Syria: A transnational free-for-all

One of the messiest spots in global politics is Syria. No one seems to know what to do, or what not to do, to stop the civil war with all its international and transnational spillover.

There are different fault-lines converging, and addressing just one of them doesn’t do the job. First, relatively peaceful and secular Syria has been turned into a sectarian fighting place. Increasingly, people identify themselves culturally. Second, and related, this is a space where Shia (the Alawites) and Sunni (IS and other militias) groups clash violently.

Third, this trend is exacerbated by the meddling of two competing regional regimes – Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Fourth, all but one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council are militarily involved. Fifth, some neighboring countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey) may soon not be able to absorb the pressure of the fighting next door as well as the millions of refugees that have already arrived, or are on their way to Europe.

One of the core problems is that almost all of the external actors involved (except the Islamic State) are not so sure how decisively they want to be engaged. There is neither decisive intervention, nor clear non-intervention, but, mostly, meddling.

Do you see any option for progress, however small?

, , , , , , , ,
  1. Alexei Voskressenski 3 years ago

    We are witnessing now a new very dangerous development which is presumably regional, but in reality a global situation. A relatively peaceful and secular Syria has been turned into a sectarian fighting place where two branches of the same religion are clashing as it was in the Middle Ages, and also with the clear support of two competing regional regimes (Saudi Arabia and Iran) and a dangerously growing military involvement of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. These permanent members of UNSC see their victory in regional conflicts as a key factor to ensure or strengthen their role in world affairs and to prove to each other, as during wars in the Middle Ages, that an elephant is stronger than a whale. The major problem is that all involved forces may not realize that Syria is a litmus test to probe for a further escalation of violence and danger. We already witness a securitization in all spheres of life both in Europe and Eurasia, in airfields, railway stations and metro systems, in big malls and office centers. Young people, contrary to their parents, have started to consider insecurity as a normality and a tough securitization in practically every sphere of life is becoming a part of their everyday life. We all must put aside our Lilliputian divergences and ensure a more decisive engagement to stop this dangerous conflict, otherwise a further securitization may completely transform the perception of life for the new generation as it already was for our grandparents during the first and second world wars. It is not right that a much more insecure and unstable world is left for our children while we all presumably reached a new understanding of how to ensure a new level of global benevolent governance. So, an understanding of this and also a consensus is needed to stop further escalation in Syria by a more decisive international intervention based on joint efforts, while all other divergences may be resolved later.

    Share >
  2. Dimitrios Triantaphyllou 3 years ago

    The Syrian conundrum is fundamentally unsettling because the international order seems unable to cope with it. Or better said, the key global and regional actors with a stake in the conflict seem unwilling to work together to find a modus vivendi that would contain the fighting in Syria proper and its ramifications regionally. This also implies that the solution toward a resolution could possibly be found if the key stakeholders decide to work together.
    Jimmy Carter, in an important op-ed to the New York Times a few days ago, suggests that the key lies in the collective action of the United States, the Russian Federation, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Each of these global or regional actors has a key stake in the resolution of the instability and a responsibility to do so. The Assad regime, though resilient, has been weakened; therefore a Syria without Bashar al Assad at its helm is a more real possibility today than at any other time since the start of the civil war. The threat posed by the Islamic State (ISIS) is, in varying degrees, a universal challenge to the future of the international order. Turkey, along with Lebanon and Jordan, is facing the brunt of the refugee crisis and prolonged instability across its 400-kilometer long border with Syria given the entanglement of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in the wider Kurdish question. Ideologically opposed Iran and Saudi Arabia both need to retain some of their lost prestige and the drawing out of the civil war and greater presence of ISIS does them more damage than good. While ISIS infringes on Saudi Arabia’s privileged Sunni space, it also risks further aggravating the deep divide between the Sunnis and the Shia.
    The European Union also needs to step up its game, as it has to deal with the challenges posed by the ever-growing influx of Syrian refugees on its very existence. It will probably have to bear the brunt of Syria’s reconstruction when the conditions are ripe for it. Conservative estimates suggest that the cost of reconstruction stands at about 200 billion USD, a figure that is bound to rise as the war is prolonged. It is the key sixth actor that President Carter forgets to mention.
    Thus the conditions for a resolution of the Syrian crisis and convergence among the key external actors are present. The tricky part now is to get all of them to make the requisite concessions to force its endgame in as orderly a manner as possible.

    Share >
  3. Theodoros Tsakiris 3 years ago

    The sectarian division lines in Syria's regionalised Civil War are too deep to allow room for any serious chances of optimism. The so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS or Daesh) that self-proclaimed itself as a "Caliphate" has managed to entrench itself in Syria because it is nobody's ‘priority target number 1’, despite the 15-months of a US-led air campaign to uproot it that - with the exception of Kobani - is essentially focused on Iraq. This allowed Assad considerable breathing space up to the point that Daesh grew strong enough to challenge him in the Yarmuk refugee camp located to the southeast of Damascus. ISIS's rise and the losses the regime suffered in Dar'a alerted the Shi'a axis fighting to protect the Allawite's in Syria.

    Russia's entanglement was a game changer in the sense that it gave air-power to the Shi'a Axis' land-power recently replenished by new IRGC arrivals. Russia's strategy which is primarily aggressive in nature was to corner the opposition and eventually turn against ISIS. ISIS's presence and the relative dominance of Al-Qaeda related or inspired Jihadi groups in the non-ISIS opposition make it impossible for the US and the West to challenge Russian-Shi'a air superiority in Syria. The danger of a Stinger missile falling to the hands of Al-Qaeda's Jabat al-Nursa or ISIS is far too great for the Americans and their Arab Gulf allies to risk their deployment in an effort to effectively counter Russia's intervention.

    If Assad and the Shi'a axis which supports him, made up from Iraqi Shi'a militia, the IRGC and most prominently Hezbollah, retain their Russian "air force" the possibility for implementing a no-fly zone in northern Syria is very slim. The establishment of a safe zone in Northern Syria that could decompress Turkey's Syrian refugee crisis that has been spilling over to Europe since mid-Summer 2015 is also very difficult to establish without removing ISIS and neither Assad nor the Rebels are focused on that right now. Kurdish fighters in the YPG are too limited in their number, training and weapons capacity to undertake offensive operations towards Raqqa the moment they step out of the disparate Kurdish enclaves of Rojava.

    Assad and his allies will make significant gains on the ground against the non-Daesh rebels but they are unlikely to rout them out. Despite Russia's intervention a decisive military solution does not appear to be close for Assad. If the West would be ready to accept him back at the negotiating table and secure him a place in a transitional government, there might be a chance at least for a serious cease-fire agreement. If Russia does not want to re-consolidate Assad in power and does not aspire to turn back the clock to before March 2011, then there might also be a slight chance for a peace settlement that would allow everyone to focus on the real strategic danger in the region, ISIS.

    Share >
  4. Julian Junk 3 years ago

    Indeed, the situation in and around Syria is dire - in particular for all the refugees leaving behind family and social networks for a very uncertain future and for those not being able to flee but in danger of Assad’s bombs and IS raids. While the intervention of Russia has certainly added a new layer of complexity to the conflict and bolstered a very weak Assad regime, I see glimmers of hope in that it seemed to have triggered a new diplomatic push and a new willingness of the US to take Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey directly into the equation and – unfortunately still partially and indirectly - to the negotiation table. It is encouraging that Russia seems not to hold fast to Assad indefinitely, but to be open for an electoral and constitutional process. It is encouraging that the European countries seem to have woken up and talk more directly to Turkey and shape more constructively the negotiations. While the military intricacies and the arms build-up in the region are still worrying and while a comprehensive effort, which puts the Syrian people and the humanitarian situation at its center (humanitarian corridors, visa centers at the border, extensive aid to the neighboring countries), it is only through a comprehensive diplomatic effort that includes the major regional powers having proxies in the Syrian conflict, that a solution can be found. And there some progress has been visible in the last three weeks. Whether it is viable and yields results is less clear.

    Share >
  5. Justas Paleckis 3 years ago

    Let’s imagine the impossible - Syria becomes the same as it was four years ago, “a relatively peaceful, secular state ". Would such a return to the past be agreeable for the Middle East countries, to a Europe flooded by Syrian refugees, and finally to those great powers which are now bombing Syria? I think that the answers would be mostly positive. And the absolute majority of Syrians who are now bombarded or scattered around the world, most probably with nostalgia remember those peaceful times - despite the fifth decade-long dictatorial regime run by the Assads - father and son.
    The international community should draw some conclusions from these kind of lessons.
    So what of options for progress? With the help of a consolidated force to not let IS approach Israel and form a common border with that country. This would be like a fire torch next to a powder keg and the explosion would shake the whole world. A similar risk would be faced if IS came closer to Baghdad - in this case it is likely that Iran would fully embroil itself in the conflict. So there is only one hope that the four permanent members of the UN Security Council, which intervened in the conflict in Syria with military action, will coordinate its action and prevent this from happening . Sooner or later – better sooner - military action will give way to serious negotiations, in which should be included all the countries of the region and all the permanent members of UN Security Council. The European Union and maybe Germany alone could play again the role of persistent and understanding negotiator.

    Share >
    1. Wisam Salih 3 years ago

      Payam, excellent points. However, I respectfully disagree with point number 2:without Russia's support, Assad will fall. Iran and its proxy forces cannot prop up Assad alone. Indeed, Damascus was on the cusp of falling to rebel forces without Russia's recent military intervention! The key is Russia. KSA will bend once it sees that Iran's ally will no longer be in power. KSA will accept a democratic transition (ironic, eh?) in Syria. As long as Assad is no longer an option. That is all that KSA cares about. Once again, the key is Russia.

      Share >


  1. Rado Kovacs 3 years ago

    The key to solving the problems in Syria is decisive action. Right now no single party has the military strength to control the entire country, while at the same time, outside forces are preventing the natural 'Balkanisation' of Syria.

    Either an international power needs to intervene decisively on one side (preferable in support of a moderate, pluralist group that has commitined minimal war crimes) or, the international community needs to try and split Syrian into 3 or maybe 4 countries, with new borders, and use these as the basis for ceasefires.

    Share >
  2. Torge Matthiesen 3 years ago

    We should distance ourselves from the perception that Syria was a "relatively peaceful“ state some five years ago. I highly doubt that this narrative is true. When would have analyzed the „nation“ and „society“ of Syria before the recent conflict, we would have identified deep distributional conflicts along the lines of confession, ethnicity, tribe and family. We should also not forget that the Assad Junta has been ruling Syria with an Iron Fist since the 1960s and that Hafez El Assad violently quelled a Sunni uprising in Hama in 1982.

    The solution to the civil war that has engulfed the country since 2011 is hampered by some major obstacles:

    - The regional powers Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are parties to the conflict and are committing vast resources to a proxy war on Syrian soil;
    - Russia has strategic interests in Syria (access to the Mediterranean);
    - The deployment of Russian Airpower to Latakia has effectively ruled out the possibility of a future “no fly zone“ under a UN SC resolution;
    - Even without the Russian interests in Syria, the shadow of the future of a botched NATO air campaign in Libya has eliminated any prospect of a UN SC mandate under the legal concept of a “Responsibility to Protect“;
    - The Assad regime still controls the populous areas of Syria and yields considerable military might, now reinforced by Russian airpower.

    I think we have to accept that any solution to the conflict Syria will come painfully slowly. There will be neither a “decisive” nor a military solution to this conflict.

    The recent negotiations in Vienna are a step in the right direction. These efforts towards a political solution have to be continued and have to include not only the USA, Russia and the regional powers but also the Syrian factions. This will be the hard one: will Assad and his opponents sit on the same table? Is there a need to crush the “Islamic State“ before are political solution is possible? Will the territorial integrity of the Syria prevail?

    Share >
  3. Payman Shamsian 3 years ago

    While talking about Syria and possible solutions to end the war in the country, we have to take three points into consideration:
    1) ISIS or Daesh is not the whole problem, and not even the major problem, in Syria. ISIS is only on of the issues that should be solved to have peace in Syria. We should not forget about Assad's regime and it's role in the war in Syria. Even if ISIS will be defeated and vanished from the region, which I explain later that is impossible, we still have to deal with Assad's regime. According to a survey, and other indicators, most of the Syrian refugees have fled the Assad's regime and consider his regime as the main problem, and ISIS comes in the second place. Accordingly, giving a full-fledged focus on ISIS, in the media or policy making processes, mislead us and trigger the war and its causalities than ending it.
    2) U.S., Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia must be fully involved in any kind of peace talk or coalition related to Syria at this stage. They all are engaged in the war in different levels. And any kind of solution should come from the coalition of these four countries together, not any other permutation of them.
    3) A war against ISIS is not a classic war that we are familiar with its kind in International relations. It is a war against "something" that we still don't know what is it and how to deal with it. Hence, applying the same strategies that a country does for a war against another one or an armed group, can't be applied for ISIS or groups alike. No one can win this war, not ISIS, and not all the other players against ISIS. No one can vanish ISIS completely from the region. the best way to deal with ISIS at the moment and mitigating it's influence in the region and also global level is to contain it. Any effort for removing it, would lead to strengthening it and its ideology.

    Share >
    1. Wisam Salih 3 years ago

      Payam, excellent points. However, I respectfully disagree with point number 2:without Russia's support, Assad will fall. Iran and its proxy forces cannot prop up Assad alone. Indeed, Damascus was on the cusp of falling to rebel forces without Russia's recent military intervention! The key is Russia. KSA will bend once it sees that Iran's ally will no longer be in power. KSA will accept a democratic transition (ironic, eh?) in Syria. As long as Assad is no longer an option. That is all that KSA cares about. Once again, the key is Russia.

      Share >
  4. Wisam Salih 3 years ago

    The solution is twofold: convince Russia that it has a stake in a post-Assad Syria; and also help build a functioning transitional government. For all that the United States has got wrong about Syria, Obama has got one thing right: Assad must go. There's no such thing as a "lesser of two evils" in this scenario. Quite simply, he must go. By ensuring that Assad will be removed, you can focus all "moderate" militia forces to ally together against ISIS, al Nusra and the like. ISIS will fail in Iraq, it's only a matter of time. Syria is the key to defeating ISIS in the long term, and that undoubtably means that it must be a political solution.

    Russia must understand that time is limited to have ANY legitimacy in Syria and MENA more generally. It cannot prop up Assad for much longer and think that he a sustainable choice. The clock is ticking.

    Share >

Comments are closed.