A Russian helicopter flies over the Temple of Bel in the historic city of Palmyra, Syria. Photo: Reuters
A Russian helicopter flies over the Temple of Bel in the historic city of Palmyra, Syria. Photo: Reuters

The Syrian Crisis constitutes a huge humanitarian tragedy. More than 400,000 people, civilians and combatants, have died since the spark of the conflict, more victims than the first Gulf War between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988). But the very roots of the conflict are geopolitical. The geopolitical dynamics that shaped the conflict until now provoked and provokes tremendous humanitarian suffering. But which are the exact roots of the conflict. How a crisis management can be created under the current circumstances?

The contest of the Syrian domestic status quo by the rebels was exploited by great and regional powers in order to promote their geopolitical interests. In an effort to weaken the Shia axis between Iran and the Alevi president Bashar Al Assad, the US supported the fragmented opposition underestimating the ensuing dangers. And these dangers are more than present in the chaotic situation in Syria and Iraq: The most violent terrorist group in the history of international politics. The so called “Islamic State” but also other terrorist organizations.

On the other hand, Russia sought and successfully managed to keep Bashar Al Assad in power also in an effort to safeguard its geopolitical interests in Syria. The Tartus naval base is a deep water port for Russian submarines. In the mid-1980s, Tartus was upgraded to become the 720th Logistics Support Point for the Soviet Navy. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Russian presence in Syria supports Moscow’s great power aspirations since it allows it to retain and project its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

There is a constant in Russian foreign policy, the endeavor for the descent of the Russian navy to the “hot waters” of Eastern Mediterranean. This is the reason that tsars anticipated the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War in order to gain passage to the Mediterranean through the straits of the Dardanelles and the Bosporus. Again after the Second World War Moscow pressured Ankara a naval base in the Turkish straits.

Great powers with their proxies provoked the deterioration of the Syrian Crisis and only great powers can contribute to the solution of the crisis. Our attention goes to the US. The new administration’s policy on the issue is not quite clear. Will President Donald Trump continue the policy of reducing Shia influence in the Middle East? Will Trump demand Bashar al Assad step down? If he does, will not he be at odds with the Russians? Will Trump support the Kurds in their struggle against the ISIL, infuriating Ankara an important US ally in NATO? Moreover, what kind of cooperation, if there would be any, between US and Russia regarding the Syrian Crisis?

As UN special envoy Staffan De Mistura succinctly put it speaking at Munich Security Conference in February: “Where are USA on a political solution? As far as I understand they have three priorities, fight ISIL, contain Iran and try not to alienate their Arab allies. How they will square the circle? This is what they discuss in Washington”. The Geneva Talks for the Syrian Conflict do not seem to promise any solution for the conflict other than the perpetuation of the current situation.

The current balance of power in Near East and especially in Syria will be reshaped according to what strategies the great powers and important regional political actors such as Turkey, Iran and Israel will pursue. At the same time, as the political scientist, Kenneth Waltz, would put it, these strategies together will create a new political environment that will reflect back and put constraints or create opportunities for all the players involved.

Dr Nicos Panayiotides is the head of the Geostrategic Observatory of the Middle East (GEOPAME), journalist and assistant professor of political studies at American College in Nicosia. He is also Research Associate at the Center for Oriental Studies (Panteion University). His academic interests focus on the Cyprus problem, Middle East politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is author of several scientific publications in academic journals and four books on the Cyprus and Palestinian problems.

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