash and completely inexperienced new Saudi Defence Minister, Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the favourite son of the new Saudi King, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Heavy and indiscriminate aerial bombing has devastated Yemen, the poorest Arab country, causing approximately 10,000 deaths; displacement of 1.5 million people; and unimaginable destruction in its cities and infrastructure, leaving 86 per cent of its population in need of urgent and sustained humanitarian assistance.
Two side-effects of all these developments have been the very considerable enhancement of the influence and power of al Qaeda in Yemen and the ingress of the IS.
Saudi Arabia cannot win this war and this realisation will finally sink in. The drain on Saudi resources will pinch ever more. The international community will finally be compelled to start pressurising Saudi Arabia to end this war. The unnatural and opportunistic alliance between Saleh and the Houthis will begin to crumble. Multi-pronged efforts will be initiated to organise ceasefires to enable humanitarian aid for the Yemeni people. As a result of all this, the intensity of the Saudi assault and internal civil war are likely to abate, setting the stage hopefully for a stop to all hostilities in 2018.