4: From civil war to international conflict
One of the main reasons why it seems impossible to find a solution is the internationalization of the conflict. Since 2011, a myriad of local, regional and international actors have been involved. Syria’s strategic position on the Mediterranean and the fact that it is located in the middle between the enemies Israel and Iran, is an important reason for this. Equally important is the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) and the ability of other jihadist groups to exploit the vacuum of power and chaos that followed the outbreak of civil war.
Decision-makers in countries from the United States and Europe in the west to Russia and Iran in the east quickly realized that Syria had become a hotbed for groups that posed not only a local but a global threat. In the autumn of 2014, the United States decided to initiate a coalition against IS. This led to an international fight against terrorism , which fueled the fire in Syria by supplying both various rebel groups and the Syrian regime with large quantities of weapons. Islamist radicalization and recruitment to these groups increased in line with both the Syrian regime’s aggression against the population and the coalition’s airstrikes, which killed civilians as well as jihadists.
One would think that a common fight against a common enemy would have a unifying effect for the many actors involved. In the back room, however, it was far more than just a military victory against groups such as IS and al-Qaeda . To understand the bigger picture, we need to examine the international power struggle that has taken place in Syria.
Let us first look at the Western dimension of the conflict. In 2012, President Obama said that a limit to US intervention would be if Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. However , there was never any international intervention on humanitarian grounds . The UN’s diplomatic efforts also failed when Russia and China blocked intervention with their veto power in the Security Council .
According to a2zcamerablog, the West’s absence was quickly filled by Assad’s allies, and especially Iran, Russia, and Turkey. The three countries joined forces and led the so-called Astana process, which was to be a first step towards peace. The rest of the world community has thus been paralyzed on the sidelines while Presidents Erdoğan, Rouhani and Putin have pulled the strings.
Within the regional dimension of the civil war, actors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia have used Syria as a battleground to fight for influence in the region. Here you have Iran and its allies on one side, with a deep conviction that both Israeli and Western interference in the region must be fought. This front consists of Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi, Pakistani and Afghan Shiite militias, and Palestinian resistance groups such as Hamas.
For Israel, this group is perceived as an existential threat and has carried out a number of air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria. Like Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States have considered blocking Iran’s increased regional influence as an important part of the game in Syria. While Iran has supported Shia groups, Saudi Arabia (and other Gulf monarchies) have supported Sunni groups, which has helped increase religious opposition to the conflict.
Turkey has used the civil war to fight Kurdish separatists. The Kurds are a stateless people who want independence from the countries they live in – Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq.
Russia has also been a very influential player and is among Assad’s closest allies. The reason for this is the historical military ties between the Assad regime and Russia. The Russians have had a naval base in Syria since 1971, which ensured that the Russian navy had access to the Mediterranean. Since then, the countries have worked closely together militarily.
Without military support from Russia and Iran – the former in the form of air support, and the latter in the form of military advice and the mobilization of Shiite militias – Assad would probably have been ousted as a result of the uprising.
In short, we are left with a solitaire that is almost impossible to lay, much due to all the actors and conflicts of interest that exist in Syria. The price for this has been paid in civilian life. It is hard not to think that the war could have been over, at least less bloody, had it not been for foreign interference. Access to weapons and money is crucial for any actor in an armed conflict, and this has been more than enough for everyone involved.
5: What now?
This is a very difficult question. The whole point of the uprising was to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, but he appears to be sitting, thanks to Russia and Iran. However, establishing peace will not be an easy task. How can a head of state who has committed war crimes against his own people regain trust and secure power in a war-torn country? The population is divided and the wounds are deep.
A military victory for the regime therefore does not necessarily mean a long-term victory. The ideology that created groups such as IS and al-Qaeda is still alive and well, and both moderate and more hardline rebels would rather die than rebuild their country under Assad’s command.
All indications are that Syria will be unstable in the foreseeable future. The country is in ruins, and no player can put the pieces of land back in place alone. Any reconstruction will be very costly, and Assad is therefore dependent on other countries to manage this. In addition to this economic dependence, the regime is also completely dependent on continued Iranian and Russian military aid to secure the country. One consequence of this is that developments in Syria are not just in Assad’s hands.
In other words, there is much to suggest that the conflict will continue, but rather in the form of terrorist attacks and more sporadic fighting. One can therefore perhaps say that the conflict in Syria is frozen – at least it is not over.