One thing clear in even the most recent words of US officials is that the Assad regime does not have to go. The air aid is just to even things out. France has mentioned a political settlement, and Russia has pushed for one. The West's approach may play to the rough triangles idea from Land's posts, but it might point to something else. The goal of a political settlement may be to split Syria into pieces. Russia can claim they protected a client, Iran an ally, the West can claim it helped the cry for freedom of
Look at the map at the end of that link. That is a map from 2006 on a new Middle East from the Armed Forces Journal. A recent revealing statement or observation is how Russia is intent on maintaining the status quo in the Middle East whereas the US is driven by dynamic changes. Part of this is patron-client relationships, but another motive may be the flexibility and resouces Russia would have to play with broken states versus the American hyperpower. It seems quite fantastic and unreasonable to expect all of those changes, but a rough outline can be easily imagined. Those new nations and redrawn borders look a lot like the distribution maps of different ethnic and religious groups in the Middle East. Syria fits into all of this because of its population of Sunnis, location of Kurds, its relationship and border with Iraq, and its alliance with Iran.
A Sunni dominated Syria becomes a launching pad for Iraqi Sunni groups that have survived fighting US forces and now possibly Assad's forces to re-enter Iraq for a new round of fighting. Even Sunni statelets become a refuge for Sunni militias and organizations to strike back at Maliki. Iraqi violence has spiked in 2013, with deaths per month creeping back up to 1000 this spring. There does seem to be a difference compared to the mid-'00s. While the violence of pre-surge Iraq was street level, neighborhood fighting, it also involved the Iraqi Shia forces policing their own as the US forces destroyed the Sunnis. The neighborhoods of Iraq were far more heterogeneous and diverse pre-US invasion than they are today. Bombings have a way of ethnically cleansing areas. The mid '00s also saw the US filter Sunni groups. Sunni militias deemed OK were part of the Anbar Awakening, while those not deemed cooperative were eliminated by the US. The US forces are all gone, and recent violence appears to be the Shia dominated Iraqi Security Forces on Sunni targets. Political involvement in the violence has bumped up multiple levels and is a political tool. After a Syrian dismantling or conversion to a Sunni led state, how long before Saudi and Qatari money goes to Sunni groups for a re-entry into Iraq. American forces will not be sent to fight, but a porous border will allow Sunni fighters to go back and forth to fight the Iranian supported Maliki regime as they did the US supported Maliki regime. This would be incredibly ironic considering Maliki lived in Syria as an ex-pat.
Syria and Iraq are linked not only by the Sunnis of their border region but by the Kurdish people. Syria's Kurds have tried to remain neutral, have supported Assad, have fought with rebels, have fought rebels, and have a split with some Kurds supporting Turkey's Kurdish political party and others supporting the Iraqi Kurds. As with all things Middle Eastern, oil is a play. Syria's oil reserves are mostly in lands that the Kurds inhabit. With a Kurdish statelet, do the Iraqi Kurds welcome them in with open arms or do they play it cool? The Kurds of Iraq, forever working for a home of their own, seem to be inching closer to autonomy. With pipelines and oil development independent of Baghdad, as well as a mountainous redoubt of a stronghold, forcing secession on Baghdad and incorporating their brothers in Syria could become a reality. Taking in Syria's Kurds would spread the oil wealth thinner, but if the Syrian Kurds come with oil reserves of their own, that reunion becomes a whole lot easier to finance. The Kurdish question is further complicated byt he number of Kurds in Turkey. Currently the Kurds of Turkey rival the Iraqi Kurds for influence with Syrian Kurds, so reunion may not be automatic. If set up in a small hamlet, the Syrian Kurds could become a piece not justf or influence between major powers but between the Kurdish elements of neighboring nations. The Kurdish struggle for independence would most likely take a back seat to the major development of Syrian disunion: the fight in the heart of Iraq.
Considering all of these factors, the Kurds do not have to declare independence to see the next piece fall into place. The Kurds can stick to their mountains and consolidate gains in disputed areas. The real fight would be between the Sunnis and Shias in Iraq. If these are the dominoes to fall, the Syrian bolstered, Saudi financed and possibly American supplied Iraqi Sunnis would be fighting an Iranian backed Shia security state in a nation America spent roughly a decade invading and pacifying. America would be supporting the fight against an Iranian client. It could be a regional proxy replay of the Iraq-Iran war. After watching their partner Syria fall or be carved down to a rump state, Iran would feel pressure to support Maliki at all costs. America would be able to bleed money and men out of Iran. Elevated oil prices would help Iran's economy, but the constant drain of resources propping up Maliki could completely erase revenue gains. At what point would the Iranian people deal with economic and societal hardship to prop up foreigners. At what point do the ethnic tensions and instability spark an uprising or unrest in Iran?
If you doubt it, look at Iran's ethnic distribution map. Iran has Kurds in its northwest and a large population of Shia Arabs in it's southwest. Going back to the new middle east map, the Arab Shia state has an arm along the coast of Iran that corresponds to Iran's Shia Arab population. If internal problems tore apart Iraq, the tremors would rapidly be not just at but within Iran's borders. After years of fomenting rebellion and espionage, how difficult would it be to spur specific groups to rise up versus the Iranian cleric regime? Not difficult especially if there is the appeal to ethnic and religious solidarity. Iran would desperately want to protect it's southern regions. Behold the map of Iran's oil and gas reserves. There is a wonderful overlap between the Arab Shia region in the map above and the onshore and offshore oil reserves of Iran. If the clerics lost control of even just a portion of the vast oil reserves of the Arab Shia regions, they would collapse.
If the New Middle East map is part of the grand strategy, it should come to no surprise that America is fostering rebellions and breaking everything Sykes-Picot created. New clients for both Red and Blue empires as well as plenty of military spending for Red interests now. The rest of the New Middle East map looks ambitious and far too radical for today, especially factoring in the Saudis wealth and stability in the face of the Arab Spring protests of 2011. This remolding the the Middle East could be why Syria has drawn in the interest of every major power on the globe. It is not just Syria, but what happens next. The path forward depends on how the Syrian affair ends. With the global powers of the West, Russia, China as well as regional pillars like Iran and the Saudis all part of the picture, the game will shift and move as freely as the sands for which the region is famous.