After five years of the Syrian civil war, four conflicting parties can be identified on the ground: the Assad regime, Islamic State, rebel groups and the Kurds. Each of these conflicting parties has regional and international backers, who ironically do not agree with each other about who they are fighting for or against.
The Syrian regime is backed by Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Iraqi militias. Islamic State (IS) is backed by the flood of global jihadists from all over the world. Rebel groups are backed by Gulf States, Turkey, Jordan and the US. The Kurds are supported by the US. While in the media we always hear “the Syrian conflict,” “Syrian crisis” or “Syrian war,” I wonder what makes this war so Syrian.
The war has been waged in Syria, it’s true, leading to over 50 percent of Syria’s population being displaced, over 220,000 killed and many more wounded or imprisoned. According to Amnesty International, more than 12.8 million Syrians are in “urgent need of humanitarian assistance.” In addition to this humanitarian catastrophe, most of Syria’s infrastructure has been destroyed.
In March 2011, when people engaged in peaceful protests against the regime, security forces and lawless secret police (Shabiha) brutally cracked down on them, killing hundreds of civilians in a few weeks and setting off an even greater bloodbath.
The drivers for protests were neither ideological nor religious, but rather common people standing up for their rights because they had suffered from political oppression, social injustice, economic hardship, human rights violations, unemployment, poverty, corruption, etc.
While the Syrian intelligence apparatus and Shabiha, police and the army became notoriously involved in the crackdown, a series of defections from these same groups led to the formation of the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) to confront the regime’s brutality. The FSA began to take in all those willing to fight against regime forces. At that moment, the uprising in Syria became a civil war.
Prompted by ideological mobilization in 2012, jihadists and extremists from around the world started traveling to Syria to join the rebels. Assad encouraged this activity by releasing jihadists from jail. Assad’s goal was to vilify the rebel groups, especially after the regime had lost control of the northern borders. In January the same year, al-Qaida formed a branch in Syria called al-Nusra Front to fight against the regime. Around that time, Kurdish groups took up arms to defect from Assad’s rule in a bid for autonomy. This year marked the beginning of the proxy war in Syria.
Iran, Assad’s strongest ally, intervened to help the embattled Syrian dictator. By the end of 2012, Iran was sending daily cargo flights to Syria, and had hundreds of officers on the ground. Iran also provided significant logistic, technical, financial and military support to Assad. It is estimated that by December 2013, Iran had approximately 10,000 operatives in Syria, including thousands of Iranian paramilitary Basij fighters, Arabic-speaking Shi’ite volunteers and Iraqi Shi’ite combatants.
In mid-2012, the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iranian front line against Israel, joined the combat against the rebels. Hezbollah took an active role in battlefields such as al-Qusair (May 19, 2013 to July 5, 2013).
In return, Gulf States, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar, were sending money and weapons to rebel groups, mainly through Turkey and Jordan. Saudi Arabia supports Salafist and ultra-conservative insurgent groups such as “The Army of Islam” (Jaish al-Islam or JAI) under the command of the Salafist Zahran Aloush. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Qatar has exerted enormous effort to support the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical rebel groups with al-Qaida ties in Syria. In order to counterbalance the Saudi influence in Syria, Qatar, along with Turkey, backed up the ultra-conservative Ahrar al-Sham (10,000 to 12,000 fighters), which is part of the Syrian Islamic Front (30,000 fighters) and under the command of Hassan Aboud. (However, the Gulf States saw eye-toeye concerning the Syrian refugee crisis: According to Amnesty International, the Gulf States took in zero refugees.) This division between Sunni-majority powers supporting the opposition on one hand and Shi’ite powers supporting Assad’s regime on the other marked the regional sectarian dimension of the conflict.
Allegedly horrified by Assad’s atrocities against his own people in 2013, the US authorized the CIA to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight against Assad. Controversially, while the US was urging Gulf States to stop supporting extremists in Syria, between 2010 and 2015 Saudi Arabia bought more than $90 billion worth of arms from the US, according to the latest figures provided by the Congressional Research Service. In the same year, Assad used chemical weapons against civilians in rebel-held areas. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons reported to the UN that “chlorine has been used repeatedly and systematically as a weapon” in Syria. In September 2013, Obama remarked: “Men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas... It is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.”
However, at this point Russia, Assad’s long-standing ally, proposed that Assad surrender control over chemical weapons to the international community, to be eventually dismantled.
This development marked the depth of the power dispute between Russia backing Assad and the US against him.
In February 2014, Islamic State (IS), previously based only in Iraq, took control over areas in Iraq and Syria, attracting foreign fighters from all over the world and ironically becoming al-Qaida’s enemy. Indeed, IS doesn’t fight Assad, but the Kurds in the north and other rebel groups.
By 2014, foreign jihadists fighting in Syria were estimated to number between 10,000 and 12,000, with more than 3,000 coming from Western countries. Accompanied by constant calls from mainly non-Syrian, Sunni clergymen for “material and moral” support for the Syrian rebels, thousands of foreign fighters flood into Syria for jihad every year.
In September 2014, a few months after the formation of IS, a coalition under the leadership of the US launched air-strikes against IS on Syrian territory. Again, the CIA came into play, sponsoring the training of Syrian fighters taking on IS. While the US and other Western countries made it very clear that they opposed IS more than Assad, Turkey started bombing Kurdish groups in Turkey, Iraq and Syria, although the Kurds had been fighting against IS since its formation. Based on tensions between Turkey and the US about who the primary enemy in Syria was, Turkey doesn’t bomb IS.
While Assad has been losing ground to IS and the rebels, Russia intervened on his behalf. On the ground, Russia has been bombing anti-Assad rebels, including those backed by the US.
While Syrians themselves are not much heard from (outside refugee camps, that is), Americans, Europeans, Russians, Turks, Iranians and Arabs hold meetings, agree and disagree, cooperate and coordinate, and coalesce and collide to find a solution to the “Syrian” conflict. According to the US Defense Department, coalition air-strikes in Syria alone reached 2,680 in 2015, out of which 2,540 were conducted by the US and 140 by the rest of the coalition (Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and UAE). The fact remains that not a single Syrian citizen has been left unaffected by the crisis; Syria is the site of a bloody war with no prospect of reconciliation in sight. So what is Syrian about the Syrian war? Perhaps, it is only the humanitarian catastrophe.The author is a lecturer in journalism, intercultural communication and the politics and culture of the Middle East at Fulda and Darmstadt universities of applied sciences and Phillips University Marburg. He specializes in the application of religion into political life and discourse in the Middle East and the editor-inchief of the Mashreq Politics and Culture Journal.