Millions of refugees, a whole host of rebel movements, constant ‘negotiations’ and regular flights to Geneva. And despite a universally recognised humanitarian crisis, the Syrian conflict appears no closer to a solution.
The answer is actually quite complex and requires apportioning the blame to a number of parties, including the opposition. Let’s begin there:
The Syrian opposition has been mired in divisions since the conflict began. Initially it began with accusations that the Muslim Brotherhood had too much influence. Following Sisi’s coup in Egypt the Saudi Arabia-Qatari spat found a battlefield amongst opposition political groups, with talks of either country rejecting the other’s ‘preferred’ candidate for the leadership.
At the same time, the ‘internationally recognised’ Syrian Opposition Council found itself facing vocal criticism from fighting forces on the ground, only adding to the damage to its credibility as THE voice of the Syrian people.
The result was that the US administration and the international community struggled to find an ally to support.
Why is this such an important factor? Well quite simply it is because on Assad’s side, the parties were united.
Assad’s ‘loyal’ allies
Iran threw its entire weight behind the regime with Russian assistance and with Iraqi militias on hand and Hezbollah of Lebanon entering the fighting scene, the regime found credible allies who resisted the rebel advance.
The most important of the interventions by Assad’s regime was in 2013 when when Hezbollah crossed the Syrian-Lebanses border and seized Qusayr which cut off the Free Syria Army’s supply line from the rear, forcing the latter to rush to regain the town, only to be subsequently defeated. This event would later become a defining point in shifting the tide of battle in the regime’s favour.
Saudi-Turkey’s very late rapprochement
However, the tide of battle changed once more in favour of the Syrian opposition. Saudi Arabia finally managed to set aside its open hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood and found a common ground with Turkey. The two countries threw their backing behind opposition groups resulting in a series of setbacks for Assad’s forces. This coincided with the Iran Nuclear Deal which saw Iran begin to withdraw some of its support and encourage Assad to be content with the territory he still controlled rather than seek to restore his control over territory lost. Assad rejected this proposal when Zarif presented it to him, leading to suggestions of a rift between Damascus and Tehran.
In any event, the notable reduction in Iranian support was such that when Assad’s forces could not halt the rebel advance, Russia, fearing Assad’s collapse, rushed in with full force, completing altering the tide once more. Moreover, Putin travelled to Tehran in a bid to prevent a US-Iran rapprochement that could potentially result in a new oil and gas competitor in the region that would cooperate with US ambitions to curb Russian influence in the region.
In short, the Turkey-Saudi rapprochement came about much too late to really deliver the decisive blow for the Assad regime.
Obama’s clueless foreign policy
Moving away from the opposition, blame must be apportioned to the US which stalled, pandered, delayed, and simply prolonged the process of organising an efficient front against the brutality of the Assad regime. Perhaps Obama had ‘learnt’ the devastation and the ineffectiveness of NATO military intervention in future state building as Libya began its descent into chaos following the downfall of the Gaddafi regime. Or perhaps he simply did not want to scupper negotiations over the Nuclear Deal by standing against Iran’s precious ally.
But Obama’s foreign policy has been a shambles since he took office. US withdrawal from Iraq handed the country on a gold platter to Iran and despite a forceful and knee-jerk reaction-like return to the Iraqi scene in 2014, epitomised in the US removal of former-Prime Minister Maliki, the US could only manage to remove him from an official seat of power and allow him to operate from behind the scenes as he continues to undermine current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Moreover, the US were unable to prevent Iran appointing its man, Mohammed Ghabban of the Badr Brigade whose leader Hadi Al-Amiri openly states his loyalty to Iran, to the behemoth that is the Iraqi interior ministry.
Obama’s foreign policy has also seen him blame Saudi Arabia for the rise of extremism, failing to note the numerous Iranian-backed militias across Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthi in Yemen, as well as Iranian fighting forces in Syria itself. In comparison, Saudi Arabia commands zero militias anywhere in the Middle East.
Perhaps Obama’s only real foreign policy success on Syria has been in driving a wedge between Iran and Russia via the Nuclear Deal who together provided an impregnable barrier for Assad against the Syrian opposition. As Iran moves closer to the US, the Russians appear increasingly isolated and the ferocity with which they have been bombing targets in Syria suggests a nation fighting for survival as opposed to protecting an ally. But this has had its own consequences and has only strengthened Russia’s resolve to prevent any solution in Syria that it believes will result in another puppet US-backed government.
The Tsar’s golden opportunity
Russia’s aim is to prop up the Assad regime long enough to force the US and regional powers to acknowledge that Russia has a decisive say in Syria’s future. Furthermore, given the nature of Syria’s civil war and the likelihood of a prolonged conflict, Russia is seeking to increase its influence on the regional powers, reflected in the recent intelligence and military cooperation agreements signed with Iraq, Iran and Syria. With US influence in the region at a low following Gulf dissatisfaction with the Iran deal, Iran’s iron grip on the sectarian militias that form the Popular Mobilisation Force fighting ISIS in Iraq, and Sisi’s frustration at a lack of international recognition and assistance, there is ample opportunity for Russia to become a more influential regional power. And announcing the completion of the construction of Europe’s largest mosque in Moscow is a clear sign of intent that Russia intends to become a new ‘friend’ in the region.
Syria is also Russia’s door out of isolation. Following the imposition of sanctions after Crimea, the Syria issue forces the world to open the door to Russia and to bring the country in as a partner, effectively undermining US sanctions. One need only remember the bravado with which Putin addressed the UN in New York showing not one sign of a President suffering from international criticism and sanctions.
ISIS: Assad’s knight in black armour
Then there is the biggest curse on the Syrian revolution: ISIS. As the opposition forces weakened as a result of the global struggle between the superpowers, ISIS found life in the vacuum left behind by the FSA defeat in Qusayr, seizing Al-Raqqa and other territory before rapidly expanding in Iraq, seizing Mosul. ISIS successfully gave the door of opportunity for the Assad regime as he could finally convince the world that no real alternative to him existed and that he was engaged in a war against terrorism. Moreover, there are question marks over opposition groups attitudes towards ISIS. Many claim that they are not worth fighting as the real enemy is Assad. Many believe they are a Western creation. But this has led to accusations of sympathy with the group, providing ammunition to the Iranian media lobby that has sought to present Saudi Arabia and Turkey as ‘sponsors of terrorism’ within Syria.
In any case, whichever way you look at it, ISIS are a real fighting force on the ground and not easily displaced despite the constant air strikes and global vilification. This leads to perhaps a question whose answer is somewhat unbearable to all supporters of the Syrian revolution: Does any agreement made outside Syria and without the fighting forces, including the extremist ones, carry any weight IN Syria? More importantly, can any agreement actually be implemented IN Syria?
Politics is rarely black and white. But in Syria’s case, the war has become a quagmire whereby supporters of either side have begun to find themselves turning a blind eye to atrocities and tragedies in the pursuit of their own ‘greater’ aim. Syria is now a humanitarian crisis with the elderly, women and children being killed by barrel bombs and air strikes, and millions fleeing the country for safety elsewhere only to drown in the Aegean Sea or to face a vicious media campaign demonising them as ‘cockroaches’ or to face accusations of sexual harassment in Cologne or to be told condescendingly that in Europe ‘[we] don’t buy wives’. In short, Syria has not only exposed the brutality of global politics and economics, but also the brutality of the selfishness and heartlessness that human beings are capable of.