In case you have been having a hard time keeping up with all of the news coming out of Syria, ASP has put together a quick round up of 5 key questions whose shifting answers will greatly affect the outcome of the Syrian civil war.
Not unlike many Arab Spring uprisings, public unrest in Syria began with frustration over widespread government corruption, the lack of political freedom, and a dismal economy. Rather than relent and begin a process of reform that could have calmed anti-regime sentiments, President Bashar Al-Assad chose to attempt to forcefully subdue the demonstrations, and violence spread from there.
Two years later, the prospects for peace are worse than ever and possible outcomes have simultaneously multiplied and become more opaque, with an enormous number of groups fighting and vying for influence in the next reincarnation of the Syrian state. Here are some questions that will be helpful to consider while following the conflict.
Question 1: Who supports Assad?
On the ground, Assad relies on Syrian army regiments that are comprised of fellow members of his minority Alawite sect, and only the most proven, reliable, and closely watched non-Alawite regiments, to do the fighting. Hezbollah has sent between 3,000 and 4,000 troops to support the threatened regime, according to recent French estimates, and Iran has been accused of sending parts of its republican guard to fight for Assad, but denies having done so. Support from well trained and well armed foreign forces will greatly bolster Assad’s chances of survival if their participation out-paces the incursion of foreign opposition troops and the organic growth of national rebel forces, but this is far from a given.
Diplomatically, Russia has helped shield the regime from further UN sanctions and, more generally, complicated the process of forming an international consensus on how to proceed with regard to the conflict. These state allies have the power to greatly influence the war’s outcome, both through diplomatic maneuvering and arms sales, but how they will choose to exert their influence remains to be seen.
Question 2: Who are the “rebels”?
The Syrian rebels can be broken down into two broad categories: the secular and mostly homegrown Free Syrian Army (FSA), including a slew of moderate Islamist and Salafist groups with which it cooperates, and the hard-line Islamist brigades like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Tawhid Brigades, which have denounced the FSA’s Supereme Military Command (SMC), and asserted their intention to create an Islamist state in Syria.
The majority of the armed opposition is still comprised of the largely secular brigades of the FSA, but their efforts have been greatly augmented by the aforementioned hard-line Islamist brigades – comprising at most 10% of the rebel force – that are foreign-funded and largely ranked with foreign fighters. News sources have reported consistently for months that well funded and well organized Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra are rapidly attracting army defectors and new fighters. It is difficult to gauge the shifting make up of Syrian rebels and the strength of the hard-line influence, yet understanding the make up of the rebels is key to predicting likely outcomes.
Politically, the FSA is represented by the expatriated National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which was formed in Doha, Qatar in November of 2012 with the stated purpose of forming a transitional government to succeed Assad.
Question 3: Who supports the “rebels”?
How western governments will ultimately choose to aid the rebel cause has, along with questions of chemical weapon use, been one of the most hotly debated questions surrounding the conflict. Arming secular rebels groups will ultimately mean putting modern weapons in the hands of Al-Qaeda-linked extremists, but refusing to arm rebels could mean their ultimate defeat and the survival of the Assad regime, so the issue is understandably controversial.
To this point, the U.S. has provided only non-lethal aid to the rebels but has not ruled out the possibility of arming rebels entirely. Last week, the EU let its arms embargo to rebel groups expire, which opens up the possibility of military aid to secular rebels, but such a deal has yet to materialize. Were western states to provide munitions and surface-to-air weapons to rebel forces, the impact on both the war and the balance of power amongst rebels could shift significantly. As a result of western refusal to arm rebels, Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, who are funded by non-western entities, have been able to recruit based on material, as well as religious grounds. If moderate and secular rebels were similarly equipped, at least half of that equation would change.
Question 4: How involved is Al-Qaeda?
The U.S. and other nations are highly concerned over the presence of Al-Qaeda- affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. The possibility that Nusra will continue to gain influence amongst Syrian dissidents, and possibly elevate itself to a point of influence amidst the forming of a new Syrian regime is a worst case scenario for western powers. But to what extent Al-Qaeda influence has been overstated, and to what extent Islamist principals have captured the Syrian public’s imagination, remains uncertain.
Broadly speaking, it is difficult to discern what net effect these extremist forces are having on the conflict, since intelligence on troop numbers is hard to come by and, though they are effective fighters, their involvement makes the international community hesitant to supply arms.
Question 5: Have chemical weapons been used?
For better or worse, the U.S. and much of the international community has fixated on the issue of chemical weapon use in the Syrian civil War, so this remains an important unanswered question. The quantity of reports of chemical attacks seems to suggest that at least some CWs have entered the conflict, but it remains unclear which substances have been used and who has used them. Confirmation of these details could solidify international alignment against the regime, or cast the rebels’ reliability as elements of a future political peace in further doubt.
The answers to these questions have shifted since the conflict began, and will continue to do so. Predicting the outcome, or even narrowing down to likely outcomes will be next to impossible, especially until heavy fighting subsides and peace talks begin, but by following these issues, one can hope to maintain a reasonable handle on the war’s major developments.