What’s Next in Syria?

The Syrian Civil War is an armed conflict that has lasted for more than five years in this country in the Middle East and in certain parts of its neighbor Iraq. This conflict has been marked by a great complexity in terms of belligerent forces and the human consequences have been devastating causing a mass exodus of Syrian citizens seeking refuge, particularly in Europe.

Photo credit: ABD DOUMANY/AFP/Getty Images

The conflict arose in the context of the Arab spring 2011 that occurred in several countries of the region (such as Libya, Egypt or Bahrain) with the first protests in March this year to demand the fall of the regime. If at first the demonstrators demanded especially democracy and freedom of expression, from April they began to focus on the fall of President Bashar Al-Assad. As the protests tone rose so did the police repression leading to the death of many protesters. This led to the revolt of some officers of the Syrian armed forces forming a Navy Syria Free, which joined other rebels. With the scale of the conflict the US, France and the Gulf countries started to support the rebels including Islamic extremists like al-Nusra Front with links to al-Qaeda as the Syrian military began to be marked by long-time ally, Russia and also the Lebanese Hezbollah. But a new force emerged in Syria and Iraq in a war-torn, the Islamic State of Iraq the Levant. An Islamic extremist organization founded in 1999 only gained more prominence in 2006 with the Iraq war and even more with the Civil War Syria. Its ideology follows Salafism and Wahhabism, and it aims of to create a caliphate recovering all lands that have once been Islamic and to subject all of its inhabitants to Sharia Law. This army quickly captured large portions of territory mainly in the northeast of Syria and Iraq Northwest. The successive massacres of Christians, Kurds, Yazidis and moderate Muslims led to a huge wave of refugees. Another force present in northern Syria is the armed wing of the Party of the Democratic Union, Kurdish nationalists, simultaneously fighting the forces of the Syrian regime and Islamic rebels with the support of the Turkish PKK and Iraqi Kurds. Currently the focus has shifted from a battle against the Syrian regime to a fight against the Islamic State, with an international coalition that includes both the US and Russia attacking the Islamic state, although all  forces fighting the Syrian regime are actually being targeted by Russia.

The current map Syrian is the following:

Syria 2016.05.26

Situated in the Middle East, Syria is an important country from a geostrategic point of view. The country has since the father of the current president Bashar al-Assad, Hafez al-Assad, followed the ideology of Arab socialism wrapped in authoritarianism and favored those Alawites that are close to Assad, being one of Iran’s largest allies and part of the Russian block – and therefore opposed to the American bloc that includes Western countries. For the US, Syria is an enemy but because Syria supports Iran and eases its offensive policy towards Israel, and therefore they have an interest, shared by other Western countries (mainly Anglo-Saxon), that Bashar Al-Assad falls. The Russians prefer that Assad remains, since he is an ally, especially after the fall of Libyan leader Muhammar al-Gaddafi, and a major importer of arms and other Russian goods. It is also worth noting that the American intervention in Iraq led to a destabilization in the region that contributed to the rise of Islamist movements funded by the Persian Gulf Countries State and some officers of Saddam Hussein. Another reason for the strength of the Islamic State is its widespread support due to the spread of Islamic radicalism in the Middle East providing the movement with militants and fighters. Finally, weak government and the outspread of dictatorships also helped strengthening public support for the Islamic State among some communities

In 2011 the rebels in Libya started to have the support of the US, France and the UK, first with weapons and later through air strikes eventually resulting in the fall of Muhammar Al-Qadhafi and showing Western support to those calling for democracy in the Arab world. However, I believe this has been a wrong strategy in Iraq, Libya and Syria alike. The truth is that Syria, Iraq and Libya are all composed of different tribes and religious groups, leading these countries to be intrinsically unstable. Dictators guaranteed stability at the expense of democracy, but at least that prevented the growth of radical Islamic groups that are opposed to these predominantly secular regimes. While some of these dictators were once a threat to the West, as the case of terrorist attack organized by the Libyan secret services to aircraft Panam in Lockerbie exemplifies, currently the relations of these countries with the Western World were stabilized or even improved as in the case of Colonel Gaddafi who maintained a good relationship with the Italian Prime Minister at the time, Silvio Berlusconi. To withdraw these dictators from power, the Western powers helped turning these countries into a chaos in which Islamic extremist movements that represent a major threat to the Western world have had fertile ground to rise up and organize attacks such as the ones in Paris and Brussels. Unfortunately some are too naive and try to impose democracy in countries that are highly volatile and have no democratic tradition. I do not mean by this that people who want democracy do not exist in those countries – they certainly do – but these people do not have the material resources nor the necessary funding to overthrow authoritarian regimes or beat radical Islamist groups radical. Furthermore it it is difficult on the outside know who is moderate and democratic and who is only covering their radicalism with a mask of democracy. Hence some support from Western countries to the rebels has ended up to radical Islamic groups, which are not limited in the Islamic state.

With regard to foreign military intervention in Syria I believe that should be maintained, but without troops on the ground, should focus on the fight against radical Islamic groups in particular against the Islamic State. What is to prevent is that there are countries that play on both fronts as is the case of the Gulf countries and the most blatant case Saudi Arabia, which is participating in the international coalition that attacks the Islamic state but  also funds mosques and radical clerics in many Islamic and Western countries, contributing to the development of terrorism in these countries. This may not be a surprise since the ideology that influences the Islamic State is the same that is prominent in the Gulf countries, namely Wahhabism. Hence it is so important that political reform in Saudi Arabia takes this country away from Wahhabism and international terrorist financing. There should be greater coordination between NATO and Russian attacks, although the latter attack not only the Islamic State but all the groups opposed to President Assad. Overall coordination between international forces and stability in the wider region should be guarded. This includes normalizing Turkey-Russia relations and resolving the Kurdish issue within Turkey, as all fight ISIS as a common enemy. The union of all against the Islamic State should indeed be the short-term priority. Only once ISIS is defeated one should think of a peaceful transition of power in Syria, with the holding of democratic elections for the Syrians to choose their future president.

Pedro Diogo (21), Economics Student – Guest Writer

Disclaimer: This Post reflects solely the author’s opinion and do not represent the platform as a whole


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