Have you ever wondered what Iraq might have looked like if American forces pulled out after toppling Saddam? Or perhaps what the Spanish Civil War would look like took place today? Or if democratic movements could topple dictators on their own? Then look no further than the Syria. From its beginnings in 2011 to the stalemate that it has reached today, the Syrian Civil War has begun to answer these questions and others.
The war itself began with the hope of the protests, progressed to the concern of the crackdown, and transformed into the horror of the initial violence. Then the various activists and fighters began to coalesce into groups. To the delight of the West, the National Coalition formed, which attempted to achieve international recognition and to form a legitimate government. On the other, to the concern of most of the world, radical groups like ISIS, as well as the lesser-known Al-Nusra Front and Jabhat Ansar al-Din coalition, began to form. In the meantime, atrocities swamped the people of Syria and splashed luridly across news headlines.
Multiple narratives have emerged to explain this sequence of events. Pundits and politicians have described the conflict in Syria as a result of insufficiently aggressive American foreign policy, as well as an example of how environmental issues affect domestic policy. Overwhelmingly, however, Syria is a story of half-hearted covert interventions from all sides—a proxy war that no regional or world power will permit to end except on their terms.
To some degree, the conflict in Syria was destined to become a proxy war purely because of geography and demographics. Syria sits in the center of a highly unstable area and shares a very porous desert border with Iraq. It also shares a moderately porous border—especially in Kurdish areas—with Turkey, and one with Lebanon controlled largely controlled by Hezbollah. For this reason, anything that happens in Syria tends to impact neighboring countries quickly. Thus the stakes are high for nearby countries when it comes to Syrian domestic affairs. Over the years, Jordan, Lebanon (and Hezbollah), Turkey, Israel, and Iraq have all either actively intervened in Syria or supported insurgent groups.
On a slightly wider scale, Syria is also roughly equidistant from both The war is also close to both Iran and Saudi Arabia, the “superpowers” of the Middle East and leaders of Sunni and Shia nations, respectively. Any path to regional dominance for either Saudi Arabia or Iran must be via Syria or Iraq. Since US forces occupied Iraq for the greater part of the past two decades, both nations have focused on Syria. Sunni influences continue to pull from the North and South, and Shia influences pull from the east and west—to say nothing of American and Russian forces.
Syria is also incredibly split along ethnic and religious lines. The Assad government is made up almost exclusively of Alawites, a minority Shia sect. The Christians, the other large minority population in Syria, support the Alawites because they fear oppression at the hands of the largely Sunni Muslim majority. As the conflict in Iraq demonstrated, when a minority oppresses a majority over an extended period of time, ideological disagreements and political power struggles can devolve into sectarian bloodbaths.
When the protests in Syria began, almost every interest group watched with bated breath. Invested parties waited for the best opportunity to intervene. In late 2012, both the U.S. and Russia began sending in material support in the form of various types of arms or anti-aircraft systems and advisors. At the same time, various Saudi and Qatari organizations began funneling funds to various rebel groups, many of whom espoused some brand of either Islamic fundamentalism or Wahhabism. As the conflict intensified, so did the interventions.
In 2013, the CIA, in concert with Saudi intelligence agencies, began to select rebel militias for training, while the Russians stepped up their logistical support for Assad’s forces. Hezbollah and Iran—though their involvement was murkier and harder to document—also began supplying fighters, supplies, training, and intelligence to Assad’s forces during the same period. After the emergence of ISIS, interventions became more and more intense. Jordan, Turkey, and Russia began launching airstrikes while the Kurds mobilized. Meanwhile, the U.S, began arming and advising the Kurds, as well as, recently, launching missile strikes of its own.
Very few of these interventions came with any long-term commitment or the intention help any party win. The U.S. intervention has been marked by a series of stops and starts, for example in 2013, when it briefly stopped shipping arms to the rebels, and in 2015, when the country stopped training moderate fighters. Even the initial shipment of weapons in 2012 wasn’t designed to help the rebels win; rather, it was to keep them from losing. At the time, they had few, if any weapons, were otherwise unable to fight back and were slaughtered by regime forces. After the brief pause, the arms shipments resumed once again. This resumption followed ISIS and the regime’s use of violence against moderate rebel groups. Europe and Iran have had similar levels of involvement and have made gestures to prop up rebels or the regime. However, both have failed to send enough aid to give any side a decisive advantage.
The various Sunni nations have intervened in even more scattershot fashions. Jordan was initially motivated to intervene by ISIS’s attacks on its borders. Later, they intensified their intervention because ISIS burned a captured Jordanian pilot alive, but most of the strikes have been focused on threats as they emerge. Such a reactive policy, while it does contain the bloodshed, does very little to end it. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey sent arms and money to Syria, but the amount varied considerably, depending on the preferences of the donors.
Eventually, once the international community discovered that one of the groups was ISIS, this flow of aid more or less ceased. That said, this flow of assistance was noncommittal as well and focused on advancing interests and ideologies rather than decisively ending the conflict. Only the Kurds, Russians, and Hezbollah have made any effort to both pursue their interests and end the conflict. Only then, this is motivated by their gaining from the battle’s end.
Of all international interventions, Russia’s was the most effective and turned the tide of the war for Assad. It was a strong, unwavering commitment, with a significant contribution of resources. Most importantly, the Russians worked with a group, the regime, that could function as a government and provide essential services in areas it had secured.
Trump’s recent missile strikes, in this context, really don’t do anything. Assad may no longer be able to gas his people with sarin, but both he and extremist militias continue to deploy chlorine gas. He is also still barrel bombing civilian neighborhoods. Syrians are still displaced, and ISIS still holds a significant chunk of Eastern Syria. In the end, the strikes do nothing to change the state of affairs on the ground. To assume that sarin gas which is hard to produce, dangerous to store, and distinctive when deployed, is somehow essential to Assad’s war effort is absurd. Since the strikes focused on eliminating Assad’s ability to deploy sarin gas, the current balance of power is unchanged. The only potential difference would come in the perception of U.S. involvement and commitment to its side, but even that is questionable.
The U.S has “ramped up” its involvement in Syria before, but has always backed down eventually. There was the red line, which was killed by Republicans in the Senate. Then there was the awkward attempt to balance Turkish and Kurdish interests the latter of whom, despite US reluctance to arm them, arguably continue to be the most effective of the opposition forces in Syria. Too much blood has been spilled, too many sectarian passions inflamed, and too much infrastructure destroyed—there can be no simple solution.
The Russian intervention provides an excellent example of the form an effective intervention should take, but for the moment the US cannot emulate it. There is exists rebel government for America to support. There is no force on the ground capable of ending the war with U.S. support, except perhaps the Kurds. Unfortunately, if the US were to back the Kurds, it would alienate Turkey, another vital U.S. ally. Any action in this context will be either incompatible with our moral values—requiring implicit support for Assad—or will need massive amounts of investment, producing an expensive success at best. Syria is bleeding, and there is little we can do but watch and try to mop up the mess.