As the Syrian conflict entered its eighth year on March 15, here’s a look at how the conflict got transformed from a civil war to a pawn in the great game between both regional and international heavyweights.
When protests erupted in Syria in March 2011, no one could have foreseen the present outcome – over 400,000 deaths, 6 million internally displaced and a civil war that turned into a global proxy war. What changed?
The Syrian civil war began as a consequence of the Arab Spring that swept the Middle East in 2011. The protests began when some boys were arrested for writing graffiti messages in favour of the Arab Spring. Protesters demanded an end to the repressive policies of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The response was a heavy crackdown by the Assad government. Further protests followed, all of them demanding greater freedom and the release of political prisoners.
The Assad government did give some concessions, including removing the state of emergency that had been present in the country since 1963. But these were ineffective in stemming the protests. In July 2011, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was formed, and armed rebel groups began fighting to overthrow President Assad.
The rebel groups under the FSA made gains in their fight against the government. The Kurdish population in the country also began to assert their independence. The situation in Syria began to be seen as a civil war.
As early as 2012, the United Nations (UN) facilitated peace talks between the rebels and the Syrian government. But there was no resolution. The civil war intensified. In 2013, chemical attacks took place in Ghouta. It was widely believed that the attacks were carried out by the government forces. But President Assad claimed that the attacks were carried out by the rebels. He was supported by Russia in his claims.
US President Barack Obama warned the Assad government that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that could prompt military intervention by the US. The US did not intervene directly, but it sent aid and support to the rebel groups.
Meanwhile, the FSA was plagued by infighting and other issues. The extremist groups in the coalition overpowered the moderate ones. The inclusion of groups like al-Nusra or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (which was affiliated to the al-Qaeda) in the rebel forces made the US uncertain about direct intervention against the Assad government.
The civil war in Syria soon turned into a proxy war for the regional powers (Saudi Arabia and Iran) as well as the US and Russia. An old ally of the Assad government, Iran was one of the first countries to intervene in the Syrian conflict. Lebanon’s Shia militia, the Hezbollah, also provided assistance against the rebel groups. In response, Saudi Arabia began supporting the rebels, particularly the Islamist groups in the FSA.
In 2014, the rise of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) gave a fresh twist to the conflict. The rise of ISIS prompted direct military intervention by the US and its allies. The priority of western powers (US, United Kingdom, France etc.) shifted from supporting the rebels against Assad to fighting ISIS.
The rise of ISIS also created an alliance between the US-backed coalition against ISIS and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF comprises mainly of the YPG (People’s Protection Unit), a primarily Kurdish militia. The YPG has been instrumental in the fight against ISIS. The US plans to train and equip a 30,000 strong border force to maintain the areas under the control of the Kurds in Syria. The rise of the YPG has soured relations of the US with allies like Turkey and Iraq.
In 2015, Russia, another all-time ally of Syria, entered the conflict on the side of the Assad government. The inclusion of Russian military support galvanised the government forces. Meanwhile, Turkey, which was supporting the rebels, also entered the fight in 2016. While claiming to target ISIS, Turkey has concentrated on countering the Kurdish influence in Syria. Turkey believes that the YPG is an affiliate of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and increased Kurdish influence will create further unrest in Turkey. Since January 2018, Turkish forces have been battling the YPG in the Syrian district of Afrin. Pro-government forces have joined the fight on the side of the YPG.
As more and more foreign powers intervened, the conflict in Syria evolved from an internal conflict between a government and an armed opposition to a power struggle between other countries. Syria is presently being used as a battleground for establishing hegemony over the Middle East. The proxy conflict has two levels – the regional level between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the international level between US and Russia. The two levels of the power game have resulted in both an escalation of the conflict as well as its persistence.
The only result of this battle for hegemony has been a humanitarian crisis. Thousands have been killed in the Syrian conflict and millions displaced. In the bombing of Eastern Ghouta by the Syrian government, over 800 people were killed in just two weeks. Over 180 of the dead were children.
The siege of Aleppo in 2016 and the present example of Eastern Ghouta are just some instances of the destruction and death that have resulted from the conflict. No side is blameless – the Syrian government, as well as the rebels, have committed war crimes. Any attempt at a truce, whether partial or total, is not followed.
The potential for ending the conflict lies partly on the same foreign intervention that complicated the conflict. Left alone, Syria could probably split into different countries. In fact, such a scenario still seems likely. But an end to the Syrian conflict does not seem inevitable, not unless all foreign aid and intervention is stopped. If left alone, the crisis in Syria might reach a conclusive end, in favour of one side or the other. Until then, it will only drag on as a humanitarian disaster.