The Syrian Conflict
In this article, we will discuss The Syrian conflict within an international relations framework. We will examine the origins of the conflict, as well as the major actors in what has turned into an international war. What we want to do in this article it to understand that interests of the different actors with regards to what is transpiring in Syria. Specifically, we are going to break down who is active in the Syrian war, and discuss why they are interested in the conflict. Elsewhere, we have discussed related issues such as the Syrian refugee crisis. We shall also examine continued developments of the war in Syria. As we know, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed, with millions of Syrian refugees also fleeing the country.
Actors in the Syrian War
The situation in Syria has not been ongoing for over five years. What began with anti-goverment protests has turned into a large scale civil and international conflict. There are a number of actors in the Syrian Conflict:
Bashar al-Assad and Pro-Government Forces: Bashar al-Assad and the Baath Party have been the ruling government of Syria since 2000. Al-Assad continued has a history of repressing opposition and dissidents within the country. Furthermore, a lack of human rights for Syrians and high unemployment were two of the reasons for the domestic protests against him in 2011.
Currently, Al-Assad and his forces maintain control over Damascus and large parts of Western Syria. His forces–historically tied to the al-Assad regime, have for the most part continued to back the leader. The pro-government forces are fighting against the Free Sryian Army, other secular and Islamist rebels, the Islamic State, and other jihadist groups in the country. There are questions about whether Al-Assad is taking a military approach towards the Kurdish forces in the north, or if he is actually supporting them, in exchange for them protecting these controlled territories from groups like the Islamic State.
In addition, there have also been recent reports on whether Al-Assad and the Islamic State have been working together on some issues. For example,
New documents obtained by Sky News revealed that the Syrian government’s recapture of the ancient city of Palmyra from Islamic State militants was apparently part of a pre-arranged deal that allowed ISIS to remove its heavy weaponry from the city before withdrawing.
Sky News reported that the documents came from a Free Syrian Army group comprised of ISIS defectors originally from Raqqa, ISIS’ de facto capital in Syria.
“Withdraw all heavy artillery and anti-aircraft machine guns from in and around Palmyra to Raqqa province,” read one document that was dated just before the Syrian Arab Army recaptured Palmyra at the end of March” (Bertrand, 2016).
For Al-Assad, the strongest and most direct threat to his territory comes from Western Syria, where there is a large anti-Assad rebel presence. For the Al-Assad government, the Islamic State, while still a strong concern, primarily operates in Eastern Syria, relatively far from his control in Damascus.
Has Assad been able to maintain supporters?
One of the interesting questions with regards to this conflict has been how al-Assad has been able to maintain the loyalty of the military, as well as the backing of some Syrians in the country. With regards to the population, al-Assad has received significant support from the Alawite minority in Syria. The Alawites are roughly 10-15 percent of the tenure Syrian population. For them, having a fellow Alawite in power means that they are protected. A large reason as to why they have continued to support al-Assad has been because of the fears they have if he was to be removed from power. There is a concern that “if the Assad regime falls, they will face reprisals from the country’s majority Sunnis, who have led the rebellion against the government since March 2011” (Dagher, 2015). Dagher (2015) argues that “[m]any Sunnis see the Alawites as willing accomplices of a brutal regime that has committed atrocities against them front eh time it was founded more than four decades ago by the current president’s late father, Hafez al-Assad.” While there are Alawite who are beginning to challenge the positions taken by al-Assad, criticizing the government can lead to serious trouble in Alawite majority areas (Dagher, 2015). For many within this community, without al-Assad, groups like the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front will attempt to commit genocide against the Alawite.
It is also important to note that for many, even within the Alawite community, is that they fear what might happen if al-Assad is taken out of power, and groups like ISIS or al-Nusra come to power in their region. Thus, for some, they currently would rather live under the government as opposed to living under the Islamic State’s system of governance.
Al-Assad’s Military Support
Al-Assad has attempted to coerce the Alawite into serving military roles during the conflict in Syria. It is believed that “Tens of thousands of Alawites have been mustered into militias such as the so-called National Defense Force or those linked to pro-regime businesspeople. The incentive is usually money, several told me: Militia salaries can be double or triple those of army officers” (Dagher, 2015).
Along with this, as we shall discuss in later detail, Al Assad has been greatly helped by international actors Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. These states, having their own interests for keeping Al-Assad in power, are willing to send military fighters, advisors, as well as military aid to back the Syrian regime.
The Free Syrian Army
The primary anti-government group is the Free Syrian Army. This is an umbrella group of various subgroups and militias within Syria. The FSA is believed to have roughly 2500 factions or groups within it, with a total of roughly 35000 fighters (Lucente & Al Shimale, 2015) Here are some of the key actors within the Free Syrian Army:
–Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army. This group, led by Brig General Salim Idris, was a group first created in the summer of 2011 by members of the military who defected from their positions. With regards to this group, “Its banner was soon adopted by armed groups that began appearing across the country. Despite this, the FSA’s leaders had little or no operational control over what was happening on the ground in Syria. The opposition’s Western and Gulf Arab backers sought to encourage a centralised rebel leadership and in December 2012 a number of brigades affiliated themselves to a newly-created Supreme Military Council (SMC). The SMC’s chief-of-staff, Gen Idris, wants it to be a more moderate and stronger alternative to the jihadist rebel groups in Syria” BBC, 2013a).
There are 30 members within the SMC, and the members are dispersed throughout the different “fronts” in the country. Each of these areas is controlled by a military commander, as well as a civil-military council (BBC, 2013a). Many question how much control the National Council actually has over these different groups within the various “fronts” in Syria (BBC, 2013a).
—Martyrs of Syria Brigades
Another related group to the Syrian Military Council is a group called the Martyrs of Syria Brigades (formerly known as the Martyrs of Jabal al-Zawiya Brigade). This group has roughly 7,000 fighters, and is led by Jamal Maarouf. This group was established in the Idlib province in the latter part of 2011. This group fights primarily in the north-west part of the country (BBC, 2013a).
Weakening of the FSA rebel forces
There have been reports suggesting that the FSA forces have been weakening in recent months. Adam Lucente and Al Shimale (2015) write in November 2015 that a large number of Free Syrian Army fighters have stopped fighting on account of low salaries (ranging from 36 dollars a month to 95 dollars a month). As Lucente & Al Shimale note (2015), “The FSA, once viewed by the international community as a viable alternative to the rule of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has seen its power wane dramatically this year amid widespread desertions.” They go on to say that ” Nowhere is this more apparent than in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city where many FSA soldiers are leaving the group, citing inadequate pay, family obligations and poor conditions. In the past month, Russia’s bombing campaign against Syrian rebel groups and the FSA’s rejection of Russian invitations to participate in negotiations have further weakened it, raising questions about the group’s place in any future settlement.”
Thus, because of poor pay, fragmentation within the FSA, defections due to being pushed out of areas by Russian bombing campaigns, and difficult fighting conditions (a lack of food, bitter cold temperatures, etc…) (Lucente & Al Shimale, 2015) has made some question whether they should continue to fight. Plus, given the more influential Islamist groups, and a an unwillingness for many Western countries to financially support this group, this has led to a significant decrease in their numbers and overall military capabilities as it pertains to the Syrian conflict.
Democratic Forces of Syria
Given the weakening positions of the Free Syrian Army, countries like the United States have instead looked to offer more their support to other alliances, most notably the Democratic Forces of Syria. This is an umbrella group of varied rebel forces that first formed in October of 2015, and whose primary objective is fighting jihadist groups like the Islamic State. What is important to note is that this group is different than the Free Syrian Army. And while there is debate as to whether the United States is willing to end ties with the FSA completely, there are concerns about whether that group is capable of effectively fighting the Islamic State (Lucente & Al-Shimale, 2015). However, it is evident that this group, along with the Kurdish fighters, are receiving much of the West’s attention and resources (Davison, 2015).
The Democratic Forces of Syria seemed to gain some military victories against the Islamic State. For example, according to reports in late May, the group has been fighting to control areas north of Raqqa. If they are able to gain and maintain control, this would be a great victory against the Islamic State, and also threaten their hold on the de-facto capital (although some in Raqqa worry about what the new group would bring in terms of political rule, particularly due to their fighting alliance with Kurdish groups such as the Popular Defense Units (YPG) (Wedeman, 2016)).
Islamist Groups in Syria
There have been a number of political Islamist groups in Syria (which include the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (that we cover in another article), along with other entities, listed below.
—Northern Strom Brigade
This group “is an Islamist FSA unit that controls an important border crossing between Syria and Turkey. In September 2013, there were deadly clashes between the Northern Storm Brigade and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) after the jihadist group stormed the town of Azaz” (BBC, 2013a)
One of the other more larger fighting forces is the Islamic Front, which is said to have about 45,000 fighters. The Islamic Front in Syria is an umbrella group comprised of seven different Islamist organizations, which are: “Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, Jaysh al-Islam, Suqour al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Haqq, Ansar al-Sham and the Kurdish Islamic Front” (BBC, 2013a). Their objectives are to get rid of the government, and to introduce Shariah within Syria (BBC, 2013a). There have been questions about their relationship with jihadist groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. It has been noted that according to reports, “The Islamic Front does not include al-Qaeda affiliates like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the al-Nusra Front, but its charter welcomes foreign fighters, as “brothers who supported us in jihad”, suggesting it is willing to co-operate with them” (BBC, 2013a).
–Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya
This group, who is led by Hassan Abboud, is said to have anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 fighters. This is a Salafist group that also came out of the Idlib province. It was initially part of an Islamic umbrella group called the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) with a number of other hardliners within the Islamist camps (BBC, 2013a). However, this umbrella dissolved in November of 2013. Ahrar al Sham at times has worked with anti-government Free Syrian Army Forces, but the group itself begun to see divisions after some members were closer to the FSA, and others moved to align with other jihadists influenced by Al-Qaeda (Perry & Al-Khalidi, 2016) (anti-Assad forces increased their fighting with one another, with reports of additional fighting in November of 2016, as pro-governement forces were increasing their fighting Aleppo) (Perry, 2016).
The Islamic State
The Islamist State is a jihadist group that controls areas within Eastern Syrian. This group is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. According to early 2016 reports, ISIS fighter numbers have fallen to an estimated 19,000 to 25,000 members. This is a decline from earlier figures ranging between 20,000 to 31,500 (Sciutto, Starr, & Liptak, 2016). We have discussed the Islamic State here. The obvious concerns about this group are the ruthless killings and acts of genocide that they have committed, and the killings they continue to commit against people. In addition, this is a group that does not allow for freedom and rights (religious, sexual orientation, etc…), and uses their oil and illegal criminal activity wealth to fund such atrocities.
Jabhat al-Nusra/Al-Nusra Front/Jabhat Fath al Sham (Fateh al-Sham)
Jabhat al-Nusra/Al-Nusra Front, or The Front for the Defence of the Syrian People, is another violent jihadist organization in Syria, with analysts saying they have anywhere from 5000-7000 fighters. This group has been active in fighting against the al-Assad government for years. While they more officially formed in 2012, it is believed that they carried out many suicide attacks in 2011 (BBC, 2013b). Al-Nusra is believed to be receiving funding from Qatari sources, and also possibly from Turkey (Yahoo, 2016) (there have been reports that the Turkish government was supporting al-Nusra in their fight against the Kurdish Popular Protection Units).
The leader of the Al-Nusra Front is an individual by the name of Abu Mohammed al-Jawani. The Al-Nusra Front is labelled a terror organization by the United States. This group differs from the Islamic State in that they do have separate leaderships. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in April of 2013 did “…announced the merger of his group and al-Nusra, creating the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). However, al-Nusra’s leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani – another former insurgent in Iraq released in 2011 by the Syrian government – swiftly rejected the move and asserted his allegiance to al-Qaeda’s overall leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Since then, al-Nusra and ISIS have operated as separate entities” (BBC, 2013a).
In addition, many have suggested that al-Nusra Front has tried to take the fight away from civilians, and more towards government targets. As the BBC (2013b) writes, the group has tried to appeal to citizens by setting up courts to ensure fairness in business and other practices, and has been in a concentrated propaganda effort to increase their support among civilians in the country. Their political objectives are not for a democratic system, but rather, they want an Islamic legal system in Syria. They also have other similarities with the Islamic State. For example, “The group already governs parts of Syria with a form of religious law akin to that used by ISIS; women in both ISIS-held Raqqa and opposition-held Idlib are forced to wear the burqa. Meanwhile, through military and religious training camps for children, it is indoctrinating a new generation of fighters to wage a future war against the West” (Cafarella, 2016). However, analysts note that it seems Jabhat al-Nusra is trying to build their influence through social service offerings, attempting to change citizen opinions of them (Cafarella, 2016). Moreover, another important difference between the two groups is that while Al-Nusra is open to working with other groups (see below), the Islamic State condemns anyone opposed to their system and rule (Yahoo, 2016).
As mentioned, Al-Nusra is critical of the policies of the al-Assad regime. However, while their fighting is primarily towards the government, they are also critical of international states such as Israel and the United States (BBCb, 2013b). Again, it is believed that al-Nusra is affiliated with Al-Qaeda (BBC, 2013b). In fact, they have given their alliance to Al-Qaeda (Vice, 2015). However, in late July of 2016, Al Jazeera reported on a video of Mohammad al-Jolani declaring the group breaking away from Al Qaeda (Al Jazeera, 2016).
What complicates matters is that while groups like the Free Syrian Army have denounced groups like al-Nusra, and are critical of their ideology, the FSA spokesperson Louay Meqdad did suggest that the two have worked together on “certain operations” (BBC, 2013). Other reports have also spoke about this relationship between al-Nusra and rebels.
It is for this reason that the United States and others have questioned whether to supply weapons to rebels, even if they are not directly going to al-Nusra (BBC, 2013b).
According to a recent report from the United States, the belief is that while ISIS is a concern for US security, the bigger concern is from Jabhat al-Nusra. The Institute for the Study of War and American Enterprise Institute wrote a report entitled Al Qaeda and ISIS: Existential Threats to the U.S. and Europe. In the report, they argue that “Syrian al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra poses one of the most significant long-term threats of any Salafi-jihadi group. This al Qaeda affiliate has established an expansive network of partnerships with local opposition groups that have grown either dependent on or fiercely loyal to the organization. Its defeat and destruction must be one of the highest priorities of any strategy to defend the United States and Europe from al Qaeda attacks” (7).
While this group has some similar interests as the Islamic State, it seems that this group is using international attention on ISIS to lay low, and then emerge after ISIS’ decline in power. Harald Doornbos & Jenan Moussa wrote a piece entitled “The Greatest Divorce in the Jihadi World,” in which they explain that as the Islamic State was gaining more territory in Syria, the leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri sent a group–known as the Khorasan Committee–to see how deep into Syria the Islamic State had become, and also get lobby other jihadists to move away from ISIS and back to Al-Qaeda (Doornbos & Moussa, 2016).
Plus, as Cafarella (2016) writes: “Al Qaeda, meanwhile, has been quietly playing the long game. America’s focus elsewhere has played directly into the group’s hands, allowing the group to exploit its time out of the spotlight and set up a return to the global stage once ISIS is defeated. While ISIS is ruthlessly presiding over the territory it controls, Jabhat al-Nusra is cultivating local relationships, building capabilities it intends to use against the U.S. in the future.” According to reports, there were also fractures within the jihadists about intentions and motivations of action (with some saying ISIS was dividing the fighters, and ISIS criticizing al-Nusra for not being tough (Doornibos & Moussa, 2016).
Moreover, since this group does not control areas the same way ISIS does, it has been argued that finding and targeting al-Nusra members is much more difficult (Cafarella, 2016). It is for this reason that some believe Al-Nusra broke away from Al-Qaeda. As Mohammad Jamjoon of Al Jazeera wrote: “”A few told us they believed that by al-Nusra separating itself formally from al-Qaeda and changing its name, as well as by speaking about unifying in the fight in Syria, that that meant that the US and others would no longer consider al-Nusra to be a terrorist organisation; that more international backers would be behind rebel groups.”
Yet, US authorities continue to speak about the threat that the group continues to pose in Syria, saying that even if they have split from Al Qaeda, they still maintain loose ties, and their motivations and actions have also still not changed (Al Jazeera, 2016).
Analysts argue that Jabhat al-Nusra changed their name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in July of 2016 in order to express a departure from Al-Qaeda (BBC, 2016). Questions about their ties to Al-Qaeda, and also their work with some of the anti-Assad rebel forces continue to exist. However, despite attempts at their relabeling away and movement away from the Islamic State, in October of 2016, they brought in the jihadist group Salafist Jund al-Aqsa, which is a radical group, and it is alleged that this group has links to the Islamic State (AFP, 2016). Thus, “[a]nalysts said that Sunday’s announcement was expected to complicate things for Fateh al-Sham Front, which changed its name from Al-Nusra Front after renouncing its ties to Al-Qaeda. “Fateh al-Sham Front has pitched itself as a part of the opposition mainstream, but by taking Jund al-Aqsa into its fold, it has joined forces with a group that every single key opposition faction in northern Syria declared a front group for IS,” said Charles Lister” (AFP, 2016).
Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG)
The Popular Protection Units (YPG) are a group of Kurdish forces in the northeastern and northern parts of Syria. It is believed that they have 10,000-15,000 fighters. This group is linked to the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) in Turkey. They have control over parts of northeastern Syria, as well as other northern towns such as Kobane. This group’s interests are to ensure protection over areas where there are larger Kurdish populations. They have fought against groups like the Islamic State, but also against FSA forces at time (BBC, 2013a). In fact, it was reported that the situation between the YPG and the FSA has intensified in April and May of 2016 (Bertrand, 2016c).
In our discussion on the Kurds in Syria, we analyze the relationship between this group and al-Assad forces. Turkey views this group as a terror organization, whereas the United States leadership does not, and instead, views supporting this group as one of the best approaches to fighting the Islamic State.
In fact, reports in late May 2016 noted that US soldiers were wearing YPG patches as they were fighting Islamic State forces (Bertrand, 2016). This infuriated Turkey, who views the YPG as a terror group. In response to this report, Turkey’s Prime Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was quoted as saying “”It is unacceptable that an ally country is using the YPG insignia.” Reports note the tension between the US and Turkish government over the YPG. For example,
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters in a press briefing on Thursday that the “special-operations forces, when they operate in certain areas, do what they can to blend in with the community to enhance their own protection, their own security.”
He would not comment on the specific photos but added that the troops were most likely just being “supportive of that local force [YPG] in their advice and assist role.”
Turkey’s foreign minister shot back: “In that case, we would recommend they use the patches of Daesh, al-Nusra and al-Qaida when they go to other parts of Syria and of Boko Haram when they go to Africa.”
He added: “To those who say they don’t consider the YPG to be the same as these terrorist groups, this is our response: this is applying double standards, this is being two-faced” (Bertrand, 2016).
The US forces were “ordered to remove the patches” (Martinez, 2016). But we see the United States is willing to provide direct support to the Kurdish forces in their fight against ISIS. The United States government has not shied away from this fact. For example, on August 19th, 2016, it was reported that “The U.S. scrambled jets to protect coalition forces who were assisting Kurdish [YPG] forces in al-Hasakah, Syria, after they came under attack by Syrian warplanes, the Pentagon confirmed” (Hernandez, 2016).
International Actors in Syria
There are a number of international actors in the Syrian conflict. Each of these actors has specific, and quite calculated interests in getting involved in Syria. We will discuss the major actors below.
Russia and the Syrian Conflict
One of the more frequently asked questions about the Syrian conflict is the questions of “Why is Russia Supporting Syria?” This is an important questions, as Russia is one of the most active foreign actors in Syria. Russia’s reasons for supporting Syria vary, but their primary objective for military action in the country is to ensure the regime survival of Bashar al-Assad. Al-Assad and Putin have a strong relationship, and the two have had this strong alliance for years. Russia has been a major weapons supplier to Al-Assad, which is part of the interest in the country. However, there is more to it than that. For Russia, Syria is one of the few allies that it has in the region. Viewing the United States as expanding its influence into former Soviet States (through the expansion of NATO), as well as into parts of the Balkans (with Montenegro) and into the Middle East, Russia wants to ensure that their strategic alliance in Syria is maintained. If al-Assad was to fall, then Russia would only be left with Iran as their close state ally in the region.
Russia has continued to claim verbally that the reason that they are in Syria is to help al-Assad fight terrorists. And while it is in Russia’s interests to fight and end the influence of the Islamic State in the country, according to many reports, Russia has not limited its airstrikes and military activities to the Islamic State. Rather, it has been reported that they have went after FSA forces. Thus, it seems that Russia is willing to do what it can to fight anyone that poses a direct political and military threat to al-Assad. And this has been a huge boost for al-Assad. Many have suggested that without Russia’s support, al-Assad may have lost this conflict (BBC, 2016). Now, with their military power and willingness to get involved and continue activity in Syria, it will be difficult for the rebels to defeat al-Assad on their own. Thus, as it has been argued by some (Marc Pierini, in Bertrand, 2016b), “Solidifying a Russian “protectorate” in western Syria that is already held by the regime and dominated by a sect of Shia Islam loyal to the Assads, then, would give “a tangible reality to Moscow’s concept of a new international order.” Pierini goes on to also say that “”To its snap annexation of Crimea and dominance of eastern Ukraine, Russia is now adding ‘Assadland” and that ““In doing so, it is showing the rest of the world that it has the capacity to redefine the international order, or at least the guts to act as spoiler in chief”” (in Bertrand, 2016b).
In addition, on March 17th, 2016, as to the reason of why Russia is supporting Syria, Putin also pointed out that this conflict did not cost them very much financially, even going as far as saying that the government had set aside roughly 480 million dollars for training troops, and instead, they used the money for Syria. He said: “”There is no more efficient way of training than real combat[,]” and that this war allowed the Russian military to do new things and use new weapons (Isachenkov, 2016). It has been said that the daily cost of Russia’s operations in the Syrian conflict were 2.5 million dollars.
In addition to Russia helping Al-Assad, according to other reports, Russia is also trying to build a relationship with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), even at the expense of Russia’s relationship with Turkey. As Reynolds (2016) writes: in February, “in what can only be described as a menacing signal to Ankara, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (or PYD) formally opened a representative office in Moscow, its first in a foreign country.” In addition to this representative office, the Kurdish fighting forces Popular People’s Units are also benefiting from Russian weapons, as well as Russian military action (Reynolds, 2016). All of this is especially troubling to Turkey, who views this group as a terrorist organization, and who worries that increased gains by the Kurds in Syria is not only being helped by the Kurds in Turkey, but that the two might lead to instability and increased demands within Turkey’s borders. It has been argued that the Syrian conflict, and the PKK’s actions have also helped their image internationally (Reynolds, 2016), something that Turkey adamantly disagrees with, seeing as they view the PKK as a terror organization.
While some have suggested that the biggest threat to the West in the Syrian conflict are the jihadist groups, others such as U.S. Army General Mark Milley said that the real existential threat to America is Russia, due to its large nuclear weapons capabilities (Browne, 2016). Thus, there are many who continue to watch Russia’s moves in Syria, and elsewhere.
But, again, Putin’s actions in Syria seem to be helping him, both in terms of Putin’s interest in keeping Al-Assad in power, but also with regards to Russia’s influence in the region, all at the expense of the United States. As Dennis Ross (2016) writes: “Not only are they not being penalized for their Syrian intervention, but the president himself is now calling Vladimir Putin and seeking his help to pressure Assad—effectively recognizing who has leverage. Middle Eastern leaders recognize it as well and realize they need to be talking to the Russians if they are to safeguard their interests. No doubt, it would be better if the rest of the world defined the nature of power the way Obama does. It would be better if, internationally, Putin were seen to be losing. But he is not.” Plus, now a number of countries traditionally more allied to the United States are making overtures towards Putin (Ross, 2016). Russia also sees itself in indirection conflict with the United States (and NATO), and also terrorists, and has attempted to argue that they are in a defensive mode as a justification for actions in the Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere. Furthermore, “According to the general in charge of Russia’s NATO-facing Western Military District, Russia’s new definition of war “is never declared, and never ends”. What is more, it can achieve its aims without using armed force at all” (Giles, 2016). So, Russia’s support of al-Assad in Syria is just part of their military strategy.
And as we discuss below, Russia did remove some of its troops from Syria. But, in June of 2016, according to a former Russian official, they were also considering the possibility of sending more to fight rebels, which they did end up doing. This was one of the more open admissions of their fight against rebels, and not the Islamic State. Later developments have showed continued Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict, and has been willing to target anti-Assad rebels (as well as non-combatants). Russia continues to support Syria, and has aided the government in their fight against rebel forces.
Iran and the Syrian Conflict
One of the other key supporters of Bashar al-Assad is the country of Iran. The relations between Iran and Syria have been strong for decades. With regards to the Syrian conflict, Iranian leaders have sent members of the Revolutionary Guards into Syria to help al-Assad hold onto power. According to reports in May of 2016, “The Revolutionary Guards has now dispatched a conglomerate of more than 60,000 troops on the ground, consisting of 8,000 notorious Quds Force members, thousands of foot-soldiers and mercenaries from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Pakistan” (Kia, 2016) (Iran has recruiting centers to help bring in additional fighters from Afghanistan. They often promise money, a home, and an Iranian passport. Peterson (2016) writes that “Some Afghans fight willingly for religious reasons, eager to take up a cause of “defending” Shiite shrines in Syria. Others fight for cash, upwards of $700 per month, or choose to realize promises of Iranian citizenship, schooling for their children, and jobs, if they survive the frontline – benefits usually beyond reach for Afghan migrants in Iran[,]” whereas others still say they are being coerced (Peterson, 2016)).
The Iran-Syrian relationship is one of the most established alliances in the Middle East. Iran has continued to support Syria, and Syria has been a consistent ally to Iran. Some argue that part of the reason is that Iran is a Shia majority state, and al-Assad is from the Alawite sect of Islam. However, there is much more to this relationship than merely religious similarities. Iran’s strongest state ally in the region has been Al-Assad. He is believed to not only support Iran, but also Hezbollah in Lebanon, an organization quite close to Iran. Therefore, for Iran, not only have they worked to building influence in Iraq, but they are also looking to shore up ties to Syria, and by keeping al-Assad in power, they can continue to have a great power position in the Middle East.
Furthermore, Iran and Russia have also been working on helping each other. For example, in April of 2016, it was reported that Russia has been supplying Iran with a S-300 anti-missile defense system. It is important to note that ” this system is one of the most advanced systems of its kind, able to engage multiple aircraft and ballistic missiles around 150 km. away, which would make it more difficult to attack the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities from the air” (Keinon, 2016). Now, while there have been questions as to how close this relationship can get between Iran and Russia (Sharafedin & Kelly, 2016), the two sides continue to build their ties with one another.
Now, the Iran’s involvement in Syria has not been without consequences. For example, it was reported in May of 2016 that 21 members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were killed in Mazandaran (which is in northern Syria). It was believed that when many rebels took over the village of Khan Touman (Aji & Karimi, 2016) (see more on this below)). According to reports, “The town was captured by a coalition known as Jaish al-Fatah, or Army of Conquest, an ultraconservative group led by the Nusra Front, and the jihadi militias Jund al-Aqsa and Ahrar al-Sham.” (Aji & Karimi, 2016).
In fact, Iran’s cost of fighting in Syria has been high. as Wright (2016) notes, “Between 2013 and mid-2015, Iranian news agencies identified more than four hundred martyrs. Since last September, another three hundred fighters have died in Syria, according to the latest month-by-month tally published by the Levantine Group, an independent Middle East risk-assessment firm. “Iran has suffered as many (or even more) casualties in the past six months than in the first two years of its operations,” the group reported. The two deadliest months were April (fifty deaths) and February (sixty-four).”
Along with their own fighters in Syria, it has also been reported that Iran has brought in Afghan refugees into Syria to help Iran and al-Assad. According to reports, “The Afghans began showing up in Syria in 2013, initially to protect Shiite shrines. Iran calls them “volunteers,” but they were promised residence permits, better jobs, and other perks if they joined the equivalent of a foreign legion—and were threatened with deportation if they refused, according to Human Rights Watch. The BBC Persian Service reported that Iran is now deploying thousands of Afghans to fight alongside Syria’s own forces.” There have been over two hundred Afghans who have died in Syria. Iran is also ensuring the funerals are military ones for these fighters.
Again, while there are many casualties for Iran in the Syrian conflict, the thought of losing a key ally in Bashar al-Assad continues to keep Iran quite active in Syria. Thus, it continues to speak on behalf of Al-Assad, and also Russia, all the while critical of the United States’ position and activities in the Syrian conflict.
Thus, Iran has continued to provide support for Al-Assad. In fact, Iranian and other Shia backed forces were at the forefront of the late 2016 pro-government attack on rebel-controlled areas in Aleppo. Not only did this lead to increased control of areas in Aleppo by forces loyal to Al-Assad, but “The militias appear to be forming a sophisticated ground coalition that has further bolstered Iran’s influence in Syria, alarming even officials in Assad’s government, said Phillip Smyth, an expert on Shiite militias at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They are building a force on the ground that, long after the war, will stay there and wield a strong military and ideological influence over Syria for Iran,” he said. “And there is not much Assad can do to curb the rising influence of these groups, even though Syrian officials are clearly concerned about this, because the militiamen are literally preventing the overthrow of his government”” (Naylor, 2016). These forces are pushing religious-based Shia ideology (Naylor, 2016).
Hezbollah and the War in Syria
Hezbollah, the Islamist force in Lebanon has also entered into the Syrian war, with as many as 8,000 fighters in the country (Cavanaugh, 2016). Hezollah is a strong ally to Bashar al-Assad and Iran, and thus, for them, keeping al-Assad in power is vital. It is believed that Hezbollah receives much of its financial support, along with military weapons from Iran and Syria. Thus, for Hezbollah, their ability to continue to receive rockets, as well as financial contributions will be much easier if al-Assad stays in power. Thus, Hezbollah has been willing to go outside of its reason of formation as an organization (fighting against Israel) to focus on helping the government in Syria. Hezbollah has lost many members in this conflict, which has led to questions internally within Lebanon.
However, analysts have also noted that Hezbollah is not only showing its loyalty to al-Assad, which may continue to be rewarded if he is able to stay in power, but Hezbollah itself sees the war in Syria as an opportunity for them to increase gain additional military combat experience. It has been reported that Russia has been helping Hezbollah on the battleground, and that Hezbollah might be wanting to learn new tactics and military strategy in case of a future conflict with Israel. For example, in Darien Cavanaugh’s (2016) article Russia is teaching Hezbollah some terrifying new tricks, he writes:
Of particular concern to Israel is the expertise Hezbollah is gaining from fighting alongside Russian advisers in Syria. “For the first time in its history, Hezbollah is conducting offensive-maneuver warfare as part of its operations in Syria,” Nadav Pollak and IDF Brig. Gen. Muni Katz wrote in a December report from the Washington Institute. “The Russian intervention is only enhancing that experience, likely giving the group important lessons for future conflicts.”
“In Syria, Hezbollah has had to shift its main objectives to taking over territory and maintaining control over it, all while fighting quasi- conventional forces that use guerrilla tactics,” the report continues. “Against the IDF, the group was accustomed to fighting in small units on familiar terrain, but now it is deploying hundreds of fighters in complex offensive operations on unfamiliar territory. For Hezbollah’s commanders and fighters, such experience can change their views on the most effective way to win a battle, and Russia’s involvement means that they are learning such lessons from one of the best militaries in the world.”
He also suggests that these fighters are becoming to powerful “that they’re reportedly growing frustrated by what they consider to be an inept Syrian army” (Cavanaugh, 2016). These overall military actions by Hezbollah, along with a rocket arsenal of 100,000 plus (and precision guided missiles from Russia) (Rosen, 2015) are a concern for countries such as Israel, and others opposed to Hezbollah.
United States and the Syrian Conflict
The United States has not had an on-the-ground presence in Syria. However, they have been supplying support to the Free Syrian Army, the Democratic Forces, as well as the Kurds in the north in an attempt to fight the Islamic State. For example, the US has provided training for fighters in Jordan, so that they can then try to defeat the Islamic State (Banco, 2014). They have also carried out airstrikes against Islamic State targets. However, there has been debate and disagreement among leaders in the United States with regards to whether the U.S. should increase their activities.
The United States is clear that they want Bashar Al-Assad to leave power, suggesting that he needs to begin a transition so that Syria can have new political leadership. So, not only is the United States adamant about him leaving power (at least, these are the comments made publicly (there are some who believe the US government could allow Al-Assad to stay in power, if some shared governance structure could be in place, or if Syria was partitioned (see later in the article), but the United States also understands that the current conditions in Syria are also favoring Russia and Iran. These two countries have not only been involved in their openness of supporting Al-Assad, but they have sent in troops to make sure that he continues to hold onto power. All of this is quite troubling to the United States administration.
However, because of the heavy commitment and cost that US involvement in the Syrian conflict would require, many doubt a large US action in the country. Given the run up to the 2016 President elections, and also President Barack Obama’s last year in office, the odds of a full US presence in Syria is quite unlikely. So, discussions remain about exactly how to be involved, and more specifically, how much support should the United States and their allies provide the rebels.
But even that question is challenging to the United States. One of the problems has been which rebel group to support. As mentioned above, the United States government seems to have shifted its support away from the Free Syrian Army towards the Democratic Forces of Syria. In addition, the lines between groups are often blurred. While the groups themselves are often distinguished, different organizations have worked together on military actions.
For example, in May of 2016, rebels, led by Jabhat al-Nusra took over the village of Khan Touman, near Aleppo. This story is important for two reasons. One, “The capture [opened] up an alternate supply route to rebel-held areas of the city, connecting it to areas of Idlib that are also opposition controlled. Syrian government forces have been trying to encircle rebels in the city by cutting them off from supply routes in the north” (Al Jazeera, 2016). But second of all, this shows the difficulty of the United States and others providing weapons and other support for rebels. Given that rebels have at times been fighting with groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, it is problematic to think that these actors never work with one another. Thus, by supporting rebel forces, there is a clear possibility that it could also aid terror groups like Jabhat al-Nusra.
And as discussed above, the United States has been open about supporting the Kurdish forces in the Syrian Conflict.
Israel and the Syrian War
Concerned about the presence and actions of Iran and Hezbollah, Israel has been carrying out a series of strikes within Syria. According to an Al Jazeera report (in Cavanaugh, 2016), “
“Israel has struck weapons consignments in Syria on eight occasions since January 2013, hitting an array of sophisticated weaponry, including Iranian Fateh-110 guided missiles, SA-8 and SA-17 anti-aircraft systems, and Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles.” They go on to say that “”In each case, the weapons were allegedly earmarked for transfer to the Lebanese organization Hezbollah, a Shia group backed by Iran.”” However, despite their activities in Syria, it his reported that al-Assad has still “smuggled some long-range guided missiles and other weaponry to the militia” (Cavanaugh, 2016). There are also beliefs among some that Hezbollah has been able to possess upwards of 12 “Ytkhont anti-ship cruise miles” (Cavanaugh, 2016). In April of 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted that Israel was active in stopping weapons transfers (see article on Israel-Hezbollah relations).
The rising military capabilities of Hezbollah are viewed by some military figures in Israel as the most concerning with regards to Israeli security. Thus, for Israeli leaders supporting these activities in Syria, they view them as a counter to a potential increase in power and influence for Hezbollah and Iran, both of which have quite hostile relations with Israel, and vice-versa.
One other key interest for Israel with regards to Syria is the continued occupation of the Golan Heights. Israel occupied the Golan Heights (as well as East Jerusalem, Gaza, the West Bank, and the Sinai Peninsula during the 1967 Six Day War). For the Israeli leadership, any possible negotiation of a future Syria (and whatever that new state(s) would look like) should not include the Golan Heights. It was reported on April 17th, 2016, that Netanyahu was quoted as saying to his cabinet that “The Golan Heights will remain in Israel’s hands forever.” Netanyahu also called for the world “to recognize finally that the Golan will remain permanently under Israeli control” (Voice of America, 2016) (This of course sparked controversy at the United Nations, with the Security Council speaking out against this statement, saying that the pre-1967 borders will be adhered to, as per international law. Chinese Ambassador Liu Jieyi was quoted as saying that the Israeli “decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights was nul and void and without any international legal effect”” (Al Jazeera, 2016c: UN Rejects Israel’s claim over Syria’s Golan Heights).
Israel has been involved in the Syrian conflict through the Golan Heights. For example, in September of 2016, “Israeli aircraft struck Syrian army positions early Tuesday after stray fire from its war-torn neighbour hit the Israeli-held zone of the Golan Heights the previous day, the military said.The Israeli strike targeted “artillery positions of Syrian Regime in the central Syrian Golan Heights” in response to “a projectile” which on Monday had hit the northern Golan causing no injuries, an army statement said.A military spokeswoman told AFP Monday’s projectile was most likely not intentional, rather spillover from “internal fighting in Syria”” (AFP, 2016). This was not the first time fire from Syria entered into the Golan Heights (AFP, 2016).
In November of 2016, “Israeli jets fired two missiles from Lebanese airspace toward the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus early Wednesday, the official Syrian news agency said, in a strike on an unknown target that caused loud explosions” (Aji, 2016). Also in November, days earlier, “Israeli aircraft hit a machine gun-mounted vehicle inside Syria, killing four Islamic State-affiliated militants inside after they opened fire on a military patrol on the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan Heights. The violence appeared to be a rare case of an intentional shooting ambush by Islamic militants targeting Israeli troops” (Aji, 2016).
They have continued their military actions in Syria in 2017, going after what they say are weapons that are meant for al-Assad ally Hezbollah (AFP, 2017). Furthermore, Israeli leadership also accused Al-Assad’s forces of shooting at Israeli planes (AFP, 2017).
Egypt and the Syrian Conflict
While Egypt has not sent a military presence to Syria, the government under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has an interest in the country. El-Sisi, similar to allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United States, would prefer Al-Assad and his government to leave power in Syria. However, along with this interest, El-Sisi is also concerned with what is transpiring in Syria because of the domestic issues of terrorism that Egypt continues to face.
Egypt has continued to fight militant jihadist groups in the Sinai Peninsula for years. In particular, the government is now fighting Islamic State affiliate groups. For example, “The well-armed affiliate — known as Wilayat Sinai — has grown bolder since it asserted responsibility for the October bombing of a Russian charter flight over the Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 aboard. The group has mounted a steady stream of attacks on Egyptian soldiers, overrunning military posts and targeting them with roadside bombs” (Raghavan & Booth, 2016). This group pledged their loyalty to the Islamic State in November of 2014. It is said that they number in the hundreds (Raghavan & Booth, 2016).
As a response to the increased activity by Islamic state-related groups, Egypt has not only increased their military presence in the Sinai, but they have also been working with other actors such as Israel, as well as Hamas. It has been reported that Hamas has sent hundreds of fighters near the Gaza-Egypt border to help Egypt ensure that the Islamic-State affiliate groups won’t move into Gaza.
In addition, the Egyptian leadership has also said that it will build a barrier between Egypt and Israel, which will help its ally from Islamic State-related fighters trying to make their way into Israel (Raghavan & Booth, 2016). However, for Egypt, the fight is far from over. They continue to struggle with terror groups and networks within the country. There has even been concern by Egypt’s allies. It has been written that “The United States and Israel are particularly concerned that the militants could threaten a multinational peacekeeping effort that has overseen the peace between Egypt and Israel along the Sinai border. Some member countries providing troops could be targeted for taking part in the broader operations against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq” (Raghavan & Booth, 2016).
One more recent example of the Islamic State actions in Egypt was on Sunday, May 8th, 2016, when gunmen from the Islamic State killed eight out of uniform officers south of Cairo. The Islamic State took credit for the killings (Lee & Alkhshali, 2016).
For these reasons, Egypt is very interested in the Syrian Conflict, because Islamic State actions in that country could also have an effect on Egypt. While man of the fighters in the Sinai are local, there is still concern that Islamic State influence in Syria and Iraq could embolden the groups in Egypt (Raghavan & Booth, 2016). Thus, the Egyptian government is attempting to end the Islamic State’s activity in the region (and in the country more specifically).
Turkey and the Syrian Conflict
Turkey also have a variety of interests in the Syrian conflict. As we discuss in our article on the Kurds in Turkey, Turkey’s primary interests are ensuring that the Kurdish Popular Protection Unit’s do not increase their power in Syria. The fear for Turkey is that with a rising Kurdish power in neighboring Syria, they might attempt to support the Kurdish Worker’s Party in Turkey, which, establishing in 1984, has been fighting the Turkish state for additional rights in southeastern Turkey. The Turkish government views the YPG as a terrorist group, and has demanded that countries such as the United States also treat them as such. Turkey has continued to carry out strikes against these Kurdish forces in Syria. While they are also opposed to groups like the Islamic State, as well as the al-Assad regime, their primary interest is the Popular Protection Units.
On March 13th, 2016, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Turkey of having troops in Syria. Lavrov was quoted as saying “”Turkey has started to declare it has a sovereign right to create some safety zones on Syrian territory,” Lavrov told Russian television channel Ren-TV. “According to our data, they have already ‘dug themselves in’ several hundred meters from the border in Syria. … It’s a sort of creeping expansion.”” These statements have not been confirmed. Whether true or not, this shows the increasing hostility between Turkey and Russia as the Syrian conflict continues. Not only was Russia upset that Turkey show down one of their planes, and that they suggest Turkey is fighting in Syria, but Russia has also stated their support for the Kurds having a seat the table with regards to any potential diplomacy between the different sides in Syria (Winning, 2016).
These sorts of comments have continued to upset Turkey, who again, is on completely opposite sides of Russia in the Syrian conflict. Matters have not improved when on the same day, there was a bomb that went off in Ankara killing at least 27 people (BBC, 2016c).
Turkey itself has continued fighting against groups such as the Islamic State in Syria. For example, it was reported in late April that “Turkey has killed almost 900 alleged members of the Islamic State group since January through artillery fire and air raids in Syria, the state-run Anatolia news agency said Monday, citing military sources” (Yahoo, 2016b). They have also went after numerous ISIS cells within the borders of Turkey (Yahoo, 2016b). Erdogan has said that Turkey has killed over 3,000 Islamic State individuals (whereas the military chief put the number at 1300) (Washington Post, 2016). Furthermore, “Ankara also allows US jets to use its air base in southern Turkey for air bombardments on the extremist group in Syria” (Yahoo, 2016b).
Then, in May of 2016, Erdogan announced that Turkey was preparing entering into Syria to fight the Islamic State. This came after what the Turkish government says is Islamic State rockets coming from northern Syria into Kilis, in southern Turkey (Washington Post, 2016).
However, Turkey’s support for rebel forces in Syria has infuriated Al-Assad, who has “accused Erdogan of recently sending thousands of militants to Aleppo” (Reuters). Because of this, in June of 2016, Al-Assad said that that only would Turkey’s actions not lead to a removal of Al-Assad from power, but that their military involvement in areas such as Aleppo would be Erdogan’s graveyard for what he is trying to do with regards to altering the political landscape in Syria (Reuters, 2016). Yet, Turkey has continued to have a military presence in the northern part of Syria.
Meanwhile, Turkey has continued its fight against the Islamic State, and also Kurdish groups in Syria. Following an August 2016 terror attack in southern Turkey in which 22 people (many of them children), Turkish forces “struck ISIS position in Jerablus and struck the Democratic Union Party (PYD) positions in Manbij. Both cities are in Aleppo province and near the Turkish border” (Atay Alam, 2016). Turkey has continued to experience terror attacks within its borders. The Turkish government increased their war efforts in Syria during this time period. There were questions on whether Turkey’s operations in Syria were against jihadists such as the Islamic State, or whether Turkey was concentrating its war efforts against Kurdish forces. Turkey noted that it is fighting against the Islamic State, but also that “Ankara has said it will act in the operation against the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia who it accuses of seeking to carve out an autonomous region in northern Syria.” (Yahoo News, 2016).
It was noted that “Turkey launched an unprecedented operation inside Syria on August 24, helping Syrian rebels to rid its frontier of IS jihadists and Syrian Kurdish militia.” They have continued their support of rebel groups in the country (AFP, 2016). Turkey’s role in Syria has continued to fight both the Islamic State, and also Kurdish forces. For example, in an October 15, 2016 report, Turkey backed rebels were moving towards the Islamic State in Dabiq, Syria. Then, it was also reported on October 16, 2016 that indeed “Turkish-backed rebels have captured the symbolically important Syrian town of Dabiq from the Islamic State group, rebel commanders and monitors say. Dabiq was under “full control” of Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said” (BBC, 2016). The Turkish government was also able to take over al-Bab in February 2017, a former ISIS controlled area; this cuts off a major supply route to the organization, and thus, a key victory for anti-ISIS fighters and Turkey in particular (El Deeb, 2017).
However, despite this military victory against the Islamic State, there are some who are unhappy with Turkey’s actions in the region. After Turkey’s earlier actions in Syria, one “group claiming to represent “national Syrian forces” has vowed to fight Turkey’s military incursion in Syria, announcing its formation in a north Aleppo town that is under the administrative control of the de- facto autonomous Kurdish government. On Tuesday, the Syrian National Resistance held a press conference in Tel Rifaat to introduce its founding declaration, which was read out by Rezan Hedo, an independent member of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces’ political wing. The new group went on to launch further broadsides against Turkey, accusing Syria’s northern neighbor of perpetrating “the worst forms of genocide” against people in the region, including Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians and Chaldeans” (Business Insider, 2016).
As a response to Turkey’s actions in Syria, Al-Assad has built up its alliance with the Kurdish forces in Syria. Both Al-Assad and the Kurds are opposed to Erdogan and Turkey’s involvement in Syria. As mentioned elsewhere in this page, where it becomes problematic is that the United States is clearly backing the Syrian Democratic Forces. But for Erdogan, he wants to fight the Islamic State without any involvement from the Kurds (Ketz, 2017)
In 2017, The United States and Russia were also upset with Turkey, since they are opposed to the Kurdish forces (a US ally), and have also hit Al-Assad forces during Turkey’s fight with the Kurds, which has upset Russia, since they were said to have their an advisor based presence in the Kurdish there (El Deeb, 2017).
Interestingly, early on in the conflict, Turkey was viewed as having a critical position point, possibly even a power broker, seeing that they had some ties to both the US and also Russia. However, in late 2016 and early 2017, this changed, as “”Turkey’s valuable leverage” to disrupt that alliance “has been tossed away as the Russian military and U.S. Special Forces moved last week in Syria’s Manbij to prevent Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces from attacking the city,” wrote Ragip Soylu, a Washington-based Turkish columnist for the pro-government English language Daily Sabah newspaper” (in El Deeb, 2017).
Despite their actions in Al-Bab, and their interest in fighting the Kurds, “from the very start, a chief goal was Manbij, a small but crowded town 40 kilometers east of al-Bab that is the birthplace of one of the Arab world’s most prominent classical poets. When the U.S-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces captured the town from IS in August, Turkey sent its troops into Syria, complaining to the Americans that the Kurdish forces must retreat east across the Euphrates” (El Deeb, 2017).
This has led the US to place military personal just outside Manbij in hopes of stopping increased violence between different allies (El Deeb, 2017). In addition, as Turkish troops and their Syrian allies advanced east of al-Bab and threatened to move on Manbij, Russia brokered a deal that effectively created a buffer zone between them and Kurdish-led forces by handing over some villages to Syrian government troops” (El Deeb, 2017). However, this did not stop the fighting, as there were reports that in early March, Turkey was still pushing forward toward Manbij (El Deeb, 2017). Some, such as the Kurds, were actually upset at the US and also Russia for supporting Turkey’s actions towards al-ban, which allowed them a foothold in the region. Plus, concern about Manbij limited their March, 2017 actions towards taking Raqqa (El Deeb, 2017).
Again, while Turkey has been willing to fight the Islamic State in Syria, they are much more concerned about the increased power of the Kurdish forces, especially with increased US aid to the YPG (Foreign Policy, 2017). Thus, in 2017 Turkey not only continued to attack Kurdish forces in Syria (and Turkey), but Erdogan also made clear his frustration with US foreign policy support for the Kurds. For Erdogan, the attention is first and foremost with the Kurds, and not ISIS. As Foreign Policy (2017) notes, “Ultimately, Erdogan believed the specific threat the Islamic State posed to Turkey could be managed through a live-and-let live approach: if Turkey left the Islamic State alone in Syria, the Islamic State would not conduct attacks in Turkey. Erdogan therefore saw cooperation against the Islamic State as a favor to Washington, rather than something that was vital to Turkish national security. Thus he was intent on extracting a concession in return — namely, a commitment for the U.S. military to directly confront the Assad regime.”
Saudi Arabia and the Syrian Conflict
In early 2016, the Saudi Arabian government announced that they would consider taking military action in the Syrian conflict. For Saudi Arabia, their primary concern in Syria is Iran’s increased involvement. For Saudi Arabia, there is an ongoing rivalry with Iran that seems to have picked up even more so in recent months (we discuss Iran and Saudi Arabia here). Thus, they have made various statements to show that they are committed to entering the Syrian war. For example, ” On February 4, a military spokesman suggested that Saudi Arabia was ready to send troops ground troops to fight ISIS in Syria. A week later Saudi Arabia announced that it will send combat aircraft and soldiers to Turkey to participate in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. Three days later the Saudis launched “Northern Thunder,” described as the “largest military exercise in the history of the Middle East” (National Interest, 2016). The Saudi Arabian government has been building up a coalition of forces–over 20 countries are said to be involved. Overall, 350,000 military troops were said to engage in these training activities (National Interest, 2016).
However, while it is a real possibility that Saudi Arabia could get involved in the Syrian war, they are currently fighting a war in Yemen, and thus, there are concerns that an additional fight could weaken the regime. Moreover, with the prices of oil being low, more money on military activities could also pose additional problems for a regime that is becoming increasingly low on cash.
Yet another issue with regards to possible Saudi actions in Syria is the question about whether they are militarily powerful enough to fight Iran and Russian forces, if the conflict came to that. Militarily, it is said that “Saudi Arabia has been investing enormous sums of money into modernizing its military. Its 75,000 strong land forces are equipped with U.S.-supplied M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks and M2 Bradley armored fighting vehicles. Its air force has F-15S Strike Eagles, Eurofighter Typhoons and some older Tornados. Its air defense forces are equipped with Patriot SAMs, and they also have a ballistic missile unit operating the Chinese made DF-21” (National Interest, 2016). However, there are questions about just how combat ready the Saudi military leaders are. Thus, since there has been a reliance on outside actors to help with Saudi military goals (National Interest, 2016), not having such a commitment in this case could prove to further complicate their efforts to get involved.
February 2016 Peace Talks
The United States and Russia (along with some other members of the international community) have attempted to establish peace talks within Syria, primarily between the government forces and the anti-government FSA forces. As of now (February 25th, 2016), the hope by many is that a cease fire between these two groups will take place, and then talks will be established to discuss the end of the Syrian conflict, and the future of Syria. While there were attempts at peace talks earlier in the month, UN Syrian special envoy Staffan “De Mistura was forced to abandon the first round of talks on 3 February, saying more prepatory work was needed from the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), led by the US and Russia” (Wintour, 2016). The hope is that the new talks can begin around March 4th (Wintour, 2016).
While the ceasefire was set between the government and some of the anti-government rebels, the halt in violence did not pertain to the jihadist groups ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. Because of this, the concern is that countries like Russia will use the ceasefire to say they are fighting al-Nusra, but in reality, use this time to strike FSA and other anti-government forces (Wintour, 2016).
The question by some of the leaders from the United States is whether al-Assad is willing to offer any serious compromise during the peace talks. Some are skeptical, particularly since al-Assad himself noted in February that his goal it to re-establish control over all of Syria (Black, & Shaheen, 2016). For Kerry, he thinks that he will know in the upcoming months whether al-Assad is serious about negotiating or not (Black & Shaheen, 2016).
However, not all countries are optimistic about peace. For example, British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond said that
“Whatever the technicalities, the big picture is this: unless the level of Russian airstrikes dramatically decreases, this ceasefire will not hold because the moderate armed opposition cannot lay down their weapons and will not lay down their weapons while they are being annihilated from the air.
“The ceasefire agreement will allow continuing operations against Daesh [Isis] and al-Nusra, and no one would disagree with that. The problem is the Russians claim to date that all of their action has been against those groups, so on the face of it the Russians could be entering into this arrangement on the basis that they are not going to change their behaviour at all. If so, it will fail before it gets off the ground so everything hinges on Russia’s good intentions” (Black & Shaheen, 2016).
Still, others are unwilling to accept this ceasefire as is currently written. Turkey, for example, is upset that the U.S. is not labeling the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as a terror group. Thus, Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was quoted as saying that: ““The ceasefire is not binding for us when there is a situation that threatens Turkey’s security; we will take necessary measures against both the YPG and Daesh [Isis] when we feel the need to” (Wintour, 2016).
Nonetheless, the peace talks continued to be set up and held in March. For example, The United Nations Mediator, Staffan de Mistura was meeting with different groups in March. It was also reported that on March 17th, 2016, he met with another group, a “pro-Moscow” group (referred to as the “Moscow Group”). This group is now included with others such as the “High Negotiations Committee” (HNC), as well as the “Cairo Group” and the “Istana Group.” This new group is made of groups who seem to be willing to allow Al-Assad to stay in the post-conflict Syria, which is completely the opposite of the feelings that the HNC has with regards for Al-Assad and what they want Syria to look like politically (Abou Rahal & Simon, 2016).
Another division between the Moscow Group and the HNC has been the position on whether to allow the Kurds to have a seat at the Syrian peace process negotiating table. The Moscow Group wanted the Kurds–who have significant control of territory in northern Syria–to be represented (Abou Rahal & Simon, 2016).
Interestingly, the Kurds have been looking to announce their own autonomous region (Abou Rahal & Simon, 2016).
Russia’s (Temporary) Removal of Troops in Syria
On Monday March 14th, 2016, it was reported that Russian President Vladamir Putin announced the planned removal of Russian troops from Syria. Interestingly, it was noted that Putin ensured “his move to coincide with the launch of Syria peace talks Monday — an end game that allows the Russian leader to cash in on his gains and reduce his risks in the conflict” (Isachenkov & Keaten, 2016). Again, many were much more optimistic of these rounds of talks compared to earlier ones. Plus, it seems, that for Putin, he was able to help Al Assad stabilize their regime, as well as gain territory in Western Syria, without significant military costs. If he did not pull out, he would risk a potential rise in conflict with the possible increased actions of Saudi Arabia, their coalition, as well as Turkey, who continued to face terror attacks by the PKK forces in southern Turkey. Interestingly, it was reported that “[Putin] He also informed President Barack Obama of his move in a phone call, emphasizing the importance of U.S.-Russian coordination “for preserving the cease-fire, ensuring humanitarian aid deliveries to the blockaded settlements and conducting an efficient struggle against terrorist groups,” according to the Kremlin, which added that the conversation was “business-like and frank”” (Isachenkov & Keaten, 2016).
Putin views Russian actions in the Syrian conflict as highly successful. For Putin, the conflict did not cost them “much” in terms of public opinion compared to the benefit of keeping his ally, al-Assad, in power. In addition, Putin has referenced this “success” when speaking to his own officials. As Isachenkov (2016) writes, Speaking during a Kremlin ceremony honoring Russian military officers who have taken part in the Syrian campaign, Putin said that the action in Syria has demonstrated Russia’s “leadership, will and responsibility” in fighting “enemies of civilization.”
However, it must be noted that some reports suggest Russia is not leaving entirely (Isachenkov & Keaten, 2016), which seems to be an insurance policy in the case that the international talks on Syria do not lead to some sort of peace agreement. In fact, on March 17th, 2016, Putin himself stated that they (Russia) could re-establish their presence in Syria in “a few hours” (Isachenkov, 2016).
Another reason for this statement seems to be his ability to counter the possibility of Saudi Arabia, as well as Turkey increasing their involvement in the Syrian conflict. In fact, Putin also emphasized that the Russian military will keep all its air defense missile systems, including the powerful S-400s, at its air base in Syria. It will stand ready to use them “against any targets that we would consider a threat to our servicemen…” (Isachenkov, 2016). Right now, Saudi Arabia is busy in Yemen, but they have an interest in increasing involvement in Syria. And Turkey continues to deal with terror attacks by radical Kurdish actors in Ankara, but who have links to the YPG in Syria.
Moreover, there have also been questions about whether Russia’s actions are actually sending a message to Al-Assad. Russia, having established what it wants (keeping Al-Assad in power), disagrees with Al-Assad about his comments with regards to taking back all of Syria. That is not a war that Russia wants to be involved in. Therefore, some have argued that by removing their troops now, they may be trying to do so to make it more likely that Assad would be open to negotiating a peace deal (in Tétrault-Farber, 2016). For Putin, the short time in Syria seemed to be enough to reach his objectives (keeping al-Assad in power). However, a longer fight for more territory could pose problems for Russia, and thus, Putin is careful to ensure that this does not turn into a “Vietnam” (Tétrault-Farber, 2016) or Afghanistan (like the former USSR war in the country) (Karam, 2016). Therefore, for him, having the Syrian conflict end with Al-Assad still controlling at least parts of the country is acceptable.
But, as mentioned it seems that they are not turning away from Syria, but rather, are willing to take additional risks to keep Al Assad in power. In June of 2016, a former Russian official told Al Jazeera that there were plans to possibly send in Russian forces to help Al Assad fight rebel groups.
The Syrian Conflict: May-June 2016
The dim hope that many were holding onto with regards to a possible Syrian peace to the conflict seems to be well out of reach, at least for the time being. Since discussions of peace talks months ago, the situation in Syria has continued to become even more unstable. In late April and early May, The Syrian government has carried out a series of air strikes in the northwestern city of Aleppo. Hundreds have died from late April to early May, which included deaths from a hospital bombing in a rebel controlled part of the city (McKirdy, 2016).
This comes at a time when some members of the international community are working to advance a truce between Al Assad and rebel forces.
United States Secretary of State John Kerry spoke about the violence between rebels and Al-Assad government forces, saying that the Syrian conflict “in many ways out of control and deeply disturbing”” (BBC, 2016b).
In addition, also in early May, Secretary John Kerry gave a warning to Bashar Al-Assad, saying that he must begin the political transition by the beginning of August. Secretary Kerry was quoted as saying that “”The target date for the transition is 1st of August[.]” He went on to say: “”So we’re now coming up to May. So either something happens in these next few months, or they are asking for a very different track”” (Klapper, 2016).
While this sounds good–for Al-Assad to give up power, in reality, there are many who think that Al-Assad will not listen to Kerry’s demand. The reason? The United States has made calls onto Al-Assad before, and when he failed to adhere to their requests (or threats), very little happened to him. Take the issue of chemical weapons. President Obama said that Al-Assad’s forces using chemical weapons would be a “red line” for the United States. And yet, upon reports that such weapons were used, the United States did not enter into Syria (Klapper, 2016). As Klapper (2016) writes, ” it’s unlikely that the Obama administration, so long opposed to an active American combat role in Syria, would significantly boost its presence beyond the 300 special forces it has authorized thus far in the heart of a U.S. presidential election season.”
Plus, as Fyodor Lukyanov of Russia in Global Affairs says, “I really don’t see the Obama administration agreeing to something like that in its final months in office. He’s focused on other things, and doesn’t want a major crisis to blow up in the Middle East,” says Mr. Lukyanov. “Everything we know about Obama suggests he isn’t interested in taking risks like that. Also, the US must have learned from that Afghanistan adventure about the dire consequences of weaponizing jihadis”” (Weir, 2016). So, the question will be whether the US will get more involved, and even if they don’t do so directly, whether they are willing to provide rebels with advanced weaponry (Weir, 2016).
If something like this happens, the concern is that this could lead to an escalated proxy war between major power the United States and Russia (Weir, 2016).
The issue with regards to the US demand is that with recent developments in Syria, the chance that Al-Assad will give in and remove himself forms power seems to be rather remote. Al-Assad, with Russia, have been going at the rebels, being able to weaken them significantly in late 2015 and 2016. Al-Assad seems to have little pressure to stop fighting rebels, let alone to give up power. Therefore, it seems that while the Obama administration are hoping for a change in leadership in Syria, the reality of this happening now seems slim.
It is for this reason that the United States (and rebel forces that the government is supporting) continues to be very upset at what is happening in Syria. For them, “they are frustrated over the lack of movement in the Geneva peace talks: in particular, no clear signs of a political transition that would remove the regime of Bashar al-Assad” (Weir, 2016).
Plus, what made matters even worse in the context of a halt in conflict has been Al-Assad’s continued fighting in areas such as Aleppo, as well as his statements (in June of 2016) about gaining back “every inch” of the country (Reuters, 2016).
(With regards to US intervention in Syria, it is also important to note that at least one member of the Obama administration–Secretary John Kerry–called for more direct US action in Syria. According to a recording of Kerry speaking to Syrians (reported on October 1st, 2016), he can be heard saying that “”I think you’re looking at three people, four people in the administration. I lost the argument. I’ve argued for the use of force. I’m the guy who stood up and announced that we’re going to attack Assad for the use of weapons” (Labott & Browne, 2016). The issue was when Assad used chemical weapons. Kerry was also critical of Congress for not even voting on the issue, saying “We have a Congress that will not authorize our use of force,” (Labott & Browne, 2016)).
Kerry spoke about the idea of an intervention further during this meeting on October 1st, 2016. According to the report (Labott & Browne, 2016), Kerry was quoted as saying:
“The problem is the Russians don’t care about international law and we do. And we don’t have a basis, our lawyers tell us, unless we have a Security Council resolution,” he said.“They were invited in, we were not,” he added, referring to Moscow’s military operations in Syria.“We don’t behave like Russians. It’s just a different standard,” Kerry said.“The only reason they are letting us fly is because we are going after ISIL,” Kerry said, using another term for ISIS. “If we were going after Assad, we would have to take out all the air defenses and we don’t have a legal justification for doing that.”Kerry added, “So far, American legal theory does not buy into the so-called right to protect.”“Nobody (is) more frustrated than me,” Kerry told the gathering.
The Syrian Conflict: September 2016 and the Attempted Cease-Fire
The United States and Russia were working to establish some sort of cease-fire within Syria. On September 10th, 2016, a ceasefire that would take effect over much of the conflict. The US and Russian officials also announced that after the cease-fire, that there would be coordinated efforts–by partnering together–to work together in fighting the Islamic State. United States Secretary of State John Kerry called the agreement a “turning point” in the Syrian conflict, if the agreement would be adhered to. Secretary Kerry was quoted as saying, “Today the United States and Russia are announcing a plan which we hope will reduce violence, ease suffering and resume movement toward a negotiated peace and a political transition in Syria,” Kerry said. “We are announcing an arrangement that we think has the capability of sticking, but it is dependent on people’s choices”” (Yahoo News, 2016). He also said “”It has the ability to stick, provided the regime and the opposition both meet their obligations, which we — and we expect other supporting countries — will strongly encourage them to do” (Yahoo News, 2016).
There are a number of points that the United States and Russia agreed to with regards to the Syrian cease fire. The United States and Russia have agreed to help one another by sharing information against ISIS forces, and also work in tandem to fight against the group. Furthermore, Al-Assad could still use his military, but only against the Islamic State. This would leave the US and Russia to focus their efforts against the Islamic State, and Jabhat Al-Nusra (who changed their name to Fateh al-Sham. Thus, what makes this truce different from the last attempt is the new coordination between the two major powers (Klapper & Keaten, 2016).
There have been questions of course on whether this deal will be adhered to by the different actors, particularly as fighting has been at a high level during the summer and into September, particularly around Aleppo (Yahoo, 2016). The case-fire seemed to hold up relatively well the first day after it went into effect, although, according to reports, “residents in the divided northern city of Aleppo said via text message that a government helicopter had dropped explosive cylinders on a rebel-held district. And in the southern province of Dara’a, a rebel faction said in a statement that it had killed four government soldiers. By midnight, opposition factions had reported 10 violations by government forces” (Barnard & Gladstone, 2016). Ensuring that the cease-fire is so important, especially since the agreement first calls for a week in which humanitarian aid can be shipped to those in need (Klapper & Keaton, 2016). So, as long as the fighting continues, there is a chance that much needed aid will not be as easily delivered. Then, following the humanitarian aid, then the coordinated efforts between the US and Russia are expected to commence.
However, there is a concern on the longevity of such an agreement. As Klapper & Keaton (2016) note: “But as with previous blueprints for peace, Saturday’s plan appears to lack enforcement mechanisms. Russia could, in theory, threaten to act against rebel groups that break the deal. But if Assad bombs his opponents, the U.S. is unlikely to take any action against him given Obama’s longstanding opposition to entering the civil war.” Even some within the US administration have questioned the likelihood of this truce holding. For example, on Monday, September 12th, 2016, Josh Earnest, who is the White House Press Secretary, said “Based on our collective experience here on observing the situation…I think we have some reasons to be skeptical that the Russians are able or are willing to implement the arrangement consistent with the way its been described” (Barnard & Gladstone, 2016).
Humanitarian Aid Delays Following September 2016 Syrian Cease Fire
Sadly, despite days after the announcement of the cease-fire in September of 2016, there was no humanitarian aid going into Syria. The reason, according to Al Jazeera, was “that no route for the delivery of aid has been agreed upon yet” (Al Jazeera, 2016). Some of the challenges have included the Syrian government unwilling to allow aid to go through parts of Aleppo controlled by rebels unless they work with Syria and the United Nations. The Syrian Foreign Minister also did not want any conveys from Turkey in the country, saying that “Commenting on the Turkish regime’s statements highlighting its intention to send materials disguised as humanitarian aid to Aleppo city, the Syrian Arab Republic announces its rejection to allow such materials to enter no matter who provides them, including the Turkish regime in particular, without coordination with the Syrian government and the UN” (Al Jazeera, 2016). However, despite these restrictions, Turkey said that it was still planning on sending aid to Aleppo.
US Coalition Striking Syrian Military
Tensions between US and Russian leaders over Syria escalated following reports that US coalition forces struck government troops during the cease-fire period. According to reports,
On Saturday [September 17th], about 30 minutes after precision bombs from an armada of American, British, Danish, and Australian warplanes began smashing into a large group of Islamic State fighters gathered near Deir el-Zour, Syria, the phone rang.
But there was a problem. No one at the operations center for the U.S.-led coalition could figure out what the Russian officer on the other end of the line was on about.
So he hung up, and called back.
By time the Russian officer found his designated contact — who was away from his desk — and explained that the coalition was actually hitting a Syrian army unit, “a good amount of strikes” had already taken place, U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. John Thomas told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday.
U.S. commanders called off the strike within minutes, but the damage had been done. The incident Saturday killed an estimated 60 Syrian soldiers in what was the coalition’s first inadvertent attack on Syrian troops in the two-year air war. But it came at a tense time, as the week-long ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia was less than 48 hours from completion (McLeary, 2016).
Following this event, Russia called for a meeting at the United Nations Security Council to discuss this matter, which led to a sharp response by US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power.
Humanitarian Convey Hit
On Monday, September 19th, 2016, it was reported that a humanitarian aid convey headed into Syria was hit. According to reports, “United Nations officials were dumfounded by the attack on the convoy of 31 trucks, which was escorted by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and carrying food, medicine, and supplies bound for rebel-held areas of Western Aleppo Province. The convoy was amongst the first to try to deliver humanitarian aid to these areas, a relief plan permitted under the cease-fire agreement” (Barnard & Gordon, 2016). Reports note that a minimum of 18 of the 31 trucks were struck, and that there were individuals hurt and also killed as a result of the attacks. According to reports, “[w]itnesses and rescuers said the convoy appeared to have been hit by multiple airstrikes, first destroying trucks and then two more hitting rescue workers as they helped the wounded” (Barnard & Gordon, 2016).
Secretary of State John Kerry still worked to maintain the cease-fire, although “The Russians, however, defended the Syrian military. A senior Defense Ministry official in Moscow said it was “senseless” for the Syrian government to respect a cease-fire that he said had been repeatedly violated by Mr. Assad’s enemies” (Barnard & Gordon, 2016). According to US officials on Tuesday, September 21st, they believed that Russia was “probably responsible” for the attack (Schmitt, Gordon, & Sengupta, 2016). One official was quoted as saying that “We have a very good picture of the skies over Syria, as well as where there’s activity…We know the plane in question was Russian, not Syrian, and was directly overhead” (Schmitt, Gordon, & Sengupta, 2016). Another official was quoted as saying, “We have no indication that anything other than Russian tactical aircraft were in the air at the time the convoy was struck, to include both strike and reconnaissance aircraft” (Schmitt, Gordon, & Sengupta, 2016). Further aid was then suspended from entering Syria.
Following these events, the cease-fire has been ignored, and Russia continued providing support for Al Assad as the Syrian government carried out additional fighting in Aleppo.
The Syrian Conflict: October 2016-December 2016
Not only did the cease fire break down in September of 2016, but in October of 2016, it was reported that Russia deployed an anti-missile defense system into Syria. This is the first noted occasion of Russia bringing such a weapon in the Syrian Conflict (Browne & Starr, 2016). According to reports, this system “is a newer, modified version of the S-300VM, also known as the SA-23” (Browne & Starr, 2016). What this allows is Russia to have further influence in Syria by expanding their capabilities to go after anti-aircraft fire. It has been reported that the Syrian and Russian militaries have been using aircraft fire in the country. It is important to note that prior to this move, “the Russians have had air defense that lets them see north to the Turkish border, so this expands the envelope potentially in a militarily significant manner” (Browne & Starr, 2016). Furthermore, Russia has also told the United States to be very careful before considering action in Aleppo, and that they could shoot down US warplanes flying in Syria (Milanian, 2016). According to “[Russian] General Konashenkov…: “Of particular concern is information that the initiators of such provocations are representatives of the CIA and the Pentagon, who in September reported to the [US] President on the alleged controllability of ‘opposition’ fighters, but today are lobbying for ‘kinetic’ scenarios in Syria” (Milanian, 2016). Thus, Russia seems to have issued a threat in response to the possibility of US involvement in Syria against government forces. It has been argued that this missile defense “S-300 system will improve Russia’s ability to control air space in Syria, where Moscow’s forces support the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and could be aimed at deterring tougher U.S. action, they said. “The S-300 basically gives Russia the ability to declare a no-fly zone over Syria,” said Justin Bronk, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. “It also makes any U.S. attempt to do so impossible. Russia can just say: ‘We’re going to continue to fly and anything that tries to threaten our aircraft will be seen as hostile and destroyed'” (Stubbs & Tsvetkova, 2016).
Reuters has been collecting data on Russian involvement in Syria, and the organization said that following the breakdown of the cease-fire in September, 2016, that “The data points to a doubling of supply runs by air and sea compared to the nearly two-week period preceding the truce. It appears to be Russia’s biggest military deployment to Syria since President Vladimir Putin said in March he would pull out some of his country’s forces” (Stubbs & Tsvetkova, 2016).
Thus, with the help of Russia, the Syrian military continued its push into Aleppo, and according to reports on October 6th, 2016, were able to secure a part of a strategic neighborhood in the eastern part of the city. According to reports, “An army unit in cooperation with the supporting forces carried out a ‘swift’ operation against the fortified sites of the terrorist organizations in Bustan al-Basha neighborhood in Aleppo city” (Dewan, 2016). This area is important militarily for Al-Assad and his military backers not only because the government lost this area in 2013 to rebels, but also that “Bustan al-Basha is on the front line between besieged rebel-held eastern Aleppo and government-held areas in the center and west of the city” (Dewan, 2016). The Syrian government and Russia were–in large part–able to put pressure on rebel forces through their air strikes. Staffan de Mistura, who serves as the UN Special Envoy for Syria argued that if the air campaigns were not halted, that only would all of Aleppo be destroyed (Dewan, 2016).
At this time, hundreds of thousands of citizens continued to be in areas were besiegement had been taking place. Jan Egeland, who serves as the top post for the UN-backed humanitarian task force in Syria, said that 861,000 Syrians are cut off from any supplies (Dewan, 2016). Aid continued to be demanded, yet, very little has been allowed to enter. It was also reported that Aleppo no longer had one functioning hospital left, as bombing and fighting intensified during this period.
The fight over Aleppo continued in November and December of 2016. (Here is a breakdown of how Aleppo was controlled during this period). During this period, with Shia forces taking the lead (Naylor, 2016) and continued help from Russia, it was reported that pro-Assad forces were able to take half of Eastern Aleppo against rebel forces.
This was heightened by infighting between rebel forces. According to reports, “As the Syrian government and its allies prepared to ramp up their attack on Aleppo in November, one of the rebel groups defending the opposition-held part of the city took up arms against another, seizing its stores of ammunition, fuel and food. The incident near an Aleppo frontline underlined the rebel rivalries that only worsened in the face of an unprecedented onslaught by Russian-backed government forces, supported by Shi’ite militias from across the region (Perry & Al-Khalidi, 2016). The same report goes on to note that “The unexpectedly rapid retreat in Aleppo is provoking recriminations among an opposition divided by local rivalries as well as ideological differences between jihadists and more nationalist groups” (Perry & Al-Khalidi, 2016).
Failed UN Resolutions in Syria
The divisions between members of the UN Security Council, was further evident when, on October 8th, 2016, a West backed resolution on Syria, as well as a Russian backed resolution were both defeated during a meeting at the UNSC. According to reports, “Russia vetoed a French-drafted resolution demanding an immediate halt to the bombing campaign that the Syrian government and Russia are carrying out against rebel-held districts in Aleppo. The rival Russian draft which made no mention of a bombing halt was rejected because it failed to get the minimum nine “yes” votes needed for approval by the 15-member council” (Lederer, 2016). It should noted that “The French-backed resolution received 11 “yes” votes, two “no” votes from Russia and Venezuela, and abstentions from China and Angola. The Russian resolution received four “yes” votes, nine “no” votes, and two abstentions” (Lederer, 2016). Vitaly Churkin, the Russian Ambassador to the UN noted that the countries at the Security Council went ahead with the meeting, despite knowing that this was going to happen (Lederer, 2016).
Representatives with the west (the US, Britain, France, along with Ukraine) showed their frustration with the conflict, walking out when Bashar Ja’afari, Syria’s ambassador, began speaking following the resolution vote. France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who gave a speech prior to the official vote being held, said that the Russia and Syrian airstrikes had no relation to fighting terrorism, and also that what they were doing was “…the annihilation of Aleppo” (Lederer, 2016). In addition, as reports note, “He compared Aleppo’s likely fate to Guernica during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, Srebrenica during the Bosnian war and the Chechen capital Grozny which was pummeled by the Russian army in the mid-1990s” (Lederer, 2016). Britain’s UN ambassador Matthew Rycroft spoke about the failure of Russia’s UN resolution, speaking to Churkin, which he stated that “A lonely veto and then just four votes in favor of your text — a double humiliation.” He also said that “”This text was a cynical attempt to divert attention from your veto today that once again denied any hope to the people of Aleppo,” and also that “”It’s a sham, just as Russia’s hollow commitment to a political process in Syria is a sham”” (Lederer, 2016). Furthermore, the United States deputy ambassador David Pressman was also quoted as saying that Al Assad and Russia will both argue that what they are doing is fighting terrorism, and that “”What Russia wants is for there to be more talk while they seek to take the city by brutal force”. He also added that “”What we want is less talk and more action for them to stop the slaughter”” (Lederer, 2016). Churkin, in response, called what was being said by the US and also Britain as “provocative rhetoric” (Lederer, 2016).
The Syrian Conflict: November 2016
The Russian government carried out new airstrikes following a month gap from the previous strikes. According to reports (on November 15th, 2016), the Russian government stated that they would embark on a new air campaign against rebel controlled areas in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Russian leaders have stated that the airstrikes in Syria would go after ammunition storage facilities, along with weapons factories and rebel training grounds in the area of Idlib and also in Homs. But there were reports of all three cities having been struck (Mroue, 2016). On the same day, reports have come out saying that pro-Assad airstrikes hit three hospitals. As it was noted, “The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said an airstrike hit the Baghdad Hospital in the rebel-held village of Awaijel, west of Aleppo, in the early hours of 15 November.” But it was not know for certain who was behind these latest hospital strikes (Paton, 2016).
The possibility of partitioning Syria
There are a lot of questions about the peace attempts in Syria. One of the related questions is that if these Syrian peace talks do not go according to plan, some, such as United States Secretary of State John Kerry said that a “Plan B” could include the possibility of a partition of Syria. He was quoted as saying that “[i]t may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria if we wait much longer.” It is unknown whether al-Assad will agree to any partition. There are groups such as the Kurds who may want their own territory following the conflict. However, there are still numerous questions with regards to a possible partition, particularly if international actors have their own interests (for example, how would the Turkish government respond to demands by the Popular Protection Units’ demands for autonomy or independence?).
Other countries such as Russian leaders stated that there was no alternative to the peace discussions, thus suggesting that they were in opposition to the notion of a partition plan for Syria. However, there is a belief among some that Russian President Vladamir Putin might actually be willing to break the country up, so long as al-Assad stays in power and governs the regions of strategic importance (Bertrand, 2016b).
It has been noted that “Since intervening on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in late September, Russia has used airstrikes to create a buffer zone between rebel-held territory in the southern Idlib province and the traditional homeland of the Assads’ Alawite sect in the Latakia governorate. The airstrikes have also targeted rebel-controlled territory just north of Homs that borders this so-called Alawi canton” (Bertrand, 2016b). Thus, Russia could be accepting an area of primary Alawite citizens governed by Al-Assad, and allow the rebels to have their own territory in areas that they currently control. For them, while not ideal, Mark Galeotti argues that ““A defensible, economically viable and politically more homogeneous ‘Alawistan’ would both ensure they retain a client-ally in the region and yet also be a much more manageable unit to have to support and project.”” (in Bertrand, 2016b).
However, even this option is not without its problems. For example, there are still areas which have more than one actor holding power in the different parts of the cities for example. In these cases–such as in Aleppo (Weir, 2016), some question whether every area in Syria can be clearly divided without another group contesting control.
Drafting of a new Syrian Constitution?
According to a report by Al-Akhbar (in Abboud, 2016) in late May of 2016, Russia was in the process of finalizing a draft of a new Syrian constitution. In this draft of the constitution, presidential powers would be greatly reduced, and the new government would be much more decentralized, with increased divisions of power, along with removal of Baathist ideology in the constitution.
The reason for these inclusions is because of the belief that in order to appease rebel forces, while not completely removing Al-Assad from power, that there would need to be some compromise on Al-Assad’s rule. It is believed that the United States also backed this version of the constitution (Abboud, 2016). Russia’s attention to the new constitution in Syria came after January 2016 statements by Putin in which he said that “”I believe it’s necessary to move towards constitutional reform [in Syria]. It’s a complicated process, of course. And after that, on the basis of the new constitution, [Syria should] hold early presidential and parliamentary elections” (Abboud, 2016).
However, it is important to note that while the new constitution draft calls for increased powers for the Council of Ministers, Al-Assad (and the presidency) would still carry great authority. For example, while the Council of Ministers would be tasked with selecting high level economic and also judicial positions, this council itself is chosen by the president (Abboud, 2016). In addition, and “More importantly, the president would retain oversight and control of the military and security apparatus. The division of political power may ultimately be cosmetic, with the main levers of political and security power remaining concentrated in the Presidency, with only certain responsibilities devolved to other political bodies” (Abboud, 2016).
Defeating ISIS in Raqqa
Late 2016 and Early 2017 had various actors focusing on moving towards the Islamic State’s main Syrian stronghold of Raqqa. For example, the Kurdish forces began their push towards Raqqa. However, others, such as Turkish fighters have also set their sites on this city, in the hopes of defeating the Islamic State.
While both have made headways towards Raqqa, the Kurdish forces, with the help of American fighters, gained significant progress during this time. In fact, as of mid-March, the Kurds, as well as the Syrian regime, are around much of the city; “”They’re surrounded on all sides. The Kurds are to the east, southeast, and west. The regime is south,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman” (Ketz, 2017).
While this is of course shows the growing power of the Kurds and the government against ISIS, Turkey is far behind, as they do not have nearly the same access to Raqqa that the Kurds have. This has to do with them not have control of any roads to Raqqa.
Now, none of this is to say that the government and the Kurds are in a complete and unbreakable alliance. In fact, there have been reports of them fighting with one another. And the Syrian regime has been upset with “a Kurdish announcement last year of a “federal system” to run affairs in northern Syria” (Ketz, 2017). However, the problem is that while they do not like any idea of a federal system, complete autonomy, and of course an independent state, it has been pointed out that they are not militarily powerful enough to overtake the areas the Kurds currently control (Ketz, 2017).
ISIS continued to lose territory in early to mid 2017. For example, led by Kurdish forces, an alliance of different groups pushed to remove ISIS from Taqba near the Euphrates River. The Syrian Army was also making advances on the Islamic State (O’Connor, 2017). This comes after increased US actions to support Kurdish and other rebel forces to not only fight against ISIS in these territories, but seemingly to work towards taking the city of Raqqa, the capital for the Islamic State (O’Connor, 2017).
Helping Syrian Refugees
The war in Syria has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, and altered the lives of millions more who have had to flee the country. In the midst of the Syrian War, there is a serious Syrian refugee crisis, as millions of people continue to be affected, both internally in the state, as well as asylum seekers and as refugees. In his final speech at the United Nations General Assembly, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon criticized those who have went after civilians, saying that “”Many groups have killed many innocents, but none more so than the government of Syria which continues to barrel bomb neighbourhoods and systematically torture thousands of detainees.”” He also added that these other countries “”that keep feeding the war machine also have blood on their hands” (BBC, 2016).
If one is interested in donating resources to help Syrians affected by the conflict, this can be done through organizations such as UNHCR, UNICEF, Oxfam, the World Food Programme, and Doctors Without Borders.
Syrian Conflict References
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