It is relatively surprising to note, despite its large media presence and existence as an important election issue, the historically minimal response to the Syrian crisis from the United States (US) over the last five years. In fact, considering its history of intervention, US involvement up until its initiation of peace talks with Russia in August has been almost negligible. As a war that has killed over 470,000 people, 15,000 of them children, it is hard to ignore not only the stark images of brutality, destruction, and displacement that flash across news feeds, but the sheer mass of death that has been taking place since the beginning of the war in 2011. With US-Russian peace talks in shambles after weeks of tit-for-tat argument and failed negotiation – and the death toll higher than ever – it seems that after years of escalating conflict there is still no end in sight. While the talks are a diplomatic nightmare, the physical conflict itself seems relatively simple – carnage and destruction in war always does. The brutality of Russian and Assad-led air strikes appears to be fundamentally erratic; however, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Many analysts have found Russian airstrikes to be purposefully targeting civilians, in order to force rebel forces to side with extremists, effectively discrediting their cause and making it difficult for foreign powers to back them. The conflict has arguably become a proxy war, and in situations such as this, it is helpful to look back at its origins before detangling the motives and possible future of a country in such turmoil.
The Syrian Civil War
In March of 2011, peaceful Arab Spring demonstrators were fired upon by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s military, sparking conflict on the ground in major Syrian cities. Eventually, members of the Syrian military defected and formed the Free Syrian Army, which began active engagement with pro-Assad forces. As the conflict became a civil war, the Syrian rebels were joined by extremist groups from around the region, which was actually encouraged by Assad, as previously explained. By January 2012, not only had al-Qaeda formed a new branch in Syria, but Kurdish groups living in the north had seceded from Assad’s rule and had begun open engagement with his forces. That summer, Iran began backing Assad, sending him large amounts of financial and personnel support. To counter Iranian influence, Gulf States began sending money and weapons through Turkey to Syrian rebel forces. Iran eventually increased its involvement by authorising Hezbollah to intervene on the ground, which forced the Gulf States, this time predominantly Saudi Arabia, to push even more monetary/armament support through Jordan. By 2013, the war had now divided the Middle East, with Sunni powers supporting the rebels, and Shia powers supporting Assad. The US at this point became involved, and in response to Assad’s atrocities, authorised a CIA operation to help train and arm Syrian rebel forces. However, the program stalled out, as US public opinion and interest waned. This did not last long – that August, Assad used chemical weapons against the Syrian town of Ghouta. The US was galvanised, threatening airstrikes against the Assad regime. This prompted Russia to intervene, convincing Assad to dispose of the chemical weapons, and causing the Obama administration to back down. This is important, as it established the Syrian conflict as a hegemonic dispute between Russia and the US, the effects of which have continued as to this day. Finally, in August 2014, US arms and training facilities reached Syrian rebels, making the US an active participant in the war. However, at that point, February 2014, something important happened, changing the scope and focus of the war. After splintering off from the aforementioned al-Qaeda terrorist cell, a new group was formed – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (commonly known as ISIS, when ‘Levant’ is substituted with ‘Syria’). ISIS began to march across the Levant, not fighting Assad, but fighting the rebels, and the Kurds. Eventually, the US decided to resurrect its year-old plan to begin air-strikes in Syria, but instead of bombing Assad as originally threatened, it attacked ISIS forces. It also created a new program to train Syrian rebel groups, but this time, only those who were fighting ISIS, not Assad. At the same time, Turkey began to bomb Kurdish forces the latter of which were also fighting ISIS. Turkey did not bomb ISIS. This created much confusion as to who supported who, and at this point emphasised the idea that ISIS was (and is) seen as more dangerous
In September 2015, Russia intervened to support its ally Assad, who had been losing ground to ISIS, the rebels, and the Kurds. While Russia defended its actions by stating its mission was to fight ISIS, it instead just bombed the Syrian rebels, and later, civilians in major cities such as Aleppo. As the war continued, Russian (and US) air-strikes became more and more prevalent, causing mass casualties. After the US violated terms of a cease-fire in early September 2016, ferocious air-strikes by Russia resumed, killing thousands in the span of a few weeks. Peace talks recommenced later that month, despite continued bombing. By October, the talks disintegrated and have presently been suspended by the US, in response to Russia’s refusal to end airstrikes in Aleppo. The spheres of influence only complicate matters, and make it clear that the violence in Syria, despite its already far-reaching and disastrous effects, is only beginning.
Motives, Influences, and the Future
Russia’s influence and motive in Syria is important to the understanding of the current state of the conflict. While its public stance on the issue is anti-terror and the destruction of ISIS and other extremists, there is more at play here. While it is true that Syria has been Russia’s major middle-eastern ally since the 1940’s and Putin is in part acting to preserve that influence by protecting Assad’s regime –that is only half of the story. Putin’s incorrect assumption that both Europe and Ukraine would allow the quiet annexation of Crimea without resistance pushed him into a corner, isolating him internationally and embarrassing Russia on a global scale. Syria has been his way out of that corner. If his involvement in Syria has been a power play, aimed at pushing his way back to the head of the table and making the issue of Ukrainian annexation insignificant, then negotiation with the US is exactly what Putin wants – however not negotiation about Syria, but about Crimea. Until the US (and the European Union) begins to bring Ukraine back into the picture in terms of talks, Russia will continue its brutal campaign of airstrikes on Syrian soil. This may be one of the reasons peace talks have failed, and why Russia will continue to reject cease-fires of more than 48 hours. But there is a line that Russia has come to close to crossing, and accusations of war crimes have become more and more prevalent. Last week, Russian planes bombed a UN humanitarian aid convoy in Syria, part of a campaign of starvation recently taken by Assad and Russia, and the third in a string of air-strikes meant to subvert the weeklong cease-fire called by the US. It is this type of malfeasance that may bring international retribution towards Putin, but so far Russia’s influence in Syria continues to push countries like the US into complicated situations. That being said, the US is hardly innocent. Besides being the guilty party in the accidental bombing that killed 60 Syrian soldiers and ending a cease-fire that hadn’t even been put fully in place yet, the nominal response to the tragedy of the five-year conflict has also contributed to its prolongment. It seems that public opinion and pressure is at fault, as most responses by Obama have been influenced by small pushes from the general public, such as after the first large string of Assad air-strikes began to decimate civilian areas in Syria, or when Assad used chemical weapons on the town of Ghouta. But after each of these instances, public interest and support has waned. US Secretary John Kerry, in a behind-closed-doors recording acquired by the New York Times, recently expressed his frustration with not only his weak position during talks with Russia, but with his own country and administration. ‘A lot of Americans don’t believe that we should be fighting and sending young Americans over to die in another country’, says Kerry, after first attempting to console certain Syrian humanitarian and political groups with which he was meeting, then descending into frustration with both the Russian and American governments. ‘The problem is the Russians don’t care about international law, and we do’.
While it is fairly certain that in the short term these talks will fail, with this many influential actors operating in the region it is impossible to know where, how, and if this terrible conflict will end. The only certain, melancholic truth, however, is that it will not be soon. Maybe, instead of attempting to detangle this web of influence, simplicity is the answer. The simple truth is hundreds of people, children included, are dying each week. Many are starving, brutal acts of terror and war are happening in a centralised area. This is the only simple truth, and maybe if both the US and other influential global actors, their citizens included, begin to focus on this simplicity, change may happen at faster pace.