It’s a new Cold War of sorts. While the erstwhile Soviet Union is a thing of the past, both Russia and the US are involved in a battle of nerves in this West Asian country. It’s called ‘proxy war’ in diplomatic parlance. Six years after fighting first started in Syria, threats of a full-blown war between the two world powers now look increasingly possible after the recent death of 86 people in chemical attacks, including children.
Here’s looking back at what exactly happened in Syria in the past six years and the reasons behind the current impasse.
It all began when Bashar al-Assad became the President of Syria after the death of his father Hafez al-Assad in 2000. Assad junior, however, failed to keep majority of the promises he made while assuming office. In most cases he never bothered to try, and instead, clamped a fascist and dictatorial regime on Syria that led to widespread corruption, unemployment, and curbing of political freedom. The worsening state of affairs in the country and a nonchalant UN led to public anger growing against Assad’s government. Inspired by the Arab Spring of 2011, people organised a protest rally in the south-western town of Daraa. Assad’s police opened fire on the peaceful rally. Protests soon swelled and spread all over Syria. The government responded with a ‘crackdown’. Protestors took up arms and pushed back government forces from their stronghold. Assad promptly labelled the resistance as terrorism supported by external quarters, and became more desperate to wield absolute power. A major part of the army soon revolted and quit their garrison to form the anti-government Free Syrian Army. Rebellion turned into revolution and thus began the Syrian Civil War. Homs, 162km north of Damascus, became the centre of all clashes between the rebels and government forces.
Why the bloodshed?
Six years and the Syrian Civil War is growing more complex by the day. There are now four sides involved in the fighting which is no longer limited to clashes between pro and anti-Assad supporters. Sensing an opportunity to stake control over a strategic landmass on the eastern side of the Mediterranean, hardliner Islamic State (IS), the Al-Nusra Front of Tahrir al-Sham, and the Salafi jihadists, are now all involved in bloody fighting. The Rojava group, comprising three self-governing cantons of northern Syria, are fighting both the government and the rebels in equal measure to instil a free Syrian state. Both the US and Russia—quick to smell a lucky chance to establish hegemony in the region—joined the war, and so did Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. All these external powers supplied money and arsenal to the sides fighting the war, making peace a farfetched dream in Syria today. Every ceasefire call has since broken down with indirect patronage of these powers. Syria, today, has turned into a global battleground of world and regional powers trying to take stock of each other’s military prowess.
Their pound of flesh
With Assad’s forces reclaiming Aleppo in December 2016, the government now has control on all the four major cities in the country. But still a large part of Syria is in the hands of the rebels. According to Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, jihadists control more than 15 percent of the country, including the northern town of Raqqa which is the headquarters of the IS. The larger part of northern and middle Syria is controlled by the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi led hardliner Islamic outfit. The governorates of Homs, Daraa, Quneitra and capital Damascus—on the other hand— are controlled by Tahrir al-Sham. According to Washington’s claims, these areas are the happy hunting grounds of nearly 100,000 jihadis. The Syria-Turkey border, meanwhile, is manned by the ethnic Kurds who neither support Al-Assad nor the rebels.
The Khan Shaykhun town in the north-western Idlib governorate—site of the recent chemical weapons (CWs) attack—is largely controlled by rebels and jihadists. Washington, in response to the attack, pounded the Shayrat Airbase in central Syria with Tomahawk cruise missiles, from where the planes carrying the CWs allegedly took off. This was the first straight bombing by the US against the Syrian government. US President Donald Trump said before Washington’s strike: “A chemical attack that was so horrific in Syria, against women and small children, and even beautiful little babies, and their deaths, was an affront to humanity. My attitude to Syria and Assad has changed very much.”
The external powers
The US, as part of its Global War on Terrorism, has been bombing parts of Syria since September 2014 to annihilate IS militants. Pentagon, admittedly, has provided arms and ammunition to the Assad rebels, but in a limited quantity because Washington fears that the arms may land in the hands of IS, the very enemy it wants to fight. The US doesn’t want a repeat of the 1990s, like in the case of Al-Qaeda. It can’t afford to have another Frankenstein like Osama bin Laden.
Russia, on its part, needs Syria’s support to wrest control over the east Mediterranean region. Russian President Vladimir Putin, on request from a cornered Assad in September 2015, despatched its first warplane to Syria. Moscow had then claimed that it will only strike ‘terrorists’. It never clarified who these terrorists actually are. Neutral observers, however, have alleged that Russian warplanes are selectively targeting the rebel groups supported by the West.
The Syrian Civil War took a fresh turn in mid-2016 when Assad reclaimed much of his lost ground, courtesy the continued Russian aggression. Kremlin labelled the turn of events as ‘mission successful’ and ordered the withdrawal of a large part of its military from Syria. But Russian warplanes continued to fire missiles on various parts of the country. In December 2016, Assad’s forces took control over Aleppo, backed by Russian aerial support.
Shi’a-dominated Iran, meanwhile, has spent millions of dollars to keep Assad in power. These include purchase of arms and oil at subsidised rates and even tacit military support. Teheran, of course, is not supplying arms directly to Assad’s forces. These are being largely routed through Hezbollah. The Lebanese Shi’a political and militant group has reportedly sent its mujahedeen to fight on behalf of Assad.
With Iran in the picture, Saudi Arabia could ill afford to be left behind. It began supplying money, and arms and ammunition to the jihadists. The Kurds, on their part, are being funded by Ankara. But that’s mainly to stop Syrian infiltration to Turkey.
So how does it end?
The UN wants a political settlement to the war, as there’s no chance of a clear winner emerging out of the fighting, at least in the near future. It has already recommended setting up of an interim government according to the guidelines of the Geneva Communiqué. But the 2014 Geneva II peace talks fell through just after two rounds of talks. The Assad government denied to listen to the demand of the rebels, let alone cede to them. The next year, IS joined the war and the demand for political settlement gained further ground.
The US and Russia, in January 2016, called representatives of the warring sides to sit for another round of proximity talks to end the conflict. The roadmap was in the order of surrendering arms, ceasefire, and setting up of an interim government, followed by elections. But Assad’s forces attacked Aleppo and the talks were a nonstarter. Washington and Moscow again tried to forge another round of talks in March 2016 that met the same fate as the earlier one.
Even after the fall of Aleppo, Russia and Turkey tried to broker a third round of talks which now looks highly improbable with the CW attacks on Khan Shaykhun and the US response thereafter.
Nearly 450,000 people have died in Syria in the past five years, majority of them civilians. What’s more disturbing is that over 1.6 million people were rendered homeless with 480,000 of them seeking refuge in neighbouring countries and Europe. The situation, observers say, is worse than that of the Gulf War or the more recent war in Iraq. According to UN, it needs at least $34 million in aid to help the 13.5 million people displaced. The UN is unable to reach relief to several parts of Syria because of the ongoing fighting. More than 500,000 people are beyond the reach of humanitarian aid.
The US-Russia standoff on Syria is already bringing back memories of the Cold War. Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Al Qaeda were all products of US patronage during the failed Soviet military invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Over the next two decades, Al Qaeda became Washington’s worst nightmare; or the Iraq War that saw the emergence of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, popularly known as the ‘Butcher of Baghdad’. The IS owes much of its rise to Zarqawi. Speculation is rife that the arms sent by Pentagon to the rebels in Syria are already in the wrong hands. Who knows, another Frankenstein may be just waiting in the wings to burst on to the scene, creating another mess in another country.