Syria: A conflict well beyond a civil war

Syria is a badly fractured entity haunted by a multiplicity of identities and cultures - which has been ruled for decades by a multi sectarian, minority-ruled dictatorship that was held together by an iron fist under the secular baathist ideology. It is strategically located in West Asia bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean sea to the west, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south and Israel to he southwest. Oil rich West Asia grabbed eyeballs of imperialist powers, who intend to control the region as well as the vast oil reserves. As the world braces for a major crisis which can topple the entire world economy, oil will become a vital economic and military weapon. This explains all the imperial interests in the strategic geographical position of Syria in West Asia.

Syria was under Emergency Law from 1963 to 2011, effectively suspending most constitutional protection for citizens, and its system of government is considered to be non-democratic1. Bashar al-Assad has been president since 2000 and was preceded by his father Hafez al-Assad, who was in office from 1971. They both are Alawis. The authoritarian government has suppressed any open dissident. Serious challenge arose against the Baathist rule from fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, who reject the basic values of the secular Baath program and object to rule by the Alawis, whom they consider heretical. Since March 2011, an uprising against the government of Assad, considered an extension of the events of the Arab spring, has thrown the country into armed conflict. Protesters have demanded the end of nearly five decades of Baath Party rule, as well as the resignation of Bashar-al-Assad.

The "Radical Axis" is the only obstacle to Imperialism to stretch its arms wider in the region. This explains why America battles together with al-Qaeda in Syria.

The rebels are known as the Syrian National Council or National Coordination Committee or the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Who does FSA actually represent? What is the influence of the Kurds, the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafist Jihadis within the rebels? One of the reasons that the Assad regime has not been overthrown is that it has been able to play on the internal rivalries within the Syrian society. The 20 percent of Syrians who are pro-Assad Alawites or Christians will be terrified to see how Sunni Muslim majority, which constitutes Muslim Brotherhood’s major chunk, battles against Assad for Syria.

For the government and pro-Assad forces, the stakes are clear. It is a question of staying at power at any price. For the opposition, whose different groups are quite willing to fight among themselves, are only kept together by the need to get rid of Assad. In any case, the FSA would have no significant political or military existence if it were not supported by outside forces, each one trying to pull its chestnuts from the fire.These includes the countries of Arab League, NATO, Israel and the USA. Washington is acting covertly with the hard core regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar to support the Free Syrian Army on the ground. The support has come in the form of Saudi and Qatari money and arms to the rebels facilitated by Turkey and Jordan. This increased imperialist interest is directed not only against autocracy and arbitrary rule. Rather, this concern is to counter or corner Shia Iranian dominance.

Radical Axis in West Asia and American alliance with Al Qaeda

The "Radical Axis"2 is the only obstacle to Imperialism to stretch its arms wider in the region. This explains why America battles together with al-Qaeda in Syria3. Israel and America were closely following signs of growing closeness of members of the radical axis, a relationship based on a religious rationale such as Shiite Crescent4 or on a religious conceptual framework. The radical axis of Iran, Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas was seen as a major threat to all the imperial interests in the area. A recent WSJ report states that syrian rebels enjoy the support from Al Qaeda in terms of money, arms and fighters.

Map of West Asia. Image Credits

Tehran has invested heavily for a strategic partnership with the Syrian regime under al-Assad and his father since the Iranian revolution of 1978, that resulted in the toppling of Shah’s pro-western regime and its replacement with Ayatollah Khomeini’s Shiite Islamic government that had an anti-US and anti-Israeli posture. Partnership with Damascus has been crucial to Tehran’s organic relations with Hezbollah as a powerful force in Lebanon and in confronting Israel-US intentions with Iran’s regional interests. Any change in Syria would shift the balance of power in the region in favour of Iranian adversaries in the Sunni states of the Gulf (main supporters of rebels). Lebanon’s Hezbollah has relied on Damascus for political support and as a conduit of weapons from Iran.

Although Syria has been Hamas’s staunchest regional ally, the Sunni Organization that controls the Gaza strip saw the diminishing returns of being the client of a regime waging a battle against its majority sunni population. The Hamas and Syria alliance is a real paradox, whether Assad wins or the Rebels win its Hamas' loss and Israel's gain.

Syria is a begining, beginning of a war with Iran, a war that has not been waged directly, but which lurks in the shadows behind the Syrian conflict.

Failed UN diplomacy and Russian and Chinese support for Syria

American interests in West Asia stretches beyond Zionist Israel or the intentions to control oil. The United States’ military adventures in West Asia have been generated further by the following:

  1. European Union establishing its independent peacekeeping force outside American dominated NATO control.
  2. Russia forging a collective security organization of Central Asian States.
  3. China’s efforts to give the Shanghai Cooperation Council more security connotation.
  4. Trends towards multilateralism in global relationships.

Syria is a begining, beginning of a war with Iran, a war that has not been waged directly, but which lurks in the shadows behind the Syrian conflict.

A failed attempt to resolve the crisis has been made through the appointment of Kofi Annan as a special envoy. America and other western nations tried to impose sanctions on Syria. However, this move has been vetoed by permanent members - Russia and China in the UN security council.

Russians not only seek to preserve their sole naval base outside the former Soviet Union (in Tartus, on Syria’s mediterranean coast) but to protect Iran’s interests in ensuring a Shia Crescent stretching from Tehran to Baghdad to Damascus and ultimately to Lebanon through Hezbollah, there by giving Moscow a zone of influence. Russia has been Syria’s main arms supplier and a ranking trading partner until early 2011. Syria was Russia’s seventh largest importer, with some $4 billion worth of arms contracts considered.

Similarly China has had very lucrative trade ties with Syria, in 2010, the volume of trade between the two sides amounted to some $2.2 billion mostly in favour of China. Beijing has been involved in Syria’s oil industry and provided assistance to the country’s development of a ballistic missile program.

While these military and trade interests are important, beyond them lie the Russian and Chinese desires to “play ball” with the US for regional and global influence. Beijing had developed serious concerns about the US shifting its strategic weight to Central Asia and Asia Pacific in pursuit of stopping Chinese influence.

After Assad: What’s next?

Those who back Bashar al-Assad have feared the loss of a valuable ally, but even those who despise the president and have worked to precipitate his removal since the revolt began more than 16 months ago have fretted over what comes next. For more regional states perhaps the worst outcome is the disintegration of Syria into a sectarian war that threatens the country’s territorial integrity and spills beyond its borders.

The Situation in Syria is turning from bad to worse. President Basher al-Assad appears to be truly besieged, but he shows no signs of giving up. Will he triumph in the end or quit after leaving the country in a complete disrepair? No one seems to know for sure. Syrian crisis is gradually turning into a huge snowball that can destroy everything. The rebels have succeeded in carving out their own rustic empire. It encompasses much of the countryside and Syria’s northern and eastern periphery with Turkey. Ramadan has become a funeral time in Syria.

Iran will be the biggest loser if Mr Assad looses power and the country most vulnerable to the contagion from the crisis is Lebanon, Lebanon’s political class is already divided into pro- and anti-syrian regime lines and it will surely feel the repercussions from the blood shed next door.

Iran will be the biggest loser if Mr Assad looses power and the country most vulnerable to the contagion from the crisis is Lebanon.

The success of the largely Sunni revolt against the minority Alawite regime of the Assad’s could also encourage Iraq’s Sunni minority and exacerbate sectarian tensions with Shia Majority.

As the battle rages across Syria’s second largest city Aleppo amid accusations from west about the chemical weapons allegedly Syria possess. The greatest immediate worry is the flurry of refugees to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Jordan also fears, possible rise of an Islamist government in Damascus would embolden its own opposition.

Once the regime goes, the situation would become more difficult. The international community will then have to enact a serious and pro- active role through the discovery and disposition of chemical weapons of mass destruction, disarmament, humanitarian aid for refugees, reconstruction of a shattered war torn country, and most importantly they need to pave the path for a pluralist political system.

The international community has expressed fears over a possible massacre of the some 3 million inhabitants in the ongoing showdown. Millions of Syrians lament their plight. But Syria is just a beginning. It could determine a new world order and a new polarization of power in the future world. Or will it be the beginning of another world war? In which countries wage for the control of oil. Only time will reveal the answers.

Adding new dimensions to the strife, the Syrian government and rebels have issued conflicting claims in the battle over the country’s second largest city, Aleppo, with each side saying it holds a key neighborhood. We also can wait for the sounds of gunshots from Aleppo. The course of Aleppo will determine who will win the coveted prize of Syria.

  • 1. Freedom on the world report. Retrieved 2010-02-01.
  • 2. A geostrategic political alliance led by Iran that also encompasses the Assad regime in Syria as well as powerful nonstate groups like Hezbollah and to a lesser degree Hamas is refered to as a "Radical Axis" in West Asia.
  • 3. al-Qaida turns tide for rebels in battle for eastern Syria, The Guardian, 30 July 2012.
  • 4. The Shia Crescent is a geo-political term used to describe a region of the Middle East where the majority population is Shi'a, or where there is a strong Shi'a minority in the population.