After 400 years of Ottoman rule, the region now known as Syria was detached from the dying empire by French and British troops a hundred years ago. After a complex series of maneuvers Syria ended up as a French mandate under the League of Nations mandate system, while the British became the mandate power in Palestine (then including both banks of the Jordan River) and Mesopotamia, now Iraq.
After the end of World War II, Syria became independent in 1946, an event followed by 24 years of total instability, including a four-year period during which there were 10 governments and four constitutions and another few years in which Syria was united with Egypt.
In 1970 General Hafez al-Assad took over during yet another coup and succeeded in finally bringing some degree of stability to the country, through the brutal repression of any manifestation of opposition activity, a repression that included the destruction through artillery bombardment of the city of Hama.
After his death, Assad was succeeded by his son Bashar (an ophthalmologist trained in London), who despite widespread hopes of liberalization proved as authoritarian as his father. In 2011, during the initial stage of the so-called Arab Spring, an uprising took place in southern Syria, which quickly spread throughout the country and which is ongoing today, eight years later.
A couple of years ago, in preparation for giving a talk about the Syrian situation, I counted 32 groups, factions, militias, parties and countries, besides the remnants of the Syrian government, involved in what had become a never-ending civil war. Since then, the Assad regime, on the brink of defeat, has been rescued by the intervention of Russia and Iran for their own disparate reasons.
Russia, for the first time in its history, has succeeded in realizing a centuries-long ambition, to penetrate the Mediterranean in a secure fashion, with air and naval bases on the Syrian coast, which no government of Syria would dare to touch. Iran, meanwhile, is involved in the establishment of a corridor of influence stretching through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean, sometimes denominated the “northern arc” of Shiite domination, confronting a “southern arc” of Sunni powers, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
Meanwhile Turkey, which initially supported armed opposition groups in Syria, has been through a tortured series of twists and turns, sometimes confronting and sometimes supporting both Iran and Russia, while trying to prevent the establishment of a Syrian-Kurdish state in northeastern Syria like the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq.
Meanwhile Israel, concerned with the safety of its borders with Lebanon and Syria, has been carrying out multiple bombing runs to impede Iranian convoys with supplies and military equipment destined primarily for Hezbollah, the largest and most powerful terrorist organization in the region, which in effect controls Lebanon and which has supported Assad from the beginning of the civil war.
Currently, the Assad regime controls most of western and central Syria, while there is a jihadist-controlled enclave in the northwest, led by the local al-Qaeda affiliate. The eastern desert still has small areas dominated by the remnants of ISIS, and the Kurds, allied with Sunni militias and assisted by Western military advisers, occupy the northeastern region of the country.
Into this mess, US President Donald Trump’s announcement of a pull-out from Syria of the 2,000 or so American military advisers and trainers, coupled with a major buildup of Turkish forces on the northeastern border, has given rise to the likelihood of increased Russian and Iranian operations, unhindered by the presence of Western forces, as well as Turkish military action against the Kurds and their allies.
Although in the meantime Trump has typically walked back his decision, at least to some extent, declaring that withdrawal would not be immediate and would take place in any case, in such a way as to protect the Kurds from Turkish attack, that statement was immediately rejected by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
So, two other failed states to go along with Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan in the Middle East-North Africa region (MENA). So what? Iraq has shown that a failed state can pull itself together again (with a great deal of outside help) and Syria may be on track to do the same if Assad succeeds in reuniting the country he himself is responsible for wrecking, including hundreds of thousands of dead civilians and millions of displaced persons, both inside and outside the country, a humanitarian disaster of monumental proportions, largely ignored by the Western world, except when the refugees penetrate European countries.
But again, so what? The answer is that there is a reason that the region now known as Syria and Lebanon has been an arena of endless conflict since ancient times, namely that it is a crossroads of civilizations, empires and ethnicities and always has been. Its strategic position, between the Turkish and Arab worlds, the Sunni and Shiite worlds, and the Jewish and Muslim worlds is unsurpassed in strategic significance, beyond that of any other place in the world.
That being the case, what can be expected? In short, continued diplomatic, political, economic and military maneuvering by all the interested parties: Iran, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, with an enfeebled Europe looking on helplessly and China actively increasing its involvement through trade and investment.
In short, we can expect that Syria will continue to be a bone of contention for the foreseeable future, as it has always been in the past. If Israel can prevent an all-out attack by Hezbollah with Iranian support, if US pressure can prevent a major Turkish incursion in the east, if domestic pressures and Russian competition can force the Iranian regime to reduce its push westward and if President Vladimir Putin’s adventurism is diverted elsewhere, there is hope that US withdrawal from the Syrian theater (if it in fact takes place) will not be the disaster that Barack Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq was (which gave rise to ISIS and almost destroyed Iraq).
This is not an impossible combination of events, but at the same time it is by no means inevitable.
Whatever happens, that is why Syria is important.