Proxy War Deepens in Syria After US Troop Withdrawal, Peace Remains Elusive

By Venus Upadhayaya, Epoch Times
November 4, 2019 Updated: November 5, 2019

The Syrian war is an amalgam of many proxy wars involving various global players and their regional allies and proxies. And according to people familiar with the situation, recent developments in the region will have global ramifications, as the changes are likely revising the existing political order and its alliances.

“The outcome of the war on Syria will determine the new world order and alliances,” Waiel Awwad, a senior Syrian journalist based in South Asia, told The Epoch Times. “Therefore it is a crucial period in contemporary history to reshape the New World Order.”

What this revised world order will be, and how the various global and regional players and foes—more notably the United States, Russia, Turkey, and Iran—position themselves in a broader security framework will determine many foreign policy outcomes, including utopian peace scenarios, experts told The Epoch Times.

“We definitely are in the process of at least revising the world order if not completely changing it. But the motivations of the various actors involved in Syria vary,” Kanishkan Sathasivam, Director of the William H. Bates Center for Public & Global Affairs at Salem University, Massachusetts, said. “For some, it is part of their effort to elevate themselves to a more prominent position within the world order, for example, Russia, Iran, and most recently now Turkey. For others like the Gulf states, it is more about local interests of importance to them.”

In this quagmire of what U.S. President Donald Trump has called “endless wars,” it’s important for the United States to understand the “endgame scenarios” to escape the proxy wars and create a “broader framework for regional security,” wrote analysts Alexandra Stark and Ariel I. Ahram of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) on Oct. 22.

Trump makes a statement
President Donald Trump makes a statement in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on Oct. 27, 2019. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Proxy Wars Exploded After Arab Spring

Proxy wars are not new to the Middle East. But after the “pro-democracy” revolutions of the Arab spring in 2011, conflicts grew to alarming proportions inside Syria and a few other Arab nations, which have played an important role in shaping allegiances and the utopian peace scenarios in the region.

“The Barack Obama administration, chastened by the American misadventures in Iraq, tried to avoid large-scale troop deployment and instead adopted a policy of what researcher Andreas Kreig has called ‘risk transference.’ America pursued its strategic objectives by, with, and through local partners,” Stark and Ahram explained.

“As states collapsed and civil wars overtook Yemen, Libya, and Syria, the U.S. worked with militias and other non-state actors who were positioned to serve as foot soldiers in the war against terrorism and, in some cases, hostile regimes.”

These proxy war relationships between global players and their non-state allies were sustained by small contingents of “advisors and trainers,” and were soon adopted by other regional state players, wrote the two FPRI experts.

“Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates—linked in alliance to the U.S., but with drastically different agendas—launched their own effort to recruit proxies. Iran has worked to extend its influence by drawing on long-standing proxy relationships with Lebanese Hezbollah, Yemeni Houthis, and Iraq’s Shi’i militias.

“Some proxy relationships derived from the deep-seated ideological or ethnic fraternity, others from a temporary alignment of interest. The result was an ever-shifting crosshatch of alliances and antagonisms spanning across the region and the globe,” they said.

Sathasivam said the proxy war scenario arose inside Syria because the Arab Socialist Ba’ath regime of Syrian leader Bashar Assad wasn’t strong enough.

“Assad was simply not strong enough to keep external actors from getting involved, especially when he himself needed his own external allies to come in and help him, namely Iran and Russia and even Hezbollah from Lebanon.

“So naturally other external actors who see themselves as having an interest inside Syria also got involved, for example, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Turkey, and of course the U.S. as well,” he said.

Armenak Tokmajyan, an expert on Syria and a non-resident fellow with the Carnegie Middle East Center, expressed similar views but added that a divided armed opposition against Assad also played a role in developing the proxy wars.

“The weakening of the central state in Syria and the emergence of a divided armed opposition created an ideal platform for outside powers to intervene and support those actors that they thought would best preserve their national interests,” he said.

The involvement of ISIS and Nusra Front (an Al-Qaeda affiliate) further complicated the proxy-war context inside Syria.

Assad’s Changing Equation with Russia

A protester holds a banner as he takes part in a demonstration in front of U.N. offices in Beirut in solidarity with the civilians of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo and against the regime of the Syrian President Bashar Assad, on May 1, 2016. (Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)
A protester holds a banner as he takes part in a demonstration in front of U.N. offices in Beirut in solidarity with the civilians of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo and against the regime of the Syrian President Bashar Assad, on May 1, 2016. (Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)

Central Syria, which is ruled by the Assad regime, has received long term political, military, and financial support from Russia.

During Assad’s first official visit to Moscow in 2005, Russia consented to write off 73 percent of Syria’s Soviet-era debt of $13 billion.

“Russia inherited a close relation with Syria from the former Soviet Union and hence it is a continuation of old ties,” said Awwad. Awwad also worked as the bureau chief of the Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC) in London, MBC-FM Radio in Kuwait and Oman, and Damascus Radio in Syria before working as the South Asia Bureau Chief of Alarabiya TV Channel in Dubai Media City.

Awwad said Russia sees a strategic advantage for being in resource-rich Syria and expects that Syria will be able to pay it back in time.

“Russia is fully aware that fighting terrorism in Syria will protect it from the mercenaries from former USSR states trained by NATO and will continue to support Syria especially when the U.S. and allies are imposing a sanction,” he said.

Supporters of the Syrian government hold a pro-Russian banner, during a demonstration in Damascus, Syria, on Oct. 12, 2011, as they show their support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and to thank Russia and China for blocking a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Syria for its brutal crackdown. (AP Photo/Muzaffar Salman)
Supporters of the Syrian government hold a pro-Russian banner, during a demonstration in Damascus, Syria, on Oct. 12, 2011, as they show their support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and to thank Russia and China for blocking a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Syria for its brutal crackdown. (AP Photo/Muzaffar Salman)

So after the United States withdrew its less than 50 personnel when Turkey invaded northeastern Syria in early October, it was not Assad but Russian President Vladimir Putin who signed a deal at Sochi on Oct. 22 with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to develop a terror-free zone in northern Syria.

“Russia/Putin clearly demonstrated that they are the ones running Syria nowadays when Putin negotiated the recent agreement with Turkey. The Assad government was not even represented at the talks and does not appear to have had any say in it,” Sathasivam said.

“In the past, Russia has been steadfast in rejecting Western demands that Assad must go. But maybe in the future, given Russia’s desperation for the West’s money to help in Syria’s reconstruction, Putin may be willing to drop Assad for a new leader so long as that person also is a complete puppet of Russia.”

Awwad, who is critical of Turkey’s invasion in northeastern Syria—which he says was done on “various pretexts”—sees the agreement between Erdoğan and Putin as Turkey’s agreeing to respect Syrian integrity and sovereignty, and not wanting to “anger Russia and Iran.”

Trump Sanctions Puts Assad-Iran Relationship Under Pressure

Before the 2011 uprisings, Syria was exporting oil and refining crude oil derivatives domestically. But in late 2012 as the country plunged into civil war, the Assad regime lost most of its oil fields to Syrian opposition forces.

“Iran stepped in to fill the gap,” Karam Shaar wrote in a policy paper published the Middle East Institute. “From 2013 to late 2018, it shipped an average of 2 million barrels a month to the Syrian regime by sea, with deferred payments, covering most of the country’s need for crude and helping to keep the regime afloat.”

He added that without Iran’s support, Assad’s economy would have faced complete economic collapse and therefore, Iran played an important role in Syria for everything from “production and electricity generation to heating and transportation.”

In this June 5, 2013, file photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a damaged street is seen in Qusair, Syria. Syria’s civil war has morphed into a proxy fight in which Shiite Iran has strongly backed Assad, while Sunni Arab nations have backed rebels. (AP Photo/SANA, File)

That was until Iran stopped selling oil on credit to Assad after the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Iran’s oil exports in November 2018.

Shaar said that Iran’s credit line was actually a cover that allowed Iran to shower “Assad with money to pay and equip militia fighters, reconstruct damaged public institutions, deliver aid, supply crude oil, and fund the central bank’s sales of greenbacks to prevent the Syrian pound from nose-diving.”

Now, the United States’s oil blockade is “applying pressure on third countries to block oil from reaching Assad, with backing from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel, and this blockade is designed to coerce Assad, Iran, and Russia into making political concessions,” Shaar said.

US Has ‘Freed Itself’ from 3 Burdens

After the United States pulled out of northern Syria on Oct. 7, critics blasted Trump for abandoning the Kurds who had fought alongside U.S. troops against ISIS. Two days later, when Turkey invaded northern Syria, critics said the United States had left the Kurds to be butchered by the Turkish forces and militias supported by it.

“Several factors weakened the U.S. role in Syria, including Russia’s military intervention in 2015, Moscow’s close cooperation with Turkey and Iran, and their ability to influence developments in Syria,” said Tokmajyan.

“Another reason is Washington’s reduced credibility in the region. Over the course of the conflict, the U.S. foreign policy towards Syria changed several times. The latest episode was President Trump’s decision to abandon their Kurdish allies in the face of the Turkish incursion to Syria’s northeast,” he said.

However, Erbil Gunasti, a former press officer to President Erdogan who had earlier worked for eight other Turkish Prime Ministers told The Epoch Times that the “U.S. [emerged] as a winner from the whole saga.”

“When President Trump decided to pull the U.S. troops out of Syria, he repositioned the U.S. much more dominantly in the region,” said Gunasti, adding that Trump could actually free the United States of three burdens.

A US military vehicle drives through the Syrian village of Baghuz in the countryside of the eastern Deir Ezzor province on Jan. 26, 2019. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)

He said the United States no longer had to keep a few thousand troops in a highly vulnerable zone.

“Remember when the U.S. deployed a few hundred troops in Lebanon in the 1970s … with one car bomb, 241 perished for no reason. As a result, the U.S. pulled out of Lebanon for good. Here, like President Trump said, ‘Everybody is coming home. No loss of life or no one injured,’” said Gunasti.

Secondly, according to Gunasti, the withdrawal has helped the United States save billions of dollars spent simply “doing policing work” in what he says was an “ethnically cleansed” region that is devoid of its once-million strong indigenous residents.

Thirdly, Gunasti said that the United States had no leverage against Russia or Iran in the no man’s land, and “all the while, [the] Bashar Al Assad regime—guilty of ethnic cleansing its own people, of all things— [is] operating, free and at will, with no impunity coming from anyone in the international community.

“This situation was not good optics for the sole superpower to be in either,” he said.

Gunasti explained that by withdrawing U.S. troops from the Turkish border, Trump has gained back Turkey as an ally in a move that could significantly revise global politics.

“Who would not want to be in good terms with the biggest economy and military in the Middle East that also has almost a billion followings among [the] Muslim Ummah (community),” he said.

By aligning with Turkey, the United States has also gained leverage over Iran, Gunasti said.

“Having Turkey move into Syria, Turkey becomes a menace to Iran first and foremost. Turkey, being in northern Iraq as well with Claw 1, 2, and 3 military operations that are underway, is already blocking free passage from Iran to Syria, via Iraq,” he said.

Vladimir Putin and Erdogan
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan look at each other during a joint news conference after their talks in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia on Oct. 22, 2019. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

He further explained that Turkey’s presence in Syria and along the Iraq-Syria border means restrictions for the movement of militia that have so far benefitted Iran.

These militias never faced many impediments from the “mere 2,000 or so U.S. soldiers that stayed inside the dozen or so bases they set up there,” he said. “For security reasons, these troops were not patrolling on the border regions or in the vastly depopulated territory that requires tens of thousands of troops as well as local inhabitants as a lookout.”

Gunasti said by aligning with Turkey, the United States has also reclaimed some influence from Russia and has got into a position that would be advantageous in the future.

“When tensions between the U.S. and Turkey are high, Turkey approached Russia more. Russia tremendously benefited from that,” Gunasti said. “Now, Turkey divides its attention between Russia and the U.S. That means Turkey will spend more time with the U.S. which in turn will mean spending a little less time with Russia. For example in November 2019, President Erdogan is invited to the White House.”

Gunasti said Trump’s actions in Syria got the United States out of a very “vulnerable position into a position of strength from where it can interject itself again with a renewed and fresh force as if it is a new player.”

The Utopian Peace

There have been many attempts at resolving the Syrian civil war since its onset in 2011, but an absolute possibility for normalcy and peace remains a utopia in a conflict that has claimed 560,000 lives in seven years, including 104,000 tortured inside the Assad regime’s jails, according to Syrian Human Rights Watch (SHRW).

Tokmajyan told The Epoch Times that “the Syria peace process is almost as old as the conflict,” and that the United States has long been sidelined.

“The U.S. could play a constructive role in the early stages of the Syrian conflict when it was actively engaged. By now, it has been sidelined. It is Russia, Iran, and Turkey who dominate the peace process,” he said.

Sathasivam said “sadly,” he has little hope for sustained peace inside Syria.

“There will be peace, but it will be a cold and sullen and bitter peace based on the military dominance of Russia and Turkey over the various rebel groups.

“When someone speaks of a ‘peace process,’ for me, that means some element of reconciliation and compromise where every side gets something that they want. I just don’t see any signs of such a thing happening in Syria,” he said.

Russia, Turkey, Iran:presidents
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) pose for a picture after a news conference during their meeting in Ankara, Turkey, on Sept. 16, 2019. (Pavel Golovkin/AP Photo)

Following the beginning of the Arab Spring, Kofi Annan was appointed as the joint U.N. and Arab League peace envoy for Syria in 2012.

Annan proposed a non-binding peace plan at the U.N. Security Council that urged the Assad regime to end violence against opposition groups, calling both groups to accept a ceasefire amid widespread violence. But the violence continued despite this plan being accepted by all the 15 members of the council, according to the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)—one of the largest non-profits providing relief in Syria.

The conflict inside Syria was declared as a civil war by the International Committee of the Red Cross in July 2012. A few months after this, the first reports surfaced that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons in attacks within Syria.

Soon after, in December, the United States, United Kingdom, France, Turkey, and the Gulf States defied the Assad regime and acknowledged the opposition party—the National Coalition—as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Then in early 2014, the U.N. tried to host peace talks at Geneva which failed. During the course of the nine day talks, 1,800 people died in Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as cited by Reuters.

In June 2014, ISIS declared the establishment of a global caliphate after claiming reign over the region from Aleppo, Syria, to Diyala, Iraq. That’s when the airstrikes by the United States and its Arab allies started against ISIS.

At this time, Russia also started its own airstrikes backing the Assad regime’s fight against ISIS, and in 2016, Russian-backed Assad forces regained Aleppo.

Following this, Russia, Iran, and Turkey met in Kazakhstan and started a separate round of peace talks called the Astana Peace Process.

“The Astana Peace Process commenced in January 2017,” said Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, a Washington-based analyst who is an expert on Central Asian affairs, particularly the Astana Peace Process. “Since then, the Kazakhstani government has hosted 13 rounds of negotiations, the most recent of which occurred on Aug. 1 and 2.

“The 13th round of talks were noteworthy because for the first time, Iraq and Lebanon were present as observers. The Astana Peace Process has taken place parallel to the U.N. peace talks in Geneva.

But Sanchez says he’s not convinced that even the Astana Peace Process will be sufficient to help global players put the interest and the well being of the Syrian people before their own national interest.

An aerial view of the city of Astana, taken on July 28, 2011. Danny Schechter attended the Eurasian Media Forum there and found this country with limited media freedom hosted a discussion of surprising diversity. (STANISLAV FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images)
An aerial view of the city of Astana, taken on July 28, 2011. (Stanislav Filippov/AFP /Getty Images)

“In this case, the Astana Peace Process was also a way for Russia to maintain some sort of united front with Iran, Turkey, and other regional actors,” he said.

As the various proxy wars continue, a 150-member Syrian Constitutional Committee is meeting at the United Nations to work on outlining reforms to the Syrian constitution. The committee consists of 50 members representing the Assad regime, 50 opposition members, and 50 representatives from the civil society.

The First Working Session of the Syrian Constitutional Committee Large Body began on Oct. 30 in Geneva.

Again, Sanchez said he is not optimistic about this committee that finds support even in the Memorandum of Understanding signed between Turkey and Russia on Oct. 22 to deliver for the Syrian people.

“I do not think many people are optimistic about this Committee and what it can do for Syrians. Since the Assad regime is firmly back in control of the country, I do not see Damascus being interested in accepting the demands of opposition groups, particularly with Russia’s support,” he said.

Awwad is, however, more hopeful and said Syrians “will survive this time also and rebuild Syria in all fields.”

“The peace process is on and Syrians are deciding their future and reconciliation process. All Syrians agree that foreign troops have to leave Syria by all means and Syria is determined to do so,” said Awwad.

Follow Venus on Twitter: @venusupadhayaya
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