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An attempt to clarify the situation in Syria

May 20, 2018 GMT

I suspect that I am not the only one who is baffled by the war in Syria. Usually, when a war is underway, it’s relatively easy to identify who is fighting whom, and why. Not in Syria. The term “civil war” is used to describe the situation, but more than a dozen other countries, (and two would-be countries), have participated in the war, either directly or by proxy, with the result that Syria seems to be far more than just another Arab country experiencing a rebellion against authoritarian rule; it seems to have become a nexus of international political and religious conflicts.

In what follows, I’ve tried to clarify the Syrian situation by describing some of the enmities that are driving that multi-sided conflict. My analysis suggests that the primary antagonisms underlying the Syrian war are: the competition of Sunni and Shi’a Islamic states; the rivalry of Iran and Saudi Arabia for political influence in the region; the Arab — Israeli struggle; the effort of the Kurds to create a homeland; and the U.S. and Europe’s hostility toward Russia.

The Assad Regime and Syrian rebels

The Syrian “civil war” began in the so-called “Arab Spring” of 2011. Demonstrations against the autocratic ruler of Syria (who was then, as now, Bashar al-Assad), were suppressed violently, the rebellious groups responded in kind, and war ensued. The war has been particularly brutal: Assad has been willing to kill hundreds of thousands of its own citizens to retain power. Of those who rebelled against his regime, some were motivated by the desire to achieve political participation for the Syrian people.

Others were primarily responding to the fact that the ruling political party — the Syrian branch of the Ba’ath Party — though claiming to be secular, is essentially Shiite. It represents the Alawite sect of the branch of Shi’a Islam known as the Twelvers. Most Syrians, however, are Sunni.

This local war has attracted not just regional and international interest, but actual financial and military engagement by a great number of foreign states. Backing the Assad regime are: Iran, Iraq, Lebanon (Hezbollah) — all Shi’a majority states — and Russia. Backing the rebellious factions are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Turkey — all Sunni states — plus the United States, Great Britain, and France.

The United States and Europe oppose the Regime

The United States believed, in the early years of the civil war, that the Syrian rebellion was primarily a struggle for democracy and sought to support it largely through covert operations and special forces backing of “moderate” rebel groups. That proved to be unsuccessful since those groups were outnumbered by radical Sunni jihadist militias who had no interest in democracy. The U.S. changed tactics but continued to oppose the Assad regime and eventually engaged in more open military involvement, including a crusade against ISIL, and, recently, bombing attacks on the Assad regime’s chemical weapon facilities. England and France have opposed Assad from the beginning of the revolt and have assisted the rebels with non-lethal aid, intelligence, funding, and limited military support. They also joined the U.S. in the bombing attacks.

Iran supports Assad, attacks the rebels

Iran, a theocratic state that is home to Shi’ism, has long supported the Assad regime with money, arms, training and combatants. There are Iranian militias on the ground in Syria, and Iranian military bases with stockpiles of armaments. Iran’s aims in Syria are both political and religious: to bolster its status as a power in the Middle East, and defend a fellow Shi’a state. Also fighting in Syria are militias from another state with a large Shi’a population and close ties to Iran, Lebanon, which is the base of the political and military organization, Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia competes with Iran

Saudi Arabia, the heart of Sunni Islam, is hostile to Iran and its Shi’a allies, including the Syrian government, and has been a primary financial backer and supplier of armaments to the rebel Syrian forces. Other Sunni states in the Arab League have joined in supporting the rebels. Qatar has been especially active, spending billions of dollars to fund and train rebel militias. Among the Sunni Jihadist groups participating in the Syrian war are Salafi extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, and ISIL. ISIL, however, now largely rejects both Shi’a and Sunni traditions, proclaiming itself the only true Islamic sect. The United States, now closely allied with Saudi Arabia, chooses to ignore the Saudi’s support of Jihadist groups while finding Iran reprehensible for the same offence.

The Arab-Israeli conflict

Syria itself has waged war against Israel several times and, in the Six-day War (1967) it lost control of the strategically-important Golan Heights area on its border with Israel. Lebanon and Israel were at war from 1985-2000, and again in 2006, and Iran supported Lebanon’s Hezbollah forces, which have fought against Israel and now fight in Syria. Iran has openly declared its hostility to Israel since the Iranian revolution of 1979. The Syrian war has enabled Iran to create bases in Syria that not only support the Assad regime’s war with its dissidents, but are used to surveil Israel and threaten it with attack. What was for years just a proxy war between Iran and Israel has now become an actual conflict; Israeli war planes have entered Syria and bombed Iranian bases. Other things being equal, the U.S. stands with Israel in this conflict.

Turkey versus the Kurds

In the north-east section of Syria, three regions, soon after the beginning of the civil war, declared themselves an autonomous region of the country and took the name of the “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.” It is largely in this part of Syria that the “would-be countries” mentioned at the beginning of this column have been active. There is a large Kurdish population there. The Kurds are a highly coherent ethnic minority that has also has substantial populations in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, and have long wished to create a country of their own. They are a religiously diverse sub-culture and do not side with either Sunni or Shi’a factions. Turkey’s current government is hostile to the Kurds because it sees its own Kurdish citizens as a threat. From the beginning of the civil war Turkey has tended to support the Syrian Sunni rebels and has accepted millions of Syrian refugees fleeing the Assad regime’s destruction, but its hatred of the Kurds and their militant organizations — the PKK, a Marxist-leaning Kurdish separatist movement active in Turkey, the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish organization influenced by the PKK, and the SDF or Syrian Defense Forces — has recently led to Turkish military attacks on Kurdish forces in the border area with Turkey.

The United States versus ISIL (ISIS)

The United States’ “war on terrorism” has, in recent years, focused on ISIL. In the section of Syria populated by the Kurds, ISIL is the other “would-be country.” It has tried to take advantage of the chaos of the civil war to establish a separate state, or caliphate, extending from northeast Syria into western Iraq. The U.S. found an ally in the Kurds, for whom ISIL was a territorial rival. The Kurds (SDF) have done the bulk of the actual fighting in the U.S. military attempt to destroy the caliphate. Trump’s threat to withdraw U.S. forces, it should be noted, endangers those Kurdish forces.

The United States and Europe versus Russia

Though the U.S. and Russia have cooperated with respect to the war on ISIS, Russia has been a long-time supporter of the Assad regime because its relationship with the regime gives it a foothold in the Middle East and access to Mediterranean ports. Russia and the United States are therefore basically at odds in Syria, and the cooperation may be short-lived. It has been reported that a Russian-speaking militia, (with which Russia disavows any connection, of course), recently attacked an American-held base within Syria. The western European countries view Russia as an unprincipled dictatorship seeking to increase its political power in any way possible, and bent upon disrupting European unity and undermining democracies everywhere. They find Trump’s equivocation on this matter inexcusable.

Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is an alumnus of the University of Iowa and did graduate work at Claremont Graduate University and the University of California, San Diego. He taught philosophy in California and Arizona for 15 years. In 1985, after earning a library degree, he was hired by Idaho State University. He retired from ISU’s Oboler Library in 2006.