The six-year armed conflict in Syria is one of the major issues shaping the contemporary Middle East and impacting the fundamental nature of international relations. The Syrian revolution, which began in March 2011, later degenerated into a bloody civil war that has pushed the country into both a secessionist upheaval and the breakdown of the population’s national identity. Both the duration and complexity of reconciling the Syrian crisis rely on a sequence of fundamental factors.
- Social and Political Importance of the Syrian Uprising.
Syria’s former political system and its institutions have been practically annihilated and the country’s new environment has rendered them incapable of having an impact on the conflict without foreign assistance, to say nothing of supporting peace, stability, and growth. The distinctive feature of the previous political model in Syria was its institutionalised authoritarianism and strong security environment. Indeed, civilian-military relations in the Syrian Arab Republic during the last 40 years were mainly dictated by the military’s priorities in the framework of the country’s key internal and foreign policies. It goes without saying that control during the current crisis has been transferred into the hands of the armed forces, which in effect means the intelligence services. Indeed, the intelligence services actually determined and continue to determine the future of the regime as well as Syria as a whole.
The behavioural patterns of various governmental institutions in the framework of a well-structured and vertically-integrated political model were driven by directives prescribed from above. The radicalisation of Syria’s conflict and its mutation into an inter-religious struggle was sustained by the actual regime. The first and hardest blow was delivered to the secular and democratic forces, as seen by the experience of those who participated in the street protests of 2011 (Lesch 2013).
Those who in March 2011 took to the streets of Syria’s cities demanding reforms and liberties came to face the harsh dilemma of whether to halt their peaceful protests or to take up arms. The growing coercion and brutality of the government with relation to the peaceful civilian population compelled many, especially the young, to enlist in the armed struggle. Those who took up arms soon enough became dependent on those who could actually supply the arms. Such assistance was made available at the cost of loyalty to the Islamist resistance, manifested by the name of the squadron, and by special behavioural patterns (for instance, following Sharia) in the liberated territories.
In a context of asymmetric warfare where the regime was using air strikes and artillery to bombard occupied neighbourhoods, and where the resistance was badly in need of additional arms and ammunition, suicide bombers became the only viable means of offsetting the government’s forces on the battlefield. Relying on this type of attack intensified the deployment of Jihadi brigades among the armed resistance, and led to their initial popularity in the liberated neighbourhoods. Bashar Assad’s enlistment of Lebanese, Iraqi, and Iranian mercenaries, which was prompted by the high level of losses among the national military, as well as the lack of combat experience among the newly-recruited soldiers, legitimised the involvement of jihadists from other Arab countries.
- The Regime and Opposition: Military and Political Dimensions.
An official report issued by the Free Syrian Army in January 2014 indicated that the losses suffered by government forces during the conflict amounted to some 65,000 soldiers (Akhmedov 2014). It is necessary to note that overall, some 100,000 soldiers and officers had deserted as of February 2013. According to various appraisals, without the assistance of its allies, the regime would have suffered an overwhelming defeat by 2011-2012. In order to remedy the situation, in 2013 the regime began training new armed troops based on militia formations (Nassif 2015).
Consequently, the National Democratic Forces (NDF), the Kuvvat an-Nimr, and the Suqour al-Sham Brigade were formed during that period. Typically, the initiative behind the creation of these divisions belonged essentially to important Alawite businessmen and retired Syrian intelligence officers close to the regime. At the outset, these regiments were similar to private armies (though they were based on religious or ethnic principles) but reported to the central command. These factors lessened the efficiency of their military operations and the level of trust and support from the population. Nevertheless, these regiments carried out some successful operations against the armed opposition in various regions of the country. Towards the end of 2015, the number of such formations represented, according to various assessments, some 35,000 to 40,000 soldiers (Syria Deeply 2017). It was only after the appearance of Russia’s air force that the situation began improving. In 2015, under the leadership of Russian and Iraqi consultants, the regime began to create its fourth and fifth army corps, which integrated the aforementioned units.
Notwithstanding those measures, by the Autumn of 2015 the number of Syrian government soldiers totalled no more than 100,000, while at the beginning of the conflict this figure was closer to 300,000. It is not surprising that by October 2015, the Syrian regime controlled no more than 20% of the country’s territory and could not endure without support from abroad.
- Iran and Hezbollah’s Role in the Syrian Revolt.
Under such circumstances, Assad chose to request assistance from foreign countries. This assistance was essentially made up of Lebanese Hezbollah combat units, representing (according to various assessments) some 10,000 to 14,000 soldiers (Pollak 2016), as well as Iraqi Shiite al-Abbas militarised brigades (several thousand soldiers) commanded by the elite Iranian Republican Guard Al-Quds (Blanford 2015), which were under the command of General Qasem Suleimani (Akhmedov 2014). According to sources from the Syrian armed opposition, the general was actually responsible for the defence of Damascus and its outskirts. Data regarding the number of Iranian military counsellors and specialists fighting for Assad is rather contradictory and inaccurate. However, many experts consider that their overall number is no greater than 15,000 (Blanford 2015).
In the last two years, Iran has created its own Syrian army, Djeish Tahrir al-Sham, which numbers up to 5,000 soldiers and essentially consists of Shiite mercenaries from Iran and Afghanistan, some Arab countries, and a small number of Syrians. According to data from the Syrian opposition, there are some 60-62 Shiite militia combat formations operating in the country (Al-Modon 2016). Typically, those opposing the Free Syrian Army consist of deserted soldiers and officers, militia detachments, and number no more than 30,000-35,000 soldiers. The lack in provision of arms and ammunition from their western allies (principally the United States, the United Kingdom, and France) has made it extremely difficult to confront even the regime’s substantially weakened army, not to mention the Lebanese, Iranian, and Iraqi Shiite armed units. Indeed, the Free Syrian Army would have had great difficulty withstanding Syrian government forces without the support of the so-called Islamist armed opposition, which in 2013-2015 fluctuated between 70,000 and 80,000 fighters (Zaman Al Wasl 2015).
Unlike the Free Syrian Army and its civil nationalist nature, the Islamists did not require any additional support in funding or arms, both of which were supplied by Arab Gulf monarchies, primarily from Saudi Arabia. The lack of reaction by the international community was notable; it was powerless to counteract the harsh measures adopted by the Syrian regime. The aforementioned circumstances fractured the radical Islamist opposition and disrupted the political opposition, which was unable to rally the forces of armed resistance based on a patriotic concept and a political programme.
Two particularities that render the Syrian conflict difficult to resolve are its internationalisation and unprecedented duration. Indeed, the conflict has developed from a string of internal deep-seated processes that covertly matured over several years and surfaced at a crucial point for the country and its citizens.
- Digging Deep Roots of the Syrian Unrest
The makeup of the Syrian uprising can also be categorised by the traditional distinction between the country’s urban and rural environments, as well as the role of the uprising in the outlying regions (at least during its early stages). It is well-known that the provincial centres were the breeding grounds of the revolution. This can be explained by the fact that the army and the security forces originally lost their influence among the population exactly in those centres. Also important was the sudden socio-economic deterioration among the population in the periphery due to several years of dry spells, as well as the crippling drought of 2010. Consequently, some one million bankrupted farmers and unemployed villagers began moving to Syria’s major population centres right before the uprising. The privatisation policies adopted by the government in the mid-2000s engendered a sharp polarisation among the population, and led to the impoverishment and marginalisation of the masses in rural areas. The regime’s policies supporting the Islamic resistance in Palestine and Lebanon invigorated the religious conservative atmosphere in the depressed rural areas. As a result, the populations in these areas were the most receptive to radical initiatives. The role of moderate Islam began to fade, and the population began to perceive the government’s extreme policies and ideology in a negative light. This situation proved most fertile for the outbreak of Islamism, and the measures that were adopted by the government in response to the uprising only strengthened its appeal. Such an environment among the population served as the perfect matrix for the proliferation of jihadist ideas, whether they were bred locally or imported from abroad.
Representatives from this group of the population settled in the outskirts of Syria’s major cities over several years and served as a catalyst for the Syrian uprising. The most radical representatives of this new urban periphery established their own modus vivendi and demanded the overthrow of the regime (these people had migrated from distant villages in the mountains over a half century earlier and had occupied the cities). The Syrian crisis brought some new social forces to the political stage and exposed an array of serious social contradictions, as well as clannishness and religious and ethnic conflicts that had been concealed and muted by the regime. The Syrian community began fragmenting in light of the escalation of the crisis, and in the process increased the overall pro-Islamic disposition in the country.
As a result, the Syrian nationalist movement, inspired by the Arab Spring, took on some radical religious traits, and its secular composition practically vanished. Many social groups at the forefront of the armed struggle began perceiving the governing regime as collaborating with Iran, Israel, and other influential neighbouring powers, with the goal of subjecting and subordinating Syria to foreign dominance. This position became the motivation behind the struggle to overthrow the governing regime. Once the Syrian uprising at the end of 2011 began to transform into an armed struggle, the position of the armed opposition, including Islamic militants, began solidifying.
- Militant Islam on the March: Military and Ideological Aspects.
In 2012, according to various assessments, there were some 12,000 armed units in Syria—some moderate, others radical (Rai al-Youm 2016). By the end of 2016, the number of units had shrunk substantially. Some were totally annihilated in combat, while others dissolved on their own and ceased to exist as independent combat units. Others were assimilated by greater forces such as the Islamic State, Jaysh al-Islam, Jaish Fateh al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, Suqour al-Sham, Feilakh al-Sham, the Free Syrian Army, and others. New regiments surfaced in early 2015-2016, which essentially comprised former joint military headquarters and units, including Jaysh an-Nasr (a division of the Free Syrian Army), which consists of Jabhat al-Shamiyah, Jaysh al-Izza, the Falcons of al-Ghab, and 13 more units, as well as the New Syrian Army (essentially based on Kurdish resistance units), and others. Due to the brittle situation on the Syrian front and the fast-changing political discourse regarding the country, it is rather difficult to determine the exact number of armed units representing the Syrian opposition. However, most experts believe that there are currently some 100-120 active armed opposition units in Syria (including the Islamic State and al-Nusra) that comprise no less than 70,000 professional and heavily armed soldiers (Itani 2014; Nebehay and Wroughton 2016; Rai al-Youm 2016). Notwithstanding the opposition’s current transformation of its social matrix, ideological concept, political orientation, and major goals and challenges, it must be noted that it has practically remained unaffected with regard to its key parameters from the time of its formation in the first half of 2012 (Syria Deeply 2017).
The backbone of many of the Islamic armed opposition units consists of Salafis, and a good part of them remain faithful (to varying degrees) to the jihadist ideology. The most evident jihadist group is Jabhat al-Nusra. Most of these formations supported the creation of an Islamic state based on Sharia law in Syria.
Such an approach could have been adjusted in accordance with the position that these movements and units have adopted in their relationship with the foreign Syrian opposition. Most of these factions, including those that cooperated with the Free Syrian Army, experienced a certain lack of confidence with regard to the Syrian opposition that was actually operating abroad. Indeed, any attempt by the opposition from abroad to impose its influence was greeted with suspicion. This circumstance complicated the opposition’s mutual relations with the Free Syrian Army and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
The Islamist component of the Syrian uprising has undergone a major transformation in recent years, especially with regard to the unique makeup of the Syrian revolution. The possibility that the Islamist phenomena might fade away with the cessation of hostilities and the country’s return to peace cannot be excluded, since its motivation is the civil war.
Even though the Jihadist idea currently prevails in Syria, as embodied in the activities of the Islamic State and Jaish Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as al-Nusra), it is unlikely that moderate Islam in Syria has disappeared and has no chance of being revived. We should not exclude that in the event of a cessation of hostilities and the implementation of certain specific political prerequisites, moderate Islam may actually have a positive impact on the Syrian community and supplement the creation of a new social ideology.
- The International Response, or, “All in”
Following the failures of the Geneva I Conference on Syria (June 2012), as well as Geneva II (January 2014), and Geneva III (February-March 2016), an interesting trend appeared among the Syrian conflict’s major foreign armed players. This trend was expressed by a shift in priorities regarding relations with Assad and the armed Islamist opposition in the context of mutual efforts towards the inception of a road map for Syrian reconciliation. This primarily regards the shift in direction by the US, several of its major allies in western Europe, and the Middle East. Inspired by the military achievements and the growing political influence of the armed Islamists in Syria, the West, and certain other allies, leaned towards prioritising the liquidation of Syria’s militant Islamists, followed by Assad’s overthrow.
The prospect of reaching a peaceful solution in Syria was seriously undermined by the rise of infighting due to religious, confessional, ethnic, and clannish principles, combined with the unprecedented internationalisation of the conflict and the involvement of foreign armed troops.
Today’s power struggle between the regime and its armed forces on the one hand, and political opposition and local armed resistance on the other hand, has led to intense competition among world leaders and regional players for authority in Syria and the broader Arab world.
A salient example of this tendency is the role of Iran in Syria’s armed conflict. Iran has played a major role in preserving the current Syrian regime. In January 2012, the Central Bank of the Islamic Republic provided Syria with a multi-billion-dollar credit line, which allowed it to pay the salaries of its soldiers fighting the armed opposition. Iran also provided Syria with several thousand soldiers from the Lebanese Hezbollah, as well as counsellors and specialists from the elite al-Quds brigades, and Shiite militia from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Iran’s interest in Syria has a long history. Iran always considered Damascus to be a vital component in the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut-Gaza axis of resistance aiming to restrain Israel’s influence and spread its own authority in the region by supporting Shiite communities throughout a number of Arab countries in the region.
Iran’s authority in Syria increased substantially when Bashar al-Assad assumed Syria’s presidency in June 2000, as well as during his subsequent major reforms to Syria’s military structures from 2004-2005. The pinnacle of Iran’s infiltration in Syria was reached in 2007-2009. It was during this period that Iran signed a series of profitable financial contracts with the new Syrian administration, as well as an agreement on military cooperation. This allowed Iran to infiltrate practically all of Syria’s state institutions and to direct the disposition and views of the Syrian ruling elite.
With the expansion of Syria’s armed resistance, its subsequent degradation into a civil war, and the internationalisation of its armed conflict, Iran perceived a threat to its own interests and intensified its military presence by recruiting al-Quds, the Shiite militia, and most importantly of all, the Lebanese Hezbollah. Tehran also has plans to send Syria some 100,000 soldiers from the Basiz brigades and regular military units from the Iranian armed forces (Middle East Briefing 2017; Almustaqbal 2016).
Notwithstanding such massive support from Iran, Assad’s position at the end of the summer of 2015 was greatly weakened. According to data from the Russian Centre for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in the Syrian Arab Republic (2017), in the Summer of 2015 the Syrian president controlled merely 14.5% of his territory. It is possible that during this time, the Islamic Republic of Iran may have concluded a secret agreement with the US in the framework of a broader agreement on the future leading role of Iran in the Arab Middle East, bearing in mind the secret agreements on Iran’s nuclear program.
Many of Iran’s actual foreign policies, including those regarding Syria, were designed in accordance with its own internal security concerns, prioritised by its strong desire to reach the status of a nuclear power, similar to Israel and Pakistan.
This leads us to believe that Iran could perceive Syria as a trump card in a wider geopolitical game. At the same time, however, we should not overlook Iran’s interests in Syria, which Tehran has considered a major foothold for the expansion of its authority in the region.
- The Russians are Coming
The conflict in Syria and its surroundings changed radically with the involvement of Russia’s Aerospace Forces. In less than a year, the territory under Syria’s control grew to 35-40% of the country’s territory. Moscow became a key partner in the Syrian conflict, a situation that the US, Europe, Turkey, Israel, and neighbouring countries have been forced to acknowledge.
Notwithstanding the traditionally friendly relations between Moscow and Tehran, the involvement of Russia’s military forces in Syria and Moscow’s growing authority in the development of a new format of international relations has been justifiably perceived with some apprehension by Iraq and Turkey.
Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia believe that their interests in both Syria and the Middle East in general are threatened by Moscow’s course of action when it comes to preserving Syria’s territorial sovereignty, key Syrian state institutions, and its ceasefire. This also applies to Russia’s insistence on the gradual withdrawal of all foreign armed troops from Syria in order to provide the Syrian population with the possibility to fashion their own future in a peaceful environment, under a new transitional government.
The liberation of Aleppo—the stronghold of Syria’s armed opposition—was the result of Russia’s armed involvement in the Syrian conflict from the fall of 2015. This was essential for a December 2016 draft agreement between Russia and Turkey, as well as a substantial part of the detachments that comprise Syria’s opposition (some 60,000 armed soldiers). The essence of these agreements consisted of designing a plan to reach a peaceful Syrian solution. Subsequent meetings in Astana in 2017 included the governments of Syria and Iran.
However, the primary contribution for the design of a number of mechanisms guaranteeing the ceasefire and a peaceful resolution was made through the contact of Russia’s military officers with the Syrian armed opposition. This resulted in the signature of critical agreements establishing the willingness of certain troops (between 50,000 and 60,000 soldiers) to support the Russia-Turkey agreement, conditional on some specific terms regarding a ceasefire in Syria and the implementation of a political settlement through the creation of a transitional government that would include the participation of the political opposition. Representatives of nine units of the armed opposition joined the meeting in Astana, while some four additional units assumed a wait-and-see attitude and sent their observers to the conference. The delegation from the Islamic armed opposition (Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham) was headed by one of its leaders, Mohammed Alloush. However, the draft documents from the meeting are certainly far from ideal. Notably, the ceasefire zone does not cover the entirety of Syria’s districts. Further, the agreement does not include the major militant squadrons prohibited in Russia (Islamic State and al-Nusra). Additionally, the parties must still identify who will verify the ceasefire and by which methods, as well as determine which areas fall under whose responsibility in the process, their respective authorities and roles, and so on. The recognised scepticism that prevails among the armed opposition with regard to the intentions of the ruling regime and Iran must also be surmounted.
- Peace Under Fire: Initial Results and Possible Outcomes
Notwithstanding the above, the consistent efforts of Russia, Ankara, and Tehran, as well as the succession of conferences organised in Astana, have all fostered a positive basis for pursuing dialogue that may lead to Syrian reconciliation in a larger international format.
On the other hand, the Russia-Turkey plan for a peaceful settlement with a subsequent Syrian “political transition” is the only possible mechanism capable of reviving the current peaceful negotiations (similar to the UN resolutions from the Geneva negotiations). Some meticulous work remains with regard to the troops of the armed opposition. It is essential to organise a comprehensive process for sustaining relations with all of the “healthy” forces in the Syrian political institutions and opposition for the mutual identification of a context that will streamline the activities of those militants who agreed to lay down their arms.
It is of vital importance to actively incorporate the local coordination committees that have acquired invaluable experience in the organisation of a sustainable life in the “liberated” territories during the crisis. Critical organisational issues during the transitional period and formation of government institutions with their new content must obviously be handled by the Syrians themselves by means of a broad public agreement allowing the parties to reach serious compromises under major guarantees. Such an agreement may lead to the adoption of a new constitution and a call for a constituent assembly that will elect the corresponding executive bodies for a transitional period. The process is complex, but feasible.
On the other hand, even in the event that the identified objectives are achieved, it cannot be ruled out that Syria may face a series of military coups in the future, since there is nothing worse than unresolved issues that are exacerbated by long years of warfare, coupled with the bitterness of human loss.
Senior Researcher, Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies
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