Some messes are difficult to fix
In the post-World War II setting Middle Eastern politics witnessed some major developments. The emergence of a few new nation-states in the wake of the Mandate System, demarcation of new boundaries, formation of Israel, regional wars, and revolutions kept the region in the limelight. When the Cold War commenced between the US and the Soviet Union, similar to other parts of the world, a few countries of this region also sided with any one of the two powers. As a result these countries remained an active part of several military and defence pacts.
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, many believed that long-standing ideological rifts between the two powers would wither away for peace to prevail. Instead, the ideological rift only changed its nature and morphed into a classic, realist power struggle, of which the recent power game and proactive Russian involvement in Syria is an example. Russia’s support to Bashar al Assad and US patronage to rebel groups — which is vaguely described — is identical to their policies towards Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War in which the then USSR was defending the Afghan communist regime. Thus the active participation of both powers in Syria alarms the reinvigoration of decades-old proxy that, this time, seems more vigorous.
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, many believed that long-standing ideological rifts between the two powers would wither away for peace to prevail
Arguably, the rampant militancy in Afghanistan is a byproduct of Operation Cyclone — a covert operation by the US with the help of Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union — because the US ignored the political forces (unarmed groups) during the civil war, and patronised militants by providing weapons and training. Consequently, the militants outdid political forces and toppled the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani.
As in the case of Syria, the US is replicating its Afghan policy once again by supporting rebellious groups against the Assad regime. On the other hand, Russia is trying to extriminate every group that opposes Assad. Although it claims that its main target is ISIS but according to BBC findings, a majority of the Russian airstrikes has targeted non-ISIS areas which are home to moderate groups as well.
There would be many differences between Syria and Afghanistan, but the one difference is evident, Assad is more ruthless than the communist regime and rebels are more lethal than the mujahideen. Aforementioned comparisons between Syria and Afghanistan are just to establish a hypothesis that Syria is more radicalised and the consequences of the on-going war may be more catastrophic than in Afghanistan.
First, unlike Afghanistan, Syria’s spillover will further fuel sectarianism in the region. The involvement of Saudi Arabia and Iran has already led to turning it into a sectarian war. Saudi Arabia has actively been supporting Islamist groups in Syria to overthrow Iran-backed Assad. Consequently, the hatred against the Shi’a and other minorities became quite visible among jihadists belonging to al Nusra Front and other Islamist groups mainly backed by the Saudis.
Iran, on the other hand, with the help of Shi’a militias has been keen to protect Assad. As a result, many innocent Sunnis have been killed by Iran-backed militias (notably Hezbollah) in Syria, which has widened the gap between the two sects.
Second, the dire situation of militancy in Syria is more agonising. According to reports, there are four mainstream political groups and 22 identified militant groups actively operating in Syria. Moreover, some of the militant groups are affiliated with or supporting one or the other political group. For example, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces enjoy the support of Free Syrian Army (FSA). As a matter of fact, militant organisations in Syria outnumber the political ones.
The dynamics of Syria in general and Middle East in particular are quite different from Afghanistan and South Asia. So the old tested policies and gambits may not work
Third, there is no future strategy for Syria. According to the US, it is eradicating ISIS and making a way for political transition while Russia is focusing on anti-Assad elements. But what will happen after Assad’s exit and ISIS’ elimination? Will the militants — both anti-regime and ISIS — simply surrender and throw away their arms? What will happen if militants refuse to revert? What will happen if they form a government just like the Taliban did in Afghanistan? The answers to these questions are still uncertain.
The dynamics of Syria in general and Middle East in particular are quite different from Afghanistan and South Asia. So the old tested policies and gambits may not work. Moreover, for a region which already has become the hub of global terrorism and sectarianism, the proxy of Russia and the US will further exacerbate the situation.
As far as Muslim countries are concerned, they should learn the right lessons from Afghanistan when two powers left the region in turmoil without fixing the mess that they had created. These countries may get immediate gains from this war, but they are endangering the whole region for their personal gain or interest.
The clear-cut solution for Syria seems difficult to suggest but one thing is clear; external forces are unlikely to fix this war. In fact, they are pushing it towards a closed end where return to normalcy would become a difficult task to achieve.