No End in Sight for the Conflict in Syria: Who are Winners and Losers?
By Mahmut Cengiz
The Arab world had hoped to see more democratic regimes when the Arab Spring struck many authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Arab countries witnessed a series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions in the early 2010s. Responding to oppressive regimes and a low standard of living, Tunisians were on the streets to protest government corruption. The unrest spread to Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria. Protesters were successful in overthrowing long-serving authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt.
It was in March 2011 when the protests, though small and peaceful, emerged in Syria. The residents in Dara'a town, for example, took to the streets to protest against the government's torture of students. Demonstrations in other cities in the country soon followed with demands for governmental reforms, the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, equal rights, and political freedoms. The Syrian government, however, responded to the protesters by repealing an emergency law that gave the government sweeping authority to suspend constitutional rights. The Assad government launched a series of crackdowns, sent tanks to the cities, and opened fire on protesters. The government also targeted critical infrastructure, shut off electricity, and confiscated flour in particularly restive areas. Six months after the protests began, the Assad regime had killed 2,900 people and arrested more than 10,000 others.
It has been almost ten years since the protests erupted in Syria. The protesters, however, failed to overthrow Assad and paid a tremendous cost for their efforts. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, as of November 2020, 6.6 million Syrians are displaced inside their country, and 5.5 million Syrian refugees live in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. Almost 90 percent of Syrian refugees live in overcrowded informal settlements and dangerous locations. An estimated 400,000 Syrians have lost their lives since March 2011, and the ongoing civil war has resulted in $338 billion worth of damage in the country. The tragedy in Syria, however, is not limited to human losses and economic impacts. The country has hosted many terrorist groups. According to the Global Terrorism Database, Syria recorded more than 50 terrorist perpetrators who have conducted terrorist attacks in that country between 2013 and 2018.
International efforts to stabilize Syria have failed so far. The civil war has triggered international confrontations between two blocs: pro-Assad countries and anti-Assad countries. Governments in both blocs have poisoned the world's view of the situation in Syria, claiming that their presence in Syria is part of the fight against jihadist terrorist organizations when the countries are more concerned about their regional or global interests. After describing terrorism in Syria and the members of the pro- and anti-Assad blocs, this article details the interests of the game players and discusses how confrontations between the two blocs worsen the ongoing conflict in Syria.
Terrorism in Syria
One of the unintended consequences of uprisings during the Arab Spring is the emergence of Salafi-jihadist terrorist organizations. Terrorist groups, as always, were quick to fill the security gaps brought on by regime transitions in Arab Spring countries. Syria is a prime example. Terrorist groups such as ISIS and various Al Qaeda affiliates now have a foothold in the country. For instance, in 2014 and 2015, ISIS invaded a large territory in Iraq and Syria and acted as a de facto state with its 30,000 hardened and radicalized militants from more than 100 countries. The terrorist organization, at its peak, also was one of the leading groups responsible for generating more than $2 billion in revenue from various resources, ranging from extortion and antiquities trafficking to oil smuggling in 2014 and 2015.
According to the 2019 Annex of Statistical Information, Syria was ranked second among the top-10 country with the most terrorism incidents, accounting for 871 terrorist attacks in 2018 and 1,028 such attacks in 2019. Syria kept its second-place ranking in terms of the top-10 countries with the most casualties, with around 5,000 people killed or wounded in 2019. With operations in Syria and Iraq, ISIS was the most active terrorist organization in 2018 and 2019. ISIS was the perpetrator of 575 terrorist incidents in Syria and Iraq and claimed responsibility for attacks in Turkey, Russia, Pakistan, and Lebanon in 2019. Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, was responsible for killing or wounding 908 people in 2019 while accelerating its activities in Aleppo, Hama, and Idlib. Two other Al Qaeda affiliated groups—Ansar al-Tawhid and Rouse the Believers Operations Room—also operated in Syria in 2019. Civilians and military personnel were common targets of terrorist groups in Syria throughout 2019. These groups typically attacked civilians and military personnel with bombings, shootings, and the planting of improvised explosive devices.
Recent terrorism trends in Syria include attacks by jihadist groups, which stepped up to fill the void when ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was killed. Most of the group's militants left the country and some of them moved to the Sahel region in Africa. ISIS, however, has not been eliminated. The group has continued to perpetrate several hundred attacks in Syria and Iraq, though it has lost the capacity to carry out notable attacks against regime forces who have been supported by Russian- and Iranian-backed groups. The willingness of several jihadist groups to collaborate in the fight against Syrian regime forces indicates the diminishing capacity of ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria. Other than jihadist groups, pro-government forces such as Syria's National Defense Forces; Iranian-backed groups such as Harakat-ul Nujaba, Liwa Fatemiyoun, Liwa Zainabiyoun, and Al Baqir Brigade; Russia-backed Wagner group; and Turkey-backed jihadist groups, the Syrian National Army, and the National Liberation Front have used terrorist tactics and indiscriminately targeted civilians and looted the property of locals.
Russia and Iran have taken the Assad regime's side, and their ongoing support has helped preserve the regime. These states have continued to support the Assad government despite the atrocities the regime has committed.
Under President Vladimir Putin's leadership, Russia has enjoyed an expansion of the country's influence in the Middle East, an area of the world that has inspired Russian aspirations for many years. Historically, Russian leaders believed that they needed to have a presence in the Mediterranean if the country were to be a great power in Europe. Contemporary Russian leaders have continued the pursuit of being an active player in Middle Eastern politics. One of Russia's motivations in the Syrian conflict is its military base in the Mediterranean Sea. The Russian naval presence in Tartus port dates to the 1970s, and today Tartus is the only Russian port not on its home shores.
Russia began its involvement in the Syrian civil war in 2015 when Assad's Syrian Arab Army weakened and lost many strategic cities in the country despite increased support from the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Russian intervention changed the trends and stopped the advance of the opposition backed by the anti-Assad bloc. Russia's success enabled the country to establish a more assertive presence in the Middle East.
The rise of ISIS provided opportunities for Russia to justify its intervention in antiterrorism rhetoric; however, Russia prioritized the targeting of moderate factions fighting against the Assad regime, resulting in the elimination and marginalization of these groups. Russia's leading role in Syria was not confined to providing support for Assad's Syrian Arab Army. That role also included efforts to force Syria to re-engage with Turkey after a crisis in relations erupted when a Turkish military aircraft downed a Russian jet. In addition to the Russian military, the Wagner Group (WG), a shadowy Russian mercenary group, was at the forefront of the fighting in Syria. The WG also engaged in military operations in Libya, Sudan, Central Africa, Mozambique, and Belarus. The group executes experimental and high-risk military and security activities for Russia and serves to expand Putin's international security footprint. The WG began to garner international attention when sent to Ukraine in 2014 and then to Syria to capture and secure oil and gas fields from ISIS. In 2018, about 2,500 WG mercenaries were deployed in Syria. When they attacked United States (U.S.) Special Forces in Deir al-Zour, several hundred of the mercenaries were killed in the attack.
The WG's Syrian campaign can be divided into three phases: (1) Ground Reconnaissance (September 2015-early 2016), a period during which the WG had limited involvement in military encounters with anti-Assad forces; (2) Baptism by Fire (April/May-December 2016), a period marked by the active participation of the WG in military confrontations and operations intended to liberate Palmyra; and (3) Deep Involvement (January 2017-February 2018), a period characterized by the gradual evolution of its mode of operation from de facto military operations to more paramilitary-style missions. Since then, the group has recruited Syrians either to fight against anti-Assad forces in Syria or to travel to Libya to fight on behalf of warlord Khalifa Haftar's militia. Recently, the group gained an international reputation for being indiscriminate in its targets and killing civilians in conflict zones.
Iran is another strategic member of the Assad bloc. Iran sees the survival of the Assad government as crucial for its regional interests. The convergence of interests between Iran and Syria makes the two countries allies in the region. For example, Iran and Syria bear a grudge against U.S. influence in the Middle East, and they both have favored Palestinian resistance against Israel. Additionally, both countries had perceived Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a common enemy in their neighboring countries; therefore, Syria's Assad was the only Arabic leader supporting Iran during its war against Iraq in the 1980s.
Since the beginning of the civil war, Iran has provided logistical, technical, and financial support to Syria. Moreover, Iran's security and intelligence services have worked to preserve the Syrian regime. Around 2,100 Iranian soldiers lost their lives in Iraq and Syria between 2013 and 2018. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Iran has spent $30 billion in that country.
When a new Iranian regime was established in 1979, the country's leaders adopted two policies—forward defense and deterrence—to protect the governing body they had created. The forward-defense policy was intended to pave the way for meddling in the internal affairs of other states. In contrast, the deterrence policy was designed to be a rationale for using terrorist tactics at home to intimidate opponents of the regime. Interference in other countries' internal affairs runs the gamut from influencing politicians and bureaucrats at home to forming or backing terrorist organizations under the control of the IRGC. Iran has used these tactics to expand its global influence. For example, Iran has:
- Formed Terrorist Groups: The Turkish Case
IRGC involvement in Turkey remains complicated and not well understood. The group's activities include creating terrorist entities and seeking to influence Turkish politicians and bureaucrats. Investigations conducted by the Turkish National Police in the last decade have indicated that the IRGC established Turkey's branch of the Quds Force, Salam Tawhid Quds Force, which went on to target American bases and consulates in Turkey.
- Created Armed Militant Groups: The Iraqi Case
Iraq and the world have borne witness to Hussein's tyrannical regime as the Iranian president oppressed Shias in the south and Kurds in the north. After the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the ousting of Saddam, the country effected so-called democratic elections. However, it was not difficult for Shias, who made up 70 percent of the country's population, to take over as the ruling power of the country. The newly established Shia-dominated government discriminated against the Sunni Arab tribes, an action that helps to explain how Al Qaida in Iraq was able to recruit a significant number of Sunnis. During this period of Shia rule in Iraq, the Shia-dominated IRGC became more active in Iraq. To fend off ISIS, the Iraqi government formed a group of pro-government forces known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), or Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic. As an umbrella organization, the PMF has led more than 40 militia groups. One of these militia groups, Kata-ib Hezbollah, was designated as a terrorist organization by U.S. State Department. The United States recently expressed its concerns about the PMF being under the influence of the Iran's IRGC. After the killing of Qassem Sulleimani, an Iranian major general in the IRGC, the IRGC formed another group known as the Revolutionary League.
- Provoked and Armed Shia Groups: The Yemeni Case
Yemen is another country suffering from the impact of the ongoing proxy war between Saudis and Iranians. Yemeni Shias, known as Houthis, formed armed groups to fight against Sunni groups in Yemen. In response, Saudis formed coalition forces consisting of nine Middle Eastern and African countries. The Houthis have been trained and armed by Iran, and IRGC members in Yemen direct the Houthi forces. In recent years, the Houthis have been among the most prominent terrorist actors in the terrorism databases. The IRGC's involvement in Yemen has resulted in the death of thousands of Yemenis.
- Sought Power through Shia Diaspora: The Latin American Case
The IRGC has been linked to several violent attacks in Latin America. In 1994, the organization targeted a synagogue in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, who investigated this attack was targeted and shot dead by the IRGC. Latin Americans who converted to Shi'ism were transferred to Syria and Yemen by the IRGC. Since then, support for the Iranian regime and the IRGC model in Latin American countries has grown. At the same time, the IRGC-linked Hezbollah organization has been an active participant in the illicit economy, including extensive involvement in cocaine trafficking, cigarette smuggling, and money laundering in the so-called Tri-Border Area (i.e., Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil). The IRGC has been emboldened and successful with its activities in that area largely because of the favorable environment created by the Lebanese diaspora in Latin America. More than 3.5 million Lebanese Shia are scattered in different Latin American countries. The IRGC seeks power through diaspora networks in the Tri-Border Area.
- Sought Influence over the Shia Population: The Pakistani and Afghani Cases
The IRGC has served as a tool of the Iranian regime in its endeavors to influence Shia groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both countries have harbored many terrorist organizations—including Al-Qaida, the Taliban, Tehrik-i Taliban, Laskar-i Tayyiba, the Haqqani Network, and ISIL-Khorasan—that target local Christian and Shia communities. The IRGC, however, has used its links to Shia groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan to transfer some of both countries' Shias to Syria to fight with Hezbollah in the conflict there.
- Used Surrogate Organizations: The Syrian Case
The world has witnessed a veritable cold war between Saudis and Iranians in the Middle East as both compete for dominance in the region. While the Saudis seek influence by spreading Salafism and Wahhabism in the region, the Iranians aim to protect Shia governments and spread Shi'ism. Regardless of the origins of armed groups in Saudi Arabia and Iran, both countries exploit surrogate organizations. In this regard, the IRGC is linked to Hezbollah—a group tasked with protecting the Assad regime in Syria.
In addition to Hezbollah, Iran has controlled Shia groups from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria and has used the groups' members as foreign fighters in Syria, placing them under the jurisdiction of the IRGC. The IRGC used that authority to transfer Afghan Shias to Syria under the banner of Liwa Fatemiyoun and Pakistani Shias under the banner of Liwa Zaienebiyoun. Both groups have joined the Syrian conflict in large numbers. For example, the number of Liwa Fatemiyoun members in Syria has ranged between 10,000 and 20,000, and the number of members killed was around 2,000 as of 2018. Iran also transferred to Syria the Shia militias in Iraq who were members of Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba. In 2016, the number of Nujaba fighters in Syria was around 3,000. The group was responsible for killing 60 civilians in Aleppo that same year. Other active fighter groups in Syria include Liwa Abu al-Fadhal al-Abbas, which was formed in 2012 to protect Shia holy sites in Syria, and Liwa al-Baqir Brigade, which was tasked with safeguarding Aleppo, had around 2,000 members in 2016. Iran's enormous support for the Syrian regime is not limited to dispatching Shia groups to the war-torn country. Iran also created pro-government forces—such as the Syrian National Defense Forces—that consist of Syrian locals who want to fight for and defend the Assad government. The mission of these Syrian volunteers is to fight against anti-government rebels; however, they have been overseen by the IRGC.
All of these Iranian-backed groups are active in Syria, though the atrocities they have committed have rarely been reported. The groups' tactics differ little from those used by ISIS. In 2020, for example, Shia militias were involved in the beheading of civilians, the forceful displacement of civilians, and the looting of property in towns where the Iranian-backed groups have control.
The anti-Assad bloc has aimed to overthrow the Assad regime by supporting moderate opposition groups, though the bloc does turn its attention to defeating jihadist groups when Al Qaeda and ISIS actively engage in the conflict in Syria.
The United States is the most active player in Syria when it comes to the involvement of Western countries that aim to achieve two goals: (1) support opposition groups in their efforts to overthrow the Assad regime and (2) defeat jihadist terrorist groups. According to the U.S. Department of State, there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict. The U.S. government is the largest donor to the humanitarian response in Syria with a contribution of more than $10 billion, and it continues to provide nonhumanitarian assistance to the moderate opposition groups in southwest and northwest Syria. One of these groups, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), was formed in 2015 by several Kurdish groups and is seen as instrumental in efforts to drive ISIS out of the region. The SDF also has received support from the U.S.-led coalition in northern Syria; however, the United States has plans to withdraw its soldiers from Syria and reduce its military capacity in that country.
The European Union has a weaker presence in Syria, and the organization is more concerned about refugee-related humanitarian costs and terrorism issues. The European Union insists that it cannot play a leading role and can only support the United Nations' efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict. France, an E.U. country, and the United Kingdom, a former E.U. country, are part of the U.S.-led coalition in Syria.
Most of the Gulf States have played a critical role in the Syrian conflict. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for example, joined Turkey to give financial and diplomatic support to the Syrian opposition in the early years of civil war. Qatar spent $3 billion in the first two years of the conflict to support to Syrian opposition and was accused of fueling the war by sending 15 cargo planes full of weapons into Turkey. International reports underline that Qatar has funneled millions of dollars to Al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria. In a similar move, Saudi Arabia supported rebel groups and provided them with logistics and weapons. Such action is not surprising, given that the Saudi regime has tried to expand both ideologies in different parts of the world by joining or supporting jihadist groups.
Turkey has been one of the most critical game players in Syria. Recent publications in the Western world have labeled Turkey as an "uncertain ally" or "mafia state", though no one had predicted Turkey's inconsistent policies in Syria. It appears that Turkey aims to overthrow the Assad regime, but the actions it has taken toward that end are confounding, in that Turkey has given support to rebel groups without first determining whether those groups are or are not terrorist organizations. It is obvious, however, that the Syrian conflict has served as an excuse for the Turkish government to exploit its Syrian refugee population as leverage against the European Union. Whenever the Turkish government's popularity wanes or it loses votes at the polls, it increases the use of nationalistic rhetoric with calls for military incursions into Syria. These military campaigns have led to collateral damage and the killing of civilians. According to an interview by the author with a former F-16 fighter pilot, he and his fellow Turkish pilots were against bombarding the target points given to them by officials in Ankara in 2015 but were forced to do so even after reporting that civilians were at risk of being killed.
A significant majority of ISIS and Al Qaeda militants have used Turkish borders to illegally travel to Syria and join terrorist groups. ISIS also has used Turkey to generate money from oil smuggling and antiquities trafficking. Turkey, in turn, has purchased petroleum from ISIS. The Syrian antiquities were transferred through Turkey en route to target countries in Western Europe. The Turkish police officers and prosecutors involved in two separate investigations of the illegal transfer of chemical and nonchemical weapons to Syria in early 2014 were tortured, put in solitary confinements, and labeled as terrorists.
Turkey not only turned a blind eye to ISIS activities in Syria but also allowed more than 2,000 Turkish jihadists to join ISIS. No one knows the whereabouts of these jihadists after ISIS fell from power—even though Western countries traced the identities of the militants from their home countries and tracked them globally. Salafism has expanded in Turkey, and one of the police officers who was inspired by Jabhat al Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliated group in Syria, killed Russia's ambassador to Ankara in 2016. Turkey also conducted ISIS investigations for show and released data on ISIS arrestees in Turkish prisons, though no one has found these numbers reliable.
Turkey's favors to ISIS have paid off. An analysis of ISIS attacks in Turkey indicated suspicious relationships between Turkish intelligence officials and terrorist organization existed in 2014 and 2015. ISIS attacks occurred, coincidentally, when the Turkish government needed public support. For example, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma partisi, or AKP) lost its majority in June 2015 elections, Turkey reported that ISIS militants had killed around 200 civilians militants. The AKP then used that incident and predicted more terrorist threats in the future to scare Turkish citizens into voting for the ruling party in the November 2015 elections. The scare tactic worked; the AKP won a majority of the votes cast.
Turkey's interests in Syria, particularly in the northern part of the country, are more conflicted. The government appears to be fighting against Kurdish groups and alleges that these forces are under the control of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK); however, the Western countries in the anti-Assad bloc are in favor of supporting Kurdish forces because they believe the Kurds comprise the only group fighting against ISIS and Al Qeada groups in the region.
Turkey has also given the impression that it supports moderate rebels against the Assad government and Kurdish forces; however, international media reports that some members of these rebel groups are former Al Qaeda and ISIS militants. In this context, the Syrian National Army and the National Liberation Front are two opposition groups backed by Turkey. Other jihadists groups that have received support from Turkey include Jaish al-Izza, the Abu Amarah Battalion, the Shamiya Front, the al Hamza Brigade, and the Sultan Suleyman Shah Faction. These groups target Kurdish forces, use terrorist tactics, target civilians, and are involved in looting and robbing in Syria.
It has been almost ten years since the civil war started in Syria. No one had predicted such a long war, and people expected to see the Assad government be overthrown. The Assad regime was not expected to win the civil war against the anti-Assad bloc, which consists of Western countries, the Gulf States, and Turkey. When Assad struggled to crush the opposition forces in Syria, states such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar that supported terrorism made a big mistake by supporting rebel groups regardless of whether they were violent non-state actors or terrorist organizations. Rather than help the situation in Syria, the actions of these three states simply made matters worse. ISIS and Al Qaeda groups expanded the territories they both controlled in Syria. Some members of opposition groups began to join ISIS because of its popularity. The attention of the anti-Assad bloc was then diverted from its priority—overthrowing the Assad regime—to defeating the ISIS terrorist organization, which saw an opening and began to threaten the Western world with several notable attacks in European capitals. Assad enjoyed seeing the international military fighting against ISIS. Russia and Iran, both of which backed the Assad regime, began to justify their presence in Syria by saying they were fighting against ISIS.
It is evident that three winners have emerged from the conflict in Syria: (1) the Assad regime, which has remained in power; (2) Russia, which was able to expand its influence and popularity in the Middle East and keep its military base in the region open; and (3) Iran, which aimed to protect the Assad regime because the ideology and interests of the Syrian government were closely aligned with those of the Iranian government.
The two losers in the conflict are (1) the anti-Assad bloc and (2) Turkey. The anti-Assad bloc failed in its efforts to overthrow the Syrian leader. Some countries in this bloc began to support jihadist terrorist organizations, which enabled those groups to flourish and control territory in Syria. The states in the anti-Assad bloc, however, miscalculated the possibility that a terrorist organization could control territory in the region and to be successful against Western military forces. The presence of ISIS and Al Qaeda groups affected the efforts of opposition groups. Turkey is the other loser because the country has been accused of being a state that backs Salafi jihadist terrorist groups and turns a blind eye to the activities of ISIS and Al Qaeda within the country and along its borders. Turkey also hosts more than 4 million unregistered and unvetted Syrian refugees, though not out of humanitarian concerns about the welfare of these displaced individuals and families; instead, it is the refugee issue as leverage against the European Union. An ancillary loser in the Syrian conflict is the Turkish people, many of whom are not aware that the country's 100-year-old secular and democratic gains have been upended, giving way to government support of terrorist groups. Another ancillary loser—representing perhaps the largest and most desperate group involved—are the Syrians who have lost their lives and been forcefully displaced from their country. The regional interests of the major game-players have broken the hopes of ordinary Syrians. There is no doubt that Assad will keep his position as leader of Syria; Russia will increase its influence in the region; and Iran will enjoy an expansion of its power not only in Syria but also in Yemen and Iraq.
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 Ibid, p. 7.
 Ibid, p. 27.
 Jakup Grygiel, “Why Is Russia in Syria?” The American Interest, https://www.the-american-interest.com/2020/01/02/russian-land-power-in-the-mediterranean/
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