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Protracting Syrians’ despondency

The Syrian civil war has also its own international dimension. The United States and Russia are the external forces that try to determine the future of Syria, with the latter serving as the supplier of arms to Syria since the 1970s. Russia has also provided a diplomatic cover up to Syria at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), writes Leulseged Girma Haile.

It has been more than five years since the Syrian version of the Arab Spring broke out with daunting intricacy and humanitarian crises. Syria is now inundated by civil and proxy wars due to discontent, sectarianism, radicalization, and regional and international rivalry. As a result, Syria’s territorial integrity is fragmented, the economy is crippled, people are displaced internally and externally, and natural resources (as a curse) have fallen to extremist groups. The copious troubles in the Syrian civil war are so much interrelated and difficult to solve. Different actors strive to bring about different outcomes from such a complicated situation. The international community is looking for a viable solution but the process suffers from lack of neutral or non-partisan peace negotiators.   

The Syrian conflict is comprised of different actors with varied motives. These actors make investments into the conflict in political, military, and socio-economy forms. Russia backs the Syrian regime substantially. The survival of the Assad regime, in turn, is critical to maintaining Russia’s interest in Syria and beyond. In October 2015 the BBC reported that Russia blocked resolutions critical of President Bashar al-Assad at the UN Security Council and has continued to supply weapons to the Syrian military despite international criticism. Russia has a naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartous which serves as its sole Mediterranean base for its Black Sea fleet. The BBC also reported that Russia also has forces at an airbase in Lataika, President Assad’s Shia Alawite heartland. Narrating about US’s investment in Syria, the BBC revealed that it supports Syria’s main opposition alliance, the National Coalition, and provides limited military assistance to moderate rebels. It has been conducting air strikes on IS and other jihadist groups and it provides trainings and arms to Syrian rebels. According to the BBC, Saudi Arabia also provides military and financial assistance to several rebel groups, including those with Islamist ideologies, and take part in the US-led coalition air campaign against the Islamic State. Turkey also supports the Syrian opposition and is challenged by the burden of refugee crisis as it is hosting millions of them who fled Syria. It also provides airbases for strikes against IS. The BBC also mentions the role played by Iran who is believed to be the major Shia power in the region. It provides billions of dollars to the Alawite-dominated Syrian government. It also provides military advisers and subsidized weapons.

It is believed that the involvement of complex regional and international actors in the Syrian conflict, the sectarian character of the conflict, and displacement of half of the Syrian population are critical impediments for conflict resolution and stabilization in the country. Although there are peace negotiation attempts at the international level, the complex nature of the conflict has limited impact for a possible resolution in the near future.

In his work Syria: a state of imbalance and war, Viking Bohman stated that the many different actors persisted in and intensified their fighting because of four manifestations as domestic factors. The first one is that Syria is a state without a nation. Ethnic nationalism in Syria did not act as a unifier in Syria due to the fact that ethnic affiliations and state borders do not overlap. Civic nationalism has not been installed in Syria since people feel more Sunni or Kurdish than Syrian. This shows that nation- building in Syria remains unaccomplished. The same author mentions Miller’s theory to categorize Syria as a state without a nation. He adds that for more than four decades, the ruling Alawite Assad family formed a loose coalition with Christians, Druze and smaller secular Sunnis and this resulted in the 2011 uprising which is considered to be a Sunni Arab bid to overthrow the loose coalition. In essence, it has bore ethno-sectarian affiliation. The revolt was between the Sunni Muslim majorities and the minority Shia rulers.

Bohman took radical Islam as the second manifestation. The opposition in Syria initially had a secular nature. As the war intensified, radical Islamic tendencies grew significantly. This situation created opportunity for the Syrian government to maintain and strengthen its coalition with minorities. Assad used the increase in Islamic extremism to justify its legitimacy and repression.  Bohman continued to say that most extremists subscribed to the pan-Islamic identity of an Islamic Umma (or “nation”) and aspire to establish a political authority (a Caliphate) beyond Syria’s borders. ISIS also sees itself as a transnational uprising to sweep away existing states. This shows that extremism is playing its role in protracting the Syrian civil war. The third manifestation is the state of Kurdish people as a nation without a state. These people are ethnically and linguistically distinct people and they live close to Turkish and Iraqi borders. These people are skeptical of the opposition in Syria and they viewed it as Arab nationalism and Islamism. The rest of the opposition alienated them and the fight is also between them. They fight Daesh and other radicals. As a result, they reinvigorated their demand for autonomy. They want to ensure an improved status for Kurds in post-Assad times. Following the withdrawal of security forces, they have their own flag in municipal buildings.  The fourth manifestation is the weakness of the Syrian state. The Assad regime could not control its borders as the war continues. Extremists gained hospitable terrain in the country. As he has articulated “the weakness of the Syrian state appears to have acted as permissive factor that allowed violence to play out, territories to be grabbed, and extremist forces to proliferate”.

Bohman continues to explain that the sectarian nature of the war exacerbated the situation. Hezbollah, Iran and Iraqi Shias as Shia-alliance and Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf States supported groups as Sunni coalition play an important role in protracting the war. The sectarian motivations in Syria have transborder ties. The pronounced support from religious leaders in the MENA region spurred the inflow of foreign fighters in Syria. This is evidenced by Egyptian Sunni-scholars’ issuance of a fatwa in 2013 calling all Muslims to support Syrian opposition. The transborder ties of the Kurdish people in Syria and Turkey have also an effect in prolonging the war. Besides, the weakness of the Syrian state attracted regional forces to enter the country. This is the regional dimension of the Syrian civil war.

The Syrian civil war has also its own international dimension. The United States and Russia are the external forces that try to determine the future of Syria, with the latter serving as the supplier of arms to Syria since the 1970s. Russia has also provided a diplomatic cover up to Syria at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). As explained earlier, Russia blocked resolutions critical of President Assad at the UNSC. The Assad regime is now dependent on Russia’s intervention in Syria. The West provided assistance to the opposition. This has escalated the war. The main involvement of the West now is to destroy al al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil Iraq wa al-Sham (Daesh). This competition between the West and Russia prolonged the war. Bohman (2016) mentions Miller as saying that great power competition tends to sustain protracted regional conflicts through the support that the great powers provide to the local antagonists who are their clients. He continued to say that the assistance granted by the patrons to their regional clients shields these clients from the costs of the regional rivalry and thus reduces their incentives to make the concessions necessary for a diplomatic compromise. In other words, he said, great power aid enables small states to persist in regional conflict and even intensify it.

Every veto player mentioned earlier is still active in the civil war directly or indirectly. No veto player has been exhausted by the war. This makes any peace making effort a futile. The egoistic approach of Russia and the US in peace deals and their opportunistic influences in the UNSC, including China, ruined the very opportunity to bring the Syrian conflict to an end. Political settlement through international veto players is unachievable at this stage. Sunni veto players, Saudi Arabia and Turkey mainly, could not defeat the Syrian government that is mainly supported by the Shiite Iran government. The US and its coalition support to defeat Assad and Islamic-jihadi groups did not bring the desired result. Iran and Russia who are supporting the Assad regime could not make the regime win its enemies. The IS itself is losing its ground but can still influence the whole world. Every veto player is on the scene without significant victories.

This situation leaves Syrians to suffer from lack of political settlement and Syria remains divided and a state of a state without a nation will continue for some time to come. The majority Sunnis in Syria, supported by the US-coalition will not stop their struggle against the Assad regime. The Assad regime, in return, will continue to ensure its survival through abolishing its Western and Middle Eastern supported Sunnis and Islamic-jihadi groups. Russia, with Iran and the Assad regime, will continue to solidify its presence in the Middle East with the objective of regaining its dominance which is against a unipolar world. Islamic-jihadi groups, including ISIS, will continue to make use of the ungoverned spaces and political disturbances through their own strategies. The UN will also remain futile in resolving the Syrian crisis.

In the midst of this ambivalent situation, Iran is still using Syria to support Hezbollah that maintains the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis that confronts Israel as an enemy. One of the objectives of the US is to break this axis by destroying the Assad regime and install a pro-Western government in Damascus. Although Israel is not involved in this civil war directly, the US was expected to serve its interest. That is, breaking away the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis. Iran’s involvement in Iraq, Syria and Yemen as a Shiite power is still in its existence.

Russia effectively protected the Syrian regime diplomatically and militarily before and after its intervention in September 2015. The US was ready to destroy the Assad regime if it uses a chemical weapon in any circumstances. But it is Russians who have intervened diplomatically and protected the Assad regime from the US-led military attack and for crossing the chemical weapons red line. Russians are also emerging from the US-led Westernized UN sanctions for its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Its newest alliance with Turkey is a severe headache for NATO members. Turkey cannot be member of the EU now. Its membership in NATO is now at risk. I believe that Russia is becoming a critical player of the multipolar world which is going to be realized in the coming decades. This has been accompanied by the US’s weakness to effectively coordinate the moderate opposition groups against IS and the Assad regime. It was very crucial to deploy a ground force by the Americans in order to destroy the IS from Iraq and Syria. But the Obama administration was very reluctant on this and the IS was permitted to commit crimes at the cost of Syrians and other Middle Easterners. Before the Russian intervention in 2015, it was the Syrian opposition groups and ISIS who were gaining political and ground spaces. After September 2015, Russia changed the game and it is the Syrian government that benefited a lot. It is through Russian support that the Assad regime regained Palmyra. Russians also undermined US’s intervention by bombing US supported moderate opposition groups.

The interaction of these national and transnational veto players closed the path to peace and security of Syria at the cost of Syrians and Middle Eastern peace. It is very difficult to think of a viable solution through these deliberately formulated and intricate situations where the various irreconcilable interests of the veto players are on the agenda. Calming situations will not appear unless each of the veto players leave or minimize their egoistic interests. The too many veto players are prolonging Syrians misery. Local, regional and international political egos are slaughtering Syrians. If the UN is a toothless lion that simply observes the trampling reeds when the elephants fight, where the Syrians should look for any viable solution?

Ed.’s Note: Leulseged Girma Haile (MA in Middle Eastern Geopolitics and BA in Community Development) can be reached at leulsegedg@yahoo.com. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter.