Event ReportsPublished on Jun 01, 2018
Geopolitical faultlines which gave rise to ISIS still exist: Expert

“The Syrian conflict is complex and multi-dimensional,” according to Dr. Stanly Jhony, the International Editor of The Hindu and an expert on West Asia.

Though the Syrian conflict is talked about in terms of a Shia-Sunni conflict, there were in fact many dimensions to the crisis, as well as several key players, both state and non-state actors, each with their own interests and strategies, said Dr. Jhony while initiating a discussion on ‘Severn Years of Civil War in Syria’ at the Chennai Chapter of Observer Research Foundation on 28 April 2018.

Syria is a Sunni-majority country ruled by the Assad family, which comes from the minority community of Alawism, which is an off-shoot of Shiism. While the conflict in Syria now appears to be a two-sided one, between the Alawite/Shia-dominated Syrian government, headed by President Bashar al-Assad and the Salafi jihadists or ISIS who are Sunni, this crisis should be seen through a wider geo-political lens, taking into account the extended neighbourhood and also by going slightly further back in history.

Dr. Jhony traced the Syrian conflict to the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’, or ‘ISIS”, lately known as IS. “How did a group virtually unheard of in 2013 rise up and capture Syrian territories as large in area as Great Britain?” he asked. The key to understanding the future of West Asia and its extended neighbourhood lay in understanding the rise and retreat of ISIS, he observed. It was important to ask how the geo-political fault-lines in West Asia allowed such an organisation to come up.

Dr. Jhony assessed the geo-political fault-lines in the region and traced it back to the US war in Iraq, which not only led to a rise in terrorism but also upset the sectarian equations within Iraq with repercussions in the extended neighbourhood as well. He pointed out that this issue has been analysed in great detail in his new book, ‘The ISIS Caliphate’ (Bloomsbury, 2018).

Multiple dimensions

Dr. Stanly Johny pointed out that at the heart of the Syrian conflict is the fact that the Assad government is supported by Iran, which has several Sunni rivals in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This has given the Syrian crisis, which was essentially a crisis of internal stability, multiple geo-political dimensions. When the anti-government protests began in Syria, Iran’s regional enemies saw this as an opportunity to weaken its influence in the region. He observed that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Jordan as well as the US went against the Assad regime, while Iran and Russia supported it.

Dr. Jhony said that Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey were the main players, secretly arming the rebels in Syria. These countries backed different rebel groups, which threw parts of Syria into complete disorder and lawlessness. He outlined how Qatar backed the ‘Muslim brotherhood’ and its allied militias, through arms bought from Eastern European states, which were then flown through Turkey and delivered across the border in Syria. Some weapons were sourced from Croatia and transported to rebels based in Jordan and Turkey.

Likewise, Saudi Arabia assisted militant Salafi outfits by sending weapons along the border through Turkey and Jordan. Jordan opened training facilities on its soil and supported rebels in southern Syria, mostly in Deraa and Quinetra. He further illustrated how Turkey offered refuge to the anti-government ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA), which was also said to have support from the US.

According to Dr. Jhony, the US too was motivated by the knowledge that the fall of the Assad regime would weaken Iran’s regional posture. This showed that between Saudi Arabia, US and Turkey, there was a convergence of interests.

There are several parallel conflicts taking place in West Asia which further complicates the Syrian conflict. As he explained, Syria had ties with Hezbollah, which is funded by Iran. He said that Iran sends weapons to Hezbollah via Syria, which in turn has brought Israel into the conflict, which he reasoned would otherwise have sat on the fence. According to Dr. Jhony, Israel has two concerns in Syria. One, it does not want the Hezbollah to get influence in Golan, as it already has to deal with it on the north western border with Lebanon. Israel also does not want Iran to gain influence in Syria. This has led Israel to provide secret assistance to the rebels in Golan Heights, he said.

Severe stress

Dr. Jhony said that the Assad regime was not prepared for such an intense and multi-dimensional crisis and this put its troops under severe stress. Rebel groups started to take over large swathes of land, especially in southern and northern Syria. Dera, Quinetra, Homs, Aleppo, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor plunged into chaos and anarchy with different militia groups fighting for control.

Against this background of political instability and civil war came the turning point when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, heading the Islamic State of Iraq (the new incarnation of Al-Qaeda) saw an opportunity in Syria, and sent troops led by Muhammad al-Joulani. Joulani went across the border and established Al-Qaeda’s new branch in Syria, named, Jabhat al-Nusra, by first capturing western parts of Aleppo.

Eventually when Baghdadi broke with Joulani, he renamed his organisation as ISIS. After capturing Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, he made his famous speech, where he declared a Caliphate and himself the Caliph in 2014. The ISIS went on to gain thousands of fighters from around the world including India. Launching attacks all across the world, from Bangladesh to Brussels ISIS rose to become an acknowledged global terrorist organisation.

It was only in 2015 when Russia joined the war, did it force the retreat of ISIS, explained Dr. Jhony. The Russian air campaign was the real game- changer, he said, adding that this alone brought the Assad regime into a favourable position. By 2016, the Syrian government was winning the war as it had taken control of Homs, Palmyra, Damascus and Aleppo.

The Syrian war ultimately also proved to be a proxy war between the two giants, namely the US and Russia, with the former supporting the ‘moderate rebels’ such as the FSA and other rebel groups and Russia supporting the Assad regime. Over time as ISIS rose, the US strategy changed, from wanting to get rid of Assad to simply defeating ISIS.  The US began to take a more hands-off approach, not wanting to get deeply entrenched in Syria. Though Dr. Jhony believed the US still wanted to carve out a space of influence in West Asia, and to that extent he did not see them retreating fully.

Brutal war

No end to the Syrian civil war seemed to be in sight, Dr Johny said. The Syrian crisis has been a brutal war, where half-a-million civilians have been killed and more than five million internally displaced. Unfortunately, the reality was that “the countries that were involved in the war, were not allowing Syrian refugees to enter their countries, nor helping find a solution to the crisis,” said Dr. Jhony.

While Germany and Sweden were welcoming Syrian refugees, the US had taken only 16 Syrians in 2018. Unfortunately, there are repercussions in these countries that were taking large numbers of refugees. The refugee problem has led to far-right parties becoming stronger in these countries, he said further.

Dr. Jhony concluded by saying that while the ISIS has been defeated in that all the lost territories have been regained and the ISIS fighters have retreated into the deserts, there is no guarantee they will not come back. More importantly, he said the geopolitical fault lines that gave rise to the ISIS still remain the same in West Asia.

This report was prepared by Dr. Vinitha Revi, Research Associate, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai

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