The war in Syria is significant in two ways. First, the outcome can reshape the Arab Middle East. Second, and perhaps more important, Syria is not simply about Syrians. The US, Russian, Iranian, Turkish, and French forces are engaged there along with the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaida, and secular Arabs. The Saudis and the rest of the Arab monarchies also exert political and economic influence on Syria.
I have written in the past about how the growing crises in Eurasia are increasingly interacting. Syria is the place where that interaction is the greatest and most violent.
Prior to World War II, there was a civil war in Spain. Nazi Germany and fascist Italy sent troops. The Soviet Union did as well. In addition, leftists from around the world flocked there to fight. The French and British refused to get involved, trying not to be drawn in. The Spanish Civil War was said to be a rehearsal for World War II. The major players of the European war were there—though some weren’t. New weapons were tried out. The civil war ended in April 1939, five months before Germany invaded Poland, which began World War II.
Syria is drawing in major global and regional powers. When, for example, the US and Russia are engaged in a country—with very different goals and supporting hostile factions—it is certainly not something to dismiss out of hand. On the contrary, Syria matters a great deal. If nothing else, it has become a test of the strength of powers with interests far beyond Syria.
The Origins of the Syrian Conflict
There is a class of conflicts whose importance to us diminishes over time. These conflicts involve intense slaughter and suffering and generate endless conferences, meetings, and wringing of hands by global statesman. But these wars seem never-ending. Their origins are lost in the mists of time, the situations on the battlefield are hard to grasp, and they appear to have little consequence to the rest of the world. The relief workers do a heroic job and try to shame us into caring and giving, but in the end, each conflict seems to be just another war in a faraway place having little to do with our own lives.
But Syria is far more than that.
The current regime was founded by Hafez al-Assad, an air force general, in a military coup. He was an Alawite, part of the Shiite sect of Islam. He was also a secularist. Gamal Abdel Nasser, an Egyptian military officer, had staged a coup in Egypt in 1952 and wanted to create a state based on three principles: secularism, socialism, and Pan-Arabism. His vision was the creation not of a caliphate, but of a secular, socialist, unified Arab world, based on military rule. Many regimes were patterned on this, including Assad’s regime in Syria.
But ideology aside, Assad represented the Alawite faction, and what he created was a state built around his faction. Other factions were excluded, oppressed, and not infrequently, killed. However, Alawites are only around 12% of the Syrian population, which was why he relied heavily on the minorities (Christians, mainstream Shiites, Ismailis, Kurds, and Druze) that together constitute 40% of the population. More important, he also relied on many Sunnis. Even today, the regime is alive because a lot of Sunnis have not rebelled against the state. Nevertheless, Assad kept Syria from fragmenting by suppressing any challenge to him. After he died, his son, Bashar al-Assad, kept running the family business.
The Arab Spring in 2011 generated a challenge to his regime. The problem was that the opposition was deeply split. They spent as much time fighting each other as they spent fighting Assad. Democracy had little to do with it. The Alawite-Sunni split had a great deal to do with it. But the Assad regime had a lot of support.
One of the misunderstandings of US foreign policy has been that tyrants rule only through the threat of violence. That is true, but in order to have a credible threat of violence, you have to have people who are prepared to carry that violence out. And they need to be loyal to you, or they may turn the violence against you. Tyrants do not live alone in isolated palaces. If they did, they wouldn’t live very long.
The Alawites had done extremely well under the Assads. They dominated the military, trade, smuggling, and internal business. They were hated by many Sunnis, especially the more religiously inclined. The Alawites knew that if Assad fell, their position would collapse, and they would become the target. They, therefore, had to resist the uprising, and since they controlled the military, they believed they would not be defeated. Assad was not going to be overthrown by a wildly fragmented and poorly armed and trained opposition.
Enter the Americans
The Assads had been a problem for the United States in many ways. They sent weapons and supplies into Iraq during the US occupation from 2003 to 2011. They helped destabilize Lebanon. They fought multiple wars with Israel. And above all, they were closely aligned with the Iranians, fellow Shiites. Hezbollah in Lebanon, also an ally of Iran and Syria, represented a terrorist threat for the US (even in 2011 when the Sunnis were the main enemy). When the Syrian war began, the US saw a chance to crack Assad, dramatically reduce Iranian influence in the region, and break Hezbollah.
The problem was that the US didn’t want to get directly involved in the war, at least not excessively. Since most Sunni groups were jihadist, the US had to find groups that were anti-jihadist, anti-Iranian, and anti-Assad… and that were motivated to fight. The US was looking for secularists not aligned with Assad. It was, to say the least, difficult to find such a group. It was also hard to be certain that they would stay that kind of group, and that they wouldn’t sell the weapons they were given. Still, the US felt it had enough to gain to keep trying.
At this point, IS emerged, seizing control of parts of Iraq and Syria. This put the US in a fix. If it brought Assad down, IS might extend its power. If it attacked IS, it would give Assad breathing room and alienate some of the opposition (some of which wanted an all-out attack on Assad while others didn’t want IS hindered). The US found itself “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” as the song about the Vietnam War went, and it had yet to create an effective opposition to Assad anyway.
More Global Powers Get Involved
Then, the Russians became involved militarily. Russian intelligence had been close to the Assads since they took over in Syria. Russia did not want him to fall. But it had far greater problems than Assad. First, it suffered a strategic setback in a crucial buffer state, Ukraine, when a pro-Russian government was replaced by a pro-Western one. Attempts to foment an uprising in the east failed, and all Russia could claim was control over Crimea, where by treaty it had already based major force.
Second, the collapse of oil prices had a massive impact on the economy that was going to pyramid. At the very least, President Vladimir Putin needed to demonstrate that, barring Ukraine, Russia was a major power.
The military importance of his decision to deploy a relatively small number of aircraft and special forces in Syria was massively inflated by the Russians, who wanted to appear stronger than they were, and by the Americans, who wanted to make Russia out as an aggressor. Both approaches helped cement Russia’s role. Then, having deployed aircraft and troops, Russia confronted the same problem as the Americans. The Russians could not reshape the Syrian landscape, especially with US resistance.
The US, Russia, and Iran were all active in Syria and unable to end the conflict. That left the Turks. The Turks hated the Assad regime, and when the Russians first intervened, the Turks shot down a Russian plane, causing a serious confrontation. Then, there was an attempted coup in Turkey, and the Turks turned against the Americans (who they partly blamed for the failed coup) and got closer to the Russians. Realizing that the Russians were inflexible on Assad, the Turks shifted back toward the Americans and were prepared to fight IS, but only if the US understood that the Turks had a simultaneous war underway with the Kurds.
Syria did not simply draw players in. It sent huge numbers of migrants to Europe as well. This triggered a huge crisis in the European Union, dividing countries that wanted to block migration from those that would encourage it. This compounded already existing tensions in Europe over the economy. It is reasonable to say that Syrian migrants shaped the Brexit vote, encouraged the rise of radical nationalist groups throughout Europe, and redefined the underlying issues.
The Paris terrorist attacks had another effect. The French sent an aircraft carrier to carry out airstrikes in Syria in cooperation with the United States. The Syrian migrants and the inability of European forces to block them, or to take effective unilateral action against IS after the attacks on Paris and other cities, generated not only greater military involvement in Syria, but long-term planning to manage the fallout from the conflict.
Syria as a Testing Ground
Syria is a battleground in which the United States, Russia, Turkey, and Iran are increasingly involved. Watching barely on the sidelines are the Israelis and the Saudis, while Lebanon is constantly uncertain. Iraq is heavily influenced by what is happening in Syria, while the Kurds, facing IS in Iraq, are now facing Turkish forces in Turkey and Syria. And the Europeans are coping with a wave of terrorism and contemplating rearmament. All of this is driven by Syria, a country that seems gridlocked in a permanent and insoluble war. But it is a country that has brought together friends, enemies, and contenders for power in a small place. It reminds me of nothing as much as Spain in the 1930s.
For the first time since the 1940s, all of Eurasia is unstable. Syria is not the pivot of this instability, but it is the showcase. Most major powers are there or nearby, except the Chinese.
My eyes glaze over when I hear about Syria, yet they shouldn’t. I have to force myself to see the increasing importance of this test war.