The Price of Ending the War in Syria
Having traveled to the Middle East recently, people often ask me about the Syrian Civil War as if I’m some sort of authority. When will it end? Are things cooling down? Here’s the long answer.
As the Syrian Civil War enters its 5th year of military conflict, most viewers have clearly given up hope on the possibility of a cohesive, effective cease-fire. Any attempts have been met by brief lulls followed by renewed and often intense military operations to compensate. The war has seen new actors such as ISIS arrive, form, and coalesce as the war progresses in an increasingly complex theatre. Attempts by regional or global actors to mediate have often seemed half-hearted at times, begging the question, does anyone that matters really want to end this war? This answer is unabashedly no.
This is largely because the Syrian Civil War has engineered a multilateral geopolitical shift in the region on a scale not seen since the years prior to World War I, which marked the rise and fall of a number of actors in Europe and the Middle East, albeit in a slightly more dramatic fashion. Turkey, with the 2nd largest standing army in NATO and regional political and military superpower status is at the epicenter of this shift. Turkey’s accommodation of Middle Eastern refugees has placed Europe at Tayyip Erdogan’s mercy, which in an attempt to reduce the flow of refugees into Europe, has given Turkey free reign. The United States is in a similar position and needs Turkish support both as a bulwark against Russia and to conduct air and ground operations from the Turkish Incerlik Air Base in Southern Turkey.
Human rights violations, authoritarianism, and an increasingly Islamist agenda go unchecked in lieu of a flow of EU money into Turkey to fund refugee repatriation and perks like the possibility of visa-free access to the EU for Turkish citizens. Overspill from the conflict in Syria, which includes a number of major bombings in Turkey attributable to leftists, Islamists and Kurdish militants have only bolstered the government’s standing, while giving his elements an excuse to conduct internal house-cleaning under the guise of security operations. Times were never this good for Turkey’s ruling party, so why rock the boat?
Then there’s Russia. In the last decade, Russia has acted with near impunity in the former Soviet Union, where it has used conflict over breakaway regions to threaten pro-Western governments and conducted both covert and overt military operations in Ukraine and Georgia. The antipathy of Russian leadership towards the West has reached heights not seen since the height of the Cold War despite an economic and geopolitical posture that is markedly lacking compared to the Soviet Union of the 70s. Syria, a long time ally of Russia, has provided exactly the stage Russia has been looking for to reestablish its ability to project power beyond the former Soviet Union and finally claim the moral high ground in a conflict. More importantly, Russia has been able market it’s cooperation with the Assad regime as a police action to resolve a major international crisis, usurping a role normally assumed by the United States. In short, Russia is winning in Syria and it makes Russia looks good at a time when the country is facing sanctions and is more or less considered a pariah by the West. This image is only bolstered by the the relative ineffectiveness of the American effort to aid certain elements of the Syrian rebel movement.
The continued benefits to Iran are perhaps greater than either Russia or Turkey, and definitely more direct. With the American withdrawal from Iraq, Iran incorporated Iraq into its sphere of influence, its role validated by close cooperation between the Iranian military and Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Shia militias in the fight against Da’eesh. Iran was able to turn Iraq, its archenemy under Saddam, into a client state united with Iran by its Shia majority. The same has happened in Syria, where Iranian military advisors are actively involved in combat operations against the full spectrum of Syrian rebels. Syrian operations are further backed by the notorious Iranian-proxy organization, Hezbollah, which has taken heavy casualties in the Syrian theater. In supporting Syria’s government in its time of need, not only is Iran building a fundamental bond of influence with Assad’s regime, but is carving an alliance against the hostile Sunni states of the Gulf as it plays a huge role in the region’s most significant conflict. The expenditure of materiel and casualties suffered in recent hostilities pale in comparison to the elevated geopolitical standing that Iran enjoys and will continue to enjoy after any hypothetical end to the Syrian Civil War.
Finally, there are the financial interests, which as in any war, are significant. The Guardian recently reported the sale of over 1 billion pounds of weaponry to clients in countries in close proximity to Syria including Jordan, Turkey and Qatar by a number of Eastern European arms dealers. These dealers sold Warsaw Pact and Yugoslav-era rifles, mortars, machine guns, and anti-tank weapons to countries who use Western weaponry and ammunition. To nobody’s surprise, these weapons later showed up in footage of Syrian rebel fighters. Even United States Special Operations Command bought and transported arms from dealers sourcing from Eastern European weapons stocks. These weapons, which end up on all sides of these conflicts, have continued to add fuel to the civil war and have created a situation highly conducive to war profiteering. The scale of the transactions pertaining to a conflict the size of the Syrian Civil War make it practically impossible for these arms dealers to operate for long without the tacit consent of their home governments, or those countries through which the materiel is transiting. Thus, the arms trade has created another set of state and non-state actors who stand to benefit greatly from the continuation of the Syrian Civil War.
Russia, Iran, Turkey, Eastern Europe, and everyone in between. Until the above actors meet a set of circumstances that discourage their involvement, there’s really no end in site, barring a complete military victory by Assad, who seems to be the dominant belligerent at the moment. Da’eesh is being pounded from every direction, the Kurds are content carving their own state, and every other group in the region lacks the size, unity, or leadership to make a real difference on the battlefield against Assad’s regime. So, until Assad and his Russo-Iranian coalition wipe out everyone else, there is no reasonable case for anyone involved in the theater to deescalate. In fact, they stand to lose more than they would gain. And to answer the questions that inspired this article, I think it will end, eventually, but are things cooling down? Not even close.