One of the reasons the Syrian conflict is so brutal and hopeless is that it is not a straightforward war with two clearly defined sides. It is, in reality, at least 7 wars wrapped up in one, with constantly shifting lines and unreasonable demands on the local civilian population to choose sides again and again.
First, there is the conflict between the People of Syria and its regime that started as part of the Arab Spring, with people demanding more freedom, democracy and less corruption and a change in the Assad regime, whose family has been ruling Syria for decades. These protests, which started as popular nonviolent protests, were met with repression and brutality, leading many to take up weapons in self defense. Once that occurred, the regime felt free to unleash its powerful military, including attack helicopters, military airplanes, artillery, and tanks against the lightly armed civilians who could no longer see the prospect of any reconciliation with the regime, and who sought allies and weapons wherever they could find them. Furthermore, since the opposition to Assad was not unified, it quickly splintered into tens of organizations whose influence depended, not so much on their numerical support among the population, but on the amount and sophistication of their weapons, and their effectiveness in the face of the regime forces.
Second: Islamic/Secular war . Each Arab regime facing the Arab Spring has declared itself the only credible alternative to chaos and Islamic extremism. As Assad’s grip loosened on his country, large areas of Syria fell into the hands of ISIS who established in it an “Islamic Kalifate.” As ISIS continued to shock the world and attract radicals from different countries to its cause, many countries, organizations, and people who had no love for Assad, joined the fight against ISIS, creating yet another war within the Syrian war. Secularists, and minorities, like Christians, also found themselves supporting Assad as a bulwark for secularism against radical Islam.
Third: Sunni/Shi’a war: Bashar Al-Assad belongs to and draws many of his loyal army commanders from the Alawite group, a Shiite faction that forms about 15% of the Syrian population. He is also supported by Shi’ite Iran, and Hezbollah from Lebanon. As the conflict continued, it began to take on aspects of a Shiite-Sunni battle being played out in Syria.
Fourth, similar to the Third, but quite distinct from it, is a Persian Arab war: Many countries, especially Saudi Arabia, and some Gulf states, have fears of the expansion of Iranian influence in the region, because they have their own dissident populations with ties to Iran, and they are fearful of the expansion of Iranian influence in the region. They therefore participate by proxy in the fighting in Syria, arming certain factions, and hoping to weaken Iranian influence and prevent its spread.
Fifth: The War on Terror. The United States, NATO, and other countries from as far as Australia and New Zealand have been involved in a war on ISIS, mostly through aerial bombardment. This has led them into involvement with the wars in Syria, often on the side of other Islamic extremists, and in support of forces they do not ordinarily support. General Petraeus recently even suggested that the US make common cause with Jabhat el Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, as part of their War on ISIS.
Sixth: Remnants of the Cold War. While Russia has clearly lost the Cold War to the West, it still wants to retain some influence as a global power in the Arab world. The Assad regime is its last remaining center of influence there. Its naval base in Latakia is its last remaining base on the Mediterranean and it is reluctant to lose it. It therefore has supported the Syrian regime militarily, and diplomatically, and has recently even expanded its military bases in Syria, providing 24 fighter bombers to add to his arsenal. Their involvement is so extensive that Israeli PM Netanyahu recently met Putin to coordinate military actions in Syria, and ensure that their military forces do not accidentally engage each other in hostilities as they bomb other targets in Syria.
Seventh: Kurdish Arab war. The Kurdish ethnic minority, persecuted in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, and living in proximity on the borders of all three countries, simultaneously feels threatened and vulnerable, and at the same time finds an opportunity in the chaos to arm itself, defend its villages, and seek autonomy from the central government authorities in all three countries. By the same token, Turkey in its fight against Kurdish rebels, engages them militarily and bombs their bases in Syria.
There are also other countries that do little to hide their glee that their enemies are embroiled in fighting each other in Syria, and who may not spare any effort to ensure that the fighting continues and bleeds their enemies dry as they fight each other. Israeli officials often express these views, and many in the Arab world often suspect the US of following a similar policy that prevents any resolution of the crisis and that ensures that while the regime continues to be weakened, that it is not be allowed to fall.
The hapless civilians of Syria are being pressured by all sides and cannot maintain neutrality. When their villages fall to one side, the other side freely bombs and destroys their homes and territory as “enemy “territory. If they refuse to fight for one side, they can be persecuted or even killed by that side. As the fighting continues on its multiple fronts, and no end appears in sight, it is little wonder that millions of Syrians have chosen to leave everything and seek refuge elsewhere.
Jonathan Kuttab, Esq.
Jonathan Kuttub is a Palestinian-American international attorney who is a member of the Bar Associations in New York, Palestine and Israel. Co-founder of Al Haq, the award-winning first Palestinian Human Rights organization, and Mandela Institute for Political Prisoners. He headed the Legal Committee of the Palestinian delegation negotiating the Cairo Agreement between Israel and the PLO which created the Palestinian National Authority. Jonathan is a frequent commentator and speaker on current affairs in the Middle East at conferences, universities and in the media.