Syrian Conflict: Cui Bono?

BY STEWART KATO

The Syrian Civil War that erupted in March 2011 continues to disrupt the international community as an increasing number of foreign nations become involved including Russia, the United States, Turkey, and Iran. A conflict that evolved from the Arab Spring of 2011 when democratic forces took up arms against the government of President Bashar al-Assad over various civil reforms has since grown to include numerous conflicting parties such as Islamic extremists, pro-government forces, democratic reformists, as well as independent Kurdish forces. The expanding conflict has forced neighboring, regional, and global powers to renegotiate or rethink their foreign policies and relations as nations look to establish regional stability and protect their interests. The Syrian Civil War may have started as a series of domestic protests, but it has evolved into an international crisis as the region continues to destabilize.

The Syrian Civil war evolved from a civil rights dispute between the government and pro-democratic forces into a complex melting pot of conflicting parties with varying agendas. The current conflict in Syria began four-and-a-half years ago following government security forces opening fire on pro-democracy protests in Syrian cities in the spring of 2011. As the effects of the destruction and fighting spread from Syria to neighboring countries, an increasing number of groups ranging from Islamic radicals to Kurdish militias became involved in the fighting as Syria became transformed into a chaotic battleground. Foreign nations, including but not restricted to Russia and the United States, became involved in the growing conflict as the spread of fighting threatened their interests in the Middle East as well as strengthening Islamic extremist groups currently seen as global threats. Russia especially has become greatly involved in the conflict as the Syrian Civil War threatens Russian regional interests and allies. The Syrian Civil War continues to broaden morphing into a conglomerate of regional and international disputes as foreign nations become increasingly involved.

Russia is invested in the Syrian conflict for multiple reasons including the desire to support the Assad regime, but its controversial strategies have alienated the West. The possibility of Assad’s regime collapsing pushed Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene in the Syrian conflict as Russia continues to maintain long standing strategic ties with Syria including maintaining a small naval base on the Syrian coast as well as being Syria’s principal arms supplier. Russian airstrikes began in late September 2015 with the declared aim to “stabilize the legitimate authority of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad” and to “create conditions for a political compromise.” The United States and its allies criticize Russian intervention for targeting “moderate” anti-Assad groups instead of the Russian-stated targeting of terrorist strongholds, while also accusing Russia of targeting humanitarian convoys. Russia and the United States recently tried to negotiate a ceasefire to coordinate joint strikes in order to improve relations and reduce the amount of destruction in Syria, but these negotiations fell through due to conflicting interests. Russia declared that it intervened to support a weakened regional ally, but Russia has used the conflict to simultaneously push its own regional agenda.

Russia holds ambitions for expanding its influence in the Middle East and, while its advances are historically challenged by regional rivals like Turkey or Iran, the Syrian conflict provides Russian leaders a chance to improve relations with its Middle Eastern competitors. Iran is Assad’s last regional ally and Iranian leaders continue to rush resources and equipment to Assad, keeping its major ally in power as Iran continues its cold war with Saudi Arabia. Similarly, Turkey which at the beginning of the conflict supported anti-Assad forces, is evaluating the prospects of stabilizing Assad’s regime as the emergence of independent Kurdish forces in Syria threaten Turkish control over its own Kurdish populations. Turkey, Iran, and Russia are all interested in strengthening Assad’s government not only to crackdown on the resurgence of IS and other extremist groups in the region, but also see an unstable Syria as a threat to their differing ambitions in the Middle East. Russian leaders find themselves with the perfect opportunity to bring their traditional rivals to the negotiation table to discuss not only cooperation in Syria, but propositions that could possibly lead to broader political cooperation or economic projects. The Syrian conflict gives Russian leaders an opening, that they should take full advantage of, to alter established international associations by siding with regional competitors so as to build positive relations towards future potential cooperative projects.

While the Syrian conflict grew the divide between the West and Russia, Russian leaders are reshaping the country’s relationship with many Middle Eastern regional powers in a positive direction. This includes nations close to the West such as Israel; nations like Turkey that have recently fallen out with the West; or Iran which only recently was freed from Western sanctions.  Russia should best utilize the international disruption caused by the Syrian Civil War by not only continuing to strengthen ties with Middle Eastern nations, but also the West. Though cooperation attempts between the West and Russia so far produced little, the conflict in Syria is a chance for both the West and Russia to jointly stabilize a region that continues to suffer from almost constant regional warfare. The West and Russia are mutually interested in a stable Syria and by extension Middle East, so while Russia and the West will need to overcome incredible differences of opinion as well as conflicting interests, a joint solution supported by each side could establish a long term solution to stability. The prospects of a Russian-Western understanding are slim, but it may be the only real chance at a long-standing solution to an incredibly complex global issue.

Image source: wikimedia.org

About the Author

Stewart Kato is an EAEU Monitor Project intern at the ERA Institute. He holds a B.A. in History with a focus on 20th century Europe & East Asia from UC Berkeley. His research interests include Eurasian history as well as how international politics, economics, and history affect foreign relations.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

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