As I write this, the foreign ministers of about twenty different countries are seated around a conference table in Vienna arguing about what should be done in Syria. That now twenty countries have a vested interest in how the conflict plays out should indicate how protracted and complicated things have become. It is no longer merely a question of the government and its opponents, but of numerous regional and international actors with agendas of their own. Unfortunately, the conflicting nature of these various agendas is often used as a scapegoat to explain why so little has been done. “If so and so could only agree on blank,” say the pundits, “then we could see real ‘progress’ in Syria.” I’m going to go through some history to explain where these various agendas came from and why they are at the conference table, so as to illustrate how unconvincing the above argument is. That’s because even if one accounts for the historic weight behind these various agendas and the ways that they deeply conflict, there still remains a gaping hole where more could be done to help those Syrians who have had such violence thrust upon them.
The Civil War
One of the easiest ways to understand the war is to separate it into two conflicts. The first is a civil war between the government of Bashar al-Assad, on one side, and the rebels who wish to see his regime toppled on the other. The second is a war between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), on one side, and all those various actors who oppose it on the other. This latter group includes the Assad government, the anti-Assad rebels, and a US-led military coalition in alliance with the Kurds.
The first of these two conflicts broke out in the southern city of Deraa in March 2011, after Syrian security forces opened fire on civilians who were protesting the corruption and brutality of the Assad regime. The event triggered a vicious cycle in which more Syrians would take to the streets to protest the government violence, which was met with fiercer government crackdowns, subsequently spawning even larger protests. By July 2011, hundreds of thousands of Syrians were protesting in the streets, eventually taking up arms and uniting with defectors from Assad’s military known as the Free Syrian Army. Soon, the rebels were competing with regime security forces for control of the country’s largest cities, in battles that continue today.
Yet as the conflict between the Assad regime and the rebels dragged on, it developed increasingly sectarian overtones that drew in neighbouring regional powers. This is because the Assad family, who has ruled Syria for over 40 years, is part of the Alawite sect of Islam. The Alawites adhere to a very specific and controversial form of Shia Islam, and make up only about 12% of Syria’s population. (1) Sunni Muslims, by contrast, make up about 74% of the population, and have been historically excluded from most positions of power. (2) These demographics roughly mirror the wider Middle East, where for centuries there has existed a conflict between Sunni Muslims, who represent 87-90% of the total Muslim population, and Shia Muslims, who represent the other 10-13%. (3)
Countries like Iran, where about 90% of its population practice Shia Islam, (4) fear that a collapse of the Assad regime would lead to a takeover by Sunni extremists and a dwindling of Shia influence in the region. Iran has therefore spent billions of dollars sending in military advisors, subsidizing weapons sales, and providing generous lines of credit to the Assad regime. Hezbollah, a militant Shia Islamist group based in neighbouring Lebanon, has also provided considerable battlefield support for Assad’s forces. On the other hand, Sunni-dominated countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, who have a history of confrontation with Iran, have expressed a keen interest in overthrowing Assad. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has been generous in providing weapons and military support to anti-Assad rebels.
But the allegiances do not stop at the borders of the Middle East. Russia is a staunch ally of the Assad regime for both economic and strategic reasons. It has sold billions of dollars of weapons to Assad over the years, and also wants to protect one of its key naval facilities located in the Syrian port of Tartous. Russia is also interested in projecting an image of global importance in the face of the rebel-allied West, with whom it has been at odds in the war in Ukraine. Thus, in addition to supplying weapons to Assad’s forces, Russia has set up bases and advisors in several government-controlled areas and, in September 2015, launched an air campaign against Assad’s opponents.
The United States and its Western allies support the rebels, providing them with money, training and, more-recently, weapons. However, this support has come slowly and reluctantly, as the West fears helping any rebel factions that hold a radical Islamist agenda. Thus, it has spent many of the past several years trying to find a so-called ‘moderate opposition.’ The United States also fears committing to another ground operation in the Middle East, repeatedly promising not to put ‘boots on the ground.’ This strategy roughly follows with the United States’ tendency to align itself with other Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, rather than with Shia states like Iran, with whom they have had a historically volatile relationship.
The War against ISIS
The second portion of the war concerns the Islamic State, or ISIS, on one side, and effectively everybody else on the other, including the Assad government and its allies, the various Syrian rebel groups, and a US-led military coalition of about twenty Western and Arab countries in cooperation with the Kurds.
The relevance of ISIS traces back to Iraq in 2011, after the exit of the last American troops. Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim, had begun to worry that without American support, he was vulnerable to an overthrow by Sunni Muslims in the country. He promptly began arresting or assassinating Sunni members of his government, and brutally cracked down on public Sunni demonstrations. Yet this persecution served only to encourage Sunni insurgents, among them the group al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
Later, when the Alawite government of Bashar al-Assad began collapsing in neighbouring Syria, the leaders of AQI saw an opportunity to exploit the power vacuum there and increase their popular support. The group was remarkably successful at recruiting disenfranchised Sunni Syrians, and managed to capture multiple cities and towns from both Assad’s forces and the rebels. In 2013, the group renamed itself The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and pronounced an autonomous territory, what it calls a caliphate, across the mass swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territory it had captured.
The arrival of ISIS in Syria in late 2013 marked the beginning of the second front of the Syrian Civil War. In addition to fighting each other, both the Assad regime and the armed rebels found themselves fighting a brutal Islamist militia. The United States, with an electorate that was uninterested in any further engagements in the Middle East, did not intervene and provided almost no material support to suppress the group.
Their position only began to change after ISIS closed in on Erbil, the capital city of the autonomous region of Kurdistan in the North of Iraq and Syria. Erbil housed trillions of dollars worth of investments held by prominent US energy firms. The US, allied with Kurdish fighters in the region, began launching airstrikes on ISIS positions. ISIS responded by broadcasting its beheadings and mass murders over social media, this time targeting Western journalists and tourists. The videos provoked a renewed fear of global terrorism in the West, prompting the United States and its allies to expand its air strike operation throughout Iraq and Syria, with the intention to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the organization.
Bystanders to Homicide
It is therefore true that the various regional and international actors in the Syrian civil war are deeply invested in different ways that are hard to reconcile. Yet when we take stock of all of them, whether it be the sectarian histories that are pitting Iran and Saudi Arabia against each other, or the geopolitics that are driving a wedge between Russia and the West, there is one group of interests that gets consistently ignored: the non-aligned Syrian civilians who are caught in the crossfire of it all.
Of the 250,000 casualties in Syria thus far, an estimated 115,000 of these have been civilians. (5) About 95% of all deaths caused by the Assad regime’s airstrikes are non-combatants, (6) with planes intentionally targeting hospitals and neighbourhoods believed to be housing rebels. ISIS has used mass public executions, where rows of civilians are lined up and shot in the head, as well as public beheadings as a way of scaring the populace into submission. 11 million people, more than half of the entire population of Syria have been forced to leave their homes. (7) 4 million have left the country entirely, provoking the current European migrant crisis. (8) The European Commission, in a recent report, called the war in Syria the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. (9)
And yet the response from those nations meeting in Vienna has been to gloss over these humanitarian tragedies in the name of strategic or economic considerations. In attempting to project an image of power to the West, Russia has joined the Assad regime in its brutal airstrikes, bombing civilian homes, refugees camps, and hospitals. In trying to withdraw itself from its commitments in the Middle East, the United States watched for years as Syrians massacred each other, only to ultimately intervene when lucrative energy investments were threatened.
This is not to say that there are any easy solutions for what to do in the Syrian conflict. Overthrowing Assad risks opening up the type of power vacuum that destabilized countries like Libya and Iraq. Keeping Assad in power will merely prolong a decades-long dynasty that systematically denies its population any political expression. Yet there are ways of intervening that do not require finding some sort of silver bullet that will magically harmonize all of these disparate concerns. All of the parties at the conference table in Vienna can agree to increase the amount of humanitarian aid that they are contributing to the country. Those countries who already possess a considerable presence on the ground, such as Russia and the United States, can be pushing harder for the creation of local ceasefires so that this aid can be safely delivered. Finally, European countries can rethink their embarrassing response to the ongoing migrant crisis and set about accepting as many Syrian refugees as possible.
The New York Times recently reported (10) that the Iranian and Saudi delegations at Vienna, because of their near-constant quarrelling, were seated such that they couldn’t even make eye contact with one another at the table. When one hears news like this, it’s hard not to feel like perhaps the people sitting at the table are looking at the wrong things.