Smoke rises in the Syrian village of Kafr Ain in the southern countryside of Idlib province after an air strike on September 7. Photo: AFP/Anas al-Dyab
Smoke rises in the Syrian village of Kafr Ain in the southern countryside of Idlib province after an air strike on September 7. Photo: AFP/Anas al-Dyab

In a few months, the Syrian civil war – the “Great Syrian Civil War,” as I call it – will enter its eighth year. The conflict was sparked in April 2011 by the general wave of massive protests against the former regional order in the Middle East that swept over the region and led to the overthrow of autocratic leaders: Ben Ali in Tunisia (Jasmine Revolution) in January 2011, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya (October 2011) and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in February the same year.

But as one can observe, while the overthrow of the leaders of the aforementioned countries occurred very quickly – in two or three months – the Syrian civil war continues relentlessly with tremendous geopolitical repercussions for the whole region in terms of security and stability. But why did the Syrian paradigm prove to be very different from the aforementioned paradigms? There were definitely differences in terms of duration but also in terms of destructive consequences.

Geopolitics and geo-strategies meet

The answer lies in two basic elements: the geopolitical position of Syria at the perimeter (Rimland) of Eurasia and its border adjacency with Israel. These two factors proved to be catalytic for what occurred there. More analytically, the geopolitical position of Syria traditionally attracted the involvement of great powers. Russia’s diachronic strategic goal was to descend to the hot waters of the Mediterranean.

Syria aligned with Russia during the Cold War and a prominent feature of the so-called “Arab Cold War” fulfilled the Russian regional Grand Strategy. Tartus base, built in 1971, offered and offers Russia an outlet to the Mediterranean, while at the same time gives Moscow the opportunity to broaden its influence in the region.

The other factor is the geo-strategies of great and regional powers. The US and some Sunni states had and still have as a primary goal to weaken the Shia axis (Iran, Hezbollah plus Alevi Assad) in the region that puts constant pressure on Israel. In this regard, they supported the armed opposition against President Bashar al-Assad.

However, their actions underestimated two interconnected issues: who exactly comprised the opposition, and the political will of Russia to defend its proxy in the Middle East. From this moment, Pandora’s box opened.

What started as a popular protest against Assad’s rule in Syria became a destructive war of attrition between superpowers and their proxies, with hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees. Moreover, the Syrian Civil War gave birth to a “monster,” the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

In sum, while the Arab Spring became the Arab Winter for the region, as regards Syria it became an Arab snowstorm.

Regional changes in the balance of power

As already mentioned, great powers underestimated the jihadist threat in Syria and Iraq, leaving a power vacuum to be filled by ISIS, a fundamentalist terrorist organization that made formidable gains in Iraq and Syria.

Another consequence was the effort of the Syrian Kurds to carve out regional autonomy. Diachronically, they were trying to exploit regional instability in order to promote their self-determination. However, their actions alarmed Ankara, which suffers from Sèvres Syndrome and views them as a PKK offshoot. Turkey finally invaded Syria in January 2018 and captured Afrin canton.

Notwithstanding the fact that Russia and Turkey came close to an armed confrontation in November 2015 after the downing of a Russian aircraft by the Turkish air force, the two countries repaired their relations and started to collaborate on the Syrian civil war. This occurred despite the fact that they support different sides in the conflict.

Great-power games and regional reactions

US President Donald Trump’s arrival on the scene seemed to differentiate the strategic landscape, especially when he ordered the bombing of a Syrian airbase on April 7, 2017, in response to a chemical attack on a Syrian village attributed by the American administration to Assad.

A year later, France, the UK and the US carried out missile strikes against government sites in Damascus, again in response to a suspected chemical attack in the Syrian town of Duma attributed to the Assad regime. However, Russia’s involvement in the war in September 2015 proved decisive in the sense that it drastically changed the local balance of power and saved Assad’s rule. At the same time, it put particular constraints on further action by other powers since this could lead to further escalation and confrontation between superpowers.

Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran adds another element of uncertainty in the region, as Israel periodically attacks sites in Syria that it claims are used by Tehran or Hezbollah.

Syria’s future is uncertain

In any case, great and regional powers in Syria walk on a tightrope while the local and regional balance of power is in a very precarious condition. The Idlib Agreement between Russia and Turkey that created a buffer zone in the province has forestalled a humanitarian tragedy and perhaps a collision between regional and major powers. Notwithstanding the whole problem is far from solved.

The United Nations yet again proved it is unable to contribute to any conflict resolution because the superior aggregate might of the great powers and their geo-strategic interests undermined the procedure from the very beginning.

On the other hand, the Astana process (initiated in January 2017) among Russia, Turkey and Iran (which created four deescalation zones) does not guarantee any positive results for the final settlement of the conflict, since it is being carried out by powers that are trying to promote and conciliate clashing interests. Moreover, the opposition does not seem ready to accept the process with Iran as a guarantor power and out of fear that it will stray from its target of an overall and comprehensive plan that will lead to a political transition without Assad.

From what has been mentioned in this analysis one understands how precarious the situation is in the war-torn country and why the conflict has been prolonged so much, leading to the “Great Syrian Civil War.”

Nicos Panayiotides

Dr Nicos Panayiotides is the head of the Geostrategic Observatory of the Middle East (GEOPAME), journalist and assistant professor of political studies at American College in Nicosia. He is also Research Associate at the Center for Oriental Studies (Panteion University). His academic interests focus on the Cyprus problem, Middle East politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is author of several scientific publications in academic journals and four books on the Cyprus and Palestinian problems.

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