As early as January 2011, Syrians were taking to the street to protest against the country’s leader, Bashar Al Assad. What started as pro-democracy protests had escalated by March when Bashar Al Assad’s aggressive military resorted to violence to disperse what were otherwise peaceful protestors expressing their grievances at the country’s high unemployment rates and corruption. What followed closely after was escalation into a civil war triggered by the ethno-sectarian divide which Assad’s and his father’s regime has been fuelling for decades. But the reason why the war rages on 11 years after is not entirely down to ethno-sectarian conflict, but a proxy war exacerbated by international actors.
The Devastating Effect of The War
The 11-year-old war has had devastating effects on the civilians. Prior to the conflict, Syria’s population stood at an estimated 21million people. Current estimations of its population show that this number has decreased significantly to just a 17million, with the UN envoy for Syria estimating that since the war began around 350,209 civilians have been killed. Other researchers have put this number as high as 606,000. Further 6.9million civilians have been displaced within Syria, with 14.6million being reported by the UN refugee agency as needing urgent humanitarian assistance.
The Driving Forces of The Conflict
The main driving force of the conflict has been the ethno-sectarian divide, which can be traced all the way back to leadership under Hafez Al Assad, father of Syria’s current president. Having gained power in 1971, Hafez Al Assad privileges people of his own sect, the Alawis at the expense of marginalising Syria’s Sunni community and Kurdish population. The Alawites are an offshoot of Shia Islam and why this is important to understanding the conflict will become clear later on. The country’s ethno-sectarian divide is exacerbated when Bashar Al Assad, the current president takes over from his father in 2000. He further marginalises the Sunnis and discriminates against the Kurds. What begins in January 2011 as peaceful protests against Bashar Al Assad have an undertone of a growing ethno-sectarian divide with the Sunnis opposing the regime and the Alawis alongside the Christian population supporting Assad.
Assad’s allies Iran and Russia have been the regime’s biggest providers of weapons and arms to escalate violence and ensure that Assad can continue to fight the opposition. But what is Iran’s national interest in supporting the regime? Well, by supporting the Assad regime, which previously mentioned belongs to an offshoot of Shi’ism, the Alawi sect, Iran aligns itself purely on ethno-sectarian lines. by deploying its armed forces, the Islamic revolutionary guards (IRGC) Iran can maintain sectarian influence not only within Syria but also in the Middle East.
This, of course, has complicated things for regional power Saudi Arabia, Iran’s long-term enemy. In opposing the Assad regime, they also oppose Iran and Shia sectarian influence within the region, aiming to empower Assad’s Sunni opposition. In stressing their sectarian identities, Iran and Saudi Arabia maintain an ethno-sectarian divide within the country which further perpetuates violence and ensures that a civil war rages on.
However, more recently Syria and Saudi Arabia have started to hold talks with reports stating that the two countries who previously were sworn enemies inching closer and closer to normalised diplomatic relations. Saudi Arabia’s interests in these diplomatic talks have specifically to do with driving Iran out of Syria and further isolating it in the Middle East. With Saudi Arabia and Israel also holding talks of joint defence against Tehran. It may be that Iran’s influence in Damascus won’t hold much longer.
But what about the western actors in the war? well, the US’ motives in the Syrian conflict are one of maintaining balance and at large in the Middle East and ensuring stalemate. It fears that Iran could gain even more influence in the Middle East if Assad was to win the war, a fear that is also shared by Saudi Arabia and Israel. It is likely that the US will support Saudi Arabia and Israel’s efforts to push Iran out of Damascus as it hasn’t had stable relations with Tehran for a long time.
Civil or Proxy War?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a civil war refers to a “war between opposing groups of citizens within a country”. As is seen the Sunnis, Alawis and the Kurds are all opposing groups with differing interests.
On the other hand, a proxy war refers to “armed conflict between two states or non-state actors which act on the behalf of other parties…this takes the form of funding, military training, arms to sustain the war effort”. This can be seen in just how internalised the war has become with Iran indirectly fighting against Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Although the war started as a civil one, by viewing it now through the lens of a proxy war, we can begin to understand how these international actors have and continue to use Syria as a proxy to fight their own wars.
It also means that we can understand which countries are accountable for prolonging the war.
Although there is no doubt that what started 11 years ago in Syria was a civil war. one that was fuelled by the Assad regime discriminating against some Syrians at the expense of privileging others. What we see now is an ever-continuing proxy war driven by international actors.
However, with recent changes in relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria, it may be that Iran will be forced out of Syria. But with Tehran being the biggest provider and financier of Assad’s regime, this is unlikely to be anytime soon. The withdrawal of foreign intervention also doesn’t say much about Syria’s internal conflict amongst its population. It is unlikely that Assad will grant political autonomy to the Kurds and they are unlikely to back down in wanting to establish their own state. The Sunnis are unlikely to want to continue living under Assad’s rule.
With this, it is hard to pinpoint an end to the war anytime soon.