Geopolitics and the Invisible Battlefield of the Syrian War

Ashby Henningsen, UMBC:

Few armed conflicts occur within a vacuum in terms of their repercussions; when tensions between states or movements erupt, the political and strategic impacts often extend far beyond the borders of the countries immediately engaged. Few conflicts of the new millennium have demonstrated this as dramatically as the Syrian Civil War. Besides the ruling government of Bashar al-Assad and the various rebel factions competing for control of the country, states within and outside the Middle East have become deeply invested in the war’s ultimate outcome. The recent cessation of hostilities and agreement for humanitarian aid reached between the members of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Munich [1] only underscore the geopolitical calculations in play. These events, which ought to spur relief and optimism from all observers, both shed further insight unto the geopolitical rivalries of the foreign powers involved and may potentially affect them further. For better or for worse, the ongoing effort to conclude the fighting are as much about the competing geostrategic interests of outside states influencing the war as they are about shaping Syria itself.

Given the extent to which Syria’s civil war has devastated the country’s civilian population and civil society, the cessation of hostilities could be considered a major accomplishment in its own right. The first clear benefit of the cessation will be the reprieve that it offers innocents still residing in the country. Additionally, it will allow the UN to deliver invaluable humanitarian aid to the besieged population, which has suffered from prolonged lack of food, water, medical supplies, and other vital necessities. Finally, the current progress in talks may facilitate prolonged negotiations amongst the warring factions in Syria starting on Feb. 25 in Geneva [2]. This could in turn lead to a formal cease-fire agreement, which would offer a more tenable and secure possibility of an end to the war.

Yet flaws in the Munich deal mean that the pause of active warfare does not pause the competition among outside states pursuing their self-interests. According to Noah Bonsey of the International Crisis Group, the current deal still allows for military operations against designated terrorist groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. This could easily prove problematic in that it would allow Russia, which has supported the Assad regime, to continue operations against the extremists and relieve some of the pressure off of its ally in Damascus. Even more concerning to the U.S. and Western allies, this caveat in the cessation could allow Russia to continue targeting moderate opposition groups supported by the U.S., European allies, and Sunni Arab actors, while still claiming to be combating Islamic extremists [3]. This would further buffer Assad by undercutting Western objectives for a moderate-led regime change in Syria.

Even the permission of outside humanitarian assistance afforded by the Munich deal carries troubling geopolitical implications. International law requires the delivery of any humanitarian relief amidst an armed conflict to be neutral from any warring parties and independent of geopolitical considerations. Yet outside actors on both sides may be using humanitarian relief as a political tool to influence the outcome of the fighting. Some outside actors have already reinforced such suspicions more blatantly than others: Russia has already announced that it will use military aircraft to deliver relief supplies, a clear violation of the required impartiality of assistance. Yet the very fact that the issue of aid delivery was on the table as part of the cessation negotiations should be a concern in itself. Humanitarian organization representatives have already decried what they argue is the manipulation of humanitarian relief to serve the broader strategic interests of not only the actors directly involved, but also regional power players [4].

The tenuous condition of the cessation as a whole also prolongs pressing questions regarding the broader geostrategic stakes of the war’s final outcome. While negotiations may have momentarily paused airstrikes and firefights, the varying levels of intervention from outside powers may help determine how the conflict plays out once the ceasefire ends. Russia and Iran especially may be in an advantageous position to tip the war in Assad’s favor. Russian airstrikes have given the Syrian military a distinct edge against embattled rebel groups since they began last October [5]. Hezbollah and other Shiite militant organizations have proved an effective conduit through which Iran may also impact Syria’s political future to its advantage.  With Syrian government forces now encircling the rebel stronghold of Aleppo, Russian air support and Iranian-backed militias could help Assad gain a decisive victory. Such a scenario would prove a boon for Russian and Iranian strategic interests moving forward

On the other end of the table, the possible defeat of the moderate rebellion could represent a devastating blow to the interests of the U.S. and its allies. For some time now, various representatives of U.S. allies have criticized Washington for its perceived lack of commitment in the struggle: French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has accused Washington of being too ambiguous in its strategy and of not matching its forceful rhetoric against Assad with proportionate action. If the pause in fighting fails to facilitate further talks and hopes for a long-term peace deal collapse, the fall of Syria to Assad would strike a huge blow to the U.S. overall strategy in the Middle East. A loss in Syria could even threaten U.S. objectives outside the region. One concern is that if an Assad victory were to result in an increased flow of refugees into Europe, it could lead to further backlash among radical right-wing governments in Europe and harden European opinion against the U.S. [7].

More hangs upon the outcome of Syria’s conflict than the status of a dictator or the political endgame of a shattered country. Since the early stages of the war, outside states have tied their strategic objectives for the entire Middle East to whichever competing parties they believe will end up with the upper hand. Not even the prospect of a negotiated settlement can escape the interests that have largely manipulated events to this point. Whether these ulterior geopolitical motives can be put aside to pursue lasting peace and healing for Syria’s people, or whether the objectives and power struggles between the outside states involved continue to dictate the country’s future, remains to be seen. What is certain is that up to this point, Syria has become the focal point in a complex series of competing and intersecting interests that resonate beyond the immediate future and the region itself.



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