As international players vie for power in the Middle East, the future of Syria is more uncertain than ever
Four-and-a-half years have passed since the first bullet was fired on peaceful protestors marching for democratic reforms in Syria. Spurred on by the collapse of authoritarian regimes in the context of the Arab Spring sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa at the time, Syrians had come out onto the streets in their droves, calling for the end of 40 years of dictatorship by the Assad family.
Today, however, the picture in Syria is more complex. What began as a revolution in early 2011 has evolved into an international war, with foreign players and their proxies all vying for their own interests in the region. As the conflict escalates to involve neighbouring states, the Syrian people who once dared dream of a brighter future, now find themselves under siege on all fronts. In short, the Syrian revolution has been hijacked and the future of Syria is now at the mercy of a new Cold War between the US and Russia.
On 30th September, Russian fighter jets began bombing territories held by the Syrian opposition just hours after lawmakers in Moscow approved an aerial campaign targeting militants belonging to the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), which took advantage of the security vacuum and seized swathes of land in the country in 2013.
The US has already been leading a coalition of more than 60 nations against the militants in both Syria and Iraq for a year, and has been in discussions with Russia on how to coordinate their parallel operations against this common enemy in order to avoid “unintended incidents”. Although Washington and Moscow are agreed on the need to fight IS, disagreements on Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad’s role in a transition phase to end the war prevents them from fighting together.
While Russia insists on including Assad in the country’s future, the US says that propping up the Assad regime – which is responsible for most of the quarter of a million confirmed deaths in this war – will only worsen the conflict. However, there is a stark difference in the US stance towards this war today compared to the summer of 2013, when US warships gathered in the eastern Mediterranean in preparation for a possible assault on regime positions after a chemical attack on the opposition-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta, allegedly carried out by regime forces.
US intervention may have originally been averted when Assad complied to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s proposal that he surrender his chemical arsenal to the international community, but when IS broke through the Sykes-Picot border dividing Syria and Iraq the following year, the entire narrative of the war changed, as the growing threat of Islamist extremism in the region gave Washington the justification to launch airstrikes. Assad was no longer the primary concern.
Russia also cited the threat of IS as their reason to conduct airstrikes in Syria, but evidence increasingly suggests Russian airstrikes are instead targeting moderate opposition groups in areas where there is little to no IS presence. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov later admitted that airstrikes are targeting other terrorist groups in addition to IS. Unfortunately, his explanation wasn’t very enlightening: “If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist, right?”
In other words, Moscow is in actual fact defining all forces opposed to the regime as a legitimate target for its aerial campaign. Although Lavrov denied Russia considered the Free Syrian Army (FSA) a terrorist organisation and insisted on their participation in the transition phase, US Senator John McCain confirmed that FSA-affiliated groups that had been trained and equipped by the US had indeed been hit. Russian airstrikes have also targeted the Army of Conquest, a coalition of local Islamist factions plus the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, which has controlled the north-western province of Idlib near the Turkish border since March.
While the Nusra Front has reportedly been withdrawing from the Turkish border in order to focus more on their battles in other areas with Hezbollah – Iran’s Lebanon-based proxy which is fighting on the side of the Assad regime – the factions left behind in Idlib are mainly considered moderate groups also opposed to IS. However, the failure of the US and its allies to offer sufficient support to the FSA from the onset of the war resulted in many moderate fighters turning to more extreme groups as the only means to topple Assad. All that is left of the FSA is a bunch of loosely aligned brigades, bound not so much by a central command as they are by a common objective.
Moscow, on the other hand, has been unwavering in its support for Assad, for it is the Assad regime and its Alawite stronghold in Syria’s coastal provinces that is guaranteeing Russia’s presence in the region via its only Mediterranean naval repair base in the port of Tartus. Russia is said to be expanding its naval facility as well as building an airstrip in Latakia’s Bassel al-Assad airbase.
Iran is also seeking to create a corridor to Damascus and the Mediterranean via the Shiite-dominated Iraqi central government in Baghdad. Commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, along with Hezbollah, have long been reinforcing the regime to secure access to the strategic Beqaa Valley, which leads to the Mediterranean. As Russia continues its assault from the skies, Iran is reportedly boosting its presence in Syria with hundreds of troops arriving in the country to commence a ground offensive against the opposition.
What will be left of Syria once this is all over is still unclear. There is a chance that the US, Russia and their respective allies in the region may have covertly agreed on its division along sectarian lines, especially in light of the recent nuclear deal achieved between Iran and the west.
Alternatively, this may be a plot by the US to get Russia involved in another campaign similar to the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, by setting them up for a long and costly war. By targeting moderate opposition groups, Russia risks giving legitimacy to extreme groups like IS, who seek to exploit the vulnerabilities of disillusioned Sunni Muslims in the region by romanticising their struggle as a resistance against infidel crusaders. The Russian Orthodox Church describing the campaign as “holy” certainly doesn’t help the matter.
Nonetheless, Russia’s vision of a democratic Syria in which Assad is willing to share power with, in Putin’s words, a “healthy opposition”, would probably be no better than Ramzan Kadyrov’s puppet regime in Chechnya, where all credible opposition is silenced. If Syria is to remain united, it is unlikely Assad will stay in power while he has the blood of 250,000 people on his hands. Assad may be forced to cede power to an opposition that is willing to cooperate with Russia and Iran, but how representative his replacement will be of the Syrian people is highly debatable.
The Syrian people have sacrificed too much for them to return to the days of dictatorship or settle for circus democracy now. Until the nations of the world reform their ways and start placing human beings above their selfish interests, this war will continue, it will escalate, it will spread and generations from now it will be recorded in history books not as a war, but as a genocide against a people who only had one demand – freedom.
Image from: http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/08/10/us-mideast-crisis-syria-nusra-idUSKCN0QF0WP20150810
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