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A US-Russia stand-off in Syria will have dangerous global implications

The escalation of military activity in Syria, especially by the US and Russia, is unprecedented and could have dangerous global implications

editorials Updated: Jun 20, 2017 16:10 IST
Hindustan Times
In this picture released by the Iranian state-run IRIB News Agency on Monday, a missile is fired from city of Kermanshah in western Iran targeting the Islamic State group in Syria(AP)

A United States fighter downed a Syrian military aircraft for the first time when it bombed a Syrian rebel faction backed by Washington. Russia, which backs the Syrian government, responded angrily and warned that US aircraft and drones could be targeted by Russia. Moscow, for good measure, cut off the hotline designed to avoid accidental run-ins between the US and Russia military in Syria. Iran meanwhile has fired missiles on an Islamic State (IS) base in eastern Syria. All of these actions are unprecedented and represent an escalation of the military activity of almost all the major external players in the Syrian civil war.

In the overall carnage that continues in Syria and the related conflict in western Iraq these actions may not amount to much. But in the larger geopolitical game they indicate that the defeat of IS in its present territorial form is now being seen as inevitable. With their enemies closing in on their capital Raqqa and their forces being pushed out of their largest city, Mosul, even the ‘caliphate’ leadership accepts the end is nigh.

On the Iraqi front, the political map is largely clear. Baghdad will restore sovereignty over Iraq’s accepted borders. There is a major internal issue of the status of the Kurdish area, but even there it is an issue of autonomy, not independence. That is not the case with Syria.

The Bashar al-Assad government is backed by Iran and Russia but physically holds only a strip of western Syria. His military successes are wholly dependent on his external backers. The regime remains actively opposed by the US, Turkey and various Sunni regimes. These governments support a pantheon of rebel groups ranging from the secular to Al-Qaeda affiliates. The postwar map of Syria, in other words, remains highly uncertain.

The various external players have begun jockeying for position – and capture of territory is an important part of this – as IS retreats in Syria. The Assad government, for all its claims otherwise, has spent more time attacking rebels who are not affiliated to IS. This is partly true even for Russia’s airstrikes. The entry of the US into the equation is the most uncertain variable. It has used its military power sparingly but could easily become the most powerful player, irrespective of Russia’s warnings. As one Syrian conflict is winding down another one, unfortunately, seems to be hotting up. And this one, in terms of its global implications, could be even more dangerous.

First Published: Jun 20, 2017 16:10 IST