Originally published under the title "The Syrian Cauldron."
Over the ruined landscape of northern Syria, a number of core factors that today define the strategic reality of the Middle East are colliding. Close observation of that blighted area therefore offers clues as to the current state of play more broadly in the region – who is on the way up, who on the way down, and what might this imply for Israel in the short to medium term.
Let's identify the factors interacting discernibly in the north Syrian maelstrom:
Firstly and most importantly, the Russian intervention which began on September 30, 2015 and which is now rolling across northwestern Syria announces the arrival of a growing de facto alliance between Moscow and the Islamic Republic of Iran. This alliance currently works to the benefit of both parties, in spite of the clear difference of interests and sometime tension between them.
In Syria, the abilities and needs of the Russian and Iranians are complementary. Russia brings an air capacity to the Syrian battlefield against which the Sunni Arab rebels are effectively helpless. The tightening grip around Aleppo and the crossing of the Azaz corridor are the main results of this so far. But airp ower is of limited use without a committed ground partner. The Russians for domestic reasons have no desire to become bogged down in a large-scale commitment of Russian ground troops.
Russia's air power and Iran's ability to mobilize sectarian paramilitaries complement each other perfectly.
The Iranians lack anything close to the Russian ability in the air. But what they possess, via the skills of the Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, is a currently matchless ability to create and mobilize sectarian paramilitary proxies, and then to move them to where needed across the regional chessboard. Hence, the ground partner for Russian air power in northern Syria is today not only or mainly the Syrian Arab Army of Bashar Assad. Rather, Lebanese Hizballah, the Iraqi Shia Badr Brigade, the Afghan Shia Fatemiyun and IRGC personnel themselves are all playing a vital role.
It is not at all clear that this alliance will be able or even willing to complete the reconquest of the entirety of Syria – which remains the goal of the regime as stated by Bashar Assad last week. However, it will certainly be able to preserve the Assad regime from destruction, and may yet deliver a deathblow to the non-IS rebels in the northwest, center and south west of the country.
The potency of this emergent Russian-Iranian alliance is made possible only by the willed absence of the United States from the arena. Russia felt confident enough to launch its attempt to destroy the rebellion because it calculated that the prospect of the United States extending its own air cover westwards to protect the rebels (whose goal it ostensibly supports) was sufficiently close to zero. The Obama administration appears strategically committed to staying out. The US and its allies are making slow progress against the Islamic State. But west of the Euphrates, the United States is an irrelevance.
Russian-Iranian gains are made possible by the willed absence of the United States from the Syrian arena.
This brings us to the third salient factor apparent in the situation in northern Syria: namely, the relative impotence of the Sunni powers when faced with the superior force of Russia.
The Russian advance eastwards in Aleppo province and the disinclination of the United States to prevent it presents the Sunni state backers of the rebellion in Syria with two equally unpalatable alternatives. These are: to acquiesce in the face of superior force and thus face the prospect of the final eclipse of the Sunni Arab rebellion in Syria, or to seek to confront the Russian/Iranian/regime side head on, and thus face the prospect of head on collision with a major world power, without any guarantee of western support.
These are the stark alternatives. It isn't possible of course to predict with certainty which one the Saudis and Turks will choose. But the likelihood is that they will opt for the former, while engaging in face saving exercises to prevent this from being too obvious.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jbeir told a press conference in Riyadh this week that "The Kingdom's readiness to provide special forces to any ground operations in Syria is linked to a decision to have a ground component to this coalition against Daesh (Islamic State) in Syria – this U.S.-led coalition – so the timing is not up to us." The Turks, meanwhile, evidently canvassed their allies over the possibility of a joint ground incursion into northern Syria. But finding no enthusiasm, they appear currently content with shelling the positions of the Kurdish YPG south of the key border town of Azaz. Turkish officials speaking in Istanbul this week appeared to rule out a unilateral incursion.
The fourth regional factor apparent in northern Syria is the contraction of the state and collapse and fragmentation of the 'nation' in Syria, and the salience of ethnic and sectarian organizations in the war over their ruins.
The remaining rebel forces in northern Syria are entirely dominated by Sunni Islamist groups.
The remaining 'rebel forces' in northern Syria today are entirely dominated by Sunni Islamist and jihadi groups. The collapse of the state, and the apparent inability of Arab politics at the popular level to generate anything other than forces aligned with political Islam is a profoundly important component of the current reality both of Syria and of the wider region.
This fragmentation is also giving birth to more potent forces. In this regard, the Syrian Kurdish performance both militarily and politically is worthy of note. Militarily, the YPG remains one of the most powerful forces engaged. Politically, the Kurds appear currently to be performing a balancing act whereby east of the Euphrates they partner with US air power against the Islamic State, while west of the river, they seek to unite the Afrin and Kobani cantons in partnership with Russian air power against the Turkish backed rebels – with the acquiescence of both powers.
So put all this together and you have a fair approximation of the current state of the Middle East, as reflected in miniature in the cauldron that is northern Syria: emergent Iranian-Russian strategic alliance, US non-involvement, hapless US-aligned Sunni powers flailing as a result of this absence, state fragmentation, the emergence of powerful 'successor' entities, the domination of Arab politics at a popular level by Sunni political Islam and the emergence of the Kurds as a militarily able and politically savvy local power.
As for Israel – it is mainly watching and waiting. But the fact that the historic maelstrom sweeping the region has not yet managed to make a major impact on the daily lives of those – Jew and Arab – living west of the Jordan River offers a certain testimony to the cautious and prudent policies pursued by Jerusalem. In the Syrian, and the broader regional cauldron, you're either one of the cooks – or you're on the menu. As of now, Israel appears to be managing to stay in the former category.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.