Quick Hits: The Conflict in Syria

On December 18th, the UN Security Council managed to reach a compromise on a ceasefire while civilians evacuate Aleppo.  The battle for Aleppo, which was Syria’s largest city, became a major theater of conflict in the Syrian Civil War back in 2012.  Now, according to the New York Times, On Tuesday, December 13th, the Syrian government had retaken the eastern part of the city, a grisly reminder that the Syrian conflict is no closer to being resolved than it was four years ago.  So how did we get here, and what is going to happen?


1. What is the origin of the conflict? 

According to Max Fisher of the New York Times, the Syrian Civil War is actually four overlapping conflicts.  The first is between the Bashar al-Assad government and various rebels.  The next is between the Kurds and Turkish-backed attacks on its established mini-state within Syria.  The third pits the Islamic State against everybody (really, at this point, this is only a slight exaggeration).  The final and most complex of the conflicts is among a host of international actors including (but not limited to) Saudi Arabia, Iran (and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah), Russia, and the United States.

The most basic fight is between the government and the rebels.  This is the core conflict, the basis for all other conflicts.  Back in March 2011, the wave of pro-democracy demonstrations crashed into Syria.  Up until that point, the Arab Spring had been largely peaceful and –– much to everyone’s surprise –– remarkably successful.  In the face of economic problems (potentially linked to drought –– see Arielle Goldfarb’s article for more on this) and a general state of oppression, Syrians took to the streets to protest against the government.  But unlike in Tunisia, where the incumbent President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepped down, or in Egypt, where then-President Hosni Mubarak attempted to wait out the protests (unsuccessfully due to the military’s intervention), Bashar al-Assad launched a violent crackdown on the protestors.  This turned into civil war as opposition forces began to take up arms and rebel brigades took shape.  As of October 2016, 11 million Syrians –– more than half of the country’s pre-conflict population –– had been either killed or forced to flee.

2.Who are the most important local players?

Obviously, the Assad government remains a key local player.  Assad’s core forces are usually from the Alawite minority, the same ethnicity of the President himself, or the remainder of the Syrian Armed Forces.  Fighting with him are several pro-Assad armed groups.  These include the Quds force from Iran, Hezbollah, the National Defense Force, and a collection of other paramilitary forces.  The primary goal of these forces, simply, is to keep Bashar al-Assad and his supporters in power.

On the other side, there are a handful of different rebel militias.  While these groups may agree that Assad has to go, they aren’t necessarily allies, and some of them will only work together until they have enough power to take complete control of the area.  These groups have also been known to fight against each other, especially in cases involving the Islamic State.  The most important Syrian rebel groups at the moment are: the Free Syrian Army (FSA); Jaish al-Fateh (the Army of Conquest, created by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey,) which includes the notorious Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate); and the Islamic State.  The Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) is also involved in the conflict, though it is mostly fighting Turkey and the Islamic State.  The Islamic State is also under attack by a new coalition of several different Kurdish, Christian, and Arab groups (including the FSA) called the Syrian National Coalition.

3. Let’s talk about the Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy conflict

Syria has rapidly become a worldwide problem, not just because of the millions of refugees, but because so many different players are involved.  It’s fairly normal for commentators to note that Saudi Arabia and Iran have turned Syria into the Middle East’s equivalent of Vietnam, stuck between the two regional superpowers.  Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Times believes that this proxy war is going to “increase Iran’s influence” and “increase Saudi radicalism and estrangement from the United States.”

Iran got involved in Syria early on in the conflict.  When the Assad regime began to crumble, support began pouring in from Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, in an attempt to prop up one of the only (and certainly most important) Iranian allies in the region.  The BBC notes that losing Syria would be a blow to Iran.  Currently, the Syrian government has benefited from military training, advising, and mission support from the Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) and the IRGC Quds Force.  But Iran is also hedging its bets by supporting other pro-government militias in order to develop proxies in the event that the Assad regime fails.

As Iranian aggression grows, Saudi Arabia, which feels that the struggle for influence is a zero-sum game, has also began to send money and arms to rebels (including Sunni Islamists).  Saudi Arabia has been playing the righteous defender of the people card, but a more self-serving reason for its involvement is its need to check Iran’s growing influence.  The deeper these two regional powers get into the Syrian conflict, the longer the conflict will last.

4. Let’s talk about the US-Russia mess.

Besides illustrating the regional “cold war,” the Syrian Civil War has once again pit US and Russian proxies against one another.  The United States has tried to keep its military engagement to a bare minimum, with somewhere around 500 troops on the ground advising Kurdish and Arab forces in their advance on the Islamic State.  The US is also working with “moderate” Syrian rebels and has been conducting airstrikes since September 2014, but for the most part it has been staying at arm’s length from the fight.  But the US has made it clear that it believes the only resolution to the Syrian conflict involves the end of the Assad regime.

Russia is on the other side of the diplomatic stalemate.  Unlike the United States, the Russians have been heavily involved in Syria, conducting airstrikes and dropping barrel bombs on rebel targets.  Very quickly, this caused friction between Russia and Turkey, particularly last year when Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian jet.  Russia has been a Syrian ally since 1971, but, much like Iran, it is still preparing for a post-war Syria without Assad.  As a result, its involvement is primarily aimed at keeping a Moscow-friendly regime in power while avoiding any deep involvement.

5. Can we fix this?

All wars come to an end eventually, but when and at what cost remains to be seen.  Whatever happens, there is no way to put the country back together the way it was before.  As the USA Today puts it, Syria has been irrevocably torn apart by the conflict.  When the civil war eventually dies down, we will probably be left with a hodgepodge of independently governed zones run by various militia groups.  No one has enough power to completely retake Syria, only to hold their ground, and as long as the bigger powers play their dangerous game of funding but not intervening, the Syria of today will cease to exist by the time the war finally ends.