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Unending conflict

The course of war in Syria will go a long way to determining the wider Mena region’s fate in 2016

Five years on from the uprising in the southwestern town of Deraa that sparked the twenty-first century’s most brutal civil conflict, the Syrian crisis remains stubbornly immune to resolution.

The human and financial cost of the conflict continue to spiral ever higher. The emergence of IS, parasitically gnawing on the carcass of the dishevelled Syrian state, caused a collective nervous breakdown across the region. Terrorism born in Syria has now extended its deadly reach to European capitals. Russia’s belated entry to the Syrian theatre has ratcheted up the tension level a notch higher, providing a lifeline for the embattled government of President Bashar al-Assad while challenging the Gulf-backed rebel forces that in early 2015 had begun to claw territory from a weakening regime. 

Syria’s position as a crucible of regional conflicts has infected failed states like Libya and major powerbrokers Saudi Arabia and Iran alike. Put simply, if the Syrian conflict is not contained, the Middle East and North Africa region’s political and investment risk outlook will suffer the consequences. 

War gains 

Some positive developments have given succour for optimists to feed on. IS, having already lost Sinjar and Ramadi, is increasingly struggling to defend its Syrian territory. Coalition air strikes have degraded its military and economic assets, even if it remains entrenched in its Raqqa redoubt for now. 

Russian air strikes have dulled the effectiveness of non-IS Syrian rebel forces. The assassination in an air raid on 26 December of the leader of the powerful Jaysh al-Islam, one of the main Sunni sectarian groups fighting Assad, was one of a number of setbacks for anti-regime forces. Russia’s intervention is slowly shifting the balance in favour of Assad. Recent weeks have seen the dictator’s forces staging a push in southern Syria, assisted by Russian air cover, targeting the once-powerful Southern Front rebel alliance around the Sheikh Miskin area. 

All this has a broader geostrategic relevance in strengthening Assad’s position in advance of a new round of peace talks to take place on 29 January, as Petroleum Economist went to press. In the brute calculus of regime survival that drives Damascus’ thinking that more territory means more bargaining power. “They have made some headway in the south and there’s a new offensive in the works for southern Aleppo,” says David Butter, an associate fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East programme. “That could be consistent with trying to show anyone whose interested that they have the military initiative right now.” 

Gaining a foothold Assad has little interest in negotiating with the opposition forces that Western and Gulf backers are trying to corral for the Geneva III talks. But the more power he gains, the stronger his ability to resist international pressure to compromise on anything of substance. 

Increased Russian activity on Assad’s behalf will affect relations with Turkey, already on a knife-edge after Ankara’s shooting down of a Russian fighter jet in late November. The Turks have recently chafed at Russia’s bombing of Turkmen areas in northwestern Syria, as well as Moscow’s efforts to stem supply lines supplying anti-Assad forces via Turkish territory. US support to anti-IS groups working under the Syrian Kurds’ umbrella has also irked Ankara. Israel is another interested bystander here. Assad’s southern advances, prospectively edging Hezbollah and Iranian forces closer to the Golan area will certainly not have escaped Tel Aviv’s attention. 

A brittle Syria

The possibility of a direct Israeli-Iranian clash on Syrian turf remains a distant prospect, given a tacit Russian-Israeli understanding to prevent Hezbollah encroaching on the Golan, but the prospect of a further regionalisation of the Syrian conflict is plainly a risk.

The Gulf states – whose funding and political support were so crucial to the Syrian rebel forces’ early success – have lost influence and interest in Syria, with the Yemen conflict closer to home absorbing their attentions. Worsening relations with Iran have fed a deterioration in sectarian harmony, and Syria is making matters worse. Hezbollah’s controversial role in besieging the starving Syrian town of Madaya in early January received much airplay on Sunni Arab TV stations. 

The Obama administration’s ambiguity over Assad’s future remains a source of vexation in Riyadh and other Gulf capitals. Yet the Saudis and Qataris have all but given up hope that Obama, in his final year of office, will do anything materially to constrain the Syrian Baath regime in the last months of his presidency. 

Despite all this, the Saudis appear fully committed to the Geneva talks. Under the ambitious young deputy crown prince and defence minister Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom wants to keep skin in the game. The Saudi-led formation in mid-December of a 34-nation (Sunni) Islamic military coalition to combat terrorism is a manifestation of this, though there are limits as to what this can achieve in Syria. Some also see it as an anti-Shia coalition. The decisive moves against IS have so far come from the Western powers, Russia and – most significantly – Kurdish forces that have rolled the jihadists back from a number of towns in northeast Syria. 

Hope amidst despair 

Aspirations of progress might be seen in the creation, in November last year, of the International Support Group for Syria (ISSG), which empowered UN envoy Staffan de Mistura to summon the new round of Geneva talks. This unwieldy coalition brings together the key regional players, but as with previous faltering efforts to forge consensus, could struggle for traction. The goal of effecting a transition through free and fair elections by 2017 seems fanciful.

Things could yet change for the better. Greater military progress against IS would, US officials contend, hand Washington more influence in any diplomatic process designed to end the Syrian civil war. 

The steady grinding down of IS may be working, albeit slowly, notes Butter. “They are being pushed back and if they are defeated that might be something that could draw the US and the West in a little bit more directly, perhaps through the creation of civilian protection zones in former IS areas,” he says. 

Even if IS is eroded, Syria will remain a cauldron of conflict infecting relations across the region for generations to come. 

As the influential former Qatari foreign minister Hamad Bin Jassim told a meeting at Chatham House in late November, with bad blood between the tribes, Syria could take two to three years to settle down and another 20 years to even start to rebuild civil society. 

An extension to the already-protracted Syrian conflict does not necessarily render the entire region wholly uninvestible. “Syria’s problems will continue one way or another, but it’s not an issue that has direct relevance to major oil interests in the region,” contends Butter. 

Only if IS were to threaten Saudi oil fields, or southern Iraq’s basins, would a serious challenge to the regional investment climate beckon. That seems a remote prospect for now. 

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