The Syrian Civil War is the nexus of many challenges the United States faces in its foreign policy. This conflict is one of intense complexity, with several state and non-state actors with cross-cutting motivations making it a difficult situation for the U.S. to address. This column is devoted to issues surrounding the Islamic State (IS) and how the beginning of the Syrian Civil War is perhaps the most influential moment in the history of IS, next to the invasion of Iraq. As a result, it’s necessary to provide essential background information on this conflict: Who are the actors, what do they want, and why do we care?
Syria has never been kind to democratic efforts. In 2011, the wave of popular protests known as the “Arab Spring” found its way into its society. In Syria, dissenting opinions are often suppressed. Current Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has run either unopposed or against unknowns in elections. Up until March 2011, the protests remained peaceful until regime forces fired tear gas and bullets into the crowds, killing several. This violence at the hands of the regime sparked the former peaceful protestors to take up arms against their government.
With Iraq feeling the heat of sectarian tensions and Syria plunging into civil war, IS saw an opportunity to expand its hold on the region. The border between the two nations essentially dissolved, and with the influx of IS, many began to fear the opposition would turn into a terrorist insurgency. This is a complicated issue, as the opposition is not a body that can be covered with a blanket definition. Certainly, there are factions within the opposition with Islamist goals in mind.
For example, a group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, became one of the most effective groups fighting the Assad regime. This groups has strong links to Al-Qaeda. It is here we see the intense dilemma at the feet of the Syrian opposition. Many factions within the opposition are against the jihadist ideology groups like IS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham display. However, these Islamist groups have proven to be effective at fighting the regime. For the time being, the opposition is definitely fractured.
The U.S. role in this conflict has been relatively limited. The Obama administration attempted to arm Syrian rebels, but this was a half-hearted effort. Essentially, the only way a group would receive aid was if they were only opposed to IS. In a civil war, you will be hard-pressed to find a group that is neither pro or anti-regime.
A group the U.S. has historically had success partnering with against IS is the Syrian Kurds, a large ethnic group spread across several states in the Middle East, primarily Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. This alliance has created an uneasy relationship between the U.S. and Turkey, however. The Kurds have long desired an independent state within the region, which is interpreted as a threat to many leaders in the region, especially Turkey. As a result, there are concerns Turkey will offer little help to the U.S. in resolving due to our relationship with the Kurds. This is significant because the Kurds represent the most effective ground force fighting IS militants.
Turkey also has an awkward relationship with Russia, another big player in the Syrian Civil War. On Nov. 24, 2015, Turkey reportedly shot down a Russian warplane flying near its shared border with Syria. Since then the two powers have attempted to find common ground. Most recently, the two countries, along with Iran, have attempted to broker a ceasefire deal. No Syrian parties played significant roles in the process, though, so it is highly unlikely to garner a significant peace.
The U.S. was notably absent. This is key to understanding what Russia hopes to gain from its efforts in Syria. Russia sees an opportunity to essentially tell the U.S. and the United Nations to keep their noses out of the conflict. Think of it as a display of strength. While Russia, like the Assad regime, claims to fight terrorists within Syria, they mainly target civilians, bombing places like hospitals and marketplaces.
The civil war in Syria is a complex web of politics. With hundreds of thousands dead, and millions more displaced, it seems there is no real winner in this conflict, no matter the outcome. In the past, I have made the case for greater intervention in Syria. However, I fear this conflict will continue for several years to come.