Welcome to this series on geopolitical hotspots! These primers provide a foundation for people who are lost amidst the 24 hours news cycle and want to know the conflict’s players, their motivations, and the factors behind their current political options.
A lot of ink is spilled discussing day-to-day conflict developments and the U.S. response to them. What is often overlooked are the intrinsic geopolitical factors underlying these conflicts. My intention with this series is to provide primers on different emerging or ongoing conflicts across the globe.
The Syrian civil war has been going on for the past six years, resulting in hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced, and fostering geopolitical upheaval in the Middle East. What began as a protest against the long-standing dictator President Bashar al-Assad has metastasized into a proxy war between the Middle East’s regional powers and external great powers with stakes in the conflict. Exacerbating ongoing ethnic and historical tensions, the Syrian civil war has shattered the thin veneer of stability established in Syria and other Middle Eastern states due to the oppressive tactics of strongmen like the Assad family.
With Syria splintered, the question becomes (much like it has in Iraq) can Syria survive and, if it can, in what form? To help answer one of the central questions of the Middle East and the largest humanitarian catastrophe of the past twenty years, I will seek to illuminate some of the major interests of the key actors involved in the Syrian crisis, how those opposing interests fuel the war, and how they factor into Syria’s endgame.
History bears heavily on the Middle East even as many of its current states, including Syria, are essentially 20th century constructs. During WWI, the French and British divided up the crumbling Ottoman Empire into separate spheres of influence through the Sykes-Picot Agreement. This established states like Syria without regard to ethnic or religious identities and their territorial claims. This mishmash of identities coupled with weak institutions led to instability that was partially stamped down through secular dictators who used fear and brute force to cow people into obedience since the state was too incompetent and corrupt to engender loyalty.
The Assad family was one such dictatorial group, who rose to power in 1970 and have ruled Syria ever since. The current ruler is Bashar al-Assad and he draws his principal support from the Alawites, an offshoot of Shi’ism, a sect of Islam. Alawites make up around 12 percent of the population while the vast majority of the population (around 75 percent) are Sunni Muslims. Sunni Muslims are resentful a religious minority is ruling their country, but tolerated their rule as long as the economy managed to perform decently.
However, this tacit agreement (Sunni toleration of Alawite rule as long as basic economic needs were provided) slowly collapsed from 2009-2011. Economic growth became increasingly uneven, benefiting elites and excluding large segments of the Sunni population, while one of the worst droughts in the past 900 years lowered agricultural output and pushed more people into cities. This economic crisis coupled with agitation for political freedoms encouraged by other Arab Spring protests, resulted in the Syrian population protesting for greater political and economic reform. When Assad began to brutally crack down on these protests, sectarian divisions mapped onto these socioeconomic grievances and the conflict has now sharply divided along these religious sectarian lines.
Animated by this religious animosity, Sunni Islamist groups have rallied against Assad and now stand as the principal Syrian opposition to his rule. The most prominent of these groups is ISIS, which has internationalized the conflict and brought in the United States directly, although the U.S. has so far only taken limited action against Assad. Other outside powers have overlapped on these religious divisions, mixing their interests until Syria has become a geopolitical mess.
Here is a breakdown of the major players, their interests, and how they have contributed to the Syrian conflict.
As aforementioned, the Syrian government is led by President Bashar al-Assad and his family. The Syrian government’s interests are tied to the preservation of Assad’s rule and the perpetuation of the Assad family. Their principal aim is regime survival and, if they can achieve it, wresting control of the territory they have lost to the Syrian opposition forces.
Assad draws his principal support from the Alawites and some mixed support from other religious minorities like Christians and Druze, who are concerned a Sunni regime would persecute them more harshly. Their geographic center is in western Syria along the coast where these religious minorities are principally concentrated and where the capital city, Damascus is located. From this western coastal plain, Assad aims to project power out into the Syrian heartland.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Daesh, is the most powerful non-state actor operating in Syria. ISIS’ aims are complex, but geopolitically speaking, it wants to establish a caliphate where it can enact its violent Islamic ideology. Those who do not agree to abide by ISIS’ creed are to be slaughtered.
To achieve those aims, ISIS has taken control parts of eastern Syria and northern Iraq. Since they seized control, ISIS has funded itself through oil sales, extracting resources from the population, kidnappings, antiquity sales, and private donations. Maintaining territorial control is necessary to keep these funds flowing to support its caliphate and provide a central hub to coordinate terrorist attacks abroad. Therefore, it will resist territorial encroachments even as it moves more of its operations and influence onto the digital domain.
Syrian opposition (Sunnis and Kurds)
The Syrian opposition is a disparate group composing Sunni Islamic extremist organizations, more moderate Islamist groups, and secular groups advocating for democratic reform. They all seek Assad’s overthrow, but are divided on what society will look like once he is removed. Hardline Islamic groups like the al Nusra front seek to establish an Islamic fundamentalist society like the Taliban did in Afghanistan. Others are willing to accept political pluralism and tolerance of religious minorities. Most are Sunni Arabs and located away from the coast more towards the Syrian heartland (although that is still mostly held by ISIS).
The other major opposition force is the Kurds. The Kurds are an ethnic minority group present in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Many seek political autonomy or even an independent state from these countries. Syrian Kurds have conquered territory in northern Syria and have sought an autonomous region much like their Iraqi brethen have in northeastern Iraq. The Kurds are primarily fighting ISIS and have an unsteady truce with Assad; they consider ISIS an immediate threat to their regional autonomy. While Assad is undesirable, the Kurds see the potential of striking a deal with the Syrian government for more independence. They are also fending off Turkey who is concerned an independent Kurdish region could galvanize Turkey’s Kurdish separatists to form their own state.
Turkey has conflicting interests in the Syrian conflict. On the one hand, it has an ongoing geopolitical rivalry with Iran and views Assad as an Iranian puppet. This animosity fosters a desire for Assad’s removal. On the other hand, as the Syrian conflict has developed, Turkey has paid for the resultant instability. Providing for the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees streaming over the border is costly, plus Islamist terrorist organizations including ISIS have launched destabilizing terror attacks in Turkey. Staving off these twin threats of massive refugee flows and terrorist attacks has caused Turkey to reluctantly accept that Assad must stay in power.
Furthermore, Turkey would rather devote its resources to crushing the Syrian Kurds. The Syrian Kurds aim to establish a separate regional enclave connecting with other Kurdish territories along Turkey’s border. Perceiving this as an initial step towards Kurdish rebellion in southeastern Turkey, the Turkish government has decided its main priority in Syria is preventing the Kurds from forming their own autonomous region.
Iran and Hezbollah
Iran is one of the most critical players in the Syrian conflict. It has the strongest interest in preserving the Assad regime and has therefore invested large amounts of resources in arms, soldiers, and material support buttressing Assad against Sunni opposition. Iran backs Assad to bolster its geopolitical position against its Sunni opponents like Saudi Arabia. Iran fears if a Sunni leader usurps Assad, Saudi Arabia will be able to cut off Iran from supplying weapons to Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite militia force. It would in effect split the “Shia crescent,” a term denoting the band of allied Shiite populations stretching from Iran to Lebanon. The crescent alliances extend Iranian influence and acts as a bulwark against Saudi influence.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party and militia organization, has also partnered with Iran to defend the Assad regime. As noted, its weapon supplies from Iran flow through Syria; therefore it has strategic interests in propping up Assad. Given Lebanon’s geographic proximity to Syria, especially Assad’s strong points like Damascus, Hezbollah has been able to provide thousands of fighters to Assad, which have been critical to preserving the regime.
Saudi Arabia is the principal Sunni majority country that opposes Iran. Its clerics are wedded to Wahabism, which despises Shi’ism and actively wants to subvert any regime supportive of its tenets. Alawites are included as apostates and this sectarian tension fosters animosity between the two states. On top of these sectarian tensions are geopolitical concerns that Iran wants to establish allied governments across the Middle East and undercut Saudi Arabia’s prominence.
Saudi Arabia abhors Assad as well because the Assad regime supports Hezbollah and Hamas, the Palestinian group who controls the Gaza Strip, while Saudi Arabia supports Fatah, the more moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank. Removing Assad and establishing a Sunni regime amicable to Saudi interests would cripple Iranian influence west of Iraq. Given their Islamic autocratic regime, they are more supportive of Islamist Syrian opposition groups to accomplish these aims.
Russia has three primary interests in Syria: maintain its naval access at Tartus, fight Islamist groups, and demonstrate it is a strategic player. In regards to its naval base, Russia has perpetually sought access to warm water ports (ports that do not freeze over in the winter) so they can maintain consistent naval operations year round. Syria’s Tartus port provides this along with the additional advantage of providing access to the Mediterranean Sea, allowing it to patrol NATO countries, Russia’s principal opponent.
The second security concern for Russia in Syria is combating Islamist groups. Russia views Assad as an ally against Islamist extremist organizations and would prefer to have a secular leader like him remain in power than allow a power vacuum to emerge, which could be exploited by groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda. Russia has a sizable Muslim population (15-17 million or around 10% of their total population), some of whom have separatist intentions and have joined ISIS. Eliminating the terrorist threat from the root will prevent it from spreading to Russia’s Muslim-majority states.
The last major concern is more abstract, but it essentially boils down to Russia seeking to demonstrate it is still a major geopolitical player. By projecting forces abroad, Russia has shown it can conduct complex military operations like the U.S. and can alter the balance of power in conflicts it is interested in. Furthermore, Russia has demonstrated its commitment to a Middle Eastern ally at a time when U.S. commitment to the region remains in flux, confusion Russia aims to exploit to increase its prestige.
The United States and Western Europe
The United States and Western Europe have far fewer strategic interests in Syria’s fate than the aforementioned powers. There is interest in Assad’s removal, but mainly from a humanitarian perspective, which is a hard motivator for intervention. Arguably, the U.S. and Europe also want Assad’s removal because he has become such a contentious figure in Syria (especially for using banned chemical weapons on civilians) and may in fact encourage further Sunni radicalization. However, deposing Assad poses a dilemma since there is no clear successor and the resultant power vacuum could intensify the conflict, much like Qaddafi’s death did in Libya.
With a desire, but limited motivation for Assad’s removal, U.S. and European efforts in Syria have instead focused on limiting regional instability emerging from Syria. This chiefly focuses on eliminating ISIS, who implements and inspires terrorist attacks and limiting the outflow of refugees, which is destabilizing Europe. To accomplish these aims, the U.S. has crafted a military coalition focused on destroying ISIS through airstrikes, special forces operations, and supporting local ground forces. Those local ground forces include Syrian Kurds, which has placed the U.S in a contentious situation with its longtime ally Turkey who opposes arming what it deems are separatists and terrorists. This is an especially awkward scenario since Turkey allows the U.S. Air Force to use the Incirlik Air Base to launch airstrikes against ISIS. So far, it has not disrupted operations and the U.S and Kurds continue their joint air and ground campaign.
Syrian Endgame: Assad’s Pyrrhic Victory
After assessing the various actors’ interests and what they are willing to invest to achieve those aims, a clearer picture begins to develop of Syria’s endgame after the civil war concludes. Arguably, the Syrian opposition will not be able to vanquish President Assad and he will remain in power. However, given the longstanding tensions between the various groups, a more federated government will likely emerge, but one still with Assad as head of state. There are three principal reasons for this scenario playing out in the coming years, which are outlined below.
Russia and Iran Want It More
Power is not only about force of arms, but the willingness to use that hard power to accomplish one’s aims. Persistent and effective, Russia and Iran’s joint military intervention has buttressed Assad’s position and ensured there is no realistic military means of removing him from power. Russian air power has given the Syrian government an asymmetric aerial advantage over the Syrian opposition and Iran’s ground troops have granted them numerical superiority and depth when Assad’s army was becoming exhausted.
Combined, Russia and Iran will ensure Assad’s coastal enclave remains intact because their primary interests (Russian naval base and Iranian access to Hezbollah in Lebanon) rely on it. Therefore, Russia and Iran will stick around for the long haul and will put in the resources to ensure Assad is not removed without their permission.
ISIS will Fall and Sunni Arabs will Remain Bitter and Divided
The U.S military coalition’s primary aim of destroying ISIS will eventually occur. Although one can debate if ISIS will be completely gone or linger and transform into something nimbler and more decentralized, ISIS will lose the ability to hold large amounts of territory like it has done in Syria and Iraq. The resentment and alienation Sunni Arabs collectively felt in Syria and Iraq which drove them to support ISIS in the first place will continue, however. Assad remaining in power will only reinforce this anger and they will still actively resist his control, but in a more non-violent manner.
Sunni opposition will not possess the military capabilities to overthrow Assad, but they will have enough to resist the Syrian government centralizing political and legal control like they did before the war. This will translate into a more confederated structure where Syrian opposition groups carve out cantons and autonomous regions. However, Sunni Arabs will most likely be unable to exercise full independence because they remain deeply divided between moderates and religious extremists. Consequently, their coalition will remain weak and divided, unable to fully depose Assad (at least in the short-to-medium term) and declare full independence.
Kurdish Autonomy May be in Sight
Sunni Arabs are not the only group who will seek greater autonomy. Syrian Kurds have already taken steps to declare an autonomous region modeled on Iraqi Kurdistan. Given Assad’s weakness and the Syrian Kurds’ strong militia forces, the Syrian Kurds may have the power to flout Assad’s authority. The U.S. has condemned this initial move because it complicates talks, but in the end the U.S. could be sympathetic to Kurdish autonomy because the Kurds have been the most effective local ground force against ISIS.
Russia and Syria are not particularly pleased with the prospect of autonomous zones because it could interfere with resupplying their forces on the Syrian coast. However, they do not have the will to fully impose Assad’s control over these regions, especially because resentment towards Assad led to the civil war in the first place. If they can reach an agreement permitting safe passage of their supplies, they might stomach a confederated Syria.
Turkey, on the other hand, strongly opposes Syrian Kurdish autonomy because it will embolden Turkey Kurdish separatists. This is the greatest roadblock to Syrian Kurdish autonomy, but could be maintained if an U.S.-led no-fly zone is established like in Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous zone during the 1990’s.
Syria has bedeviled the world for six years and counting. Deep-seated grievances bred by a brutal dictatorship has descended into a proxy war between Sunni Arab states and Russia and Iran with Western powers lamely calling for Assad’s removal as they tend to their own interests countering Islamist extremists. Assad is poised to remain in power, but of a broken Syria, one which will most likely splinter into autonomous regions. These sectarian groups will continue to nurse their grievances and animosity with the potential for violent flareups.
President Trump has signaled a desire to disengage militarily from Syria, a potential outcome given the U.S.’ limited interests in the country. However, a reluctant U.S. public may have to endure seeing U.S. troops sent to another Middle Eastern country if the peace cannot hold in Syria and spreads beyond its borders once again. As much as President Obama and now Trump have desired to “commit to nation-building at home”, the inextricable Middle East keeps drawing America back.