From the ancient cities of Damascus and Mosul, to the endless sands of the desert, the Syrian Civil War is at an end. After 8 years, 570,000 deaths, 2 million permanently injured and 12 million displaced, the defeat of the Islamic State and the Free Syrian Army leaves two major factions standing: The Russian-backed Assad regime, a despotic presidential dictatorship that sparked the conflict after violently suppressing pro-democracy protests, and the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD).
Yet the wider conflict is far from over. The war itself represented great turmoil and change in power dynamics not only in the Middle East, but across the world. The Syrian Civil War has been, so far, the defining proxy war of the 21st century, entirely relatable to the Spanish Civil War that raged in the 1930s, ideologically defining a generation.
Where the fascists were once pitted against the democrats and communists, the Western-backed militias battled against Islamic extremists who all fight against an anti-Western dictator, with regional autonomies and independence movements scattered throughout the country. The US embargo of Assad’s Syria, as well as their funding and supplying of the Free Syrian Army, an anti-Assad coalition, was paralleled by the Russian involvement in their support of pro-government Assad forces. Russia has had its own problems with Chechen domestic Islamist terrorists, many of whom joined the Islamic State during the course of the civil war.
The conflict has caused severe strain between the two powers. In December of 2017, a spokesman for the Russian Ministry for Defence told Reuters that IS attacks were coming not only from within the range of U.S forces, but that the accuracy of their attacks could have only been provided by aerial reconnaissance, which the US or allies could only have provided.
The now-destroyed Islamic State had a deep rooted history in the parent organisation of Islamist terrorism, al-Qaeda, which stretched from Osama bin Laden to heavy involvement in Iraq in the years preceding the civil war. In 2013, the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the beginning of operations in Syria and in 2014 declared an official start to the Caliphate, severing ties from al-Qaeda, with al-Baghdadi as its leader and Caliph.
The rise of the Islamic State was undeniably necessary in the victory for Assad. Almost overnight, the world’s opinion shifted from viewing him as the main antagonist in the conflict to seeing ISIS as the source of all evil. Trafficked women and child sex slaves, war crimes and civilian massacres, the public defenestration of homosexuals and the public execution of hundreds of religious prisoners; these acts of terror caught the public eye and the ensuing fear was heightened by the terrorist attacks that, for a time, seemed endless in Europe. One of the worst of these was the November 2015 Bataclan theatre attack, which saw Islamist home-grown extremists kill over 130 people and injure over 200 more.
Qatar, Saudi Arabia and NATO-member Turkey have all supported the Free Syrian Army along with their US allies. However, by mid-2017, the Trump administration ended covert aid to the anti-Assad rebels. Many US commanders supported the policy of backing Kurdish YPG militia (People’s Protection Units) instead, cultivating far friendlier US high command relations with the Kurdish than the Free Syrian Army. As the war progressed, this became inevitable: the FSA grew into a decentralised, weakly co-ordinated coalition only formed out of mutual hatred for Assad; a characteristic which was shared by almost every faction of the war. Because of this and a weakening position in the war, many members of the FSA ended up joining ISIS as the war dragged on.
The war itself has been a hotbed for human rights disasters; where violent, inhumane and unlawful actions have been and are commonplace. The Kurdish PYD in Rojava have been condemned for their indirect use of child soldiers and for suppressing civil liberties in authoritarian ways, including torture and politically-motivated arrests. The Islamic State commonly propagandised its own violence, including the horrific use of child soldiers and endorsement of international terrorism. Though a contested claim, the Assad regime used chemical gas on civilian targets, such as during the Ghouta chemical attack killing between 281 and 1,729 people. This attack garnered severe international backlash, however the West turned a blind eye to NATO-ally Turkey’s use of chemical weapons in their entry to the conflict against the Kurdish-controlled northern regions in ‘Operation Olive Branch.’
The civil war has exposed several media and institutional biases within the West, as we see a clear disparity in news surrounding other Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, as they continue to perform human rights abuses in the same name of religious purity as the Islamic State. Furthermore, while military interventions were even considered because of the Ghouta chemical attacks against the Assad regime, no objections have been made against similar Turkish actions in the civil war or against the Turkish support of terrorist organisations.
Although the main factions are defeated, the violence of the civil war runs far deeper than is often visible. Only a few days ago, women and children cheered to the rise of the IS flag and re-pledged their allegiance to the Caliphate inside of prisoner camps in government-controlled Syria. Deputy commander of the US-led coalition Major General Alexus Grynkewick told The Independent that the potential for radicalisation was “the biggest long-term strategic risk” to the region. The “continuation of that ideology” has a strong possibility of festering within the internment-camp environment if left unchecked.
With the Islamic State a long-term ideological danger instead of a tangible foe, the Kurdish minorities are in a dangerous position without the uniting threat. The recent reports of the murder of a Turkish diplomat in Iraq’s Kurdistan region has only heightened tensions between the Turkish government and Kurdish political groups, the two of which have a history of violence and resentment. The region itself has been a hotbed for independence and civil rights movements for decades due to ethnic makeup and the proximity of Kurds within Turkish borders. Despite being a member of NATO, the Turkish involvement in the conflict in 2016 saw Turkish forces engaging the now US-backed Kurds, straining relations within the alliance. Though offensives have been temporarily halted by peace talks, the Turkish diplomatic stance has not changed.
The main threat targeted by Turkish forces is the PKK, or Kurdish Worker’s Party – a communist far-left insurgency on the border of Turkish territory, labelled as a terrorist organisation by most international bodies. Despite being labelled under the Terrorism Act (2000) in the UK, over 13% of the PKK’s active-use inventory rifles were sent from the NATO ally Britain, according to Turkish sources. The PKK has had a long history of violence against Turkish armed forces and police. The focus against the PKK has not stopped Turkish forces ‘pacifying’ parts of Syria under the guise of stopping the terrorist organisation, often engaging the People’s Protection Units in Rojava.
As it stands, the radical left-wing dominates much of Kurdish politics. For example, the military arm of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, Peshmerga, has a serious problem of politicisation with left-wing insurgencies, and implied connections to the PKK, which has led to some violence in the Iraq region already by Turkish forces. These regional autonomies and the socialist or communist extremists that often lead them have a severe and significant influence upon the fledgling democracy in Rojava and for Kurds in Syria. As a sense of Kurdish unity only grows, it is unclear how the situation will manifest.
However in 2014, Rojavan PYD Co-Chair Salim Muslim gave an interview in which he expressed his support for a "Mesopotamian" Syria. "Many mistakes have happened, especially in 20th century…We believe in Rojava, we have the historical opportunity to rebuild the relations between those original, genuine, equal nations in this multinational area... [we want] to do it in a democratic, modern, and secular way." He expressed his support for the Syrian nation but denounced the dictatorial Syria of the past. "Syria is not going to be the old Syria anymore: it should change. It will be decentralized, maybe a kind of federation, or autonomies". With the opinions of the PYD Co-Chair considered, a Kurdish nation being born from the conflict, currently, seems unlikely; but it is definitely a tangible idea that could become a reality under the right circumstances.
Furthermore, Muslim expressed deep concerns about the legitimacy of the Islamic State as an institution that was anything more than just a puppet of other nations, implying the US’ hand in the violence of the conflict. "We believe ISIS is a kind of tool created by other countries. It is a branch of al-Qaeda, and everybody knows who created al-Qaeda." This opinion may have changed due to US backing of the Kurds, but it may replicate a larger opinion that much of the Middle East has towards the United States and NATO involvement in their countries.
Retired US Military Intelligence Officer and Middle Eastern consultant for Kurdistan 24, Paul Davis, writes that the biggest threat to the new-found Kurdish position is that of Turkey. The possibility of a Turkish withdrawal from NATO or continued deterioration of relations is equally likely, and either position would leave the US “hard-pressed” to leave Syria.
The Assad regime in Syria and Iran, poised as strategic allies, now engage in friendly discussions following troop co-operation during the civil war, on the appropriate retaliation towards Israel, after attacks reportedly from Israel hit Iranian forces in the region, despite Israel denying the accusations. Head of the Israel Defence Forces Military Intelligence Directorate, Maj. Gen. Tamir Heyman, commented in June on Iran's attempts at Middle Eastern expansion of influence. "Iranian technology and money feed the various players in the area." With tensions growing between Iran and the US, none of this spells a happy ending.
Adding complexity to the regional politics, Iran has joined with Turkey to fight against Kurdish “terror groups” that border the two countries. Turkey has expressed serious anger against the American support of Kurdish YPG groups (aligned with the PYD and Syrian Kurds), which Turkey claims are affiliated to the PKK and other terrorist organisations. Turkish dictatorial president Erdogan has continued to express anti-Western and provocative opinions to gain political support from his increasingly religious population. In late 2017, the Turkish military helped to equip and train ‘The National Army’, a Turkish puppet-state created from the remnants of the Free Syrian Army and anti-Assad rebels, aiding in their invasion against PYD Rojava Kurds. With enemies on all sides, the Kurds alone can decide their fate.
Perhaps most importantly, the international watchdog, the United States of America, may have received its last nail in the coffin of foreign intervention. The failure to succeed in opposing the Assad regime is paralleled by another defeat, Afghanistan. The 17 year-old conflict has ended in nothing but a large pit where money used to be. Writing on the subject, the New York Times has commented on the current peace talks between the Taliban and the United States: "Some observers believe the [Afghan] military has been so ineffective - plagued by corruption, prone to infiltration, and lacking in leadership - that the government has had no choice but to cut a deal."
The US losing influence, NATO members on the brink of leaving, media and moral hypocrisy, Russia and Putin gaining a significant victory – however tainted it may be, and Kurdish independence on the ropes. And all the while the dictator that started it all remains in power, with what seems to be a great boost to his popularity.
The Syrian Civil War has been one of the most important and equally terrible events of the 21st century, and still, everything is up in the air. Borders are flexible, much of the country exists under foreign or domestic military occupation where extremists are rampant, and the threat of violence continues to grow. What began as a US-backed revolution against a Middle Eastern dictator has ended in international terrorism claiming the lives of thousands across the globe, the early fires of nationalism among a long-oppressed minority group of the Kurds, and, arguably, one of the most ideologically defining conflicts of the 21st century. Either you are with America, or you are not; and so far, those against America are winning.