The Great Game in Syria

The Great Game in Syria

Syrian land is a global battlefield and a testing ground for new bombs and weapons.
It is a tangle that has become almost impossible to unravel

Mudasir Ali Dar

What started as a civil war against President Bashar al-Assad, who inherited rulership from his father, in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo soon engaged various factions and non-state actors. These began to be backed by regional and global powers that are all trying to gain control and influence in the region. Here are the key foreign actors involved in Syria:

Iran has provided expansive and extensive military aid to the Assad regime. Command over Syrian territory offers Iran great geostrategic advantage. Regime change or a pro-USA-Israel regime in Syria would be a strategic nightmare for Iran. It is why Iran spends millions of dollars just to keep Assad, from the minority Alawite community, in power. Syria is crucial as it provides smooth passage for Iran to supply arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Hamas in Palestine. It also gives Iran an edge in keeping a direct watch through its proxies in Syria on developments in Israel. Another important dimension of Iran’s involvement, which most commentators neglect, is Syria’s religious significance for the Shia community. Iranian youth, or for that matter Shia youth around the world, are willing to join forces against those who target holy sites in Syria. Syria is home to some fifty prime sites holy to Shias, including the greatly honoured Sayyidah Zainab mosque and shrine in Damascus. Shiite fighters from Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon flock to Syria to fight. As Iran is the only Shia Islamic country, Shias around the world expect the Iranian government to protect their sacred places. Therefore, protection and maintenance of religious sites in the region form an important element of Iran’s foreign policy in the Middle East.

Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war has put political pundits in confusion as to understanding Russia’s real intentions. Is Russia trying to save Assad or trying to eliminate a terrorist network? Russia enjoys historically strong relations with Syria. Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base for its Black Sea fleet is located in the Syrian port of Tartus. Syria is the seventh-largest importer of arms from Russia. Russia directly intervened in Syria in 2015 when Assad’s dismissal seemed imminent. For Russia, intervention in Syria offered excellent opportunity to challenge the USA and revive its claims to being a superpower. As President Trump is speaking of bringing back American troops involved in fighting terrorism in foreign countries, Russia wants to fill the power vacuum and reclaim prominence in world affairs. “Military operations in Syria have boosted Russia’s international prestige,” said the Russian defence minister. Intervention in Syria means Moscow’s return to the Middle East. Russia also needs satellite bases to free itself from its landlocked condition, in order to be a great power. Compared to western powers, Russian maritime strength lacks access to open seas and thus the revitalization of Tartus, an old base, which would set up Russia’s naval adventures and boost its power on the seas. To be a European power before being a global power, Russia needs to be an active player in global politics. Russia’s aid to the Assad regime is not a goodwill gesture but a step towards reclaiming its glory of the Cold War days.

USA and Israel
The United States of America continues to dominate world affairs in the post-Cold War world. In almost all the major and minor global conflicts, the USA has played a key role. The USA’s objective during the Cold War was to exploit energy resources of the Middle East and to protect Israel, often called its 51st state, which it assured through a grand strategy of containment. However, in the post-Cold War days, the United States directly intervened in the Middle East under the pretext of humanitarian intervention. As a close ally of Iran in the region, Assad is anathema to the US. His dismissal will institute a pro-US regime in Syria. Iran’s dominance over Syrian affairs generates a constant security threat to Israel. It also frees access for Iran to back non-state actors in the entire region. The United States wants to block Iran and Hezbollah from establishing a permanent military presence in Syrian territory, which could threaten Israel. However, the Gulf region is also crucial to the interests of the USA, especially in Saudi Arabia. John Mearsheimer, a leading proponent of the realist approach to international relations, has argued that the US should restrict its military interventions to areas of vital strategic interests. He named Persian Gulf as one of the three regions, the other two being Europe and Northeast Asia. He believes that the US government’s main interest in the Gulf region, which stretches from the eastern Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea, is to ensure that oil flows freely out of the gulf, which in practice means preventing any single country from controlling all of that critical resource. Since Syria does not have much oil, the USA does not have vital interests in Syria and it is of limited importance to it. This policy has been well practised by the Trump administration which has pulled back US military personnel from Syria.

Turkey has escalated the military offensive against the Syrian regime in Idlib province, after fifty of its soldiers were killed, an act that almost brought the two countries to a major confrontation. Turkey, a US-NATO ally, unlike other foreign actors has legitimate security concerns along the Syrian border because of geographical proximity and the ethnic Kurdish issue. The Kurdish population is majorly located in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, and demands a separate state. Assad launched has a final assault to reclaim the last rebel-held territory in Idlib province. The conflict has already displaced millions of people who have become refugees in other neighbouring states. Turkey hosts around 4 million Syrian refugees and President Erdogan is under increasing domestic pressure to stop more people from crossing the border. This has resulted in millions of people becoming trapped in Idlib, where Assad regime is raining bombs. Now Syria and Turkey are attacking each other, making life worse for the people stuck in the region. As the tensions escalated, a diplomatic resolution was brokered between Turkey and Russia. The two countries entered into a ceasefire. However, the fundamental question remains: how long the truce will last? There have been several ceasefires in the past; all collapsed without achieving much success.
Turkey considers the Kurdish militia in Syria, known as People’s Protection Unit (YPG), as an extension of a Kurdish rebel group fighting in Turkey called Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK has been fighting for self-determination for decades. When the US pulled back from Syria and backstabbed Kurdish forces, the Kurdish fighters turned towards Assad regime and its ally, Russia, for help. This again raised tensions between Turkey and Syria, as Turkey considers Kurdish forces as terrorist organisations. Therefore, Turkey has two major objectives: one, it feels threatened by the YPG military wing of Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), so it aims to impede Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria; and two, it wants regime change in Syria to a more democratic, friendly, stable regime that will facilitate smooth return of refugees to their homes. For that, President Erdogan wants to create a 30km-wide and 480km-long safe zone in northern Syrian territory where refugees could be resettled under Turkish military watch, free from YPG fighters.

The Syrian Arab Republic is one the most conflict-ridden countries in the region. The fighting began in 2011 as an anti-government agitation to demand Assad’s resignation, and escalated into full-scale civil war in which various countries fought through their proxies. More than 250,000 Syrians have lost their lives since the pro-democracy and anti-government protest erupted in 2011. Foreign actors activated their proxy militant groups, provided arms and ammunition to them, and rendered millions of people homeless. Iran and Russia support the Assad regime, while USA and Israel support anti-Assad groups. Turkey supports an anti-regime militant group called Free Syrian Army. The fighting militias have been battling government forces for control of cities. Syrian land has become a global battlefield and a testing ground for bombs and weapons. South reports that since 2015, the Russian military alone has tested more than 200 weapons systems in real combat conditions in Syria.

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