It is undeniable that as of late, Syria has been a hotbed for international geopolitics, with the world’s superpower and all the regional powers of the Middle East competing for influence in the small Levant-based nation. The two strongest powers, Russia and the United States, have formed their own respective coalitions in the conflict. Iran, the Assad government, and the proxies of the two have aligned themselves with Russia, while traditional U.S. allies and groups such as the Free Syrian Army and the Kurds in the northern half of the nation-state have backed U.S. interests in the region. A third power, in Turkey, has also meddled in the region. In recent times, the Turkish Armed Forces have launched an independent operation against the EPG in Afrin, Syria. This is one of the many straining confrontations in the region, as both Turkey and the Syrian Kurds (YPG) are American allies.
The Syrian Civil War has its roots in the Arab Spring. In 2011, after the toppling of other authoritarian Arab regimes, pro-Republican and Democratic activists had taken to the streets in an effort to peacefully overthrow the Assad regime, which has been in power since the 1970s. Needless to say, the Assad regime cracked down harshly on the movement, by detaining, torturing and openly killing demonstrators. This, coupled with the sentiments brought about by the Arab Spring, lead to the formation of the Free Syrian Army and the first open engagements between the rebel organization and the Syrian Armed Forces. Shortly thereafter, the conflict slipped into open sectarian violence, which was only heightened by the rise of ISIL in the region. American Forces intervened in the conflict in September 2014, as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, and Russian Forces intervened exactly a year later in September 2015. In theory, both deployments were designed to defeat ISIS – an idea mostly accomplished. However, the deployments were also used to secure influence and assist allies in the immediate region. The civil war has also sparked a major refugee crisis, which is heavily influencing European markets, politics, and attitude towards foreign migrants.
As aforementioned, Syria is a crucial piece to the foreign policies of all Middle Eastern states, the United States, and Russia.
Russia and Iran share similar interests in the Syrian conflict. Both nations seek to disrupt the American-Israeli-Saudi power system in the region and secure a staging area for influence, trade, military operations, and diplomacy. Iran, who is currently locked in a “cold war” with Saudi Arabia and Israel sees Syria as the final piece in the puzzle in its Middle Eastern strategy. Iranian influence in Syria not only gives them a gateway to the Mediterranean Sea (and thus Europe), but it also cripples Israeli power projection. It also locks Saudi Arabia into the Arabian Peninsula and furthers their developing grip on Iraq. For Russia, there are similar interests. The disruption of American dominance in the Middle East has long been a goal of Vladimir Putin. Securing Syria for Russia means the security of the Russian naval base in Tartus, a key installment for Russian operations in the Mediterranean Sea and Russian trade. It also guarantees a “stable regime” – an autocratic state that will seek to oppose US meddling in the region. The Russian arms market is also huge in Syria and has been that way for decades, thus Syria can be used to export Russian economic influence in the region.
Western interests in the region seek to maintain the status quo and to counter the growing influence of Iran. First and foremost, the U.S. and Israel seek to deter any Iranian installments in Syria. The Iranian Nuclear and Missile Program is of great concern for both nations, and the possible positioning of Iranian weapons in Syria wrecks havoc on Israeli national security and American allies in Europe. The U.S. also seeks a stable Syria, mainly for economic and energy reasons. Unlike the Russians, who prefer an autocratic state, the Americans seek to install a quasi-puppet Democratic government in Syria, similar to the one in Iraq. A Syria friendly to the United States secures not only Syria but also Iraq, therefore seriously harming Iranian influence in the region. However, the U.S. must be wary of its rising national debt, as any further action in Syria could easily send the number rising.
Saudi Arabia also has interests in Syria. The KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) desires to secure Syria to ensure Iran does not gain another victory in the cold war between the two. Proxy groups and even notable terrorist organizations are funded by Saudi Arabia to counter the Iranian backed group Hezbollah and Iranian forces deployed in the country. Securing Syria opens the door for Saudi Arabia to contest Iran in Iraq, thus meaning Syria is a necessity for Saudi Arabia to turn the tides in their geopolitical struggle with Iran.
An interest shared by all sides is Syrian physical and political geography. The strategically important Euphrates River runs through the nation, and its Mediterranean coastline is favorable for trade with the West. In terms of political geography, Syria borders numerous U.S. allies and provides a gateway into Africa – meaning Syria is an excellent staging area to either maintain or uproot the regional status quo.
The interests of these nations are secured mostly by indirect fighting, with direct combat between those mentioned is rare. Numerous proxy groups are aligned with either faction and are armed, funded, trained and advised by the greater power of the faction. Groups such as Hezbollah, the Free Syrian Army, Tahir-Al-Sham, and the YPG are just examples of the several groups fighting in Syria for not only their own interests but the interests of greater powers.
To conclude: The Syrian Civil War has evolved from a people’s struggle for Democracy and Liberty to a struggle between the world’s great powers for influence in the political chessboard. Syria is undeniably the core principal to the Middle Eastern policy of most, if not all nations, and its endgame will either confirm the Western and Saudi hold on the Middle East, or usher in a new order for the Middle East, one commanded by Moscow and Tehran.