Syria: a civil war?

Image credit: Ahmed akacha from Pexels

What started as a peaceful protest in opposition to the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria has become a war lasting over 10 years and with no end in sight. Of the aims of the protestors, none have been achieved. The economy has worsened, with images of Syrians using banknotes to roll cigarettes becoming symbolic of the economic crisis facing the country. Police powers have increased, with thousands having disappeared, been kidnapped or forcibly detained by the regime since the start of the war. Lastly, democracy is no closer to being introduced in Syria.

Yet, the conflict cannot be explained solely by examining the Assad regime and the rebel opposition. Instead, the war is more accurately understood as a multidimensional international conflict, encompassing national, international, and non-state actors. Considering the actions of international actors since the very start of the conflict, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the term ‘Syrian Civil War’ has been used erroneously from the beginning. In fact, rather than a civil war, the Syrian conflict can be more accurately described as an international war.

In this sense, the conflict was never just about Syrian democracy or economic turmoil; it has a combination of sectarian, economic and geopolitical dimensions that make it difficult to de-escalate, much less end. These have been a large obstacle for peace talks and negotiations, as attempts to satisfy the diverging agendas of the various actors involved in the war have failed.

Facing stagnant talks, President Biden has most recently shown a renewed desire to untangle the United States (US) from Syria and the Middle East in general. The desire to withdraw from Syria follows strong calls that the US has little to do with Syrian politics. Yet, many of these calls are based on a debatable belief that the Syrian war was caused solely by national actors: that Syrians are solely to blame for the conflict, and that they are the only ones capable of ending it. As Christopher Philips in his 2016 book The Battle for Syria explains, international intervention is thus made secondary to the wider narrative of the conflict – that international powers were begrudgingly pulled into the war.

However, the Syrian war is not occurring in a vacuum. Although it is unreasonable to take away agency from the Syrians themselves in leading to and continuing the conflict, it is equally unreasonable to believe the actions of international powers, such as the US, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and others do not have a large sway over the war, capable of either fanning violence or stifling it. International actors have in fact been intrinsically connected to the Syrian conflict. Although this is a perspective often neglected, it is important to remember that such a complex war cannot be fully understood until this is acknowledged.

Firstly, it is necessary to consider the shifting regional order happening in the Middle East in the years preceding the outbreak of the Syrian war. The Iraq War led to the growth in influence and power of Iran and undoubtedly led to a rise in the number of jihadist groups and non-state actors in the region, as well as their appeal to citizens. These groups would later be attracted to Syria. Following a perceived decline in American hegemony, regional powers aimed to establish their own influence. It also meant that the US was less willing to intervene in yet another war in the Middle East. It offered calls for the Assad regime to stop violence against protesters and reform but was not willing to use military force to stop the violence.  

Yet, the US miscalculated the impact of its stance towards Assad. When it called for Assad to step down, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar interpreted its criticism towards the regime as a signal of inevitable US military intervention in the region. It was not. But they started financing military groups, anticipating US intervention. These regional states aimed to establish their own power in the region. Qatar and Saudi Arabia were particularly threatened by the growing presence of Iran in Syria. Toppling Assad, whom Iran supported, was therefore a means of preventing greater Iranian dominance in the region.

On the other hand, Russia, acting as a supporter of the Assad regime, aimed to establish its own presence in the region as a global power on par with America. It saw then-President Obama’s words as a threat of increasing US presence and acted accordingly by showing more support towards Assad. Iran used the conflict to bolster its presence in Syria, where it hoped to build long-term military influence and infrastructure.

Hence neither of the two sides of the conflict showed enthusiasm for peace talks. Qatar and Saudi Arabia were convinced the US would depose Assad and frustrate Iranian plans to expand its influence. Russia and Iran were intent on establishing their own military presence in the region in opposition to American intervention. The US believed that Syrians had to create change themselves, instead of it being brought about by a foreign power. The result was that the protests broke out into war, and were never given sufficient encouragement to de-escalate. As Philips claims, as both the Assad regime and the rebels expected outside support, there were few arguments against military confrontation.

One of the reasons the Syrian war has lasted for so long can be blamed on “balanced interventions”, as Philips explains. This alludes to the stalemate that is created when both sides of the conflict receive equalling outside support. Both sides become somewhat matched in military, political and economic capability, and neither succeeds in defeating the other. Such is the case in Syria.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have made no secret of their support for the rebels, although the shape such support takes is often murky. Investigations claim Qatar has been providing the Syrian rebels with supplies from as early as January 2012. Arms provided by regional powers have helped the rebels hold or retake important areas in Syria. For instance, in 2019 arms sent from Turkey to the rebels helped retake the strategically important town of Kfar Nabouda. International support provided the rebels with the means necessary to continue fighting against the Assad regime, which began the war with superior military capabilities.

However, Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s involvement has also shaped the opposition for the worse. Their support for different rebel groups with limited resources led to competition between the rebels for support. Many of these groups turned against the civilians they claimed to protect and instead extorted them. For instance, these countries in addition to the US often bypassed the Free Syrian Army Supreme Military Council, which aimed to coordinate foreign support and unify different rebel groups. With militias facing corruption and lack of funds, many defected to jihadist groups. The states’ mismanagement of the insurgency meant it splintered into smaller sectarian and ideological groups with little legitimacy. Their intervention both prolonged the war by supporting the opposition, while also shaping the war by fragmenting the opposition and strengthening jihadist groups.

On the other side of the conflict, Iran and Russia have strengthened Assad’s regime when the dragged-out war made it falter. Iran eased the regime’s financial burdens in 2015 by offering a $1 billion loan. It has also supplied men on the ground through its connections to Hezbollah and other militias of the region from Lebanon, Afghanistan and others; these foreign fighters were particularly important in retaking the city of Aleppo.

Russia has been equally important in Assad’s victories: it has continuously used its veto power in the Security Council to prevent international condemnation of the regime. In 2020 it limited the UN cross-border aid program to only one crossing, a move that has made it more difficult for UN humanitarian aid to reach anti-regime Syrians in the northwest. The deployment of its air force was essential to retaking Eastern Aleppo and has most recently raised fears of increasing Russian military presence in the region.

After years of war, the Assad regime has become increasingly dependent on its allies. Many of its successes are owed to foreign help. Equally, the rebels have depended on external aid to fight against the regime’s superior military. This further emphasizes that the Syrian war is less a civil conflict than an international war, wherein foreign powers are dragging out the conflict by continuously supporting one side.

Beyond the pro- and anti-regime supporters, the Syrian war also encompasses tensions between different international actors, who seek to satisfy their own antagonistic agendas. For instance, the presence of Hezbollah in Syria is seen by Israel as a direct threat to its state. Hezbollah, as a Shiite militant organisation operating as a proxy for Iran, has the historical goal of destroying Israel. The antagonism between the two powers has meant that Hezbollah’s presence along the Syrian-Israeli border has raised concerns over an inevitable military engagement that would further destabilise the Middle East. Israel sees Hezbollah as a sign of Iranian encroachment in the region and has bombed Hezbollah and Iranian targets in retaliation.

The American presence in the region has been limited to fighting against the expansion of ISIS and providing a setback to Iranian dominance. With the support from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), it successfully curbed Islamic State’s expansion in Syria, reducing its territory to about two percent of what it once held in Iraq and Syria. Yet, under President Trump these troops were diverted from Kurdish installations where they focused on counter-ISIS operations to oil fields, allegedly to prevent ISIS from having access to oil. Bombings were also carried out against the regime after chemical attacks. President Biden, despite his desire to change the US’ international priorities, has already taken action in the Middle East by bombing Iran-backed militia groups in Syria and Iraq twice since his inauguration. As attacks on US bases in the region remain ongoing, it seems unlikely the president will be able to disengage from involvement in Middle Eastern politics completely.

Of equal importance is the animosity between Turkey and the main Kurdish group in Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG is claimed by Turkey to have links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a faction considered the Turkish government considers a terrorist group. Although the Turkish regime is critical of Assad, its focus is on preventing the creation of a consolidated YPG area along its border in northern Syria amid fears of extremism at home. The YPG previously received support from the US as a line of defence against ISIS in the region. However, this changed in October 2019 when the US retreated its troops from the Turkish border so that Turkey could launch ‘Operation Peace Spring’ to conquer the Kurdish-held region. Consequently, the Kurdish forces had to turn to the regime for help, and Assad’s forces entered the region for the first time in years.  

Another dimension of the conflict is that it has become a proxy war between the US and Russia. Both powers have entered into conflict in Syria before. In 2018, Russian mercenaries were killed by American forces after they attacked an American-SDF area, raising concerns over a larger confrontation with Russia. In 2020 tensions were raised again as the US deployed more troops to protect American-SDF territory against Russian forces. Although direct confrontation is not common, their presence in such a volatile area makes tensions run high at the possibility of escalation. Most recently, Russia has deployed nuclear-capable long-range bombers to Syria, in what has been called a “Cold War-style stand-off” with the West.

The conflict is exacerbated by multiple actors with irreconcilable agendas, which makes negotiations challenging. The US wants to minimise jihadist presence in the region while also limiting Iranian dominance, a position Iran cannot accept; Turkey cannot accept an organised Kurdish group by its border, just as Israel cannot tolerate the presence of Iranian and Hezbollah forces by its border. These positions are unlikely to change, making a peaceful settlement in Syria unlikely.  This also means foreign powers will continue to influence and shape the conflict. As such, the Syrian war has become the stage for geopolitical rivalries that often have little to no connection to the Syrian war itself.

With the Assad regime having regained much of Syria’s territory, the war may be approaching an Assad-Russia-Iran victory, leaving the US with another stain to its reputation as a global power, and holding still unseen implications.

Despite this, the rebels have yet to yield. And while both sides are backed by outside powers with their own interests and agendas, it seems unlikely that either will.
The war has taken its toll in the country. It is a difficult and complex war to solve. But it must be acknowledged that it is unlikely that a peace settlement or agreement will be reached without satisfying the aims of most of the actors involved. For that to happen, the Syrian war must be understood as a multidimensional international war, with a range of domestic and international actors. Failing this, there is little chance that Syrians could end the conflict themselves.