NOTE: This is the first of a series on the war in Syria
We have all seen the videos. We were, once again, shocked and appalled that a leader of a country can be so ruthless, so vicious and so monstrous to his own people. For the second time in President Trump’s first term, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s internationally condemned actions against his people have brought a military response from the U.S. and our allies. But, there is so much more going on in Syria than humanitarian considerations.
I realized that, other than deploring the actions of its president, I knew very little about Syria. The more I dug; a tangled, dangerous mess began to emerge.
What started out as a civil war has turned into a tinder box ready to ignite in the Middle East and possibly the world.
A bit of history: In 2011, the Syrian people took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations simply asking for many of the freedoms that we take for granted.
Assad’s reaction was to open fire, thus igniting a civil war that rages still. Assad’s claim then and now is that militant forces from afar are jeopardizing Syria’s future. The use of chemical weapons, in addition to conventional weaponry used by Assad on his own people, was verified.
The result is more than half a million people have been killed and more than 12 million people displaced, to date. Massive numbers of Syrian refugees flooded Europe, creating a crisis that still threatens the stability of the European Union and sparked one of the major themes of our president’s campaign.
Freelance Journalist Cathrin Schaer, writing for the Dailybeast, issued this assessment of the world response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. “When the Obama administration, and other western governments, decided in 2013 to (mostly) stay out of the internal fighting in Syria despite the crossing of the chemical weapons 'red line,' they could not have known what was coming. They could not have known that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s accusation that the revolutionaries in his country were all foreigners or Islamic extremists would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They could not have predicted that the power vacuum in Syria would so empower former members of al Qaeda from Iraq that they would establish a medieval-style caliphate, the so-called Islamic State, complete with beheadings and commemorative gold coins. They could not have guessed that as a result people in Europe and the United States now fear they might be stabbed by random strangers, or knocked down by a car that’s being used as a weapon on any street, in any town, anywhere. Nor could they have foreseen that by 2018 there would be more than half a dozen countries inside Syria fighting their own proxy wars — Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United States, Turkey and Israel, among them — and that at least half a dozen other countries would be directly impacted by it.”
In many ways what started as a civil war has become a complicated, international battlefield. More than humanitarian concern, Syria’s location and religious ideology are responsible for the intervention by several international power players.
So, who are these players and what is in it for them?
In 2015, Russia entered the Syrian civil war calling it a “counterterrorism mission.” They were joining the West in the fight against the Islamic State. To appease the West, a commitment of sorts was given by Putin to reign-in Assad and get rid of his chemical weapons.
As time went on, Putin’s global ambitions became apparent. He wanted to establish Russia as a dominant force in the territory usurping U.S. influence. He also wanted the Arab world to consider Russia a strong ally able to provide advanced weaponry at the right price without the red tape and oversight that the U.S. required. And, Russia could provide “cover” for them from U.S. or Israeli strikes. But, most importantly, Russia needed a warm water port, not under the control of any NATO nations, thus insuring their ability to ship throughout the Mediterranean and on into the Atlantic.
Equally, if not more importantly, they wanted to build a Naval presence there. Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov spelled out how the Syrian port city of Tartus fit into the Putin government’s global military vision, when he announced that the port would be expanded to become a permanent base for the Russian navy.
The leaders of both Iran and Syria are Shiite Muslims actively fighting the Sunni and Kurds in their countries resulting in a natural alliance. More importantly, Iran wanted military proximity to Israel which the Syrian border offered. In return for allowing Iran to set up militarily on their border, Assad received financial and military support.
Iran provided the funds for Lebanese Hezbollah fighters to join with Syria’s waning fighting force against the “resistance.” With Iran funding and supplying Hezbollah and establishing a military presence in Syria, Iran acquired two borders with access to their arch-enemy Israel.
In addition, Iran views Syria as crucial territory to maintain a land bridge to the Mediterranean. It is also key to maintaining military supply routes to Hezbollah in Lebanon thus enabling and fortifying continuing attacks against Israel. For Iran, Syria is an important geographical piece of their regional domination puzzle.
Early on when Iran’s motives for “wooing Assad” became clear, Israeli Government officials began making regular visits to Moscow. Their intent was to solicit support to counter the growing Iranian presence in Syria. They warned that Iran was preparing new military infrastructure to target Israel. And, they were right. Their error was underestimating Russia’s own agenda and overestimating its actual power. Any hope of assistance from them was abandoned when Putin began to partner with Iran. They shared intelligence, patrolled together and fought together against the threats to the Assad regime. Each nation was using the civil war for their own purposes.
Simultaneously, high ranking Israeli officials came to the U.S. asking for some kind of intervention on their behalf to quell Iran military build-up in Syria. The U.S. was unwilling to assist in anyway.
It was clear that the civil war in Syria had morphed into a proxy war providing varying degrees of cover for combatants; Iran, Hezbollah, Israel and Russia with a bit of U.S., England, France and Turkey on the side.
More next week.