Proxy wars have always been complex, but the Syrian conflict has moved into a world of its own | Citizens' Press

The rebels fighting the Assad government in Syria have relied on USA made weapons given to them by various Gulf-Arab monarchical states: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

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There has been a long history of these states buying US arms and the rate of procurement has skyrocketed when the conflict started over four years ago. The obvious goal of the Gulf-Arab monarchies is to overthrow the dictatorial, but republican, government of Syria, a goal also shared by their backers within NATO (including the USA, Britain and Turkey).

The Syrian army on the other hand is backed by ground forces from Hezbollah and various arms of the Iranian military with financial support from Russia and the Iranian government. The obvious concern is maintaining their friendly regime in Damascus.

At its core, the Syrian civil war is a near mirror image of two supply chains of weaponry, fighters and financial aid. On one side, NATO countries offer supplies to the rebels via their network of regional military bases in the Gulf to several anti-Syrian government, yet non-ISIS/ISIL, Islamist militias. This supply chain relies on Turkey, Jordan, and (to a lesser extent) Israel along Syria’s boarder to allow for the establishment of physical space where anti-Syrian government militias may be trained, seek refuge and re-group, and access weaponry and financial aid flowing in from the Gulf.

The pro-Assad supply chain extends from Russia and Iran through Syria’s two other neighbours (mainly Shi’a militias from) Iraq and (Hezbollah) Lebanon. Russia also has a single regional military base in Syria which provides as an entrance point for supplies.

By the summer of 2014, NATO countries concluded their strategy of supporting anti-Assad rebels was failing to bring regime change and instead was creating a steady supply of trained militants flowing to militias affiliated with ISIS/ISIL.

NATO and the Gulf-Arab monarchies have since decided to directly intervene in the Syrian civil war by deploying warplanes, naval assets and military personnel to directly engage ISIS/ISIL. However, NATO countries have found that differentiating ISIS/ISIL militants from other Islamist militants is a near impossibility in most major arenas of the war.

In addition to trying to fight ISIS/ISIL, airstrikes–mainly from Turkey–are targeting unaligned and Kurdish political forces to prevent the establishment of new independent states. The result is that ISIS/ISIL is not being eliminated, but is instead receiving indirect air-support from NATO countries.

Russia Responds

The territorial advances by ISIS/ISIL created a potential for Russia’s sole military asset in the Middle East being eliminated from Syria. In response, the Russians intervened directly on September 30, 2015. From an international relations perspective, it is worth commenting upon both the form and substance of Russia’s direct intervention.

Russia announced its intentions to intervene militarily in Syria in front of the United Nations General Assembly. The stated aim was keeping the government of Syria in power for the duration of the country’s civil war.

While the General Assembly is not a space to sanction countries for their actions, it does allow for states to debate and express their opinions about issues brought forward. That Russia’s plan was not met with ridicule speaks volumes of the international communities assessment of the Syrian civil war. Further, Russia’s decision to intervene militarily in Syria came after the government of Syria made an official request for assistance. The gesture from the Assad government conforms with the internationally agreed upon rules governing warfare and aggression, allowing the actions of the Russians to not contravene (some) international law.

Russia also secured cooperation of neighbouring Iraq to provide intelligence and the physical space needed to coordinate ground forces from Syria, Iran and Hezbollah under the cover of Russian air and naval strikes. The result has been a highly integrated air and ground offensive against anti-Syrian government forces that have little coordination with the air forces of NATO countries.

Possible Expansion of Proxy Wars

Ultimately, the likelihood of the Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis to achieve its goal of maintaining the government of Syria is dependent upon NATO’s inability to find anti-Syrian government militias to support. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are not saddled with a need to distinguish between ISIS/ISIL militias and non-ISIS/ISIL militias and have concluded that, like the militias who overthrew the government of Libya, the anti-Syrian government forces have transformed into proxies for various Gulf-Arab monarchies seeking to displace republican Arab states.

Displacement, however, is a two way street. As the Russian-led axis allows the Syrian army to regain territory, there will be a displacement of ISIS/ISIL and non-ISIS/ISIL militias. Unless the lines of support for the anti-Syrian government militias are dismantled, many of these rebels will simply turn their attention to other areas in the region where republican forces threaten the interests of the Gulf-Arab monarchies and their backers within NATO.