In the second half of the 19th century, a “Great Game” was played out between the British and the Russian empires seeking dominion of Central Asia. More than a century and half later, a new “Great Game” is being played out in Syria for dominance of the Middle East. The only difference is that there are multiple players in this great game. While the United States and its European allies and Russia are the primary actors in this game, the role played by the regional powers like Israel, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states as well as non-state actors/terrorist outfits have added to the complexity. The Syrian civil war ceased to be an internal conflict a long time ago. It has turned into a battle ground for influence in the Middle East, a realignment of forces and the balance of power that it accompanies.
In 2011 successful uprisings that brought about regime change in Egypt and Tunisia and came to be known as the Arab Spring gave hope to Syrian pro-democracy activists. In the March of 2011 peaceful protests erupted in Syria’s southern city of Daraa after the arrest and torture of fifteen teenagers who wrote graffiti and other revolutionary slogans in support of the Arab Spring. One of the teenagers, thirteen year old Hamza al-Khateeb was brutally tortured and later killed. The Assad government responded to the protests by opening fire on demonstrators, killing many of them.
Till the first week of April, the main demand of the protesters was democratic reforms, release of political prisoners, an increase in freedoms, abolition of emergency law and an end to corruption. In the second week of April, there was a shift towards a call to overthrow the Assad government. By 22nd April, the protests had occurred in twenty cities. By the end of May 2011, nearly 1000 civilians and about 150 security personnel had been killed and thousands detained.
Significant armed resistance against the government took place in the first week of June 2011. The protests led rapidly to an armed uprising. On 30th September 2015, Russia intervened in response to an official request from the Syrian government. Russia began a sustained air campaign targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or Levant) ISIS and the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army – a faction comprising of defectors of the Syrian military which was formed in July 2011.
The Power Vacuum, US Policy and Russian Intervention
Nature abhors a vacuum. The Iraq experience demonstrated that withdrawals created a vacuum that inevitably may be filled by other players or powers. A hastened and unplanned withdrawal of US forces from Iraq sowed the seeds for the growth of the Islamic State. Eight years of Obama Administration transformed the strategic calculus of the Middle East. It was once said that the U.S. was the guarantor of security in the Middle East. The Obama years replete with intransigence and indecisiveness, and in particular, its failure to act when the Assad regime forces used chemical weapons against its own citizens in August 2013 gave a fillip to the Kremlin to step in. President Obama, in fact reneged on his self-imposed red line and decided against a military response to the use of chemical weapons. Instead in a naïve and fool-hardy manner, he acquiesced with Kremlin’s proposal to allow its client Syria to “surrender” its chemical weapons stockpile. This summed up the US policy in Syria. With the exception of Syria, Russia does not have much influence in the larger Middle Eastern region. Moscow is aware that any change in the domestic situation in Syria is bound to impact Russia and its policies.
There are three components to Russia’s policy towards Syria and elsewhere: 1) in a kind of modern version of the Brezhnev Doctrine, Putin will fight to ensure Russia does not lose influence in Syria, and that influence is tied to the fate of the Assad regime; 2) Russia becomes unnerved when it sees states crumble from within with what it believes to be the help of outside actors like the United States—e.g. what they believed happened in Ukraine; and 3) Putin wants the world to know that Russia is back; it is a power that must be reckoned with and cannot be ignored.
And the Americans did just that – IGNORE. Russia under Putin was fast becoming a revanchist power and the US and the West simply failed to comprehend this reality. The West was slow to recognize the dangers posed by the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s revisionist policies. At the Wales Summit in September of 2014, NATO identified the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as a “grave threat” to its members. While expressing great concern about and condemning Russia’s aggressive policy in Ukraine—and noting the various steps taken to deal with the challenges of that policy—the Alliance declined to characterize Russia as even a threat. Indeed, although the Summit statement spoke of the need to provide “assurances” to Allies in Eastern Europe, it did not speak of deterring the Kremlin.
This same reluctance was evident nearly a year later, in the summer of 2015, when General Joseph Dunford testified before Congress as President Barack Obama’s nominee to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General Dunford identified Russia as an existential threat. Later that day, however, Josh Earnest, the Presidential press spokesman, said that Dunford’s observation “reflects his own view and doesn’t necessarily reflect the view—or the consensus—of the President’s national security team.” This was further exacerbated when the next day Secretary of State John Kerry also stepped in and made clear that he did not view Russia as an existential threat. It was amateurish to say the least.
According to Col. Robert E. Hamilton “Syria also figures prominently in Russia’s geopolitical calculus for what it represents: a chance for Russia to take a stand against what it sees as a U.S.-engineered series of regime changes that target the stability of Russia itself. From the “Color Revolutions” in the former Soviet Union to the Arab Spring uprisings, many Russians believe the U.S. is carrying out a deliberate and comprehensive program of enforced democratization, with Russia as its ultimate target.
In the Russian view a western process of democratization is catastrophic and is a recipe for chaos and renewed civil war. This apprehension is not entirely unfounded. After all, voters in a country that has experienced years of conflict that morphed into a bitter ethnic and sectarian civil war with considerable interference by outside powers can hardly be expected to have sufficient trust in the democratic process to refrain from casting their votes along those same ethnic and sectarian lines. And the political institutions of a country riven by such ethnic and sectarian violence can hardly be expected to contain the grievances this violence has stoked, especially if those institutions themselves are divided along ethnic and sectarian lines. So the Russian concern with democratization imposed from without, in a country with deep divisions in identities has a potential to plunge the country into renewed civil war.
A second Russian concern, not expressed openly but deeply held, is that if a democratically elected government in Syria does manage to hold itself and the country together, it will turn Syria from a strategic partner of Russia into an adversary. This is because any democratically elected government in Syria, a country with a 74% Sunni majority, is likely to align itself with the other Sunni regimes in the region and against Russia. In this case, Russia stands to lose one of the two pillars of its regional strategy, along with its air base at Latakia (Khmeimim or Hmeymim) and its naval base at Tartus. Russia’s air base at Latakia and naval base at Tartus are extremely significant because they serve as launch pads for possible Russian military operations in the region. Kremlin’s military planners will try to secure these two vital pieces of real estates.
On 18 January 2017, Russia and Syria signed an agreement, wherein Russia was to be be allowed to expand and use the naval facility at Tartus for 49 years on a free-of-charge basis and enjoy sovereign jurisdiction over the base. The treaty allowed Russia to keep 11 warships at Tartus, including nuclear vessels; it stipulated privileges and full immunity from Syria′s jurisdiction for Russia′s personnel and material at the facility.
According to Jane’s Defence Weekly, there exists within Syria two secret signals intelligence ‘spy posts’ operated jointly by Russia and Syria. The biggest Russian electronic ‘eavesdropping post’ outside Russian territory was established in Latakia in 2012. Another signals intelligence post, “Center S” ("Центр С" in Cyrillic script), operated jointly by Russian OSNAC GRU radio intelligence agency and a Syrian intelligence agency, situated near Al-Harra close to the Golan Heights on the Israeli border was captured by rebels belonging to the Free Syrian Army[i] in October 2014 during the Daraa offensive. Russian Main Intelligence Directorate’s OSNAC unit – its signals intelligence unit, much like the American NSA or Unit 8200 in Israel– had been operating from within a Syrian regime base near the border with Israel. Russian troops had been collecting intelligence against Syrian rebels. This makes sense: Russia is deeply involved in the Syrian civil war and has often filled the role of international bodyguard for Bashar Assad. But the video also revealed that OSNAC officers had been collecting operational intelligence on Israel.
Iranian interests and game plan
Since the Syrian civil war started in 2011, Iran has been dispatching soldiers, militias, money and weapons to support the Assad regime. The result has been the transformation of Syria from an authoritarian military dictatorship friendly to Iran to an Iranian proxy in desperate need of Iranian support just to stay alive. Syria is vital to Iran’s strategic interests in the Middle East and has long been its closest ally. Some believe Tehran has been backing the Assad regime in Damascus because of their shared religious roots. Both ruling cliques claim affinity with the heterodox Shia, who is a minority in an Islamic world populated by orthodox Sunnis.
Little binds the Iranian Shia, known as Twelvers, with the Alawi Shia who rule Syria. The ninth-century founder of the Alawi sect was an adherent of the eleventh of the Twelvers’ religious leaders. He promoted doctrines that were incompatible with Twelverism and was declared an infidel by medieval Twelver scholars. Later Alawi theologians went even farther, abrogating many of Islamic laws such as fasting during the month of Ramadan while advocating the non-Islamic concept of the transmigration of souls. They went so far as to deify Muhammad’s cousin Ali, claiming that he was the true recipient of the prophetic message. They adopted Christian and pagan holidays.
These teachings did not sit well with medieval Twelver scholars. The tenth-century Twelver heresiographer Abu Muhammad al-Hassan ibn Musa al-Nawbakhti claimed the Alawi founder propagated the un-Islamic belief of the transmigration of souls and permitted homosexual relations. Jurists such as the eleventh-century scholar Muhammad bin al-Hassan al-Tusi accused the Alawis of heresy and cursed them for permitting what was forbidden.
This suited the Alawis. They believed they were the true holders of the original Islamic message, and had little affection for Muslims who refused to follow them. The Twelvers viewed them as enemies, and in 1834 raised troops for the Ottomans to quash an Alawi revolt.
Sometimes Alawis did not even identify as Muslims. When European travelers began visiting Syria in the eighteenth century, Alawis informed them they were Christians. Isolated in their mountain strongholds, they had little interaction with Muslims. But modernity shattered these walls. To prevent missionaries from claiming them as lost Christians, the Ottomans asserted they were Muslims. Mosques were built. But the Alawis rejected these attempts of integration into the Islamic community. When the French ruled Syria, they too tried to incorporate them into the Islamic fold. Twelver judges were imported to establish courts. But the Alawis rebuffed them as well. In 1948, Alawi students went to the Twelver center of Najaf, Iraq to learn their doctrines. But after being ridiculed and scorned, most quickly returned home.
In the 1960s, Alawis officers took power in Syria. But they did not establish cordial ties with Iran. Instead, it was the Iran-Iraq war that proved a turning point. Tehran was an international pariah, rejected by the West and fearful of Soviet communism. It was desperate for allies. The Syrian president detested his Iraqi counterpart and saw the war as an opportunity to weaken him. Iran bolstered a flailing Syrian economy in 1982 by providing free oil. But religious ties between the Alawis and Twelvers were as strained as ever. A 1985 American diplomatic cable noted that Twelver scholars “view the Alawis as heretical and despicable.” Indicative of the abyss between them, Twelvers sought to proselytize among the Alawis. Six preachers were arrested for doing so in 1996.
But Iran’s Syrian strategy derives less from spurious religious ties than it does from geopolitical factors. Surrounded by hostile pro-Western nations, Iran needs all the allies it can find to ensure that its regional interests are protected.
Iran and Syria built a defensive alliance based on mutual adversaries and fears. Historically apprehensive of American and Israeli designs in the Middle East, they share limited interests beyond their anti-Western ideology. But even this was not enough to persuade Syria to put both feet in the Iranian camp. Damascus always tried to keep Tehran at a comfortable distance, so as to not alienate Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries.
Today, Iran fears the fall of the Alawi regime would result in a Sunni government, which would ally with its rival Saudi Arabia. It worries about the regional isolation that would ensue. A regime change in Damascus would wipe out the regional gains that it has carefully cultivated for almost forty years. Since the onset of the civil war, Iran has provided the Assad government with financial, technical and military support, including training and some combat troops. According to some unconfirmed estimates approximately 10,000 Iranian operatives were thought to have been in Syria. But according to an assistant professor and researcher at Webster University, Iran had aided Syria with limited number of deployed units and personnel. The Gatestone Institute estimated that as of late 2016, Iran controlled over 70,000 troops deployed in Syria (15,000 soldiers of the Iranian military, 20,000 members of the Iran controlled over 70,000 troops deployed in Syria (15,000 soldiers of the Iranian military, 20,000 members of Liwa Fatemiyoun, an Afghan Shia militia formed in 2014 to fight in Syria and funded by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps - IRGC, 20,000 Iraqi militiamen ten different groups, 10,000 Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, and 5,000 to 7,000 Pakistani and Palestinian militiamen), while also paying monthly salaries to 250,000 "militia and agents" supporting the Assad government.
Iran’s primary foreign military arm, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps – Quds Force (IRGC-QF), appeared to be leading this effort. The U.S. Department of the Treasury (USDOT) designated IRGC-QF Commander Major General Qassem Suleimani and Operations and Training Commander Mohsen Chizari in May 2011 for their role in “the violent repression against the Syrian people.”The extent of IRGC-QF involvement in Syria became clearer in February 2013 when Iranian Brigadier General Hassan Shateri was assassinated in the Damascus countryside while traveling to Beirut, after having travelled to Aleppo. The Quds Force is responsible for Iran’s external operations, and Commander Suleimani played a prominent role managing Iranian activity in Iraq, and hence was given a role in Iran’s Syria policy. The extent of IRGC-QF involvement in Syria became clearer in February 2013 when Iranian Brigadier General Hassan Shateri was assassinated in the Damascus countryside while traveling to Beirut, after having travelled to Aleppo. Shateri was a senior Quds Force commander who had been operating covertly in Lebanon since 2006 as the head of Iran’s Committee for the Reconstruction of Southern Lebanon under the alias Hessam Khoshnevis. Prior to his time in Lebanon, Shateri had operated in Afghanistan and Iraq. The presence of such a high-ranking commander inside Syria highlights Tehran’s commitment to achieving its objectives in the country, as well as its potential vulnerabilities should Assad fall.
Israel’s limited intervention in the conflict
Israel is surrounded by a host of state and non-state actors inimical to its security and national interests. Throughout the Syrian civil war, Israel avoided taking sides and had largely limited its role in the conflict to targeting weapons shipments en route to Hezbollah. As the conflict dragged on and with Iran entrenching in Syria, Israel started broadening the scope of its action to prevent its key adversaries from producing or acquiring advanced weaponry in the first place. This was essentially an extension of the Begin Doctrine, pioneered by Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1981, which insisted that Israel carry out preemptive strikes to stop its enemies from constructing nuclear-enrichment plants as well as production facilities for advanced conventional weapons.
Israel has, since the eighties post the Islamic revolution in Iran, considered nuclear Iran as its foremost adversary and a threat to its existence. Given the complexity of the Syrian conflict, any Iranian entrenchment in Syria was intolerable from an Israeli perspective. With the Assad regime being propped up by Kremlin’s assistance and direct Iranian involvement, Israel has perceived and continues to see a major threat to its security emanating from Iran’s Quds force personnel and the Iranian proxy, the Shiite terror outfit the Hezbollah. At first Israel had spelt out three red lines, with a fourth added shortly thereafter. The first two pertained to Hezbollah. Israel made clear it would prevent the Shiite group from bringing into Lebanon “game-changing” weaponry, the definition of which has shifted over time, and from building or seizing control of offensive infrastructure across the armistice line in Syria’s south west, including Syrian army bunkers and bases presently under opposition control. This red line extends to Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) advisers, other Iran-backed Shiite militias or anyone else.
Second, Israel also declared its intention to block the establishment of offensive infrastructure east of the occupied Golan, whether by Hezbollah fighters and Iranian proxies or by forces linked to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (ISIS). Israel feared that Iran and its partner forces would entrench themselves adjacent to the armistice line, enabling the opening of a new front – one where Lebanese civilians (especially Hezbollah’s constituents) would be out of the line of fire; Israel would have insufficient justification, its officials fear, to readily reply in Lebanon. An Israeli official described the strikes in January 2015 (killing a prominent Hezbollah figure, Jihad Mughniyeh, along with several other members of the organisation and an Iranian officer) and December 2015 (killing Samir Quntar, who had been released in a 2008 prisoner exchange with Hezbollah and subsequently became a senior figure in the organisation) as the most salient instances of enforcing this red line. From the onset of the fighting until Russia’s September 2015 military intervention, Israeli officials sought a buffer zone – free of any hostile forces, including Assad’s army, which they saw as an extension of Tehran’s – of about 20km; after Russia deployed, and when Iran and its allies later gained the upper hand in the war, Israeli officials began to demand a 60-km buffer, though they grudgingly came to terms with a Syrian military presence within that area.
Israel’s third red line was enemy fire into territory it controlled: Israel threatened to respond in every instance, regardless of the perpetrator or intent. Until September 2016, Israel’s policy was to retaliate against the regime in reaction to any and all stray fire based on the fact that it was the sovereign power. But when rebels, under pressure, began to fire into Israel to provoke a response against the regime, Israel started firing back at them as well.
The fourth red line was never announced as such. In mid-2015, when a coalition of Syrian rebels moved toward Sweida and Jabal Druze on the south west border with Jordan, and Jabhat al-Nusra, then the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, moved northward from Quneitra, Israel cautioned Syrian rebels against attacking the Druze population of the area, particularly in the village of Hader, near the armistice line. The prime minister announced he had instructed the military “to take all the necessary actions” to protect the village’s residents. This de facto red line never attained the same prominence as the others because the risk of carnage in the village quickly faded, reemerging only in November 2017. Israel’s leadership felt forced to commit to this course of action because it faces strong pressures from its own Druze population, who serve in the Israeli army and therefore are linked with Israel’s Jewish population in what they call a “blood pact”, which many Israeli Druze claim extends to defending their relatives in Syria.
Israel is reported to have carried out strikes deep inside Syria, many of which it has not admitted to. On Feb. 10, 2018, an Iranian drone crossed into Israeli territory and was shot down. Israel responded to the Iranian incursion by dispatching fighter jets to attack targets in Syria, including the T4 also known as Tiyas air base, near Palmyra, where the Iranian drone reportedly took off from. Syrian anti-air systems retaliated, striking an Israeli F-16, which crashed after making it back to Israeli territory. This prompted Israel to hit several Syrian targets and four Iranian positions, according to the Israel Defense Forces. The attack on the T4 airbase falls within the context of the last red line that Israel drew, whereby it cannot accept Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria. This is another stage in the accelerated clash between Iran’s determination to entrench itself in the northern theater and Israel’s declared determination to prevent it. In operational terms, Iran’s expected response will be an attack, not necessarily immediate, either with a clear Iranian signature or by proxy, Iran’s preferred modus operandi. The action in all likelihood will not be launched from Iranian territory, but rather from Syria or from other operational theaters, such as Yemen (which is adjacent to the navigation lanes in the Red Sea) or from Lebanon, although an attack from Lebanon would pose a risk of wide-scale escalation. There is also the possibility of attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets worldwide, as occurred in the past. Any retaliatory attack against Israeli or Jewish targets worldwide will invite a punishing reprisal from Israel. And Iran should be aware of it.
Turkey considers armed Kurdish nationalist groups as major threats to its security. Though it officially considers the Islamic State to be a terrorist organization and a threat, its military operation in Syria has primarily been aimed at Kurdish groups. The latter part of Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in January 2018 which saw the Turkish forces’ offensive in Afrin, were focused on the Kurdish YPG and the Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Since the spring of 2015, Turkey suffered a wave of high-profile terror attacks linked to the self-pro-claimed Islamic State and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In response, Turkey deployed ground combat forces across the border into Syria, with the aim of pushing the Islamic State and Kurdish forces from a small self-declared “safe zone.” This military operation, dubbed Euphrates Shield, was part of a new Turkish security strategy to attack terrorists in their safe havens, rather than wait for them to infiltrate Turkey.
The regional dynamics of the Syrian civil war were further complicated on August 24, 2016, when Turkey sent an armored battalion and supporting ground forces into northern Syria to fight alongside nearly three thousand allied insurgents. This operation, dubbed Euphrates Shield, faced no resistance when Turkish forces entered Jarabulus, a strategic city that the Islamic State relied upon to move weapons, foreign fighters, and materials across the border. The intervention was carried out in part in Jarabulus to check the advance of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) linked to Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Shortly thereafter, Turkey sent forces across the border to al-Rai; together, these forces turned west toward Sawran and then Dabiq, a symbolic city for the Islamic State. Turkey. Turkey continues to be in illegal occupation of 3,460 square kilometer area comprising towns such as Afrin, al-Bab, Azaz, Dabiq, Jarabulus, Jindires, Raco and Shaykh al-Hadid. Turkey also threatened to attack Manbij where the US is present alongside the SDF. Rising tensions between Washington and Ankara over the coup attempt and the detention of the US pastor Andrew Brunson have not improved matters.
The Turkish army’s incursion is likely to worsen Ankara’s Kurdish problems – no longer can the Kurds be played against other Kurds. Turkish Kurds increasingly radicalized and Syrian Kurds have an active hatred of the common enemy –Turkey.
The Turkish aggression against Syria has also increased Moscow and Tehran’s leverage with Syrian Kurds. If Erdogan decides to occupy parts of Syria to prevent the Kurds from developing further cross border supply lines with the Turkish Kurds, the PKK there is likelihood that Damascus will extend support to the Kurds to bleed the Turks on both sides of the border. In a battle of wills the Moscow – Damascus alliance has the upper hand.
Russia, today, is the predominant power in the Levant. And Russia is trying to broker an understanding between the various players and obviate an escalation of the conflict in the interests of its client state and in its own interests. On the other hand, the Trump Administration has not shown any explicit interest in countering the growing Russian influence in the region. The Trump Administration has not made any new policy pronouncements in respect of Eastern Syria. When it committed forces to Syria to fight ISIS the US had allied with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). However the support seems to have wavered. The SDF also has begun having doubts about the US role especially after Turkish forces took over Afrin which was under the control of Kurdish YPG. According to Shalom Lipner if Pax Americana is dead in the Middle East, it is only because the US has euthanized it. The US needs to reverse the trend in order to play a meaningful role in Syria and the entire region.