Analysis: What if no one wants to win the Syrian war?

Many of those involved just like abusing the weak and preying on easy targets. Some of those involved just want to kill people for the sake of it.

Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime celebrate. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime celebrate.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week a new player fully entered the Syrian war as the Turkish army rolled into Jarabulus along with thousands of Syrian fighters with whom it is allied. To placate the Turks, US Vice President Joe Biden happened to be on hand to tell the Kurdish-backed YPG to go back across the Euphrates. The Turkish intervention, supposedly directed at “fighting Islamic State,” was also directed at interdicting any attempt by Kurdish forces to connect their Afrin canton with their existing areas in northeast Syria.
Others have written extensively about the various sides in the Syrian civil war and also about what an ideal outcome might be. Jonathan Spyer in The Spectator asked, “Who should rule Syria?” and concluded that none of the major players should.
“The Assad regime should not be permitted to reunite Syria under its rule, the Islamist rebels should similarly not be allowed to establish a Jihadi state in the country, and the Islamic State should not be permitted to remain in existence,” he said.
A deeper problem in Syria is that no one wants to win the war.
The toll of the Syrian Civil War on civilians in Aleppo, Syria
The Turkish intervention stemmed from two parallel interests: to support the various Syrian groups allied with Turkey such as Faylaq al-Sham, and to reduce the influence of the Kurds in Syria. Turkey has a history of declaring it is fighting ISIS while then noting it is fighting “other terrorists” as well and attacking Kurds, as it did in the fall of 2015. From the Turkish point of view the Kurdish PKK and YPG are the real terrorists.
The Turkish role in Syria is not to win but merely to create a buffer zone. The Kurdish role in Syria is also not to win, but only to create some sort of united federal region, linking Kobane, Rojava and Afrin, the historic Kurdish areas. ISIS is also not bent on winning in Syria, and never was – its interests often were across the border in Iraq, in its global “caliphate” and mass rape and murder around the world.
Syrian President Bashar Assad pays lip service to winning, but isn’t his real goal to use the presence of jihadists groups to prop up his own legitimacy as the “defender” of Syria, the “resister of imperialism,” the lone shield “fighting terror”?
Russia’s intervention in Syria in the fall of 2015 was not aimed at winning but propping up Assad. Iran and Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, dating to the earlier years of the war, was not aimed at winning. The Americans don’t want to win in Syria, they want ISIS defeated. The Syrian rebel groups, the multiplicity of groups that might run to 1,000 different factions, of which a dozen are large players or coalitions, have no ability to win the war, and it isn’t clear most of them want to. Most want to control some tiny little area.
If you were told there was a war and no one wanted to win it, then you might have to revisit the paradigm under which you imagined the “war” was being fought. Here is what the Syrian civil war looks like in retrospect.
March to July of 2011 began with protests. For a year and a half there was serious fighting. In August 2013 there was the chemical weapons attack and fears of intervention by the US and increasing Hezbollah involvement.
There is the rise of ISIS in 2014 and its capture of Palmyra in May 2015. At around the same time there are the military successes of the YPG and Russian intervention in the fall of 2015. There is also increasing American and coalition intervention in Syria, beginning with failed attempts to find “viable” rebel groups and then partnership with the Kurds. In August of 2016 the Turkish intervention began.
With each round of successes of one group comes another round of intervention. With each setback a new player, with each alarming weakness of one faction a new injection of support. Assad’s forces were bled white in Syria, like the French at Verdun, so Hezbollah had to be bled white and then Iran and Afghan mercenaries and Shi’ites from Iraq. Rebel factions also exhausted themselves. The Kurds also overstretched in their temporary success at Manbij.
In some ways the Syrian civil war bares a gross resemblance to the Thirty Years War in Germany. It isn’t merely the sectarianism and numerous interventions by outside parties to support their proxies, but also the mass destruction and brutality.
If you accept the parallel with the Thirty Years War, with Syria as the victim of numerous state struggles and divided into a plethora of little statelets, then you have to ask yourself where is the Middle East’s “peace of Westphalia” and the remaking of its order in the wake of the conflict?
Since no one wants to win the war, no one can win the war and no one should win the war, the only option is to end the war. But there is apparently much blood to be spilled before that can happen, and the great and regional powers involved don’t care particularly if it continues. For them, like France and the Habsburgs, the interest is influence, buffers, and killing. Indeed, one reason no one wants to win is because, like ISIS reveling in executions or those videos of the beheading of a teenage Palestinian by one rebel group, or regime soldiers torturing prisoners, many of those involved just like abusing the weak and preying on easy targets.
Some of those involved just want to kill people for the sake of it.