PRINCETON – What began in Syria as a revolt against an oppressive regime has evolved into a sectarian civil war and, more recently, into a proxy conflict. In the process, the struggle has become increasingly convoluted, with conflicting agendas among allies, together with deep-seated communal tensions, rendering the situation nearly intractable.
On one side, the United States, the European Union, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are backing the opposition – a welter of armed factions with diverse agendas and ideologies that range from Syrian nationalist to global jihadi. This disunity reflects the fissures in Syrian society, a result of more than four decades of brutal authoritarian rule.
On the other side, Russia and Iran (and its proxy, Lebanon’s Hezbollah), each for its own reasons, are supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Russia’s motivations are tied to the legacy of the Cold War. The Assad regime has consistently adopted an anti-Western stance, aligning itself with the Soviet Union and later with Russia. Today, Syria represents Russia’s only remaining toehold in the Arab world, while all of Assad’s regional opponents are US allies.
Iran’s involvement reflects a different, much older struggle – that between Sunni and Shia for control of the Middle East. With Shia-dominated Iran providing weapons, money, troops, and training for Assad’s forces, the conflict’s sectarian dimension has taken on greater significance. Indeed, government forces have devolved into a sectarian army, motivated by the fear that, if the largely Sunni rebels are victorious, they will annihilate the Shia-affiliated Alawite minority that has ruled Syria for decades.