One of the great foreign affairs crises of the human world is the ongoing conflict in Syria. The effects of this conflict are felt everywhere, with refugees spilling into neighboring nations, as well as reaching deep into Europe. The fighting extends into Iraq, while bringing the United States, Turkey, Iran, various Gulf States, and numerous others into direct combat. It threatens to embroil and destabilize the region for years to come, and could serve as a Balkan-esque trigger for a larger war. Therefore, it is a conflict demanding understanding.
Sowing the Seeds of Civil War
Syria is an ancient nation with a rich history. I need not go through it, as it would constitute a dissertation. Being in the Fertile Crescent, Syria has been home to civilization since the beginning. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Syria became part of the French mandate, which included Lebanon. It remained under French control until after the Second World War. From independence in 1946, a long period of political instability followed, with one coup d'état after another, until 1966, when the nationalist Ba'athist Party finally secured control.
Ba'athists controlled both Syria and Iraq until the overthrow of the Iraqi faction by a coalition led by the United States in the 2003 war. Regional instability created from that war, along with strong militant groups, spread into Syria. Groups escaping American military forces carved out areas of refuge within the vast desert expanse of eastern Syria. Here they organized themselves and used their Syrian foothold to continue operations within Iraq.
Adding to instability was a long drought, which had profound effects on farming and the economy as a whole, as chief exports, aside from oil, included fruits, cotton, and grains. A series of poor harvests stagnated GDP growth, and helped increase unemployment. As more found less opportunity in Syria, greater unrest followed. Though the Ba'athist regime, led by President Bashar al-Assad attempted some ad hoc efforts of market liberalization, the Arab Spring of 2011 finally provided the inspiration and motivation for some to rise up demanding greater changes in government.
From the Arab Spring to War
Government security forces in the town of Deraa fired upon those seeking revolutionary change, including those seeking the resignation of the president, in March 2011. This violent response inspired more to join the protests, which further led to hard-handed responses from the regime. Ultimately, the protesters took up arms, though at first, to protect themselves. Once the regime found itself directly challenged by many within the general population, those militant groups, principally the Islamic State (ISIL) holding out in eastern Syria, turned their attention from Iraq toward Syria.
Syrian protesters formed rebel brigades, and found themselves joined by defectors of the Syrian Army. These rebels fought with the regime to gain control over various towns and regions. However, others saw this conflict as an opportunity to settle sectarian scores, with some Sunni groups formed to challenge Shia Alawites. Making this worse was ISIL butting into the conflict, taking on the Syrian regime as well as various rebel factions. This has led to a civil war with sides as confusing and complicated as that of the Spanish Civil War. Two different rebel groups may just as likely fight each while also taking on ISIL and the Syrian regime.
This complication, along with various changes in allegiance, makes it hard for external parties to select reliably a partner to support. The Syrian regime, ISIL, and the Kurds are the stalwarts, but then there is the Free Syrian Army and numerous independent rebel factions, as well as other militant Islamic groups like al-Nusra Front, all fighting each other. Much of the West easily chooses to oppose ISIL and defend the Kurds, but when it comes to which rebel groups to support in their fight against ISIL, the uncertainty, fickleness, and defeat makes for few strong partners. Priorities also get in the way, as the foundational purpose of most rebel groups is to challenge the regime, not third parties that have jumped into the fray. There is a saying, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". If the motivation is taking out the Syrian regime, and ISIL is fighting the Syrian regime, why risk limited resources and lives fighting both unless necessary?
As the years pass, the moderate or secular rebel groups have been losing their punch. Many have rejoined the Syrian regime, as they prefer fighting off the jihadist and foreign Islamic groups hoping to capitalize on the instability. Furthermore, with so many disparate rebellious factions, no clear alternative to President Assad even exists, so there is not one dominate alternative for rebels to support. The Kurds have their traditional regions, seeking only to defend them, while lacking a general interest in marching to Damascus. For others, the Syrian regime at least ensures a secular state along with state institutions, so the appeal is obvious when compared to Islamic extremists.
Creating a Mess
In September 2014, a US-led coalition launched air strikes inside Syria, motivated in part by a desire to help the Kurds repel a major assault on the town of Kobane. What this coalition has sought to avoid, however, is any strikes that may support the Assad regime. The West has strongly taken a position that Assad and his Ba'athist regime, like Saddam Hussein and his Ba'athist regime before them, should go. The design of the US-led strikes are to weaken both ISIL and the Assad regime, while opening opportunity for moderate rebel groups to defeat them in the field. This is a delicate balancing act, as it can be hard ensuring who receives the help, and it is a contradiction, as any strike against ISIL helps the Assad regime. Regardless, for as long as Syria is in turmoil, it provides an ongoing base for ISIL to continue destabilizing Iraq, creating further regional problems.
Confounding this is what has essentially become a proxy war. Turkey launches strikes against the Kurds, ostensibly to weaken Assad, but primarily to weaken the Kurds, whom the Turks distrust. Turkey is a NATO member and ally of the United States, while the Kurds, whom the Turks are attacking, are one of the principal parties the United States seeks to protect. Recall, it was ISIL attacks against the Kurds that first prompted direct intervention from the United States. Any Turkish attack on the Kurds indirectly helps ISIL and the Assad regime. Iran has also intervened, sending in their forces to fight ISIL and support the Shia Alawite regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Each US-led strike against ISIL helps Iranian forces on the ground in their fight against ISIL. The United States and Iran have, to say the least, a rather terse relationship. Countering this, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni nations strike the Assad regime, as well as Shia rebel groups, which indirectly helps ISIL, a Sunni Muslim extremist group. This inability to clearly pick sides and ensure a specific strategy of whom to support and whom to weaken creates odd bedfellows, and does little, in the long run, to tip the balance of power. The only certainty is that as the years pass, there are fewer and fewer moderates in the fight.
The Russians Jump In
Now, after all of this, it gets even more complicated. For many years, Syria served as an ally of the Soviet Union, while providing a base for the Soviet Navy. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc, Russia found itself with few remaining foreign bases. However, the one in Syria remained, as it does to this day. Recently, Russia has decided to begin active military support of the Assad regime, in part to ensure the lasting presence of their foreign naval base. Russia has for so long been a player in Syrian affairs and have had a physical presence there, that is should come as little surprise they would eventually act to protect those interests; though it should be said, part of this is purely an issue of domestic Russian political posturing.
With Russia now actively supporting the Assad regime, which also enjoys direct support from Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah, along with indirect support from Turkish strikes against the Kurds and the US-led strikes against ISIL, all while being challenged by various rebels and US-led strikes against it, we end up with a curious Venn diagram where everyone in the middle are both attacking and supporting each other. However, because Russia is now actively in the fight and on the wrong side, as far as the US-led coalition is concerned, it is possible clashes could erupt between the United States and Russia. It is not hard to imagine a Russian missile taking down a US aircraft in such a place.
A Humanitarian Crisis
Things are getting worse. There is one alternative for moderate Syrians beyond rejoining the regime to fend off extremists, or to live under the brutality and medievalism of them, and that is to flee the nation. Many have fled to neighboring states, such as Turkey and Jordan. However, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of refugees in camps places an enormous strain on the neighboring states. This is a tremendous humanitarian crisis and is entirely unsustainable without integration. Integration, however, means these refugees will never return to Syria, thus helping to ensure only the worst of outcomes within Syria.
The unsustainable strain on those states bordering Syria has led to many fleeing the entire region. By the hundreds of thousands, refugees are now fleeing to Europe. This is creating its own problems. Immigration is typically a wonderful thing for any nation. Refugees, however, arrive with a different frame of mind. An immigrant intends to become a citizen and join their new nation, whereas a refugee longs to return home. There are exceptions and caveats to every story, but, largely, immigrants are permanent and refugees are temporary. Germany, as a caring and kind nation, is welcoming some 800,000 Syrian refugees, a number constituting over one percent of the German population. The people of Germany deserve a Nobel Prize for their magnanimity. Yet these refugees are not German-speaking immigrants, or immigrants seeking to learn German and integrate into German society. To be sure, many will. The longer these refugees are away from Syria, the more likely they will integrate and essentially become immigrants. However, between the date of arrival and acceptance of never returning, many will likely remain a refugee community, separate and distinct from the rest of German society. They will, by necessity, rely on German social services and rely on public assistance for housing, food, and other basic needs. It will take time for many to achieve economic viability. Where the German people are magnanimous today, this could sow seeds of division within Germany society if this reliance were to persist for a great many years.
What to do about this mess? The Assad regime is guilty of war crimes. It is undemocratic, while earning a reputation of brutality. However, the refugee crisis is its own epic humanitarian issue. As are the horrors of the Islamic State and similar extremist groups controlling huge swaths of the nation. The regime, however bad, provides the institutions of a modern and secular state. Without any good options, the best option may be only to seek to end both the war and the humanitarian crisis. From there, once achieved, focus on politics. To that end, I propose the West exclusively choose targeting ISIL, regardless if such actions support Assad. The United States may draw a line at the Kurdish enclaves, but otherwise join with Iran and Russia to defeat ISIL. The remaining moderate rebel groups will likely lose in their struggle, but at least a concerted effort to take out ISIL will relieve that pressure from the rebels, while also helping Iraq and the Kurds by removing the operational advantage enjoyed by ISIL, that the Syrian conflict provides. If Assad and his regime ultimately win, and restore some kind of unified state order to Syria, the refugee crisis will end. From there, the United Nations may leverage soft power to ensure a more democratic and representative Syria. It is likely Assad has little interest in going through yet another civil war any time soon, so he may be more willing to bend if given assurances that are reasonable and to his liking. This may include a blanket pardon for war crimes. Arranging such a Devil's bargain may come from ensuring a Truth and Reconciliation program within Syria, such as that used in South Africa, to absolve rebels of any possible charges of treason. Regardless, the priorities should be the defeat of ISIL, ensuring Kurdish security, and ending the refugee crisis. All other issues, especially those concerning Assad, must be retired until a later date.