The Syrian Conflict: Overview of Current Actors and Patterns
In 2011, a group of teenagers in Southern Syria wrote on a wall some revolutionary slogans and were subsequently arrested and tortured by the authorities. In March, pro-democracy demonstrations started taking place in the city of Deraa and activists worldwide started demanding for President Assad to resign. However, instead of bringing about democratization, the demonstrations were brutally crushed by the regime and violence escalated – as described by the 2016 BBC report Syria: The story of the conflict.
The protests gradually escalated into a sectarian conflict, opposing Assad’s Shia Alawite faction to the Sunni majority. In August 2013, the use of chemical weapons caused an escalation in violence, as rockets filled with the nerve agent sarin targeted some suburbs in Damascus. The government reported that the rockets had been fired by rebel forces, but many claim that the regime itself is probably responsible for the attack. To date, the conflict has grown increasingly intricated and the rise of the jihadist Islamic State has further complicated the landscape and increased the death toll. Overall, a solution seems difficult to reach, as opposing interests and conflicting actors face each other in the Syrian powder keg.
Iran and Israel
Assad’s regime can rely on the militias backed by the Iranian government, which are the most effective ground troops when it comes to ousting anti-governmental groups from territories occupied by rebels. However, the recent expulsion of rebel forces from a region close to the Golan Heights – controlled by Israel – has increased tensions between Teheran and Tel Aviv. On February 10, Israel intercepted a large surveillance drone coming from Syria and allegedly penetrating the Israeli airspace. The drone had been sent by Iranian forces and was rapidly intercepted and shot down by Tel Aviv. The Israeli military subsequently launched an attack to the supposed controlling structure, based near Palmyra. While heading back from the raid, an Israeli F-16 fighter jet was brought down by Syrian antiaircraft defense missiles. This prompted Israel’s response, targeted at Iranian and Syrian bases; according to the New York Times (February 10, 2018), four Iranian targets were destroyed, and eight Syrian positions were hit by the raid. So far, Israeli and Iranian forces have not engaged in a full-scale conflict, rather confining themselves to sounding out each other’s strength. However, the latest episodes increase the risk of an escalation of violence – drawing in also actors which have so far avoided a fully-fledged involvement.
Russia and the United States
As reported in an analysis conducted by The Economist (February 17, 2018), growing tensions between Iran and Israel could possibly force Russia to “choose sides”. However, the Kremlin is at present on cordial terms with both parties. Moscow is acting as a super partes arbiter in the Syrian conflict and last month it organized peace negotiations in Sochi – which were sponsored, as the Astana summit, by Russia, Iran and Turkey. However, these Russian-backed talks were not attended by many actors involved in the conflict and were ultimately unsuccessful. Russia, on the verge of the presidential elections, is trying to complement the lacking role of the United States. The latter, both under Obama and under the Trump administration, have set the main goal to defeat the Islamic State – thus dangerously neglecting local mechanisms, patterns and power games. At the same time, however, also Russia is far from reaching a universally-acceptable solution for the conflict. The Kremlin is contributing, together with Iran, to prop up Assad’s government, thus increasing tensions with Israel. At the same time, Benjamin Netanyahu – Israel’s prime minister – strongly opposes the Iranian attempt to establish military bases in Syria. Due to Teheran’s increased hostility, Tel Aviv relies on the American support. Washington not only sustains Israel’s right to defend its borders and territorial integrity but is also condemns “Iran’s calculated escalation of threat”, deeming it perilous for the whole region.
Turkey and the Kurds
Russia has also been courting both Turkey and the Syrian Kurds – two factions which are now fiercely opposed. On January 20, Turkish fighter jets dropped bombs on Afrin – a Kurdish-held enclave in the Northwest of Syria. Turkey has thus opened a new front in the Syrian conflict, opposing its military to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Ankara sees in fact the Syrian Kurds as closely tied to the Kurdish political factions which operate in Turkey – namely the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The YPG, backed by American forces, chiefly aims at eradicating the Islamic State and constitutes the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The latter, in 2016, tried to establish a federal region (the Rojava) in the Northern area of Syria but faced a strong opposition from the government. However, the PYD still refuses to see Rojava ruled by Damascus, and America has agreed upon remaining in the region until an agreement is reached – mainly fearing the return of the Islamic State. Overall, the situation is dramatically tense and the alleged Russian backing of the Turkish operation in January caused the PYD to reject the Sochi negotiations at the end of the month. Despite the attempted political and military settlement sought at Astana, a solution is still distant. Moreover, the intertwined interests, conflicting positions and opposed goals contribute to deepening the Syrian quagmire – making it increasingly difficult for the various actors to extricate themselves.