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What happens to Syria after the Islamic State is gone?
The game for control of Syria is in full swing. The main players: the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey. In an exclusive interview with Professor Gűnter Meyer, Director of the Center for Research on the Arab World [CERAW] at the University of Mainz, we look at the winners and losers in what has been the deadliest conflict of the 21st century to date.
Van der Made: After the fall of Raqqa, the capital of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, different forces are trying to take control of the region. How is this taking shape?
Meyer: The Islamic State has lost almost all of its original Caliphate.Their fighters just control some small areas on the border between Syria and Iraq, both on the west side and the east side, and some [small area] in the Euphrates Valley.
It is obvious that within a very short period on the Syrian side, the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are supported by the US troops, and from the south, the Syrian government, supported by Iranian troops and by Hezbollah, will end the territorial rule of the Islamic State in Syria.
On the Iraqi side, the situation is similar.It is only a matter of weeks until the former territories still controlled by the IS will be controlled by the troops supporting the Iraqi government in Bagdad.
Van der Made: Russian president Vladimir Putin came to Tehran last week. How significant was that visit?
Meyer: The visit of Putin to Tehran is a very important step in order to bring together strategic interests of [Moscow and] Tehran. One of the main issues which Putin stressed is that Russia fully commits to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [the agreement made between Iran and the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council and Germany regarding Tehran’s nuclear program].
This [should] be seen as opposition to [counter] the Trump government. We are now in the middle of a sixty-day period in which the US Congress has to decide whether sanctions against Iran will start again.
It is a very critical issue for the future relations between Tehran and Washington, and Putin clearly is the most important factor on the side of the Iranian government.
Van der Made: Critics of Iran, first and foremost Israel, say that Tehran is trying to create what they call a “Shia crescent”, encompassing Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, how realistic is this assertion?
Meyer: From the Israeli point of view, it is very realistic. This has been their position right since that time when the so-called Arab Spring started in Syria. What is called in the Arab World as “the Axis of Resistance” comprised the Shia Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon. It includes the Alawite government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. The majority of the Iraqi population is also Shia, and about 90 percent of the population in Iran are Shia.
So this “Axis of Resistance” is very important. The regional Sunni powers, in particular Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, as well as the USA with some of its Western allies and Israel have aimed at breaking down this “resistance axis” by ousting the Syrian Assad regime.
However this American and Arab policy largely failed, and after [Turkish president Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan moved [closer] towards Putin, we can say that the “Axis of Resistance” is really the winner of this almost seven-year long year war in Syria.
Van der Made: This Shia “axis” may be the winner of this war, but there are also the Kurds. The YPG, the Syrian Kurds, are actively helping the US in pushing back the IS. Meanwhile the Kurdistan Democratic Party [KDP] in northern Iraq on September 25 held a referendum calling for independence, which was overwhelmingly won, only for the Kurds to be pushed back from Kirkuk buy the Iraqi army. Are the Kurds in fact the losers of this whole conflict?
Meyer:The Kurds in Syria are still massively supported by the USA; the Syrian Democratic Forces mainly consist of Kurdish fighters. Their future role is still not quite clear. They will certainly play a significant role in the future when the new political system in Syria will be established.
However, as far as Iraqi Kurdistan is concerned, the Kurds are definitely the losers, they are thrown back, some people say to 2003, when the US invasion in Iraq started, some even say to 1991.
[Former KDP leader] Massoud Barzani has been made responsible for this development, due to the referendum, which was held not only in the Kurdish area, but also in the so-called disputed areas.
They were occupied by Kurdish Peshmerga forces when the soldiers of the Iraqi army had fled for fear of the IS fighters who occupied large parts of Iraq in its blitz-war in summer 2014.
Since then, these disputed areas, including in particular the oil-rich region of Kirkuk, and other parts of Northern Iraq, have by regarded by the government in Erbil as a part of a future Kurdish state.
This was not accepted [by Bagdad, but] as a result [of] the referendum which gained a huge majority in support for an independent Kurdish state, Massoud Barzani declared that the Kurdish area should become independent.
This was the point when the government in Bagdad stepped in. Iraqi troops, in particular the Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi, the People’s Mobilization Units supported by Iran, took over the area of Kirkuk, and other parts in the disputed areas.
Van der Made: Syrian president Bashar Hafez al-Assad has survived the civil war. When the final scrambling for control over Syria is finished, will he continue as head of state?
Meyer: At least for the near future it is obvious that Assad will stay in power after most of the Syrian territory is controlled again by the forces of the Syrian government and its allies.
To consolidate Assad´s power further, Putin has invited 33 Syrian factions from different political tribal groups in addition to representatives from Iran, Turkey and the Syrian government to participate in a conference in Sochi at the Black Sea, at November 18. The aim of this conference is to discuss a new constitution, a new political system, reforms and national reconciliation.
While Iran, Turkey and Damascus, have agreed to participate in these negotiations, some of the major opposition groups, in particular the High Negotiations Committee [an umbrella body representing various Syrian opposition groups, created in Riyad in December 2015] and also the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces [created in Doha, Qatar in November 2012] have declined the invitation, saying that they want to negotiate only in Geneva.
The next conference in Geneva, organized by the UN, is ten days later [set for November 28]. Given the influence of Russia, Iran and Turkey in Syria, it looks like that those who will not participate in the [Sochi] negotiations about the future of Syria, they will be the losers.