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Laith Saud

Sectarianising Syria

Officials from Turkey, US, Saudi Arabia, and Russia met last week to discuss Syria [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 27 October, 2015

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Comment: World powers are preparing to break up the war-ravaged nation into feuding ethnic mini-states, writes Laith Saud. But who will ask Syrians what they want for their future?

Power brokers will be meeting in the coming weeks to discuss the Syrian conflict. With the region currently fragmenting under the weight of a variety of forces, what will the US, Russia and others declare as interests? 

The Vienna talks are taking place on the heels of two symbolic, yet telling, events. First, Bashar al-Assad visited Moscow recently in a highly publicised PR stunt to shore up his claims as the legitimate president of Syria.

Second, the US quietly signed a cooperation agreement with Russia regarding actions in Syria. 

US cooperation with Russia reveals a policy that has gone unstated but is becoming increasingly vivid - the US is preparing for the break-up of Syria. 

The Brzezinski Method

Zbigniew Brzezinski - the prominent US geostrategist - offers a useful analytical framework for states and regions; Brzezinski classifies some states as "geostrategic players" and others "geopolitical pivots".

Geostrategic players refer to those states "that have the capacity and the national will to exercise power or influence beyond their borders in order to alter - to a degree that affects America's interests - the existing geopolitical state of affairs".

This frame of thought corresponds closely to the concept of "regional power" in International Relations theory more generally. 

Geopolitical pivots, meanwhile, "are the states whose importance is derived not from their power and motivation but rather from their sensitive location and from the consequences of their potentially vulnerable condition for the behaviour of geostrategic players," writes Brzezinski.

"Most often, geopolitical pivots are determined by their geography, which in some cases gives them a special role either in denying access to important areas or in denying resources to a significant player. In some cases, a geopolitical pivot may act as a defensive shield for a vital state or even a region. Sometimes, the very existence of a geopolitical pivot can be said to have very significant political and cultural consequences for a more active neighboring geostrategic player."

     Syria's future as a geopolitical pivot is what will be on the table for discussion at the Vienna conference on Friday


I would argue that Iraq was once a geostrategic player, but has now been reduced to a geopolitical pivot and that Syria's future as a geopolitical pivot is what will be on the table for discussion at the Vienna conference on Friday. 

Iraq was unique to the Arab and Muslim world for several reasons, but in summary: As an Arab state, Iraq's history rivals that of Syria and Egypt, while its resources rival those of the Gulf States. History is relevant here, as it is a source of regional pride, influence and potential. 

It is a sense of history that motivated Iraq's once-potent intellectual class and her perceived regional role; a role that prompted Saddam Hussein to act unwisely in his attempts to change the region. 

As a Muslim-majority country, Iraq is the only such state that resonates with both Sunnis and Shia. And her geographic location makes Iraq both "Gulfie" and Levantine, squarely Arab; yet also part of the ever important Indo-Persian sphere, while also affecting Turkey. 

The US-led invasion of Iraq destroyed all of that, of course.  What remains of Iraq are various regions that act as geopolitical pivots to neighbouring powers. These regions are increasingly taking on sectarian and ethnic identities - notwithstanding how imagined - allowing neighbouring powers to pull these regions in different directions. 

Thus, the Baghdad-Basra axis is now firmly part of the Iranian political sphere. Brzezinki favours the dependency of small, ethnically exclusive states. They fear their neighbours and look to big countries for support. 

We see the region heading in this direction. Between the policies of neo-conservative strategists and Iranian interests, Iraq has been broken up and replaced with small, dependent weak pseudo-states, constantly in-fighting and looking to outside patronage for "security".

Oddly enough, Brzezinski considers the Iraq War a monumental disaster - but for tactical reasons, not strategic ones. 

The future of Syria

From the moment the Arab Spring touched Syrian soil, the new pivot-points of Iraq were entry points, affecting the trajectory of the Syrian conflict. 

One of the pivot points of more determined interest for the US are the Kurdish regions. And we see US favouritism for the possibility of a Kurdish state by assessing US bombing campaigns against IS. Seventy-five percent of US bombing sorties over Iraq bomb nothing, meaning "without effective airstrikes, the US is fighting a phony war against IS", as Richard Miniter wrote in Forbes

Yet any threat against Kurdish-held areas are met with aggressive US military action. Likewise, the Russians are fighting their own phony war against IS, while the world knows for certain they actually target Syrian rebels. 

The reality of IS is constantly being invoked on behalf of the US and Russia (and Iran) towards ends that have far more to do with the emerging pivot points in the region.

     But is Russia really bombing IS? The answer is clearly no. So on what basis is the US signing such an agreement?


This week, the US and Russia signed a cooperative agreement. The point of the deal is to ensure that the US and Russia stay out of each other's way in their wars against IS.

But is Russia really bombing IS? The answer is clearly no. So on what basis is the US signing such an agreement?

Senator John McCain decried the deal, stating "these people (the rebels) put their trust in the United States, believing that we would make good on our promises to help them succeed".

"Now we are breaking those promises in our haste to give Vladimir Putin clearer skies from which to bomb our partners." 

Why would the US move forward with Russia on an agreement based on a patently false premise? 

Syria is a vital geopolitical pivot - it is Iran's bridge to Lebanon, providing Iran a presence along the border of northern Israel, a regional rival. I am not of the opinion that Iran favours the break-up of Syria, but the Iranians have come to accept and are preparing for that potential inevitability. 

But for the Americans, the real interest is in the protection of "Kurdistan", a non-Arab, independent state that will be oil-rich, more amenable to Israel and at odds with the countries that surround it, while also giving the US greater strategic leverage over Russia. 

It remains to be seen what the Vienna talks yield, but I will not be surprised if the Russian-backed idea of an Alawite enclave in Western Syria and a US-backed idea for a Kurdish enclave in the East emerge as strong possibilities. 

Meanwhile, who speaks for Syrians? The Vienna conference will also tell us if regional powers have any intention of allowing them to voice their interests to the world.

Laith Saud is a writer and scholar. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and co-author of An Introduction to Islam for the 21st Century (Wiley-Blackwell). Follow him on Twitter: @laithsaud


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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