Understanding the complexities of the Syrian civil war is extremely difficult, even for the most seasoned analysts. In its simplest version, a civil war normally involves a significant part of a nation’s populace rising up against the ruling authority. Usually, this starts in a non-violent way through protests and civil strife, as it did in Syria during the Arab Spring in 2011. Generally, the government then has a choice: Either reach some sort of accommodation with the protesters, or as President Bashar Assad’s regime has done in Syria, don’t give an inch and move to stamp out the movement quickly and viciously.
Sometimes those brutal tactics prevent a civil war.
But sometimes they don’t.
In Syria’s case, the Assad regime likely failed to recognize initially just how many Syrians were willing to fight for change. Instead of quelling the movement, Assad’s brutal tactics only further mobilized the masses to violently overthrow the government. That is how the civil war began, and if it stayed that simple, it’s likely the Syrian civil war would have ended years ago, with Bashar Assad gone from power, replaced by some sort of new Sunni-led government.
Yet that’s not what happened.
Instead, as the war enters its sixth year, around half a million people are dead, almost 5 million refugees have fled the country, and about 10 million people are internally displaced. And there is reason to believe the war is still far from over.
International Proxy War
The reason why the Syrian civil war breaks from the cookie-cutter model is it has largely evolved into a proxy war for other nations. Many other nations are using the war to further their own national ambitions. Nations such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia and the United States, have at different times throughout the war either supported the rebels or Assad regime, providing weapons, finances or diplomatic maneuvering.
Here is a quick, overgeneralized summary of foreign involvement in Syria over the past five years:
In 2012, under increasing pressure from the swelling ranks of the rebels, Assad called his chief ally, Iran, for assistance. Tehran then quickly tapped Hezbollah in Lebanon to join the fight to even the odds. Saudi Arabia then increased its supply of armaments to numerous Sunni rebel groups, each with varying end goals but with the same initial goal of defeating Assad. Many foreign fighters also entered Syria under the nose of Turkey, who had its own longstanding interests in Assad’s departure. For its part, the United States gave unreliable support to some rebel groups but avoided further intervention so as not to upset its broader foreign-policy objective of détente with Iran.
Fast-forward to mid-2015: Assad and Iran had their backs against the wall. Realizing they needed serious help, Iran covertly flew Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qasem Soleimani to Moscow to plead for Putin’s assistance. Recognizing the opportunity to further its own strategic interests in Middle East, such as showing up the United States as well as ensuring the future of its Mediterranean naval port on Syria’s coast, Russia obliged Iran and joined the fray in late September. Russian aircraft provided powerful, essential aerial support to the Syrian regime, which was also now supported by an additional 40,000 Iranian-paid Shiite mercenaries from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Iran’s Russian Gamble
From Iran’s perspective, Russia’s entrance into the war began paying off immediately. The lethal tandem of Russian jets in the skies combined with Iran’s proxies on the ground halted and then pushed back rebel fighters. Key territories were taken back, ensuring the survival of the Syrian regime. At last, Tehran started to feel relieved that Assad would remain in power, allowing Iran to maintain its goal of a Shiite highway from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea.
The last major objective for the Russian-Iranian alliance was Aleppo, the largest of Syria’s cities before the war, yet mostly rebel-controlled since 2012. Four years of fighting in and around the city had left it decimated; yet still the rebels continued fighting. Then, in June 2016, a powerful campaign by the Russians and Iranians led to the encircling of the city. The besiegement and constant air bombardment formally ended in a truce in late December, and the remaining rebels were allowed to leave the city.
However, it was in the aftermath of the taking of Aleppo that cracks began to emerge in the Iran-Russia alliance. Russia felt that taking Aleppo meant that its own interests in preserving the Syrian state had been achieved. With the rebels beaten back, they would likely be ready to make a deal. Turkey, the nation that represents the rebel groups, was ready to make a deal as well. Nevertheless, Iran was not ready to give up the fight. So the Iranians attempted to undermine the ceasefire through their proxy militant groups.
Writing for Arab News, Sinem Cengiz summarized the different Russian and Iranian objectives this way:
To Russia, Assad is dispensable, but to Iran he is not. For Moscow, a strong Syria as a Middle East ally is a must in order to protect its strategic interests, but for Tehran a weak Syria is desirable so as to easily control the country for its future aims.
Russia’s naval base in Tartus and airbase in Latakia are very important for its long-term Middle East plans, as Syria is a good market for its military exports. Moscow wants to turn its advances on the ground in Syria into diplomatic gains in talks with the West. Therefore, it wants the upper hand in political decision-making, which jeopardizes Iranian interests in Syria and the region.
While Russia approaches the Syrian war from a geo-strategic and realist perspective, Iran’s stance is based on sectarian concerns. Syria is the heart of its strategy to create a “Shiite crescent” across the region. Tehran is struggling at all costs to ensure the Syrian regime’s survival, aware that it is a necessary tool to connect with a valuable ally in Lebanon, namely the Shiite group Hezbollah, which is fighting in Syria along with Iran.
President Vladimir Putin understands that while Russia’s actions have preserved the Assad regime, Assad himself will be forever a toxic leader and eventually must be removed if there is to be stability in Syria. However, Iran’s future in Syria is tied to Assad or another Assad-like figure, rather than the Syrian institutions.
On February 7, the War Is Boring blog reported that there was probable cause to “believe that the Russia-Iran rivalry has played out within the Syrian army.” While highly speculative, the source reported that at the end of January there was a possible Iranian coup and then Russian counter-coup in Damascus, with each attempting to install its candidate of choice as the Syrian president.
Then on February 8, Defense News wrote an editorial citing a possible Russo-Iranian split over Syria. Frederic C. Hof wrote:
Diplomatic activism by Russia in Syria is producing speculation about the Kremlin’s possible willingness to encourage genuine peace talks and spur transition from corrupt, incompetent and brutal family rule toward something stabilizing and inclusive. If Russia proves genuinely interested in converting military success to a sustainable political settlement, it would put Moscow sharply at odds with Iran and with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Is Russian President Vladimir Putin truly prepared to turn a page in Syria? …
Hypothetically, therefore, Russia might be interested in a political transition formula that gradually marginalizes Assad and vests executive power in a national unity government. Iran, however, would have no such interest. Tehran knows that, beyond the Assad family and entourage, there is no Syrian constituency accepting subordination to Iran and putting the Syrian state at the disposal of a Lebanese terror organization.
According to Hof, the impending defeat of the Islamic State will make it very obvious as to the future of the Russian-Iranian alliance.
Iran Is Prophesied to Lose Syria
At the beginning of the Syrian war, Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry made a bold forecast. In “How the Syrian Crisis Will End,” he wrote that by the time this war is over, Syria would no longer be aligned with Iran.
That forecast was not based on insider information but rather on a prophecy found in Psalm 83, which discusses an alliance involving Syria but not Iran. While the prophecy in this case is not so specific as to say that Russia would be involved in bringing about that split, it is obvious that Iran had to lose sway over the Syrian regime, or that there would be a complete regime change. Watch Gerald Flurry forecast Iran’s split from Syria back in 2012:
But this Psalm 83 indicates that Syria is going to have a break with Iran, that they’re going to break away. Now, you don’t see much of that in the headlines today, but you do see enough violence there to see where it might be able to do that, but most people don’t draw that conclusion. We do because we’ve been prophesying it for, well, close to twenty years now .…
However, that same prophecy found in Psalm 83 indicates that even Russia’s involvement inside Syria is only temporary. To read who is destined to control the end-time alliance involving Syria, as well as many other Sunni Arab states in the Middle East, read “How the Syrian Crisis Will End.” ▪