An Analysis of the Players,
At the end of which you will understand why a resolution of the conflict is damn near impossible
Ground Central: Syria, a nation ruled by a brutal dictator who used chemical weapons against his own people. He’s not stepping down until he is forced out. When the Arab Spring started, demonstrators began demanding political reforms. He used force to suppress them. Then Syrian women went into the streets, believing that a centuries-old tradition that forbid violence against women speaking out would be upheld. It was not. When the dictator used violence against them, rebel groups formed and the civil war began. At first, the rebel groups worked together, but their differences soon separated them into ‘moderates,’ by which we must presume that their political motivation is secular rather than religious, and the ‘extremists,’ who would gel into what we call Daesh. (I will not use the terms ISIS or ISIL, which implies that they are a state. They are a rogue force wreaking havoc, an organized criminal syndicate.)
The problem is as old as the Shi’ite/Sunni split in the religion of Islam. In Syria, we have the extra twist that the Assad family are Alawites, a controversial (within Shi’ite Islam) sect within a sect. Assad retains support from Alawites in the nation because they are a minority among a Sunni majority. At its most basic level, Syria is a battleground for the millennial conflict.
This is not your father’s Arabic Middle East. In the previous generations, each Arab nation fastidiously refused to interfere or comment upon the doings of another nation, more importantly, its rulers. This has changed as the new generation of rulers competes against the threats they believe others present to them. This change goes back to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when Iran came under the rule of Shi’ite clergy, who conflated the rule of government and the rule of religion into one and showed their determination to influence and direct the entire Islamic region.
Sunnis, led by Saudi Arabia, and Shi’ites, led by Iran, are competing for dominance of the entire Middle East.
Turkey: Since the days of Ataturk, the founder of modern-day Turkey, the Turks have looked for integration into Europe. That has changed and they are seeking to expand their influence in the Islamic world. They look south these days.
The Turkish government has two goals prompting their involvement in the Syrian war: one, continue suppressing the Kurdish revolutionaries who seek to secede not only from Turkey, but also Iraq and Iran, to form an independent Kurdistan; two, to protect ethnic Turks who live in Syria, who are participating in the revolt against Assad’s government.
Turkey action against Daesh seems to be directed against the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). The Turks are using the excuse of intervention against Daesh to target another enemy of theirs.
They also hope that the ‘moderates’ will ultimately win the Syrian conflict and that will give them more influence in the region. Perhaps they still dream of the Ottoman Empire and hope to reassemble it. The irony of the conflict between Turkey and Russia is rich as both nations invoke the same justifications for their actions: protecting their ethnic members, regaining lost territory that broke away.
Iran: The self-appointed leaders of the Shi’ites and striving for regional dominance, yet members of the minority sect, Iran has but one ally: the Syrian government of Bashir Assad. Iran seeks to maintain Assad in power. However, they have challenges of their own that limit their involvement: the Iraq mess, in which the country is on the edge of coming apart. Ever since the U.S. deposing of Saddam Hussein put Shi’ites in power, Iran has tried to support, influence, and control what could be an important ally. Certainly it is important to Iran to keep a friendly, or at worst neutral, government in Iraq. The Iranians have not forgotten the menace that Saddam Hussein posed to them when he initiated the border war of the 1980s. They have also not forgotten the fascism of Hussein’s government, in which he fantasized about being the second coming of Nebuchadnezzar and ruling over an empire worthy of the ancient Babylonians.
The Turks and Iranians have conflicting interests in the Syrian war and in the region.
Also, the overrunning of Iraq territory by Daesh threatens Iranian security as Daesh seeks to rule the entire 10-40 window from Morocco to Indonesia.
Daesh: The successors to Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the brutal terrorists whose signature move was to cut off heads with knives, Daesh was a minor player until the former Ba’athists army officers of Saddam Hussein got tired of living under Al-Malaki, the discriminatory and persecuting Prime Minister of Iraq from 2006 – 2014, and joined them to form a disciplined army that they deployed in the field. Daesh quickly overran remote areas of Syria and moved through Iraq, taking some of the most important cities. If you were wondering how they did it, it was through radicalizing and incorporating these experienced military officers.
Daesh dreams of a new caliphate that unites all Islamic countries and moves to complete the work of conquering Europe that was stopped first by Charles Martel in 732 and then at the gates of Vienna in 1683. After a swift conquest during the summer of 2014 reminiscent of the German blitzkriegs of World War Two, they came to a standstill as opposition solidified and put up a fight.
But they govern a territory with important assets such as oil wells that give them the means to carry on and menace the world. They have the means to acquire what they need to carry on the war. They are also showing a capacity to strike across the world that we have not seen since the United States led the effort to demolish Al-Qaeda’s financial network.
Daesh maintains itself through convincing propaganda distributed through social networks that attract young persons around the world to travel to Syria and join them, sales and purchases of oil, arms, and explosives through the black markets of the Middle East, and terror of a sort that surpasses the worst of the French Reign of Terror during the 1790s.
Their dreams of dominating the world would be quickly crushed, but they are able to exploit the rivalries of the powers that oppose them.
Iraq: Iraq has been comprised of three groups since its borders were determined at the end of World War 1: Kurds, Sunnis, Shias. These groups have no historical, ethnic, or religious basis for unity. The country has been held together only under the domination of a dictator. Since the U.S. invasion and establishment of a democratic process, the Shi’ites have dominated and the others have sought to leave. Iraq now perpetually stands on the edge of dissolution.
Further, since the professional army of Saddam Hussein was dissolved, the new Iraqi army has existed of persons who enlisted to have a source of income. They are not disciplined as was proven by their abandoning their superior position, equipment, and numbers when Daesh first attacked them.
The government seeks to maintain the country’s territorial integrity, but lacks the will of its military to fight in order to do so.
Nevertheless, through the assistance of Shi’ite militia and covert Iranian forces, Iraq has stopped the Daesh advance and is slowly turning back their conquest. Their efforts would be futile but for the Kurds.
Kurdistan: The Kurds have dreamed of independence for generations after being split among the Turks, the Iraqis, and the Iranians. Given the geopolitical rivalries of the Great Powers of Europe, then the Cold War, and now the splintering of boundaries, they have never found a backer for their independence. Yet they are useful pawns and the nations have made use of them. Ironically, when the Iraqi Kurds gained their semi-autonomous zone, they had to share power among their factions and forged a decent democratic process.
They fight because they must. Given weapons of sufficient firepower, they have been effective in pushing Daesh out of their cities. But their dreams of independence are doomed.
That would be quite enough to demonstrate how the conflicting interests of the competing regional powers will perpetuate this conflict into future generations. But now we have to consider the world powers that have involved themselves.
The United States of America: In the days of the Cold War, the USA competed with Russia for influence in the region. It was one of several arenas in which the two superpowers sought to defeat the other without the direct involvement of their military power. As the competition advanced through the 1970s, the U.S. slowly but steadily boxed the Soviet Union out of the Middle East until the only ally Russia had left was Syria.
That left the U.S. with a victory but also a burden of leadership that it has not been able to meet. In truth, it is not possible that any nation could meet it.
The U.S. has found itself in a state of futility as it has tried to lead a peace process in the Middle East between the Israelis and Palestinians. With an assist from Anwar Sadat, who made peace with Israel because it helped Egypt, the fear of states like Jordan, who fought a ferocious battle in the early 1970s to kick the PLO out because the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization, led by Yasir Arafat) was destabilizing the country, the U.S. pushed Russia out of the Middle East, but learned that the goal of peace was elusive.
While the U.S. would like to continue as the Grand Master, weak leadership on the part of its presidents has allowed others to re-enter the game. (I choose the word deliberately. Great Powers vie with one another as if they were playing a war game produced by Avalon-Hill, forgetting the devastation and loss that ordinary people suffer because war is not a parlor game played with plastic pieces and cards.)
Having initiated the Iraq War that deposed Saddam Hussein, struggling against an insurgency that it did not expect, coming up with a winning solution in the ‘Surge’ of David Petraeus, but then abruptly pulling out when there was a change in administration, the U.S. seeks to extend its legacy and influence in Iraq by supporting the government.
In Syria, the U.S. has long designated the country as a supporter of terrorism. It wants the Assad regime replaced. Therefore, it supports the rebels.
But the current mood in the U.S. is that two wars are enough. While the U.S. is happy to fly overhead and drop bombs, it will not land troops. It is capable of putting a third ‘Desert Storm’ into Syria and taking out Daesh. But perhaps the bitter experience of its other two wars has taught the U.S. that winning battles is not enough. A superpower must consider what it will leave behind when it departs.
The flux of the U.S. between speaking softly and swatting a big stick has eroded the confidence of the world in its leadership. The world has learned not to trust in the U.S., but to take the measure of each new president and figure out what that means. In the current case, weakness and an amazing ability not to perceive how the world is laughing at him.
Air strikes mean little in terms of winning a battle, how much less a war. The U.S. has tried limiting itself to air strikes over the past 25 years. While great damage results, it does not break an enemy’s resolve, it reinforces it. The ‘Shock and Awe’ opening of the first Gulf War showed that the pyrotechnics mean little.
Then there are the drone strikes, a policy of assassination that the U.S. has not tolerated since the Nixon administration. Except that drone strikes rarely make the news and the killing of innocents from these strikes never make the news. People are unaware. What is the cost-benefit ratio of taking out one terrorist at the cost of killing dozens of innocents, which turns the local populations against the United States?
The U.S. pursues a losing strategy and everyone knows it. But it persists because … well, leadership. And Russians. And autopilot.
France: Somewhat sitting on the sidelines, France now finds itself the object of an organized terrorism campaign that began with the Charlie Hebdo attack last January. France has long been eclipsed by Britain as the preeminent European power and has sought to regain its influence and dominance it last enjoyed when Talleyrand was foreign minister for its king (that gives you an indication we are talking centuries here), but a direct attack brings about a response worthy of Napoleon or the Franks.
France wants to destroy Daesh for more than its internal security. Its ideals that it inherited from its revolution are under assault. France has cast aside its reservations about borders and whatever else. It is going after Daesh in the same way that the public immolation of a captured pilot galvanized Jordan.
Russia: As mentioned earlier, Russia seeks to preserve its only ally in the Middle East: Assad. Its goal conflicts with the U.S. goal to replace Assad. Russia has military bases in Syria that it does not want to lose and believes Assad is its best bet to keep them.
Therefore, when Russia feared that Assad was about to be swept away, it moved in. In a big way: air power and now, if reports are believed, 150,000 troops.
Russia first went after the ‘moderates’ backed by the U.S. and its western allies. That pushed the rebels back who might have gotten Assad since Western air power was concentrated on Daesh.
The West complained but Russia continued on. And now we must take a detour into the Peace of Westphalia and the Great Powers Doctrine, because that is what we see taking place in the actions of world powers in Syria.
The Peace of Westphalia concluded Europe’s religious wars and the attempts of one person to achieve hegemony over the others on behalf of the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope. What replaced empire establishment was recognition of national sovereignty. Did that mean that the nations of Europe stopped trying to expand at the cost of the others? No, but it meant that whenever one power gained dominance, the other powers aligned against it to limit its expansion.
We see that at play today. In Europe, Russia is the power that the others are trying to limit. Thus, Britain, Germany, and France are working to halt Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe, Ukraine, and the Baltic states. Now that Russia has intervened in Syria, the other powers are also active (except Germany, who does not act outside its borders as a result of its consecutive losses in the last century’s European wars) in trying to limit Russia’s activities.
Thus the West supports the ‘moderate’ rebels. Russia works to stop them. Because the world powers are not united against the threat of Daesh, Daesh exploits the opportunities.
Russia seeks to undermine the U.S. and its European alliances by reaching out to France after the November 13 attacks. The puppy? And Hollande jets to Moscow for discussions? Say what you want about Putin, the man is a genius at realpolitik and exploiting differences, not to mention reading into other world power’s leaders characters and finding their weaknesses.
Everyone wants to crush Daesh, but only after ensuring it will give them an advantage in the global competition amongst the Great Powers.
Britain: Fashionably late to the party, I would like to believe Britain when it says it has the bases (proximity) and munitions (accuracy) that no one else has and it can do the job the Americans and French cannot.
More likely, Britain is reacting to two things: one, reports that it is the next target for a sustained campaign of terrorism that France has seen over this year of 2015.
Also, Great Powers. Britain feels the need to intervene to oppose Russian activity. 150,000 troops, if true, means that Russia is impatient and will move to crush all opposition to Assad swiftly, moderate rebels, Daesh, and anyone else. Britain needs to get into the game.
This is why this conflict will not wrap up anytime soon. Everyone shares the objective, but only works to achieve it at the expense of others. That means rather than being focused on the objective, they are focused on their position vis-à-vis the others.
I offer this to you for your consideration, debate, comment, and rebuttal. Understand only one thing, that in discussing the various players, I am not biased in favor of any particular one, even my own country, except that the evil of Daesh must be dealt with and eliminated.