If you haven’t noticed, there’s a war going on in Syria which has killed almost half a million people since 2011 and has created the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. The war in Syria will be the most significant foreign policy challenge that the next US president will face, yet it has barely been discussed in the 2016 Presidential race outside of who to blame for creating ISIS.
In fact, with about a month left before the election and already one presidential debate in, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have actually proposed a serious plan about what they would do to stop the meltdown in Syria which has destabilized the entire region and has implications far beyond ISIS.
The Syrian war is one of the most complex geopolitical conflicts in modern history. It has eluded any diplomatic resolution for 5 years precisely because it’s a war fraught with a multitude of actors, confusing alliances and conflicting motives for those fighting.
The battlefield is largely between Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups trying to overthrow the government. What began as peaceful protests against the Assad government during the “Arab Spring” in early 2011 devolved into a full-blown civil war about a year into the regime’s violent crackdown against the opposition. In the five years since, nations around the world have been funding and arming both the opposition and the regime in whats become a global proxy war for control of Syria.
It’s from this chaos that the terrorist organization Al Qaeda has resurged to power as one of the leading rebel groups against Assad and the Islamic State has emerged as a rival trans-national terror group capable of devastating attacks around the world.
Unfortunately, this war is not ending any time soon….in fact the war in Syria is now entering a new phase entirely. The recent US-Russia negotiated ceasefire was the fourth attempted ceasefire in the war and has already collapsed as factions continue to battle it out for who rules Syria. Millions of besieged citizens continue to flee en-masse to Europe and neighboring states while those who stay are gripped in a horrifying violence which has already claimed an entire generation of Syrians.
What everyone can agree on at this stage is that the U.S. policy in Syria so far has been an unmitigated disaster. The Syrian war is to a large degree considered the greatest failure of the Obama administration, and they will be leaving the next administration with no good options on how to resolve the conflict.
The cold reality of the 2016 election is that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton don’t really have the power to do most of the things they promise on the campaign trail, something that will be especially true with this Congress. But foreign policy is one of the few things they can control…so we really need to figure out what in the world we’re doing.
There’s no simple way to unpack the Syrian war so I decided to break it up into four sections.
- Who is Fighting Who in Syria?
- Why Is Each Side Fighting?
- Who Controls What in Syria?
- What Is Happening Next in Syria?
5. *Ten Questions For the People Running To Be President*
—Who is Fighting Who in Syria—
The Syrian battlefield is a mess. A quick look at Slate’s Syrian Conflict guide or this CNN diagram will leave your head spinning trying to make sense of who’s fighting who. So I decided to create a binary table to make it simpler – who is fighting to keep Assad in power v.s. who is fighting to topple Assad?
Pro-Assad Side: Anti-Assad Side:
The war is hardly being fought on a binary scale, however, which is why a few things may have popped out at you from this list –
a) ISIS and Al Qaeda are fighting on the same side as the U.S. against Assad..?
Yep, not only are ISIS and Al Qaeda both fighting the Assad regime, but Al Qaeda-backed rebels are considered to be the strongest opposition groups against the Syrian government today. From the beginning of the war the jihadist involvement in Syria has been fundamentally anti-Assad, which has always put them on our side of the war.
For years, the U.S. has been tacitly helping (and meeting with) a variety of Al Qaeda-backed rebel groups in their fight against Assad. A lot of the intelligence, aid and weapons that the U.S., Turkey and our Gulf allies have been funneling to the opposition have in fact directly gone to arm Al Qaeda-backed groups. The most prominent is Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Al Nusra Front (although the group changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham last month). Many of the weapons that went to them, along with other Al Qaeda-linked groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, have now also fallen into the hands of ISIS.
It is pertaining to this issue that Julian Assange of WikiLeaks is threatening to release Hillary Clinton’s e-mails from her tenure as Secretary of State revealing knowledge of these weapons shipments to jihadist elements in Syria to help overthrow Assad.
Cooperation with Islamic extremist groups is not a new development in American foreign policy. The U.S. not only supported Osama bin Laden and the mujahideen to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but more recently in 2011 the US ended up illegally arming Al Qaeda-backed rebel groups in Libya to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. Afghanistan has since been controlled by the Taliban and Libya is a failed state, half-controlled by ISIS.
It has again become a “necessary evil” to work with jihadists, but this time in Syria to oust Bashar al-Assad.
This reality is also driven by the fact that for the last six years the U.S.-led coalition has tried to build-up the “moderate“, secular Free Syrian Army as a viable opposition to Assad, but has failed miserably. The half a billion dollar U.S. train-and-equip program for the Free Syrian Army, which was supposed to prepare over 5,600 fighters out of a training camp in Jordan, produced exactly four, to five soldiers. Today, the Free Syrian Army has virtually collapsed and is so “moderate” that they’re beheading Syrian children. They also hate the U.S. so much that Free Syrian Army fighters chased away U.S. special forces that came to help.
“[The Free Syrian Army] is something of a myth, with a media presence far outstripping its actual organizational capacity” and amounted to little more than “a diverse array of local defense forces, ideological trends, and self-interested warlords. It exercised little real command and control, and had little ability to formulate or implement a coherent military strategy.” – Marc Lynch, Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies
While some U.S.-backed “moderate” rebel groups are battling Al Qaeda groups, many have defected to their ranks or are working alongside Al Qaeda fighters in Syria. In the on-going battle for the Syrian city of Aleppo it is the jihadist rebel groups like Al Nusra that have led the way against the Assad government.
This is the key sticking point between Russia, Assad’s staunchest ally, and the U.S., over what is happening in Syria. The U.S. claims Russia is not interested in peace and is committing war crimes by indiscriminately bombing civilian areas. Russia claims it is fighting terrorists in Syria.
The unfortunate reality is that both are true. Russia is ruthlessly killing hundreds of Syrian civilians in their quest to eliminate the challengers to Assad. But because the opposition is overrun with extremists and there is no real “moderate” opposition representing a democratic, secular replacement for Assad, Russia is technically fighting the the war against terrorism in Syria. Russia has gone as far as to accuse the U.S. of protecting Al Qaeda-linked rebels and backing a rebel terrorist alliance at risk of ending the ceasefire to keep the fight against Assad going.
At this stage, if the Assad regime was toppled through an overt intervention the result would be some form of a more hardline Islamist regime coming to power as opposed to Assad’s mostly secular rule – a repeat of our Libya intervention. Russia (and China’s) support for Assad is actually in large part out of fear of repeating the disastrous U.S.-NATO invasion of Libya, which toppled the secular Gaddafi regime and allowed ISIS to exploit a power vacuum there. Russia fears that jihadist groups would now fill the power vacuum in a post-Assad Syria.
But which jihadists would come to power? Most aren’t aware that Al Qaeda and ISIS are actually at war with each other. The birth of ISIS in 2013 would alter the dynamics of the Syrian battlefield substantially.
In late 2013, an internal power struggle within Al Qaeda over who controlled the Al Nusra Front in Syria would lead to ISIS forming and splintering off from Al Qaeda entirely. ISIS has since eclipsed Al Qaeda as the world’s preeminent terror organization and has taken the public’s focus off of the war against Assad entirely through its gruesome beheadings and catastrophic terror attacks around the world.
The history of ISIS did not begin in 2013, but had its roots in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, Al Qaeda opened a branch there creatively named Al Qaeda in Iraq or AQI. AQI played a major role in the sectarian violence that consumed Iraq after Saddam fell, but the group was largely defeated by the time the U.S. left Iraq in 2011.
Right as the U.S. was leaving Iraq, the civil war next door in Syria was beginning. A re-grouping AQI would dispatch some of its operatives into Syria to set up a new jihadist organization to help topple Assad – the Al Nusra Front. Within a year Al Nusra grew into one of the most powerful opposition groups in Syria, in no small part due to the arms and funding they were receiving by outside nations who wanted to oust Assad.
The success of Al Nusra in Syria would lead to tensions between AQI leader Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi in Iraq and Al Qaeda’s central leadership in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Baghdadi wanted Al Nusra in Syria to merge with AQI in Iraq and he tried to combine the two. Al Qaeda’s senior leader Ayman al-Zawahiri balked at the combination and ordered AQI to operate in Iraq separately from Al Nusra in Syria. Al Nusra’s leader Muhammad al Joulani sided with Al Qaeda’s leadership but AQI leader Baghdadi refused. Baghdadi then split with Al Qaeda and renamed AQI into ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
This was a very confusing time in the jihadi world, many Syrian jihadists left Al Nusra for ISIS and the two began competing for soldiers. ISIS then began to attract a growing number of foreign fighters and recruited senior military leaders who were part of Saddam Hussein’s army that was dissolved after the American invasion. ISIS would then sweep through Iraq and Syria capturing huge swaths of territory and with it massive amounts of American-made weapons and tanks that the U.S. had sold to the Iraqi army previously.
What happened next is something the U.S. intelligence community had predicted two years earlier, yet still continued to transfer heavy arms into Syria during this time. A declassified 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report would confirm everyone’s worse suspicions about the birth of ISIS.
C. If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran). D. The deterioration of the situation has dire consequences on the Iraqi situation and are as follows:—1 This creates the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi and will provide a renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria, and the rest of the Sunnis in the Arab world against what it considers one enemy, the dissenters. ISI could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria which will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of its territory. – August 11th, 2012
On June 29th, 2014, ISIS would revive a political entity the Muslim world had not seen in almost a 100 years – the caliphate. ISIS declared its captured territory between Iraq and Syria as the “Islamic State”, a de facto self-ruled country under sharia law, and proclaimed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the new caliph and “leader for Muslims everywhere.”
That’s right – despite both Al Qaeda and ISIS preaching a virtually identical extremist message and a shared desire to remove Assad to establish Syria as an Islamic nation governed by sharia law, their methods and longer-term vision differ enough that the two are willing to go to war with each other.
The ISIS/Al Qaeda divorce has complicated things for the U.S. and the other Syrian rebels on the ground who are fighting Assad. Many of America’s Gulf allies who want to see Assad gone believed ISIS was their best bet to make it happen, and have been actively funding and arming the Islamic State. But after a series of horrifying beheadings, devastating terror attacks around the world and violent persecution of other Muslims, ISIS has made enemies of everyone.
ISIS is so horrifyingly brutal and vicious to anyone that doesn’t submit to their rule that the Al Qaeda-backed rebel groups and whatever’s left of the “moderate” rebels are now fighting a two-front war against both ISIS and the Assad government.
The U.S. and its allies are now faced with the dilemma of eliminating ISIS, which is fighting Assad, or to let ISIS be and go after Assad. The U.S. strategy so far has been some mix of both. The U.S. has been striking ISIS, but primarily in Iraq not in Syria. In the last two years the U.S. has conducted 11,000 airstrikes against ISIS targets and 9,000 of those have been in Iraq. U.S.-backed forces are preparing in the next weeks to reclaim the city of Mosul in Iraq , but have so far declined to strike ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa, Syria. The reluctance of the U.S. to target ISIS in Syria was made painfully clear two weeks ago when an “anti-ISIS” airstrike in Syria struck Assad’s military forces instead, allowing ISIS to then gain territory against the regime and triggered the collapse of the latest ceasefire.
The U.S. certainly wants to see ISIS and the other jihadists in Syria and Iraq defeated, but as long as it remains politically and militarily committed to Assad leaving these goals will inevitably come in conflict. Because there is no viable moderate opposition to Assad, US foreign policy in Syria is now essentially a decision about which jihadist group it would rather have control the country – ISIS or Al Qaeda? Former CIA director David Petraeus has actually recommended that the U.S. formally recruit Al Qaeda fighters to fight this two-front war in Syria.
The absolute chaos amongst the “anti-Assad” factions has all worked to keep the Syrian president in power. I made the chart above to help you visualize it. The significant sub-conflict with the Kurdish forces will be explained in a little.
The presence of ISIS has been a blessing for the Assad regime because it further divides his enemies who were already fighting with each other. Assad is happy to let the other Syrian rebels fend off ISIS, and to this end Assad has actually been covertly helping ISIS by buying their stolen oil. Assad’s long-term strategy is the elimination of the Syrian rebels, which would force the nations that back those rebels into allying themselves with Assad to finish off ISIS. Ultimately for Assad to look at the world and say, “it’s either me or ISIS, you choose.”
This is the strategy Russia carried out when it formally entered the Syrian war last year and ultimately swung the tide of the war in Assad’s favor. Russian airstrikes have largely focused on eliminating U.S-backed rebels that’re fighting Assad rather than targeting ISIS.
The situation in Syria is such that Assad and Russia don’t want to eliminate ISIS because they’re fighting Syrian rebel groups, and the U.S. and its allies have somewhat let ISIS exist in Syria as a vehicle to battle Assad.
Let’s take a look at the landscape of the Syrian rebels that Assad and Russia are trying to get rid of right now.
“Moderate” Rebels: Al Qaeda-backed Rebels: Kurdish Rebels:
There are reportedly over over 1,000 armed opposition groups against Assad so this is really capturing a small part of how complicated the battlefield is. These divisions are also not as clean as the table makes them given the overlapping alliances and rivalries that exist between all these groups for funding, weapons and territory.
We know the “moderate” opposition is mostly defunct and Al Qaeda-backed groups are dominating the fight in Syria….what’s the Kurdish opposition?
b) What is Kurdistan?
You probably didn’t even register this name sitting at the bottom of the “Anti-Assad” table…maybe because Kurdistan is not even a real country.
The Kurdish people are a marginalized and oppressed ethnic group spread across the Middle East with their own language, culture and national identity. They are in fact the world’s largest ethnicity without their own state – a painful reality as a result of a historic betrayal by the British and French.
In northern Syria there are slightly over a million ethnic Kurds who see the civil war against Assad as a chance to form their own self-ruled country, much like the Kurds in Iraq have done since the 1991 Gulf War. Today the Kurds have essentially seceded from Syria and instituted their own government and military in their territory. Though I have placed the Kurds on the “anti-Assad” side because they have been fighting with the regime, they are undeniably fearful that whoever would come after him could be even worse for the Kurdish struggle for independence.
Because of the Kurd’s proximity to Iraq, they are incredibly important player in the war against ISIS. The US has been heavily supporting and arming the Kurdish military called the YPG and have created a US-Kurdish joint force called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to battle ISIS in key cities.
However, the Kurdish people have a very complex relationship with Turkey, a U.S. and NATO ally. Like I said the Kurds are spread across the Middle East and a majority of them actually live in Turkey, making up close to 25% of Turkey’s population.
Turkey considers the Kurds as terrorists. The outlawed Kurdish political party in Turkey, the PKK, has been fighting a decades long insurgency against the Turkish government for political freedom and representation. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan fears that the U.S. empowering the Kurds in Syria could heighten the power of the PKK and their calls for Kurdish secession in Turkey – something Erdogan fears more than ISIS.
As a result, Turkey has been actively subverting the U.S.-Kurdish campaign against ISIS and has allowed ISIS to cross through the Turkish border to fight the Kurds. All of this culminated in Turkey invading Syria this month to drive out Kurdish YPG fighters from Turkey’s southern border.
The Turkish government has made it clear that given a choice between defeating Islamic State and forestalling any possibility of an independent Kurdish state along its southern border, it will opt to go to war against the Kurdish YPG and to tolerate the continued existence of the Islamic State. – Joseph V. Micallef, Military historian
Though Turkey is anti-Kurd they are also extremely anti-Assad. President Erdogan wants Assad gone and has been one of the principle financiers to Syrian rebel groups. In fact, almost all U.S. and Gulf support to the Syrian rebels have gone through a Turkish base. Turkey has not been shy about working with extremist rebel groups to help topple Assad, even if it also meant working with ISIS at times.
**To recap this insane situation**
- U.S. wants to oust Assad and eliminate ISIS. The “moderate” rebels that we would like to be leading these efforts don’t really exist. Disorganization, lack of weapons/training and Russia’s bombing campaign have decimated U.S.-backed “moderate” forces and they have now merged with Al Qaeda-backed groups or are explicitly cooperating with them.
- The U.S. and Russia can’t come to a political solution to the Syrian war, because the Assad regime and Russia keep bombing civilians in what they describe as a war against terrorism. The problem is that it is a war against terrorism because extremists groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda are leading the fight against Assad.
- To defeat ISIS, the U.S. has primarily relied on Kurdish forces to push the ground fight along with an international coalition of airstrikes. Turkey does not support our arming of the Kurds and have been helping ISIS in their attacking Kurdish forces and in fighting Assad. Turkey has now invaded Syria in the circled area in the map above to drive the Kurds out of recent cities they’ve captured.
Things look pretty bad for the next U.S. president. They’re left with no good options in the fight against Assad, and a bickering coalition over how to fight ISIS. We’ll re-visit what the next administration’s Syria policy could look like in the last section.
But how did we even get here? We’re dealing with all this now because the world’s great powers staged a global proxy war over the Assad government …what are we even fighting over in the first place?
–Why Is Each Side Fighting?–
There are a multitude of reasons why so many different nations and non-state groups are involved in the Syrian war but for most casual observers the war in Syria is a war about human rights and democracy.
Indeed, Assad is a dictator who brutally cracked down on his own people when they started protesting against his repressive government. After Syria descended into civil war, Assad has not only been indiscriminately bombing civilian areas to drive out rebel groups, he is doing so using barrel bombs, napalm-like thermite bombs and chemical weapons including chlorine and sarin gas.
It’s easy to imagine that the U.S. support for the opposition in Syria is out of desire to promote democratic reform and to stop a ruthless dictator. But why are similarly repressive governments like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey on our side? Are they really trying to oust Assad to uphold any standard of democracy or respect for human rights?
There are four distinct wars happening in Syria right now, the first shouldn’t surprise anyone.
–War #1 – The War for Gas Pipelines in the Middle East–
Shocking, a war in the Middle East that’s actually been about oil and gas the whole time.
Right now there are two proposed gas pipelines coming out of the Persian Gulf, both of which must cross through Syria to get to Europe – the Iran-Iraq-Syria Pipeline and the Qatar-Saudi Arabia-Turkey Pipeline. The U.S. is supporting its Gulf allies in pushing for their pipeline and Russia is supporting its allies Iran and Syria for their pipeline – this division is not so coincidentally the two sides of the war in Syria today.
The pipeline war began in 2009 when Qatar proposed to Assad the construction of a joint liquid-natural-gas (LNG) pipeline from the South Pars / North Dome gas field in the Persian Gulf all the way to Europe. Assad said no. Instead, he opted to build an alternate pipeline with his allies Iraq and Iran. On July 25th, 2011, only five months into the Syrian uprising, Bashar al Assad quietly signed a $10 billion gas-pipeline deal with Iran and Iraq to begin construction on their pipeline.
As civil war has consumed Syria since, it should come as no surprise that Iran has been one of the principle backers of the Assad regime and the spurned countries, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been the principle financiers of the Syrian opposition to overthrow Assad. These three nations have poured in far more millions than the U.S. into funding and arming the Syrian rebels to oust Assad and place in a new regime that will approve their pipeline.
The South Pars / North Dome is the world’s largest gas field shared between Iran and Qatar in the Persian Gulf. The field holds an estimated 1,800 trillion cubic feet of natural gas allowing for an estimated pumping capacity of 100-120 million cubic feet of gas per day. For Turkey, the pipeline is a signature part of its long standing goal to break its dependence on Russian oil and become an energy transit hub at the crossroads of the Middle East and Europe.
“If completed, the project would have had major geopolitical implications. Ankara would have profited from rich transit fees. The project would have also given the Sunni kingdoms of the Persian Gulf decisive domination of world natural gas markets and strengthen Qatar, America’s closest ally in the Arab world” – POLITICO
Vladimir Putin sees the Qatar-Saudi-Turkey pipeline as an existential threat to Russia and this is partly why Russia has intervened the most of any nation both diplomatically and militarily to keep Assad in power.
Russia currently enjoys its status as one of the world’s largest oil & natural gas suppliers because it singlehandedly controls the European energy market. A new pipeline to supply gas to Europe would change the energy game entirely. In Putin’s view, the Qatar pipeline is a NATO plot to change the status quo, deprive Russia of its only foothold in the Middle East, strangle the Russian economy and end Russian leverage in the European energy market.
When Assad announced in 2009 that he would refuse to sign the pipeline deal with Qatar, he even said he did so “to protect the interests of our Russian ally.”
Russia and Syria have been close allies for decades, not just as of late. They share a deep economic and military relationship that’s cemented by Russia’s only warm-water naval port outside the former Soviet Union hosted in the Syrian city of Tartus. If the pipeline by Putin’s allies in Syria and Iran is built, Russia would exert some measure of control over output and pricing decisions and thus maintain its grip over Europe’s energy needs.
“Syria is the only country in the Middle East which follows our advice, this is the country where we can exercise certain tangible influence…the loss of Syria will mean we will have no influence in this region at all,” says Ruslan Pukhov, Defense Analyst at Russian think-tank CAST.
Europe has been desperate to break its reliance on Russian gas and as a result the U.S. and Russia have been in a not-so-secret energy war in Eastern Europe to control the market. Syria sits at the middle of this great power energy war which is why the U.S. has a vested interest in the outcome.
The U.S. plays a very interesting role in the global energy market because of its relationship with OPEC, the cartel of 12 oil-producing nations around the world (which excludes Russia). Unknown to most, OPEC sells oil and gas on the international market strictly in U.S. dollars.
A deal was struck in 1974 between the U.S. and OPEC to denominate all its oil sales in U.S. dollars in exchange for the U.S. providing permanent military security for the Saudi Kingdom. This came to be known as the “petrodollar” system, named for the use of dollars to purchase petroleum on the global oil market. Other countries have no choice but to buy and hold large reserves of U.S. dollars in their central banks because they cannot purchase oil from OPEC without dollars.
Given the importance of oil and gas in the global economy (and America’s lack of an export economy), the world’s dependency on petrodollars to buy oil fundamentally underwrites the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency.
Even more so, any surpluses generated by the OPEC nations selling oil are invested back into the United States by buying US Treasury bonds or as deposits in U.S. banks. This was the second term of the agreement with OPEC and came to be known as “petrodollar recycling“.
The direct foreign investment of surplus oil profits into the U.S. banking system along with the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency is what allows the U.S government to perpetually finance the nation’s massive trade deficit by issuing dollar denominated assets at very low interest rates. It has also allowed the US to finance the world’s largest military and most importantly, it has allowed successive American administrations to spend far more, year-in year-out, than is raised in tax and export revenue.
If the U.S.-backed Qatar-Saudi Arabia-Turkey pipeline is built, Europe will have to purchase this new gas supply in U.S. dollars and the OPEC petrodollar system will remain intact. If the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline backed by Russia is successfully built, then billions of barrels of gas will be sold to Europe in alternate currencies to the U.S. dollar.
If nations begin decoupling away from the U.S. dollar to purchase oil and gas it would subsequently erode the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency, collapse the petrodollar and end the last four decades of “dollar hegemony” that the U.S. has enjoyed. This is an outcome Russia would like to see and one that the U.S. has gone to great lengths over the years to avoid.
“Viewed through a geopolitical and economic lens, the conflict in Syria is not a civil war, but the result of larger international players positioning themselves on the geopolitical chessboard in preparation for the opening of the pipeline” – Major Rob Taylor, US Army Command
The relationship between the U.S. dollar, oil and our propensity to stage military interventions in the Middle East is a well observed trend, but it is virtually never brought to light in the news. Most Americans believe we fight wars in the Middle East for oil and they’re not wrong..
The 2003 invasion of Iraq under the false pretense (I mean, really false pretense) of Saddam Hussein’s WMDs was an obvious oil grab after Saddam had stopped selling Iraqi oil in dollars (we switched it back to dollars after Saddam fell). The more recent 2011 U.S.-NATO led invasion of Libya ousted Muammar Gaddafi under the false pretense of an imminent genocide after Gaddafi planned to stop selling oil in dollars in favor of a gold-backed dinar currency (Libyan oil was then split up amongst the invading countries).
Those who defended the Iraq invasion never mentioned in public that the invasion was necessary to defend the dollar. To do so would have created a public backlash as well as public scrutiny of why the dollar was so vulnerable. To explain this vulnerability to the public, the explanation would have eventually revealed that we are a nation that cannot pay its debts. The political cost of a crashing economy, lack of funds for our ever-expanding military, and an alarmed public would have been an unbearable political burden for those in power – Bart Gruzalski, professor emeritus of philosophy from Northeastern University
Invariably the countries we have chosen to invade have all posed an acute threat to the petrodollar monetary system, regardless of what justification for intervention is sold to the public. Now that there is again a challenge to the petrodollar system, but in Syria, the world’s great powers have waged another bloody oil war in the name of democracy and human rights.
–War #2 – The War for Islamic Influence in the Middle East–
The war to control Syria is not just driven by competing gas pipelines, but strikes a deeper chord in a critically important divide in the Middle East.
After the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D. a dispute over who should succeed him, his father-in-law Abu Bakr or cousin Ali, would lead to a split in Islam between the Sunni and the Shia. This ancient schism has come to define much of the regional conflict in the Middle East today and plays a prominent role in the Syrian war.
In the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia considers itself the leader of Sunni Islam while Iran is the stronghold for Shia Islam. Saudi Arabia and Iran have an on-going rivalry for regional power in the Middle East that is rooted in the religious antagonism of the Sunni/Shia divide. The two have such a heated rivalry that in January of this year Saudi Arabia and Iran cut off all diplomatic ties with each other after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shiite cleric. (A more deeper breakdown of how the Shia and Sunni differ theologically is here)
The distribution of Sunnis and Shias is not as even as you would imagine. Of the world’s more than 1.5 billion Muslims almost 85%-90% are Sunnis while only about 10-15% are Shia. Despite being a clear minority amongst Muslims globally, Shias have a strong presence in the Middle East. The Shiites are concentrated in Iran, southern Iraq and southern Lebanon but there are significant Shiite communities in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
There are three nations in the Middle East with Shia-controlled governments today: Iran, Iraq and Syria. The rest are ruled by Sunnis.
The Sunni and Shia have actually gotten along for most of history. It’s a common misperception that the sectarian strife we see across the region today has been going on for thousands of years. There were two events that occurred less than 40 years ago that would shake the foundations of the Muslim world and global politics at large – the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the ensuing Grand Mosque seizure in Mecca.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 deposed the pro-Western Shah of Iran and created an Islamic republic where Shia religious clerics were put in charge of the country. It was the first time a country in the modern Middle East was to be ruled under a theocratic constitution where a religious figure led the country – the Ayatollah.
This sent shockwaves through the Sunni-dominated Muslim world and especially amongst the Sunni religious conservatives in Saudi Arabia. They began to feel that Sunni Islam was under threat from the growing power of Shiites in Iran and staged a siege of Islam’s holiest site in Mecca, the Grand Mosque. They accused the ruling House of Saud monarchy as being heretics for its openness with the West and called for them to step down to create an Islamic republic in Saudi Arabia to counter Iran. To end the siege and prevent another religious uprising, the Saudi monarchy would give the religious conservatives, the ulama, significantly more power over the country – resulting in the strict sharia law enforced against women, minorities etc in Saudi Arabia today.
It was in 1979, less than 40 years ago, when religious conservatism would hijack both Iran and Saudi Arabia leading the thousands of years old Sunni/Shia split to see a re-awakening and giving rise to modern day anti-Western extremism.
Over the last generation, the Saudi-Iran rivalry has become part of a larger “cold war” between the two for competing political and geostrategic interests in the region. In order to spread their influence both Iran and Saudi Arabia actively promote Shia and Sunni extremist groups in the Middle East as the two compete for Islamic authority and legitimacy across the region.
Iran played a central role in creating the Shiite-extremist group Hezbollah in 1982 which was/is primarily anti-Israeli but has also fueled sectarian violence with Sunnis in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia’s hardline Sunni Wahhabi theology served as the religious foundation for birth of Al Qaeda in 1998 and has played a central role in ISIS’s flavor Islamic extremism which even considers Shiites as illegitimate Muslims.
Because Saudi Arabia and Iran have turned into theocracies in the last 30 years where religious authorities now wield an enormous amount of power in the government, whenever regional conflict breaks out it is incredibly important which governments are controlled by Sunnis and which are controlled by Shias.
Because of America’s animosity with Iran (starting with the Iran hostage crisis, really) along with its alliance with Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf kingdoms, American foreign policy supports Sunni governments and Russian foreign policy supports Shia governments.
Assad and the ruling Syrian government are Alawites, a sub-sect of Shia Islam. Thus, Russia and the Shia powers in the region like Iran, Iraq and the Shia militant group Hezbollah have been militarily backing Assad. Conversely, the U.S. and all the Sunni powers, like the Gulf kingdoms and Sunni-led Turkey, are leading the opposition and have propped up Sunni militant rebel groups to oust the Assad Shia regime.
The underlying war for competing gas pipelines in Syria is a manifestation of how the Sunni/Shia conflict is intertwined into the broader geopolitical interests of the region. The Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline would make the Shiite powers in the region, not the Sunni kingdoms, the principal suppliers to the European energy market and dramatically increase Tehran’s influence in the Middle East and around the world. This is an unacceptable outcome for the Sunni powers who see their religious authority and legitimacy threatened by a Shiite expansion of power.
But the Sunni/Shia balance is not just a matter of religious or political power, it has become an issue of survival for the citizens. Sunni governments like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain marginalize and persecute Shia groups at home while Shia Iran does the same with Sunnis. Bahrain’s treatment of Shias is actually being considered a modern day apartheid. This is why regime change has such huge consequences in the Middle East.
When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 and toppled Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime, a Shia government came to power under the thumb of Iran which began jailing and killing Sunni leaders and stripping their political power. This in effect brought public support for a Sunni-extremist group like ISIS to take over much of Iraq to battle the new Shia government (although ISIS is now killing Sunnis too so they really have no friends). The religious high-stakes game of survival is playing out now in Syria as well.
This map above shows the religious demographics of Syria which explains why it has been so easy for Syria to descend into a sectarian religious war. Everything in blue is Sunni while everything in green is Alawite/Shia. As noted earlier, the Assad family is Alawite. The Alawites ethnicity in general controls almost all the political and military power in Syria but only about 11% of the Syrian population are Alawites, while close to 75% of Syrians are Sunni.
This imbalance in political representation is due to the French colonial rule of Syria which empowered the Alawite minority – a trend that continued and expanded when the Assad family came in power. In 1970 Syrian military general Hafez al-Assad led a military coup to overthrow the sitting government and the Assad family has ruled Syria for the 46 years since.
“An Alawi ruling Syria is like an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia—an unprecedented development shocking to the majority population which had monopolized power for so many centuries.” – Daniel Pipes, Middle East Historian
The Assad regime actually had the support of most people in Syria, something that held true even a year into the civil war. This is why the influx of Sunni extremists groups into Syria escalated the war so significantly. The Alawite reign was not something that had sat well with the Sunni fundamentalists in Syria who saw their power as marginalized in the current state.
Because both President Bashar al-Assad and his father before him gave special priority, power, and benefit to Syria’s small Alawite minority while excluding the Sunni majority from resources and power, the nature of the country’s problems—and thus now the war—is infused with religion. It is true that oppositionists went to the street out of political, not theological, differences, but the fact that the political imbalance was drawn along religious lines put these religious identities at the heart of the fight. – Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service
Alawites, or Alawis, consider themselves to be sub-sect within Shia Islam, but that idea itself is subject to intense debate amongst Islamic scholars. Some have said this would be like referring to Christianity as “an offshoot of Judaism.” Alawites hold some majorly unconventional beliefs in both the Sunni and Shia world like the incorporation of the “trinity” from Christianity, celebration of Christmas, consecration of wine, having Christian names etc.
As a result, when Syria descended into civil war Sunni Islamic scholars in Saudi Arabia began to issue “fatwas”, or religious rulings, which declared Alawites to be heretics and non-Muslims and called for a “holy war” in Syria to topple the Assad regime and institute Sunni rule. This is why the civil war is now a matter of survival for the Alawite minority – if Assad fell and a radical Sunni regime came to power, they would undeniably be persecuted and killed.
Iran, Assad’s closest ally in the region, is also not a super fan of Alawi’s ruling Syria actually. The first Iranian Ayatollah in 1979 never actually met with the Assads because he did not consider them Muslims. Eventually Iranian clerics incorporated Alawites as part of the Twelver Shia branch, but everyone knows its a religious stretch. This is why the Iran-Syria relationship today isn’t over any real religious solidarity, but geopolitical interests they share in the region.
It is the underlying discrepancy in political power between Sunnis and Alawites in Syria along with the larger sectarian Saudi Arabia/Iran rivalry for regional power which is fueling what has become a religious war in Syria.
–War #3 – The War to Re-Draw National Borders in the Middle East–
Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/Daesh) Kurdish soldier
This is the war being waged by the Kurds and the Islamic State. The two are not particularly interested in a pipeline nor have any real stake in the Saudi Arabia/Iran rivalry, rather the two are fighting to fundamentally re-draw what the borders of Syria and its neighbors looks like.
The Islamic State is a counter-state movement that explicitly aims to destroy nation-state boundaries to expand, and thus legitimize, its self-proclaimed caliphate across the Middle East. It’s current self-ruled nation sits between Iraq and Syria but it has broader ambitions to control all the Middle East and parts of Africa, Europe and Asia.
The Kurds want to establish an autonomous Kurdish nation in the Middle East but their population is spread out between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. They want the governments in the region to cede parts of their land to form this new state – so far Iraq has, but none of the other three have. The Syrian Kurds have seceded from Assad’s rule and are fighting to rule autonomously.
Though the Kurds and ISIS are currently fighting with each other in Iraq and Syria as they compete for their respective goals, they are both challenging the same fundamental crisis in the Middle East – the Skyes-Picot agreement of 1916.
The Skyes-Picot agreement was an agreement reached between Britain and France to partition the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The Ottoman Empire made the unfortunate decision of siding with the losing Central Powers Germany and Austria-Hungary, and after it fell the disastrous borders of the modern Middle East were created.
British diplomat Mark Sykes and French counterpart, François Georges-Picot would divide the Middle East into “spheres of influence” where the British came to rule the area that would become Iraq and France came to control Syria. As the map below shows, the partitioning had no intention of trying to empower self-rule amongst the region’s various ethnicities. These new nation-states were crafted to concentrate the location of oil fields within British and French control.
As a result, different and often unfriendly groups were shoved together and given unequal political power in just-made-up nations. This inevitably lead to one group taking power and oppressing the others causing the perpetual rebellions, coups, and sectarian violence that has come to plague the Middle East today. (So sad for a region that is literally where human civilization emerged from).
Nowhere is the destruction of the Skyes-Picot partitioning more apparent than in Iraq where the combination of Arab Sunnis, Shia’s and ethnic Kurds has wreaked havoc on all three in recent Iraqi history. Sunni Saddam Hussein infamously used chemical weapons to massacre close to 50,000 Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war of the 80’s (we helped him). The Shiite Maliki government then came to power after Saddam and persecuted Iraqi Sunnis, using Shia militias to jail and kill Sunni political opponents. Now “Sunni” ISIS has run-over a lot of Iraq and is unleashing the medieval times on everyone in their path, with a special fury on Shiites and Kurds.
In Syria, the minority Alawi/Shia government led by Bashar’s father Hafez al Assad brutally massacred Sunnis during an Islamist uprising in the 1980s and the 2011 civil war has set off more sectarian violence against Sunnis and Kurds as the Alawites try and maintain their control over the country.
The Islamic State has actually singled out the Skyes-Picot agreement as the root of many of these modern day antagonisms. At its core ISIS is inciting a religious insurrection to overthrow all the post-World War I Western-made borders and re-instate the Caliphate-style ruling across the Muslim world. Except their caliphate is terrifying and oppressive, unlike many of the earlier Islamic caliphates.
“This blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes–Picot conspiracy” – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Leader of the Islamic State
Right now ISIS is battling with the Kurds as they both struggle to re-define the colonial borders that have already caused so much violence in the region.
However, there has been no greater victim of the Skyes-Picot borders than the Kurdish people. Having been separated into 4 different nations with no real political representation and facing relentless suppression and persecution in all four, the Kurds are desperate to re-make the Middle East. The turmoil in Syria and Iraq has empowered Kurdish separatists movements and these movements are here to stay. While it remains to be seen if the Syrian Kurds can acquire a form of autonomy that the Iraqi Kurds have, things remain bleak for the Turkish and Iranian Kurds. Turkey has now become the central broker in the future of Skyes-Picot agreement.
Turkey, where a majority of all ethnic Kurds live, is especially fearful of the heightened power of the Syrian Kurds and has now invaded Syria to prevent a unified Kurdish border state forming between Turkey and Syria. They fear that a Kurdish enclave at their southern border will empower the Kurds in Turkey to demand autonomy of their own and this is why Turkey has been low-key helping ISIS fight the Kurds to prevent this. Resharing this quote from earlier in the article –
The Turkish government has made it clear that given a choice between defeating Islamic State and forestalling any possibility of an independent Kurdish state along its southern border, it will opt to go to war against the Kurdish YPG and to tolerate the continued existence of the Islamic State. – Joseph V. Micallef, Military historian
The Skyes-Picot agreement has hung heavily over the years of U.N. peace initiatives for Syria as diplomats recognize the difficulty of maintaining Syria, Iraq and Turkey’s territorial integrity while trying to grant autonomy to large, now armed, ethnic factions.
“The Skyes-Picot agreement…looms over everything Mr. Kerry and his fellow foreign ministers are doing here….In October, the ministers, who formed the so-called International Syria Support Group, agreed that “Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity and secular character are fundamental.” Yet some of the key players in the slow-motion effort to get a transitional Syrian government in place say, when granted anonymity, that they think unity and territorial integrity are simply not possible” – NY Times
Many have said ISIS’s declaration of their caliphate in effect has ended the Skyes-Picot borders of the Middle East, but it remains to be seen if/how the borders of the Middle East may change by the end of the Syrian war as many groups no longer recognize the existing borders.
–War #4 – The War for Democratic Reform and Human Rights in Syria–
It feels wrong to place this as the last war, but unfortunately the conflict in Syria stopped being about democratic reform long ago. Nonetheless, it’s critically important to understand the transformation of Syria’s democratic protests into a sectarian conflict and how it will affect what comes next in Syria.
The Syrian war had its roots in the “Arab Spring” – a revolutionary wave of uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa between 2011-2012. These uprisings were born out of discontent with high unemployment, restrictions on free speech, corruption in the government, poverty, increasing food prices etc.
The uprisings began in Tunisia and once the Tunisian government fell, the revolutionary ferver spread to Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The governments in Egypt and Libya would fall in 2011 but there is still lingering turmoil five years later in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen.
The Assad government did not take well to the uprisings in Syria and harshly cracked down on the protestors. Assad’s forces began imprisoning hundreds of protestors, outright killing many and even firing on their funeral processions. Three months into the protests in April 2011 72 protestors were shot and killed by Assad’s forces, shocking the world. This marked a turning point in the uprising – what started out as demonstrations for democratic reform in Syria now changed to demanding the removal of President Bashar al-Assad.
If you’re wondering why the Syrian government would start killing its own people because of democratic protests, an important part of understanding the Syrian war is that Bashar al Assad’s violent response to the uprising was not just a random crackdown but a continuation of the Assad’s regime’s policy toward civil uprising that began with his father, Hafez al Assad.
In 1976, Hafez al-Assad had Syrian forces intervene in Lebanon’s civil war on behalf of Lebanese Christian groups who were fighting Muslim groups. The Muslim Brotherhood and Syria’s Sunni majority saw this as heresy and launched a six year civil uprising against the Assad government.
Hafez al-Assad quashed the uprisings in a particularly brutal fashion. In 1982, the Syrian government nearly leveled the city of Hama, where the opposition was strongest, slaughtering thousands of civilians in what is now called the Hama Massacre. The regime learned from this experience that mass violence was a successful response to popular unrest — a lesson that was applied particularly brutally in 2011.
“The lesson of Hama must have been at the front of the mind of every member of the Assad regime. Failure to act decisively, Hama had shown, inevitably led to insurrection. Compromise could come only after order was assured. So Bashar followed the lead of his father. He ordered a crackdown.” – William Polk, Professor of History at University of Chicago, and former advisor to JFK
The brutal crackdowns failed to intimidate or quell the popular unrest. Assad began offering political concessions to the opposition like promising a constitutional referendum, allowing a multi-party system, along with greater press freedom. He also cut taxes and raised state salaries by 1,500 Syrian pounds ($32.60) a month. However, these promises were largely dismissed by the opposition and international community as too little too late following violent crackdowns and were simply vague proposals with no concrete action.
Assad had maintained from the beginning that the Syrian uprising was one instigated by “foreign saboteurs” seeking to undermine the country’s security and stability. Indeed a 2009 WikiLeaks cable would reveal that the U.S. had been covertly funding opposition groups to Assad’s government since 2006. But what happened next would transform a mostly peaceful, secular democratic uprising into the sectarian conflict dominated by jihadi extremists today.
As Assad’s concessions failed to placate the popular unrest in the country, Assad began releasing hundreds of Syrian prisoners from jail. These were not protestors wrongfully jailed from the demonstrations, but known Islamic jihadists that were being held in the infamous Sedanya Prison (think Syria’s Guantanamo).
Two presidential amnesties were issued in 2011 where approximately 260 prisoners from Sedanya prison were released – all convicted or accused al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists. Their release would activate a terrorist infrastructure in Syria to give rise to Islamist groups like Al Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and eventually ISIS.
Up until this point, the protest movement was non-religious; it was inherently populist and nationalist in its orientation….their release opened the gates for the emergence of an Islamist component within the uprising—specifically, eventually, a militant Islamist component…it was those initial releases that allowed the quite dramatic emergence, and then growth, and then consolidation of Islamist and jihadist militancy, to acquire the kind of prominence that it has had for the last couple of years or so. – Charles Lister, Author of Syrian Jihad (and leading journalist on Syria, follow him on twitter @Charles_Lister
The move to release jihadists to dissuade foreign involvement ultimately didn’t work. The hijacking of the Syrian reform initially gave the Obama administration pauses about whether or not to arm the opposition, but our Gulf allies held no such reservations about arming hardline Islamists. Eventually the U.S. decided to go ahead and arm the Syrian opposition even when it was clear it had been overrun with extremists who were not fighting for a “democratic” or “secular” Syria.
The tendency of the U.S. to support regime change, even at the risk of empowering extremists, belies one of the most problematic aspects of American foreign policy – does the U.S. actually intervene to uphold democracy and human rights?
One needs look no farther than a similar uprising that happened across the pond in a tiny country called Bahrain. Bahrain’s demographics are almost the direct opposite of Syria’s – 60-70% of the nation is Shia but is suppressed economically and politically by the minority Sunnis who control the government.
Often called the “Forgotten Revolution” of the Arab Spring, the 2011 uprisings in Bahrain saw hundreds of thousands in the streets demanding the removal of the Al Khalifa monarchy and for more inclusive political and economic reform in the country. Like Assad, Bahrain’s leaders engaged in a brutal crackdown of the protests which included arbitrary imprisonment, torturing of prisoners, denial of medical care and out right killing of over a hundred protestors by government police.
The U.S. response could not have been more opposite than how it was in Syria.
At the onset of the protests Obama voiced support for a “dialogue initiative” between the monarchy and the opposition and to “return to a process that will result in real, meaningful changes for the people there.” After the government response turned violent, the U.S. would simply ask the Bahrain monarchy to “hold accountable” those responsible for human-rights abuses against unarmed demonstrators. That was the beginning and end of the US’s support for democracy and human rights in Bahrain.
At no point did the US call for the king of Bahrain to step down (certainly not declare the king a “war criminal” like they did for Assad) nor provide any diplomatic, humanitarian or armed support to the opposition. The US in fact went to such great lengths to AVOID looking like it supported the protestors in Bahrain that the State Department blanked a media story where the protestors stated that the United States supported them. The most direct aid the US gave to the protestors in Bahrain was when Ludovic Hood, a US embassy official, reportedly brought a box of doughnuts out to the protesters
To many observers, the lackluster response from the U.S. came as no surprise. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s critically important 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf and is one of our critical allies in deterring Iran. Not only that, Bahrain is one of the largest clients of the U.S. defense industry. Since 1993, the US defense industry has sold over $400 million dollars of arms to Bahrain and like Russia’s arms relationship with Assad, this showed no sign of letting up despite a brewing civil war.
“Starting with Bahrain, the administration has moved a few notches toward emphasizing stability over majority rule,” said a U.S. official. “Everybody realized that Bahrain was just too important to fail.”
During the Bahrain’s violent crackdown on the opposition the Obama administration tried to follow through on a $53 million arms deal to the Bahrain monarchy. Congressional Democrats sharply criticized the administration and invoked the Leahy Amendment in demanding that the U.S. halt military aid to Bahrain’s security forces due to human-rights violations.
However, the State Department was able to use a legal loophole to continue to sell the arms to Bahrain during their brutal suppression of the protests without notification to Congress or a public announcement (a small donation to the Clinton Foundation may have helped). The arms sale included a wide variety of weapons systems, ammunition, armored personnel carriers and helicopter gunships along with $70,000 worth of arms sales classified as “toxicological agents.” This began to fuel speculation that Bahrain was in fact killing its protestors using US-manufactured weaponry and with tear-gas supplied by the United States.
Bahrain’s uprising ended when Saudi Arabia’s military entered Bahrain to forcefully suppress the revolts. Human rights abuses by the Bahraini monarchy against its people continue to this day and the nation is considered the new Apartheid nation. U.S. approved arm sales continue to go to the Bahraini kingdom and anti-American resentment is sky high in the country.
Understandably Russia accused the US of setting double standards at the UN Security Council, and this was one of the main stumbling blocks to a diplomatic resolution early in the Syrian conflict. The Russians rejected the U.S. demands that Assad step down and Russia end its military alliance with Syria while the U.S. was covertly arming Assad’s opposition and was supporting Bahrain’s monarchy in its repression of a similar uprising.
“Why is the US determined to sell weapons to Bahrain after the Bahraini authorities, with help from the Saudis, suppressed the Arab Spring in Bahrain? Russia doesn’t see any problems selling weapons to Syria if the CIA and French and British secret services are shipping military hardware via Turkey to the rebels.” – Russian Defense Analyst Ruslan Pukhov
The collapse of the Syrian peace process despite numerous conferences, summits, negotiations, peace initiatives, cease-fires etc etc etc may be the most depressing part of the Syrian war. There is no one nation responsible for the collective failure of the world to let Syria implode over the last six years as international diplomacy has been characterized by relentless finger pointing, broken promises and back stabbing. There’s a chance its actually been our fault all along for not getting an achievable political solution to the Syria crisis back in 2012, but there’s a lot of blame to share really.