By Alex Moore
As CEO Sellers likes to say, “NEW CONTENT ALERT!” This is a series I am starting and planning to continue at “The Sellers Group” that I am dubbing “Taking Stock of Geopolitics”. The aim of this series is to deliver concise and condensed analysis of a particular conflict, dispute, diplomatic issue, international finance issue (etc etc…) that the United States, our Western or Pacific Allies, and the international community is currently confronting, or may be forced to confront in the future (Looking at you, South China Sea).
It is fitting to begin by taking a look at the Syrian Civil War. What started out as protests against the authoritarian and despotic regime of Bashar al Assad in 2011 as part of the broader Arab Spring has since spiraled out of control into a horrendous humanitarian catastrophe and the issue at the forefront of every world power’s foreign policy calculations. It should go without saying, but the Syrian conflict and the actors that partake in it present an immensely complicated puzzle that already has had books written about it. This is by no means an in-depth analysis.
First we will explore the actors within Syria. Of course, we have the regime of Bashar al Assad. Assad’s Syria was and is a ruthlessly authoritarian and undemocratic state. Moreover, Assad is of the Alawite Shiite Islamic sect, while the vast majority of Syria (and the Middle East as a whole) is of the Sunni sect within Islam. This is important to remember, as the Syrian conflict partially fits within the broader Sectarian conflict within Islam. Repressed ethnic Kurds are also a predominant player in Syria. This is the synopsis of the context with which the Arab Spring anti-regime protests began in Syria in 2011. True to the authoritarian nature of his government, Assad cracked down violently on what were initially peaceful protests against his regime, slaughtering protestors by the thousands. The Syrian Civil War was ignited, and has only intensified since.
The Syrian opposition has never formed a united front against the Assad regime. There are countless opposition groups that have, and continue to fight against the Assad regime. These groups are overwhelmingly Sunni, with the exception of the Kurdish elements. Broad umbrella groups have formed loosely at times. For example, the few “moderate” elements of the Sunni Syrian opposition have broadly coalesced into what is known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). More austere Salafi Sunni combatants have formed into groups such as the Islamic Front and the Army of Conquest. Next, we have the radical Sunni jihadists, namely Ahrar al Sham and the Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front (they have “broken ties” with Al-Qaeda Central over the last few weeks, but that is almost guaranteed to be a part of AQ’s grand strategy). Lastly, of course, we have the Islamic State, undoubtedly the most barbaric and bloodthirsty human beings on the planet. As for the Kurdish elements that I briefly touched upon, they are known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are mainly made up of Kurdish fighters.
I cannot stress enough the extent to which these forces are very loosely aligned as an “opposition” and in many instances outright hostile to one another. Of course, all of the opposition shares the common goal of eliminating the regime of Assad. However, they have major disagreements pertaining to what they feel should happen should that take place. Thus, the situation on the ground as it pertains to the “opposition” forces is incredibly complicated and constantly shifting. A couple of examples: the FSA, often hailed as the “moderate” rebels (and the recipients of covert US arms) have, at times, aligned themselves with elements within Ahrar al Sham, who is an open ally of the Nusra Front (and thus Al-Qaeda) within the Army of Conquest. Moreover, the YPG and SDF have, at times, fought alongside elements within the FSA against common enemies such as the Islamic State while simultaneously fighting against one another in other fronts within Syria. Is your head spinning yet? This is just the start of the complexity.
As for regional players, the Syrian conflict has been sucked into the struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Syria is an enormous strategic ally for the Iranians, as it provides them with its only staunch ally within the region that is a state. Moreover, Syria acts as the conduit that allows Iran to funnel arms and other means of support to its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon allowing Iran to constantly be at Israel’s doorstep. In short, preserving the Assad regime in Syria is of the utmost importance to Iran. Losing Syria would drastically weaken Iran’s ability to project power into the Middle East. As such, Iran has unleashed immense resources to bolster the Assad regime in Syria. Contributing thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) fighters to fight against regime opponents. Even further, Iran has sent many of its elite Quds Force units (basically their equivalent to our Seal Team 6) to support Assad. Thousands of Hezbollah fighters have also fought against regime rebels. As for the Saudis, they and their Gulf Monarchy Sunni allies, as well as Turkey have funneled money in support of Sunni rebels. The Army of Conquest has been the preferred belligerent supported by these Sunni regional actors. Israel has also entered an implicit alliance of sorts with Saudi Arabia due to the mutual interest of containing Iran. As such, Israel has gone so far as to enter agreements with Sunni rebel groups, even elements within the Nusra Front, to provide medical service to wounded fighters that are left on its border with Syria and return them to the frontlines.
The conflict has dragged international actors into the mix as well. The United States was quite literally minutes away from launching airstrikes against the regime of Assad in 2013 after Assad launched chemical airstrikes against Syrian civilians, violating President Obama’s “red line”. However, Obama called these strikes off at the last minute. Many people have attributed Obama’s backtrack to being the reason why Vladimir Putin’s Russia launched an all out intervention on behalf of the Assad regime last fall in order to bolster its Syrian ally and deny the United States its regional interest in removing Assad. Of course, the United States has also led an international coalition in an air war against the Islamic State. The US has coordinated with groups on the ground, namely the Kurdish elements, in fighting against IS. However, things are once again extremely complex due to the fact that our NATO ally Turkey considers the Kurds to be as bad as the Islamic State. Just last week, Turkey launched a ground offensive in Northern Syria against ISIS and the same Kurds that have been the most proficient counter-ISIS force in Syria. It will be very interesting to see what happens when Hillary Clinton is elected in November, as well, as she and Tim Kaine have both been advocates for a larger US presence in Syria, namely creating a no-fly zone against the regime and creating and defending safe zones for civilians.
Last but not least, the humanitarian toll has been disastrous and has helped create the influx of refugees that has strongly impacted Europe and helped quell support for far-right populist parties across Europe, empowering Putin’s Russia while weakening the European Union in the process.
If anything, I hope you took away just how complex this particular issue is. Moreover, it sucks to say, but there is absolutely no end in sight if the US and our Western Allies continue to take a relatively hands off approach. Obama’s Syria policy has been a failure, but it is very possible that he is right when he says that there is no better option on the table for the US (although I strongly disagree with him). Oh, and one more thing, if your head is spinning after reading this, imagine how mine felt after writing my senior thesis about this.
Photo Credit: Lee Chapman