Author: Zurab Batiashvili, Expert of Oriental Studies, Doctor of Historical Sciences
The Arab Spring which started in 2011, soon turned into an Arab Winter for many countries in the Middle East. The civil war in Syria, also starting in 2011, turned out to be especially bloody and has already turned into one of the greatest shaming factors for humankind in the 21st century. The international community proved to be impotent in stopping the conflict, which has distinguished itself by the atrocities, inhuman treatment, torture, rape and human trafficking towards the civilians (including women, children and the elderly) as well as the use of chemical weapons and rising religious fundamentalism. The civil war has thus far already claimed the lives of about half-a-million people with two million injured and twelve million Syrians forced to flee their homes.
The civil war was caused by a combination of domestic and external factors: a repressive Shia-Alawite governance for a long period of time (about 74% of the population of Syria are Sunni Muslims whilst about 13% identify as Shia-Alawite), sectarian divisions between ethnic and religious groups, flawed economic model, large-scale corruption, the Shia-Sunni confrontation inside the region, the legitimacy problems of the Assad regime and the political interests of a number of foreign countries in removing Assad from power.
Parallel to the prolonged conflict, the moderate opposition forces saw themselves weakened and the international terrorist organizations managed to take up the initiative, starting to attract human resources, weapons and finances from abroad in the name of “Sunni solidarity.” The situation further deteriorated by the direct or indirect involvement of the foreign countries in the Syrian conflict.
As a result, we have a conflict of all against all, involving the Assad regime and its supporters (Russia, Iran and Hezbollah), moderate opposition (Free Syrian Army) and the Sunni countries standing behind it, Daesh (or ISIS), the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda with the name of Al-Nusra Front (called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham today), Syrian Democratic Forces (led by the pro-Kurdish People’s Protection Units – YPG) and other, relatively smaller groups.
Despite the fact that the involvement of the Russian Federation in the conflict saved the Assad regime from inevitable collapse, it has also created a dead end, without any particular winner in the conflict.
As a result of the Russian involvement and the strengthening of Daesh, the issue of removing Assad from power has become less urgent for the West. The Western media mainly talks about Assad when he uses the chemical weapons or when the US military perform their rare aerial bombings on his supporters.
Marginally successful peace talks take place periodically – the so-called Geneva Process undertaken under the auspices of the United Nations and the Astana talks held with the initiative of Russia, Turkey and Iran. The latter has so far managed to agree on the vague de-escalation zones, which create more questions than answers. The experts talk about the necessity of an agreement similar to the so-called Bosnian Model, which means decentralization and addressing the interests of various groups as much as possible. However, the parties of the conflict are not ready to have real compromise, which, at least at this stage, makes the resolution of the conflict quite doubtful.
The events that have unfolded in Syria have shown us several ugly truths, which face not only Syria itself but also the international community in general:
- Stability in non-democratic countries is mostly superficial and can turn into a serious bloodshed at any given moment;
- It is not as easy as it might sometimes look from the West to undertake democratic changes in the Middle East, which is so different with its culture and traditions;
- The terrorist organizations take advantage of the confrontation between the government and the opposition, to the extent that they have managed to institute effective control on certain territories, after which these groups took on the features and ambitions similar to those of ordinary states;
- After involving itself in Syria, Russia has found a new ambition of becoming a major player outside the Post-Soviet area as well, return to its “former glory” and become a country whose opinion is prioritized in the resolution of international conflicts;
- Despite the fact that the great powers fight in the Syrian Civil War mainly through their proxies, they still are not shy to get involved in the military action directly. After the downing of the Russian fighter jet by Turkey on 24 November 2015, serious challenges to international security have surfaced in Caucasus-Black Sea region. The powerful countries involved in the conflict might find themselves in a similar situation in the future as well, which will directly influence not only the Syrian Civil War but also the security of the neighboring regions as well (including Caucasus-Black Sea region);
- Whatever the results of the Syrian conflict, it is clear that this country cannot continue existing in the similar form it existed before. Generating new formulas and ideas will be necessary to create a new arrangement, taking into account the interests of every confessional or ethnic group living in Syria (Sunni, Shia-Alawite, Christians, Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Circassians and Armenians). This is going to be a serious challenge;
- The new political arrangement of the country must be satisfactory to the interests of the great powers as well. This is not going to be easy, since in general, these powers have completely different interests in the region;
- Given the fact that the domestic and external factors causing the conflict have not been resolved, it will be difficult to ensure long-term peace. This is exactly why the peace talks held so far have had no significant results;
- Millions of people facing humanitarian catastrophe might still flee, not only to the neighboring countries but also to the faraway Europe, creating new kinds of problems and challenges for it, including the ones concerning unity;
- The Syrian conflict could easily spill over to the other countries in the region as well, similar to the cases of Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and Egypt. The governments of these countries have long fought Daesh, which has still managed to hold and control some of their territories;
- The threats of religious extremism and terrorism have risen both within as well as outside the Middle East. The frequent terrorist attacks in Europe, Turkey and Iraq of late provide clear examples. Groups with radical ideologies have been trying to utilize religious feelings for their interests and will try to do so in the future as well. Such challenges may well arise in Georgia too;
- Problems originating from sectarianism (mostly Shia-Sunni confrontation) have multiplied in the region, the clearest examples of which are the civil war in Iraq and Yemen as well as Iran-Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia-Qatar confrontations. In this regard, there might be challenges for Georgia as well since part of its Muslim population is Shia whilst another part is Sunni;
- Over the years, a new reality in the form of Kurdish entities has started to establish itself in the Middle East (first in Iraq and now in Syria too). The United States and in certain terms Russia as well believe the pro-Kurdish forces to be their main allies in the fight against Daesh, consequently providing help to these forces. Turkey believes these groups to be the branches of the terrorist organization PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Hence, we have an emerging rift between to major NATO members – the United States of America and Turkey. Ankara believes that the possibility of the formation of a Kurdish (autonomous) state entity in Northern Syria is a major threat to its security and does not shy away from using military force against it. There is a danger of further escalation regarding this situation.
- Lately, the international coalition led by the United States has been actively fighting against Daesh. It is likely that Daesh will have to leave the city of Raqqa as well as other territories. However, the main question is – what will happen after the majority of Daesh’s fighters return to their home countries whilst the remaining part scatters all around the world? In this regard, it should also be noted that Georgian citizens are also fighting in the ranks of Daesh and they have already threatened Georgia in the past;
- After scattering from Syria, radical extremists might attempt to enter Georgia. Part of these extremists are Georgian citizens, whilst others are foreign nationals. This will create numerous dangers and challenges for the country.
As we have seen, the Syrian Civil War creates a multitude of humanitarian, military-political as well as social-economic threats and challenges, both within and outside the Middle Eastern region. Resolving or minimizing these threats will only be possible by taking into account the legitimate claims of local confessional and ethnic groups, as well as by the active involvement and work of the international community.