(Some of) What You Need To Know: Syrian Conflict

by Jared Feldman

(Some of) What You Need To Know: Syrian Conflict

This week, we have made an addition to the banner on this mailing: it now reads “(Some of) What You Need To Know: Syrian Conflict.” The addition of the qualifier “Some of” reflects the complexity of the ongoing conflict in Syria and the difficulty in understanding roles of the many players who are involved. To get an elementary feel for how complicated the situation is, take a look at this graphic designed by Slate. 

It also indicates that we have not taken a policy stand on Syria other than on the refugee crisis; here is a link to our resolution, which we passed at JCPA’s 2015 annual meeting. We understand that some of you have already taken or plan to take policy positions on the conflict; it is our hope that this document will give you some of the basic information that you might need to make these decisions.

Quick background to the conflict:

  • What began in 2011 as a protest against the government of Bashar al-Assad and was understood in the context of the regional “Arab Spring” devolved into a sectarian conflict that has pulled in a number of external actors, both regional and international.
  • Expert estimates of the death toll range from 250,000-400,000. Millions of people have either been internally displaced or made refugees.
  • Syrian refugees are part of the global refugee crisis that includes some 60 million displaced people, primarily from the Middle East and Africa, but also from other parts of the world.
  • Much of the world has focused on the refugees who have made their way to Europe. Part of this is because European governments have not been able to agree on how to deal with the issue. Other concerns are the possibility of terrorist elements that might make their way to the country while hidden in the flood of refugees and some of the differences in cultural norms between Europe and the home countries of the refugees.
  • The bulk of the refugees from Syria have been displaced to neighboring countries: Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon among them. A number of these countries have been stretched to the breaking point by the financial, security, and other responsibilities that are part of refugee acceptance and resettlement.
  • The United States has, to date, taken in approximately 2000 Syrian refugees. Americans’ fears about Syrian refugees are similar to those of Europeans (see bullet point above). However, there are numerous groups (such as HIAS) that are actively trying to influence the government to take in more refugees.
  • Those who have been critical of the United States’ involvement (or lack thereof) in Syria have pointed to the massive human suffering that the conflict has engendered. Many have speculated on what the United States and others could do to alleviate the problem. For instance, click here for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s series on whether or not the US should get involved by creating no-fly zones to protect civilians.

The major players involved in the conflict:

  • The Assad government is dominated by the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. 
  • His government is supported by regional actors such as Iran, which sent its Quds Force, the external wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, to fight against rebel groups. The Lebanese Shi’ite group Hizballah is involved as well. The Iran-Syria-Hizballah axis is a primary concern of the Israeli government.
  • Russia began airstrikes in September of last year against the radical Islamist group known variously as ISIS/ISIL/Daesh and also Jabat al-Nusra, an affiliate of al-Qaeda in Syria. While its stated policy is to target these radical groups, the bombings also appear to target rebel groups that oppose the Assad government. Russia offers a variety of military support for the Assad government, which is in keeping with its historical support for the Syrian regime. The former Soviet Union had a particularly strong alliance with the Syrian government under Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father, and his Ba’athist party. 
  • There are a wide multitude of rebel groups comprising independent entities and coalitions that oppose the Assad government and are mostly followers of Sunni Islam. The characteristics of the groups’ followers range widely; some are seen as “moderate” in their religious and political viewpoint by the US government, but others are not. One of the challenges facing those who wish to support the rebels is what the definition of “moderate” means in this context. While these groups are almost always opposed to the radical Islamist group ISIS/ISIL/Daesh, some of them have a more open relationship with Jabat al-Nusra, an affiliate of al-Qaeda in Syria. Some of these rebel groups also openly fight with each other. Interested in more information? Click here for a detailed analysis of these groups.
  • There are 30 million Kurds who live in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. While there was talk of forming an independent Kurdistan after World War I, when many national lines in the Middle East were drawn, this did not come to pass. The Turks—along with the Syrian, Iraqi, and Iranian governments—have long suppressed Kurdish nationalism, fearing that it would lead to the fragmentation of their respective countries.  

o Kurds in Turkey: Of the 14 million Kurds living in Turkey, many are politically and economically integrated into Turkish society. However, The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been at war on Turkey since the mid-1980s; attempts at a peace process between the PKK and the Turkish government that began in 2013 were abandoned last summer. 

o Kurds in Iraq: The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq is led by Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The KDP controls Erbil and Dohuk provinces. The “Union of Kurdistan” (PUK) is run by the Talabani family and controls the province of Sulaymaniyah. These two parties went to war in the 1990s. 

o Kurds in Syria: The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) holds territory in the north of Syria, close to the Turkish border. There are also the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that were set up by the PKK, the PYD, and the PUK after the war began.

o Confused? That’s understandable. Take a look at this article that asks: who are the Kurds?

  • Two radical Islamist groups that are designated as terrorist groups are Jabat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syra, and ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. While both groups are Sunni, they diverge in some of their goals and tactics.  Click here for an article in the Atlantic explaining some of the major differences between these two groups. *This article has engendered quite a bit of discussion amongst journalists, pundits, and others. If you are interested, I suggest doing a search for responses that either support or critique the article.*
  • Iraq is linked to the Syrian conflict for a number of reasons. For instance, some point to the failings of the Iraqi Shi’ite-led government after the fall of Saddam Hussein, especially that government’s oppression of and refusal to share power with Sunnis, as a contributing factor in the rise of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. Additionally, because ISIS/ISIL/Daesh believes in the restoration of a caliphate (an empire led by a caliph, the highest sovereign official in the Muslim world who wields both religious and state power), the radical group now controls contiguous sections of Iraq and Syria that, some contend, render the border between the two countries porous and nearly obsolete.
  • The United States has offered limited military assistance to some of the rebel groups and coalitions and also to the Kurds: for instance, fifty U.S. Special Operations ground forces were sent to Syria in October to support Kurdish fighting forces. The US also acts in a coalition with other countries to conduct air strikes against ISIS/ISIL/Daesh in Operation Inherent Resolve. Coalition nations that have conducted strikes in Iraq include Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Jordan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. Coalition nations that have conducted strikes in Syria include Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States.
  • Other regional players who influence the fighting include Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, all majority-Sunni nations that oppose the Assad regime – and its alliance with Iran. In terms of rebel factions, the Saudis support Salafist groups, while the Turks and Qatar lean more toward Muslim Brotherhood groups.  Turkey is also is at odds with Syrian Kurds (see “Contradictions” below). 

Contradictions:

  • The United States and Russia work together in some instances but not in others. Both are opposed to the radical Islamist groups ISIS/ISIL/Daesh Jabat al-Nusra. They also worked together on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Agreement (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program. However, the US backs some moderate Syrian rebel groups and Russia supports the Assad regime. Russia and Turkey have a long history of animosity, while the US and Turkey are NATO allies (even if they have their own disagreements). And the US and other European countries have imposed sanctions on Russia for their incursions into Eastern Ukraine, a conflict that has, to date, killed 9000-10,000 people.
  • Turkey, the Kurds, and the United States have a complicated relationship. 

o Of the 14 million Kurds living in Turkey, many are politically and economically integrated into Turkish society. However, The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been at war on Turkey since the mid-1980s; attempts at a peace process between the PKK and the Turkish government that began in 2013 were abandoned last summer. 

o The Turkish government has positive relations with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq but does not have close relations with the “Union of Kurdistan” (PUK) in Iraq. 

o The KDP is not supportive of the PKK in Turkey, but the PUK is.

o The PKK and the PUK support the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. The KDP does not.

o Previous to the Syrian conflict, the United States designated the PKK a terrorist organization, which pleased Turkey. However, the US supports the YPG in Syria because its units have proven effective at fighting ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. This angers Turkey, which sees the YPG as a supporter of the PKK. Turkey also fears the creation of an autonomous Turkish region, supported by the PYD and YPG, on its border with Syria. The YPG is also coordinating with the Russians.

o Confused? That’s understandable. Take a look at this interactive info guide on the Kurdish people.

  • The United States and Iran came together last year in uneasy agreement on the future of Iran’s nuclear program (the JCPOA). They are also both opposed to radical Islamist groups whose followers are adherents of Sunni Islam (Iran is a majority Shi’ite nation). However, many of those who oppose the JCPOA warn against a too-friendly association with Iran in fighting these radical groups, in part because doing so will alienate more traditional American allies such as Saudi Arabia. And the US is still opposed to Iran’s human rights violations at home, its support of terrorist groups, and its destabilizing activities in the region.
  • Saudi Arabia has traditionally been one of the United States’ closest allies in the Arab world. The Saudis and other Gulf nations have expressed their concerns that the US is drawing closer to Iran (see bullet point above). At the same time, the US is aware that Saudi Arabia’s Wahabist interpretation of Islam has been exported around the globe and has helped to inspire radical Islamist ideology that informs groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS/ISIL/Daesh; consequently, the Saudis have shown some ambivalence about the ISIS/ISIL/Daesh threat. 
  • Turkey, too, is belatedly recognizing the scope of the danger that ISIS/ISIL/Daesh poses, and has been accused of being less than diligent about keeping foreign fighters from crossing the border into Syria to join with the radical Islamist group. Recently, though, the US has seen an increase in cooperation with Turkey to stem the flow of foreign militants. Turkey has also suffered several suicide bombing attacks, and both ISIS/ISIL/Daesh and the PKK have been implicated, albeit in separate attacks.

A few words about the cease fire:

  • The current cease fire, which went into effect on Friday, February 26, is holding, despite allegations of sporadic violations on both sides. In areas covered by the partial-truce, 135 deaths have been recorded, while regions not included in the agreement have witnessed 562 deaths.
  • ISIS/ISIL/Daesh and Jabat al-Nusra are excluded from the cease fire and thus seen as fair targets for air strikes by Russia or the US-led coalition.
  • During this lull in the fighting, widespread protests against the Assad regime have spread around the country. Aid workers are also working to supply food and other necessary items to besieged areas.  
  • Peace talks are tentatively scheduled to begin again this week in Geneva under UN auspices. Some opposition groups are refusing to participate because they are dissatisfied with the implementation of the current cease fire.
  • Saudi Arabia insists that Assad must step down as a pre-condition to any peace deal, while Russia and Iran support his continued tenure as Syria’s president. The US and other Western governments appear to have backed away from their previous demands that Assad relinquish his office. 

Related conflicts:

  • The civil war in Yemen is seen by some as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The dynamics of this conflict are also terribly complicated; a perhaps too-simple understanding is that the Saudis are backing the current government, which is Sunni, while the Iranians are backing the Shi’ite Houthi rebels. For more information on the war in Yemen, click here.
  • The civil war raging in Libya is seen as the next potential site for American intervention in the region. Critics of our current military strategy to combat ISIS/ISIL/Daesh in Syria and Iraq point to one unintended effect: suppressing the group in that area may well have led to their increased presence in Libya. For more information on the war in Libya, click here. The New York Times has also published a three-part series on Libya entitled “The Libya Gamble.” Here is a link to the latest article in the series.

About the Author


Jared Feldman