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Saturday, December 12, 2015

Decoding The Chaotic Syrian Civil War

  Diagram of Syrian theater of chaos
A rough diagram of all state and non-state actors participating in Syrian Civil War and the dynamics between  the actors in this theater of chaos (click on the image for larger view) .
Just as we thought that terror attacks in Paris, Beirut and the alleged bombing of Russian passenger plane over Egypt would bring about the global alliance against ISIS closer, the shooting down of Russian fighter by Turkey and Russian President Putin's strong statement including a warning of retaliation in some form has turned the tide towards an unfavorable direction. Yet, it was not wholly unexpected. Given the chaotic theater of conflict in Syria with numerous states and non-state entities fighting each other and a common enemy, such developments are not beyond realms of expectation. Turkey shooting down Russian fighter plane for straying into its air space for 17 seconds hardly seems a spontaneous response, especially when the Turkish President Erdogan says the order came from him. Turkey and its NATO allies have all along been alleging that Russia is not really targeting ISIS positions but anti-Assad rebels supported by them and there is every reason to believe them since it is apparent that Russia has intervened in Syria to primarily ensure that Putin's closest ally in the middle east, Bashar al-Assad remains in power.

It has also been reported that Assad and ISIS have been able to cooperate with each other in limited terms which is not the case with the other rebels whose only objective is to remove Assad from power. What makes Turkey's shooting down of Russian fighter seem as a premeditated action is the fact that the militants holding the region that the Russian fighter was targeting was not held by ISIS at all but by Turkmen rebels whom Turkey is not only supporting but considers them part of its ethnicity. Since Russia is unlikely to militarily engage a NATO ally, Putin's threat of revenge is most likely to be, as an immediate response, relentless attack on this particular group of militants also responsible for killing one of the two pilots and a Russian marine involved in the rescue operation of the downed pilots along with sanctions it has already imposed.


However, this entire episode might be just a small manifestation of the deep-rooted antagonism that different actors assembled in the Syrian war zone harbour towards each other. In fact, there have been very few occasions in history when so many armed entities, including the most powerful countries in the world, with so disparate objective have assembled in such a small region which already has regional powers and a lot of militant groups vying for power. Some newspaper columnists have even gone to the extent of calling it the precursor to the third World War!  While the observation may be a superfluous, it is indeed a fact that the rivalries playing out, both ancient and the most recent are so varied in nature that at times it seems like a free for all fight. However, the immediate rivalry is a triangular one between Syrian regime backed by Iran, Russia and Shia militias, West backed rebels seeking the regimes ouster and the ISIS. Yet a closer look reveals several layers to the conflict. There is little doubt that the Shia-Sunni schism is partly fuelling the conflict with Iran and Hezbollah pitching in for Assad's Shia Alawite regime and other Sunni Arab countries and Turkey aiding the Sunni  rebels. Then there is the historical Arabs vs Iranian conflict layer in the contest for hegemony over the region which does seem to have a strong undercurrent in the conflict,though a more overt conflict can you now be seen in Yemen. The fact that Kurds who have been playing an important role in the war fighting on the the basis of their distinct ethnic identity clearly reveals that ethnicity is also a factor in this conflict.

But ISIS has emerged as a challenge to every actor in this theater of conflict,  fighting every group regardless of group identity, and and as such making the conflict too complex to understand. Now, West and Gulf countries backed anti-Assad militant groups are fighting both the Syrian forces (aided by Iranian proxies and regulars) as well as the ISIS and at the same time facing Russian airstrikes. While al-Assad's forces seem very reluctant to take on the ISIS, they are far more ruthless when fighting the West backed rebel groups whom they see as their main adversary. Though part of the coalition, Turkey is more interested in attacking Kurdish militants and aggressively supporting Syrian rebels in their direct confrontation with Syrian forces rather than going equally strong against ISIS. The Kurds are fighting ISIS with limited engagements with Syrian forces while one Kurdish faction has locked its horns with Turkey. Even the ISIS is engaged in a war with al-Qaeda primarily through the latter's affiliate al-Nusra Front in Syria and Taliban in Afghanistan apart from all other forces it is fighting. Then there is the bigger picture of US-Russia contest for dominance in the region especially after the West's involvement in Ukraine crisis left Putin fuming. Despite both US and Russia stating their unwillingness to participate in a proxy war, the fact remains that the intense fighting between US backed rebels and Russia supported Syrian forces invariably makes it a proxy war between the two,albeit of a very low intensity and plentiful scope for deniability.

No prizes for guessing that in this multilayered conflict, the party that seeks to gain most is the ISIS even if a large fleet of fighters have been deployed to degrade it. The US led coalition's lessons learnt from recent experiences, especially the Iraq invasion seems to be working out in ISIS' advantage. In Syria, US and allies seem bit reluctant to inflict civilian casualties as it inevitably works out in the adversary's favor by creating more terrorists , as a result the ISIS militants are able to survive airstrikes by taking precautions and using civilians as shields, but the number of civilian casualties, including children remains high and is actually rising after the Russian intervention. But more importantly, there seems to be an understanding of not creating a vacuum such as the one created by US which led to the the rise of ISIS. Airstrikes, at most can degrade the enemy to an extent but for a real victory there is a need for an occupying force which can take control of the law and order and stabilize the region. Let us not forget that it was US' disastrous move of disbanding the Iraqi army that saw Saddam's officers and soldiers (initially secular, Arab nationalists under the Ba'ath Party) join insurgency allying with Jihadists and thriving in the power vacuum left in the wake. This is what gave birth to ISIS as we know it nowadays. But is there really a force in the region that can serve as a friendly occupying force? Given the mistrust between the two blocks, the US led alliance's refusal to accept al-Assad and Russia-Iran's contrarion positions as well as fissures between the alliance partners themselves, such a solution seems distant.

The Iraqi army, unlike rebels is a legitimate force and allied to the US led coalition and of course, ISIS controls parts of Iraq too making it mandatory for it to serve as the occupying force in Iraq but given the fact that during the fall of Mosul, the Iraqi army simply fled from their posts, leaving weapons and vehicles behind when challenged by a militant group comprising merely a 15th of the size of the Iraqi army, it does not instill confidence that they would be up to the task. The Iraqi army really needs to prove  that it can defend the nation's sovereign territory on its own and without any sectarian prejudices. Wresting back territories from ISIS with US Air support would still leave doubts open on its capabilities to hold on to its territories.  The Kurds who have been in the forefront against ISIS can only defend their own territories, making forays into Arab territories are unlikely to be taken lightly by nearly all regional powers, nor do they seem inclined towards it, the territory they claim as their own continue to be part of Turkey and Iran adding yet another dimension to the civil war. As it is , Kurds are also dealing with an aggressive Turkey which sees the secessionists as an immediate threat.

French President Hollande's statement of using Syrian forces but after al-Assad's removal from power does sound practical but if Russia and Iran would be willing to accept the proposition is highly contentious an issue. Even if such an arrangement is arrived at, it still remains uncertain if the rebels would cease hostility with the Syrian government forces and fight alongside them. The sectarian divide between the secular FSA, Salafi Islamic Front and the Shiite Alawite army is too great to be simply wished away, if at all their backers, the Sunni Arab states and Iran were willing to cooperate. There is also indication that the al-Qaida affiliate al-Nusra Front is gaining strength and if it emerges as a prominent, if not the leading group against al-Assad regime, all chances of an alliance between Syrian forces and the rebels fighting against ISIS would be nil and it would only lead to opening up of another front. As a matter of fact, if it comes to existential dilemma one shouldn't be surprised if al-Nusra allies with ISIS, after all both follow the same Salafist Jihadist ideology, their difference of opinion is on the implementation part,Baathist elements in high positions in ISIS and ego issues among their respective leaders. But they have been joining forces based on convenience.

So if the US led alliance and Russia-Iran proxies are unable to come up with a plan to counter ISIS and continue bombing each other other and civilians, they would only be able to constrict the terrorist group's movement but not eliminate it nor prevent it from expand to other regions as well as carry out terror operations through their sleeper cells. Here I must admit that to me a perfect solution to defeating ISIS is, to quote Churchill, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, but I would attempt to make a few pointers. Despite the terrorist group being considered to be an enemy by all the groups, its adversaries seem more keen on fighting each other rather than ISIS. Allegations have been made against both Syria and Turkey of buying oil from the  terrorist group. While neither of the countries may be officially conducting transactions complicity on some level cannot be ruled out. After all ISIS is able to transport oil and stolen antiques to markets through smuggling routes which implies that these and other neighbouring countries are not doing enough to cut off ISIS financially. The same applies for weapons and ammunition, while the rebel forces receive fresh ammunition from their backers, the weapons and munitions sized by ISIS in its initial victories over Iraqi and Syrian troops, cannot last forever unless it receives arms from some sources. With intelligence resources available, it shouldn't be so difficult to block the illegal transit routes.

If at all there is an answer it lies with the Vienna peace process in which the major stakeholders in the region are participating. As of now the bone of contention is Assad's place in the chessboard. While the US and allies insist that any solution to Syrian crisis must include removal of Assad and a free and fair election in Syria, Russia and Iran are averse to any such condition. Understably, Russian and Iranian stand is based more on their geopolitical interests, but the other group's stance has greater merits. Apart from Assad being accused of ruthlessly suppressing civil uprising and killing about 200000 Syrians, there are also insinuations that the Syrian dictator deliberately allowed the rise of ISIS so that he could project himself as a modernist bulwark against the regressive and fanatic cult of violence . This is a belief harbored by many rebels, their backers in the Gulf and the West and amongst it's civilians. So if at all any solution is arrived at that involves Assad remaining in the same position, such a solution can only be temporary. A leader who has lost the support of majority of citizens and is widely reviled cannot hope to continue ruling the country with backing of just Russia, Iran and Shiite militias and the moment he falls, the rival groups would take advantage to fill the power vacuum, restarting a fresh cycle of violence. However, an understanding has to be arrived at soon in Vienna, with ISIS expanding to Sinai Peninsula, Libya, Afghanistan and other regions, it may become very difficult to eliminate the group if it is able to open multiple fronts.


Here is a short list of states and non-state actors operating in Iraq and Syria.

US-led Coalition
Though US and its allies have been supporting Syrian rebels from the start, the emergence of ISIS resulted in a US led coalition now comprising 65 countries that are fighting against ISIS through airstrikes, providing training to troops and rebels, intelligence gathering, providing humanitarian support and fighting ISIS ideologically to expose its true nature. None of the coalition partners have any major troops presence in the vicinity leaving it to militias and rebels to fight ground wars.
Countries fighting ISIS (Blue-members of US Coalition Joint Task Force) | image courtesy:Wikipedia

Free Syrian Army - rebel group comprising mostly of Syrian army of defectors. It follows a secular ideology though allied to Islamic Front. Fighting Syrian armed forces and its allies as well as ISIS and al-Nusra Front. Backed by US, GCC, Turkey and Qatar. Holds little territory, operating mainly through guerrilla tactics.

Islamic Front -  Motley group of dozens of militant groups, its key component is Ahrar-ash-Sham, a Salafi movement considered moderate in comparison to Jihadists. Supported by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia (with tacit approval of the US it seems).  Ironically it is allied to both secular FSA and al-Qaida affiliate al-Nusra Front. It is fighting the Syrian defence forces and its allies including Iran and lately Russia. It is also pitted against the ISIS.

Al-Nusra Front -  al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria that split from ISIS after the latter declared the Caliphate, thus asserting supremacy over al-Qaida leadership. Supported by Salafist Jihadists networks  sympathetic to al-Qaida. Allied with Islamic Front constituent Ahrar-as-Sham, fights against Syrian armed forces, Shia militant groups, Hezbollah, Lebanese Army, FSA, Kurds and Russia. Frenemy with ISIS though for the most part it seems to be opposed to it.  For instance in the recent past it has had tactical alliance in fight against Hezbollah and Lebanese army.

Kurds -  backed by the US, the Kurds have emerged key players in the fight against ISIS fighting it on multiple fronts. It is different from other groups as in it includes Christians, Yezidis and even Arab fighters in its ranks. Also inclusion of female fighters in Kurdish troops is a novelty in the middle east. As a distributed ethnic group there are quite a few political parties and their militant arms, but the prominent ones are :

  • Iraqi Kurdistan, the autonomous region in the state of Iraq where the Iraqi Army cannot enter as per agreement. It's military force primarily consists of the Peshmerga which have earned reputation  for offering challenges and setbacks to ISIS while other states have not being so effective. In fact after the Iraqi Army abandoned posts while facing ISIS onslaught, it is the Peshmerga that has been able to reclaim territories from the jihadists. Further, it was also important ally in YPG's (Syrian Kurds) successful operation to liberate Rojava from ISIS. Fights mainly against ISIS, al-Nusra Front and other al-Qaida affiliates.
  •  YPG representing Syrian Kurds, backed (supplies, covering airstrikes) by US, GCC.In alliance with Iraqi Kurdistan and Free Syrian Army it was able to reclaim Rojava from ISIS and establish it as an autonomous region of Syrian Kurdistan (de facto) after negotiations with Syrian forces.
  •  PKK seeks to represent the Kurdish population of Turkey and has been designated as a terrorist group by Turkey, NATO and EU. However, it too has been a key ally in the ground assault against ISIS, having first helped in the Rojava revolution and the conquest of Mount Sinjar which led to the liberation of hundreds of thousands of Yazidis trapped in the mountain because of its siege by ISIS. Later, Kurdish forces reclaimed much of Sinjar including the town. PKK is occasionally targeted by Turkish Airforce.

Hezbollah - the Lebanon-based Shiite anti-Israel guerrilla backed by Iran and Syria entered the Syrian theater to help Syrian regime from falling and has since has remained entangled in the conflict. Apart from the rebels it is now in direct conflict with al-Nusra and other al-Qaida affiliates as well as ISIS even in Lebanon.

Iraq - even if ISIS has eliminated international boundary line between Iraq and Syria, Iraqi army is mostly concentrated in fighting ISIS and Nusra Front and other al-Qaida affiliates. A freshly formed army it depends a lot on US/NATO, Iranian support and ironically the Kurdish Peshmerga to make gains.

Iran -  is mainly involved in training and providing troops to al-Assad regime and other Shiite militias fighting the rebels as well as ISIS. However, in Iraq it's engagements with ISIS seems to be rather limited as in arming and training Iraqi forces and Kurdish Peshmerga though it was widely reported that Iran carried airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq in 2014. Most likely, it has chosen to keep operations in Iraq clandestine to prevent further escalation of sectarianism.

Russia -  Russian intervention in Syria has seen a rapid escalation of hostilities between the Syrian regime and its allies and the West-backed rebels as well as neighboring countries. Since Russia has made it clear that it was intervening in order to help Assad remain in power as well as fight ISIS and other terrorists, its initial attacks against rebel forces and civilians drew declaration of war from rebels, sharp criticism from the Arab countries as well as the West. The acrimonious exchanges between Russians and Turkey as well as other NATO members after the downing of the Russian fighter by Turkey doesn't seem to be dying down.

These are some of the prominent groups and states active in the Iraqi and Syrian theaters, I have not included smaller groups nor groups involved in regions affected by spillover of  Syrian civil war such as Sinai, Libya, Nigeria, Afghanistan and other regions.

PS: Do note that I am from a region far removed from all these conflicts, the information I am sharing are all I  collected from mainstream and social media, primarily to understand what really is going on Syria. If you find inaccuracies or have something to share please do leave a comment.



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