The five major players in the Syrian conflict

America stumbled into the Syrian civil war with conflicting missions.

Jack Murphy
October 16, 2019 - 11:36 am
Turkish backed Free Syrian Army

(Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images)

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The following is a brief primer on the main players in the now seven years-long Syrian civil war.  Anything called a primer is, of course, going to fall short on this subject as it is an incredibly complicated conflict, with dozens upon dozens of domestic and international actors and non-state actors involved.  The names of various rebel groups become meaningless at times as shifting loyalties and alliances necessitate groups working together one day and fighting each other the next. Factions splinter and fragment, merge and are co-opted.  Some receive foreign support, then have it abruptly cut off.  Rebel groups operate almost like limited liability corporations during the dot com era in which they are thrown together ad hoc from project to project.  However, there are a few well defined major actors in the Syrian conflict that one can place a finger on.

1. Kurds

The Kurds are often talked about as a homogenous political and ethnic identity.  They are not, in fact, the Kurds are anything but a monolith.  While there are dozens of Kurdish factions spread across Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, the groups we mainly need to focus on in this case are in Syria and Turkey.  Since the 1980s the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) had been engaged in a long-standing guerrilla conflict with the Turkish government, who sees them as a separatist group while the PKK fights for what they see as Kurdish human rights and local autonomy. When the Syrian civil war began in 2012 into 2013, ISIS took over a huge swath of North-East Syria where a large group of ethnic Kurds live.  Because the PKK is on America's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO), the PKK did not get directly involved but instead sent cadre members originally from Syria from the mountains in Northern Iraq back to to their home country where they established the YPG and YPJ.  The YPG was the all-male militia, and the YPJ was the female-only militia, known collectively as people's protection units.  Several years later, the United States got involved in Syria with the dual, and at times contradictory, goals of toppling the Assad regime and defeating ISIS.  With difficulty finding viable partner forces to destroy ISIS and capture Raqqa, their capital, America partnered with the YPG and YPJ.  However, Raqqa and other ISIS held areas were ethnically Arab, not Kurdish.  Therefore a larger umbrella had to be created called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which encompassed the Kurdish militias but also included Arabs as well. Together, the SDF and coalition partners all but defeated ISIS.

2. Turkey

Throughout history, Turkey has been the gateway between the east and west. Turkey is a NATO nation and a part of the European Economic Community, but not a member of the European Union itself. Negotiations to join the EU have stalled, largely due to deteriorating relations over human rights abuses as Turkey cracks down on demonstrators. The Turkish government in recent years has purged its own government, supported Jihadi groups in Syria, used refugees as a weapon against Europe, and imprisoned not just Kurds but also everyone from intellectuals to school teachers to military officers. A retired CIA case officer who worked with the Turkish MIT intelligence service in the 90s says, “that country has backslid 30 years” while a PKK member described Turkish President Recep Erdogan as having, “neo-Ottoman ambitions.” These remarks, of course, come with their own bias, but offer a snapshot as to how various parties regard one another. Erdogan has also pursued constitutional amendments to allow himself to remain in office until 2029 and has courted Islamists, signifying a break with the fiercely secular Kemalists who founded modern Turkey. Because of Turkey's conflict with the PKK, Erdogan would never accept a Kurdish enclave on his southern border. To this end, Turkey kept open the Jarabulus corridor running from Turkey down between Afrin and Kobani in Syria, through which foreign fighters and weapons flowed to various Turkish proxy groups in Syria. The latest Turkish incursion into Syria has the stated intent of creating a security buffer between Turkey and the Kurds.

3. United States

America stumbled into the Syrian civil war with conflicting missions. A portion of America's foreign policy establishment saw Syria as the continuation of the Arab Spring which had swept across the Middle East while others saw it as an opportunity to smash the Assad regime's alliance with Hezbollah in Lebanon, an Iranian proxy group. With that alliance destroyed, it would open up regime change options in Iran itself. However, the United States also had a more pressing goal: destroying ISIS. The so-called Islamic State had gone international and was conducting external operations in Europe and America. In 2014, ISIS was taking over Iraq and were only stopped outside Erbil by American airstrikes. Likewise, the Kurds in Syria were also nearly defeated in Kobani, again helped at the 11th hour by American airstrikes. The two-pronged approach continued late into the Obama administration and likely accelerated as the Russians overtly became involved in Syria. The CIA was funding and training various rebel groups to remove the Assad regime while the US military was working with the SDF to fight ISIS. The CIA covert operations failed due to the lack of secular and competent proxy forces while the military effort was a success due to them finding a reliable partner force with the SDF.  The US military had upwards to 2,000 troops stationed in North West Syria until recently who were partnered with SDF.  These were mostly Special Operations soldiers from Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and Special Forces, but also included conventional troops.

4. Assad

It may seem unfair that the Syrian government is #4 on a list about prominent players in the Syria civil war. In an ideal world, the Syrian government would be the most prominent actor in the conflict, bringing about stability. However, the Syrian government has been shunted about by dozens of foreign actors who treated Syria as a playground for proxy warfare. European nations, the US, Iran, Israel, Russia, Turkey, and most of the Gulf states have all gotten involved. At the same time, Syria's Alwite led government, and President Bashar al-Assad, in particular, has played a shrewd game of cards. The government made pragmatic decisions in order to do what was necessary to survive, such as inviting in the Russians as well as an even greater Iranian presence.  In the process of persecuting the war, Assad's forces have been accused of war crimes such as the use of indiscriminate barrel bombings and the deployment of chemical weapons.  Assad has weathered the storm, and in some ways literally stared down a world that wanted him gone. But now he is charged with the even more difficult challenge of reconstituting the Syrian state which means asserting their national sovereignty, securing their borders, reintegrating all of the rebel factions, pushing out foreign powers like the recent Turkish incursion, and healing a country traumatized by a brutal civil war.

5. Russia

Russia had always supported the Assad regime, with President Vladimir Putin valuing stability ahead of America's approach towards crusading for human rights across the world. This was the case with Libya where Putin supported Gaddafi. Despite being given assurances that the United States and France would not topple Gaddafi, they did anyway. The result was the invasion of East Ukraine and direct Russian military involvement in Syria in 2015. Russia shored up the Assad regime and supported it with airstrikes, military advisors, and mercenary groups such as Wagner which provide Russia with a degree of plausible deniability. Syria figures into Russian national interests in several ways. First, Syria was one of Russia's biggest client states right next to Libya. Syria also provided Russia's only warm water port in Tartus although they can now add Sevastopol in Crimea which they annexed in 2014. Further, Putin seeks to counter America's sphere of influence everywhere from Syria to Cameroon plus the fact that authoritarian states tend to carry a long view of history that is risk-averse to revolutions in general.

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