In recent days, the ceasefire in Syria has fallen apart, leading to a pessimistic viewpoint for the future of ending the devastating Syrian civil war. The focus of the ceasefire was to stop the fighting in order to reinstate confidence between states fighting and allow for vital aid to reach the desperate regions of Syria (1). In addition, the ceasefire would allow the United States to refocus its strategy toward combating ISIL and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. However, the ceasefire is over, and along with other events in the last month, such as U.S. special forces being driven out by the Free Syrian Army, the conflict is looking like there is no end in sight. Complexities between groups in the region and conflicting strategies from the great powers still rage on. At this point, the Syrian civil war has become so complex on multiple levels––including rebel groups, terrorist organizations and states, such as the US and Russia, each with a different stake and strategy in the conflict––that the likelihood of immediately ending this war and restoring stability to the region is growing increasingly thin.
As far as terrorist organizations and groups in the region are concerned, changes are causing more complexity and confusion. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is the Syrian jihadist terrorist organization that use to be known as al-Nusra, which was an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. The name change was prompted in July of 2016 due to cutting ties with al-Qaeda. The group now mainly operates in northwest Syria and is estimated to have between 5,000-10,000 fighters (2). The group's separation from al-Qaeda demonstrates the increasing complexity of the Syrian conflict, terrorist organizations, and the stability of the region. As more factions are created by splitting jihadist groups, the more difficult it will be to have an effective counterterrorism strategy and an end to the conflict. Not to mention, once the conflict is brought to an end, whenever that may be, the vast number of terrorist and jihadist organizations will make long-term security in the region much more difficult, as multiple groups will attempt to fill the political and power vacuums.
In addition, many rebel groups within Syria are also changing their goals and reshaping who they choose to align with. In mid-September, a video showed Free Syrian Army rebels shouting “infidels” at U.S. Special Forces on the ground in the northern Syrian town of al-Rai (3). The video appeared to show U.S. Special Forces leaving the area due to the hostilities of the FSA. The United States does support the FSA fighting ISIL, but this video shows the reluctance of some groups to receive foreign assistance when they believe they have the upper hand.
Although U.S. Special Forces were met with hostilities in parts of Syria, they will still be sent into Syria with Turkish forces to train and assist those fighting ISIL. The Pentagon backed the U.S. special operations mission even after the video surfaced out of al-Rai, as a Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis explained that “U.S. personnel operating with Turkish forces and Syrian opposition forces will provide the same train, advise and assist support they have been providing to other local partners in Syria fighting [the Islamic State]” (4). The Pentagon’s strategy indicates the defeat of ISIL as a high priority for U.S. foreign policy, especially with the coming presidential election. The alarming issue that arises from the video is that if these groups defeat ISIL or finally topple the Assad regime, it is unclear what their new targets and goals will be after they have received training and weapons.
The complexities of the conflict extend beyond the indigenous groups and terrorist organizations in the region and into the state level. Part of this conflict is somewhat reminiscent of Cold War-style conflicts with Russia and the United States being heavily involved, but not having their interests aligned. Russia and the United States do have common goals of ensuring that terrorists organizations, such as ISIL, do not have freedom of movement or territory to operate freely. However, these interests only go so far when geo-politics come into play.
The emergence of ISIL due to the lack of government in Syria and surrounding areas made the Syrian civil war into a global conflict. Besides the human rights issues and mass migration, ensuring that Syria doesn’t become a terrorist safe haven is vital to many countries that have seen a rise in terrorist attacks, such as Western European countries and the US. However, Russia and the United States have conflicting foreign policies when it comes to achieving an end goal. Russia’s intervention was partially an attempt by Putin to show the rest of the world that Russia still is a great power that has influence throughout the world. It seems that much of Putin’s foreign policy is based on protecting Russia’s image and ensuring that they have a role when it comes to international events.
The United States has a vested interest in ensuring that Syria does not become a complete failed state; however, the issue with U.S. policy in the area is that it is ambiguous and doesn’t have a plan for the conflict once it is over. The U.S. clearly is not supportive of the Assad regime due to the human rights issues surrounding the conflict, but the ousting of Assad will likely lead to a complete failed state, filled with thousands of militia groups. In addition, establishing a government within Syria that would fit the criteria to be recognized by the international community would be highly unlikely.
The volatility of the conflict was exemplified by the recent ceasefire failing. The ceasefire was not upheld by the Syrian Regime on Sept. 19, as they accused the other side of not holding up the deal. Syria and Russia’s air campaign resumed, resulting in the bombing of a UN convoy (5). The agreement was originally negotiated by the Russian and U.S. governments in order to stop the fighting and allow for aid to reach desperate parts of Syria. This failure signals that an end to the conflict is not going to be coming any time soon. Further complicating matters, the United States is looking to arm Kurdish groups in the north, which would greatly unsettle Turkey, a NATO ally of the U.S. (6).
The Syrian conflict has become so complex at various levels, from the militias fighting to the states that are attempting to play a role in the outcome. The next U.S. administration will need to come up with a long-term plan in order to ensure that Syria does not become a complete failed state, if the Assad regime is toppled.
(1) "The Ceasefire Unravels." The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 24 Sept. 2016. Web. 24 Sept. 2016. <http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21707495-resumption-fighting-signals-even-darker-days-syria-ceasefire-unravels>.
(2) News, BBC. "Syria War: Who Are Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham?" BBC News. N.p., 1 Aug. 2016. Web. 24 Sept. 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-36924000
(3) News, BBC. "US Special Forces 'chased from Syria Town Al-Rai' - BBC News." BBC News. N.p., 17 Sept. 2016. Web. 21 Sept. 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-37396586
(4) Gibbens-Neff, Thomas. "U.S. Special Operations Forces Begin New Role alongside Turkish Troops in Syria." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 16 Sept. 2016. Web. 21 Sept. 2016. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2016/09/16/u-s-special-operations-forces-begin-new-role-alongside-turkish-troops-in-syria/>.
(5) "The Ceasefire Unravels." The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 24 Sept. 2016. Web. 24 Sept. 2016. <http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21707495-resumption-fighting-signals-even-darker-days-syria-ceasefire-unravels>.
Image: © Hunterbracewell | Dreamstime.com - Man Balancing On Tank Gun.Azaz,Syria. Photo