After ISIS, proxy wars in Syria loom large

Syria is now an arena for proxy conflict between the West, Russia, and Middle Eastern rivals. It’s no longer a civil war – it’s a failed state which acts as a cage match for bitter rivals

Iraqi army vehicles enter Mosul after beating ISIS
Iraqi army vehicles enter Mosul after beating ISIS


The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS, has been a predominant news item over the past two years. The war which it waged in both Syria and Iraq stoked fears across the Western world, especially as attacks took place in ISIS’s name in Paris, London and Brussels.

The fight against ISIS has made for strange bedfellows in the case of Russia and the United States, but has also reeled in, to varying degrees, other regional powerhouses such as Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

Its existence and ideology in Iraq and particularly Syria has united both friends and foes alike against a common enemy. However, if one were to remove ISIS from the picture, the war in Syria becomes one of the most dangerous and complex conflict zones in the world.

At its height, ISIS controlled just over 90,000 km2 of land, just a little smaller than Portugal. It has since lost more than 60% of that territory, with just about 36,000 km2 still in its possession (being a little larger than Belgium), according to the IHS Conflict Monitor.

The problem lies with what will happen in Syria after ISIS has been defeated. The fall of the Islamic State’s capital city in Syria – Raqqa, would be considered an important milestone for the US and Russian-led forces. The radical militant group’s ability to attract new recruits, and to continue funding its combat operations would be impacted considerably. Whilst this is good news for Syria, it does not necessarily lead to the total collapse of ISIS (which would require a separate analysis in itself), but may herald what I fear would be a more dangerous chapter in Syria’s civil war.

Attempting to understand the alliances and enmities in Syria is difficult for even the most seasoned of foreign policy observers. This point was perhaps best illustrated by a cartoon shown in The Economist some months ago, where it depicted a crowded boxing ring, in reference to Syria, with fighters (referring to the West, Russia, and the various regional powers) struggling to land punches on one another. ISIS was the common enemy which bound together countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United States, Russia, the UK, and about a dozen others. Soon, that common threat will either be eliminated or at the very least, negated. These countries will then look to ensure that their interests are secured in post-ISIS Syria. That is when things have the potential to get dicey.

There are various elements in play. After President Obama’s chemical weapon “red line” debacle a few years ago, the United States has lost a considerable amount of credibility on its policy towards Syria. To date, it has no real Syrian policy, even under the Trump Administration.

Russia has been very clear in its goals in Syria – defending its naval base in the port of Tartus, and ensuring that the Syrian regime under President Assad endures, which was not something Washington sought in the past. Iran and the Lebanon-based group Hezbollah have also thrown their support behind Assad, with multiple sources confirming that they have provided the bulk of ground forces for Syria’s military, which has given Assad a second wind.

Turkey, a NATO member, supports the Free Syrian Army, mainly comprised of Sunni Arabs, but opposes the US-backed Kurds known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are an offshoot of a group that Turkey vehemently opposes in Turkey itself – the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, Syria’s neighbours, want the fighting to end as soon as possible, given the large flow of Syrian refugees into their territory.

Iran and Saudi Arabia see the Syrian conflict as a litmus test of their respective power and influence over the Muslim world. There are many competing interests in Syria, and without the concerted effort against ISIS, existing tensions and competing interests between these Syrian groups, and their foreign sponsors/allies has the potential to bubble over into something far more dangerous – a low-level conflict between global powers.

When assessing a conflict zone, one should consider which countries have vital, core interests in the conflict, as well as the country and/or region in which the conflict is taking place. NATO allies such as the United States and Turkey support groups which fight one another. Russian and American warplanes operate in close proximity, conducting air strikes on militias allied with one another at times. Whilst there have been efforts to maintain lines of communication between the US and Russian armed forces, these efforts have been hampered by frosty relations between Washington and Moscow. A miscalculation by either side would lead to an instant crisis, which would not bode well for efforts to bring Syria back on its feet, or a more stable global political climate.

Syria represents the most complicated, and currently, understated international conflicts of our time. A peace agreement in Syria would not only require the consent of the warring parties on the ground (of which there are dozens, at the very least), but also the blessing of nearly twenty of the world’s most powerful countries. With these countries supporting different factions, a peace deal which is brokered by the West, Russia, or regional powers in isolation is a non-starter.

Syria is now an arena for proxy conflict between the West, Russia, and Middle Eastern rivals. It’s no longer a civil war – it’s a failed state which acts as a cage match for bitter rivals. Peace is not on the horizon, sadly, only more danger is.

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