The Hornet’s Nest

The exodus of refugees from Syria and Iraq will not stop, unless peace returns to the region and rebuilding begins. We are a long way from that day. Though developments have been accelerating as of late, these developments are leading to a climax, and we cannot know whether it will be for good or bad. What is certain is that there will be great upheaval and Greece and Cyprus will both be affected by what is to come.

The slaughtering in Syria continues and, for more than a year, a large section of Iraq has remained under the occupation of the self-proclaimed Islamic State group. Despite intervention by the U.S. and some other allies, and vigorous resistance by the Kurdish forces, the situation seems to be establishing itself. But, over the past few months, a sequence of initially unrelated developments began throughout the region which, if connected, will have a determining influence on the situation. Turkey is entering a period of great instability, Russia is forcefully intervening in the eastern Mediterranean region, Iran is newly strengthened after the nuclear agreement, Saudi Arabia is being pressured at fronts both outside and inside its borders, and Egypt is taking on a leading role in the region, at a time when large natural gas deposits have been discovered in its exclusive economic zone.

Today’s situation stems from the consequences of the so-called Arab Spring and the reactions it caused, but also from the substantial absence of the U.S. No matter how much concern and attention Washington shows, it is obvious that it does not want to get involved any deeper, nor does it want to force an agreement among its allies to form a unified and powerful front against the Islamic State group. Thus, while Turkey has finally taken a position against the so-called caliphate, it concentrates its attacks on the Kurds, the only reliable force on the ground resisting the jihadis, and who are allied with the U.S. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has involved his country in a very dangerous bet, where the cost is already too high and any possible gains are exceptionally doubtful. In his efforts to bring voters together in favor of his founding party (ΑΚΡ) in order to regain ownership of parliament in the November elections, he is investing in tensions with the Kurds. Not only do the conflicts terminate the ceasefire of the past few years, they also put Turkey’s stability, democratization and course toward joining the European Union at risk. With all this, Ankara is weakened.

At the same time, after a long period of intense introversion, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s Egypt is again playing a central role in the region. Beyond the confidence that the discovery of natural gas is offering, last week Egypt signed an agreement with France to buy two Mistral helicopter carriers (they were built for Russia but their sale fell victim to European sanctions when Russia intervened in Ukraine and annexed Crimea). Also, Sissi undertook diplomatic action, adopting the established Russian position that President Assad must be part of any solution in Syria. Sissi, who had strong support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries when he overturned Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, might also be expressing acceptance from those countries for Assad to remain, if only temporarily, in his position. Soon enough it will be seen whether that is true. Saudi Arabia, with its military involvement in Yemen, the repeated fatal accidents that cost the lives of hundreds of worshipers, and Iran’s strong presence in the region, may be convinced that Syria’s wounds have to be closed with due haste. Russia’s more active participation is the focal point of recent developments, with the dispatch of war materials and personnel in support of Assad. The U.S.’s acceptance of the dispatch suggests Washington is also re-examining its demand for Assad to go. Maybe everyone is realizing that crushing the Islamic State group is a priority. The great danger now, with Russia appearing to be playing a central role in the war and Western countries already participating to their respective extents, is that any victory against the jihadis will ignite reactions in many parts of the Islamic world (bringing back memories of Afghanistan in the ‘80s). If Muslim countries undertake the extermination of the Islamic State group, the risk of having fighters disperse not only in the region but everywhere will, again, be great. In order to deal with a hornet’s nest of this magnitude, intervention must be sudden and absolute, with the hornets all gathered up. Otherwise the situation gets quickly out of control.

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