I wrote this post to identify key players in the current Syrian civil war. Any intervention or policy would need to consider a complex set of actors, and not simply reduce the war to opposition vs. Assad. I have focused on more general information, and included fewer details about specific events. My sources are at the bottom, and come from academic and think-tank scholarship. I’m not an international affairs expert, nor am I an expert on Syria; as a result I have tried to just build an outline using information from academic writing. I wrote this to document my own study of the Syrian civil war, with the goal of providing some clarity to all the moving parts. Clarity does come at a cost, and it is certain I have misrepresented or missed important information.
I made the initial graphic to give a simplified overview of the two sides: The pro-Assad group is in the upper half, and the pro-opposition group is on the bottom half. The closer a group is to the center of the figure; the more intimately involved they are in the civil war. The working class is split, as their support is difficult to measure, but is not clearly for or against Assad (most would prefer simply to live). The size of each block has a loose and one dimensional correlation with their relative importance at the point of writing (e.g. the US could dramatically increase if they launch an attack).
Russia: Russia established a naval base in 1971 in the Syrian city Tartus. Russia and Syria do trade, but it is less than half of a percent of Russia’s GDP. The most compelling similarity is that both countries do not follow Western demands. They run crony capitalist governments, have business oligarchies, and suppress political Islam. It’s also important to note that while we often assume Russia is an autarky, the domestic population is in support of Putin.
Iran: Syria is Iran’s last major ally in the region. Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas, form the backbone of resistance against Western Arab moderates, Israel, and the US. Syria has strengthened its relationship with Iran over the past decade. This strategy makes sense, given that the US policies since 2001 have threatened authoritarian nations in the region. By strengthening their alliance with Iran and Russia, the Assad government has been able to dramatically increase its weapons arsenal.
Hezbollah, the Mahdi Army: These are both non-state Shi’a Islamic military groups. Hezbollah primarily operates out of Lebanon, with limited political representation, and the Mahdi army is the former Iraqi state army. Hezbollah plays the larger role of the two, and they both are backing Assad.
Syria has formed a strong relationship with Hezbollah and provided them with arms. While Syria cannot wage conventional war against Israel, they use Hezbollah to have the ability to command asymmetric (terrorist tactic) warfare. This has proven itself to be a strong strategy over the past decade. While conventional warfare drastically favors Israel and western actors, it is difficult to fight asymmetric tactics, as we have learned in Iraq. Syria lacks the sophisticated intelligence and weaponry held by western forces as well as the ability to leverage crippling economic sanctions.
Investment in non-state military actors is a clever strategic response. In addition, by outsourcing this branch, they are able to form a credible commitment to retaliation. For example, if the branch was formally part of their military, an attacker might hope that a decisive strike will result in surrender. And once the country surrenders, the asymmetric warfare soldiers will no longer have an incentive to engage in guerilla terrorist tactics. This is not the case, as Hezbollah has recently threatened to attack Israel if the US attacks Syria.
Corporatists: Syria operates as a market economy with a large public sector and many crony capitalists, which has provided support for the government since the early 1970s. They represent the business interests that depend on Assad, and are centered in Damascus and Aleppo. In 2010 of the 260 public enterprises, less than 10% were profitable. After replacing his father in 2000, Assad sought to expand this supportive base by increasing international trade. However, due to a perceived lack of stability over the past decade, investments did not enter, whereas cheap imports did, angering business interests.
The majority of corporatists were frustrated for having lost government rents. They no longer had the same support for the regime, and some initially participated in peaceful protests. However, the status quo was still preferable to war and death, and explains why the general population in Damascus and Aleppo appear to support Assad.
Assad Regime: The Assad regime is at the core of all events, but is in some ways the most static. The Assad family first came to power in 1970, and belonged to an Islamic sect known as Alawis. This sect represents about 10% of Syria’s population of 22 million, but composes the core of the regime and the rich land owning political elite. The group already had mass wealth, and did not depend on the government for rents. In short, their support for the regime is unwavering. The other actors have complicated interests and goals are not immediately clear. Conversely, the regime wants to retain power. The most overlooked fact about the regime is that it still has strong support. The most recent poll was conducted by the Qatar government, which is not supportive of Assad. The poll showed 55% support for his regime. His support is strongest among the corporatists and bourgeoisie of Damascus and Aleppo, the military, as well as ethnic and minority groups.
In addition to the regime, the military also is vastly overrepresented by the Alawis sect. If the regime falls, it is certain that the Alawites will no longer retain their privileged position, and will be punished for their allegiance to the regime. Moreover, they do not view other Syrians as part of their “in-group,” and as a result do not have the same issues as other militaries, when being ordered to fire on their own people. This explains their intense loyalty both to Assad, as well as to one another. Despite initial claims of mass defection, only an estimated 10,000 of 200,000 troops defected. The most high profile defection was when a non-Alawite pilot, on orders to bomb an opposition territory, instead flew to Jordan. Since then the regime only allows Alawite pilots to fly, as they are the most trustworthy.
Following Assad’s orders, the military strategy has been to defeat the opposition forces with little to no regard for collateral damage. In July 2011, Assad ordered an attack on Tremseh, the first village lost to opposition forces. Using military ‘irregulars,’ who were specifically chosen for their willingness to kill civilians, as well as attack helicopters, he sent the message that even living in an opposition controlled town was sufficient to be killed. Despite early claims that the Assad regime would fall, the Syrian military is well equipped and well trained. Most importantly, Assad’s air superiority is extremely effective both for military objectives, and to damage opposition morale.
The Working Population: Initial protests presented a picture of an enraged Syrian working class, which includes the population that does not benefit from government rents or public sector handouts. There were fewer protests in Damascus and Aleppo, which could be due both to higher living standards or a stronger military presence. As protests grew in 2011, the regime acted with swift cruelty. Over the following year the opposition began to grow, and the protests began to subside. The details of the timeline far surpass what can be included in a paragraph, but the short version seems to be that most civilians weren’t willing to die for a protest. Those that were willing to die, would rather die with a gun in their hand, and formed the base of the opposition.
Despite claims that the opposition owns 70% of the country, this isn’t the case. The Assad regime has fortified Damascus and Aleppo, and has strategically withdrawn from other cities. Most contested cities lack clear governmental rule. Even if they did claim ownership of various cities, it offers them no additional ability to wage war, and in that respect is meaningless. In fact, the opposition has recently pulled out of cities for this very reason, as all it has done is increased civilian deaths at the hands of the Assad regime. The general civilians in these areas are either under control of their own militia, local sectarian warlords, and in some cases foreign terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaida.
Syrian National Council (SNC):
The Syrian national Council is the alleged strategic base of the opposition. The SNC does have a formal leadership, but is ultimately composed of a wide set of smaller organizations. The SNC leadership appears to recognize allied groups based on what is most likely to gain support from other nations; as a result they claim to only formally represent groups interested in replacing Assad with a democratic ‘western friendly’ government. For example, they formally exclude the Jabhat Al-Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda linked). It is difficult to tell if this does represent their true interests, and how many of those fighting alongside the SNC support this goal. What is more disturbing is that many of the opposition fighters have committed crimes against humanity similar to the Assad regime. And while the leadership distances themselves from these war criminals, it is difficult to verify if this reflects a reality on the battlefield.
Al-Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda):
The Al-Nusra Front has been estimated to only form 10% of the opposition. However, they are suspected to be the best trained, armed, and commanded. They receive funding from Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Pakistan. The most successful and well planned suicide bombings and assassinations in Damascus and Aleppo are attributed to Al-Qaeda. They have also engaged in brutal attacks on government empathizers and civilians. It is often assumed that their goal is to replace Syria with an Islamic government. However, leaders of the Al-Nusra front have denied this as their primary goal. A more pragmatic goal would be to carve out areas of Syria as a regional foothold to gain resources and expand. They have already begun state-building, and have set up humanitarian relief efforts, religious courts, and schools in smaller towns abandoned by the government. They have also successfully raided and stolen government weaponry, and will likely attempt to expropriate chemical weapons from the Assad government
Saudi Arabia, Jordan, & Qatar:
These three countries have supported and supplied the opposition forces, as they oppose the Syrian government, as well as their Iranian allies. Their support of small arms and rockets has been necessary for the opposition forces to arm themselves.
The US has recently debated entering the military conflict. However, this debate has seemed to ignore existing US intervention, as the CIA has provided limited training, supplies, and weapons to some of the opposition forces. Syria is currently in a war of attrition, but the traditional constraint of supplies has been removed through intervention in support of each side. As a result the only constraint is blood. The US has not been decisive. By providing supplies, and hinting at future intervention, the opposition forces have remained in the fight. However, the US has not set a strategic objective, and has only contributed to a drawn out bloody conflict. If the US wants Assad out of power, they ought to act. If not, they need to accept that Assad could win, and at the least will probably retain power in Damascus and Aleppo. By taking a half measure the only certainty is that more death will occur through a prolonged conflict, which might easily end the same way as if the US never intervened. Ironically, this would contribute to plenty of civilian deaths that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred.
Current arguments in favor of surgical strikes skirt over the constraints of these weapons. Tamohawk missiles are unable to penetrate bunkers and WMD storage. And, at least at the beginning of the war, Syria had a robust integrated air defense system, meaning airstrikes would require a comprehensive attack on air defense systems. If the US focuses its attack on Assad’s conventional weapons and air force, the opposition might be able to topple the regime. However, not only would Assad have a massive incentive to use chemical weapons, he could give them to Hezbollah, or Al-Qaeda could steal the weapons. Although the US may not like Assad, there is no promise the next regime would be better, and it may be less stable. It the Assad regime is directly or indirectly defeated by the US, it is possible the continuing instability would demand additional investment.
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