Syria is the epicentre of a modern 'Thirty Years' War



© Moises Saman/Magnum Photos: Syria. Aleppo. 2013. Residents of the former embattled rebel-held district of Salahedin walk on a street during a funeral procession for a rebel fighter killed earlier in the day.

© Moises Saman/Magnum Photos: Syria. Aleppo. 2013. Residents of the former embattled rebel-held district of Salahedin walk on a street during a funeral procession for a rebel fighter killed earlier in the day.

Since Syria's war ignited in 2011,  the country has become a bizarre global battlefield, a violent amalgamation of past and future and a microcosm of advanced and asymmetric warfare. The conflict is a modern 'Thirty Years' War' with a deadly mixture of crises, the consequences of which have become a tragedy for millions of innocent men, women and children. In 2018, seven years into the conflict, Syria's descent continues and recent developments have accelerated the violence and suffering of its people and deepened the regional crisis. Whether this surge in fighting hastens the end of the war or extends it remains to be seen. 

The so-called Islamic State or Daesh, an acronym for ad-Dawla al-Islamiya fi’l-Iraq wa al-Sham, but at the same time an Arabic term meaning “the one who sows discord”, was a poisonous symptom of a wider regional war in the Greater Middle East, one which has been hugely costly in human life and raging for several generations. The collapse of its self proclaimed caliphate after a brief but bloody war in Iraq and Syria was one piece of a complex battlefield where many vendettas, geo-political conflicts and feuds have taken root. Syria's war, the 21st century's worst so far and stretching into its seventh year, is one amongst many cutting deeply into the the Middle East’s social and economic crises, demographic layout and its political fabric. A string of wars in the region,  stretched across the 20th and 21st century,  have affected millions of lives and at times have been pitiless. 


Syria is not alone in its predicament- numerous wars have, and still are taking place in the region over the last few decades. The Gulf Wars stretching from Iran and Iraq's deadly war of attrition in the 1980s to the war with Daesh have torn Iraq to the ground. In Yemen, multiple civil wars, first in North Yemen, then in a now unified Yemen have killed thousands and left 22.2 million in need of humanitarian assistance. Lebanon was ripped apart by a civil war which split Beirut in two and left 150,000 dead and was left deeply affected by multiple invasions and occupations of the country by both Israel and Syria. Libya lies broken by the suppression of Muammar Gadaffi's dictatorship and the current war between insurgents and two governments. Gangs, traffickers and militias roam with impunity, selling immigrants and refugees in the market like slaves. A new authoritarianism grips Egypt, and the Sinai - once a battleground in the Arab-Israeli conflict - is a source of grave instability where jihadist fighters ransack mosques and butcher its inhabitants within as the Egyptian army and police respond with bullets and bombs of their own combine this with suffocating repression at home. Israel and Palestine have been shaken to its core by two Intifadas while a punishing blockade and multiple wars in Gaza wedded to a draconian occupation of the West Bank have tortured the Palestinian people and eaten away at the stability of Israeli society. Turkey's war with the Kurds continues unabated. The Taliban control seventy percent of Afghanistan, resurgent after being deposed by the American-led invasion in 2001. The country has known little but conflict since late 1970s and its neighbour Pakistan, and in particular the civilian population of the country are feeling the strain and blowback of the violent conflicts of the country. 

“Untangling the array of factions, global, regional and local, in a country awash with guns, refugees and chemical weapons where constant change is a certainty is a nightmare for policymakers.”

The current Syrian conflict represents one of the world's stranger global conflicts and one of the Middle East's most bitter. A mixture of elements and forces have diffused across the country's landscape including private military contractors, militias, foreign fighters from across the globe, state armies, human rights defenders and activists, journalists, humanitarian organisations, refugees and internally displaced persons, child soldiers, smugglers, and, most tragically, as many as a million orphans according to UNICEF. This doesn't even include the array of international air forces patrolling Syrian airspace. Untangling the array of factions, global, regional and local, in a country awash with guns, refugees and chemical weapons where constant change is a certainty is a nightmare for policymakers.  This has not helped international diplomats trying to solve the conflict and intelligence agencies trying to figure out what is happening as events unfold while concurrently figuring out what will happen next and how they can best contain or benefit from Syria's turmoil. 

Unfortunately the last few weeks have shown a considerable increase in violence all across the country. Clashes have erupted between Israel, Syria and Iranian advisors in the country. The US-led coalition has killed a few dozen Russian private military contractors in an airstrike. The conflict in Eastern Ghouta between the government and the jihadist militias entrenched inside the area, along with the inhumane siege imposed by the government have, quite justifiably, drawn the harshest criticisms from the international community. Meanwhile, in the north of the country, Turkey has continued with its invasion of Afrin, taking heavy casualties but stopping at nothing in their quest to wage war against the Kurds.

Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Israel: a ticking time bomb

Matthew Williams/The Conflict Archives: The Occupied Golan Heights overlooking the Quneitra ( Muḥāfaẓat Al-Qunayṭrah)  province.

Matthew Williams/The Conflict Archives: The Occupied Golan Heights overlooking the Quneitra (Muḥāfaẓat Al-Qunayṭrah) province.

The Israeli bombing of Syrian anti-aircraft systems earlier in February seems to be one of the central stories of this year so far. The short version of it goes like this: Israel downed an Iranian drone which entered the airspace over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. In retaliation, Israel launched an aerial assault on Syrian anti-aircraft (AA) defenses. First reports indicated that as much as half of Syrian anti-aircraft defenses were destroyed, but after IDF censors lifted gag orders it turned out that Israel targeted only 3 anti-aircraft defense systems. The Syrian army responded by launching AA missiles at Israeli jets, downing one of them which crashed in northern Israel. Israel continued their attacks, allegedly striking Iranian targets inside Syria. That is where this particular incident ends, but this brief exchange of fire between Israel, Syria and Iran has sparked a seemingly endless number of doomsday predictions across the media sphere. It is therefore paramount to try and approach the situation objectively, carrying in mind the potential geo-strategic goals of the respective countries involved.

Iranian Strategic Depth

The Iranian goal of influencing the Middle East is undeniable. In Iraq their influence manifests itself via economic influence, especially in the south of the country, and via their support for a number of groups which the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a state sponsored group with a worrying record of being accused of sectarianism, are consisted of.  

Such a situation is a far cry from the era of Saddam Hussein during whose rule Iraq engaged Iran in a eight year long war. It is also an improvement on Iran's part, from a US-occupied Iraq and the years when the Iranian leadership feared, not without a reason, that they may be the next target in the plan for the "New American Century“. Now a state with a Shi'a leadership, Iraq, although far from being monolithic, is nowhere near a threat to Iranian interests in the region as it was in the last few decades.

Iran has also been active in supplying the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and allegedly has financed and helped dissidents in Bahrain, a Shi'a majority country with Sunni leadership which invited the military of Saudi Arabia to brutally end the calls for democracy during the Arab Spring. It is also worth noting that Qatar, another Gulf state and aspiring regional policy maker has been the focus of a diplomatic crisis starting in 2017, not only because the Saudi leadership was uncomfortable with the rising influence of Qatar, but also because Qatar was not so keen on turning its back on Iran completely. It would be foolish to claim Qatar and Iran are allies, but as a consequence of the crisis, during which Iran offered material support to Qatar, they have certainly grown closer.

Hizbullah is perhaps the longest lasting Iranian non-state ally. The IRGC has played a role in Hizbullah's formation and training of military cadres, and Iran has consistently financed and armed Hizbullah which is designated in the US and EU as a terrorist organization (in EU only the military wing of Hizbullah has that designation). Similarly, Iran has financed and armed various Palestinian groups, especially Hamas with which they have had strained relations for a time due to differences in opinion regarding the conflict in Syria.

The last piece of the puzzle is Syria, the only Arab government openly allied with Iran. Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, Iran has played a pivotal role in it, financing Bashar al Asad's government, sending IRGC advisors, recruiting Shi'a militiamen from countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq to fight in Syria, and helping Syria to establish their own militia corps named National Defence Forces.

Iranian leadership is most definitely aware of the shortcomings of its own military capabilities, especially in the technological domain. Iranian military technology and their air force in particular is simply not comparable with the advanced military technology of their regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. Therefore Iran's best shot at defending itself is not only utilising it's own geography which makes the country hard to invade and occupy, but also to keep their potential enemies at arms length by constantly draining their resources by fuelling internal conflict (such as financing Houthis in Yemen against the Saudi armed forces), building good relations with religiously and ideologically close political options, and relying on a network of non-state allies which could threaten potential Iranian enemies from up-close. Such an approach of financing and arming non-state allies in regional countries is favoured by the IRGC, traditionally closer to the more conservative elements in Iranian politics, and is usually supervised by them and their special operations unit Quds Force, responsible for operations outside Iran.

“Iran has restricted its expansion and attempts at hegemony despite the threat of the so-called ‘Shi’a Crescent’ as argued by the country’s enemies.”

However, Iran has restricted its expansion and attempts at hegemony despite the threat of the so-called 'Shi'a Crescent' as argued by its enemies. As analysed by Michael Axworthy in a recent piece for The NewStatesman, "one reason is that most Iranians know any such attempt would go down badly with the majority of Arabs, including Shi'a Arabs. Another is that structurally not well-placed for military expansions. Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel, to name just three, have consistently spent more." This and the enduring legacy of the Iran-Iraq War which killed hundreds of thousands of Iranian soldiers and civilians has deterred Iran. However, " a further reason is the protests in Iran at the end of 2017. They were crushed, and were not supported by all Iranians, but there are signs that the regime took them seriously even to the point of pursuing economic reforms. Iran will not pursue adventures in other countries if these would increase the risk of losing power at home...The central driving idea for both Khamenei is the preservation of the Islamic Republic." 

This has not stopped Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani from supporting insurgency during the Iraq War, and then support President Al-Asad in suppressing the widespread insurgency across Syria while utilising Iraqi paramilitary forces to crush Daesh. Powerful Shiite paramilitary units and militias, collectively identified as the Popular Mobilisation Units, including Munathamat Badr (Badr Brigades or Badr Organization), ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), Kata’ib Hizbullah (Hizbullah Brigades) and the Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades), have a chilling reputation for perpetrating human rights abuses including torture, extra-judicial executions, and summary executions. During the Iraq War, many of these militias utilised death squads and gangs to conduct ethnic cleansing and pogroms against Sunni civilians in Baghdad, a retaliation to the suicide bombings of Daesh and Al-Qaeda in Iraq. 

Believed to number 100,000 men, the incorporation of these various Shi'a militias in the PMU into the military of Baghdad will create numerous concerns, particularly when these paramilitary units run their own prisons and intelligence branches and operate with relative autonomy from the government. The Iraqi Security Forces (a de-facto militia under former Prime Minister and current vice-president Nouri al-Maliki) have a dismal record on human rights and is plagued by corruption. Under al-Maliki, the Iraqi military and police were unafraid to use intimidation, torture and execution against political opposition, prisoners and activists at Muthanna airfield, al-Rusafa and Kazimiyah detention facility. Iran has supported the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Badr Brigade and Nouri al-Maliki whose spell in office plunged Iraq into civil war as his sectarian policies drove a wedge between the government in Baghdad and the Sunni minority.  Daesh exploited this and was able to seize vast swathes of Iraq in 2014 including the second largest city, Mosul. 

However, Iran's goal in countries such as Iraq and Syria and the goal of strengthening defence is interconnected with the objective  of gaining regional political influence. Iran shares the region with at least three more relevant regional powers: Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Of the three, only Turkey is not considered a direct threat. Saudi Arabia is considered to be a regional antagonist with which Iran is currently embroiled in the battle for influence in the Middle East, and Israel has been an antagonist since the Islamic Revolution, due to the fact that Iranian leadership views Israel as an illegal state due to their occupation of Palestine and Israel hasn't taken kindly to such a designation.

The conflict in Syria therefore plays a crucial role in Iran's regional interests, given Syria's importance as a regional ally, and given that it is of paramount importance for Iran's resupplying of Hizbullah in Lebanon. Hizbullah's position on Israel's border, along with the fact that they have a trained and experienced military cadre, as well as a large arsenal of missiles makes them an effective deterrent against any serious Israeli military venture in Syria and Lebanon or against Iran itself, and is one of the key pieces of the Iranian strategic depth, and an option which Iran must not lose if they wish to retain leverage in any regional conflict.

The Israeli Internal Debate

Israel, on the other hand, has relied very much on their conventional capabilities in their military ventures. They have what is most probably the best and well armed military (bolstered by a mandatory military service) and the most capable intelligence services in the region, They also have nuclear weapons capability which although never officially confirmed, is widely considered to be a fact.

Their rock-solid alliance with the United States has allowed them to be a recipient of significant military aid, and has resulted in invaluable diplomatic aid on the world stage, which helped them to bypass numerous UN Security Council resolutions. That same diplomatic aid has turned Israel from a country which, according to themselves, was 'surrounded by enemies' to a country whose enemies have mostly been pacified. Since the 70's and through later decades, Israel has managed to gain good relations with a significant part of their former enemies. Egypt was the first country to do so, signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, followed by Jordan in 1994. Recently, Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Mohammad bin Salman, their Minister of defense, has shown, unofficially of course, that they are willing to let their relations with Israel grow, and it is now almost unimaginable that either Saudi Arabia, or the other countries from the Gulf Cooperation Council would take military action against Israel. Turkish relations with Israel have always been shaky, at least rhetorically and especially after the Israeli raid on the Gaza freedom flotilla in 2010, but they still do have diplomatic relations and do not considered each other as enemies.

Matthew Williams/The Conflict Archives: The Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands has lasted for five decades.

Matthew Williams/The Conflict Archives: The Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands has lasted for five decades.

Although the mantra of Israel being surrounded by enemies is outdated, Israel has continued to argue that their illegal occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, along with the blockade of Gaza is necessary due to the military vulnerability of Israel proper. Apparently, the geographical form Israel, with the width of the country being only 15 kilometers at its narrowest point is such that the defence of the country is compromised. Therefore, the illegal occupation of West Bank, Golan Heights (taken from Syria) and East Jerusalem is apparently a neccessity. Furthermore, Israel claims that Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank pose a security threat. Such an explanation falls short of explaining why Israel refuses to call the occupied West Bank by its name, and uses the term 'Judea and Samaria'. It also fails to explain the continuous growth of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank and Golan Heights and the motion in Knesset to replace military law in the occupied territories with Israeli civil law, effectively annexing the occupied territories to Israel.

Political solutions are continuously evaded in those conundrums in favor of unilateral military and and political solutions by Israel, and the latest diplomatic move by the United States in which they appear to have decided to put in motion the moving of their embassy to Jerusalem is a slap in the face to the idea of a two state solution or indeed, a dialogue with the Palestinians at all.As Jeff Halper succintly puts it: "If the "hard" left has indeed, moved to a one-state solution, it is simply because we have had the courage to recognize political reality and the "facts on the ground": The two-state solution died when the settlement enterprise reached a critical mass, when the fragmentation of Palestinian territory rendered a viable and sovereign Palestinian state no longer possible.“

Matthew Williams/The Conflict Archives: A Hizbullah poster in the city of Acre (Sur), Lebanon.

Matthew Williams/The Conflict Archives: A Hizbullah poster in the city of Acre (Sur), Lebanon.

Israel has shown, through the current occupation, as well as their former occupation of Lebanon and a series of wars and interventions in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, that the securitisation of Israel is of paramount importance for the country and a goal at which they will not stop at anything to accomplish. Their strong alliance and diplomatic backing from the US has allowed them to continuously violate airspaces of other countries, conduct targeted killings both inside and outside of Israel, and act with impunity.

Therefore, the series of attacks on what has been described as Hizbullah-bound Iranian convoys in Syria, and in the latest instance the attacks on Syrian defenses come as no surprise. Hizbullah may well be Israel's top nemesis. They have forced Israel to withdraw from their occupation of south Lebanon in 2000, and in the 2006 Lebanon war Israel has failed to accomplish their goal of destroying the Lebanese organisation. There have been no major conflicts between them since then, save for a few minor and rare skirmishes, which testifies to the fact that Israel considers Hezbollah to be a formidable opponent.

The language coming from the offices and think tanks in Washington and Jerusalem states Iranian influence in Syria has to be curbed. Israel can't allow Iran to be victorious in Syria, and the US agrees. That is perhaps the only piece of foreign policy that the headless administration of Donald Trump, the Pentagon and US intelligence agencies, often in conflict and contradicting each other, agree on. Israeli political leaders, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, which have lobbied for years against a diplomatic approach to Iran seem to be finally getting their way. It is also worth noting that Netanyahu is embroiled in a serious corruption scandal, and a war might just save his skin. The Saudi leadership most certainly agrees with them- that is a country which a few months ago produced a propaganda video in which the Saudi military crushes the Iranian one, imprisons Qasem Soleimani, and is greeted with flowers and love by the supposedly liberated Iranian people at the shores of the Persian Gulf.

Matthew Williams/The Conflict Archives: A poster of the Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman hangs from a building in Tripoli, Lebanon. (left)

Matthew Williams/The Conflict Archives: A poster of the Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman hangs from a building in Tripoli, Lebanon. (left)

Reporters and journalists have been predicting an Israeli-Hezbollah conflict every month for the last few years like clockwork, albeit with little success. The media trumpets of war have exploded once again after the Israeli jet crashed in northern Israel and although reporters and journalists have been predicting an Israeli-Hezbollah conflict every month for the last few years like clockwork, albeit with little success, this time the situation seems to be more serious than ever, but putting money on an all-out war is still a risky move. A direct, prolonged conflict between Syria, Iran and Israel would mean a disaster of immense proportions for a region which is already, tragically, full of disasters. It is not inconceivable that the national militaries of Iran, Israel, Syria and GCC member states led by Saudi Arabia would be involved, along with Shi'a militias in Iraq and Syria. Israel would possibly have to fight a war on three fronts: one in Syria, one against Hezbollah and their immense arsenal of rockets in Lebanon, and quite possibly Hamas. The consequences would be unthinkable.

The War against the Kurds

The war hasn't been flairing up only on Syria's southern border- Turkey is also adamant about extending its influence in Syria, particularly in the context of their decades long war against the Kurds. The Turkish government has repeatedly demonstrated that is willing to take any means necessary to prevent a 'border force' from being formed along the Iraqi-Syrian border under the initiative of Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, whose remarks in a conference in January, 2018  gave the green light to the intervention in the Kurdish canton of Afrin in northern Syria. The Turkish assault on Kurds in Afrin and the threat by President Erdogan to renew offensives against People's Protection Units (YPG) in Manbij were crises primed to explode for years and were not without precedent. Under the leadership of President Recep Erdogan, the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, hidden by the fury of the Syrian War, has flared dramatically since the revolution started in 2011 - the latest example of this being Operation Olive Branch launched on 20th January, 2018. 

A History of Repression

History hasn't been kind to the Kurds. Amidst the surge in pan-Arab nationalism, revolution,  independence movements, budding communist parties, underground Islamist groups - militant and peaceful -  in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, the Kurds faced extreme brutality and suppression which worsened as the 20th century came to a close. In Iraq, during the height of genocidal Al-Anfal campaign, Saddam Hussein's army wiped out tens of thousands of innocent Kurdish men, women and children as well as minorities such as the Assyrians and Yezidis, massacring entire villages and towns and slaughtering all men deemed to be of a fighting age. Chemical weapons were deployed to uproot and/or murder the Iraqi Kurds and other were cleansed, resettled and deported as part of Saddam's initiative: 'Arabisation'. This was an act of genocide. 

The initiation of Operation Provide Comfort I & II in spring of 1991 by British and American forces and enforcement of a security zone helped to alleviate the Iraqi Kurds' wretched situation in the Iraqi and Turkish mountains. A footnote by comparison to the Persian Gulf War 1991, 'the policy implications of the Kurdish crisis (much like today's in Syria)...was incontreivable...intervention on behalf of the Kurds demolished expectations that the United (could) police the Persian Gulf from offshore. Life-sustaining essentials...morphed into providing protection against Saddam.' (Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, 138-139). Humanitarianism became security, security became invasion, invasion became occupation between 1991 and 2003. It hastened further conflict and destroyed Iraq. Similar to the response to Saddam's horrifying policies, the Obama administration's Operation Inherent Resolve has led the United States' into Syria in pursuit of Daesh, with the support of the YPG in Syria and the Kurdish Region Government in Iraq, bolstered by the support (in Iraq) of the Iraqi Security Forces and Iranian-linked Popular Mobilisation Forces. 

In Iran, the situation was no better for the Kurds. In 1978, the Iranian revolution began and the Kurds of Iran were part of a revolt created by poverty, political repression and execution of activists and stark inequality. Left-wing Kurdish activists wanted a secular regime the slogan being "freedom, equality and workers power!" The majority of the Kurds did not support the inauguration of an Islamic/Shi'a regime in Tehran. Once in power, the new government cracked down on secularists in Iranian Kurdistan. These groups were left unsupported by Western governments, fearing that radical leftwing groups would mutate into a communist threat, who were the predominant threat to U.S interests in the Cold War era. Kurdish autonomy came under attack through bombardment and military incursion into Iran, several villages surrounded and burnt to ground. Kurdish Peshmerga, including women decided to fight after stories of rape, incineration of homes and killing of civilians. "People were living in fear." said Diana, a former Peshmerga fighter now living in the United Kingdom, "the choice was simple: join the Peshmerga or die. The regime was arresting hundreds of people." During the Iran-Iraq War, as the notorious chemical attack at Halabja epitomised, the plight of the Kurds barely improved as Saddam and the Iranian regime fought each other, unafraid to use infighting Kurdish factions over the separate borders as proxies. Chemical attacks by Saddam forced Kurdish fighters to hide and move from city to town to village to evade Iranian and Iraqi intelligence. 

These long-term crises and challenges in regard to Kurdish autonomy and statehood have been a central issue in the current Middle Eastern conflicts - including the Iraq War and the current Syrian War. The Rojava Revolution, a revolution within the Syrian Revolution, took place in the cantons in Cizire, Afrin and Kobani in northern Syria. Rojava was a part of several Syrian governates and was deeply affected by the regime's attempts at economic liberalisation, 'forcing Kurds to migrate to the cities as the social state was dismantled, as the public sector was devastated and capital accumulated in the hands of the few.' As the Syrian revolt got underway, in July, 2012, the YPG ended the Al-Asad's rule in Kobani in a bloodless coup and quickly seized control of Afrin and Derik.

In Turkey, the repression of Kurds was rampant. As illustrated by Emin Ozmen. "Since the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923, the country’s Kurdish minority — an estimated 15.3 million people or around one-fifth of Turkey’s population — has faced repression, often restricted from expressing their culture or even speaking the Kurdish language. The Kurds, the world’s largest ethnic group without a state, number roughly 30 million people across Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria — an ever-changing regional backdrop against the national aspiration of the Kurds. Within Turkey, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), designated a terrorist organisation by the U.S., NATO and the EU, has been waging a guerrilla campaign against the Turkish government since 1984 to secure political rights and self-determination for Kurds — and to establish an independent Kurdish state. The insurgency has led to some 40,000 deaths in Turkey." 

Turkey: Countering the Kurds at all costs

Turkey has been deeply involved, more than any other perhaps, since the Syrian Revolution began. This has extended beyond its war with the Kurds, one-part of Turkey's agenda in Syria. Erodgan's government initially positive relations with the Al-Asad regime soured in the wake of the actions of the Syrian army and Mukhabarat against protestors and activists. In response to outrage on the streets of Turkey to President Al-Asad's repression, domestically and internationally President Erdogan's AKP party wanted to boost its popularity by first standing in solidarity with the pro-democratic demonstrators (favourable to Western states) and with Islamists (including the Muslim Brotherhood) who were protesting with an array of anti-regime demonstrators, ethnically, religiously and ideologically diverse. By condemning Al-Asad for its persecution of Sunni Muslims, Erdogan's could bolster his domestic support on the street while also toeing the Western narrative that democratic reform in Syria was preferable to authoritarianism. 

Eventually, this narrative turned into a call for regime change, again what the Turkish government saw as a chance to knock out the Baathist regime of Al-Asad, a major regional power, and install a government more amenable to Ankara's geo-strategic objectives (again this was in line with the famous call of President Obama for Al-Asad "to step aside"). With the Obama administration hesitant to spearhead regime change after the debacle of Iraq, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia led the initiative to upend the regional order in their favour. Much like the Qataris and Saudis - both renowned for exporting and funding Salafi fighters - Turkey has sought to utilise volatile proxies, however extreme- to fight President Al-Asad's regime and the Kurdish fighters.

Predominantly Sunni and nurturing neo-Ottoman ambitions of restoring Ankara as the crown jewel and centre of power and prestige in the Middle East, President Erdogan's tenure as Prime Minister and now president has seen Turkey go through major changes. Religion is returning to Turkey and the injection of it into everyday life once more and the emergence of aggressive strains of Salafi thought are filtering into public debate and policy. This has been fanned by the turbo-charged atmosphere and surge of sectarian and ethnic violence inside Syria.

Turkey watched on in horror as the YPG gained significant territory in the chaos including areas such as Afrin and Kobani(though the YPG and KRG did not get along). The Turkish government moved swiftly to try to destroy Rojava's experiment in democratic confederalism. Cities captured by the YPG, such as Tel Abyad had their electricity cut and other cities such as Kobani were starved of resources and external support while dissent was quelled at home. 

More disturbingly, chemical weapons in Syria have drawn the Turkish government into the debate on their use in war. In February, 2018, Turkish forces were accused of using chemical weapons against Kurds in the Afrin canton in northern Syria. However, this is not the first time accusations and speculation has surrounded Turkey, not least its support for Daesh, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Ahrar Al-Sham, Jaish Al-Fatah, Jaish al-Islam and other jihadist groups. In the siege of Kobani (2014-2015), according to journalist Patrick Cockburn in the London Review of Books, Turkish animosity towards the YPG was evident as was its tacit approval for Daesh destroying the Kurds experiment of self-rule:  "The estimated 12,000 foreign jihadis fighting in Syria, over which there is so much apprehension in Europe and the US, almost all entered via what became known as ‘the jihadis’ highway’, using Turkish border crossing points while the guards looked the other way. In the second half of 2013, as the US put pressure on Turkey, these routes became harder to access but Isis militants still cross the frontier without too much difficulty. The exact nature of the relationship between the Turkish intelligence services and Daesh and Jahbat Fatah al-Sham remains cloudy but there is strong evidence for a degree of collaboration."

“At Kobani, Turkey destroyed any hope of ending the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, created internal divisions in Turkey and deepened the country’s involvement in Syria’s war.”

At Kobani, Daesh received protection and aid from Turkey. Daesh were able to pass over the border off Turkey from Syria with little difficulty. Erdogan proposed the creation of a 'buffer zone' to extend from Afrin to Aleppo, over Raqqa and to Hasakah through all of Rojava). This would effectively eliminate the self-government of the Kurds and put Rojava under Turkish control.' (Knapp, Revolution in Rojava, 230). 80 percent of Kobani was destroyed, despite the siege by Daesh being eventually broken by the international coalition in January, 2015. As Cockburn writes, "Had Erdoğan chosen to help the Kurds trapped in Kobani rather than sealing them off, he might have strengthened the peace process between his government and the Turkish Kurds. Instead, his actions provoked protests and rioting by Kurds across Turkey.“ It destroyed any hope of ending the Turkish-Kurdish conflict any time soon, reignited the conflict within Turkey, created internal divisions and deepened the country's involvement in Syria's war. 

"Olive Branch“

The operation ironically called "Olive Branch“ was initiated on three fronts: north, west and east. Syrian rebel groups, consisted of some Free Syrian Army factions, Turkmen neo-Ottomanists and a wealth of jihadist fighters affiliated with the Levant Front, Ahrar al Sham and Nour al Din Al Zinki amongst others, have led the ground invasion supported by Turkish soldiers, artillery, armored battalions and the Turkish Air Force. The redevelopment of relations between Turkey and Russia since the military coup, which deteriorated sharply following the controversial downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M bomber in November 2015, have been a cause for alarm as Turkey has usually operated as a key pillar and pivot for American policy towards the Middle East. Operation Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch's targeting of U.S allies in Syria is a snub towards Washington's plans in Syria. Driving the YPG and SDF east of the Euphrates will blunt the former's ambition to carve out more territory for a new proto-state in northern Syria, a scenario which has the potential to threaten the integrity of eastern Turkey.

While relations have been strained with Washington, it must be emphasised that 'Turkey as a long-time ally of the West and as a NATO member, has not yet changed sides in Syria' and despite criticisms and threats that American soldiers will defend themselves in the case of direct attack by Turkish and pro-Turkish forces inside Manbij and Syria, European and American allies such as Germany, the United States, France and the United Kingdom stressed the right of Turkey to defend its own borders, that its forces exercise restraint, and contain the violence in Afrin. More importantly, Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller said the following in Istanbul: "Among all NATO Allies, Turkey is the most exposed to instability and turmoil stemming from the Middle East. Your country has suffered a series of brutal terrorist attacks and I want you to know that NATO stands in solidarity with Turkey in the fight against terrorism." These words echoed those of U.S Defence Secretary James Mattis, “Turkey was candid. They warned us before they launched the aircraft they were going to do it in consultation with us, and we are working now on the way ahead through the ministry of foreign affairs. Turkey is the only NATO country with an active insurgency inside its borders, and Turkey has legitimate security concerns.” Nonetheless, there is no doubt to the consequences of Turkey's tacit support for foreign fighters and extremists in Syria and allowing them into the country to fight and roam along its borders.

Russia's Shadow Army

The Russians also find themselves fighting in a quagmire and are feeling the brunt of the intervention in Syria's conflict. Official estimates of the Russian military's death toll stand at forty-six, however in past conflicts such as the Chechen Wars and the Soviet Afghan War, investigations by Russian journalists such as Anna Politkovskaya and Svetlana Alexievich have laid bare the country's problems of recording casualties of war and how propaganda has underplayed the brutal nature of the conflicts Russia has found itself in the past from General  Secretary Brezhnev to Mikhail Gorbachev to Boris Yeltsin and now Vladimir Putin. 

President Putin has utilised private military companies (PMCs) such as Wagner Group - much like the United States have outsourced combat missions to PMCs such as Blackwater and DynCorp in Iraq and Afghanistan - to conduct policy in a volatile region. These ground troops have supported President Al-Asad's military efforts while Russian air and naval power was used to destroy anti-Asad rebels and Daesh. However, mercenaries were not the only groups fighting for the Kremlin in the conflict. Pro-Russian Chechens, from the tiny Republic of Chechnya in the North Caucasus, are on the from-lines of Syria. The paramilitary units of Ramzan Kadyrov, the brutal ruler installed by President Putin to pacify Chechen insurgents and jihadists in the Second Chechen War (1999-2008) were caught on camera by Russian media outlets and Kadyrov's Instagram account being transferred in 2016 to join the war. 

The use of a shadow army in Syria has a political motive. The Kremlin has been carefully attempting not to alienate public opinion, which would baulk at high casualties amongst regular Russian soldiers. The scars of the experiences in the Soviet-Afghan War and the subsequent economic and political turmoil into which Russia was plunged in the 1990s alongside the United States and Britain's disastrous occupation of Iraq in the 2000s have helped to shape Russia's current policy. 

These men have been instrumental in suppressing dissent and minimising the official number of Russian casualties to keep the population from panicking over the death of soldiers. These formidable fighting units, accused of multiple human rights violations and largely integrated into the Russian military. Chechnya and the other republics in the Northern Caucasus are religious demographic is predominantly Muslim - Sunni as supposed to Shi'a. This deployment of Chechen Sunni fighters to the streets of Aleppo - for example - have helped to reduce tensions amongst Sunnis hostile to the Al-Asad regime and tensions which have emerged between pro-Iranian Shi'a militias occupying Aleppo. Their experience in guerrilla warfare and urban combat have also been an asset to Syria's army.

The Russians saw an opportunity to rid itself with a national security threat. Through intimidation and coercion, pro-Kremlin Dagestani and Chechen police and military forces gave extremists living amongst them the chance to conduct global jihad abroad. Life for many Dagestanis and Chechens has become so unbearable in Grozny and Makhachkala - particularly moderate Salafi men, women and children - that "going to the woods" (a phrase used by Chechens and Dagestanis to join insurgents) was preferable to being jailed, harassed and targeted by the Russian state. As Russian Muslims, Chechens and Dagestanis flocked to Daesh in Syria and Iraq and anti-Asad Islamist rebels, the state rid itself of multiple extremists, and in-turn by deploying Chechen forces loyal to the Kremlin, Kadyrov's men were able to target and hunt down those men and women from the North Caucausus who had joined Daesh in a lawless war-zone. The record of the Kadyrovtsy, the paramilitary of Ramzan Kadyrov, in hunting down its enemies abroad is terrifyingly efficient in resolving Chechen blood feuds and Kadyrov's personal vendettas while their combat experience has solved the Russian military's question of how to act in Syrian War without deploying the Russian soldiers that matter to Russians the most. From the perspective of the Kremlin, dead Chechens are preferable to dead Russians and to some extent, Kadyrov's brutal policies at home and abroad are an extension of the darker side of the current Russian government and the problems that plague Putin's Russia. 

A dubious success

Has Moscow succeeded in Syria? As a tactical, short-term arrangement, yes. President Putin has scored several high-profile victories over the West geo-politically while reinforcing the image (not necessarily the reality) that Russia has restored its prestige as a superpower. The Syrian War - at-least to the United Russia Party - is another success for anti-Western and nationalist forces in Russia, alongside the South Ossetia conflict in 2008, curbing NATO and the EU's influence in Ukraine since the 2014 revolution and, of-course, the crushing of Chechen separatists and insurgents led by Shamil Basayev in the bloody Chechen Wars. Domestically, President Putin's United Russia has shored up its popularity by standing up to the American-led global order, and in the reinstitution of a multi-polar world order, coinciding with the rise of China, the Syrian conflict is one step for Russia, an opportunity to increase its influence in a region where American influence has rescinded with the disastrous small wars in Afghanistan and Iraq while the fracking revolution in the United States is reducing its well-documented dependency on oil from the Gulf region. 

“The Syrian conflict is one step for Russia, an opportunity to increase its influence in a region where American influence has rescinded.”

Strategically, however, the gamble to intervene in Syria has come with costs. Russia has firmly put itself in the cross-hairs of extremists around the world. The harrowing bombings of a bus and a train station in Volgagrad in 2013, the destruction of a plane over the Sinai carrying Russian passengers in 2015, the metro attack in St. Petersburg in 2017 and the bloody attack on a church in Dagestan in February, 2018 which left 5 dead are reminders that at home and abroad, Russia faces stark national security issues due to its harsh policies in the North Caucasus and the Middle East. As with the West, Russia's entanglement in the Middle East and Central Asia and supplying vicious allies with weapons and political support can lead to both predictable short-term blood-shed and unforeseen long-term consequences. Aiding President Al-Asad's forces in reducing entire districts in Aleppo & the suburbs of Damascus (Eastern Ghouta) to rubble has not made President Putin the darling of all Syrians.

The Tragedy of Eastern Ghouta

Pictures, videos and stories coming out of the suburb of Damascus tell a thousand stories. Civilians stare around, their eyes blank with horror. Aid workers with mobiles stumble and clabber through the rubble struggling to record their surroundings. Rescue workers have recovered their own parents from buildings caved in by barrel bombs and shells lobbed into civilian homes. Children, young enough to have only known nothing but war, siege and life-changing violence, are now pictured on front pages of daily papers, and can be seen in Twitter videos posted by the people of Ghouta filming the carnage imposed by the government bombings and the siege. Ghouta is bleeding. Disease and malnutrition are a close companion of death. Families and communities pull the bodies out of the wreckage of buildings. Tanks and army trucks rumble through the countryside around Eastern Ghouta as the broken enclave is battered by regime artillery and Syrian and Russian aircraft roaring overhead circling the doomed coalition of Islamists, who under siege have sandwiched civilians between two barbaric factions, that of President Al-Asad's brutal loyalists, and competing jihadist groups vying for control of Syria's fight against the regime. Pictures show everything to be covered in dust, as if Vesuvius layered Ghouta with ash and fire, claiming Syria's innocent in hell fire.

The siege of Eastern Ghouta started in 2013, and it is a still ongoing battle between government forces supported by Russia, Iran and various militias on one side, and Jaysh al-Islam, Al-Rahman Legion i Ahrar al-Sham on the other. While the government-led forces impose a crippling siege on the suburb, complete with bombing which have taken the lives of hundreds of people in the last few weeks, and are trying to induce famine in order to gain leverage, the jihadist fighters respond with mortar attacks on Damascus. In the middle of the carnage civilians are the ones who suffer the most, reportedly not allowed to leave the area.

Ghouta not only highlights the worst of what war has to offer, but also lays bare the crippling impotence of the international community. Attempts to impose a ceasefire have fallen through and all criticisms of flagrant human rights violations, while true, are nothing but empty words, failing to accomplish anything of substance.

The Syrian government will not stop its assault on Eastern Ghouta- it is a suburb of Damascus, and one of the last outposts of anti-regime fighters in that part of the country. The rhetoric coming from Damascus which tries to legitimize the attack by claiming that the fighters are jihadists obscures the fact that the Syrian army conducted itself in the same way in the past whether the fighters on the other side were jihadists or not. Any diplomatic efforts which could resolve the conflict will have to concentrate on transfering the remainder of the eastern Ghouta rebels to, most likely, Idlib. However, it is more than clear that the rebels themselves are not at all keen on leaving. Until a solution is found, Eastern Ghouta will continue to be hell for the people still living there.



In 2017, many journalists and analysts were predicting the end of Syria's conflict. Indeed, this remains a possibility however many conflicts, particularly ones as ruthless as the Syrian War usually have a dramatic and bloody endgame, a salvo of brutal violence which affects victor and defeated alike. In Syria, a single month, week or day can change the country's plight dramatically. 2018 has so far shown us that the end is apparently not yet in sight. In fact, things are getting worse and even more complicated all over the country with crises popping and flairing up in a worrying fashion. Turkey continues its onslaught against the Kurds, the government is doing the same in Eastern Ghouta and Israel appears to be more willing than ever to cross the line and commence its own intervention in Syria, fully aware that such an action could plunge the region into an even more devastating conflict. We can only hope that it will not come to that.  The Syrian War has, unquestionably, changed our world. 

Matthew C.K Williams and Demian Vokši

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Demian Vokši is a Croatian freelance journalist and a student. He has four years of experience in writing for a number of Croatian independent and non-profit media outlets on a range of topics related to the Middle East and human rights, and has reported from Lebanon on the Hariri crisis with Saudi Arabia. As a student, he is currently enrolled in a Masters program at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University, Sweden. Among his various interests are topics concerning the geopolitics of the Levant, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, the role of identity in foreign policy decision-making, as well as the question of influence of non-state actors in the international relations in the Middle East.


A British freelance writer, Matthew Williams started out his career working as sports editor for Nottingham University's Impact Magazine as an undergraduate. Since then he has gone on to develop crucial journalism, communication and media skills with a variety of newspapers and non-governmental organisations including The Scottish Times, Amnesty International, Volunteer Uganda, Action Against Hunger and Elephant Family and freelancing in Israel, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories. This wealth of experience was boosted by the completion of a Masters in Conflict, Security and Development at King's College London in 2016 including studying modules focused on war, insurgency and occupation in the Middle East.