The Great Game once described the battle between the British and Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia in the 1800s. Today’s Syrian Great Game has multiple players who could develop the cold war into a full-scale conflagration involving the USA and Europe by way of NATO in a direct confrontation with Russia. And Turkey could be the most critical and dangerous flashpoint.
Turkey and the Kurds
The US is backing the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish militia, because it is the most effective force fighting ISIS in Syria. Turkey, supposedly an ally of the US and a fellow member of NATO, is a sworn enemy of all Kurds because of the PKK, the banned Kurdish independence party in Turkey so Turkey is furious with the US and has begun shelling the YPG on the Turkish-Syrian border.
Turkey’s priority in Syria is not ISIS, it is Assad’s Alawite government, the Alewives, a religious offshoot of the Shia. As a result of their beef with the Kurds in Turkey, Turkey is opposed to all Kurds. Why? Well, if and when the war ends in Syria, the country will very likely be partitioned, and the Kurds will carve out a piece for themselves in Eastern Syria that abuts onto Southeastern Turkey. This would provide the Kurds in Turkey with a bridge to their Syrian brethren and the possibility of forming a Kurdistan comprised of Kurdish Southeastern Turkey and Kurdish Eastern Syria. In other words, war big time! But the Kurdish issue doesn’t end there.There is a Kurdistan in Iraq, an autonomous state in Iraq with a democratically elected government that is at serious odds with the Shia led government of Iraq, the fictitious Sykes-Picot construct. Iraq is another one of the countries that will eventually have to be partitioned and it is possible that Kurdistan, which borders south of Kurdish Eastern Syria could meld with Kurdish Southeastern Turkey and Eastern Syria to form a Super Kurdistan. That Super Kurdistan would be a force to reckoned with. It would have considerable oil reserves in today’s Iraqi Kurdistan, a highly respected army, the Peshmerga Kurds, plus the Syrian Kurdish YPG army.
The map below illustrates the distribution of Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Iran from which the Super Kurdistan could be created. Some 60%-70% of the population in southeastern Turkey is Kurdish with a birthrate far higher than central and western Turkey. There are 14 Million Kurds in Turkey, 18% of the Turkish population, 6 million in Iraq, 15-20% of the total population, 6 million in Iran, about 9% of that population, and 2 million in Syria, 9% of Syria’s population
Turkey and Russia
Since 1568 there have been 12 wars between Russia and Turkey as the then Ottoman Empire. The propinquity of the two and the control of the critical Bosporus Straits by Turkey make for an uneasy, prickly relationship. The 1936 Montreux Convention giving Turkey control over the Bosporus Straits is a potentially explosive issue. The accord provides that Turkey could close the straits to any military or civilian vessels of any country considered a threat to Turkey’s security. If done, this would be a major blow to Russian supply to its forces in Syria and that could be tantamount to a declaration of war. Should that happen Russia does have a few options short of directly attacking Turkey, amongst which would be to support a Kurdish revolt in Southeastern Turkey via Georgia, Armenia and Iran all bordering on Kurdish Turkey territory. This is a potential flashpoint seldom discussed in the media.
Russia and Syria
Russia is supporting not Assad, but the foothold they hope to retain on Syria’s coast, a warm water port for their naval vessels and airstrip. They are probably counting on an Alawite refuge there after Syria is partitioned. However, as pointed out above, Turkey could represent a serious threat to those aspirations by blocking Russian movement through the Straits.
Russia and Iran
The two countries have a long history dating well beyond the Cold War including when Russia was competing with Great Britain for influence in the region in the 1800s. With the recent nuclear accord with Iran and relaxation of sanctions, Russia is well placed to resume relations and supply of high tech military hardware to Iran. Witness the recent agreements to supply Iran with the lethal Sukhoi SU30 aircraft and advanced S-300 missile defence systems.
The “Moderate Rebels”
The “moderate” rebels are comprised of numerous terrorist groups, fragmented and ineffectively fighting Assad and ISIS but kept alive by US largesse. They are fighting a four front war against Assad, ISIS, Russia and, amongst themselves. As a result they have been relegated to the role of bit players in Syria.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey and Syria and Iran and the US
The Saudis are the new players in the Great Syria Game. Furious with the US-Iran nuclear accord they are happy to make life difficult for the US and the Iranian backed Shia forces in Syria. The Saudis have been able to inflict serious losses on the rebel Yemeni Houtis but it remains to be seen how effective the Saudi air force or ground troops would be when confronted with hardened forces of the Kurds, ISIS and Russian supported Syrian army in Syria.
The US and all the above
The US, trying to form alliances with all of the players, has ended up alienating most of them. A diplomatic coup. Whereas the much reviled Russia has made a clear choice lining up with Assad while opposing Turkey, ISIS and the so-called Rebels. They have been far cleverer than the US and have reinserted themselves as a major player in the Middle East.
With the exception of the muddled US policy the alliances seem well defined, to wit;, Russia has lined up with the Shia bloc, the Alawites, Iran and Iraq as well as with the Kurds who are a Shia-Sunni mixed bloc; The Sunni bloc is comprised of Turkey, and Saudi Arabia; ISIS is Sunni but opposed to everyone.