Making Sense of Syria: An International Perspective

The conflict in Syria is a tragedy for nobody more than the Syrian people themselves. However, unlike traditional Athenian tragedies in which misfortune often befalls a small group of individuals, the Oedipuses of Syria are the millions who have been forcibly displaced internally and internationally.

Observers of the Syrian civil war have witnessed the notable increase in the number of participants in the war since its inception. Although the conflict, at its epicentre, has sustained its embryonic embodiment of an ostensibly grassroots revolution directed against the Assad government, it has also ingested various regional and international dynamics over the past five years. Consequently, the fate of millions can no longer solely be determined by local or national actors.

AleppoThe aftermath of a Scud missile launched at Aleppo’s Ard al-Hamra neighbourhood (image: Reuters)

It is not wildly inaccurate to surmise that there are two main dimensions to events in Syria. Firstly, the war fought for territory which rages between a myriad of ground combatants. The story of who is backing whom resembles a tangled web of peculiarities in which anybody seeking clarity is ensnared and ultimately misses the point.

It is, therefore, sufficient to say the main actors of the conflict are the Syrian Army controlled by President Assad and backed by Iranian forces along with the Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah; hundreds of “moderate” rebel factions sporadically supplied by the United States and some Gulf countries; “extremist” Sunni Islamist groups such as Daesh (ISIL) and Al-Nusra; and Kurdish forces. The battles are fought village-to village, suburb-to-suburb.

The second dimension refers to the array of airborne actors of whom Syrian citizens seldom see but often hear. They reign in the skies above the maze of shifting battle lines on ground. The ground and air theatres remain mutually constitutive; that is to say airpower can determine the advance of a faction on the ground, yet the differences between the two are stark.

Thick smoke from an airstrike by the US-led coalition rises in Kobani, Syria, as seen from a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)Smoke rises after an airstrike against Daesh (ISIL) in the town of Kobane (image: Huffington Post)

Whereas events on the ground represent the almost unintelligible ebb and flow of warfare conducted through a melting-pot of covert means, unconventional statecraft, proxy forces and non-state actors, the second dimension overtly transcends the internal confines into the realm of global geo-political strategy navigated by multiple international and regional powers. Consequently geopolitical strategy and realpolitik is the language of choice.

Yet naturally not all actors operate at the same level of fluency. Israeli jets enter Syria to attack government forces, Hezbollah supply routes or alleged Palestinian resistance targets, often following rocket attacks aimed at the Golan Heights. Turkish jets patrol the 400km long border with Syria, often leading to a showdown with Syrian fighters. Meanwhile in various locations a US-led coalition of fighter pilots operate against a range of Daesh targets.

This peculiar state of affairs becomes increasingly dramatic with the latest development in the conflict: Russian President Putin’s decision to come to aid of the Assad government by joining the conflict at 30,000 feet. Russia’s own brand of geopolitics is one in which all nongovernmental actors in Syria are a threat to the stability of the Assad dynasty and therefore are a legitimate target. Syria has thus come to signify a clash of visions between a range of actors.

Putin AssadBashar al-Assad surprised the world this month with his unexpected visit to Moscow (image: BBC News)

The question becomes one regarding the international ramifications of the Russian challenge to opposing visions in the Middle East. The use of airpower as a means of coercive diplomacy and/or political strategy has been a somewhat familiar instrument in the twenty-first century toolbox of Western and some Arab governments. One need only be reminded of events in Libya.

However, Syria stands far apart from previous conflicts. As demonstrated, the plurality of international actors involved has created numerous potential flash points that can lead to costly escalation. Despite an agreement on the conduct of air operations between the US and Russia last week, can anybody accurately map the consequences of a Russian jet engaging and destroying an American F-16?

Equally, there has been no parallel example since the end of the Cold War of the former foe of capitalism not only refusing to sing from the Western hymn sheet, but actually providing a tune of its own. Such evidence leads many to conclude that a resurgent Russia has decided to take take a seat at the grand chessboard of geopolitics once again.

This is an odd game in which Russia and the United States do not sit in diametrically opposing positions and so Syria does not represent a proxy war between the old Cold War enemies. It is important to remember that Sunni extremism is the common denominator between Russia and the West – neither seeks to witness the exportation of extremist ideology within their borders, especially given the susceptibility of the former Soviet republics.

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 13.03.47The aftermath of an attack by Islamist militants in Grozny, capital of Chechnya in 2014 (image: Buzzfeed)

Moreover, it is conceivable that Putin will be aware of the dangers of the Russian-Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis. Although it makes strategic sense for Russia to favour Shia Muslim states considering the Sunni Gulf states have been firmly situated within the American sphere for decades, it is unlikely that growing sectarianism in the Middle East will benefit Russia in the long term.

The idealistic end point of the realist Russian strategy is to provide the US with nothing but a fait accompli which would preserve the Assad dynasty. It is hoped that the US will be compelled to accept this as the starting point of a political solution in Syria. Therefore rather than expelling the Americans from the table, Putin seeks to sit at it as an equal partner.

Indeed this might explain Putin’s willingness to enter into dialogue with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and even Israel. The success of the Russian strategy boils down to which state can sustain its position for the longest. For the Russian strategy to backfire, Putin might be dragged ever deeper in a spiralling dynamic that proves unsustainably costly to the Russian people. Equally, if no resolution is reached before Obama’s exit from office, it is difficult to predict the new dynamic that could be inaugurated with a Republican president.

What seems most certain, however, is that Colonel Gaddafi’s exclamation to the Arab League in 2008 that “America hanged Saddam… and one of you might be next” will seem somewhat more prescient to those sat in Damascus at the present time. Only time will tell if the Russian intervention has spared President Assad the metaphorical, or perhaps real, trip to the hangman.

By guest writer Danny Anderson

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