In an exercise that proposes both truths and interpretations that do not seem to fit in the editorial of the mass media, we give a list of questions and answers that help to look with other lenses a scenario that seems clouded by too many actors with too many agendas.
At the beginning of World War I, Britain and France were already anticipating what would be a Triple Entente victory over the Ottoman Empire, an important step desired by Walter Rothschild and the Zionist movement (recognized by Britain in the Balfour Declaration) in search of establishing a Jewish state in Ottoman controlled Palestine. This was in addition to the geopolitical aspirations of the European powers. By 1916, Mark Sykes on the British side, and François Georges-Picot on France’s, in a secret agreement delimited the borders to distribute the control of the Levant region, even including the Maghreb. The idea of the Sykes-Picot agreement was that Palestine would remain under British influence while waiting to be transformed into Jewish territory, while the other part of the Levant would come under French influence and be divided on the basis of dominant religious groups: Lebanon for Druze And Christians (mainly Maronites); Syria, granted to the Sunni majority of the region; And the Beqaa Valley, on the border of both countries, given to Shiites. East of the Levant, the agreement established that the vilayets of Baghdad and Basra would form Iraq under British control, while the vilayet of Mosul, of Sunni majority, would be part of Syria under French influence and the area of Kurdish majority in the north would be under the control of czarist Russia, in the course of becoming an independent state.
The conflict originates because sectarian differences were considered only in the allocation of lands. In the practice, the boundaries were defined by drawing straight lines on the maps. Sykes has a famous phrase to the British Prime Minister saying “I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk.” It must be also considered, of course, the geopolitical interests already mentioned, as well as a flagrant ignorance about the idiosyncrasies of the inhabitants of the Levant. This was evident when the British bet that the Ottoman fall would gain them the trust of the Shia majority in the region of ancient Mesopotamia, since the Ottomans only recognized the Sunni faith as the true one and the Shiites lacked any privilege. But when the British invaded from today’s southern Iraq, Shiites took sides with Ottoman Sunnis to “defend Islam from the infidels.”
The Shiite resistance escalated and by 1920 the very Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War, recommended such a drastic measure as the use of poisonous gases (yes, chemical weapons) against Shiite towns and villages. In addition, to reduce the proportion of those who professed this branch of Islam, Britain took several actions. On the one hand, they surrendered sectors with Shiite majority in the south of Basra to their ally Ibn Saud (next to found Saudi Arabia), also making independent the Kuwait emirate with all the access to coast and allowing Iran to annex the emirate of Ahvaz. On the other hand, Britain added Sunni sectors to the borders of Iraq, like Mosul, with the approval of France, and the Kurdish area, given that the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 made Russia to focus in other matters and Kurdish lost the chance to become an independent state for which they fight until this day.
This answer can be synthesized in a series of events that have kept the flame of the conflict alive, for various interested reasons. After World War I, the Shiites and later the Kurds resisted the European colonialists, who used more and more force, even using arms based on white phosphorus, now forbidden. Tensions and interests increased with the exploitation of the first oil deposits in the late 20’s and with countless explorations of prospective deposits. During World War II, and especially at the end of it with the creation of the state of Israel, a feeling of Arab nationalism that transcended Islamic sectarianism and often imposed borders spread in the countries of the region. Proof of this was the power of the Ba’ath Party founded in 1947 that, being secular, established itself in Libya, Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, but especially in Syria and Iraq, where they reached government in The 1960s and after several conflicts, divisions and coups d’etat, installed in power to Hafez al-Assad in Syria (1970) and Saddam Hussein in Iraq (1979). These so-called “strong men” ruled until 2000 and 2003, respectively, trying to impose their power and worship on their person over sectarianism and, all too often, by resorting to extreme brutality. Add to the political factors countless commercial factors, such as the need to build pipelines for the transportation of natural gas, and we have the perfect storm going on for more than a century.
Just as the manufactured borders and the European invasion generated local resistance during and after World War I; Just as the World War II and the creation of the state of Israel to the detriment of Palestine generated a feeling of union between Arab countries to resist; Just as the need to prevail and defend themselves generated authoritarian and militarized governments; So too, these authoritarian governments generated a sense of resistance in a population increasingly able to self-cater for information that ended up erupting in what is known as the Arab Spring, first in the Tunisian revolution in 2010, which succeeded in overthrowing the government, and then with protests in Algeria (2010-2012), Jordan (2011-2012), Oman (2011), Djibouti (2011), Sudan (2011-2013), Bahrain (2011), Kuwait (2011-2012), Morocco (2011-2012), Mauritania (2011), Lebanon (2011), Saudi Arabia (2011), Iran (2011) and Palestine (2011-2012). But undoubtedly, the biggest conflicts were those that escalated from protests to armed conflicts: Egypt, with the government overthrown in 2011 and conflicts to the present; Yemen, with the government overthrown in 2012 and with an ongoing war; Iraq, with protests since 2011 that brought about changes in government and a war against the Islamic State in progress; And Syria, with a civilian insurgency in January 2011, which led to a civil war in August of that year and continues today with a war against the Islamic State.
While it is impossible to deny the sequence of interventionist events that have led to the current state of the region, the Arab Spring could not have materialized without the brutality of many regimes in Arab countries.
But if the demonstrations of Tunisia and Egypt where evidence of anything, it was the enormous power of social media and new flows of information. And although the Arab Spring was a social response, the use of foreign interventionists to carry out geopolitical movements did not wait.
Between February and March 2011 there were simultaneously countless displays of civil discontent throughout the Middle East and North Africa, however Al Jazeera concentrated its coverage on Libya and the repression of Gaddafi’s government against civilians. Al Jazeera is a property of the State of Qatar that has shown great influence on the young population of the Arab countries. Qatar is one of the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a group close to the United States which also include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These countries plus three others, during a session of the Arab League in March 2011 attended by 11 of the 22 members, voted in favor of requesting a no-fly zone in Libya to the UN Security Council and it was this request that prevented Russia to exercise its right to veto Resolution 1973, which allowed the use of “any necessary means” to protect the civilian population from the actions of Gaddafi.
The manipulation of information can be seen in two elements of this story. First, Al Jazeera and the Western media turned a blind eye to what was happening, for example, in another GCC member, Bahrain, where repression against civilians was just as brutal, but where the government was supported by Saudi Arabia (Against Shia rebels) and by the US, which maintains a base of operations for their Navy’s Fifth Fleet in that country. Second, as concluded by the Special Committee on Foreign Affairs of the British Parliament in 2016, the threat against Libyan civilians had been overestimated and the sheer amount of elements of Islamic extremism among the rebels had been overlooked. Of course, Western media and Al Jazeera have responsibility on this.
Mainly because what Sykes, Georges-Picot and Rothschild did 100 years ago continues to be done today by the current powers. By then, it was to prepare the ground for the creation of Israel and the control of a strategic position, today it looks for the destabilization of the region to avoid the rise of any military power that can be a threat for Israel. Nothing unthinkable, considering that the region is rich in resources and there has always been a feeling of emerging pan-Arabism, but so far countered.
Among the great supporters of the State of Israel are the UK’s CFI and the American “neocons”. The latter were the ones who devised the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and that year, the retired General Wesley Clark of the US Army, who had been NATO Supreme Allied Commander, published in his book “Winning Modern Wars” about a visit to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon a few weeks after the 2001 attacks, where a “senior military officer” informed him of a plan to carry out a “5-year campaign” where US would go after Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Somalia and Iran. Despite the tight deadline, which was surely just a strategy of the Pentagon neoconservatives to “sell the idea,” it is remarkable to confirm the US interventionist initiative and the success in destabilizing the region: all these countries experienced demonstrations associated with the Arab Spring 10 years later and only Iran remains without direct US military actions in their territory.
In 2006, Israel went to war with Lebanon through a devastating bombing supported by London and Washington. Condoleezza Rice, US Secretary of State at the time, commented in a speech in Tel Aviv that “what we’re seeing here, in a sense, is the growing—the ‘birth pangs’—of a ‘New Middle East’ and whatever we do we [meaning the United States] have to be certain that we’re pushing forward to the New Middle East, not going back to the old one.”
The same year 2006, Lieutenant Colonel in retirement from the US Army Ralph Peters had published in his book “Never Quit The Fight” a map that proposed a major redesign of the Middle East. Ralph Peters is known as a geopolitical strategist widely heard in the Pentagon, but there are also those who say that his success rate as forecaster is because he has disclosed strategies already in progress.
The official definition says that opposition groups are fighting pro-government groups, but the reality is that from the beginning there were interests of the Western and Middle Eastern powers to get rid of Assad as they did with Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi and transformed those interests into effective material influence.
But unlike Libya, in Syria something didn’t work as intended.
Pro-government media, both in Syria and Lebanon, were able to counter the information generated by Al Jazeera and other sources who sought to influence the population and established a narrative that took advantage of a Syrian nationalist sentiment that has been cultivated since the uprising of Hafez al-Assad in 1970. In this way, opponents of the government, more open to foreign intervention, encountered a pro-government resistance, not only from the military forces, but also from pro-Assad militias and civilians.
Another factor to consider, also different from what happened in Libya, is the proximity of the Assad family to Russia that makes almost impossible any resolution of the UN Security Council against Damascus.
Therefore, if Arab and Western powers work for overthrowing the government, while Russia and Iran intend to protect the government, and both sides have been decisive, clearly and regardless of who fights the battles, this is an international war.
Seymour Hersh, an American researcher and writer, denounced how weapons stolen from Libya’s arsenals after the fall of Gaddafi came to Islamists and other opposition groups in Syria thanks to US smuggling them with the support of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
More openly, US Has provided weapons, training and logistical support to the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces, made up of militias opposed to the government from different ethnic groups, mostly from the Kurdish YPG) and to the FSA (Free Syrian Army, made up of deserting factions of the Syrian Arab Army or SAA), the latter also sponsored by Turkey.
It is important to note that, although the US-led coalition can be analyzed as a single force, it is clear when breaking down their actions that within the group there are diverse approaches and interests. The most obvious is the position of Turkey, which has expressed their disagreement with many strategies, not just the strengthening of the Kurds (which Turkey consider a threat). Saudi Arabia and Qatar have common interests, but each wants to be the dominant power of the gulf. Israel, which participates mainly in intelligence work (only intervening openly when they detect a direct threat to their state, as in the bombing of Hizbollah’s arsenals), seeks to keep the military forces unbalanced in their favor in relation to all Arab states and to keep these states on turmoil through interventionism, wars, propaganda and any tricks that manage to make them fight each other.
USA is a case study in itself. There is no single policy, with a single strategy and a single objective. In the United States there are several internal interests that are reflected in various objectives in their foreign policy, sometimes these interests are opposed, sometimes they escape their control.
In March 2016, the Los Angeles Times reported the absurd news where weapons and training provided by the US were being used by independent Syrian rebel groups grouped in the FSA, sponsored by the CIA, to fight militias grouped in the SDF, sponsored by the Pentagon. This has been happening repeatedly throughout the war and shows the little control that US can effectively exert on the forces they sponsor, but also the existence of many faces within the United States.
These countries have border, geopolitical and trade interests in the region. Middle East control and regional destabilization sponsored by the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel can act as a spark in the fuse to the countries of Asia Minor and Eurasia, with a delicate domestic policy and in the control zone of Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US National Security Adviser, coined the concept of “chaos and creative destruction” in reference to undoing first to then reformulate the borders and policies of the Middle East. Another term of his, defined in the book “The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geo-Strategic Imperatives” was the concept of “Eurasian Balkans,” in relation to “balkanization” or the ability to exploit internal ethnic conflicts in 9 countries of the region: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Afghanistan.
He also spoke about the potential balkanization of Iran and Turkey, but saying that should this happen, the region would become unmanageable.
Of course, Iran, Turkey and Russia want to keep the balance of their control zone and, above all, their border areas at all costs.
In order for the western powers and their allies in the Middle East to have an effective influence on the internal conflicts of the “enemy” countries, they had to find a mechanism to enter the fight without doing so directly, because it would have been considered an invasion according to international treaties. In addition, it needed to be in a way that would increase sectarian differences between Shiites and Sunnis to further polarize the parts in conflict. Two large Salafist Middle East groups with aspirations for a caliphate in the region were presented as the perfect repositories to be the fighting force sought by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Western powers: Al-Qaida in Syria (first self-styled “Front al-Nusra” and now “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham” as a member of the “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” group or HTS) and Islamic State (first self-described as “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”, ISIS or DAESH, according to the transliteration of their acronym in Arabic).
Qatar has openly acknowledged its support for the former al-Nusra Front, while Saudi Arabia, although in a more veiled way, also appears frequently among financiers of various extremist groups, as reported by some British media that had access to a report commissioned by David Cameron in 2015 to identify who finance Islamic terrorism (the report has not seen the light because Saudi Arabia, a UK trading partner, appears compromised).
At the beginning of the War in Syria, it was often seen that al-Qaida weapons and trained personnel ended up integrating the forces of Islamic State. They also participated often in joint operations. These relationships have become more distant and tense, to the point of escalating into clashes between the two groups, in part because of the difficulty in obtaining financing without the U.S. charter and partly because of the weakness that the Islamic State currently has and which current HTS exploits in its favor.
In the name of the Islamic State (or ISIS as it is still called in the Western media), media campaigns have also been carried out in order to “sensitize” the Western population to the Islamic threat by extending the battlefield to the main cities of the world through attacks that appear in all the covers.
Following the bombing in Manchester in May 2017, several records were made public of Salman Abedi, the suicide bomber who would have left dozens dead and injured at a concert at the Manchester Arena, confirming his participation as a member of the Islamic Combat Group in Libya (LIFG) supported by the United Kingdom, which in turn is related to al-Qaida and Islamic State. Abedi also participated as a rebel side fighter in the Syrian War. This is an example that has been repeated too many times.
While the forces backed by one side and the other are opposites, neither the United States nor Russia have declared to be in conflict with each other. Strangely, they have even spoken of a common goal: the destruction of Islamic State.
However, the various clashes and the struggle for positions and supremacy do resemble the proxy wars of the years of the Soviet Union.
Coalition forces (Western and Middle Eastern powers led by the US) have stated that the priority at the moment is not to overthrow Assad but to get rid of the Islamic state in Syria and Iraq, which is very likely to happen soon. But in a territory infested with multiple forces and interests it is impossible to carry out an action without thinking of a series of consequences, intentional or not. All parties to the conflict are moving their pieces anticipating the post-Islamic State scenario.
The fighting forces are in a state of effective deadlock. On the one hand, the GCC has been divided since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain broke relations with Qatar for “their support of Islamic extremism groups.” There is, of course, a “real” reason related to get businesses with Washington (from Saudi Arabia and the UAE) and a disagreement on the stance over Iran, a natural enemy of the bloc, but with whom Qatar has trade relations.
USA and their allies in the Middle East have reached the point where they can no longer involve resources to finance and sponsor Islamist groups without exposing themselves politically and mediatically. Here again, two faces of the United States emerge, the public face that concentrates efforts on the destruction of Islamic State for the good of humanity and the hidden face of the neoconservative military apparatus that surely will want to follow the same roadmap that will perpetuate the conflict to keep the spending on defense and take care of Israel’s interests.
Currently, US troops have entered Syrian territory after being prepared in the north of Jordan, in what has been called an invasion. The US response to these allegations is that this has been made in support of the fight against Islamic State (with which nobody can disagree) and for this effect to provide training to rebel forces, which in no case will use the new skills and weapons to keep fighting Assad’s forces.
Aside from the incredible US position, the fact that they’re directly present in Syrian territory dramatically increases tensions. In September 2016, USA and Russia reached an agreement for a cease-fire in Syria. However, soon after, the United States killed more than 60 Syrian army fighters and the Syrian government responded by attacking a convoy of aid en route to Aleppo. This overturned the agreement between the two military powers. Another accidental US attack on pro-government fighters took place in early June 2017 and before that in April, while Russian air forces also mistakenly attacked Syrian rebels in March 2017. All signs of a true powder keg.
In an act of pragmatism, Russia oriented its diplomacy to Turkey, which controls some opposition groups, and Iran, which sponsors the Hezbollah pro-government group along with other militias, to establish a new cease-fire pact, signed in May 2017 after talks in Astana, Kazakhstan.
At this meeting it was also agreed to implement what were called “de-escalation zones”, which seek to stop any armed confrontation between opposition and pro-government forces, while efforts are being made to protect civilians residing in those areas and to reduce opportunities for conflict with US-led coalition forces.
After this, the US And Russia began to focus their external efforts on beating the Islamic State in both Raqqa on the Syrian side and Mosul on the Iraqi side. In practice, however, the US is strengthening their position in At Tanf, south of Syria, training and arming Syrian opponents, coordinating NATO forces (mainly Norwegian and French) and preparing the next coalition plays on the Syrian-Iraqi board using the fighting against the Islamic State as a shield in the eye of the international community.
The prospects for the future of the war in Syria range from a pacification of the region after beating the Islamic state (maybe through a political territorial division as proposed by RAND Corporation) to the outbreak of World War III.
The situation in Syria is so delicate and complicated that both possibilities at opposite ends have practically the same probability of occurrence.
USA and the coalition forces have demonstrated their readiness to defend At Tanf on the route between Syria and Iraq, and there have already been a number of attacks on Syrian forces, clustering in the zone along with Iranian military forces, in addition to the Lebanese and Iranian militias that already supported their ranks. An attack whose casualties are not Syrian (pro-government or opponents) is enough to escalate war into a major international conflict.
On the other hand, a large-scale armed conflict is not in the best interest of any party and there are still countless negotiating instances, both international and bilateral, between the main actors, Russia and the United States.
Iraq is also on the verge of expelling the Islamic state and, although the institutional order seems to be prevailing, Iraq is also susceptible to negotiations that may occur with respect to Syria, for example on the allocation of territory to Kurdistan, Sunni / Shiite segregation and the territorial administration of international forces in part of the territory of Syria and Iraq.