By Nick Anstett
In a region seemingly locked in continuous conflict, the nation of Syria has evolved into the new face of the growing violence in the Middle East. As a victim of a violent civil war within its own borders, encroachment by militant groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), and fought over by two of the world’s super powers, Syria has been thrust into a geopolitical stage that grows more complicated with each passing month.
It seemed briefly that the civil war in the country may be finally coming to something approaching a resolution in these past weeks. According to The Washington Post, on Feb. 12, United States Secretary of State John Kerry met in Munich with representatives from Russia and other stake holding countries, 17 in total, to determine some form of ceasefire for the nation, including where and when air strikes against supposed terror groups would occur. The deadline for this agreement came and went this past Friday, Feb. 19. Regardless, in a report by The New York Times, on Sunday, Feb. 21, Kerry announced that both the US and Russia were close to creating some form of truce, and that the final steps only needed to be determined by President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin. However, just a few hours after Kerry’s announcement, a series of bombings, for which ISIS has taken credit, rocked the Syrian city of Homs and suburbs of its capital, Damascus. According to NBC News, the attack claimed the lives of over 129 people.
Series of events such as these point to just how complicated the conflict in Syria has grown, and partially why negotiating a truce is a task that may take some time. While the U.S., Russia, and the UN, all agree on the labeling of ISIS as a terrorist organization, its presence is part of the reason why the geopolitical landscape in Syria has become as intertwined as it has.
The civil war has ravaged the country since its beginnings as an offshoot of the Arab Spring in 2011. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad opened fire on peaceful protestors and in the process spurned the creation of rebellion supported by former members of Assad’s military. According to Vox.com, by late 2012, Syria had become a proxy war for multiple nations in the Middle East with the rebellion receiving funds from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan and Assad receiving logistical and economic support from his closest ally, Iran. This is further complicated by the presence of numerous Islamic extremist groups, from both Sunni and Shiite branches, entering the conflict on both sides. Following the 2013 use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces against the rebels, Syria almost became the subject of an even wider conflict as the Obama administration threatened to conduct tactical strikes against the locations where such weapons were held. While these attacks never came to fruition, the U.S. did begin providing arms to the forces opposed to Assad. In 2014, the rise to power of ISIS and its subsequent carving out of territory in both Iraq and Syria lead to the rise of yet another faction. While still technically avoiding conflict with Assad, the U.S. began conducting surgical strikes against ISIS forces. In 2015, Russia entered the fray, claiming to bomb ISIS encampments but instead conducting strikes against forces fighting Assad’s government. Syria was now the sight of not only a deadly civil war, but the staging ground for an international terrorist organization and a proxy war of two world super powers.
It is for this reason that despite Kerry’s statements of hope and Assad’s statements that he is open to the concept of a cease fire, it appears unlikely that a cessation of hostilities will have much lasting effect on the growing conflict. While Russia may be able to corral Assad based on their historically close relationship, the U.S. has the admittedly harder position of communicating with the many different rebel groups. The Washington Post also claims that there are still disputes between both Russia and the U.S. about which organizations within Syria’s borders should be considered terrorists and which can be considered part of the rebellion. Again, even if some form of agreement to ceasefire could be established between both forces, it still leaves the unresolved presence of ISIS, who has made very clear is not interested in any end to hostilities in the foreseeable future.
Regardless, the simple fact that the many nations now involved in the conflict are gathering for some meeting regarding the future of Syria is encouraging, but Secretary Kerry may want to lower his expectations. It just might take longer than a week to sort things out.