The Syrian Situation at the Beginning of the Fourth Year of Conflict

Mathilde l’Hôte, translated by Kendall Maxwell
10 Mars 2015

Syria is entering its fourth year of conflict after experiencing its bloodiest year so far in 2014. This statistic was part of a report from the Syrian Human Rights Observatory, dating from 1st January 2015. With an estimated total of 76,000 deaths in 2014, 3,000 more than 2013, the total number of victims has been raised to more than 200,000 since 2011. While it is difficult to accurately classify the victims’ profiles, it appears that the entire population is affected. Especially affected are civilians; no less than 17,790 non-combatants have died in the past year. Recap of the country’s chaotic situation

In the streets of the ancient city of Aleppo. Jack Hill / SIPA
In the streets of the ancient city of Aleppo. Jack Hill / SIPA
Bashar Al-Assad’s regime remains one of the three main forces in the country. His supporters still occupy a predominant position in western Syria. The battle in Aleppo is one of the most important of the war. Currently, loyalist forces are surrounding the city with the intention of isolating the rebels and achieving the same tactical result as they did in the city of Homs, which was won back by the government in 2014. The city, which was previously home to at least one million people, now only has at most 100,000 residents, leaving plenty of space for the fighting between armed forces in the area. Hezbollah, meanwhile, controls the northern part of the country, and gives considerable support to the regime.

Radical but Divided Opposition

While the opposition is indeed divided, there has been a remarkable increase in strength on the part of Al-Nusra, the Syrian extension of Al-Qaeda. Al-Nusra considers itself to be fighting for the jihadist Salafism which is also supported by two other radical Islamic groups. The group is heavily present in the south and conducts raids in Lebanon, taking military hostages in order to destabilize the country and cause division among the Lebanese. Al-Nusra demands the withdrawal of Hezbollah from Syrian territory. The group claims to have conducted a double suicide attack that resulted in 9 deaths in Tripoli on 10 January, which is in line with their strategy of intimidation. Al-Nusra’s presence is also tangible in the northwest of the country, and is in direct conflict with the regime and ISIS in the city of Aleppo. The group benefits from funding by Saudi Arabia, as well as wealthy patrons from the Gulf countries. Elsewhere, Turkey is also accused of supplying Al-Nusra with weapons. These factors have helped them to strengthen their position, becoming one of the regime’s most powerful opponents.

Islamic State has played a major part in the last few months, after imposing itself in Syria and Iraq. Although their territorial expansion is currently under control, such is not the case for their symbolic power. It has instead been strongly reinforced following air strikes by American and other Western forces. Similarly, ISIS knew how to stage their executions of hostages to denounce the decline of the American and Western systems. Notably, they dress each victim in uniforms similar to those of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Enemies of the United States have gradually come to support the organization, reinforcing its symbolic legitimacy over the territory it claims.

Although these two groups have placed themselves in opposition to the regime and on the side of the radical Islam movement, that does not mean they are allies. Al-Nusra, though it has sworn allegiance to Al-Qaeda and to its leader, Al-Zawahiri, has never officially recognized the Islamic State, nor the Caliphate advocated by Al-Baghdadi. Al-Baghdadi himself has recanted his allegiance to the mother ship of Al-Qaeda. While the two groups compete to be at the head of worldwide jihad, an alliance between them on the ground seems unlikely at the moment.

A New American Diplomacy?

The United States advocated military disengagement in the region, wanting to restrict their activity to their relationships with the Gulf States, as well as the protection of Israel. But Obama was forced to reconsider this policy, and reengaged in Iraq to combat the Islamic State. Faced with this new jihadist threat, the American administration no longer sees Iran as the main player in the region, and is focusing on Iraq. Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran are all part of the Shi’ite axis in the Middle East, as explained in Understanding the Islamic State. While Iran has been able to increase its influence in the last few years, owing notably to its alliance with the Syrian regime, its goals regarding the Islamic State are today aligned with those of the West. This makes the country a potential ally for the United States. 

In any case, because of difficult diplomatic relations between the two nations, particularly regarding the question of Iranian nuclear weapons, the United States does not wish to give Iran an excessively large role in the fight against the Islamic State. But the Americans cannot rely on other regional military forces to fight against ISIS. Although air support was deemed necessary by the Obama administration, it would be difficult to get the American people to accept the cost of a ground intervention, both in financial and human terms, given the failure of the war in Iraq. Obama announced a training program for moderate Syrian rebels, starting next March, with three objectives: protecting the Syrian population and fighting against the current regime, sustaining the Syrian opposition, and finally, attacking the Islamic State. During March, several hundred American soldiers will be deployed into Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and two other countries that have yet to be named, to put this strategy into motion. The goal is to gather 5,000 Syrians, and this figure could potentially double if the operation is a success. 

The role of the European Union

The European Union plays an equally important role in the current Syrian crisis. Following the events perpetrated in Paris at the beginning of January 2015, the EU has made its willingness to strengthen its cooperation with Arab countries against terrorism well known. A conference organized primarily by the United Kingdom and the United States was attended by members of the coalition against the Islamic State on the 28th of January. The EU, after having cut all ties with the Syrian government, has announced the return of a chargé d’affaires to Damascus, with the goal of having more direct access to information about the conflict, and opening possible negotiations with the regime.

From a humanitarian point of view, Europe hosts a remarkable number of Syrian refugees, with Germany alone counting 50,000. After the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced in December 2014 that the Commission lacked money, and that it was unable to meet the needs of an increasing number of refugees properly, the EU set aside 170 million euros to avoid “a humanitarian disaster”. Today, 80% of the Syrian humanitarian effort is funded by European and American sources.

This humanitarian emergency is all the more serious, given that the possible outcomes of the conflict are still unclear. The fourth year of conflict begins in an uncertain climate, especially since the West’s desire to combat Islamic terrorism might make them forget certain aspects of the Syrian civil war.