By: Rayhan murad
Perhaps no crisis can better embody the complexity, death, and suffering that has pervaded the Middle East for the past 50 years than the Syrian Civil War. It has already claimed the lives of 500,000 people, displaced millions, and torn apart one of the most historically rich countries in the Middle East. It would have been near impossible to predict the extreme stances and actions each side had gravitated towards; with Bashar-Al Assad using chemical weapons on his own people, and some Syrian rebels aligning themselves with the Islamic State. At the surface of the conflict lies a deep rooted sectarian divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and an inability to trust the government. Deeper however, lies a power struggle between the Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, and a series of dangerous provocations between the Russians and the Americans.
Despite the conflict in Syria seeming like a mostly regional conflict, it has turned into a chessboard for global superpowers to exert their power. The United States and other Gulf countries back rebel groups across Syria; Russia backs Bashar Al-Assad, who remains one of Russia’s only allies in the Middle East; and virtually no one supports the Islamic State. In addition to all of these sides, Kurdish rebel forces who seek to create an independent Kurdistan and other different minority groups have also taken up arms against both the Islamic State and the current Syrian government. The plethora of different sides in the Syrian conflict drives home the need for further cooperation between the biggest global players- the United States and Russia.
Russia’s role in the conflict in the Middle East cannot be understated, as they remain one of the primary reasons Bashar Al-Assad remains in power. Russia’s motives to help Bashar Al Assad against the wishes of most of the international community come down to a deep distrust with western powers such as the United States and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). As the Economist explained in September of last year, Russia’s backing of Assad is representative of the Kremlin’s intentions to increase their influence inside the Middle East, and their desire to inhibit the West’s ability to instill pro-American democracies in the region. Furthermore, Russia has blocked and vetoed any attempts by the United Nations to impose harsh sanctions on Bashar Al-Assad's government, despite the various war crimes his government is responsible for. In addition to blocking effective sanctions, Russia is also guilty of preventing partial ceasefires across the country, indicating their willingness to allow the war to continue for longer. And while the United States can take some of the blame for not compromising with Russia on a host of issues for the good of the Syrian people, it is Vladimir Putin’s administration that has dragged the war on for these 5 years.The diplomatic fight of Russia in Syria is just as important as the military one, and has unfortunately resulted in some very real deaths.
Among Russia’s other incentives to keep an oppressive Shia president in a country with a majority Sunni muslims is Russia’s other regional power in the area, Iran. As the Wall Street Journal furthered in October of 2016, Russia has been given the ability to use Iranian bases to fly jets in and out of the Middle East, in return for Russian backing of Assad inside Syria. Perhaps the only reason that Bashar Al-Assad’s government has been able to stay in power is because of Russian military strength. As the Telegraph explained in October of 2016, Russia has sent various fighter jets and aircraft into Syria, in hopes of destroying and pushing back rebel groups. While Russia publicly claims to be focusing the brunt of their attacks on the Islamic State, much of the international community realizes that the fight against terror is just a front for Russia to fight rebel groups. As Russia continues to prop up not one but two dangerous, oppressive governments inside the Middle East, it overlooks the international consequences it’s actions have.
Perhaps the people that Russia poses the greatest threat to is the people of Syria themselves. In addition to have killed nearly 4,000 civilians since the beginning of 2016, Russia’s military and diplomatic stance has helped spark a global refugee crisis. With their innumerable civilian casualties, compared with the fraction of ISIS deaths, Russia seems to overlook the humanitarian consequences of their actions. This exacerbates the numbers of refugees that are flowing into Europe and fearing for their lives. Despite international efforts to help curb the amount of deaths inside the country, Russia has only taken steps to destroy even more of the vital aid and infrastructure the citizens need to survive. As the New York Times found in September, Russia has even attacked United Nations aid convoys attempting to deliver vital food and medication to the thousands of undernourished children inside the country. Having already suffered five years of a bloody war, the Syrian people have long been hungry for peace, but with Russia unwilling to compromise with the Western world, it is clear that peace will continue to evade their plates.