On April 13, 2021, two US transport helicopters escorted by an Apache attack helicopter transferred a group of at least 50 extremists belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to the Al-Omar oil field controlled by the American military in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ez-Zur. These fighters were then trained at the Shaddadi base south of Hasakeh. The mission of these jihadists is focused on destabilizing the areas under President Bashar al-Assad’s government by attacking outposts of the Syrian army and civilian communities, in addition to protecting the oil facilities occupied by US troops.
US support for jihadist groups reflects the stalemate in Syria. The war in Syria has gradually settled around various zones of domination and influence: the government-controlled Damascus-Latakia corridor and Hama and Homs in the Western part of the country; the areas under the control of opposition forces, including Idlib in the North and small environs of Dara’a in the South.
The mainly Kurdish areas in the North that the Democratic Union Party (YPG) intends to unite under the name of Rojava; the North-Eastern parts of the country weakly held by the residues of ISIS; and, an Israeli occupation zone (which has lasted more than 50 years) in Al Qunaytirah (Syria’s smallest province, two-thirds of which Israel conquered and ethnically cleansed in 1967. The conqueror changed the name to the Golan Heights).
The only significant pocket of territory still held by the anti-Assad opposition is in and around Idlib - and even that has shrunk to a third of the size it was in 2017 after repeated offensives by Russia-backed Syrian government forces. Assad - with the help of Russia - re-seized the vital northern city of Aleppo and other opposition-held areas in 2020, placing himself in control of 70% of the country.
Now, he wants to take control of Idlib and bring the 3 million people there back under its control. But Turkey too, which controls areas surrounding Idlib, has an interest in defending at least parts of Idlib from the regime, and has troops on the ground inside the province. Yet the costs of retaking the province may simply be too high. A three-way fight among Damascus, backed by Russian fighter jets, Turkey, and militant groups like Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) would be devastating - displacing hundreds of thousands of refugees into Turkish areas and further into Europe.
In a scenario like this, the aim of the US is no longer to overthrow Assad - something that became impossible after the Russian military intervention began in 2015 - but to prevent him and his Russian and Iranian backers winning a decisive victory. In the final analysis, the US and its European allies refuse to accept the prospect of Assad remaining in power, although they lost the proxy war. How did this situation come about?
In 2011, the Arab Spring protests began in Syria. From 2005 to 2010, Syria had witnessed a 10% increase in poverty, geographically concentrated in the northeast and south of the country. Growing poverty was exacerbated by the flight of more than 1.2 million people from the land (according to the most conservative estimates) as a result of drought and economic crisis. These material conditions acted as the ingredients for the demonstrations.
The 2011 uprising was the biggest domestic challenge to the Assad family since the early 1980s, when President Hafez al-Assad crushed a Sunni revolt centered on Hama where at least 10,000 people were killed in 1982. The protests were secular in tone, but Deraa and Hama were Sunni strongholds resentful of the influence of the Alawites, a heterodox Shia sect to which 12% of Syrians belong, including Assad and many members of the ruling elite. Thus, there was a sectarian dimension to the protests which external powers would later exploit to further their own interests.
Increased government violence against the uprising did stimulate increased military defections: not of whole units, hence not threatening the regime’s core, but enough individual defections that, combined with the external provision of safe havens (in Turkey) and external arming, enabled the construction of the “Free Syrian Army.” At the same time, the incremental depletion of the government’s military manpower debilitated its capacity to secure territory.
As the government lost its monopoly of violence, territorial contestation increased, forcing it to withdraw from the far east of the country, leaving much of the country’s grain-growing areas and oil resources to opposition factions. In parallel, Western powers and Gulf Arab monarchies began the jihadisation of the anti-government Sunni rural underclass, which, together with the trans-state movement of non-Syrian militants into Syria, empowered jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra (now known as Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham) and Ahrar al-Sham.
With the engagement of multiple actors, Syria soon turned into a battle arena for rival interests. Five distinct conflicts have become tangled together in Syria: a popular uprising against neoliberal authoritarianism; a sectarian battle between Sunni and Alawites; a regional struggle between Shia and Sunni; a conflict between an Iranian-led grouping and Iran’s traditional enemies, notably the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia; and a reborn Cold War confrontation: Russia and China versus the West. These entanglements have resulted in the current stalemate in Syria.
From an early stage in the Syrian uprising the US, Israel and the Sunni Arab states openly exulted at the blow that would soon be dealt to Iran and to Hezbollah in Lebanon: Assad’s imminent fall would deprive them of their most important ally in the Arab world. Sunni leaders saw the uprising not as a triumph of democracy but as the beginning of a campaign directed at Shia or Shia-dominated states. Hezbollah and Iran believed they had no alternative but to fight and that it is better to get on with it while they still have friends in power in Damascus.
Turkey regarded the Assad government and Syrian Kurds as enemies whom it would like to see defeated. Erdogan was one of the first regional leaders to publicly call for the removal of Assad. Turkey opened its 510-miles long border to the rebels, allowing them to move supplies and fighters into Syria. It allowed a Syrian political opposition group to take up residence in Istanbul and it gave this platform - mainly composed of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood - full political support and encouragement.
Since 2011, Russia and China have blocked any attempt by the West to gain a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution for a war on Syria. Both these countries have formed strong relationships with Syria. In 2008, Assad agreed to allow Russia to convert a naval port located at the Syrian town of Tartous into a permanent military base for Russian warships. It would be Russia’s only such base in the region. Without Tartous, every Russian naval vessel in the sea would have to return through the Bosphorous to Odessa for single thing it needs.
The agreement signified that Syria had become Russia’s most important ally in the Middle East, a fact reflected in Russian arms exports to Syria, which accounted for about 10% of Russia’s total weapons sales during the 2000s. China is likewise tightly linked to Syria as the largest exporter to the country and its biggest source of FDI. The latter investments have been concentrated in Syria’s Al Furat Petroleum Company - Syria’s main oil producer, which was partially privatized over the 2000s - as well as in construction and utility projects.
In his 1965 book “The Struggle for Syria”, Irish journalist Patrick Seale wrote that the country is a “mirror of rival interests on an international scale”. This statement is pertinent even today where the conflicting aims of different countries have produced a ruinous stalemate for ordinary Syrians.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.
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