Libertatem Magazine

The Syrian Conflict: An International Battlefield

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The number of state and non-state actors involved in the current conflict in Syria and the surrounding regions, has made it incredibly perplexing to understand. Therefore, in order to analyze such a conflict, it is imperative to distinguish between the different political interests of actors involved and the paradigm through which they functions.

The consequences of the conflict have been nothing short of devastating. The death toll after four years of civil war has risen to around 250,000 people, with about 4 million displaced civilians applying for a refugee status in the European countries (according to UNHRC estimates). The rise of extremist organizations, backed by sectarian policies of surrounding states, makes this conflict internationally significant. The sheer of number refugees knocking on Europe’s door, is reminiscent of the effects caused by the Second World War, such is the magnitude of the problem.

The refugee crisis which has sparked a separate debate in itself is a manifestation of the protracted conflict all around the Levant, but to get underneath the causes of these conflicts, we ought to look at the political preconditions and the events through which this conflict emerges from.

Credits- Council on foreign relations

The foundations of polarization

“The reason that communal identities remain so strong, reinforced rather than obliterated by the communication explosion, is the result of historic doctrinal differences and memories of oppression, both antique and recent.”

Michael C. Hudson

The prominently visible Shia-Sunni religious and political division overtly forms the foundation of the tension, which to me, explains the conflict better than any other. However, Islam’s divisions, fuming for fourteen centuries, falls short in adequately explaining the political, economic, and geostrategic factors involved in the conflict, but has become a prism through which the underlying tensions can be understood.

The Two nations that compete for the leadership of Islam, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, use the sectarian divide to further their political aspirations. Saudi and Iran are the two most powerful states in the region in terms of economic and military might. This rivalry has shaped politics and conflicts in the region, especially in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, and will continue to do so.


This is no way means that Saudi and Iran actually induce the conflict between Shia and Sunni polities around the region. The divide is harsh reality that people from both sides deeply believe in. No theological discourse and reconciliation on the Quranic interpretation of political succession can make them one because of the baggage of conflict and persecution between them for centuries. In fact, the Shia identity is embedded in victimhood over the killing of Husayn, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson by the Umayyad Sunni caliphate in the seventh century, and shared history of prolonged oppression by Majoritarian Sunni Regimes. The Majority sect within Islam, are Sunnis, this sect forms around 85 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Largely they view Shia Islam with doubt, and fundamentalist Sunnis have portrayed the Shia as renegades and apostates.

That being said, mixed Sunni-Shia polities in the region have avoided direct confrontation by a cold co-existence with each other. This was maintained primarily because of authoritarian regimes keeping confrontation in check, and the absence of state power in the hands of the Shia’s.

All of this changed, firstly, by the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the only Shia state in the world, giving immediate invigoration to the Shia population, particularly in Bahrain and Lebanon. Hezbollah, for example was created because of the Iranian revolution. Subsequent to the Revolution in 1979, the historic fear of Iran’s increasing influence appeared to be the most immediately relevant concern for Sunni Arab states. Ayatollah Khomeini’s rhetorical aspiration for exporting the Shia revolution beyond Iran’s borders became one of the primary concerns of the Sunni regimes in the Gulf. Such fears partially led to the support for Saddam Hussein by the Arab Gulf states during his war with Iran, which was brutally protracted war for eight years.

This becomes crucial because for the first time, the Shias had political relevance in the struggle for power in the region. This accentuated the political ambitions of those Shia communities that had previously simply adjusted with either Minority Sunni rule, like in Bahrain or the status of a Minority, like in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, Iran would characterize itself as the savior of Shias in the region, even though Shias are not a monolithic whole. Iraqi Shias for example made up the bulk of the Iraqi army that fought Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, and Shia militant groups Amal and Hezbollah clashed at times during the Lebanese civil war. The Houthis, a Zaydi Shia militant group in Yemen, battled the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Zaydi, several times between 2004 and 2010.

Secondly, the attempted consolidation of the Shia Identity by Iran was simply replicated by the Sunni governments of the region, especially Saudi Arabia by its funding and active perpetuation of Wahhabism, a puritanical movement that seeks to cleanse Islam from corruption, and for the Wahhabis, Shia belief obviously fell under corruption. This consequentially, resulted in the targeted “othering” of Shia and the consolidation of the “true” form of Islamic identity, the Sunni. Pakistan’s exclusion of the Shia beliefs under the category of Islam and the continuous attacks on Shia shrines by the Taliban, are examples of such targeting. These acts of exclusion and oppression played into the Shia narrative of marginalization, and further prompted Bashar Al-Assad and Nouri al- Maliki to exclude Sunnis from the political process of Syria and Iraq respectively.

Thirdly, the Arab Spring which started in Tunisia had a domino effect in the region. Country by country, authoritarian regimes were being overthrown. In my opinion, it is fictitious to characterize the Arab revolutions as purely a mass movement for realizing the ideals of democracy. That might be partially true, but for Syria and Iraq, it was an opportunity for the Sunni population to overthrow its increasingly authoritarian Shia rulers.

Nour Al- Maliki’s perusal of political power, through the means of sectarianism and Shia rhetoric of brotherhood, and the use of Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) for eliminating Sunni political opponents and other Sunni dissenters, re-entrenched Shia-Sunni polarization. The Sunni insurgency against coalition forces in Iraq was temporarily assuaged by the promise of participation, in National politics. Nour – Al Maliki’s military and political targeting of Iraqi Sunnis, confirmed Sunni fears of exclusion, which led to the conclusion that they are threatened and purposively excluded by the central government. The protest movement that erupted after Maliki’s attempt to arrest former Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi is a manifestation of these concerns, and the deadly ISF raid on the Hawija protest camp only served to demonstrate the threat. However, this abuse of power by Maliki was possible due to the failure of United States to reconstitute an inclusive government after the overthrow of Saddam Hussain.

In Syria, it all started by peaceful protests during the Arab spring of 2011, demanding the end of the Assad regime, the family that was ruling since 1970. The Assad Family (Alawite- Minority Shia) and other Alawites have a historical bitterness against the majority Sunnis after decades of oppression and had a Shia agenda which conferred on the minority Alawites in government and the private sector, more jobs and important posts. The 2011 protests and brutal government crackdown uncovered the existing sectarian tensions in Syria, which have rippled across the region.

Assad, instead of negotiating a deal chose to crush the opposition with brute force, which lead to a disorganized armed opposition evolving into a somewhat more organized rebellion, with brigades operating across multiple fronts and coordinating with each other. Since then, the political situation in Syria has spiraled down to a worsening security problem crystallized along distinct battle lines.”.

 Battlefield Syria

The salience of sectarianism (and other sub-national identities, like tribalism and Regionalism) rises as the power of the state declines.”

– F. Gregory Gause

Bashar Al Assad relied upon the paranoia of minority Alawites and groups to call for support. Shia militias from outside Syria, such as Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi groups Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah, have defined their role as protecting holy sites like the mosque of Sayyeda Zeinab. Opposing them, Wahhabi militant outfits have used anti-Shia rhetoric and anti-Iranian sentiment to legitimize their forms of violence. With the repeated occurrence of sectarian massacres in Syria, both by pro-Assad militias and Wahhabi militias, these justifications created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The explosion of the conflict beyond the borders of Syria and Iraq has made the conflict increasingly regional in scope. Particularly in Syria, numerous non-state actors, for instance, the Lebanese Hezbollah, have been engaging in the fighting either directly or by providing funds or weapons. Due to weakening of the state apparatus and border control, Syria’s borders have become increasingly porous, encouraging the flow of Men and material. Displaced people of Syria, have been driven across these borders, taking refuge in camps just outside in Syrian border. Iran has put forward an extensive amount of support, deploying advisors and launching a thorough resupply mission to keep its Arab ally afloat. Furthermore, it also unequivocally supported sectarian militias by transporting them from Lebanon and Iraq, and provided them with weapons. Lebanon and Iraq themselves have tried to avoid overt engagement, but non-state actors have repeatedly crossed these borders to fight.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have individually supported opposition groups, in addition to the media campaigns to bolster Arab and worldwide support for the opposition. Both the nations views the conflict as an opportunity to promote its role as regional powers as well as a chance to launch a proxy attack to rival Iran. Turkey has also become a player, motivated in no small part by more than 500 miles of border that it shares with Syria. Intervening states and actors have staked their reputations on the outcome of these conflicts, and it is unlikely that they will back down from such high-profile support.

The fact that Shias and Sunnis are not homogenous within their groups, is manifested in the confusing divisions between different armed groups, combating for different political ends. It is clearly not a binary conflict of Regime loyalists versus the Rebels. The opposition have not been able to consolidate a unified force, because of ideological and strategical differences, and consequentially, several groups such as the Free Syrian Army, Syria Revolutionaries Front, Al- Nusra and several others have in common their opposition against Assad, but still end up fighting each other due to other differences. The loyalist on the other hand, very rarely combat each other, but are divided into different factions that are unable to organize themselves into a unified force due to not having any sort of common territory or organizational communication.

Picture 1 – the territories controlled by different factions

Non- State Actors and their Agendas

The problem with supporting extremist organization, to further your influence in the region as a state, is that once actors like the Al- Nusra Front and the IS(Islamic State) gain enough territory and power, they start disregarding your directives and work against you. This is precisely what happened with the Islamic state. Once a part of AL-Qaeda, it was heavily funded by Saudi Arabia but it broke off due to the lack of consensus on what should be the group’s political ambition, and the degree of violence that ought to be used. Ironically, Al-Qaeda were the moderates.

The map, shows the massive chunk of territory under the control of the Islamic state. The self-proclaimed Islamic State is basically a militant movement that has conquered territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria, where it has made a bid to establish a state in territories that encompass some six and a half million residents.  The group traces its lineage to the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in 2003. The Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi aligned his Jama’at al-Tawhidw’al-Jihad with al-Qaeda, making it al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).Zarqawi’s successors rebranded AQI as the Islamic State of Iraq and later, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), referring to a territory that roughly corresponds with the Levant, reflecting broadened ambitions as the 2011 uprising in Syria created opportunities for AQI to expand. The group is known to its followers as il-Dawla (“the State”) and its Arabic-speaking detractors as daesh, the Arabic equivalent of the acronym ISIS.

Sunni disillusionment in both Syria and Iraq created a vacuum of power without a state, which was then exploited by the Islamic State, using high doses of Wahhabi rhetoric, with an aim to go back in time and establish the caliphate of the seventh century and establishing the Sharia based on a literalist interpretations. The northern Syrian city of Raqqa is often cited as the Islamic State’s de facto capital. In this city the ISIS has established some new institutions (e.g., judicial, executive and financial) and Hijacked others (e.g., health care, education, and roads and transportation) to provide residents with an appearance of a state and consolidate its control over the population.

The group is famous, for luring young Muslims from all over the world, using social networking sites and being incredibly proud of its gruesome barbarism. This barbarism, is shown to the world by releasing videos of hostage beheadings, and the harsh Implementation of Sharia in its territories.

After expansion like wildfire throughout the territory in Iraq since 2014, the Islamic State appeared to be pushed against the wall as it pushed up against majority Kurdish and other Shia regions, here it faced stronger resistance from the Iraqi forces and local people along with U.S.-led air strikes. On the other hand, the Kurds are fighting against both the Islamic state and Shia militant groups for protecting its land and people, unlike most other groups, their struggle is rooted in the Kurdish identity, which is an ethnic identity as opposed to a religious one.

Syrian Shias and Alawis enlisted with an Iran-backed militia known as the National Defense Force to fight for the Assad regime. As of now, these groups haven’t been as successful as the Islamic state, so as to function independently from the Assad regime and Iran. Even Afghan Shia refugees in Iran have reportedly been recruited by Tehran for the war in Syria, pitting them against Sunni foreign fighters who may have forced the Afghans into exile decades earlier. Syria’s civil war has attracted more militants from more countries than were involved in the conflicts in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Bosnia combined.


The failure of the International Community

Syria has been a battlefield, for powerful states like USA, Saudi Arabia and Turkey on one side, Russia, Iran and the Assad regime on the other. The policies of both USA and Russia with regard to the use proxy wars to further their interest, is reminiscent of the cold war, and have been nothing short of reprehensible

The Russian government has no strong attachment to Syrian President Bashar Assad, but it fears that a collapse of his besieged regime would create yet more violent chaos in the terrorism-infested region. As opined by by Pavel K. Baev and Jeremy Shapiro, in their article How Russia and America make the same mistakes in Syria, Russia observing from the example of Iraq, puts little stock in the idea that a U.S.-engineered solution that excluded Assad could create stability in Syria or defeat ISIS and other radical Islamist groups. Therefore, Putin has been heavily assisting both Iran and Assad’s regime, militarily and economically as well.

Ironically, this strategy is nearly a mirror image of the equally flawed American plan for Syria. American policy similarly holds that persuading Assad’s International allies to abandon him requires shifting the balance of power in the civil war sufficiently to make clear that the regime has no future. And so America and its partners have gradually increased their assistance to the Syrian opposition. The Russian and American policies are similar in another important respect: neither is likely to convince the other side to abandon their policy toward Assad or produce the desired negotiation. This lack of co-operation and competition for power in the region, has been contributing to the increase of violence astronomically.

It is apparent that both sides have conflicting ideas of who and how the post-war government should be formed, but even in Areas where their interests align, like taking ISIS down, both sides shied away in fear of what would happen next. Until recently, Vladimir Putin broke the shackles, and started bombing all forms of opposition to the Syrian Regime. This still is not a consensus, between both sides, and is very likely to elicit a reaction from the west.


It took a dead Syrian boy, washed up on a Turkish beach, to get Obama to say that he is ‘willing’ to engage with Russia and Iran over the ongoing war in Syria. This conflict has resulted in millions of Syrians displaced, trying desperately to reach the shores of Europe, to feel safe.

The second failure of the international community, is the lack of willingness to give asylum to these refugees. Desperate refugees crowding out Hungarian train stations, their children sleeping on floors and sidewalks, fearing Hungary will intern them in sinister-sounding “camps.” Greek tourism towns filling with tents and with humanitarian workers, to accommodate the rickety boats of refugees that arrive daily at the shores.

Developed nations of Europe, in their efforts to create a deterrence to the refugees from reaching their shores, have actively set aside crucial policies which could have made the journeys less dangerous. Last fall, for instance, the UK cut funding for the Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operations that saved an estimated 150,000 people in one year, saying the rescues encouraged more people to make the crossing. The Italian government ended the operation in November. Since then, it has been replaced by the EU’s far more limited Frontex program, which only patrols within 30 miles of the border, and does not have a search-and-rescue mission. The result, predictably, has been deadly: Relying upon the date produced by Amanda Taub in the article Europe’s Refugee Crisis, it is estimated that 2,500 people have already died so far this summer. This is not an accident. It is the result of European policy meant to keep out refugees.

This sort of morally reprehensible actions by countries are a product of anti-immigration politics by most right wing parties in these countries. The USA has only accept around 1,434 Syrian refugees, and the rich gulf monarchies are clearly not doing enough to resettle and give asylum to the victims of the conflict. Overall, the conflict and the reaction of the international community has been deplorable, and this tragedy is manifested in the Syrian Toddlers Image.


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