Losing the “Great Game” in Syria

For NATO and Russia, the Syrian Civil War was the qualifying round in a geopolitical battle – a proxy war that set the starting positions for the invasion of Ukraine.

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Alex Mormorunni

To say that Bashar al-Assad, the authoritarian president of Syria, owes his life to Russia is no exaggeration. The al-Assad regime survived a bloody, 11-year civil war, largely thanks to Moscow’s assistance. Putin committed millions of dollars of financial aid, a decade of military assistance, and multiple war crimes for the benefit of al-Assad. In March of this year, the Russian-Syrian relationship evolved from one of one-sided aid, to one of reciprocity, as Syrian troops began flowing into Ukraine to support Russia’s illegal injunction there – a token of gratitude from the Syrian government to Moscow.

Though this display of gratitude suggests that Russia’s involvement in Syria had been a charitable endeavor, the true reasons for Moscow’s presence there were more complex and self-interested. Syria was a critical locale in the grander geopolitical battle between Russia and NATO. The Syrian Civil War decided whether the reins holding the European natural gas supply could be wrested from their longtime seat in Russia’s hands. Russia won al-Assad the war, and by doing so maintained power over natural gas distribution. This control has shown itself indispensable in diminishing the blow of  NATO’s sanctions in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.

In early 2011, as the ripples of the Arab Spring reached Syria, protests filled the streets of Damascus, Daraa, and Aleppo. Thousands of civilians railed against the increasingly authoritarian regime of president al-Assad. Their cries of protest rose above the conical towers of Aleppo’s Byzantine-era mosques, whose star-and-crescent spires rose like fingers into the skyline, perpetually checking the modern, developing city against its roots in religious tradition. Golden Age towers, blue-tiled arches, and old stone streets formed for Aleppo a cradle, in which a populous urban center grew. On March 15th, government troops halted the demonstrations abruptly by opening fire on the protesters.

Eleven years later, and Aleppo is quiet, having been transformed into a sullen shell by years of tireless violence. Its vibrant tiles have been made drab by the thin gray dust of bomb debris that now covers the razed city. Tense silence blankets Aleppo, occasionally broken by the hollow boom of a barrel-bomb. The tragedy of this city is a product of its geography. 

The Syrian Civil War seemed, on its surface, to be a straightforward conflict. However, below the surface of the Middle East flows a natural resource that has been the great blessing and burden of the region. For more than a century, oil and gas has been a snare for the Arab world, and Syria is no exception to the unsavory entanglements that these resources bring to politics. Syria lies between the Gulf States and the Mediterranean Sea, which makes it a potential nexus for transporting natural gas between a great natural gas producing region and Europe. As it stands, there are no major natural gas pipelines across Syria. Whoever controls Syria, decides whether or not a pipeline will be built, meaning that to control Syria is to control the distribution of a dominant portion of the European natural gas supply.

Russia has maintained hegemony over this supply for several decades. Due to its alliance with the al-Assad government, it has kept gas from flowing through Syria to maintain its position as Europe’s primary supplier. For Moscow, controlling Syria is a duty of financial self-preservation. For NATO on the other hand, the instability of the al-Assad regime during the civil war years presented an opportunity to cut the dependence of Europe on Russian gas. If NATO could oust al-Assad and install a government favorable to the West, a natural gas pipeline could be laid across Syria, directly connecting Europe to gas supplied by allied nations like Qatar. Such a move would make the NATO nations less dependent on gas from Russia, the nation whose antagonism with Western Europe is NATO’s very raison d’etre.  As in most situations involving regime change, it was the U.S. broadly, and the CIA specifically, who played the largest role in this geopolitical maneuver. 

As the goal was to dethrone Assad, the primary recipient of the United States’ largess was the anti-government rebels. When the conflict began, about a quarter of the Syrian army turned against Assad, forming a unified “Free Syrian Army”. But, by the time U.S. aid entered the conflict years later, the rebels were far from the unified front they had been in 2011. Instead, the rebellion was fractured into dozens of factions that varied widely in both their military capabilities, and, as would prove crucial, the extent of their Islamic religiosity. President Bashar al-Assad is a minority Shia Muslim leading a majority Sunni country. As such, the rebels were mostly Sunni. This quickly prompted foreign Sunni organizations to join the war under the banner of Sunni-Shia sectarian strife.

The most significant of these Sunni third parties was ISIS. ISIS is an abbreviation for “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” as they considered Greater Syria to be part of their “caliphate”. For a large part of the war, ISIS was extraordinarily successful in Syria, holding a majority of the country’s territory. While both the domestic rebels and ISIS shared a common enemy in the al-Assad regime, they were not allies. This wide spectrum of religious ardor within the resistance caused significant in-fighting. This division amongst the rebels proved to be a contributing factor to their ultimate military defeat. 

On the Syrian battlefield, secular bands of rebels often allied with other factions the U.S. considered too fanatical to support. This factor made pinning down the ideological stances of specific rebel groups incredibly difficult. It was into this nebulous water of secularity and zealotry that the CIA dove when they began funding anti-government factions. U.S. foreign policy has frequently lived by the line, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” which is why the U.S. had been willing to support Islamic Jihadis in the past – as with the Mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan war.

Support of that kind was, however, before the War on Terror. An al-Qaeda fighter may be as keen as a CIA agent to see Assad dethroned, but during the Syrian Civil War era, the U.S. was in bitter conflict with al-Qaeda. The United States government would never take any actions that could wind up aiding those same terrorists as had killed so many U.S. soldiers – right?

Established by the CIA during the Obama administration, Operation Timber Sycamore shipped arms through ports in Jordan into Southern Syria where they were distributed to factions of rebels. However, Southern Syria was home to dozens of independently intentioned parties, who acted in their own self interest and created a complex web of violence which has little accountability or predictability. Throwing nearly a billion dollars worth of weapons into this maelstrom had predictably unpredictable consequences. The greatest adverse effect of Timber Sycamore was the accidental funding of the al-Nusra Front, the Southern Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.

The operation was shuttered once the extensive proliferation of weapons to the al-Nusra front surfaced. However, the criticism can still be levied that selling millions of dollars of weapons to low-level Syrian arms dealers and expecting them to practice discretion in whom they sell arms to was an asinine idea to begin with – especially in a region where many of the largest purchasers of arms were terrorist organizations. While the extent of accidental support for terrorist organizations by the CIA is impossible to assess accurately, John Glaser of the Cato Institute made the observation that “[ISIS] imploded right after external support for the ‘moderate’ rebels dried up.” Glaser argued that the crucial factor was not how much support went directly to jihadis; rather, the constant flow of arms cultivated the type of landscape in which an organization such as the Islamic State could flourish. The arms that went to the al-Nusra Front were just a more direct form of CIA aid to international terrorism. 

For the majority of the Syrian Civil War, ISIS and related extremist groups posed the greatest threat to the al-Assad regime, not the rebels. However effective ISIS and Al-Qaeda were at battling the Syrian government, the CIA could never justifiably fund them, and was therefore bound to funding the markedly less effective rebels. These U.S. trained rebels languished on the Syrian battlefield, dying at such a staggering rate that the CIA was frequently unable to find willing volunteers. The CIA was most successful when it failed; only when its arms shipments ended up in jihadi hands did they pose a tangible threat to al-Assad.

From any angle, Operation Timber Sycamore placed the CIA on extremely uncomfortable moral footing. Though toeing the line between right and wrong is the CIA’s modus operandi, even they faltered at the implications of Timber Sycamore. The operation was also, as mentioned, enormously expensive and ineffective. Whether this or the funding of terrorists was the greater cause for the program’s shuttering cannot yet be known for certain.

Timber Sycamore only continued for the four years it did because of the limited options the U.S. had to take out al-Assad. The options for U.S. involvement in Syria were limited as Russia had, early on in the conflict, deployed air support for government forces over the major urban centers of Syria. Because Syria was Russian airspace, the U.S. was unable to provide air assistance for their rebel allies for fear of an accidental engagement between U.S. and Russian jets. This dominant position allowed Russia to grind Aleppo, the rebel forces’ strongest position, to a nub through a continuous bombing campaign. Meanwhile, the U.S. and her allies were regulated to arming rebel ground troops. 

As a result of Russia’s military vice grip on Syria and the failure of Operation Timber Sycamore, Bashar al-Assad was able to stifle resistance and ultimately resecure his control over Syria. As it stands today, “the government has regained control of most of the country, and Assad’s hold on power seems secure,” reports the Council on Foreign Relations. The Syrian people have emerged from an 11-year struggle only to find themselves under the thumb of the same oppressor against whom their original protests were aimed. America and her allies threw a heavy geopolitical punch at Russia and missed. 

To NATO and Russia, the conflict in Syria was like boxers shuffling their feet to position themselves advantageously for when the hard blows start to fall. In February of 2022, a blow fell, as Russian troops poured into Ukraine. Only a week after the conflict began, the superior footing of Russia bore fruit. The unity of NATO’s sanctions against Putin faltered quickly as Germany, NATO’s wealthiest European member, demonstrated their dependence on Russian oil and gas. Germany has proved unable to effectively sanction Russia’s most profitable export and, as German spokesmen have said, will be unable to completely tighten an embargo until at least the year’s end. As a result of their extensive reliance on Russian gas, nearly all European nations are facing large economic contraction as a result of their embargoes. A trans-Syrian pipeline would have provided Europe with a cheap alternative; its absence has leveled the economic battleground in Ukraine and made sanctions more survivable for the Russian state.

Though Russian support for the al-Assad regime was borne of economic incentives, it has reaped the benefit of reciprocal military aid as well. It appears that, after 11-years of assistance, the Syrian government has grown enamored of their bomb-bearing patron, going to extreme lengths to repay their perceived debt to Moscow. More than 300 Syrians have already deployed in Russia and thousands more have signed up to fight. The pay offered by the Russian government is a significant draw to individuals in an economy as shattered as Syria’s. Many of the enlisted are civil war veterans, pawning off their violent talents as mercenaries. This influx of old-hand soldiers on the Russian side will undoubtedly have a substantial impact on the conflict.

Great-power competition in Syria played a crucial role in setting the stage for the invasion of Ukraine. The consequences of the Russian strategic victory in the region sowed economic seeds that, as conflict dawned, reaped rewards that may have saved Russia from a total defeat in the war’s first phase. Through unprecedentedly harsh sanctions, NATO has attempted to strangle the Russian economy into backing down. However, due to Russian hegemony over the European oil and gas market, some European nations are forced to crack the stranglehold, delivering a breath of life to Russia with every hour the gas flows.

The war in Ukraine is transforming steadily from a blitz campaign to a war of attrition. This style of conflict will feel familiar to the Kremlin, as it won them the Syrian Civil War. Unlike Syria, however, ground troops have played a significant role in the Russian war effort. And in a war of this kind, the cold calculus of expending lives plays a large role. The importance of this question of manpower was summarized succinctly by Napoleon when he said to an Austrian diplomat, “You cannot stop me. I can spend 30,000 men a month.” As significant numbers of Syrian troops become available to Moscow, these extra men to “spend” could prove a crucial aspect of Russia’s continued pressure on Ukraine.

In the 19th century, the British Empire clashed with Russia over Afghanistan and Central Asia, battling for resources and strategic geographic positions. This conflict was colloquially known as the “Great Game”. Large nations have always used the politics and resources of smaller ones as chess boards to compete with other large nations. What a nation stands to gain from this kind of “game” has been evidenced by what Russia gained by their strategic victory in Syria. What a nation stands to lose is evidenced in Ukraine every day–its pain prolonged by NATO’s strategic failure.

But the aspect of proxy wars that is often overlooked is the inevitable evisceration of the nation who unwillingly hosts the game. Syria’s U.N.-guaranteed right to sovereignty was swept away without a second thought, ground between the political wills of two giants. Its cities were turned to dust, and 2011’s swelling of hope for democracy has been shattered indefinitely. Ukraine, it seems, has taken Syria’s place as the theater of the NATO-Russia conflict. This parallel is a chilling one for Ukraine, and the hope is now that, in a decade’s time, remarks about Kiev will not bear with them those images of decimation and loss that have become inseparable from the very mention of the name Aleppo.⬩

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