The Syrian Quagmire: Who is Fighting and Why?

The Syrian Quagmire: Who is Fighting and Why?

The broader picture of this complex civil war.

Joseph Puder

Many hands are stirring the pot in the Syrian quagmire, each party with its own interests and goals. In the meantime, nine years of civil war has practically destroyed Syria’s economy. It has killed approximately between 400,000 to 600,000 Syrian civilians, and it created the largest refugee problem the world is facing today. Almost 12 million Syrians have become refugees, 5.6 million fled the country, and 6.2  million were internally displaced.

To understand what’s going on in the chaos that is Syria, one has to distinguish between actual facts, and “fake news” regularly released by interested parties to the conflict. What is clear however, is that the recent violence in the Idlib province, the last rebel holdout against the Assad regime, has lessened to some extent due to the coronavirus. At the same time though, the Islamic State (IS), the terror group thought to have been destroyed, has launched a large scale and deadly wave of terror in Southern Syria, and Iraq.

In the broader picture of this complex civil war, the jihadists, including the Islamic State (IS), are promoting a Sunni theocracy. They have overshadowed the other secular opposition forces who are actually fighting for a pluralistic Syria. Gulf Arabs have financially supported the Sunni opposition, including the jihadi groups. The U.S. has led a coalition that included NATO allies, which conducted airstrikes against the IS. On the ground, U.S. special forces were embedded with the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), and together they have recaptured Raqqa, the capital of the IS, and recaptured all the territory in Syria that the IS Caliphate controlled.

In October, 2019, the U.S. pulled back its forces, claiming to have defeated the IS. The U.S. pullout was coordinated with the Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria, hitherto controlled by the Kurdish-led SDF. The Turks aim was to push the Kurdish forces away from the border area with Turkey. 

Russian forces arrived in Syria in 2015 to save the collapsing Assad regime. Russia has carried out air strikes along with the Assad regime air force against mostly civilian population centers. Iran, and its major proxy - Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist organization, bombed and attacked Syrian rebels and civilians on the ground.  

The radical Shiite axis led by the Islamic Republic of Iran is pursuing the aim of turning Syria into an active front against Israel. It is using its proxies, including Hezbollah, to further their objectives. While proxies such as Hezbollah have their own enemies, but Hezbollah also has to follow the interests dictated by its Tehran patron.

The basic division in Syria is between two camps: the Assad regime and its supporters (Russia, and Iran), and the opposition to the brutal Assad regime. The Syrian regime led by Bashar Assad has its primary interest to prevent the Sunni-Muslim majority from taking over Syria. The regime is especially concerned with controlling the capital, Damascus, and its surrounding area, as well as the coastal area, and Assad’s native province of Latakia. For now, the regime’s top priority is consolidating its hold on all of Syria and rebuilding its shattered economy. Bashar Assad depends (besides Russia and Iran) on what remains of the Syrian army (almost half of his previous army defected), the security apparatus, and local militias under the umbrella of the National Defense Forces.

Human rights groups have asserted that the vast majority of the abuses and atrocities against Syrian civilians have been committed by the Assad regime. That includes the use of chemical weapons, cluster bombs, and napalm.

For Moscow, securing the Khmeimim airbase around Latakia, and its naval base of Tartus on the Mediterranean Coast, is crucial. The Russians have historically yearned for a naval presence on the Mediterranean. Russia’s involvement in Syria has given it the aura and prestige of a superpower. This has been President Vladimir Putin’s ambitious dream. It is also an opportunity for him to challenge the U.S. dominance in the region. Russia has aggressively protected the Assad regime both militarily and politically. The Kremlin wishes to be the major, if not the exclusive contractor in rebuilding the Syrian economy once the fighting ends.

From the very onset of the Syrian civil war, Iran has dispatched thousands of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) fighters to rescue Assad from a certain defeat. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in addition, pressed Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah into sending thousands of his fighters to fight on behalf of Assad. The effective Israeli bombing of Iranian bases in Syria, and some of its military facilities, has compelled Tehran to reduce its manpower in Syria from a few thousands to less than one thousand. Instead, Iran has recruited Shiite militias from Afghanistan and Iraq to fight the rebels and Israel.

Hezbollah has incurred over two thousand dead and thousands of wounded in Syria. It recently withdrew most of its fighters, returning them to Lebanon. The remaining Hezbollah fighters are aiding the Syrian army in Idlib. Hezbollah has also sent its operatives to the Golan Heights area to collect intelligence and recruit local people to fight Israel. Another Hezbollah project in Syria includes improving the accuracies of the missiles it gets from Iran and transferring them to Lebanon. Hezbollah seeks to have a second front against Israel from Syria, hoping to deny Israel a reason to attack Lebanon. The Lebanese Christian, Sunni, and Druze communities have warned Hezbollah not to involve Lebanon in another war with Israel.

Turkey’s dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to send his army to northern Syria includes four primary goals. One is to prevent Kurdish forces (SDF and YPG) in northeastern Syria from setting up an autonomous region adjacent to the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, and next to the Turkish border, where as many as 15-20 million Kurds live without equal rights. A second goal is to prevent another wave of refugees from the Idlib province flooding Turkey, which is already accommodating over 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Thirdly, as a self-assuming leader of the Sunni-Muslim world, and himself being a religious Sunni with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Erdogan cannot allow the Sunni rebels to be defeated by Assad’s Alawite-led Syrian army and be butchered by them. Also, many in the rebel militia he has supported – the Free Syrian Army (FSA), are Turkmen (albeit, he has used the FSA mainly to fight the Kurds). Finally, Erdogan seeks to humiliate the Syrian dictator.

The main opposition force in the Idlib province is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly the Al-Nusra Front. It has become the strongest militant/jihadist opposition group in northern Syria. It is now in control of the Idlib province. There are approximately 100,000 rebel fighters in Idlib, most of whom are jihadists, including foreign Islamists.

For Israel and the U.S., preventing the Islamic Republic of Iran from building bases in Syria is an essential interest. For Israel in particular, to paraphrase the outgoing Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennet, “for Iran bases in Syria and the Golan is a colonial adventure, but for Israel it is an existential threat.” The U.S. presence in Syria, however small, serves as a counterweight to the Russian growing influence in the region. And while the IS terror continues, the U.S. is determined to eliminate it.

In the meantime, the Syrian quagmire remains.