Why geography will win in the Syrian conflict?


Syria is located between the main centers of power in the Middle East, this fact makes it the ground showdown. This means that the conflict is endless, and only the «tandem» of Russia and the USA can stop the war.

It is obvious, that the settlement of the situation in Syria has reached a deadlock. The other day the Russian resolution wasn’t accepted by the UN Security Council. The USA did not even have to apply the veto rule. It was supported only by 4 out of 15 members. Russia, in its turn, put a veto on the French project, which enjoyed more support.

            There is no way out from the vicious circle of contradictions. But the main thing is that voting in the UN, even if it is unanimous, will not change the situation in the world. The war in Syria has a completely different logic, which is beyond the control of diplomats. Even if an agreement is reached, neither the USA nor Russia is able to fully control their allies.

            The main players in Syria are not the great powers that propose resolutions or deliberately unfeasible delimitation of terrorists and moderate people. This is not the case, and has little to do with the real processes in this country. A lot of things, if not everything, depend on the leading players of Middle Eastern Geography. And they are not going to stop.

            Geography is to blame for the fact that the territory of Syria is the epicenter of a monstrous war. It is located between the main centers of power, figuring out who is in charge in the region. Looking at the map of the Middle East, we see three zones: the Arabian Peninsula, the Iranian Plateau and Anatolia. These are the three leading countries of the region: Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. They are Sunni Arabs, Persian Shiites and Turks. They influence events in Syria, but not the UN resolutions. These are Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar on the one hand, and Iran, Hezbollah and Shiite groupings on the other. There is no diplomacy for them, and victory in Syria is a complete defeat of the enemy. The capital of the Caliphate Damascus means too much in historical and religious terms.

The victory of geography 

            The book of the American political scientist Robert Kaplan «The Revenge of Geography» was recently published in Russian. The main idea of the book is the thesis about the special position of the environment in world politics. According to Kaplan’s point of view, great powers neglect this factor very often and do not delve into the peculiarities of peoples. Kaplan followed an example of the distinguished historian Fernand Braudel, who was the first one who focused on the environment when analyzing the world’s processes.

            The Syrian conflict showed how important geography is. The Middle East is the most central and unstable part of the world. And Syria is the center of the region. Although the Arabic language united a large part of the population, the Persian retained its place in the east, and the Turkish in the north. Islam is probably the only thing that unites the region. Although in this case, confessional differences are the main factor of enmity. The territory of the region is divided so much that it is difficult to call the Middle East as something holistic.

            Syria with its weak identity and intricate geography was doomed to internal conflict. Personally I wasn’t surprised by that. The conflict between the center and the periphery has reached its apogee, and, most importantly, the system of Arab nationalism and socialism has outlived itself. Baathism was organically receding far into the past. A major role was played by the invasion of USA into Iraq in 2003 and the overthrow of a similar Baath regime. Then it became clear that the collision in Syria is a matter of time. «The Arab Spring» only forced this process, and the support of opposition and radical forces by regional countries and the West has «broken» Syria.

A weak identity of Syria played its role. The tribal population of the eastern regions consists of people from the Arabian Peninsula. Today, these people identify themselves more with Wahhabi Saudi Arabia than with Damascus. Northern areas tend to Turkey. The Syrian Desert is more close to the northern regions of Iraq. The Kurds stay apart. The stronghold of the Bashar Assad regime, Latakia, is completely is not like the Syrian Desert. Residents of the Mediterranean absorbed the «Europe» and scornfully call the inhabitants of ar-Raqqah as savages. Here is an example of geography victory. Latakia is protected by natural borders: it is separated from the rest of Syria by Jebel el Ansari. Mountains saved Bashar al-Assad from imminent death in the beginning of the conflict. In short, Syria has always been geographically divided, which entailed a cultural division.

            There is nothing surprising. The Middle East is shrouded in conflicts between peoples, languages and religions. For centuries of living together the peoples of this region have developed a paradoxical relationship to each other: interdependence and dislike. Unlike other parts of the world, the region is not controlled by any major state, which at least created the illusion of stability.

            Neighboring Iraq, for example. This country has never known peace. Iraq is the frontier of the Arab and Persian world, on the one hand, and Sunni and Shiite, on the other. Mesopotamia has been at the center of migration flows since ancient times. Hence the heterogeneity of the Iraqi population: the Shiite Arabs, the Sunni Arabs, the Kurds, the Yezidis, the Assyrians. Geography affects the population, which is formed under the sway of the environment. Few ruler of this country have died a natural death. Looking at the map of Iraq, it becomes clear why the «Islamic state» (it is banned in the Russian Federation) has arisen here. Iraq has an incomparable cruelty compared with other Arab countries, because of its geography.

Here another example of the victory of geography. Despite all the efforts in Mesopotamia in 2003-2011, the USA lost the land to the Persians. The Zagros Mountains separate Iraq and Iran. This natural boundary allows Tehran, being on a hill, to dominate over Iraq. Geography has added Iraq to the history of Iran: these two countries are inseparable from each other.

            Or another example: in the north-east of Iraq, where the Kurds live, The Qandil Mountains is. These mountains allowed the Kurds to survive, and eventually to build their state apparatus. Saddam Hussein could not defeat them, and ISIS did not attack the Iraqi Kurdistan, understanding the hopelessness of this action.

Between the centers of power

            Syria has turned into ruins because of the intervention of regional countries that support their radical clientele. Again, Syria is geographically located between the three centers of power in the Middle East, this fact makes it the ground showdown. This means that the conflict is endless. The leaders of the region will fight for the sake of Syria for a very long time, feeding their proxies. This is a classic example of a zero-sum game: what’s good for one is bad for another. There can be no winners in Syria: the strengths of the sides are approximately equal, neither side is able to overcome the other.

            Saudi Arabia is aimed at overthrowing power in Damascus. The goal of the monarchy is to establish a pro-Saud government in Syria. Riyadh is convinced: the «heretical» Syrian regime oppresses the Sunnis, whose defenders Saudis consider themselves to be. Damascus is in alliance with Iran which is the worst enemy of Saudi Arabia. And since the location of Syria is of strategic importance, the Saudis will not depart from their goals. Iran, as the main Shia country, dominates over Arab Iraq and Syria. The strategic goal of Tehran is to build a concrete influence through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. And Syria for the Persians is an access to the Mediterranean Sea and further to Europe. It turns out a hopeless situation. Regional countries do not want to resolve the Syrian conflict. Groups within the country don’t go for it yet. And the great powers Russia and the USA are not in a position to agree. Where is the way out?

            Despite the external background, the involvement of Moscow and Washington in the Syrian conflict is not of an existential nature. The influence of the two countries on the processes taking place in the Levant should not to be overestimated. Anyway, in both countries there is an understanding that the Syrian «chronic war» is a plot by Orwell. And because of it, there certainly will not be war between the USA and Russia. Show is run by emotions and past grievances.

Anyway, the growing threat of international terrorism and the awareness that the conflict of geography is eternal will force Moscow and Washington to act as arbiters of this conflict. Only the «tandem» of Russia and the USA on terms acceptable to both countries will stop regional countries, sponsoring and arming Syrian groups. This is the only way out, and they will come to it through mutual compromises and concessions sooner or later. Although, frankly speaking, this is not visible for now. But there is simply no other way out.

Georgi Asatryan, Ph.D., orientalist. 

This article was published in Forbes.


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