Defense & National Security

Syrian conflict a proxy war to reshape the Middle East

Syrian conflict a proxy war to reshape the Middle East

Syria has become the battleground for a proxy war that has little to do with those who are dying.  The culprits fueling the fight are Russia, Iran, Syria’s neighbors, Islamists, and the United States.  The outcome could radically reshape the Middle East.

Back in March 2011 Syrians took to the streets caught up in the wave of Arab unrest that began with the Tunisian revolution.  Unfortunately Syrian protesters suffered a very different fate than the Tunisians.

President Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s harsh dictator, initially responded to the protests with hints of reform.  But soon he launched violent crackdowns that could have dispensed with the opposition if not for outside support.

Now, 17 months after the first protest, according to the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, Syria is engulfed in a civil war.  The battlefield engulfs much of Syria and spilled over borders into Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan.  The loss of life and treasure is significant and there is no end in sight.

The fighting continues because both sides have outside sponsors with motives other than preserving Syrian lives.  Those sponsors fuel their Syrian-based proxies with the means to fight while seeking self-serving geopolitical aims.

On one side is Assad with a large military sponsored by Russia and Iran.

Russia supports President Assad with weapons, fuel, loans, and political coverage.  Three times Russia used its United Nations veto to block that world body from sanctioning Syria.  This kept western and Arab powers from using a UN resolution as a license to intervene militarily to topple Assad as it did the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

The Kremlin’s use of its UN veto for Syria is also linked to its sensitivity about its own vulnerability to outside interference, especially in light of the color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia that swept former Soviet autocrats from power.  Russia has internal problems that potentially could spark a revolution too.

Russia has other important reasons to support Syria.  Damascus is Moscow’s only true ally in the Middle East and it allows the Russian navy to use Tarsus, a Mediterranean Sea port.  Damascus also accounts for eight percent of Russian arms sales and provides Moscow a Middle East intelligence gathering site.

Iran supports Assad with arms, money, trade, and military advisers.  It has a mutual defense treaty with Syria that justifies action to defend Damascus should the need arise.

Iran’s primary motivation for supporting Syria is to protect its arc of influence stretching to the Mediterranean through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.  Should Assad fall, Iran’s influence, built-up over three decades, might crumble and that has geopolitical and financial consequences for the Islamic republic’s grand strategy of dominating the entire region.

Opposing Assad and his supporters is a fractious collection of armed militants and Islamists.  The U.S. Government is struggling to identify the main opposition groups and what motivates them, according to officials quoted by the Los Angeles Times.

The best known anti-Assad fighters coalesce around the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which operates from Turkey and includes many Syrian military defectors.  This group is known for internal disagreements and “self-righteous” behavior, according to Reuters.

There are also groups of homegrown and foreign jihadists in the fight.  The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s militia aims to rebuild Syria “with an Islamic base” and “raise awareness for Islam and for jihad.”

Jihadists from across the Middle East also flood into Syria much as they did into the Iraq fight.  U.S. Rep Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said as many as a quarter of the 300 different rebel groups in Syria may be inspired by al Qaeda.

One al Qaeda group is led by Abu Khuder which calls themselves the ghuraba’a, or “strangers,” after a jihadi poem celebrating Osama bin Laden’s time in the Afghan mountains.  Abu Khuder told The Guardian they worry about flying the al Qaeda flag for “fear America will come and fight us.”  He admits his men work closely with the FSA.  “We help them with IEDs and car bombs,” experience acquired in Iraq.

These anti-Assad proxies have three primary sponsors: regional neighbors, the U.S. with its western partners, and transnational Islamic groups.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar arm the SFA to sustain the fight.  They have two objectives: install a Sunni-based government for the 75 percent of Syrians who self-identify with that strand of Islam and to reverse Iran’s regional influence.  This is sort of a tit-for-tat response from Saudi Arabia already suffering from Iranian inspired unrest among its Shia population in eastern Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s fear of the hegemonic Persian nation’s growing regional influence.

Turkey shares a long border with Syria and as a result hosts thousands of refugees and experiences armed confrontations with Syrian military such as the downing of the F-4 fighter last month.  Istanbul also harbors the FSA, shares intelligence and provides humanitarian aid for people inside Syria and provides some arms.

Turkey’s motivation is self-serving as well.  It seeks a democratic, peaceful neighbor that contains Syrian Kurds from coalescing with Turkish and Iraqi Kurds into a new nation.  Istanbul also has regional ambitions and Syria can become a springboard for expanding its influence.

The U.S. and its western partners support anti-Assad Syrians and especially the FSA with humanitarian support, some non-lethal equipment, intelligence, training, and geopolitical support.  The type and level of support may be changing, however.

Last week the New York Times reported President Barrack Obama signed a document allowing covert support to the rebels which would authorize clandestine action by the Central Intelligence Agency.  Even though this does not include arms as yet it does indicate the existence of a strategy to help topple Assad.

The American aim is the emergence of a pro-American, democratically elected Syrian government that respects its neighbors like Israel and its own citizens.  The U.S. also views the Syrian war as a means to clip Iran’s hegemonic wings and to deny Moscow regional influence.

Further, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told Jordanian King Abdullah last week, America wants to preserve stability in the country by maintaining Syria’s military and security forces and keep Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal out of the hands of extremists like Hezbollah.  Keeping Syria’s security forces intact and chemical weapons under wraps helps stabilize the volatile region, a key American aim.

Finally, Islamic terror groups like al Qaeda seek to turn Syria into an Islamist state.  This outcome is opposed by Syria’s neighbors but the longer the civil war continues that outcome becomes more likely.

Syria’s civil war is a complex, unpredictable proxy fight with significant geopolitical implications for American interests.  The U.S. strategy is wrongheaded because it leaves too much to chance such as the emergence of a radical Islamic government.

America needs a Syria strategy that is coordinated across allies to remove Assad soon, unify Syrians around a unity government, preserve as much of Syria’s security forces as possible, and cut-off future Russian and Iranian influence

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