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Making Sense of the Syrian War

Syria is a mess. New alliances form as quickly as they fall apart. Cease-fires are agreed to and summarily ignored. Russians, Turks, Americans, Iranians, Kurds, Lebanese, Saudis and, of course, Syrians all have vested interests in outcome of the war. Jacob, Cole and Xander lay out what those interests are and catch up on what proved to be a very eventful week in northern Syria. Sign up for free updates on topics like this!

  • Last updated: March 12
  • Total word count: 7203 words

Cole Altom: Hello everyone, welcome to another Geopolitical Futures podcast. I am Cole CA, joined by Jacob Shapiro, director of analysis. Jacob, hello.

Jacob L. Shapiro: Hello. You’ve been doing so well that we thought that you should introduce me and then me introduce you.

CA: Well we’re doing it a little different this time because we’re experimenting with a new format and we’re really excited about it. Very soon our very own Xander Snyder is going to be joining us by way of internet. It’s really cool. But before we actually get there, once again want you to do like a preview of the week. What’s sticking in your craw today?

JLS: Well here are the things that we are going to be looking at for sure in the week ahead. Number one, China just got rid of term limits.

CA: Yeah!

JLS: So for the president, it has been basically since Deng Xiaoping took over for Mao, there have been term limits. And Deng sort of created this political system where something like Mao is never supposed to happen again. And Xi Jinping just said…

CA: Mao’s happening again

JLS: Mao’s happening again.

CA: It’s here.

JLS: China is reverting back to an old pattern so.

CA: Well they still have I would say informal age limits. I don’t suppose that they’re gonna recognize those anytime soon either, right?

JLS: You know this is the question though and this is the thing to watch going forward. Like what other conventions is Xi going to break? Is there going to be any backlash to this type of stuff? You know I didn’t think that Xi was going to step down in the first place. But Xi is now coming out and saying I’m here, I’m not stepping down. Nobody’s taking over for me.

So the question then is, is there going to be any resistance? Is anybody going to speak up and say no? Or has Xi already cleared the deck? So that’s some of what’ll be driving our attention there.

Second, just going into the weekend Mexican President Pena Nieto cancelled an upcoming meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump and the reason was that Trump wouldn’t agree to say that Mexico is not going to fund the border wall. And the thing that’s interesting to me in this is that it was Pena Nieto who brought it up. Not Trump. So Pena Nieto, maybe it’s part of Mexican elections coming up and him wanting to score a shot for his party.

But I remember Pena Nieto a couple years ago and Trump was the candidate and he spoke with Trump when a lot of people were telling him not to because he thought that was in Mexico’s best interest. So I have a hard time thinking that he’s just doing this as an election ploy. It says to me that he thought there weren’t going to be any serious consequences. Anyway, that’s my own conspiracy theory generating stuff there.

But one of the things we will be looking at there is the state of U.S.-Mexican relations because with violence increasing in Mexico, with Mexico going into elections, with NAFTA negotiations and now with some pretty open at least verbal disagreements and maybe verbal hostilities – is that a thing? between…

CA: Yes, it’s a thing. I think that you and I both know that’s a thing. There have been several verbal hostilities launched in our direction so…

JLS: So that’s also on my mind, we’ll have to see what direction U.S.-Mexico relations are going. And then last but not least, I mean the Middle East is still on fire. It is the most active region in the world. We are following it every day. It’s actually almost hard for me to write about anything else but the Middle East every day right now.

But the thing in particular that’s happening this week is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is going to get a little interview with the police. They want to talk to him about some corruption stuff.

CA: Yeah it’s been a long time, well a long time coming is probably not the right way to put that. But the investigation has been going on for a long time and it’s kind of made its way to the foreground yet again. We didn’t write a whole lot about it, we wrote a little bit about it and there’s a Syrian middle man in Turkey and it was like very, very kind of like Dashiell Hammett like, it was very interesting. But he’s going to get interviewed by the police…

JLS: He’s going to get interviewed by the police and honestly none of this is that important. If you’re like me, you sort of enjoy these internal political kerfuffles. I sort of miss the days when Israeli press was going crazy about the amount of ice cream that the Netanyahus were buying each year with the state budget.

CA: Which turns out was a lot.

JLS: It was a lot. Pistachio ice cream, apparently good? Get yourself some mint chip is my advice. Anyway, it doesn’t actually matter, this political corruption case. What matters is, is Israel about to go through a bout of internal political instability just as Iran is emerging, as Turkey and the U.S. are trying to bury the hatchet, as Syria and Lebanon and Gaza are all simmering? I don’t think so but you know we have to doublecheck ourselves.

CA: And well it’s never too early to think about like some of these keys countries and when they do have leadership transitions for any reason, you know natural causes or corruption or term expiration or whatever. It’s important for us to think about who might eventually replace them and what they’re about and how if at all they’re going to change things?

Ok so it’s been a pretty busy week in Syria you could say, there’s been a lot going on and specifically there was some U.S. airstrikes over in the east and we can get back to that here in a little bit if we want to. But in particular, I want to focus on a little place I call Afrin. It’s been super busy there. There are alliances that pop up and die seemingly like every thirty minutes or so. And it’s hard to make a lot of sense of it.

Luckily, we’ve got Jacob Shapiro here to make sense of it. And joining us from California is Xander Snyder. Xander, how’s it going?

Xander Snyder: Going great Cole, how are you?

CA: I’m doing great. So I really want to turn this over to you guys who know much more about it than I do. Give us kind of a rundown of what’s happened in the past week but I think it might be helpful for more casual readers and listeners and for people like me, I’ll come out and say it, to sort of give a broader view of what some of the allegiances and alliances were in Syria initially. And talk about how they’ve changed and I think after that we can kind of go into what some of these new developments kind of portend. Does that kind of make some sense?

XS: Yeah I think so.

JLS: Yeah I think that makes a ton of sense and I guess if you’re just thinking about sort of from a 20,000 foot altitude of what’s going on here, you sort of have to start with the United States when all the stuff broke out in Syria originally tried to partner with Turkey because it wanted to defeat the Islamic State and it thought Turkey was going to be a natural partner to do that. Turkey didn’t want to commit its troops to do that and also has its own concerns about the Kurds who we will get back to here in a minute. They play an prominent role in this story.

Then the U.S. tried to find some moderate Syrian rebels and they found that its easier to find unicorns in Syria than it is moderate Syrian rebels. So then the U.S. turned to the Syrian Kurds. When that die was cast, what you had was you has basically two separate coalitions develop. Both of which were directed against ISIS but which weren’t necessarily allied with each other. You had the United States which was backing the Syrian Kurds and whatever other small, moderate groups you could get on the ground. The occasional air strike from Syria. And then you had this sort of troika or tripartite, whatever triumvirate, whatever pretentious word you want to use for a…

CA: Trilogy.

JLS: Trilogy, three-headed monster of Turkey, Iran and Russia. And the three of them were meeting in Astana and they were meeting in Sochi and they were kind of trying to design some kind of future for Syria while the battle for the Islamic State was going on. So up until about December, what we had was Turkey, Iran and Russia, basically coordinating and setting up these different de-escalations or no violence zones within Syria. You had the United States supporting smaller proxies on the ground. You had both of these groups pushing back against ISIS and having the bulk of their forces pushing back against ISIS.

Once ISIS gets defeated around November, December of last year, suddenly things begin to change. And maybe Xander, how would you say things changed once, in December once when that started?

XS: Well several things changed then and have changed since then. But I think a distinction that’s worth making that can help place all of these events in slightly better context is this troika that you mentioned for example, Russia, Turkey and Iran. Just because these states are working together and they have interests that seem to align for the time being or at least they have tactical considerations that make sense for them to cooperate does not mean that they’re actually attempting to achieve the same thing long term.

So a lot of the times the coverage of these events will be oh well Turkey and Russia were allies and now they’re not anymore. And that’s huge development. But if you step back and you realize that they’re actually trying to achieve very different things. And that by them cooperating in the short term is really only a mean to an end, some of these developments make a little bit more sense. So…

JLS: What was that?

XS: Go ahead.

JLS: Yeah, go ahead.

CA: Well maybe right now isn’t the time and place. I don’t want to get too far in the weeds. But at the same time, it might be kind of worth mentioning real briefly if we can, what are some of the long-term goals for some of these people involved?

XS: Yeah well Turkey is, we’ve written about this at length, an expansionist power. And essentially what they want to do is create a certain degree of buffer space on either side of them and this, basically their core is the Bosporus and a lot of their power stems from control of the Bosporus. And if you look at the history of the rise of the Ottoman Empire, it’s basically a story of them building out strategic depth on both sides of the Bosporus and then finally in the eastern Mediterranean as well to basically prevent all of the powers that border them from threatening their core.

So that is on a deep level what Turkey is looking to achieve in the Middle East is building their borders or if not borders, then at least areas of influence, where they can generally control the events on the ground.

CA: Alright fair enough, what about their quote un quote “allies”, I’m being a little facetious, Russia and Iran?

XS: Sure, well Iran is hoping to, well not really hoping to, they’ve already begun to establish this land bridge that everyone is talking about and all that means is, a contiguous territory on land from Iran through Iraq, through Syria to Lebanon through which they can supply their proxy Hezbollah and developing a Shia corridor along that land bridge as well which essentially lets them secure their supply line. Because Iran is worried about if there’s a lot of Sunnis living along that line, then that might threaten their supply. It also lets them reach the Mediterranean.

So looking at it strictly from a territorial perspective, that’s what Iran is hoping to do. They’re hoping to achieve that through supporting different entities like Assad in Syria, like Hezbollah, like some of the popular mobilization forces in Iraq.

CA: Gotcha. So and this is actually probably a really good example of what we mean by temporary alignments, interests coming briefly into alignment but long-term goals not really working out. I mean so you nicely laid out what Iran wants to achieve. Those goals are not the exact same as Russia’s and yet both have at different times like supported Assad in different capacities, right? So what is Russia trying to do because it is not the same thing as Iran correct?

XS: That’s right. Russia is, well Russia has been a historical adversary of Turkey and at different times Iran but to a lesser degree. And ultimately Russia is concerned with keeping whatever chaos is going on in the Middle East south of the greater Caucasus which acts as sort of a barrier between the Middle East and the Russian heartland.

And in a related way, Russia is also concerned with keeping jihadists from Russia because there’s a large Muslim population in Russia that could potentially create some instability in different areas. So because Russia’s main concern is keeping it away from home, they’re actually ok if Turkey and Iran slug it out with one another so long as it keeps both of them weak enough to not secure a strong enough position in the Middle East to come back and challenge Russia.

JLS: Well actually I think that’s true now but I think Russia as Xander sort of alluded to, it’s a perfect example of the phenomenon of mission creep. Because when Russia went into Syria in the first place, you know some people will say it is because of pipelines and this that or the other thing. Or because they’re friends with Bashar al-Assad’s Dad. None of that’s really true.

What was happening when Russia decided to go into Syria was two things. Number one, Putin had just gotten embarrassed in Ukraine. He had not been able to stop a pro-Western government from coming in and taking over basically in Kiev and all he had to show for it was Crimea and some areas in the Donbass. The second thing that was happening was that oil prices were collapsing.

And you saw a lot of problems in the Russian economy as a result. And the analog that we’ve talked about many times was that in the early 90’s Yeltsin watched the United States get involved in the Balkans and could do nothing about it. And this was a traditional Russian sphere of influence and the Russian economy tanked.

So you had Putin who was supposed to return Russia to glory and instead of returning Russia to glory, Russia wasn’t able to do anything in an area that it thought of as integral to its national security and its economy was tanking. So the reason that Russia went into the Middle East in the first place was a little bit to distract from that. It wanted to show that it was a great power. It wanted to show some of the military improvements it had made since the 2010 Georgian War because especially the Air Force had not availed itself particularly well in that conflict.

And once Russia got there, as the United States experienced in Iraq, it was very difficult to get out because it’s nice to go in and blow some things up and declare victory as Putin has declared at least a couple of times now as far as I can count.

CA: Congratulations Putin. It’s been a wild ride.

JLS: Congratulations, like you have Syria, but you know what does he have in his hands? He’s trying to get Iran and Turkey to agree to this diplomatic solution and as Xander alluded to and as you alluded to Cole, it’s all falling apart because there are different interests between all sides and this troika of interests now that ISIS is gone and not there to unite them, you basically have them all working at cross purposes and a lot of the stuff that is going on here is that Iran is pushing forward aggressively at all of the different powers, Russia, Turkey, Israel, the Syrian Kurds, they are all responding to that push.

So if you just you know in one sentence want to understand what’s going on in Syria, Iran is trying to push in. And then all of those other you know re-arrangements that are happening around it are reactions to that and different countries are at different levels of preparedness for combatting that or in Russia’s case trying to hold Iran back. That’s sort of how I would think about it.

CA: What about you Xander? You agree with that for the most part?

XS: Yeah I think that the way Jacob outlined mission creep makes sense.

CA: And you’ve alluded to it a little bit and I want to allude to it a little bit more just because they’re some of my favorite people in the world to talk about, Kurds. Like where are the Kurds in all of this? I think it’s, it’s a horrible thing to say but I don’t think it’s an unfair thing to say, that while everybody in the Middle East kind of disagrees about everything all the time, they kind of all coalesce around this notion of not liking the Kurds or at least wanting more than anything to deprive them of statehood.

JLS: Well Xander, I’m going to jump in here and I’m going to thank Cole for just teeing up a big fat grapefruit for me because every time an editor comes back to me and says that we have to talk about the Kurds, I get to do my little diatribe about how there is no such thing as the Kurds. The Kurds are not a monolithic group. They speak different languages, they have different languages. I just said that. I meant they have different religions. Although most of them are Muslim now after saying that most of them are Muslim.

CA: I think most of them are.

JLS: Well they weren’t always. If you go to Jerusalem actually, there are the remnants of the Jewish Kurdish clan.

CA: Right we can talk about like different success stories they’ve had like Rojava and I forget the place in Iran but you know there are pockets of them in Iran and pockets of them in Syria. And Syrian Kurds behave differently from Turkish Kurds and from Iraqi Kurds like we all now this. But they are important to note nonetheless, different though they may be, because they are used and exploited by these powers a little bit differently and fight amongst themselves. So…

JLS: And historically have been used by powers against each other. Before the western powers went into the Middle East, it was really you had the Ottoman Empire and various forms of Persian Empires and they used Arab groups and Kurdish groups to fight each other. But so if we’re just talking about Syria, the two groups of Kurds that we really have to talk about are, number one the Syrian Kurds, who in the fight against ISIS and in the Syrian Civil War were able to carve out sort of an autonomous zone for themselves.

CA: And their acronym, Kurds love their acronyms and there’s a lot of acronyms in Syria, generally the YPG, those are the Syrian Kurds. Just so and I want to be clear on that because we’ve kind of identified most of the cast of characters. I mean Saudi Arabia has been a little involved over the years. I don’t know if we need to go over that right now. And Lebanon has kind of been like potentially involved. But these are the like major players along with the United States.

So now that we’ve kind of like identified who these people are and generally what their objectives are, excuse me, we can kind of talk about why they use each other temporarily and why they don’t. And maybe the better way to talk about that is to talk about what’s happened this week?

JLS: Yeah. Just to finish the thought. We have to finish the thought unfortunately. I have to come back and finish the thought.

CA: (sighs) Fine!

JLS: I know it’s terrible but there are also Kurds in Turkey. And the Turkish Kurds and the Syrian Kurds of all the different Kurdish groups that are there are probably the most closely related, just in terms of language, background, all that other stuff.

So when we’re talking specifically about Turkey, Turkey looks at the YPG and see their own Turkish military group which is the PKK, those are inseparable from Turkey’s point of view. And that has always been the major break between the United States and between Turkey. Because the United States saw that this YPG group, the Syrian Kurds, were willing to fight ISIS on the ground with U.S. support and Turkey was like well you can’t like support one terrorist group to fight another terrorist group especially one that counts some 15 or 20 million people as a part of our population that has been waging an active insurgency in our country for however long.

So you sort of talked about talking about what’s happened in the last week. I think and maybe Xander you’ll disagree. I think the most important thing that is happening right now is what’s happening between the United States and Turkey. Because for so long what was consistent in the last couple years in both the Trump Administration and the Obama Administration was the ties between the U.S. and Turkey were fraying.

And it got really, really serious to the point where you had Turkey’s foreign minister about a week and a half ago saying that relations might be broken off completely. And then you Tillerson go there. You had both Mattis and McMaster sort of reach to their Turkish counterparts. And then suddenly there’s not an agreement but there’s a lot more dialogue and a lot friendlier tone coming out of both Istanbul and Washington right now.  And notably, you know, Turkey is distancing itself if not in rhetoric then at least from the interests on the ground of both Iran and Russia.

CA: What do you think Xander, is Jacob full of it or what?

XS: (laughs) Yes, always.

CA: The answer is almost always yes. But give us some particulars of why this time he is more so than other times or not?

XS: No, I think this actually a good segue to what happened this week which Cole you wanted to get into. One of the two major developments was coming out of a meeting between Tillerson and Erdogan and I think also Cavusoglu was there as well. And while they were meeting in Istanbul, James Mattis and like his equivalent on the Turkish side were meeting I think in Brussels. And on Friday of last week, so I guess like two Fridays ago now, basically there was an announcement that some sort of deal while perhaps had not been reached, had at least been discussed and presented.

So the Turkish side said ok well ok how’s this, we’ll work together with you, the U.S., to basically secure Afrin, which is this area that we’re concerned about the Kurdish presence in, as well as Manbij, which is this area a little further east of Afrin. And we’ll do that with U.S. cooperation and in exchange the U.S. agrees to relocate the YPG, this Kurdish presence, so that we don’t feel threatened on our borders.

And this was actually in response to a proposal that the U.S. had first presented to Turkey saying ok well how about we help you fight the PKK, which is the Kurdish terrorist organization within Turkey, and we’ll do that with YPG. Turkey was like no that’s stupid because we think they’re the same thing so you can’t do that. Here’s our deal.

And it seems like it’s been fairly well received. There hasn’t been a firm agreement yet but there were some reports earlier in the week that Tillerson was going to come back and talk to some U.S. Generals about it, try to get them behind it. Because it really seemed to align everyone’s interests back to where you know Turkey and the U.S. could be collaborating as allies, which you know presumably they would both prefer, prefer their interests to not diverge over the Kurdish issue. So that’s kind of where we were in the beginning of the week.

CA: Ok, so you said that a lot of people’s interests align so fair enough but like what about like where is Syria in all of this, right? This is all technically happening in Syria. Are they just like sitting there twiddling their thumbs? What are they up to?

XS: There’s a lot going in Syria. I think what’s mainly occupying the Assad regime’s attention right now are two major fronts. One of which is this Idlib offensive and then the other is Afrin, although it also looks like they’re about to open up, I don’t know if you can call it another front, but at least launch another offensive. So that segues pretty nicely into the second development that we saw this week, which is Assad, it appears as if Assad is now working with the YPG to repel the Turkish invasion.

And while there’s a lot of detail, essentially what happened is the Assad regime sent pro-regime forces, and that’s an important distinction from Syrian Army forces, to Afrin to supposedly support the YPG. It still seems like we’re not entirely sure technically if they’re gonna engage the Turkish military directly. But it definitely does not seem that Assad has positioned forces there to fight the YPG. It definitely seems like they have a tactical alignment of interests to repel the Turkish invasion of Syrian in the northwest.

CA: Ok you brought up Assad and we really haven’t talked too much about him. He’s obviously going to be busy up north in Afrin because that’s where a lot of the action is but that’s not where all the action is. I mean you know we’re, geopolitically we’re not all over this right now, but there’s a whole lot of like horrible things going in Ghouta province, am I getting that correct?

XS: Yes.

CA: I apologize for any of my horrible pronunciations. My Arabic tutor in college would be devastated right now but I forget things very easily.

XS: Yeah so I think there’s basically two and a half fronts if you want to call it that, main fronts in Syria. And I’m oversimplifying this but one is Afrin, with the Turkish invasion. The other is Idlib, where Assad is attempting to capture a large region in the west/northwest of Syria held by pro-Turkish proxies. And the other is just trying to stamp out whatever pockets of resistance exist in other parts of the country and this includes the province of eastern Ghouta, which is just to the east of Damascus, further south in Syria.

CA: What about what’s going on over in the east? We haven’t really talked about what’s going on in eastern Syria in a while. There was some news not that long ago about some more developments in and around Deir el-Zour, right Jacob?

JLS: There was so just to piggyback on some of the stuff that Xander just said, the Assad regime is really the most aggressive of all the players involved here. Because the Assad regime is fighting for its survival. If it stops fighting, that means it’s probably going to collapse. Iran is egging it on because Iran wants Assad to be very strong but also wants it to be dependent on them.

So I say all that to say that you know there’s this, it’s sort of a mystery what happened in eastern Syria but about a week and a half ago, there are these reports that the YPG, which are supported by the U.S. in this part of Syria, were taking fire from some pro-Syrian militia forces that apparently had some Russian mercenaries too. The YPG called the United States for help and an incredibly impressive barrage of B-52s and F-15s and Apache helicopters and drones came in and you know wiped out or depending on what reports you’re reading, inflicted significant damage on this force.

CA: Yeah it didn’t seem like what you might call like a casual airstrike or a showy airstrike, it was like a, it was a heavy hit.

JLS: It was a heavy hit and we should note that one of the reasons this is a mystery is because in all the, and there are a lot of different retellings of this and it’s you know difference on causalities and difference on who started and was it about an oil field or was it about this. One of the things that seems to be routinely said though in all of the stories is that it took about three to five hours for the U.S. to respond via airstrikes. I think the United States would’ve had to have been a little bit better prepared to marshal the amount of air power it did to knock this thing out, so…

CA: It took us almost three to five hours to like schedule this podcast.

JLS: I think that’s generous.

CA: Yeah exactly. (laughs)

JLS: But you know when it first happened, there was actually a lot of stuff I found out about it on social media because there were sort of you know Facebook posts from this military contractor group or people related to it saying a lot of Russians just died in a U.S. airstrike in Syria. And at first, the Russian Foreign Ministry was denying it and then the Russian Foreign Ministry said well no this happened but you know it’s not our place to comment on what Russians are doing in Syria if they’re not connected to the armed forces and these weren’t connected to the armed forces.

But what you have here is sort of the gray line between both the United States and Russia in Syria. So Russia has its interests, the United States has its interests and for the most part Russia and the United States have not run afoul of each other in Syria, in large part because in the long term they actually have fairly similar interests. Neither one of them wants to be stuck there, neither one of them wants a power to emerge and neither one of them is interested in sort of Sunni jihadism coming there.

But this is where you know when these relationships start churning and when you start getting actors like Assad for whom there is no other option besides all-out war, that’s when war starts to be unpredictable. That’s when tactical things on the ground can actually move political things. Now it’s looking like this is not going to be that because Russia has downplayed it, the United States has downplayed it, nobody is trying to make this a bigger deal than what it is right now.

But if you just look at the number of things that have happened in Syria in the last week. I mean the United States has bombed forces that support Assad that have Russian mercenaries as part of them. Israel has bombed both Assad targets and Iran targets inside of Syria. Turkey is setting up military outposts in reach of Aleppo and is getting attacked by Shiite militias that are sponsored by Iran. So when you’re looking at all of these things moving together. Oh and I didn’t even mention the Syrian Kurds who in one part of Syria are trying to partner with the Assad regime because they want to defend Afrin and then in this other part of Syria that I just talked about are taking fire from Assad forces and calling in U.S. B-52s for help. So that’s like sort of the broad lay of the land.

CA: It’s just that simple, right?

JLS: It’s just that simple. But the concern has to be going forward is like is something going to happen that is going to create a political reality. Because if those weren’t Russian mercenaries for example, if that were you know regular Russian soldiers, which I am not saying it is, repeat not saying that’s what it was. This is a hypothetical.

CA: Do it one more time, just in case.

JLS: If, I-F, that’s the word. If that were regular Russian soldiers and the United States had blown up let’s say a regiment or something or even just a company of Russian soldier, you can bet that Russia and the U.S. would not just be like yelling at each other and stealing flags from their embassies. You can bet that would probably escalate in a big way and that Putin would have to do something about it.

So all of these different forces are moving in such close quarters right now. And everybody is trying to move forward to establish their interests, that the situation is getting ironically much more complicated than the simple days when all that had to be done in Syria was defeating ISIS.

CA: (sighs) Those were the days, weren’t they?

XS: Those halcyon days of yore.

CA: (laughs) Yeah right.

JLS: I will say though that you know the thing in all of this is that it’s really the Assad regime is out of options. They have to continue fighting. And Iran really this is their big chance. If they don’t jump on the opportunity right now, they’re gonna lose their chance especially because they depend on Assad.

CA: Well and especially because I don’t know if this is because of or you know like despite but like we haven’t heard much of Saudi Arabia lately which is pretty interesting, like they’ve been pretty quiet lately, no?

JLS: No well Saudi Arabia has a lot of troubles at home and they are pledging to you know build $64 billion worth of like movie theaters or something like that in the next couple years because you know if you can watch Black Panther apparently, you’re not going to revolt against the Saudi monarchy. I don’t know how the logic goes.

CA: Did you know, this was true about a year, I haven’t looked at in a while, but about a year and a half, two years ago, China through its holdings owns more movie theater screens than any other country and it’s not even really close.

JLS: I didn’t know that but I knew that like a lot of well we’re getting way off track now about I guess the geopolitics of cinema.

CA: Yeah I mean like you brought up Black Panther. This is like an intermission because we talked about this for a long time about like isolationism versus like globalism and like black liberation theology. We can go down many rabbit holes. We won’t but I just want you to know we could.

JLS: We could but the interesting thing there is like if Chinese people decide they don’t like a movie and it doesn’t have an opportunity for resale in the Chinese market, that actually now affects like Hollywood’s bottom line because they depend on those resales in the Chinese market.

CA: Yeah I think it was, gosh I want to say it was Star Wars: The Last Jedi, it killed in the United States and like western markets more but fared very poorly internationally. I think don’t quote me on that, it was a big blockbuster recently. I think it was that one but I’m not sure.

JLS: Alright well I’m going to take us off of this because otherwise it will be Geopolitical Futures: The Last Podcast.


CA: That’s funnier than it deserves to be.

JLS: But just to bring it all back home. And I’m not trying to add a silver lining here, I would just say that you know that the point at which this is going to get really hard if all of these different actors run out of options. The fact that you have all of these relationships that are ping ponging all over the place shows you that the different countries involved have options. It gets bad if the countries involved, don’t have options. And if everything becomes a zero-sum game.

So the fact that you have this horse-trading between Turkey, Russia, the United States, even Iran, although Iran to a lesser extent, different proxy groups on the ground from Hezbollah to YPG, that all tells you that none of this is set in stone. And that everybody has options and is trying to figure out what’s going on. This could become a much bigger war if everybody starts thinking like the Assad regime, if everybody starts thinking they have to intervene.

Like you know Turkey right now is really just providing some support to some Syrian rebels that it has trained up. It’s really just dipping its toe in Afrin. If Turkey decided that it really needed to go at it against the Assad regime, it had to prepare for a battle with Russia, that would be disturbing. And that’s why when you see the U.S. and Turkey burying the hatchet, you start to go ok these sides are now preparing for something a little bit more serious here. And you start wondering, where is Israel, where is Saudi Arabia, where is the Arab world? What are Iran and Assad and Russia all discussing when they are in these things?

So the moment at which those relationships actually start to harden is the moment that I would start to worry that this is going to go from and I know it’s tragic but the casualty numbers in Syria right now are relatively small. This is not yet a major war. If you get multiple countries locked against each other and their interests can only be met by defeating the other, that’s when this conflict starts to look really serious.

XS: Yeah.

CA: Alright well Jacob. Sorry I was just going to ask you, he’s told us what worries him, what worries you Xander?

XS: Well I just was going to expand on that point a bit. You know if you look at the cumulative casualty count in the Syrian Civil War since 2011, it’s heartbreaking, it’s large, it’s something like half a million people have been killed. At the same time, if you look at just the Turkish invasion for example. It’s only been going on for a little over a month. The estimates that Turkey is releasing is something like thirty Turkish soldiers have been killed. It’s probably larger than that because of course the Turkish government is going to undercount that.

But we have varying reports of something between 6,500 and maybe 15,000 or 20,000 Turkish soldiers either in Afrin or at the border. Now the Turkish military has something like 300,000 soldiers in it. And while they have to worry about their western border as well as their eastern border, that just gives you a sense of how much this could potentially escalate. And if you look at some of the major wars between Turkey and Russia in the past, I mean you’re talking about circumstances where maybe something 50, 60,000 soldiers would be killed in a single battle. I’m not saying it’s gonna get there but I’m just adding to Jacob’s point that it is in part the flexibility that has kept this from escalating from a really tragic, bloody civil war into a general, international war between nation-states which tend to be far worse.

CA: Yeah amen. I think we’re all really glad it’s not there yet and they certainly are too. That’s probably all the time we have for today. This is a good a place as any to stop. But I want to say Xander thanks for taking the time even though we can’t see you out there. I’m sure you’re smiling and happy and it’s sunny and beautiful out in California. It’s damp and dreary and awful here in Austin, Texas so we’re a little jealous.

XS: Good.

CA: And obviously Syria is like incredibly complicated. Hopefully this clarified rather than obscured the understanding of the situation. But if nothing else, you get to come away with the fact, knowing that we know less about international cinema and I don’t really know how to pronounce Afrin. Did I say that right this time?

JLS: I thought you did say that right. You didn’t say that right?

CA: No, Xander was the one saying it correctly. I was saying it very poorly.

JLS: I missed that.

CA: Alright well Xander thanks a lot, I appreciate it.

XS: Anytime.

CA: You have yourself a nice weekend. Jacob, thanks.

JLS: See you out there.