Let’t talk frankly about the “geopolitical Chernobyl” that is Syria. There are many major players in the war:
- Syrian regime
- Iran & proxies such as Hezbollah
- U.S. Coalition
- Anti-Assad groups
The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is allied with Russia, Iran, and Iranian proxies. Their ostensible goals are to destroy the terrorists and the anti-regime groups. This group often combines anti-Assad groups with ISIS and al Qaeda terrorists. Sometimes the anti-regime opposition can be an Islamist group. The war started after the Arab Spring, ostensibly because the Syrian government brutally suppressed political opposition. It seems that ISIS took advantage of the unrest in Syria and Iraq and rapidly executed their operations to great success initially. The Syrian Government Military has approximately 150,000-178,000 personnel.
Russia entered the conflict in 2015 at the request of Bashar al-Assad to protect their business and military interests while also filling the leadership void left by the United States in the Middle East. There are approximately 4,300 Russian forces in Syria. There are also hundreds or even thousands of Russian irregular troops in Syria, which are basically Ex-Russian Military personnel now working as contractors. Russia’s goal is to become a major powerbroker in the Middle East, by defeating the regime’s opposition forces and set up a permanent Military presence in the Middle East. They will demonstrate that Russia is a power that can maintain the status quo, no matter the costs. This will be very attractive to those leaders in the Middle East who want to maintain the status quo and dislike the U.S. tendency to change things.
Iran became involved in the conflict because they have got an attractive opportunity to demonstrate their Military prowess and become crowned as the Middle East’s most powerful Islamic country. They want to preserve the Assad regime and set up a Military presence right next to Israel, which Israel perceives as a threat to their security. Iran and Syria are allies and the regime requested Iranian help in the war. Iran is spending billions of dollars preserving the Assad regime to the great consternation of their citizens. There are thousands of Iranian and Iran proxy forces in Syria.
The U.S. Coalition in Iraq and Syria includes the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Denmark, Jordan, Kuwait, and the Netherlands among other countries. The U.S. became involved in the conflict originally to combat ISIS and other terrorist groups that were flooding into Iraq and in the process of creating their caliphate. The U.S. became involved because there was concern of the spillover effects from the Syrian Civil War, Iran started fighting terrorists in Iraq and spreading their power and influence, and Russia starting anti-terror and anti-regime operations at the request of the Syrian government. Local partners include Syrian Democratic Forces which include YPG (Kurdish majority, People’s Protection Units), YPJ (Women’s Protection Units), Al-Sanadid Forces (Anti-ISIS, Anti-Wahhabi), and possibly some factions of the Free Syrian Army. There are approximately 2,000 U.S. forces in Syria.
Turkey is part of the war because Syria is on their border and they have been tremendously strained by the influx of Syrian refugees. They also have been fighting an internal war with Communist leaning Kurds in their own country who they insist are associated with YPG in Syria. They are currently conducting operations to move Kurds out of Afrin and Manbij, in Syria. They seem to be succeeding. The U.S. Armed Forces are stepping between Turkey and the Kurds so that there isn’t a major confrontation. The U.S. is trying to assuage Turkey’s concerns while maintaining support for Kurdish partners on the ground. Turkey is also leaning towards allying with the Russia-Iran-Syria Axis over their U.S. & other NATO allies. There are more than 6,000 Turkish troops in Syria.
There are several Anti-Assad groups. Some of them are Islamist terrorists, some aren’t, and a few are somewhere in between. To state the obvious ISIS and al-Nusra (al-Qaeda) are Islamist terrorist groups that are seeking to create a worldwide Islamic caliphate. They have been mostly defeated on the ground by the U.S. Coalition with some uncoordinated and separate action by Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime. The terrorists have lost the vast majority of their territory and are running with their tails between their legs. The U.S. Coalition will need to continue conducting operations to identify and kill the few thousand remaining enemies that remain. We need to ensure that we gain a lasting victory against the terrorists so that they don’t stage another long, costly, and deathly insurgency. There are a few thousand terrorists left in Syria.
The Syrian opposition includes the Free Syrian Army which is a group of loosely associated political groups and militias that are hostile to Bashar al-Assad’s regime and want to get rid of him. The Free Syrian Army does have a strong faction of Islamists in its ranks. The Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF, or the main local U.S. partner on the ground. It is a mix of Kurdish and Arab forces looking to take back Syria from the terrorists, the majority of the ground fighting has been done by them. As far as I know, the U.S. is no longer supporting the Free Syrian Army and the SDF doesn’t seem to have any Islamist factions. There are 57-80,000 personnel in SDF. The Free Syrian Army has approximately 30-35,000 personnel.
This is a quick and neat wrap-up of the major stakeholders in Syria’s maddeningly complicated war.
The U.S. Coalition’s goals are not 100% clear but a decent strategy was developed by Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson prior to being fired:
- Destroy ISIS and any other Islamist terrorist groups.
- Start creating safe zones in Syria while developing local security forces so people can return home and start rebuilding the local infrastructure and economy.
- Prevent a terrorist insurgency by keeping troops in Syria until a political settlement and an acceptable level of local security and rebuilding are complete.
- End the Civil War and send the Syrian refugees back to their country.
- Start a U.N. lead political settlement in the country that asks Bashar al-Assad to step aside and allow for Democratic elections in the country.
- Provided a very limited and outcome dependent form of aid so that the country’s new government is stable and the country can credibly rebuild.
- Avoid drawn out nation building programs that have failed to achieved credible results in Iraq and especially Afghanistan.
- Normalize economic relations between Syria and the rest of the world.
My only issue with this strategy is that it requires a large amount of U.S. Military and financial support and it is getting too close to the exact failed nation building strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our mission in Syria was to destroy ISIS and our brave warriors have by and large succeeded. After we accomplish that and maintain a contingent troop commitment to avoid an insurgency we should leave. If the U.S. strategy is to push Assad out of power, we may be in for another expensive and drawn out Middle Eastern conflict. We have given too much blood and treasure in the Middle East, I really don’t think more is worth it. President Trump has ordered that U.S. troops leave Syria in 6 months, but Military and Foreign Policy leaders are worried about an insurgency and Russian and Iranian influence in the Middle East. I’m sure they are also worried about the fate of our SDF allies and what will become of them. I share their concerns, but until I hear a clear strategy of how we want this to end I can’t support an unending U.S. troop and financial commitment.
The goals of the Russia-Iran-Syria Axis seem to be:
- Destroy ISIS, other Islamist terrorist groups, and regime opposition groups.
- End the war, preserve the Assad regime, and get things back to the pre-Civil War normal.
- Russia, Iran, and Iranian proxies will maintain, fortify, and expand their Military presence in Syria.
- Russia would like to become the Middle East’s main outside powerbroker.
- Iran wants to be established as the main Islamic Middle Eastern power.
- Long term strategic goal: Push the U.S. out of the Middle East. First from Syria, then Iraq, and lastly everywhere else.
The goals of Turkey seem to be:
- Ensure that ISIS and other Islamist terrorist groups are destroyed.
- Push the Kurds as from away from their border as possible without triggering U.S. retaliation.
- Persuade the U.S. that the Kurdish YPG in Syria is actually the same as the PKK Kurdish Communists in Turkey.
- End the Civil War and send the Syrian refugees back to their country.
The goals of Anti-Assad groups are:
- End the government of Bashar al-Assad.
- End the war.
- Ostensibly make Syria a Democracy and hold free elections.
The goals of the Islamist terrorists are:
- Kick all foreigners, especially the U.S. Coalition out of the Middle East.
- End the war on their terms.
- Make Syria, the Middle East, and the rest of the world an Islamic Caliphate.
I hope this post can help people understand the major players, their goals, and the inherent complexities in this conflict.
This is Saint Reagan signing off