The conflict in Syria erupted in March 2011 as an anti-government protest against President Bashar-al-Assad, turned into an armed rebellion the first quarter of 2012. Ever since, the war continued unabated and involved dozens of nations including Arab, regional and international nations and powers. The conflict has resulted in one of the worst humanitarian crises after the Second World War, killing some 500,000 people and displacing up to 9 million Syrians internally or externally. It has also dragged regional and global powers to wage proxy war in its territory and caused spill-over effects within and beyond the region.
Regardless of the difference in perspective in viewpoint and analysis of the role they have assumed in the almost 9-years of the Syrian war, it is almost impossible to ignore the significance of geopolitical factors, particularly if we take into consideration all the intermingling and mostly conflicting interests and agendas of major regional as well international countries including those of the two superpowers themselves. Unfortunately, when big players fight a proxy war on a foreign land, poor nations end up footing the bill, often with high human, economic and political cost; the war in Syria is no exception to the norm.
Rival Forces and Regional Players in Syria
Many regional and western studies regarding the Syrian crisis and geopolitics behind identify several different political, ethnic, sectarian factors as well as poor socioeconomic conditions within Syria. They also refer to competing gas export interests from regional as well as global powers, the intervention of foreign powers as major reasons for deepening the crisis and prolonging the war in Syria. The ruling Ba’ath Party of Syria headed by President Assad, fragmented Syrian opposition forces and their military entities, regional and global forces such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, the United States, Russia, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and different Sunni armed extremist groups like Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are key belligerents parties of this war.
The induction of armed terrorist and extremist organisations such as ISIS and Al Nusra Front, has posed serious threats to the national security of Syria and beyond. Besides its devastating impact on Syria’s socio-political and economic condition, the crisis has sent tremors throughout the entire Middle East, and corroded the West’s relations with both Russia and China as a whole. It has also caused the biggest wave of civilian migration since the Second World War.
Added Complexities Hamper Reform Efforts
The opposition’s composition of various groups also makes it difficult for the Assad government to satisfy their needs, as it attempts to introduce serious reforms or negotiate a settlement to the conflicts. One of the most notable government endeavours in this direction is the current launch of the trilateral commission for discussing the Syrian constitution which comprises 150 members divided by equal numbers between the government, opposition and the United Nations. The commission is due to start deliberations later this year, with the exclusion of some major controversial Kurdish factions that have voiced their rejection of the process in its present formula.
Although the fighting has yet to spill beyond Syria’s boundaries, there is clearly a “spill in” with regional countries involved in some way. Moreover, although the conflict is still ongoing, unintended blow-backs have already occurred, for example, terrorist attacks in Western cities, the downing of Russian jets and an airliner, the refugee crisis in Europe, and so on.
Widening the Middle East Ethnic and Sectarian Divide
The Middle East has long suffered from a structural divide between the Sunnis and Shiites as well as the power rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. These factors were strongly evident and more destructive in the Syria conflict, compared with other Arab Spring rebellions. Similar to the situation in Yemen, what started as a form of protests and calls for political reform, soon morphed into a prolonged civil war strongly characterized by sectarianism, and later on became an unabated regional proxy conflict. However, developments in the Syrian crisis have revealed that there was much more to it than sectarian and ethnic rivalries and ambitions.
Rebel groups are almost 100% Sunni Muslims, and the mere humongous size and extremist doctrine of the majority of rebels and radical factions including al Nusra terrorist group, estimated at over 100,000 fighters, is sufficiently high to extend the conflict, despite a series of major defeats they have suffered in recent months and weeks of the Syrian conflict.
Global Dimension of Syrian Conflict
The East-West rivalry has been all too evident throughout the Syrian war, whether in the form of economic and military support, or via resorting to the Veto right of permanent UN Security Council members by both Russia and China on numerous occasions, in order to foil any Western-sponsored resolutions that threatened their interests or those of their allies in Syria, or were viewed as providing support of rebel forces fighting the Syrian government.
With Russia and China leading one camp at the UN, the US, Britain and France leading the opposite camp, the global divide over the Syrian war has continued throughout the 9 years of conflict. Parallel with political support, the opposing parties have provided military support to their allies on the ground. The Russian air force which joined the campaign in 2015, at the invitation of President Assad, has been detrimental in much of the war effort against Western-backed, Arab-financed and Turkish-affiliated militants and terror groups. The influence of the international structural system on this conflict is such that the ongoing global divide continues to hinder meaningful efforts to end the Syrian conflict through peaceful negotiations.