The Decade Long Struggle for Syria

When the Arab Spring erupted in 2011 it very quickly spread to Syria where the Syrian people took a stand against the corrupt, tyrannical, and the brutal regime of Al-Assad. For decades the Ba’athist regime operated a police state and used sickening methods of torture to preserve its iron fist over the country and its people. Those who were unfortunate to get caught in the rule of terror were subjected to either inhumane and gruelling torture or harsh imprisonment, with prolonged sentences, whilst others disappeared altogether, never to be heard from again by friends or families. The Syrian people truly lived in a nightmare. However, when the Egyptian regime started to struggle with the uprising, this inspired the Syrian people to take their frustrations to the streets in hopes of demanding a real change by overthrowing the despotic regime of Assad.

The uprising in Syria took place across the length and breadth of the country, which caught the regime by surprise, leading to its fierce response. By 2013 the Ba’athist regime had lost the north of Syria and the Syrian people were on the cusp of launching an attack on the Damascus itself. It was at this point when the United States and other countries intervened since the fall of the Al-Assad regime posed severe concerns for American interests. Since the uprising in Syria, every power that has involved itself within the Syrian conflict did precisely the opposite of what the people desired, which was to see the end of the Al-Assad regime. It is these foreign interventions that prevented the fall of the Al-Assad regime, complicated the struggle of the people, and eventually neutralised the uprising.

Thwarting the Revolution

The uprising in Syria and in the wider Arab region posed problems for not just the global powers, but also regional players.

For America, Syria has been a pro-American regime ever since Hafez al-Assad took the reins of power. Syria, for many years before the revolution, played a vital role in safeguarding US interests within the region of Levant. Over the years, the United States has used the regime in Syria to both coerce and placate Israel over the Palestinian issue. Also, both Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar in the past have utilised the rhetoric of invoking the Golan Heights loss from the 1967 Six-Day War in bolstering the regime’s popularity and survival amongst the Syrian people. However, at the same time, the regime never gave up its pursuance of regaining the Golan Heights. And America has used this dilemma of the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel for decades to coerce Israel through Syria whenever it deemed it necessary. Nevertheless, during the Trump Administration, Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights finally became recognised by the United States owing to warm sentiments toward Israel within the Republican party.

Syria also maintained a protracted presence in Lebanon to marginalize the French-backed-Maronite influence in the country. Not only did Syria marginalize the French influence for the US in Lebanon, but Syria also created a fertile atmosphere for Hezbollah to thrive as both the Al-Assad regime and Iran possess a cordial relationship. The US has used this affiliation to balance Israel and its expansionist agenda because the US would never tolerate any power in the region to become too powerful neither the Arabs nor the Israelis.

In 2012, Rick Gladstone in New York Times stated, “The departure of Assad, the thinking goes, not only would threaten to sever Syria from Iran, which has long been a goal of the United States and its Arab allies but also could deprive Iran of its main means of projecting power in the Middle East. If Assad were to fall, Iran would lose its conduit for providing military, financial and logistical support to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.” The very reason that the US wants to keep the regime intact just goes to show that the rhetoric between Iran and the US is overstretched. Due to the above reasons, the US wanted to maintain the Al-Assad regime due to the crucial role it plays in America’s architecture in the region. When Russia proposed in 2012 for Al-Assad to step down as part of a peace deal, it was rejected by the US, which could have halted the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Syria.

For Russia, Syria is important because it needs access to the Mediterranean. Since there is a Turkish( NATO ally) presence in the Black Sea, Russia requires an alternative access to the Mediterranean Sea since access to the warm seaa are a geopolitical imperative for Russia. Russia for long had naval bases in Latakia and Tartous and the sale of arms as part of an agreement with Syria, which it wanted to retain, and to give the impression of Russian influence in the country. Furthermore, Russia cannot allow an area of its interests to fall under Western dominance via intervention as it would make Russia look feeble, which could give US-NATO the pretence to intervene in the Caucasus, or Central Asia, which are Russia’s red lines. Russia also intervened in Syria to convey its material prowess to the world, which scores more points psychologically than it does strategically. Putin’s ultimate goal has been to show off Russia’s military capabilities and preserve its commercial interests in Syria. The illusion of influence that Russia projects matters to her more than the leverage of actual influence.

For the UK and France, it is to see Al-Assad fall, which means to see American hegemony wane in the Middle East. Henceforth, via the EU, the former powers ratified severe sanctions on the Assad regime. Since America’s rise as a superpower and its intrusions in the Middle East after WW2, the former European powers have been troubled and reluctant to see America further grow in its influence and encroach over their interests in the Middle East. Moreover for Britain, owing to its close relationship with the American power, it has used this relationship to always try to get involved wherever America goes and attempt to interfere with US plans. Hence, why the pro-British Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) monitors pulled out of Syria creating pressure for the US to deal with Syria on its own. Alex Spillius for the Telegraph stated that the more the UK helps to get rid of Assad the greater stakes it leaves behind for the country. Simultaneously, over the years, the UK has also continued to provide logistical support to the US in Syria from time to time. This clearly illustrates the deceptive nature of Britain as it likes to play both cards with its so-called special ally-the US.

China’s interests were straightforward and were short-lived. The Chinese didn’t want the uprising in Syria to be successful. Since it would encourage and inspire the Muslims in Xinjiang to do the same since the bond that exists between Muslims all across the globe has proved to be robust and indestructible. Therefore, leaving China with no choice but to participate in Syria. This decision created more trouble for China than it was worth and its involvement in Syria was short-lived.

Hence, all powers except the European powers wanted Assad to remain in power since every power had vested interests regarding the Assad regime and wanted the regime to stay intact.

Maintaining the Baathist Regime

The US first needed to neutralise the uprising and the rebel group called the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Thus, the Obama Administration decided to initiate a covert CIA program to fund the Free Syrian Army (FSA) faction in southern and northern-western Syria. This was done to create a stalemate between the regime and the rebels because Obama was determined in reducing the presence of US troops in the region as a result of the Bush Administration’s disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Therefore, the US could not use its forces to stabilise the regime; instead, it used the FSA, as a proxy group because the rebels were none the wiser. Hence, the rebels failed to notice that the United States was using them for its selfish interests.

The former plan helped the United States influence the FSA’s actions and prevent them from toppling their long term ally Bashar al-Assad since the US had no other alternative to replace the regime with another pro-American regime. Furthermore, the US did not want Assad to also unleash himself uncontrolled and further deteriorate the delicate situation in Syria henceforth; the US opted to create a stalemate between the rebels and the regime until another plan could be derived for the country by the United States.

On the other hand, Bashar al-Assad subsequently decided to release a copious number of prisoners to propitiate the people and dampen their sincere attempts in overthrowing the regime and establishing a new government. These prisoners with questionable backgrounds would go on to form ISIS. Newsweek outlined, “In 2011, the majority of the current ISIS leadership was released from jail by Bashar Al Assad. No one in the regime has ever admitted this or explained why. Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, (founder of the Jihadist group, Jabhat al-Jabhat al-Nusra) was rumored to be there. Mohammed Haydar Zammar, (one of the organizers of the 9/11 attacks) was there in the prison. This is where the Syrian part of ISIS was born.” A former member of the Syrian Security Services told the Abu Dhabi newspaper, the National mentioned that “The regime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in their work, in their creation of armed brigades”.

Both the release of the prisoners and the CIA approaching the rebels and assisting them was to infiltrate the resistance and pollute the efforts of the people to bring real change to Syria.

The US also took advantage of Russian concerns in Syria to preserve the despotic regime of Al-Assad. Russia hoped that cooperation with the US by getting involved in the Syrian crisis could help remove the US and EU sanctions due to its Crimean annexation of 2014. Under the Trump administration, Mike Pence suggested that the administration’s decision on sanctions would depend on whether “we see the kind of changes in posture by Russia and the opportunity perhaps to work on common interests,” including making common cause against the Islamic State.

In reality, however, Russia became bogged down in the war in Syria and on numerous occasions was being used by the United States for its selfish interests. Russia entering Syria was a strategic blunder for Putin as Russia’s major concerns are located around its periphery in Central Asia and the Caucasus, therefore being embroiled in Syria makes little strategic sense for Russia. This manoeuvre helped America keep Russia’s focus concentrated within a region that poses less significance as compared to other primary interests located around Russian borders. It also helped America in influencing Russian actions in Syria.

When it comes to the Kurds, the US used its Kurdish allies in coercing the Assad regime, as it wanted to make it difficult for Russia from keeping the regime stable. But, in reality, the US wanted the Assad regime to remain intact. The truth is that the US never wanted the regime to collapse since it is a pro-American regime. But since Russia was also helping the Assad regime survive, America wanted to sabotage Russian efforts and make things more complicated for the Russians. For this reason, the US continued to support the Kurdish fighters against the Assad regime, which over the years drained Russia in Syria. The mainstream has severely exaggerated Russia’s power and influence in Syria because the reality illustrates that Russia has been exploited by the US on numerous of occasions since America’s influence in Syria is merely greater than Russia’s.

In October 2019, the Turkish incursion into North-East Syria helped dismantle the Kurdish fighters that the US had always supported until Ankara’s entry. However, many are confused to why the US would betray its Kurdish allies?

The issue is that the Kurdish fighters were getting the better of the Assad regime; therefore, it became beneficial for US to withdraw its support from the Kurds and instead, get Turkey involved owing to the fact that the US didn’t want Assad to get toppled. If such situation materialised then all of US efforts will go to waste within Syria. Henceforth, the Turkish entry resulted in preventing the Assad regime from collapsing by the hands of Kurdish fighters. In reality, Turkish actions have never extended into Syria’s heartland; instead, it has always been restricted towards the Kurdish fighters in Syria’s North-Eastern areas. The Turkish actions in Syria also contradicted Erdoğan’s so-called Islamic rhetoric because Ankara should have utilised their power to end the conflict and save innocent lives from being slaughtered by Assad. Instead, Turkey decided to target the Kurdish fighters who simply wanted to eliminate Assad’s tyranny. But it became clear that the US didn’t prefer such an outcome and neither did Turkey, henceforth, Turkey it went along with the US plan.

In addition, the US also required a better-equipped army than the Kurds to secure North-East Syria due to its strategic importance because of the vast sums of oil present in the region. And since the US was determined to further reduce the presence of its troops in the country it had to get other parties involved to safeguard its interests.

The Financial Times stated that “ Just a week after Turkey launched a blistering military offensive into north-east Syria, the Assad regime Ankara tried to help topple is emerging as one of the biggest winners. On Monday, President Bashar al-Assad’s troops were rolling back into a region the regime quite seven years ago, after the Kurdish militants being targeted by the Turkish air and land assault was forced to strike a deal with Damascus.” It is clear that the US wanted Turkey to come in and preserve the Assad regime by thwarting US allies-the Kurds. James Jeffery, a former American ambassador to Turkey and Iraq said: “the Kurds were a temporary tactical manoeuvre and no longer necessary for the US.”

Turkish actions in Syria illustrate that the relationship between Ankara and Washington is not in turmoil. Instead, it is all a theatre show where, in reality, there has been immense cooperation between the two in Syria. When the Turkish incursion occurred in 2019, the US applied sanctions on Ankara; however, three days later, those sanctions were removed. The former demonstrates just how serious the US was in punishing Turkey for its actions.

Syria and Arab Spring a Decade Later

The Syrian people rebelled against their regime as it never represented their beliefs and sentiments. They took to the streets to overthrow an illegitimate and despotic regime in efforts to take charge of their political destiny. However, various foreign powers and the regional powers derailed the revolution for their narrow interests. Different powers had national interests in Syria, and it was the US who dominated the Syrian landscape and overcame all other powers’ interests by either joining them or by creating tactical obstacles to counter their plans.

Today, the Assad regime has regained most of its grip on the country and it’s people. Though there is a some possibility of Assad departing from power, in reality, however, such scenario would not occur. The regime will remain intact since the US cannot replace the current regime.

The Syrian people just like all other people in the region rose to change their situation. Whilst this has been derailed, for now, the underlying issue has not gone away, which is that the situation of the people in the region is calamitous today than it was ever before. Tyrannical rule, extreme poverty, high unemployment, and economic inequality are only increasing. It is thus inevitable that another Arab Spring will emerge, which will once more challenge the status quo. It’s just a matter of time as to when this will take place.

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Hashim Abid is an Analyst and a Researcher of Global Affairs. @LSe

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Hashim Abid

Hashim Abid

Hashim Abid is an Analyst and a Researcher of Global Affairs. @LSe

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