Who could have predicted that peaceful demonstrations against a dictator in Syria in spring 2011 would develop into a regional war with implications for almost everyone in the world? Since that fateful day 5 long years ago, over 450,000 Syrians have been killed and over 12 million people – half the country’s pre-war population – displaced from their homes.
The Syrian Civil War is one of the most tragic conflicts in the world today, and it’s important for any concerned citizen to understand not only what’s happening, but the power dynamics at play.
I’m not an expert in international politics, but I decided to do some research and present it here as a conversation starter on what’s happening in Syria and what we can possibly do about it.
Over two years ago, Professor Joseph Camilleri wrote on Ideapod that “the killing in Syria must stop”. He told us that 110,000 people had died in the conflict. What will happen if nothing has changed in the next two years?
The article begins with how the war began and why it’s turned into a “quagmire”. Then I present some of the important facts about pipelines that were proposed to be built through Syria and the interests of the two dominant foreign powers in the region, the United States and Russia. Finally, I share some ideas on what people can do to help.
How did the war begin and what sustains it?
In 2011, the Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were removed from power by the demonstrations that would end up becoming the “Arab Spring”. In Syria that March, peaceful protests also erupted after 15 youth were detained and tortured from writing graffiti in support of the Arab Spring.
The Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, responded to the protests by killing hundreds of demonstrators and locking up thousands more.
The tough crackdown led to members of the military defecting and forming the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group aiming to overthrow the government, and Syria descended into civil war.
There are many explanations for the strength of the uprising, including a lack of political freedom and economic challenges experienced by many sectors of the population. Even global warming is claimed to have played a role in sparking the uprising.
What ended up happening is that the conflict developed along sectarian lines. On the one side were the rebels, the majority of whom are Sunnis and who make up the majority of Syria’s population. On the other side was the regime in power, led by Assad and supported by the Alawites (10 percent of Syrian citizens), Shiites (2 percent) and Christians (10 percent).
Part of what makes this so difficult is the array of external forces involved in the conflict in one way or another. They are fighting to wield influence over the outcome and backing different factions on the ground to try and seize the initiative.
Russia and Iran have joined forces to support the Assad regime to increase their geopolitical influence (more on that below), supporting them with ground troops, warplanes and bombs. Turkey supports select Islamist groups in the region and is working to prevent the Kurds from forming gaining too much influence on their border. Islamic State (IS) has moved in and gained support from segments of the local population, expanding its control over Syrian territory. Donations from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states were directed to supporting radical Islamist groups amongst the rebels.
The result is a “quagmire” which US President Barrack Obama wanted to avoid during his presidency. It’s been his most challenging international issue. In an interview with Vanity Fair, he said in response to a question about what keeps him up at night:
“Another good example of that is the situation in Syria, which haunts me constantly. I would say of all the things that have happened during the course of my presidency, the knowledge that you have hundreds of thousands of people who have been killed, millions who have been displaced, (makes me) ask myself what might I have done differently along the course of the last five, six years.”
What are the geopolitics of the conflict?
The conflict in Syria is ostensibly about a democratic movement against a dictatorship, but in reality it is the theater of a proxy war that is engulfing the region. The humanitarian stakes are certainly high, but when viewed through a geopolitical lens, the conflict can be seen as a broader struggle between Western countries and Russia, all seeking to advance their national interests.
For the West, there are three key focuses that are all related.
- Isolating Iran
One of the key goals of US and EU foreign policy is to isolate Iran because of its nuclear program. Regime change in Syria would be a blow to Iran because Assad is a key strategy ally to them. Iran’s strategic alliance with Damascus allows Iran to wield power in its Shia “axis of resistance” (Iraq-Syria-Lebanon with Hezbollah).
These partnerships are important for Tehran to counter the isolation that results from the Western imposed sanctions, as well as providing an important piece of leverage in negotiations. Assad’s regime being replaced would provide a huge challenge to Iran in the region, which is an important strategic imperative of the West.
- Maintaining a strategic and economic alliance with the Persian Gulf allies
The interests of Qatar are important to consider when analyzing what’s happening in the Middle East. Qatar invests billions in real estate around the world, owns 20% of the shares in the London Stock Exchange and has many more important investments around the world.
Qatar was the first Arab country to propose military intervention in Syria which was vehemently opposed by Iran.
Qatar has an incredibly large amount of influence in Western economies and is one of the two Salafi states in the Muslim world (Sunni dominated), along with Saudi Arabia.
Along with Qatar, Saudi Arabia is also seeking to ensure the Shiite influenced Syria and Iran don’t hold a balance of power in the Middle East.
- Gas in the region
Russia currently supplies Europe with a quarter of the gas it uses. Russian state-controlled Gazprom sells 80% of the gas they produce to Europe, so it’s a crucial market.
It’s not in Europe’s strategic interest to be so reliant on Russia for their energy needs and they have been trying to reduce their dependence. The US supports this strategy in order to weaken Russian influence over Europe.
Russia has a history of cutting off energy supplies to countries during conflicts. For example, it has gone to war in Georgia and Ukraine to disrupt plans to export gas from other parts of the Middle East.
It’s imperative for Russia to have control over the regions through which pipelines pass. If pipelines are built which bypass Russia’s sphere of interest, their power is threatened. The same goes for Western countries too. Countries always want to ensure they have a stable supply of energy for their economies to continue growing.
Before the Syrian Civil War, two competing pipelines put forward by Qatar and Iran aimed to transport gas to Europe through Syria. Qatar’s pipeline was to be built from the Persian Gulf via Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey and relied on Sunni support.
The other competing pipeline that was put forward was planned to go through Iran, Iraq and Syria to get to Europe. This pipeline would be controlled by the Shiite dominated regions.
Assad refused to grant access for the first pipeline to go through Syria, likely pressured by Russia in order to safeguard their own business and maintain control of the energy reaching Europe.
The ostensible explanation for Russia’s involvement in Syria remains to fight international terrorism, not prop up the Assad regime. Unofficially, however, Russian politicians are seeking to ensure a regime is in power supporting their interests in preserving Russian influence in the region.
Regime change in Damascus would result in a government coming into power that would likely be friendly to the West, enabling the building of a pipeline that is outside Russia’s sphere of influence. Russia wants to stop this at all costs, which explains why they continue to militarily support the Assad regime.
The US also wants to keep pushing for a solution that will enable the first pipeline to be built and for Syria to be part of its sphere of influence.
With the geopolitics of the region in mind, see this graph by Der Spiegel on behavior of the US and Russia in the conflict.
Source: Der Spiegel
What comes next for Syria?
The US and Russia both have permanent seats at the UN Security Council and can block any diplomatic solution that is proposed. Their interests are hardly aligned so we can expect the current impasse to continue.
One thing almost all parties to the war agree on is maintaining the territorial integrity of Syria rather than partitioning it. The regime wants to preserve the country and the rebels have rejected all demands for partition, as have Russia, the US, Turkey and Iran.
The tragedy is that even if a diplomatic solution could be made that ended the war, the people who will be needed to rebuild the country have already left. The longer the fighting continues, the worse this situation gets.
As linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky says, there’s only one saving grace.
“It’s pretty grim, yeah. And for Syria, it’s just horrendous. And the one saving grace is, if you look at history, at the end of the First World War in Syria, it was just about as bad as what’s happening now, and they probably had the worst casualties per capita of any country in the world during the First World War. It was very brutal, with hundreds of thousands killed. It was a much smaller country then, but they did recover somehow, so it’s conceivable, but it’s pretty awful.”
The war isn’t just destroying Syria, it’s changing the entire world. Leaders around the world who are looking at crushing political uprisings in the age of social media are looking at how the world reacts when the rules of the international system are broken. Such leaders will be pleased to see that almost anything can be carried out, such as bunker-busting bombs being dropped with impunity on schools and hospitals, as Russia has done, or the use of sarin and chlorine gas, as Assad has deployed.
Members of the Security Council can also take solace in the fact that they can continue to engage in power politics, ensuring that energy pipelines are built that serve their own interests even when that’s not in the interests of the people living in places where those pipelines are being built.
What can you do?
The situation is awfully helpless and it feels like there’s very little that we can do. We must note, however, that most of the people reading this article are citizens of powerful countries and that we can make decisions that at least move the needle forward in the direction of progress. As the historian Howard Zinn says: “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can change the world.”
With this in mind, here is a list of actions that can be undertaken to create a small groundswell of momentum in helping to end the Syrian conflict and transform the global conditions in which the conflict can continue unimpeded.
- Donate to grassroots organizations in Syria
Often grassroots organizations operating on the ground know where best to dedicate resources in helping those in need. One example is the White Helmets, a civil group credited with saving over 70,000 lives so far. They use their donations to easy teh daily work of the rescuers and buy items like safety googles, knee protectors, helmets and rescue ropes. The Syrian American Medical Society also provides financial and logistical support to hospitals and clinics in Syria.
Here’s a list of non-governmental organizations that support grassroots organizations in Syria, and which have received three or four stars (out of four) from Charity Navigator, an independent non-profit that rates charities based on their financial management and accountability.
- Support clean energy to reduce our reliance on oil and gas
If you can accept the analysis above that the dynamics of the Syrian conflict is largely driven by oil in the Middle East, then it’s important to double down your efforts in helping the world transition to clean energy.
The cost of renewable energy has been dropping, so there are probably some solutions for your own energy needs that are worth exploring. You can also invest in clean energy, support clean energy leaders and purchase clean energy credits.
You can also adopt the practices of “replenish”, a movement created by renowned leading thinker Dr Tia Kansara seeking to help people give back more to nature than they extract. Kansara has published an e-book sharing some of these practices which is available here (disclosure: I’m one of the contributors).
- Ensure your perspective is shaped by accurate and reliable sources
This becoming an increasingly more challenging task in the age of social media. We’re plagued by fake news and filter bubbles that prevent us from receiving a balanced perspective in our news feeds.
The mainstream media has never been much more effective in keeping us informed about what matters in the world. See this summary of Noam Chomsky’s seminal work from the late 1980s about how mainstream media outlets manufacture consent for the current system of society which maintains preexisting power structures.
With this in mind, two news organizations that I’ve found useful over the years are Democracy Now and Open Secrets. Project Syndicate is a great source for quality op-eds from leading thinkers around the world. You could also explore the work of three professors of international politics whose work I’ve found very useful over the years: Professor Joseph Camilleri, Professor Alan Dupont and Dr Scott Burchill.
I’m naturally biased as its co-founder, but I would also recommend exploring the ideas shared on Ideapod about Syria. Here’s some of them. It’s so easy to share your own ideas on Ideapod and most of them end up igniting a conversation where people share different perspectives.
The core insight this article offers is that the geopolitics of energy plays the primary role in explaining the impasse between Russia and the United States, which prevents them from arriving at a diplomatic solution through the UN Security Council.
The conflict of course is much more complicated than I’m able to convey here, and I’m not an expert in international politics. However, I do think that analyzing the Syrian conflict from the perspective of geopolitics is instructive and at least points towards what individual people can do to improve the world not only with regards to this conflict, but more generally.
As the author Arundhati Roy once said, “Wars are never fought for altruistic reasons. They’re usually fought for hegemony, for business. And then of course there’s the business of war.”
It’s up to the people to ensure we are informed on what’s happening in the world, and what our political leaders are doing and why. During a time when there are enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over, we need to ensure we are holding our political leaders to account for the actions they are undertaking.