Canberra, 24 March 2014

The Civil War in Syria entered its fourth year last week, with not even the hope of an end in sight. After three years of bloodletting, there are no changes in the political landscape—Assad still remains in power and his troops have been more successful in holding back the rebels in the past few month; the Syrian army is not seeing any large scale desertions, which would indicate a loss of confidence in the regime; the possibility of a military coup against the regime is minimal; and there has not been any direct foreign military intervention. In fact, just this week the government forces retook the town of Yabroud, thereby establishing their control over the vital Damascus-Hom highway. This reversal underlined the operational weakness of the opposition and the relative strength of the Assad regime.

The misfortune of Syria is that no external power is deeply interested in ending the Civil War, a fact starkly outlined in the truth of the failure of the Geneva-II talks. However, as the UN has repeatedly told the rest of the unhearing world, a human tragedy of humongous proportion is unfolding in Syria. The tragedy is three fold—it is a humanitarian disaster; it is a political nightmare with no solution in sight; and it is a Civil War prolonged by the inertia that stops a political solution from being enacted. The fact that scores of jihadists have descended on Syria, committed to fight against any political agreement that does not create an Islamic state, and regularly fighting each other to promote their own peculiar, predominantly religious agendas makes the situation untenable. More importantly, it also prolongs the war as the fighting is no longer focused on its initial single purpose—the overthrow of a dictatorial regime. A protracted Civil War almost always descends into chaos with no party able to gain a decisive advantage, an essential criterion to achieve victory. Syria crossed that threshold more than a year ago.

Geo-political Background

Even before the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 created the current state of Syria, the name was used by traders to indicate the stretch of land bounded by the Mediterranean in the west, the vast desert in the east, the Taurus Mountains in the north, and the Sinai Peninsula in the south. In the European nations the area was known as the Levant and to the Arabs as Bilad al-Sham ‘land to the left’ of Islam’s holy sites in the Arabian Peninsula. Syria was always surrounded by more powerful neighbours, so much so that in pre-modern history it was truly independent only twice—first, between 310 and 141 B.C when it was ruled by the Hellenic Seleucid dynasty from their capital at Antioch (modern town of Antakya in Turkey) as part of their empire; and second, from 661 to 749 A.D. when the Ummayad Caliphate ruled from Damascus. At all other times Syria has been too weak and fragmented to hold its own independent identity. The geography of the country is conducive to the support of minorities that can segregate themselves and also defend their small areas since a narrow coastline abruptly rises into mountains and plateaus where isolation is imminently possible. Within this terrain, Damascus is essentially a fortress capital.

The demography has varied with the ruling dynasty with Eastern Orthodox Christian dominating during the early times followed by Shiite Muslims and then the influx of Sunnis who went on to become the majority sect. However, minority sects have always flourished in Syria, making it a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country. After the French were given the mandate to rule, they engaged in a strategy of minority manipulation to retain control over the region—favouring the Maronite Christians in Lebanon and a group called Nusayris, renamed Alawites, in Syria. By the time of the French withdrawal at the end of the mandate in 1943, the Syrian military was almost completely officered by the Alawites. It was not difficult for Hafiz al-Assad, the father of the current President, to carry out a coup and establish an Alawite rule in 1970.

The Current Situation

All actions that have been initiated to bring the fighting to a stop have floundered on the stand-off between the United States and Russia. There was no agreement even on the issue of the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, even though the US had claimed that this was the proverbial Red Line that was not to be crossed. The almost unconditional Russian support for the Syrian government could be part of a broader deal between the two countries and could play out in the future. No workable solution is possible without at least a tacit agreement between the two main players—US and Russia—and such a situation does not seem even remotely possible, particularly given the recent events in Ukraine.

That is not to say that Assad is in a pretty position, far from it. The Arab League wants him to step down with only Algeria and Iraq opposing the move. Further, Qatar and Saudi Arabia openly provide economic and military support to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as well as to some other jihadist groups. The US, UK, France, Turkey, and Jordan also support the FSA by providing materiel without any other commitment or even promise of it. Turkey and Jordan also provide the base for regime defectors from Syria. On the other hand, Assad has complete diplomatic support on the world stage from both Russia and China. In addition his government gets direct support from the Lebanese arm of the Hezbollah, who fight side-by-side with Syrian military forces, military advisory and materiel support from Iran, and military equipment from Russia. Of equal importance, Syria has an effective network of agents and informers that provides it advance notice of any major offensives at the planning stage itself. While the Kurds are divided internally, they have so far been supporting Assad in return for a promised better deal in the future.

In comparison the opposition is an unholy mix of disparate characters vying with each other for control over the Civil War and in the bargain driving down the effectiveness through breaking up even the limited cohesiveness that they possessed initially. The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCROF) that represents the Syrian diaspora is riddled with internal dissention. They are in disagreement with the FSA and splintered in October 2013 in the lead-up to the Geneva-II talks. Another section, the Syrian National Council (SNC), are essentially Islamists and have laid down the pre-condition that Assad must be removed before any talks can be attempted. Obviously this is not an acceptable demand for either the Syrian government or its supporters Russia and Iran.

In close to three years that they have been fighting, the FSA has not articulated any strategy for winning the war. They are hampered by the presence of a number of independent Islamist and/or jihadist groups fighting in the Levant to achieve their own narrow and sectarian, religious goals. The biggest drawback in the opposition is that they have not been able to create a politically viable alternative to the Assad regime that could take on the mantle of administration if the current government were to be removed. There is a sense of anxiety within the normal populace regarding a post-Assad future. The overt Islamic fundamentalism displayed, and enforced in areas under their control, by a number of opposition groups and the affiliation of a major group to al-Qaeda has disconcerted the minorities who fear that their attitude to ethnic and religious minorities will only harden for the worse as time goes by. The nation is destabilised by such issues and this only reinforces Assad’s credentials. The common people are now in the throes of despondency and conflict fatigue.

Syrians of all persuasions have always been tolerant and in fact proud of the multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-cultural facet of their country. Therefore, when the group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al-Qaeda affiliate till a few months back, started to impose their version of Islamic righteousness on the people of the areas that they had captured from the government forces, starting with enforcing the wearing of headscarves and the abaya even by minor school-going girls, the discomfiture of the people was palpable. Further, they have shut down schools in which there were not sufficient women teachers to educate girls—a direct targeting of girls to keep them away from education and the freedom that comes with it. A number of families have opted to move out of these areas into neighbouring countries in order to ensure that the children are educated. In any religious and sectarian war it is education that is affected the most and the earliest.

Assad has proven himself to be an autocratic and when necessary, ruthless ruler. However, the opposition—in all its different guises, groups and affiliates—have also proven to be equally callous regarding the plight of the common people. Each of these groups functions autonomously and pursues their own agenda and religious compulsions. This has led to vicious infighting between the groups and to the loss of any cohesion in the opposition to the Government. The Assad regime more than takes advantage of this situation.

So what are the choices that Western powers have, assuming that they are still interested in being involved? A negotiated settlement is a pipedream, given the players and their agenda as well as the prevailing circumstances. The challenges of an on-going Civil War are many and intensely visible—the conflict itself could spill over to neighbouring nations; Syria has already become a partial safe haven for extreme elements of the jihadist movement; it can rapidly become a launch pad for al-Qaeda operations into other less volatile parts of the Middle East; it is estimated that there are at least 7500 foreign fighters currently in Syria and that they harbour small cells preparing to attack Europe; and Saudi Arabia is on edge regarding the possibility of al Qaeda supported radicals triggering activities in the already restive kingdom.

Viewed purely in an academic manner, the contrast between the Syrian policies of the US and Russia is stark. The US is generally accepted as a ‘Great Nation’ and Russia is clearly aspiring to achieve the same status, sooner rather than later. Russia has been steadfast in its support for Syria, a long term ally. Great nations do not abandon their friends, especially when they are in trouble! There is an element of self-interest also, they want to protect their naval base in the region. Russia has repeatedly declared that if Assad is defeated, Islamic fundamentalism will get a large foothold in the region, which will then be used as a launching pad for further activities into Europe and Russia. It believes that the spread and impact of Islamic radicalism is not being taken seriously enough by the Western powers. In contrast, the US has advanced the idea of a negotiated settlement to the War with Russian help, but with the caveat that Assad be removed from the equation. No idea could be more far-fetched. The only influence the Russian’s have is with Assad, and when he is removed from the equation, Russian influence is also neutralised. The US wants to deal with selected opposition groups, although till now they have not been clear about who the ‘good’ groups are and who the ‘bad’ people are! Essentially, the US wants to have a deciding role in the future of the Levant without assuming responsibility for the consequences. This is a familiar refrain that the US has been playing for the past few decades! This time around the other nations involved are not going to be taken in by the repeated overplay of US rhetoric. In any situation, here can be no authority without reciprocal responsibility—a lesson that has come home to roost in US foreign policy. If a major US-led military intervention is ruled out, as it seems at the time of writing, it just may be that the US does not have any significant role to play in the Syrian Civil War any longer. As the foremost military and economic power, which has been striding across the world at will, stamping not on toes but on whole feet, this may be a particularly difficult pill to digest. Perhaps the lesson to take forward is that a Great Nation must also know how to behave like one!

Under these circumstances, with the assured political assistance of Russia and the military successes of the past few months, the Assad government has no incentive to concede power or even enter into negotiations. While the US demands that Assad step down as a precondition to facilitating any meaningful negotiation, they are simultaneously negotiating with Iran, Assad’s principle supporter, to bring that recalcitrant nation back into the fold of the international community. The two initiatives are at odds within the US’s own diverse interests, which makes one believe that the US foreign policy in the Middle East is in a state of flux—confused, to say the least. Iran, in an attempt to continue the US-dialogue, is likely to adopt a more hands-off role in the Syrian War. If such a situation ensues, Syria will be the big winner—continuing to get military support but with limited oversight. The Saudi Arabian support for the opposition, while on-going, is selective and is therefore unlikely to focus the opposition on the primary aim of ousting the current rule. In effect, the West can no longer even pretend to be writing Syria’s future, as they have done so often in the past. That window of opportunity to have initiated decisive action has come and gone.

In this scenario, Assad is gradually being seen as victorious by an increasingly beleaguered people—after all he averted a direct confrontation with a belligerent US-led West even after it was alleged that he used chemical weapons against his own people. There is an emerging point of view that the military triumph of the Assad State is the only viable end-state that will stop the War. This view is strengthened by the fact that any kind of power sharing arrangement will be impossible both functionally and theoretically. The lack of a comprehensive Syria strategy, which could be at least partially acceptable to both factions, prevents any progress is addressing the imbroglio. In the absence of such a ‘Syria strategy’ any strategy to bring peace to the Middle East will also fail. In essence the US-led Western allies and Russia are playing a zero sum game.

Humanitarian Disaster

While the greater powers of the world are busy playing politics, there is a humanitarian disaster that has already unfolded in Syria and continues to become larger. Within the country, both sides of the war have taken actions that amount to war crimes as well as genocide, without the international community doing anything to prevent them other than to ‘protest’. Many of the refugees from Syria, now flocking to all neighbouring countries and many of whom have not been to any place outside of Syria, now say that the violence being meted out by the Islamist forces have no parallel in their memory; and some of those memories are long—from World war I, the French Mandate and the Baath Party’s harsh reign. However, the Western world, so eager to intervene in oil rich nations even as late as in 2011, have expressed a distinct distaste to do so in this case. The humanitarian suffering in Syria is actually much more than it ever was in the case of Libya, where NATO forces physically intervened with alacrity to overthrow the Gadhafi regime and kill the dictator as well as his two sons. Does this mean that the much-touted concept of ‘the responsibility to protect’ was only a fig leaf to cover the actual intent of removing an unsavoury and thorn-in-the-side dictator? Was it a pre-calculated, Western conceptualised operation meant to recapture the fading glory of the European nations? The answer to both these questions, based on the same nations’ silence regarding Syria, will sadly have to be in the affirmative.

In the past three years, more than nine million Syrians have been displaced and the neighbouring countries have been overwhelmed by the flow of refugees. In any civil war it is the non-combatant civilians—the old, infirm, women and children—that bear the brunt of the violence and it is so in Syria too. Of greater and critical significance, large parts of Syrian cities and towns have been devastated and therefore, even if the war ends today, the refugees have no place to go back to in their own country. A conservative estimate puts the rebuilding cost at $ 100 billion in today’s currency and this bill will only go up with each day of conflict. The majority of refugees have fled to Lebanon and Jordan. It is estimated that 25% of people living in Lebanon today are Syrians; and they constitute 10% of the Jordanian population. These are unsustainable figures by any standards of normality. In this situation, Jordan is also dealing with its intrinsic worries regarding radical elements coming into the kingdom disguised as refugees. Additionally, before the Civil War Syria was itself the refuge of a large number of displaced Palestinians who have now become refugees again. Refugees twice over! One is constrained to ask of an international community that wears its heart on its sleeves (albeit at their own convenience, as is being clearly demonstrated) as to what is their responsibility towards the innocent people affected by this mindless conflict.


Full three years after the conflict began, it is not a Syrian Revolution anymore; it has evolved into a conflict that engulfs not only Syria but also Iraq and Lebanon, with the potential for the theatre of conflict to grow even larger. Currently pro-Iranian forces dominate the area of conflict, which means that the majority Sunnis are still marginalised, a situation that is likely to make any peace initiative untenable. The Syrian War is complex. The Government forces and the plethora of groups that constitute the opposition are supported by external powers. However, none of the support is of the quality and quantity to become a decisive factor in tilting the balance of power sufficiently to create a winning side. Without a clear winner in the conflict, it can carry on indefinitely—even as long as 10 or 15 years.

For now, Assad will survive and continue to fight a status quo conflict. It is highly unlikely that he will be able to ‘liberate’ the entire country and bring it back to its pre-conflict sovereignty. At the same time the opposition will continue to be divided, fighting and killing each other as well as the Government forces with the fortunes of war swinging either way in random, unpredictable ways. The war will not end, at least in the immediate future.

Societies can never be reordered from the outside; the changes, whether evolutionary or revolutionary, has to always come from within. This is an echo of the peoples’ manifest right to choose their own destiny—the basis on which the human kind has so far flourished. In this broader scheme, the role of the military and of physical combat is temporary and the solution that such conflicts bring, only transitory. It is saddening to witness the Syrian people, an ancient and proud race, gradually forfeiting their right to be masters of their own destiny. Is the world even watching? Does it care?

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2014]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)


  1. Sanu great work. Often read your Indian History.

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