Written by: Freddy Vorlop
The Syrian Civil War began eleven years ago as a series of protests against the tyrannical government of dictator Bashar al-Assad. In the years following, many different national and international actors intervened in what became a large-scale war. Millions of people have been displaced, hundreds of thousands have been killed, and many more face poverty in a nation suffering from the consequences of war. The rate of fighting has subsided in recent years and Assad’s regime has reclaimed control of most major cities. While the global media spotlight has turned elsewhere, the conflict continues, and is worth revisiting in light of the war in Ukraine and protests in Iran. These events may distract or destabilize key allies of the Assad regime, and could have major military, political, and humanitarian implications for Syria.
Though billed as a civil war, the war in Syria has attracted a range of actors, including foreign governments. Two such examples are Russia and Iran, whose interventions on behalf of the Assad regime were instrumental to its survival. Syrian government forces relied heavily on Russian military technology, air capability, and intelligence. Russia’s military focus, however, now lies with its war in Ukraine, which now receives most of its funding and troops. As a result, their appetite for war elsewhere has diminished and their military influence on Assad’s regime has waned. Russia seeks a “political end” to the war in Syria, encouraging Assad to engage in peace negotiations with Turkey, a key ally of anti-government rebel forces.
Initially, it seemed the vacuum of influence left by Russia might be filled by Iran. Iran is a regional power craving more influence. Additionally, they had been the Assad regime’s next strongest ally, providing oil and gas while Iranian-backed militias assisted government forces on the ground. Immediately after the onset of the war in Ukraine, Iran increased its troop numbers and its “security coordination” with the Syrian government. Iran’s commitment to Assad will be tested, though, as it faces a civil conflict of its own. Across Iran, people protest in mass against the authoritarian policies of the governing Islamic Republic of Iran. Continued civil unrest may prompt Iran to redirect its military attention. If protests expand, the Islamic Republic risks losing control of the military and the nation` as a whole. Regardless, it will be difficult to maintain a commitment to Syria when its own governing power is at risk.
The result for Bashar al-Assad is that his regime could be left vulnerable. With its powerful allies preoccupied, it may see a decreased ability to project force throughout the country. This power vacuum could provide an opportunity for rebel forces (known broadly as the Syrian National Army, or SNA), the effectiveness of the SNA may depend on the ambitions of its ally, Turkey. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has expressed willingness for peace negotiations, and Russia has finally succeeded in attempts to bring together government officials from Turkey and Syria. At the same time, however, Turkey attempts to reunite different factions of the SNA and prepares for a ground incursion against Kurdish militia forces in Syria. Turkey’s exact goal remains unclear, and given their interest in peace discussions, it seems unlikely to commit to an uptick in fighting against Assad. Regardless, a reunified Syrian National Army could threaten a weakened Assad government. A power vacuum in Syria could also benefit ISIS or another extremist organization. In the past, ISIS has thrived in parts of Syria lacking established order and effective government. Additionally, Kurdish militias in Northern Syria currently imprison more than ten thousand ISIS members. A Turkish invasion might allow these prisoners to escape. In summary, while there is no way to predict the future of the Syrian conflict, it is possible that the distraction of powerful allies will weaken the Assad regime and empower anti-government forces of different varieties.
Regardless of the geopolitical consequences, it is clear that recent international events will have humanitarian effects on Syria. The war in Ukraine, for example, has contributed to worsening global inflation, which is especially prominent in food and energy prices. More than ninety percent of the Syrian population lives below the poverty line and the United Nations estimates that around twelve of 21.7 million people are “food insecure”. Continued price increases of important goods like food and energy will have devastating consequences for the Syrian people. An uptick in fighting among different actors in Syria would only enhance the need for humanitarian assistance.
Globally significant events such as the war in Ukraine and the protests in Iran, have extensive impacts that are already being felt in different parts of the world, including Syria. A lack of Russian and Iranian influence has the potential to weaken the Assad regime and empower anti-government forces. However, no matter what the future of the conflict looks like, the people of Syria will be affected. Currently, Syrians suffer from the consequences of a decade-long civil war, as well as rising prices caused in part by the war in Ukraine. While the global spotlight may have moved on, the Syrian conflict continues and humanitarian assistance is needed to help the Syrian people in their suffering from domestic and international geopolitical circumstances beyond their control.