Syrian war is one of the most devastating crises of the world right now, which has been going on since 2011 and has taken lives of thousands of innocents. What makes it more dangerous is that no efforts have been successful in mediating the conflict between the regime and the rebels. Different states are supporting one side over the other for reasons entirely disconnected from the Syrian people’s cause. Along with the brutal repression of Assad’s regime, various state and non-state actors got involved in it, making it more and more complicated. Even with the involvement of different states to resolve the conflict, the war is still going on and shows no signs of replacement of Assad’s terrorist regime. The Syrian war is not only a civil war, but has also become a religious conflict as well as proxy war between states. It is a part of the Middle East cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The paper discusses about what roles the great powers (Russia and USA) have played in the war keeping in view their own national interests.
Interests Of Russia In Syria
Russia first intervened in Syria in 2015, where it claimed to fight against terrorist organizations like ISIS. But, USA officials state that Russian air strikes were aimed at killing non-IS rebel forces fighting the Assad government. It has provided government troops with air support and weapons and given it diplomatic backing at the UN and in international peace talks. Russia also has troops on the ground.
Russia is not a stranger to Syria, rather an important ally of Syria. Even Assads’ father was an important and a really good friend of Russia, so this relation has a little historical context. Russia and Syria maintained close relations with each other from 1970 to 2000, when Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad was in power. In 1980, both the states signed a treaty on military cooperation as well. But some scholars say that Russia doesn’t have a lot to do with Assad, instead it has been supporting Assads regime because it sees the status quo as less chaotic, and the regime change as more dangerous. However, what remains an important interest of Russia in Syria is its aim to maintain an important position in global diplomacy and its place as a legitimate influencer. The overall influence in the region has more to do with Russia than just having a close friendship with some leader.
Containment of USA and NATO
Russia is the only state to intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war outside of the region. Other states that are involved in the conflict belong to the same region, like Iran, Turkey, and KSA. The reasons behind Russia playing an important role in the region are the containment of USA in the Middle East and the lack of a proper USA strategy regarding the conflict. USA’s absence from the conflict or inactive behavior has left a vacuum for Russia to intervene and obtain its interests from the region. Russia also has a geo-strategic creed in Eurasia. The aim of Russia is also to unite the Muslims of central Asia with the Middle East against NATO. Russia’s military has also been facing a downfall for some years, and being militarily present in Syria would help Russia give a signal to the West that its military is still capable. Russia is also fearful of the spread of Islamists Revolution and the West at the same time, which pushed Russia to back its ally strongly. Russia doesn’t want regime change and opposes it because Russia is fearful that the process might reach Moscow and disturb the peace in the region.
Russia’s naval base
One of the objectives of Russia is to prevent the destruction of the Assad regime. That imperiled regime is Russia’s only real ally, and the only remaining partner in the Middle East. Likewise, Tartus is its only military base beyond the territory of the former Soviet Union. It is a Russian naval base that was built in 1971 in Tartus, Syria. According to an analysis by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, it is shown that Russia’s greatest strategic and geopolitical interest in Syria is the use of deep-water port i.e. Tartus port. Tartus is the only naval base which provides Russia a direct access to the Mediterranean Sea and thus its strategic importance cannot be ignored.
USA in Syria
USA intervened into the conflict in 2013, when things started getting worse and different factions and states got involved in the conflict. The conflict became a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a religious war between al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and ISIS by 2013 and the situation was getting more and more complicated. In 2013, In August 2013, Assad’s regime used the chemical weapons against the rebels which according to Washington killed 1400 people. It was at that time that USA finally made it clear on national television that it would take action against Assad regime to contain his atrocities. Obama said and the researcher quotes, “Men, women and children lying in the rows, killed by poisonous gas, It’s in the national security interests of USA to respond to the Assad’s regimes use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.”
There were several objectives that USA wanted to achieve in the Syrian conflict. Some of them are Humanitarian based like replacement of terrorist regime of Assad by a legitimate government that is accepted by all, return of refugees to the state, reconstruction after war and to bring peace and prosperity in the region. Other objectives were political, that go in the national interests of USA. They include the two major aims i.e. the neutralization of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and the containment of Iran and Russia. This is because Syria is an important ally of Iran and Russia, and if Assad’s regime stays in power, it means that Iran’s and Russia’s influence would definitely remain in the region, which USA doesn’t want. Another reason of USA’s intervention is the security interests of USA in the region. Syria is a neighbour of Turkey, which is an ally of NATO. USA has military alliances with Turkey and Israel, and there are fair chances that if the conflict is not contained, these states, being an ally of USA, can draw USA into the conflict. Similarly, Syria has the 4th largest stockpile of chemical weapons, making it the largest in the Middle East, which also worries USA because it has fallen into the hands of the extremists.
Five major threats to the USA from Syria are:
- The terrorist threat
- Iran’s advance towards the west
- Russia’s increasing influence in Syria
- The refugee crisis due to Syrian civil war
- Excessive Human rights violation in Syria.
USA provided military aid to the rebels against Assad, and actively supported the Kurds in the region. Washington also provided air support to the Syrian democratic forces, which is an alliance of Arabs and Turks, fighting against ISIS. But when Trump came in power in 2016, he clearly showed that he had no interest in Syria anymore, stating that “Let other people take care of it now.” But when again, in 2017, Assad used the chemical weapons against his population, Trump vowed to respond and within a few days, USA launched an air strike on the Syrian airbase. It was the first time that USA directly launched an attack during the Syrian conflict.
Under Trumps administration, important decisions have been taken regarding Syria. Initially, he stated that he had no interests in Syria and USA should let other states take care of Syria. But then again, in 2017, he launched an airstrike. Then in December 2019, Trumps announced the withdrawal of troops from Syria leaving behind the Kurdish forces alone. This withdrawal has been controversial because USA was protecting the Kurdish forces in Syria against Turkey’s attacks, and Kurds have been fighting along with USA to fight the ISIS. The withdrawal of troops means that Kurds are left there for the Turkish forces. Although the withdrawal of troops was controversial; but Trump received a lot of approval and appreciation in USA for this decision. A lot of troops have left the state but a number of them are still in Syria for various purposes.
Syrian War has been going on for a decade. Unlike the uprising in other states, the Syrian uprising has taken a shape of the civil war, with different religious, ethnic, and political groups involved. The war has not only become a struggle for dominance between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also a proxy war between USA and Russia. The fall of Assad regime seems difficult since Assad has direct support from Russia and indirect support from China. USA also has not been very active in taking a serious action against Assad, since their top most priority in Syria was ISIS. However, the use of chemical weapons against the civilians by Assad is still a major concern for the International community. States have undoubtedly got themselves involved in the war, but their intervention seems to be the means of fulfillment of their own national interests, rather than protecting the rebels from the terrorist rule of Assad. The conflict is important because its outcome can reshape the Arab Middle East. Russia tried its best to help its only ally left in the Middle East and USA has been trying to not make it happen. The long going war is expected to continue as long as Assad remains in power and his fall continues to be illusive since he is backed strongly by Iran and Russia.