Author: Irina KHALTURINA
The 2018 Munich Security Conference disappointed everyone. Even though the participants of the 54th summit, which was traditionally held at the Bayerischer Hof Hotel on February 16-18, included about 500 politicians, heads of international organisations, experts, and businessmen, most of the Western prime ministers and presidents did not attend the forum. Even the “hostess” of the event, Angela Merkel, did not join the participants and the U.S. was represented by the National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster. For observers, the spirit of the event seemed saturated with fatigue and even gloomy, repulsive and refusing the surrounding realities. The vague motto of the conference, To the Brink – and Back?, added a depressive tone to the overall image of the conference implying either one of the two: the world leaders had nothing to say, or they simply did not want to...
In any case, the attendees failed to engage in a full-fledged dialogue. Speeches were more like monologues, when each speaker hears only his own truth. Main fears were the same: geopolitical weakness of Europe, uncertainty in the U.S. led by the Trump administration, the future of Euro-Atlantic ties, consequences of Brexit, situation on the Korean peninsula and in the Middle East, danger of a nuclear conflict. One could even hear near-apocalyptic statements mainly pointing to extremely unstable situation in international relations, which can have unforeseen consequences. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, for instance, voiced his concern that the world was on the edge of the abyss. Wolfgang Ischinger, Chairman of the Munich Security Conference, pointed out that the threat of new wars was stronger than ever before. “At no time since the collapse of the Soviet Union has the risk of armed conflict between major powers been as high as it is today,” said the former German diplomat. UN Secretary-General António Guterres spoke in similar terms.
Indeed, a deep state of distrust prevails in international relations, to say the least. Obviously, the most dangerous spot on the world map is Syria, which has long turned into a battlefield of regional and world powers. Apart from Russia and the United States, this country is a crosshairs of the interests of Europe, Israel, Turkey, Iran, and the Arab monarchies. The goals of these powers sometimes coincide but sometimes get into a tough clinch. Speaking generally, under the unfolding situation it will be extremely difficult for each of the conflicting parties to leave the battlefield without losses, albeit none of them is going to do so yet; rather, the Syrian funnel is increasingly dragging.
A typical and equally dangerous illustration of transpiring events was the recent air incidents over Syria, where Russian, American, Iranian, Turkish, and Israeli air force groups are operating. A Russian Su-25 (over Idlib), Israeli military aircraft (first since 1982 shot down while performing a mission), Turkish helicopter (over Afrin), and Iranian drone have been shot down over the past few weeks.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought a piece of the wreckage of the Iranian drone to Munich. He also called for the termination of the nuclear deal with Iran promising that Israel would do everything to prevent the strengthening of Tehran's military power in Syria. According to H. R. McMaster, Iran is actively creating a network of its proxy troops in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Gaza, and Syria. In response, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif threatened that if Iran's interests in the nuclear deal were not secured, Tehran would give “a serious answer.” In other words, Israel is being increasingly involved in the Syrian war – a situation it has been evading, at least formally, for the last six years since its inception, while the prospect of a large-scale Iranian-Israeli confrontation is getting pretty real.
Meanwhile, the war in Syria is taking place in the “proxy mode”. All the parties now successfully use the experience of private military companies (PMCs), which the Americans have actively used in Iraq. The alleged death of Russian mercenaries from the PMC Wagner on February 7 near Deir ez-Zor during the clash with U.S.-led international coalition stirred up all Russian social networks while the official media passed the event in complete silence. Bloomberg and Reuters reported that the death toll of Russians, who allegedly worked for the so-called Wagner Group, a shadowy Kremlin-linked private military contractor, was several hundred soldiers. Russian institutions did not make any comments. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s reply to BBC about the death toll of the incident was a straight one: “What are the French and British citizens doing over there? There are mercenaries from all over the world, special forces invited by nobody; they are fighting there by themselves.” Obviously, special forces do not do anything by themselves. The fact that the mercenaries representing the interests of all parties are fighting in Syria has never been a secret. Incidentally, the media dubbed a series of missile attacks on East Ghouta by new Russian air fighters SU-57 as a revenge for the death of Russians from the Wagner Group. According to some media reports, not only Syrian militants but also the contractors of American PMCs were killed as a result of these attacks. “There were up to 2,000 American soldiers as part of the so-called PMCs operating in East Ghouta, plus some NATO soldiers. And it is not clear what the latter were doing there,” reports the Rex news agency.
Anyway, after the international threat caused by ISIS dissolved in hot Middle Eastern air, same as the preceding Al Qaeda threat, it has become increasingly difficult to know if the actions of the conflicting parties in Syria are in line with any international norms.
Turkish troops, which launched the operation Olive Branch on January 20 in north-western Syria to fight against Kurdish terrorist groups PYD and PKK, are operating under clear identification signs. Answering journalists during the Munich conference, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Ankara lost confidence in Washington because of the American support to the Kurds. It is noteworthy that the Olive Branch carried out in and around Afrin coincided with the advancement of the Syrian army and its allies to Idlib, where the main opposition forces are concentrated. This shows that Ankara's actions are coordinated with Moscow and Tehran. Cavusoglu also noted that during a visit of his American counterpart Rex Tillerson to Ankara shortly before the Munich conference, the parties agreed to establish mechanisms that would help resolve differences in Syria between these two NATO allies. It seems that the Americans propose to create a buffer zone in Afrin and set up joint Turkish-American patrols in Manbij, a strategically advantageous location west of the Euphrates. Ankara also demands that the U.S. disarm the Kurds and terminate its ties with the Kurdish militia. The preceding events show that the U.S., which relies on the Kurds in Syria, cannot allow Turkey to turn to Iran and Russia, nor can they make a clear choice. As a result, main military operations are taking place in the north (Afrin and Idlib) and south (Deir ez-Zor and Ghouta) of the country.
But when the showdown is taking place on foreign soil turned into a vague zone with no possibility to carry out legal operations and humanitarian missions, comply with international laws, mechanisms, and agreements, it is obviously impossible to negotiate in a cozy and safe Bavarian hotel either. It is surprising therefore, that this surprises somebody.
The UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura stated that the unity and sovereignty of Syria had to be preserved to avoid the process of fragmentation of the Middle Eastern states into smaller parts, the so-called ‘chronic Balkanization’. But in fact, Syria is already fragmented, same as Iraq. The countries fighting in Syria indirectly can engage in open confrontation. In his final speech in Munich, Wolfgang Ischinger noted sadly: “I was hoping that we could throw out the question mark from the motto of our conference but, unfortunately, we failed to get away from the brink”.