Rival blocs, reminiscent of the cold war era, are massively pilling up forces and weapons around Syria. On the one hand are Russia, President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest ally and backer in the civil war that engulfed the Middle Eastern country since 2011, and Iran. On the other are the US and its prominent NATO allies, Britain and France.
Before Russia fully threw its massive weight behind al-Assad, regime change was almost certain, as the rebels increasingly gained ground, propelled by support from the west. Attempts by the UN to broker a peace deal failed on all occasions because regime change was always on the table, which President al-Assad and his backers vehemently rejected. But that has since changed because Russia’s military backing has since neutralised the rebel forces and helped the embattled Syrian regime regain control.
But the war is far from over, as pockets of rebels are still fighting to the death. And al-Assad, desperate for a resounding victory, is willing to use every means, foul or fair, to defeat them. This is why the latest imbroglio over Douma does not come as a surprise.
Douma, a city in eastern Ghouta, is the last rebel stronghold. The battle to oust the rebel from their remaining strongholds of eastern Ghouta began in February, 2018. Relentless assaults from al-Assad forces left hundreds of civilians dead. But the rebels were undaunted, up until the end of February.
In March, the regime launched a final onslaught and Douma, housing about 150,000 people, became a target mainly because the group controlling it, Jaysh al-Islam, had refused to give up. Following the failure of negotiations with the rebels last weekend, the Syrian government resumed air strikes on the city, culminating in the use of what was suspected to be chemical weapons.
While it cannot be claimed with definite finality that it was the handiwork of the forces loyal to the regime, the fact that air strikes had taken place, targeting civilians shelters, suggests the regime’s complicity. But Syria could as well be a sacrificial lamb.
The battle for the soul of the beleaguered country has been nothing short of a proxy war between old, formidable rivals. Russia, the United States of America, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have for various reasons, been deeply involved in the conflict.
Russia’s support for the al-Assad regime is not in any way altruistic. It is basically to defend its interests in the country, particularly its naval facility at the port of Tartous, the country’s only Mediterranean base for its black sea fleet. Another key interest is Russia’s air base in Latakia, where it has its forces.
To protect these interests Russia has done everything, from blocking resolutions at the UN Security Council not favourable to al-Assad to providing weapons to the Syrian forces, regardless of criticism from rivals in the west and the international community.
One excuse Russia gave for its military support to the government of Bashar al-Assad was an urgency to defeat terrorist groups like the Islamic State (IS) that were fighting in and had annexed parts of the country. But, often, Russian air strikes target rebels enjoying the backing of the west, which result in retaliatory air strikes that further affect civilians and compound the problem.
Directly opposed to Russia’s stance and leading the anti-al-Assad alliance is the US, which insisted from the outset that regime change was inevitable. In order to weaken the al-Assad regime the US gives what it describes as limited military support to moderate rebels. But, like it was in Libya, it is believed that the support is aimed at empowering the rebels to the point of being able to overthrow the regime. But that has, so far, failed to happen.
Yet, despite carrying out strikes on jihadist fighters, including the IS, the US is reportedly tactically refusing to hit such targets where it believes doing so would put President al-Assad’s forces at an advantage.
The Saudi-Iranian religious-cum-political rivalry also comes into play in the conflict. This explains why both are heavily involved. Iran is Russia’s key ally in backing the Syrian Shia regime. Being a regional Shia heavyweight, it is heavily providing military, political and financial aid to the al-Assad Alawite government.
Using its regional power, Iran has played a substantial role in mobilising Shia support from its (Iran) militias as well as from Iraq, who while protecting Shia holy sites fight alongside Syrian forces. Also, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia movement loyal to Iran has fighters in western Syria, on the side of the regime.
Conversely, Saudi Arabia, for obvious reasons, is on the other side of the divide alongside the US. Like its military expedition in Yemen, where the Shia have been directly targeted, it is believed that the Sunni Saudi rulers want to oust President al-Assad more for religious and political reasons. Whereas Saudi forces were sent to Bahrain to crush a Shia uprising at the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011, the Kingdom has consistently called for the forceful removal of the Syrian regime.
Following a similar chemical attack in 2013 that was blamed on al-Assad, Saudi Arabia wanted a swift military action but was disappointed when the Obama government chose not to. It is believed that, in order to undermine Iran’s regional dominance and weaken the Syrian regime, Saudi Arabia provides massive military and financial supports to different rebel groups in Syria.
The last filament to the conflict is the Turkish involvement, which like the others is also for its own interests. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been a staunch critic of President al-Assad and has on various occasions accused him of being a dictator that caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
Being a major supporter of the Syrian opposition, Turkey allows its borders to be used as a route for the shipment of weapons to the rebels. It has also played host to nearly two million Syrian refugees.
The significance of these divergent interests is that they have helped the conflict to endure with colossal damage to the people and country. By using Syria as a proxy these countries are either trying to assert their global or regional dominance, while directly avoiding direct confrontations with each other.
However, with the current tension over last week’s allegation of the use of chemical weapon against the government of al-Assad, will these global and regional powers escalate the conflict to a major war? It is unlikely. Already, the US President Donald Trump appears to have back-pedalled on his promise to hit Syria soon. But should he make good his promise, is Russia likely to hit back? That, too, remains to be seen.