The bloody and protracted war in Syria poses one of the biggest challenges facing the international community. The conflict began as an uprising against Syria’s government and ruling party and soon spun into a complicated and violent struggle for power involving regional actors, competing internal factions, and international powers. Disputes over land, resources, and political power, as well as historical sectarian and ethnic tensions, play a role in the perpetuation of the conflict. The dramatic (and continually rising) human cost of the conflict and accusations of crimes against humanity against several actors have captured world attention and demanded action.
The foremost actor is the Syrian government, headed by President Bashar al-Assad and his Baath party. Before the eruption of the conflict, the Baath Party and Assad’s fellow Alawites (a sect of Shi’ite Islam) were firmly entrenched throughout all levels of the government, including the military. The Syrian government views itself as the only legitimate representative of the Syrian people and views all other parties on the ground as terrorist organizations.[i] The Syrian government is backed by Shii’a-led Iran, an ally since the 1970s.[ii] Iran has supplied military resources and billions of dollars in aid to Syria since the beginning of the conflict, especially since the rising threat of Sunni extremist groups from 2013 on.[iii] Another major backer of the Syrian government is Russia. Since 2011, Russia vetoed several UN Security Council resolutions addressing the conflict and gradually began providing more concrete help to the Syrian government. It has become the major supplier of arms and military support to Assad’s government and serves as its major ally in international negotiations over ceasefires and possible transitions. The Syrian government has also been supported by Shii’a Hizballah fighters from Lebanon, a country sharing a historically turbulent relationship with Syria.
The opposition to the Syrian government varies widely in its ideological aims and composition. The Free Syrian Army was originally the armed organization of military defectors battling state forces; over time it has lost any semblance of strong central organization and is a label used at will by various armed groups fighting in Syria against the government. Many armed opposition groups are represented in a coalition called the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, which was formed in Qatar and meets in Turkey. Many blocs have broken away from the National Coalition at some point or another, particularly Islamist groups who feel that they are not properly represented.[iv] The National Coalition has represented the general Syrian opposition in peace talks and international matters and is loosely allied with the United States and other Western powers.
Another branch of the opposition is composed of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Comprised of Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Syriac Christians, the SDF has proven to be one of the most effective forces fighting the encroachment of ISIS. SDF has also battled government forces and other opposition groups while being supported by the US.[v] However, it has been under attack by Turkey due to its close alliance with the Kurdish Popular Defense Units (YPG). The YPG is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has long been in conflict with Turkey’s government.[vi]
Other opposition groups have taken more Islamist stances in the fight against the government, hoping to overthrow Assad’s regime in favor of a more Islamist state. Some of these Sunni groups unified in 2013 as the Islamic Front. Groups under the Islamic Front banner thus fight government forces as well as groups they see as more extreme like ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Many Islamist groups, some of which are purely Syrian and others with regional ties, have also come under fire from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies who see them as potential threats to their own stability.
Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is another major antagonist opposed to the Syrian government. The group originally was called Jabhat al-Nusra and emerged as the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda not long after the onset of the conflict. Jabhat al-Nusra primarily fought to wrest territory away from the Syrian government, but it has since expanded its attacks to ISIS forces often in cooperation with other opposition groups.[vii] It has been deemed a terrorist organization by international powers and thus not included in any peace talks or diplomatic considerations. In July 2016, it cut ties with Al-Qaeda and changed its name, leading some to speculate that it hopes either to be included in political talks in the future or forge different military partnerships with militant groups on the ground.[viii]
Jabhat Fateh al-Sham shares its al-Qaeda origins with the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The ideological roots of ISIS lie in the Iraqi insurgency of the early 2000s and were marked by radical anti-Shi’ism and the desire to restore the caliphate.[ix] In 2006, the Islamic State of Iraq (known to many as simply al-Qaeda in Iraq) emerged but did not enjoy much success. It was only in 2012 that the group was able to make a comeback and garner more supporters.[x] In 2013, the Islamic State (IS) announced it would be expanding its presence into Syria but claimed ownership of Jabhat Fateh al-Nusra, which quickly rejected this. IS continued its advance into Syria with the aim of finally establishing a caliphate, attracting both al-Nusra fighters and aspiring jihadists from around the world to its ranks. Since its growth into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS has fought or been attacked by nearly all other parties to the conflict. Despite having no allies, it was able to gain a considerable amount of territory in Syria and generate considerable revenue through taxes and revenue from selling oil and antiquities.[xi]
Many countries serve as peripheral actors in the conflict. While Russia and Iran strongly support the Syrian government, rebel opposition has received support from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Gulf countries.[xii] Besides feeling the destabilizing effects of Syria’s massive refugee exodus, these countries see the conflict as an opportunity to counter Iranian influence in the region. Turkey in particular has rising security concerns with the conflict, given the proximity of ISIS and Kurdish strongholds and fighting to its borders. It has capitalized on the conflict to strike against Kurdish fighters.
The US and other Western powers have cautiously supported the opposition groups with varying enthusiasm. The US’s position towards the Assad government has wavered over time. It initially called for Assad’s removal but moderated its position once it became clear that he would not step down peacefully. Like other Western countries, it has been a frequent critic of the Assad regime’s abuse of human rights in the conflict but has stopped short of intervening more forcefully against his forces. Western military forces have instead concentrated on combatting ISIS and other “terrorist groups, ” primarily through air strikes. The massive flow of refugees out of Syria has proven too much for neighboring countries like Jordan and Lebanon, and many refugees attempt to make their way to Eastern and Western Europe. The spread of the refugee crisis has prompted more Western countries to consider a more active role in resolving the conflict, though these efforts have still fallen short.[xiii]
[i] For examples of state rhetoric towards rebel and other groups, see the publicly-owned, government-run Syrian Arab News Agency.
[ii] Abdo, Geneive, “How Iran Keeps Assad in Power in Syria,” Foreign Affairs Online, (March 25, 2011). http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/68230/geneive-abdo/how-iran-keeps-assad-in-power-in-syria
[iii] Goodarzi, Jubin, “The Iran Primer: Iran and Syria,” United States Institute of Peace (June 2015). http://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/iran-and-syria
[iv] Lund, Aron, “Say Hello to the Islamic Front,” Carnegie Middle East Center, (Nov. 12, 2013). http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/53679
[v] Lund, Arron, “Origins of the Syrian Democratic Forces: A Primer,” Syria Deeply (Jan. 22, 2014). https://www.newsdeeply.com/syria/articles/2016/01/22/origins-of-the-syrian-democratic-forces-a-primer
[vi] Sinclair, Christian and Sirwan Kajjo, “The Evolution of Kurdish Politics in Syria,” Middle East Research and Information Project (Aug. 31, 2011). http://www.merip.org/mero/mero083111
[vii] “Syria War: Who are Jabhat Fateh al-Sham?”, BBC News Online (Aug. 1 2016). http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-36924000
[viii] Alami, Mona. “Jabhat al-Nusra’s rebranding is more than simple name change.” Al-Monitor (August 5, 2016). http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/08/jabhat-al-nusra-sever-al-qaeda-focus-local-syria.html
[ix] Bunzel, Cole, “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State,” The Brookings Project on US Relations with the Islamic World, No 19. (March 2015). Page 13-14.
[x] Ibid, 24.
[xi] Nichols, Michelle and Louis Charbonneau, “U.N. sets sights on Syria antiquities, ISIS oil and ransoms.” Al-Arabiya (February 7 2015) http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/features/2015/02/07/U-N-sets-sights-on-Syria-antiquities-ISIS-oil-and-ransoms.html.
See also: Swanson, Ana, “How the Islamic State Makes its Money,” The Washington Post (November 18, 2015). https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/11/18/how-isis-makes-its-money/?utm_term=.99d67ebcc289
[xii] Lund, Aron, “Are Saudi Arabia and Turkey About to Intervene in Syria?”, Carnegie Middle East Center (April 24, 2015). http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/59904
[xiii] “Refugee crisis in Europe,” The European Commission (Last updated June 20, 2016) http://ec.europa.eu/echo/refugee-crisis_en. Also see: “European Union: Refugee Response falls short,” Human Rights Watch (January 27 2016) https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/01/27/european-union-refugee-response-falls-short
- Post-Ottoman Turbulence to the Ba’ath Party: 1918 – 1970
In a relevantly recent point in Syria’s long and rich history, the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I in 1918 marked the end of four centuries of Ottoman rule in Syria.[i] The short-lived Syrian government that followed was interrupted and expelled by the partition of lands formerly under Ottoman control by victorious European forces (France and the United Kingdom, most notably), under agreements still greatly contested in the region today. The area dubbed Syria-Lebanon fell under a French mandate that lasted until independence in 1946. French rule tended to magnify the differences between the various religious and ethnic communities and provided incentive for the development of nationalist groups and ideologies.[ii] French colonial agents saw Arab nationalism, cultivated by Sunnis who made up two-thirds of the country’s population, as a threat and thus employed ‘divide-and-rule’ strategies that created factions between and within groups.[iii]
The years following independence were plagued by political instability and frequent coups. The pan-Arab nationalism that fomented under the French led to a short-lived union with Egypt and its admired president Gamal Abdel Nasser as the United Arab Republic. In 1963, the Baath Arab Socialist Party came to power in a coup and instituted a one-party system under its brand of secular nationalism.[iv] Stricken by its own internal divisions, the Ba’ath Party saw the rise to prominence of Hafez al-Assad. In 1970, Defense Minister Assad led a coup and was elected as president the next year. Assad was part of the Alawite minority, a branch of Shii’a Islam, and instituted many of his family members in high-ranking and influential government positions. A large portion of the Alawite minority was already part of the armed forces, having joined throughout the previous decades when discrimination against them resulted in extreme poverty.[v]
From Hafez to Bashar: Reign of the Assads: 1970 – 2011
Assad’s regime quickly set an authoritarian tone that characterized its rule over the next few decades. Besides the daily environment of fear created by the state’s large security apparatus, the largest and perhaps most notable incident of repression was the government’s brutal crackdown on a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the city of Hama.[vi] Estimates range from 10,000 to 40,000 people killed, but the government quickly silenced discussion of the massacre, which was recalled by many as the 2011 uprising took a violent turn. During Hafez’s rule, the ongoing conflict with Israel brought Syria’s government closer to other Arab regional powers and saw a dramatic arms build-up.
With Hafez al-Assad’s death in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad was elected to the presidency and re-elected in 2007 in uncontested elections. Assad the younger inherited the institutionalized authoritarian regime of his father and was surrounded by Baath Party and Alawite allies in the upper echelons of the government and military. Many at first hoped that Bashar would prove more open to reforms but were disappointed to see the new president seemingly pressured by institutional forces to maintain the authoritarian nature of his father’s regime. This included a considerable security apparatus, divided into Military Intelligence, Air Force, State Security, and Political Security. All four divisions were headed by Alawites or the Assad family in practice but did not coordinate or communicate, allowing Syrians to be arrested by multiple agencies for the same crime.[vii] Civil society activists and dissidents were heavily persecuted by the regime.
The first decade of Bashar’s rule coincided with terrible dust storms and, from 2006 to 2010, a drought that affected the economic livelihoods and overall well-being of rural populations. Many migrated to more urban areas by 2011, causing overcrowding and exacerbating many Syrians’ economic woes. It was on this backdrop of economic hardship that the string of uprisings, dubbed the Arab Spring by the Western media, occurred. In late 2010, large-scale popular protests and demonstrations began in Tunisia and spread to other countries in the Middle East and North Africa such as Egypt and Bahrain. To state it most generally, the 2011 uprisings were citizens’ expressions of anger against their regime’s authoritarian policies and governments’ inabilities to provide basic needs to their populations. The results of these popular uprisings were much varied, with Syria arguably providing the worst-case scenario to date.
The Uprising in Syria: 2011
The Syrian Uprising began in the city of Daraa in March 2011 against police brutality and the Assad government’s policies, including its failure to provide adequate services to its many needy citizens. As clashes between local forces and protestors continued to occur, Assad further fueled many citizens’ anger by ordering a violent crackdown against the protestors.[viii] The protests and demonstrations spread to more cities, and the government continued to respond with violence despite the peaceful nature of the protests. Assad’s government became especially frustrated with the continuation of protests after it offered limited political reforms to help alleviate citizens’ anger; most of the promised reforms never materialized as the country descended into war. The military’s decision to remain loyal to the Assad regime and continue to attack civilians was a crucial factor in the conflict at this point, one that distinguished it from the regime-toppling protests in other Arab countries.[ix] Mass protests with thousands of demonstrators across the country featured a decidedly political tone, calling for freedom, the resignation of Assad, and an end to the regime’s violence. The government still maintained a loyal base, especially in Damascus, with many government supporters either keeping faith in the Assad family’s competence or distrusting the potential of protestors to enact positive change.
By mid-2011 many protestors began to feel that the government would not fall to peaceful methods, and former demonstrators, Islamist radicals, and military defectors began arming themselves.[x] With the development of rebel groups, the conflict devolved into a civil war and began taking on a more sectarian character. Anti-government sentiment had long been strong in parts of the majority Sunni population. Sunni identity politics became influential as rebel groups began to conquer territory and pose a credible threat to the government throughout the Sunni-dominated countryside.[xi] The historical subjugation of the Alawites followed by the modern Assad government’s long policy of elevating Alawites at the expense of other Syrians contributed to local distrust between the groups. Many Alawites, and other loyal government supporters, began to see the government’s power as crucial to their personal survival and feared complete annihilation if any other groups were to come to power.[xii] The armed resistance to the regime became known as the Free Syrian Army and was aided by the creation of a leadership-in-exile the Syrian National Council in Turkey in August 2011.[xiii] Peaceful protests became increasingly rare as the civil war became violent on all sides.
Uprising turns to war: 2012
Attempts by the Arab League to put an end to the fighting were not taken seriously by the government.[xiv] By 2012, the fighting between rebels and government forces had spread to Damascus, the capital city, and Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.[xv] The Syrian government had by this point begun bombing cities believed to be rebel strongholds and killed hundreds. The group Jabhat al-Nusra also announced its emergence as the Syrian arm of al-Qaeda and vowed to fight the regime. Tens of thousands of Syrians fled their homes in areas under siege, amidst reports of increasing brutality on the part of the regime. Western powers and members of the (Sunni-dominated) Arab League began to provide aid and arms to rebels after a breaking of diplomatic ties with the Syrian government and its continued refusal to cease hostilities.[xvi] Another opposition-in-exile group, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, officially formed in Qatar at the end of the year.
Concerns about Humanitarian Issues and Islamist Groups: 2013
Government and rebel forces continued to trade territorial gains into 2013. The government faced accusations of using chemical weapons in an August attack on a town outside of Damascus. Facing US threats to intervene over the usage of chemical weapons, Assad agreed to the destruction of the government’s chemical weapons arsenal by mid-2014.[xvii] The agreement allowed the Syrian military to continue its bombardment of towns and cities in rebel-held areas, with a high civilian price. The increasingly terrible humanitarian situation prompted more international discussion and humanitarian aid donations (along with more covert aid given to rebel groups). The end of 2013 also saw the creation of the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist rebel factions dedicated to bringing down the Assad government.[xviii]
While moderate rebel groups fought the government, the northern provinces saw the arrival of the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/the Levant (ISIS or ISIL). Taking advantage of the larger power vacuum, ISIS took control over large parts of northern territory towards the end of 2013 and subjected its inhabitants to its extremist ideology via brutal methods.[xix] The emergence of ISIS provided a new common enemy for many of the existing rebel groups as well as both regional and Western powers.
The threat of ISIS added a new dimension of complexity to the violence in Syria. In June 2014, it declared a caliphate consisting of its territory in Syria and Iraq and to be expanded even further. ISIS fighters thus battled, and continue to fight, rebels, other jihadists, government forces, and Kurdish forces along Turkey’s border. As ISIS continued to claim territory and rebels fought government forces and each other, Bashar al-Assad was reelected as President through voting in government-held areas in mid-2014. Many opposition leaders and international observers decried the election as a sham, though government supporters touted the fact that more than one candidate was allowed on the ballot for the first time in decades.[xx] A US-led coalition began an air strike campaign in September 2014 in retaliation to ISIS’s threats and violence against those who do not adhere to its ideology, notably Western countries.[xxi]
The major opposition groups, the government, and jihadist groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra all made territorial gains and losses into 2015. In late 2015, Russia also began carrying out air strikes against those it claimed were terrorists, although critics pointed out that they targeted Western-backed opposition groups and not jihadist cells.[xxii] This is an issue that has repeatedly surfaced regarding international powers’ interventions. The close proximity of rebel and terrorist groups’ strongholds makes pinpoint strikes extremely difficult, and violence then begets violence. Despite international criticism of this cyclical violence, the government had little incentive to stop its operations as it continued to gain ground in late 2015 (although not ever striking a total decisive victory). Homs, the third largest city in Syria, fell back under government control after three years of rebel rule in December.
[i] “Syria: Country Profile,” BBC News Online, Accessed September 23, 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-14703856
[ii] Polk, William, “Understanding Syria: From Pre-Civil war to Post-Assad,” The Atlantic Online, (Dec. 10 2013). http://m.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/12/understanding-syria-from-pre-civil-war-to-post-assad/281989/
[iii] Tekdal Fildis, Ayse. “Roots of Alawite-Sunni Rivalry in Syria,” Middle East Policy Council Journal 29.2 (Summer 2012). http://www.mepc.org/journal/middle-east-policy-archives/roots-alawite-sunni-rivalry-syria
[iv] “Brief History of Syria,” Syrian Friendship Association (August 2005). http://www.syrian-friendship-association.org/Brief_History_of_Syria/Brief_History_of_Syria.html
[v] Tekdal Fildis, 2012.
[vi] “Syria Undercover,” PBS Frontline (Nov. 8, 2011). http://www.pbs.org/video/2165688098/
[vii] Al Hendi, Ahed, “The Structure of Syria’s Repression,” Foreign Affairs Online (May 3, 2011). https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2011-05-03/structure-syrias-repression
[ix] Nepstad, Sharon Erickson, “Mutiny and nonviolence in the Arab Spring: Exploring military defections and loyalty in Egypt, Bahrain, and Syria,” Journal of Peace Research, 50.3 (2013):337-349.
[x] Lund, Aron, “Syria: The First Five Years,” Carnegie Middle East Center (March 18, 2016). http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/63076
[xii] Gifford, Lindsay, “Syria’s Tangled Roots of Resentment,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, (Oct. 11, 2012). http://www.carnegieendowment.org/2012/10/11/syria-s-tangled-roots-of-resentment/e0i1
[xiii] Lund, March 2016.
[xiv] Beck, John, “Syria After Four Years: Timeline of a Conflict,” Vice News Online, (March 16, 2015). https://news.vice.com/article/syria-after-four-years-timeline-of-a-conflict
[xv] “Syria: The Story of the Conflict,” BBC News Online (March 11, 2016). http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26116868
[xvi] “Syria Profile: Timeline,” BBC News Online, (last updated Sept. 20, 2016). http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-14703995
[xvii] “Syria: The Story of the Conflict,” BBC News Online (March 11, 2016). See also http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-24628442
[xviii] Lund, Aron, “Say Hello to the Islamic Front,” Carnegie Middle East Center, (Nov. 12, 2013). http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/53679
[xix] Ali, Muhammad, “You Win Some, You Lose Some,” Foreign Policy Online, (March 19, 2014). http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/03/19/you_win_some_you_lose_some_islamist_radicals_syria
[xx] Bowen, Jeremy, “Syria election: A ballot amid a battle,” BBC News Online, (June 3, 2014). http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27671649. See also: “Landslide win for Assad in Syria’s Presidential Elections,” Haaretz (June 20 2014) http://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/1.597052. See: Lund, Aron, “Syria’s Phony Election: False Numbers and Real Victory,” Carnegie Middle East Center (June 9 2014). http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/55863?lang=en
[xxi] “Syria: The Story of the Conflict,” BBC News Online (March 11, 2016).
[xxii] “Syria Profile: Timeline,” BBC News Online, (last updated Sept. 20, 2016).
The increasing presence and influence of other countries in the conflict also complicates mediation efforts by shifting power symmetries and perpetuating actors’ ability to wage armed conflict. For example, with Russia’s increasing military support in 2016, Assad’s government has less and less incentive to cooperate with international mediation efforts and engage in meaningful discussion about nonviolent solutions. Conversely, other countries’ continued support of rebel groups, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States among them, has allowed these groups to remain a viable threat to Assad’s government. Groups that have been labeled as terrorist groups by international organizations and influential countries, such as ISIS, see themselves as having nothing to gain from international mediations and will continue to commit violence as long as they can manage to exist.
A review of international efforts at reaching a political solution highlights the complicated role of international actors and a lack of consensus on the future and place of the many parties. The first major attempt came in June 2012 with the meeting of the UN’s Action Group for Syria. The group brought together the UN Secretary-General, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the League of Arab States (representatives from Qatar, Kuwait, and Iraq most notably), and Turkey.[ii] The June meeting produced the Geneva Communiqué́, a six-point plan for peace that has been used as a guiding document in later mediations and working groups. The plan outlined a Syrian-led peace process involving a transitional government comprised of both the opposition and Assad supporters.[iii] The UN was unable to translate the support for the drafting of the Communiqué́ into any meaningful action. Security Council resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad to halt the violence as the first step of the peace plan were repeatedly vetoed by Russia and China.[iv]
The next successful convening of talks came in January 2014 and was the first to directly involve the Syrian government and representatives of the opposition.[v] The latter’s presence at the talks, dubbed Geneva II, was hotly debated leading up to January. The opposition-in-exile umbrella group, the National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, faced intense international pressure to attend the talks and eventually voted to attend.[vi] The decision to partake in negotiations with the government was not well-received by other opposition groups on the ground and even by those within their own coalition; the largest bloc of the Coalition, the Syrian National Council, soon severed ties in protest of talks with Assad’s regime.[vii] The main parties’ allies were also in a tense position heading into the talks; Assad’s major ally Iran was originally invited to attend the conference, but its invitation was revoked after the US and opposition parties decried its potential presence.[viii]
The intransigence of the parties and the lack of other solutions by UN peacemakers seemed to doom the peace talks from the outset. Heading into the talks, the opposition declared that it would reject any plan that involved the Assad government’s participation in future governance of Syria. The regime, for its part, went to Geneva stating it would not relinquish any power and would continue to eliminate terrorism (the regime’s term for the opposition).[ix] These contrary positions unsurprisingly led to a deadlock that mediators were unable to overcome. Two rounds of peace talks ended without any successful negotiations and severely dampened international hopes for a diplomatic solution to the conflict.[x] However, some have cited Geneva II as marking a positive turning point in the Syrian opposition’s willingness to even talk to government representatives in order to bring about regime change.[xi]
The next UN-led peace talks came in January 2016, planned by the same UN Security Council Resolution that established the February-April ceasefire of that year.[xii] ‘Geneva III’ was suspended after just a few days, with government and opposition representatives trading blame. Western powers seemed to side with the opposition in this respect; several foreign ministers, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, cited the Syrian military’s continued offensive on the ground as a spoiler in the talks.[xiii] They also condemned Russia’s role in the air strikes supporting Assad, while Moscow representatives have reiterated that they are simply pursuing terrorists that threaten the international order. Increasingly international negotiations that foresake the centrality of Syrian actors highlight the continued tension in perspectives between the West and Russia. The September 2016 agreement between the US and Russia outling their common priorities marked a major turning point in their relationship. The two powers agreed to both military cooperation againist ISIS and collaboration on reestablishing mediation between the government and ots opponents.[xiv] However, the dissolution of their partnership during the course of September casts doubts on the future of UN-led mediation in the coming months.
[i] Lund, Aron, “Rebels Call Geneva Talks ‘Treason’,” Carnegie Middle East Center, (Oct. 28, 2011). http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/53451
[iii] “Kofi Annan proposes Syria ‘unity government’,” Al Jazeera English, (June 28, 2012). http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/06/2012628423300508.html
[iv] “Annan quits as Syria peace envoy,” Al Jazeera English (Aug. 3, 2012). http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/08/201282145716901659.html
[v] Sly, Liz, “Syrian opposition votes to attend peace talks,” The Washington Post, (Jan. 18, 2014). https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/syrian-opposition-votes-to-attend-peace-talks/2014/01/18/a3faf9f6-806a-11e3-9556-4a4bf7bcbd84_story.html
[vi] Barnard, Anne and Hwaida Saad, “Leading Syrian Opposition Group, Yielding to International Pressure, Votes to Join Peace Talks,” The New York Times Online, (Nov. 11, 2013). http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/12/world/middleeast/syria.html
[vii] “National Council quits opposition bloc,” Al-Arabiya English, (Jan. 21, 2014). http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2014/01/21/Syrian-National-Council-quits-opposition-coalition-.html
[viii] Sly, Liz and Anne Gearan, “U.N. backs down in standoff over Iran, opening way for Syria peace talks,” The Washington Post, (Jan. 20, 2014). https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/disarray-as-iran-invited-to-syria-peace-talks/2014/01/20/62906d1c-81bd-11e3-a273-6ffd9cf9f4ba_story.html
[ix] “What is the Geneva II conference on Syria?”, BBC News Online, (Jan. 22, 2014). http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-24628442
[x] “Syria peace talks break up as UN envoy fails to end deadlock,” The Guardian Online, (Feb. 15, 2014). https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/15/syria-peace-talks-break-up-geneva
[xi] Lund, Aron, “To Go or Not to Go: Syria’s Opposition and the Paris, Cairo, and Moscow Meetings,” Carnegie Middle East Center, (March 31, 2015). http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=59590
[xii] “UN Security Council agrees on Syria peace plan,” Al-Jazeera English (December 19, 2015) http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/12/security-council-agrees-syria-peace-plan-151218210833550.html
[xiii] “Syria Conflict: Sides trade blame over talks’ suspension,” BBC News Onine, (Feb. 4, 2016). http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35489237
[xiv] Syria ceasefire deal explained,” Al-Jazeera English
The first major ceasefire of the year came in February as a result of talks by the international working group on the conflict, chiefly led by the US and Russia. The ceasefire put into place excluded ISIS and al-Nusra, as well as other smaller groups deemed to be ‘terrorist’ groups. The deal was also intended to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid and to lay the groundwork for a political transition.[i] Soon after the ceasefire was declared, sides began to trade accusations over violations of the peace. The mistrust and continued violations on both sides, particularly the violence in Aleppo, contributed to the dissolution of the ceasefire by the end of April.[ii] Its breakdown can also be attributed to the complicated position of opposition groups (other than ISIS and al-Nusra) on the ground. Many of these smaller groups have long cooperated with one another and changed alliances frequently to accommodate their interests and secure their positions. This sometimes (frequently, even) involves collaboration with groups deemed ‘terrorists’ by international actors like the United States and the United Nations.[iii] The result is that the government’s targeting of terrorist groups ends up being much more widespread than it initially appears. The civilian toll is thus much greater, and non-‘terrorist’ groups are given little incentive to adhere by the ceasefire.[iv] Many opposition groups see adherence to these and other ceasefires as simply a boon to the government, which continues to target ‘terrorists’ regardless of their ideological bearings.
As stated, a surge of violence in Aleppo, still divided between rebel and government forces, contributed to the collapse of the early 2016 ceasefire. After the collapse of the ceasefire, the UN attempted to reestablish a truce but did not succeed in attaining the government’s agreement to halt the bombardment of Aleppo.[v] During April alone, aid workers and opposition groups in Aleppo claimed that several medical clinics and mosques were destroyed by government attacks, leaving the remaining population desperate for medical facilities. The government’s siege of Aleppo continued throughout the year and widely drew criticism from the UN and Western powers. These powers also, unsurprisingly, condemned the onslaught of Russian airstrikes in its unrelenting support of the Syrian government. The Syrian government’s campaigns against rebel and terrorist groups throughout 2016 would not have been possible without the support of Russia, which looks to counter Western influence in the Middle East and secure the power of a dependent ally like Assad in Syria. By July, observers declared the government and Russia had created an effective siege on Aleppo, with all roads into rebel-held areas cut-off.[vi] The UN soon after warned that the hundreds of thousands of civilians still in the city would suffer from a food and medical shortage.[vii]
The dire situation facing the eastern part of Aleppo, rebel territory, prompted international powers to seek new methods of containing and halting the violence. This led to the first agreement between Russia and the United States for direct military cooperation and bilateral action in Syria.[viii] Their deal also established a ceasefire between Syrian government and opposition forces (backed by Russia and the US respectively) and was replete with details on how to prevent further violence, particularly in Aleppo.[ix] While the deal was hailed as a breakthrough, the centrality of Russia and the US in the deal, and not of any of the parties on the ground in Syria, provoked some international observers to question the deal’s longevity.
The ceasefire and the rivals’ cooperation quickly dissolved by the end of September amidst heavy and destructive government shelling in rebel-held parts of Aleppo. The collapse of the ceasefire, and the resumption of Russian airstrikes, resulted in a new period of intense violence. During just three weeks after the ceasefire’s collapse, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented 2,000 civilian casualties and injuries in the Aleppo province.[x] The humanitarian crisis in Syria persists despite the pledges of the international community to resolve it.
[i]Abboud, Samer. “Syria War: What you need to now about the ceasefire,” Al-Jazeera English (February 28, 2016) http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/02/syria-war-ceasefire-160228063752872.html
[ii] Rozen, Lauren, “UN warns of ‘catastrophic’ breakdown of Syria cease-fire,” Al-Monitor (April 28, 2016). http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/04/un-warning-catastrophic-breakdown-syria-ceasefire.html
[iii] “Is Russia Readying for the Kill in Syria?” Al-Monitor (June 5, 2016) http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/fr/originals/2016/06/russia-syria-nusra-aleppo-qaeda-ypg-us-jihadi.html. Also see: Shanahan, Roger, “Syria: What’s in a Name?” The Lowry Institute (May 5 2016) https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/syria-whats-name-1
[iv] Abboud, 2016.
[v] “Syria truce comes into effect but Aleppo excluded,” Al-Jazeera English (April 20, 2016). http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/04/syria-truce-effect-aleppo-excluded-160429210839237.html
[vi] “Executive Summary for July 8th,” Syria Deeply (July 8, 2016). https://www.newsdeeply.com/syria/executive-summaries/2016/07/08
[vii] “UN rights chief warns at least 200,000 civilians surrounded; calls Syria ‘gigantic, devastated graveyard’ UN News Centre (July 15 2016) http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=54464#.WFiA61yZgug
[viii] “Syria ceasefire deal explained,” Al-Jazeera English (Sept, 10, 2016). http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/09/syria-ceasefire-deal-explained-160910111132967.html
[ix] Klapper, Bradley and Matthew Lee, “A Look at some of the details at the confidential Syria cease-fire deal,” PBS Newshour with reporting from the Associate Press (Sept 13, 2016) http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/a-look-at-some-of-the-details-of-the-confidential-syria-cease-fire-deal/
[x] “More than 2000 civilian casualties and injuries in Aleppo Province, since the collapse of US-Russian truce,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (Oct, 12, 2016). http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=52149
The centrality of the state and state sovereignty in the international system set the scene for the role of the Syrian conflict as a geopolitical destabilizer. Syria’s previous involvement in Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli conflict underscored its importance as a geopolitical actor; indeed, over the past few decades the Syrian government carefully cultivated an image amongst its people that the government’s armed forces stood as the last strong bulwark against Israeli and imperialist aggression.[i] Since the beginning of the conflict, the Syrian government has decried attempts by foreign agents (except the help coming from Syria’s allies) to manipulate the conflict as their attempt to erode Syria’s sovereignty and ability to remain a viable force in the region.
However, governments of neighboring countries such as Jordan and Turkey, other regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, and the UN do have a strong interest in ending the conflict in order to prevent its further expansion into neighboring countries. If Syria becomes a failed state or sees the continued proliferation of armed groups within its borders, the conflict could effectively destabilize the entire region. Pockets of power vacuum have allowed jihadi terrorist groups to flourish, which have then established branches or garnered supporters in countries near and far. Regional governments and the UN also have a strong interest in determining the future of the country in order calculate the future balance of regional alliances.
The nature of regional alliances has remained salient in the conflict as international interventions have revealed themselves to be largely directed by self-interest. The Syrian conflict serves as a proxy war in two ways. The first is found in the region’s sectarian divides, namely between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia (and its regional allies) and its longtime rival Shii’a Iran. Since the outbreak of the conflict, Iran has openly supported the Syrian government with arms, funding, and training.[ii] The Iranian government’s logic is easy to understand; it wants to prop up the Shii’a Alawite regime and have a grateful ally in the region over which it can further exert its influence. Looking to take a hit at the Alawite-led government of Assad, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni governments in the region have provided (more covert) support for opposition and rebel groups, including funding and arms.[iii] The sectarian tensions that have long contributed to political and religious violence in the Middle East (and elsewhere) are thus very much at play in the contemporary Syrian conflict.
The second aspect of the conflict’s position as a proxy war is evident in the Cold War-esque competition for dominance between Russia in its support of Assad and Western powers’ support for opposition groups. This tension is most tangible between Russia and the US, which have become the chief mediators on the international level between the major parties on the ground. Syria remains one of Russia’s last areas of strong influence in the Middle East, and Russia’s late but heavy involvement in the conflict made it apparent that it was unwilling to so easily surrender its sphere of influence.[iv] If the UN hoped to use Russia’s support of Assad to force the government to become more amenable to peace and a political solution, the intensification of air strikes by the alliance soon painted a different picture. With barbs reminiscent of Cold War accusations, Russia and the United States have continued to trade accusations over who is actually perpetuating violence in the conflict.
As alluded to earlier, violent extremist groups have been able to capitalize on the conflict’s chaos and pose a greater threat to those inside Syria, in neighboring countries, and around the world. While jihadist groups have been of concern to the international community for decades, the rise of groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and their meteoric rise in popularity amongst aspiring jihadists worldwide brought the Syrian conflict to the fore of international attention. While ISIS initially took advantage of the power vacuum in parts of Iraq following the US invasion of the country, the group was able to expand into Syria so effectively because of the chaos created by the regime’s occupation with the war against less radical opposition groups. ISIS’s appeal to recruits globally and its relative success in territory acquisition and state building, and its extremely violent ideology, put Western and regional governments on edge. More concerning for individual countries’ has been ISIS’s ability to carry out, inspire, and/or claim dozens of terrorist attacks across the world over the past few years, in countries ranging from prominent (and historically Islamophobic) Western powers like France and the United States to attacks in predominately Muslim states like Turkey, Tunisia, Libya, etc. Thus, most countries, and the UN by extension, have a direct interest in eliminating the terrorist threat of ISIS. They see the continuation of the conflict in Syria as both an enabler and a product of the jihadist threat.
Finally, and most importantly, the war in Syria remains a priority for the international peacemaking community and the UN because of the enormous human cost in its first five years. The war has seen accusations and substantiations of crimes against humanity. The Syrian government has repeatedly been accused of breaching international law, including the usage of barrel bombs, incendiary weapons, chemical weapons, and collective punishment. Rebel groups have also sporadically been accused of crimes against humanity in areas under their control. On both sides, civilians have been indiscriminately killed and injured, and the threat of violence and armed checkpoints often make it impossible for international aid to reach its intended recipients. Current estimates of the death toll posit that as many as 470,000 people (both combatants and civilians) have been killed so far during the conflict, and millions have been injured.[v]
Five years in, the conflict has sparked a massive refugee and internally-displaced persons crisis, with millions of people fleeing the country and even more fleeing their homes within the country. As of September 2016, 13.5 million Syrians, including over six million children, are in need of humanitarian assistance. Over six million people have been internally displaced due to the war, and nearly five million of their compatriots have been forced to flee the country (that UN agencies have registered; the actual figure may be still higher).[vi] The flight of Syrians into neighboring countries has heavily taxed the resources of these countries and has necessitated an influx of humanitarian aid that is not sustainable. As refugees make their way to farther destinations, countries there face a similar problem of resources and, perhaps more insurmountably, political will.
[i] Rabinovich, Itamar, “Israel’s View of the Syrian Crisis,” The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings (November 2012). https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Rabinovich-web-final.pdf. Also see: Halasa, Malu, and Zaher Omareen, Nawara Mahfoud, eds. “Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline” Saqi Books: London, 2014.
[ii] Karami, Arash. “Iran defends its support for Syria, Iraq,” Al-Monitor (February 10, 2016) http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/02/iran-syria-iraq-shrine-khamenei-hezbollah.html
[iii] A similar Saudi-led coalition has been active in supporting the former Yemeni government in their fight against the Houthi rebels and AQAP.
[iv] Marcus, Jonathan, “Syria War: How Moscow’s bombing campaign has paid off for Putin,” BBC Online (September 30, 2016). http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-37507207
[v] “Death Count in Syria,” I Am Syria. Accessed online October 15, 2016. http://www.iamsyria.org/death-tolls.html. “Syria death toll: UN envoy estimates 400,000 killed,” Al-Jazeera English (April 23, 2016). http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/04/staffan-de-mistura-400000-killed-syria-civil-war-160423055735629.html
Boghani, Priyanka, “A Staggering Death Toll for Syria’s War – 470,000.” Frontline (February 11, 2016). http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/a-staggering-new-death-toll-for-syrias-war-470000/
[vi] “Syrian Arab Republic: Country Profile” United States Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Accessed online October 15, 2016. http://www.unocha.org/syria
The first scenario revolves around the eventual military victory of Bashar al-Assad and his government forces. This would require the total reclamation of territory held by rebel and terrorist groups, including areas held by Kurdish forces in the north. This resolution is in line with what the Syrian government has envisioned since the beginning of its conflict, with its steadfast promise to retake “every inch” of Syria.[i] Some observers have also speculated that Assad could instead settle to retake so-called useful Syria, which includes the major cities and areas surrounding Damascus.[ii] The area outside of this classification is largely non-arable desert.
The government would have to effectively eliminate rebel threats by the usage of force, which has proven to be a much slower and more tedious campaign than the regime likely expected as first. The military victory of the Assad regime would likely involve a very high death count (even just counting casualties from end of 2016 to resolution) and potentially several more years of conflict; the latter would likely depend on the continuation of Russian support via airstrikes on rebel-held territory. The majority of the international community, and the UN in particular, has thus far been resistant to accepting a decisive military victory by Assad as a viable route to pursue. This is due to the already high casualty count, the questionable tactics utilized by the regime both in wartime and in previous times of ‘peace’, and the presence of the vocal, though fragmented, Syrian opposition to the Assad regime. Human rights defenders also argue that a return to an Assad regime would cement its widespread and long-term suppression of Syrians’ rights.[iii] However, the regime’s resistance to concede any ground to the opposition during previous negotiations hints that the international community might be unable to persuade Syria or Russia from this end.
A second possible resolution may lie in the partition of Syria along sectarian lines, which would likely mirror the split between Alawite-led government land and Sunni-led opposition groups. This option was discussed by international working groups on Syria as a potential tool to ease sectarian tensions as well as, importantly, put an end to the violence at a faster rate than other negotiated solutions could.[iv] Of course, there remain a great number of questions as to how such a partition would actually unfold in practice and why parties would be willing to respect any boundaries created. Importantly, there would need to be strong incentives put in place for the Syrian government (arguably the most powerful party) to respect the partition and not immediately invade the other territories as soon as the world’s attention is turned. Given the regime’s strong rhetoric regarding its aim of retaking all of Syria, it remains highly unlikely that any partition deal would come to fruition. This is compounded by the many criticisms from non-Western observers, who have been quick to recall the withstanding effects of the Sykes-Picot Agreement’s parceling up of the Middle East.[v]
Finally, there remains the possibility of a political solution that maintains the original territorial boundaries of Syria. While a political solution could take many forms, two distinct options have been repeatedly brought up in international negotiations and are worth briefly mentioning. The first option, heavily favored by many opposition groups, would involve the establishment of transitional government with the goal of eventually or outright removing the key figures of Assad’s regime. Such a transition would, of course, first require the cessation of hostilities by all (or at least most) parties. A transitional government would oversee the process of establishing a roadmap for the future, particularly by instituting new elections and determining how vestiges of the pre-2011 regime will be contended with. This resolution has been the most discussed in international negotiations despite the regime’s insistence that it will never relinquish power, which stems from its belief in its absolute legitimacy. The ultimate aim of establishing a transitional government would be the democratic election of leaders by the Syrian people, which would then hopefully jumpstart the process of national reconciliation and healing.
The spirit of reconciliation lends itself to another possible political solution. The second option would involve the negotiation of an agreement that would dictate that the current Syrian government integrates the diplomatic representation of opposition groups into the government. Thus, it would not involve an outright rejection of any party’s legitimacy as an actor in the Syrian political landscape, except those labeled internationally as terrorist groups like ISIS, and would look more like a power-sharing agreement than a zero-sum result. The international community would serve a vital role in creating such an agreement and thus would likely be less inclusive of Islamist-leaning groups, which might leave room for future unrest in the country. Of course, it is largely the government’s unwillingness to concede any shred of legitimacy to opposition groups as representatives of the Syrian people that makes this option very unlikely.
[i] Sanger, David and Rick Gladstone, “Defiant Bashar al-Assad Vows to Retake ‘Every Inch’ of Syria,” The New York Times (June 7 2016) http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/08/world/middleeast/defiant-assad-vows-to-retake-every-inch-of-syria-from-his-foes.html
[ii] Mneimneh, Hassan, “Will Assad Create a ‘Useful Syria’?” Middle East Institute (November 19 2015) http://www.mei.edu/content/at/will-assad-create-useful-syria
[iii] “Human Rights Violations” I Am Syria (Accessed November 15, 2016) http://www.iamsyria.org/human-rights-violations.html
[iv] Nakhoul, Samia, Laila Bassam and Suleiman Al-Khalidi “Hezbollah sees no immediate end to Syria war, partition in Iraq and Syria a possible outcome,” Reuters (August 3, 2016) http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-hezbollah-idUSKCN10E1Y8
[v] “A century on: Why Arabs resent Sykes-Picot,” Al-Jazeera English (Accessed December 10 2016) http://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2016/sykes-picot-100-years-middle-east-map/. See also: Bishara, Marwan, “No to Partitioning Syria,” Al-Jazeera English (September 7 2016) http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/09/marwan-bishara-partitioning-syria-160907112422076.html
November 2016 – The American election of Donald Trump, who has cited collective punishment of citizens and other war crimes in Muslim-majority countries as viable foreign policies, casts a large shadow of doubt on the US’s ability to participate (via Trump’s diplomatic appointees) in any peacemaking process as a constructive mediator.
December 2016 – Backed by Russia, the Syrian government retakes most of Aleppo, with heavy human costs. UN approves international monitors to oversee the evacuation of civilians and rebels.
[i] Nashashibi, Sharif. “Pause in Aleppo is not ‘Humanitarian’, but a Means of Military Escalation,” Syria Deeply (October 20, 2016). https://www.newsdeeply.com/syria/community/2016/10/20/pause-in-aleppo-is-not-humanitarian-but-a-means-of-military-escalation
Syria: Syria Deeply (leans anti-government); Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (generally pro-opposition); Syrian Arab News Agency (government-run)
Middle East: Al-Jazeera (Qatar); Al-Arabiya (Saudi Arabia); Al-Monitor (partners from across region); Jadaliyya (regional)
United States: Carnegie Middle East Center (particularly the Diwan blog); PBS Frontline documentary series; The Washington Post; The New York Times; Middle East Research and Information Project
United Kingdom: BBC News; The Guardian
Al-Ali, Nadja. “Gendering the Arab Spring,” Middle East Journal of Culture and
Communication 5:1 (2012) pp. 26-31.
Al-Ali applies a feminist analytical lens to an overview of the Arab Spring.
Bayat, Asef. “The Art of Presence” in Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle
East (Stanford UP, 2013) pp. 1-29.
Bayet’s theory of non-movements goes against traditional liberalist political science theories of the underdevelopment of democracy and progress in the Middle East.
Bellin, Eva. “Reconsidering the Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Lessons
from Comparative Politics: The Arab Spring, 44:2 (2012) pp. 127-151.
Bellin’s work has been criticized as focusing too much on the persistance of authoritarianism and ignoring other political developments.
Brownlee, Jason, Tarek Massoud and Andrew Renalds “Limits and Legacies of the Arab Spring”
in The Arab Spring: Pathways of Repression and Reform (Oxford, 2015) 98-169.
Authors take an overwhelmingly pessimistic view of the future of countries affected by Arab Spring.
Bunzel, Cole, “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State,” The
Brookings Project on US Relations with the Islamic World, No 19. (March 2015).
Although Bunzel relies on primary sources, his work is likely to be critcized by both jihadists and Western far-right theorists.
Halasa, Malu, and Zaher Omareen, Nawara Mahfoud, eds. Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from
the Frontline. Saqi Books: London, 2014.
The editors are clearly more sympathetic to the opposition than government-supporters; narratives are those of resistance rather than government-aligned political analysis.
Mokhtari, Shadi. “Power and Human Rights Amid Protest and Change in the Arab World” Third
World Quarterly (June 2015).
Mokhtari takes a human rights approach to the Arab Spring, which is usually shunned by traditional realists.