Middle East


The Geopolitics of the Civil War in Syria

The shifting alliances and the overlapping of multiple ethnic, religious, geopolitical and social conflicts that characterize the civil war in Syria seem to defy the basic premise of any war— the distinction between “friend or foe”. This article provides a brief overview of the opposing parties.

September 14, 2016

Image from: La Izquierda Diario

On the one side is the despotic regime of Bashar al-Assad, supported by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shiite militias in Iraq.

On the other side are the so-called “rebels”: a collection of dozens of groups - secular, moderate Islamist and Salafist fundamentalists - who most often compete with each other for territorial control. The main forces opposing Assad are the Free Syrian Army, which was initially supported by Turkey and the United States; Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and includes the al-Nusra Front (who until recently were a branch of al-Qaeda); and the Islamic State or IS who has erased the border between Iraq and Syria and founded a Caliphate.

The third contender is the Kurdish minority, led primarily by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) based in Turkey. The position of the Kurdish minority is ambiguous: it has been severely persecuted and oppressed under the Ba’ath Party regime. However, in this current conflict, Bashar al-Assad decided to hand over control of Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan in the North of the country that borders Turkey) to concentrate his forces on the fight with his Arab opponents. The Kurds have concentrated their forces in the combat against Turkey and the Islamic State, adjusting their tactical alliances to meet their objectives, which has on several occasions included cooperation with Assad’s Syrian Arab Army.

Since August 2014, the conflict has been strongly affected by the war against the Islamic State led by a coalition under U.S. command.

On paper, both Russia and Turkey are fighting ISIS, even if within this civil war they are on different sides.

In reality, Russia has used the “war on terrorism” to strengthen the position of the Assad regime, which has included the bombing of U.S. supported groups.
Turkey has maintained a policy of tolerance towards the Islamic State because this has helped to serve its main objective: to prevent the rising of an autonomous Kurdish entity. Behind this crossfire lie structural conflicts such as the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the strategic dispute between the United States and Russia.

A catastrophic stalemate

The result is a military and diplomatic stalemate. Assad cannot win the war, but he has managed to survive with the help of Russia and Iran who are well established in Damascus and its coastal strongholds, close to areas under opposition control where he is attempting to advance.

The recent agreement between Russia and the U.S. to collaborate first in the ceasefire, and later in eventual joint aerial attacks, is an attempt to break this stalemate. However, a cautious approach is in order since several attempts of ceasefire and bilateral agreements have failed in the past.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this situation better than the “twin siege” of Aleppo, a city with a strategic and symbolic value that can to a great extent determine the outcome of the civil war.
Even though it belatedly took part in the uprising against Assad, Aleppo became one of the centers of opposition to the regime.

The city has been divided since 2012: the west is controlled by the Assad government, and the east by its opponents including the Free Syrian Army and the former al-Nusra Front, now renamed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (“Front for the Conquest of the Levant”). The forces of the Islamic State made a brief incursion by taking advantage of divisions within the “rebels” but could not stabilize a zone of control.

To further complicate matters, the Kurdish militia of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD)( the main ally of the United States) is contending for control of northern pockets of the city, with the objective of unifying the cities and cantons that makeup Syrian Kurdistan.

In this complex chess game, it was the pro-Assad coalition that decided to try and break this catastrophic stalemate, but with no success. At the end of July, the Syrian Army, supported by Russian aircraft and Shiite militia from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, launched an unprecedented military offensive which isolated opposition strongholds from their supply lines and put some 300,000 civilians in the war zone under siege.

By the start of August, the “rebels” announced that they had broken the official siege and had cut off the Syrian Army’s supply lines. According to international press reports, the decisive force that defeated the pro-government offensive was Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which has now become widely popular. In the recent agreement between Russia and the U.S., Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is considered a radical Islamist force and would be one of the main targets of the joint aerial operations to be executed if the ceasefire and initial collaborations succeed.

A similar situation has arisen in Hasaka in Syria’s northeast, where the status quo between Kurdish militia and the Syrian Army was broken after years of the city being partitioned between the two sides. For the first time in the five-year war, Syrian Army forces shelled Kurdish positions. This confrontation is potentially dangerous because it may accidentally lead to the involvement of the United States and Russia, something that would change the very character of the war.

The likely attack by the Free Syrian Army on the city of Jarabulus, which borders Turkey and is one of the last strongholds of Islamic State in Syria, seems to address both of Turkish President Erdogan’s objectives: combating the Islamic State and limiting Kurdish expansion. This highlights once again the contradictions of the various alliances the United States has made.

Shifting alliances - photo and movie

The civil war in Syria is in anticipation of geopolitical realignments and transformations, which although still unstable, could tend to consolidate new alliances in the face of weak American leadership.

Having ruled out ground military intervention, the Obama administration has been seeking a diplomatic solution. John Kerry has been working to this end through failed summits in Geneva and the attempts to coordinate military action with Russia, despite opposition from the Pentagon. The mixed messages emerging from the White House versus the Pentagon highlight the deep divisions within the Democratic Party and its lack of a unified strategy in Syria. Due more to American weakness than to its own strength, Russia has the key to any eventual negotiated solution. A protracted conflict plays advantageously for Russia. Having taken the first decisive military action, it already appears as the emergent leader in the region. While the Obama administration cannot hide this fact, it also doesn’t want to hand over the win to Putin.

For the United States, the growing collaboration between Russia and Iran is an additional cause for alarm. In a move unprecedented since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Russian aircraft were allowed to use one of the country’s military bases. However, more recently, Iran has suggested that this support would not continue. Despite this, the rapprochement between the two countries appears to go beyond the Syrian conflict. In mid-August a tripartite meeting between Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan took place in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, where the discussion turned to the development of a commercial transit network between the three countries connecting India and the Middle East with Central Asia and Europe. In addition, while Iran and Russia have divergent interests in the Middle East with Russia unwilling to align itself with Iran in the ongoing Shiite-Sunni conflict, Iran does aspire to become part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a forum of non-Western countries which Russia leads jointly with China.

Turkey has been Assad’s opponents’ main supporter. However, the country has decided to review its policy towards Syria which, with 2.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and a cost of $20,000 million, is now seen as a failure. Some analysts compare Turkey’s current position to that of Pakistan with regard to the conflict in Afghanistan. By this, they mean that ISIS has become an internal problem for Turkey, and it will try to make the country pay dearly for the abandonment of its policy of tolerance, as already evidenced by the recent spate of terrorist attacks on Turkish soil.

For now, President Erdogan is in a strengthened position and using the failed coup to consolidate his turn towards an authoritarian regime, remove his opponents, and subdue the Kurdish minority. According to local media, his popularity after the defeat of the coup leaders climbed to 67 percent, which gives him more room to continue the unprecedented purge of the army, the state, the media and universities.

Externally, Erdogan’s rapprochement with Moscow and Iran is an attempt to overcome the international isolation that the country remains in after the Turkish downing of a Russian warplane last November.

Relations between Turkey and the United States are at a critical point. Erdogan believes that either the United States was to some extent involved in the failed coup attempt of July 15 or that at the least they lent support to Fethullah Gülen, the exiled cleric in Pennsylvania accused of promoting the coup. On the eve of his trip to Moscow, Erdogan delivered some strong anti-American rhetoric, citing the minimum three-hour delay that the U.S. government took to announce its support for Erdogan on the night of the coup.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether Erdogan will be able to maneuver between Russia and the United States or if it will be suffocated by these two giants. In addition, the post-coup purge has weakened the army, which could soon find itself overextended if it continues to combat the Kurdish resistance and hold back the threat of Islamic State. Initially, nothing indicates that he will be revising his strategic alliance with the United States or even Turkey’s NATO membership. The visit of the U.S. Vice President Joe Biden appears to be directed at repairing broken ties.

The upcoming presidential elections in the United States add a significant share of uncertainty. It is almost impossible to imagine what the foreign policy of Donald Trump would look like if he were elected, something which seems highly unlikely. Trump has been praising Putin and asking why can’t the United States use nuclear weapons to wipe the Islamic State off the map. Highly unreasonable and hardly serious.

Hillary Clinton, who will most likely be the next president, has already announced a more interventionist policy than that of Obama. It is no accident that she is considered a part of the hawkish foreign policy establishment.

The reactionary civil wars in Syria and Yemen, imperialist interventions, the restoration of dictatorial regimes in Egypt, and the emergence of abhorrent phenomena such as Islamic State are (with the partial exception of the process in Tunisia) all products of the defeat of the Arab Spring uprisings. They are not a problem for the Middle East alone. Their consequences have already settled into the heart of the West, especially in those countries with large communities of Muslim origin.

The refugee crisis in the European Union and the succession of atrocious terrorist attacks in France and Belgium have a significant impact on the political climate in the West. Various far-right groups have strengthened their political grip, manipulating the fears of broad sectors of the population in favor of their racist and xenophobic policies, while simultaneously justifying a turn towards authoritarian government.

The rapid ideological and political shifts are a sign that we are in a new phase of social unrest, one currently favorable to authoritarian solutions and reactionary wars, but also open for potential revolutions.

Translation: Sean Robertson


Middle East   /    Syria   /    Erdogan   /    ISIS   /    Barack Obama