I remember, as a kid, hearing the phrases “Iraqi refugees,” “ten killed in Afghanistan,” and “the Iraq War,” these terms and others, eventually, becoming normal for me. Without context, the phrases seem routine. This is how it must feel for billions around the world, constantly hearing about the horrors of the Syrian Civil War, but packing them away as if it were just another day.
To an extent, it is. At the time of writing this piece, over 500,000 people have been killed, 96,000 of them civilians. War crimes are committed daily. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has gassed its own people on multiple occasions. Multiple foreign powers are involved, further complicating the already intractable conflict. With all of these facts, it is hard to predict just how such a humanitarian catastrophe will end.
Yet all one must know is this: as of August 2017, Assad is dangerously close to winning. The rebels are fighting among themselves, with the rebel groups Ahrar al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham having declared war on each other because of the latter’s repressive form of governance in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. Russia, and more importantly, Iran, have all but saved the regime from annihilation, with both countries threatening US forces that are stationed in the east to fight the Islamic State (IS).
Knowing all this, the result will likely be victory for the Assad regime, guaranteeing many more years of civil strife in Syria. Rebels have no reason to and, as a result, will not accept a resurgent Assad regime. Because of this, northwest Syria, one of their most prevalent bases of operations, will remain a site of intense conflict. Further exacerbating the situation is the reality that the Syrian economy is in shambles, with its gross domestic product less than half of what it was before the war. The UN Refugee Agency has declared that “hope is fading fast.”
With the Assad regime staying in place, Russian and Iranian interests will be well-served. Iran, in return for its help, will likely get a Syrian satellite state, as it has in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. Syria will also provide Iran with another state from which to project its influence against Saudi Arabia, its principal Sunni enemy. And the Syrian people, just like they have been for the last 46 years, will be subjugated again.
The Russian Federation will also receive a satellite state in Syria, but to a lesser extent than Iran -- this time in a region where, previously, Russia had not enjoyed nearly as much influence. Alliance with Iran gives the Federation an opportunity to undermine American interests further. Even Israel admits that it now has to factor in Russian interests with any decision it makes in the Gulf.
For the region itself, regime victory makes a Sunni-Shiite struggle all the more likely. President Assad, an Alawite, which is a member of a sect of Shia Islam, has been persecuting Sunnis since the start of his rule. Assad’s treatment of Sunnis was aggravated by the war, according to Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf by Lawrence G. Potter. Instead of conflicts like these being confined to proxy wars, such as those in Iraq and Syria, however, Saudi Arabia, the Sunni superpower in the region, and Iran, its Shiite counterpart, (both of which are not nuclear states) could very well come to direct blows with each other. Inevitably, this result would embroil the US because of its obligations to Saudi Arabia, America’s principal ally in the area.
Beyond that, a Lebanese-Israeli war would be made more likely by an Assad victory too. One of Iran’s main goals in supporting the Assad regime has been building a land bridge from itself to the Mediterranean, which would allow it to cheaply ship weapons like missiles to its ally Hezbollah, which rules Lebanon. With Lebanon sharing Israel’s northern border, a war between the two states would be devastating. It would be especially so because Lebanon puts underground the missiles it receives from Iran, making the prediction of a strike especially difficult. If this trend continues, Israel will be forced to make a preemptive strike.
These skirmishes could very well be the prelude to a conflict much wider than the Syrian Civil War, as powers like Saudi Arabia and Israel have been slowly pushing aside their differences to deal with their common enemy: Iran.
And finally, the Islamic State. For those who thought it was gone, newsflash: treating the symptoms and not the problem itself usually leads to the recurring of those symptoms. Because of Assad’s brutality, rebels and those left without legitimate government have had to turn to unsavory options, among them being HTS, formerly Al-Qaeda in Syria, and IS, formerly Al-Qaeda in Iraq until 2013. Of course, these two groups (the latter of which not having been included in the rebel fold since 2014, per The Syrian Jihad by Charles Lister) don’t represent the bulk of rebel forces. Ahrar al-Sham has taken great pains to oust HTS from Idlib, though they were forced to cede chunks of territory to the latter last month.
But as long as illegitimate forces like HTS and the Assad regime continue to brutalize their own constituents, space for IS will exist. This will be the case especially because of IS’ status as members of the Hanbali school of Islam, specifically Wahhabism. This is a sect of Sunni Islam, the exact opposite type that the Assad regime practices. And because of, again, the rampant persecution of Sunnis, people will be forced into the arms of this terrorist group.
It’s ironic that supporters of Assad say that, with the current approaches and alliances among the Gulf states, there will be peace and stability in the Middle East. The likelihood of such a peace remains elusive under the present circumstance, but before it comes, if ever, millions will have to experience first-hand just how wrong those predictions are.
Photo credit British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, OGL