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Syria’s Sectarian Conflict: A Proxy War

By Mohamed El-Khawas

Guyana Journal, July 2015

WASHINGTON, D.C., July, 2015:
Since 2000, President Bashar al-Assad has ruled the country autocratically, relying heavily on the Alawite minority (Shiites) who have control over the government, military, and intelligence. He has used security forces to enforce an emergency law, crack down on protest, and systematically eliminate opposition leaders who might pose a threat to the regime. When the Arab Spring Revolt broke out in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, Syrian officials did not expect it to affect them. It only resulted in a few demonstrations that were quickly put down. In fact, the Syrian majority stayed away from the protests. In March, however, troubles began in Daraa and quickly spread to neighboring towns to protest security brutality and to demand reform and justice. The government’s use of force turned these peaceful protests into a bloody civil war and put the country on an irreversible path of confrontation between the ruling group and the country’s majority Sunnis.

Syria is a complex place. The current conflict should be assessed in the context of the growing rivalry between the Sunnis majority and the Shiite minority government. This article looks first to the outbreak of popular protests and the regime’s use of the minority-dominated security forces and military to end the protests. These tactics backfired as it ignited old ethnic hostilities, sweeping the country into a sectarian conflict. The article then discusses the regime’s failure to end the conflict, which has made the country susceptible to foreign intervention by its powerful neighbors. Shiite Iran and the Shiite Hezbollah militia in Lebanon have sided with the Assad regime, while Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have supported the Sunni insurgency. The prolonged conflict also led to intervention by non-state actors, namely al-Qaeda-affiliated Jebhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Levant), also known as ISIS or ISIL. With their involvement in Syria, the U.S. supported moderate rebels to oust Assad. All of this foreign intervention has complicated the situation, turning the conflict into a proxy war.              

Syria’s Arab Spring Revolt

The spark that ignited the Arab Spring in Syria was a protest in Daraa following a local incident in which the security forces beat and detained 15 pupils for spray painting an anti-regime slogan on school walls. On March 18, people, including families and friends, marched to the Security forces building to demand the release of the students, calling for political freedom and an end to corruption. Security forces opened fire, killing and wounding several protesters. This protest soon spread into nearby towns, forcing the government to change tactics to restore calm. A government delegation met with tribal leaders in Daraa and agreed to punish the officials responsible for killing protestors and to release the students from detention. It also promised to cut taxes and raise salaries. People however remained outraged that children had been beaten and tortured. When protest spread to other locations, more civilians were killed by security forces.

To calm a nation that was increasingly on edge, President Assad, in a televised speech on March 30, talked about reform and warned Syrians against a “foreign conspiracy” to destabilize the country under the pretext of reform. People were not appeased because he neither specified the types of reforms nor announced a timetable for implementation. When protest continued unabated, Assad deployed the army and ordered them to shoot protesters to clear the streets. He went further, sending tanks to troubled areas when protests erupted across the country. He also used the much-hated Shabiha Alawite paramilitary to kill dissidents and torture captives.

On July 29, 2011, Assad faced a new challenge from his ranks. Air Force Colonel Riad al-Assad quit the military and formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA). He called on others, including local militias and opposition groups, to join them to defend the people and support the revolution. At the beginning, the FSA command was in Turkey, then it moved to northern Syria to be near the battleground. After a loss in Raslan, it returned to Turkey. On August 23, 2011, the Syrian National Council (SNC) was organized by Syrian exiles in Istanbul; it became the largest Syrian opposition group.

Foreign Intervention: A Proxy War

By August, outside attention became focused on Syria. In the U.S., President Barack Obama called on President Assad to step down. However, he was opposed to direct intervention, mindful that Syria is allied with Russia and Iran and, also, that the overall picture of multiple rebel groups was unclear. American intelligence said they could not identify the good guys from the bad guys among many anti-government groups. This was unfortunate because the Free Syrian Army, which was carrying out the bulk of the fighting against the government, was in desperate need of external assistance. Turkey, a NATO ally, urged Washington to train and arm the moderate Syrian rebels and offered its own bases to be used for that purpose. It also allowed both the FSA and the Syrian National Council (SNC) to operate out of Turkey. It also permitted Saudi Arabia and Qatar to funnel money and arms to moderate Sunni insurgent groups such as the Islamic Front, which cooperated with the FSA in battles against Assad military and loyalists.ezbollahH

As fighting intensified in Syria during the fall, the Obama administration continued to refuse to get involved. None of the major Western Powers was willing to take Syria’s case to the United Nations Security Council because China and Russia could veto any proposed action. Russia’s only friend in the Middle East is Syria, which has given Moscow a naval base on the eastern Mediterranean Sea and offers a lucrative business in replacing Assad’s military hardware and equipment destroyed in the fight to hold onto power.

Recognizing that the UN Security Council could not deal with Syria’s case, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon took the matter into his hands, in April 2012, he appointed Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General, as the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria. He gained an agreement for a cease fire but it was quickly violated by both parties.

This ended UN’s effort to find a negotiated solution for the conflict.

From the beginning, Syria had a sectarian conflict between its Shiites (government) and the majority Sunnis (rebels). Thousands of Alawites joined militias such as the National Defense Force or private militias organized by pro-government businessmen. As the civil war worsened, the fighting escalated into a “proxy war” as regional powers started taking sides. Shiite Iran supplied the Assad government with much needed cash and weapons and its Revolutionary Guards advised the Syrian military on the conduct of the war. Iran also got Lebanon’s Hezbollah

militia to fight alongside the Syrian regime. On June 27-28, 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported that Alawite army officers were operating in “ad hoc units made up of loyalist militiamen and members of the security and intelligence agencies, often overseen by Hezbollah.”  It is in Hezbollah’s interest to keep Assad in office so that it can continue to receive weapons from Iran via Syria.

Fighting has intensified as Assad struggled to stay in power, mounting attacks by air and land on towns and cities held by rebel groups. There have been high casualties among civilians who were sometimes trapped in areas under  siege by the military or subjected to heavy bombardment. For weeks or months they had no food, water, electricity or medicine. The human toll has been enormous. Since March 2011, over 230,000 people have been killed, the majority by government bombings and chemical weapons. The rebel groups too are accused of committing atrocities and other acts of violence against civilians. Two thirds of the 9 million Syrians have been displaced; half of them have fled their homes and relocated somewhere else in the country. The other 3 million crossed the borders and are now refugees in neighboring countries, placing a heavy burden on Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and more recently on European countries. The UN has been unable to raise sufficient funds to provide them with basic needs.

Intervention by Non-State Actors: Shift in U.S. Policy

The widespread fighting has created chaos in the country and attracted militant Islamist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. The ISI swiftly took advantage of Syria’s instability. With surprising ease, its fighters crossed into Syria and captured large swaths of territory, announcing the founding of an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Levant), also known as ISIS or ISIL. By July 2014, it had seized one-third of Syria and controlled its oil production facilities. These developments sent shock waves across the region. U.S. allies were alarmed and saw an urgent need to stop ISIS before it consolidates its control over Syria and Iraq and destabilizes other countries in the region. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Qatar, and Jordan appealed to Washington for help.

Obama responded with three major initiatives: First, he formed a regional coalition, led by the U.S., to target the Islamic State both in Syria and Iraq. In September, the U.S., for the first time, conducted airstrikes in Syria. It was joined by Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Jordan and targeted Raqqa, the Islamic State’s unofficial capital. These airstrikes have not stopped ISIS from consolidating power. It still controls northern Syria, and has made further gains.

Second, Obama allocated a $1 billion fund for the CIA to help the Syrian insurgency. Its mission is to gather intelligence, provide training to opposition Syrian militias in Jordan, and move fighters and ammunitions across Syria. The CIA has started working with the Free Syrian Army, a coalition of moderate militias. An estimated 10,000 fighters were trained. With Americans guiding their operations, the FSA fighters have won battles, gained territory, and captured a strategic military base in Daraa in the south. They also seized a large cache of weapons and military hardware, which they put to good use fighting Assad loyalists.

Third, Obama asked Congress for authorization to use military force in Iraq and Syria. So far, Congress has not acted on it because of sharp differences between Democrats and Republicans over how much leeway the President should be given.

While the U.S. political debate continues, the Islamic State is back on the move, seizing new territory and consolidating its control over Syria’s oil fields. On May 15, 2015, it took over Palmyra, giving it access to the Arak and al-Hail oil fields. By Controlling Palmyra, ISIS now has direct land access to Iraq’s Anbar province. On June 3, 2015, the New York Times reported that some Syrian exiles offered troubling news that the regime’s warplanes were hitting towns northeast of Aleppo, possibly paving the way for the ISIS fighters to take Aleppo out of the hands of moderate Islamic groups. Twelve days later, the U.S. participated in a successful joint operation against the Islamic State, followed a strategy that has been successful. The U.S. conducted air strikes on ISIS positions, followed by ground attacks by the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). They succeeded in capturing Tal Abyada, a town located on Turkey’s border.

Recently, cooperation between the Islamic State and the Assad government created a major new challenge for the U.S. It comes at a time when the CIA’s funds for Syria are in jeopardy. Members of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee are not impressed with the CIA’s limited results at high cost. In their judgement, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has not captured a lot of territory or won major battles to justify U.S. spending of $ 1 billion a year. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress doubt that the group will emerge as a major player in shaping the future of the country after Assad is gone. The White House and Intelligence officials have argued that CIA funds should not be reduced at a time when Assad’s survival is precarious, with fighting on several fronts and much of the country held by the Islamic State or rebel groups. Moreover, CIA officials claim that the FSA is capable of establishing a foothold in the country that the U.S. can use to influence the shaping of the post-Assad regime. As a contingency plan, the administration is planning to work with the Senate Intelligence Committee to restore funding for Syria’s program if the House of Representatives reduces it.

In brief, there is a worrisome stalemate in Syria. Four years of fighting has proven that a military solution is out of the question. Removing Assad by force will not work because of the financial and material support he receives from Iran and Hezbollah. In addition, Russia is ready to supply Assad with new weapons and military hardware to replace the ones destroyed in the fighting.  It is doubtful that Iran can bankroll the Syrian war indefinitely. On the other front, Syrian rebels have been supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and, to a lesser extent, by the U.S. This standoff can go on indefinitely. It is necessary to search for another way to end the fighting and start a dialogue among the stakeholders. Conditions will have to be created to allow Assad to quit and leave the country. This cannot be accomplished unless Iran is willing to take the lead to persuade him to leave his post. The warring parties will have to agree to lay down arms and earnestly seek a negotiated solution that will serve Syria’s national interests.

Although Syrians will play a major role in getting the talks to move forward, the burden of finding a solution rests on the shoulders of the regional actors and the U.S. Right now, many obstacles stand in the way. Realistically speaking, nothing can be done unless an agreement is reached on Iran’s nuclear program. Such a deal might improve Iran’s international standing and might get it to moderate its stance on Syria and other conflict areas in the Middle East.

Mohamed El-Khawas
, Ph.D., is Professor of political science at the University of the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C.