Author: Michael Robillard
The present war in Syria can perhaps best be understood as a microcosm of a greater longstanding regional struggle between Sunni-Saudi Arabia and Shiite-Iran, as mediated through various local sectarian interest groups, and further bolstered and affected by additional regional as well as international actors. To better understand the present state of affairs in Syria, we must therefore properly situate the conflict within a broader historical and political context; first locally (geographically speaking) and then, from there, expand out our understanding of the conflict to include its broader relationship to additional regional players and international entities.
Many of the preconditions for the present conflict in Syria can be traced back to longstanding historical tensions between Shiite and Sunni groups stemming both from the last four decades of Assad rule and dating even further back the establishment of the Arab Socialist Baath Party in 1947. Syria’s population is comprised mainly of Sunni Arabs (roughly 60%); Christians (10-12%); Shia Alawites (10-12 %); Druze (6%); and various other ethnic minorities, mainly Kurds and Armenians. Prior to 2011, the Alawite Assad family had maintained political power in Syria for over four decades despite being a minority representation of the overall population. This dynamic between a ruling Shia minority and a dis-enfranchised Sunni majority would prove to be a source of much political tension within Syria eventually leading to the 2011 uprisings.
1.2 Bashar al-Assad
In 2000, President Assad died and was succeeded by his son, Bashar. Bashar al-Assad’s assumption of power signaled a mix of hopeful expectations as well as disappointments both domestically and internationally. For instance, Bashar’s wife, an investment banker born and raised in the United Kingdom, seemed to indicate to many, a step towards a more progressive leadership in Syria. Assad’s decision to release 600 political prisoners in November of 2000 seemed to further suggest that Bashar was leaning towards a less authoritarian posture than his father before him. Such expectations however were quickly deflated after Assad arrested and detained several pro-reform activists in 2001. Shortly thereafter, in 2002, the United States included Syria (along with Iraq and North Korea) on its list of states comprising an ‘axis of evil’, claiming that Syria was acquiring weapons of mass destruction. In 2004, the US imposed economic sanctions on Syria after claiming that Syria was supporting terrorists and was complicit in its failure to block militants from entering Iraq.
Throughout the mid-2000s however, Syria demonstrated a series of diplomatic overtures that signaled what seemed to be a greater willingness to work with both Turkey and the West. For instance, in 2004, Assad became the first Syrian leader to visit Turkey, serving to thaw decades of political tension. An in 2006, Syria and the new Iraqi government restored diplomatic relations after nearly a quarter century. In 2007 the EU began relaunching dialogues with Syria, however, during this same year Israel carried out an aerial strike against a nuclear facility under construction in Northern Syria. During this same time period, Assad met with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and French President Nicolas Sarkozy signaling greater overall political relations with the West. Up until 2011, there was, largely-speaking, minimal instances of sectarian conflict under Bashar’s rule.
1.3 2011 Uprising
As increased regional destabilization was occurring around Syria, chiefly in the form of the US invasion of Iraq, a series of other economic, political, and natural events further contributed to Syria’s lack of stability. For instance, Syria experienced the largest drought in its national history, from 2006-2011, the effects of which are still being felt in the current conflict. Indeed, much of the present conflict between factions at the local level and the Assad government revolve around the continual acquisition of enough fresh water. Coupled with this particular natural event were also conditions of economic instability and growing political frustration from the majority the dis-enfranchised Sunni populous. The shooting of protesters in Deraa in March of 2011 by Assad’s security forces helped to stir increasing political unrest that spilled over into Banyas, Homs, and Damascus in the following months.
The so-called, ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 which marked successful political uprisings in Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt, also served to inspire Sunni Syrians to establish the SNC (Syrian National Council) and its militant arm, the FSA (Free Syrian Army). In May of 2011, the Assad regime deployed tanks to the areas of Deraa, Banyas, Homs, and Damascus suburbs to suppress protests. This action led to a tightening of sanctions by the US and the EU. While the early stages of the Syrian civil war were initially non-sectarian in nature, the face of the conflict would soon begin to polarize along increasingly sectarian lines as more opportunistic groups, both internally and externally, attempted to exploit the growing power vacuum. The US official pulling out of Iraq in 2011 would significantly contribute to this effect as members of Hezbollah, ISIS, and the al Nusra Front would begin to increasingly participate in the conflict in the coming years.
Early 2012 marked an increase in bombardments in the area of Homs by Assad forces. After several attacks on Assad forces in Damascus and a successful seizure of Aleppo in July, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (minus Islamist militant groups) formed in Qatar in November. The United States, Britain, France, and Turkey would come to recognize this organization as the official representative of the Syrian populous the following month. During the year of 2013, UN inspectors concluded that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons in the Ghouta region of Damascus killing approximately 300 people despite Assad denying any responsibility. The Assad government nonetheless allowed the UN to destroy chemical weapons stockpiles which were completely destroyed by June of 2014.
Shortly after the failure of several UN-mediated peace talks in early 2014, the prevalence of ISIS in the Syrian conflict became increasingly prominent as the terrorist group launched an aggressive social media campaign involving videos depicting the enacting of gruesome atrocities consistent with Sharia law. In January of 2014 the city of Raqqa completely fell to ISIS’s control and in June of 2014, ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the official establishment of the Islamic ‘caliphate’. This announcement caused an influx of thousands of foreign fighters into Syria to join under ISIS’s banner. In September of 2014, the United States and five Arab countries launched air strikes against ISIS in Raqqa and Aleppo.
2015 marked a period of the United States scrapping a plan to train Syrian rebels that, after $500 million has reportedly only produced 60 fighters. In September of 2015, Russia began conducting its first airstrikes in Syria, officially stating that it was targeting ISIS forces. Russia’s actions were met with strong resistance from the West who claimed that Russia was also deliberately targeting anti-Assad rebels. Within this same year the Assad government was able to successfully reclaim control of Homs, Syria’s 3rd largest city, after a 4 year effort. 2016 marked a considerable influx of Turkish troops into Syria to help Syria rebel groups fight against ISIS militants but also Kurdish-led rebels. In December of 2016, Assad’s troops, backed by Russian air power and Iranian-sponsored militia-men were able to successfully retake Aleppo.
1.6 At Present
In January of 2017, Russia, Iran, and Turkey were able to enforce a ceasefire between the Assad government and non-Islamist rebels after peace talks in Kazahkstan. This period of brief quiet was interrupted however after Syrian planes allegedly staged a chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun, killing at least 74 people and injuring over 500. This event resulted in the US launching missile attacks on a Syrian airbase as a reprisal. Recently, in May of 2017, the US decided to provide arms to the Kurdish YPG as means of bolstering the strength of the SDF who recently captured the important Tabqa dam from ISIS control. Since its beginning in 2011, the war has produced an estimated 400,000 deaths, approximately 5 million refugees, and another 6 million citizens internally displaced within Syria.
2.1 Local Sects & Factions
2.1.1 Shia Sects
The Shia Alawites make up about 10-12% of the overall Syrian population and have maintained political power in Syria for over 4 decades with strong alliances with Christian and Druze minorities. Alawites also make up around 140,000 of the approximately 200,000 career soldiers in Assad’s military of 300,000. The Assad/Alawite government has been accused on multiple occasions of developing a clandestine nuclear program as well stockpiling and using chemical weapons. The Assad government has been strongly supported by regional actors Iran and Lebanon, Hezbollah and various Shia militant groups, and by international actors Russia (and China more indirectly).
Shia Militiamen (Various)
Various Shia militia-men, distinct from Hezbollah, have also entered into the Syrian conflict on the side of the Assad government from various regional countries. These militia men are reported to come mainly from Iran, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen.
Hezbollah is a Shia paramilitary group based in Lebanon, loyal to the legacy of the Iranian Revolution. Its origins date back to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and Iran’s subsequent decision to fund the creation of Hezbollah in order to counter and harass Israeli forces. Hezbollah has members within the Lebanese parliament and constitutes what military experts refer to as a ‘hybrid threat’, an insurgent group that can successfully fight superior adversaries with a mix of conventional and unconventional military capabilities.
2.1.2 Sunni Sects
The Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council, its political leadership body in exile, is the primary rebel faction opposing the Assad regime. The core of the SNC is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. The FSA has an estimated troop strength between 40,000-70,000 troops. Though early reports speculated that the FSA was comprised of defectors from Assad’s military, more recent reports suggest that the FSA is overwhelmingly comprised of Sunni civilians. What’s more, while early protests against Assad were somewhat multi-ethnic and multi-religious, reporter David Enders month-long stay with the FSA revealed that the rebel group was, according to Enders, “Sunni to a man.”
The Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood is a strict Sunni Islamist organization founded in the 1920s. Its two main ideological pillars are, “the introduction of the Islamic Sharia (way of life or principles) as the basis controlling the affairs of state and society and working “to achieve unification among the Islamic countries and states, mainly among the Arab states, and liberating them from foreign imperialism.” After an attempted uprising in Hama against the Alawite regime in 1982 that was violently suppressed, the organization was nearly wiped out of existence. Despite its relative dormancy for nearly 3 decades, the Brotherhood was able to exploit the lack of central leadership on the side of the rebels in the opening stages of the Syrian conflict. Consequently, this allowed the group to establish itself as the SNC’s key leadership core.
SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces)
Backed by a US-led coalition, the SDF is a multiethnic (primarily Kurdish YPG and YPJ) force with an estimated troop strength of around 50,000-80,000 fighters. The SDF has become U.S.’s main regional partner in the fight against ISIS and has recently established a military foothold in Isis-held Raqqa.
Militant salafi-jihadist organization, led by self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, attempting to establish the Muslim ‘caliphate’ in the areas of Syria, Iraq, and beyond. The Islamic State’s de facto capital is in Raqqa, Syria and its estimated troop strength varies considerably depending on sources. The Islamic State’s de facto capital is in Raqqa, Syria and its estimated troop strength varies considerably depending on sources. For instance, in summer of 2016, US Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland estimated ISIS’s troop strength to be as low as 15,000 and as high as 20,000. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated ISIS troop strength to be around 80,000-100,000 in October 2014, and Reuters estimated troop strength to be somewhere between 40,000 to 60,000 in June 2015. Over the past year, ISIS has suffered significant territorial losses in Iraq and Syria.
JFaS/ AQ in Syria
Formally known as the Al Nusra Front, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is a salafi-jihadist franchise of Al Qaeda in Northern Syria. Despite an earlier alliance with ISIS, AQ in Syria officially split from ISIS in 2013 after Baghdadi declared the establishment of the caliphate and thereby tried to absorb AQ in Syria despite Zawahiri’s resistance. While ISIS’s ideology is more concerned with the establishment of the caliphate and the fight agains the ‘near enemy’, AQ in Syria arguably seeks to use its control of the region as a platform for global jihad against the ‘far enemy’ of America and the West.
2.1.3 Kurds (PKK, PYD/YPG)
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is primarily a Marxist faction that has fought against the Turkish government since the 1970s to establish an independent sovereign Kurdish state. While the PKK are Kurdish fighters operating in Turkey, the Rojava Defence Units (YPG), the militant arm of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), are Kurdish fighters operating in northern Syria.” Both groups are currently fighting ISIS. While the US has provided arms to the YPG as part of the SDF coalition effort, there has nonetheless been ongoing worry from Turkey that the PYD has allocated some of these arms to the PKK.
2.2 Regional Entities
Shia Iran is Syria’s closest ally and supporter. Since the beginning of the conflict, it has been providing military aid and advisory assistance to the Assad government as well as essential military support, primarily by air. Iran is also most directly opposed to Sunni Saudi Arabia. Accordingly, the Syrian conflict has become a manifestation of greater Sunni-Saudi versus Shia-Iranian geopolitical tensions via the proxy entities of the Assad/Alawite regime and the Syrian rebel forces.
2.2.2 Saudi Arabia
Sunni Saudi Arabia has and continues to function as the primary regional political counterbalance to Shia Iran. It has invested security assets in Bahrain in 2011 to counter anti-regime demonstrations encouraged by Tehran. With respect to Iraq, it has been a fairly open secret that wealthy Saudis and perhaps the Saudi government itself have funded Sunni militants in Iraq to oppose the Malaki government.
Turkey functions as the third, ‘wild-card’ regional player in the Syrian conflict. At the onset of the 2011 conflict, the Erdogan government sided somewhat with Saudi Arabia insofar as it mutually desired a regime change in Syria, mainly on account of the influence of the ruling conservative Sunni party in Turkey and the growing number of Sunnis being killed by the Assad regime. On account of this, Turkey has provided sanctuary for FSA troops within its borders and it has also resumed its historical geopolitical rivalries with Shia Iraq and Iran. In supporting the FSA, Turkey is hedging that an FSA victory will fundamentally constitute a greater Turkish rather than Saudi overall influence in the region.
Israel has a longstanding history of conflict with the Assad family, having waged several wars with it since the 1940s. That being said, Israel also likely sees no great appeal to new a Turkey or Saudi-influenced Sunni regime in Assad’s place. What’s more, a fractured Syrian institutional apparatus might likely prove to be equally or more dangerous to Israel was the weakening of Lebanon’s government which subsequently allowed for the generation of the PLO and Hezbollah. Accordingly, a complete fracturing of the Assad government could constitute a considerable security risk for Israel as it might allow for the metastasizing and generation of new threat organizations.
2.3 International Influencers 2.3.1 United States
While the initial entry of The US into the Syrian conflict was ostensibly in response to the Assad regime’s specific use of chemical weapons in Damascus in 2013, the US has more longstanding motivations for its involvement in Syria. Indeed, the US has good reason to care about Syria’s future given its physical proximity to Turkey and Israel, Assad’s close relationship with Iran and Russia, Syria’s influence in Lebanon, and its historic rivalry with Iraq. The US has sought to influence the Syrian conflict by lending support to the SDF mainly in the form of air strikes (approximately 7800) against ISIS as well as through funding and training to anti-Assad rebels via US special forces.
Ideologically speaking, Russia’s motivation for supporting the Assad regime stem from historic suspicions about western-led regime change that could compromise Syria’s statehood (much like in Libya and Iraq). While Russia’s official justification for continuing to support the Assad regime is ostensibly for reasons having to do with fighting terrorism, Russia nonetheless has very strong strategic interests in once again being a major powerbroker in the Middle East. The achievement of such power projection in the greater Middle-East is therefore highly contingent upon Russia’s successful influence in Syria, ostensibly best achieved via an Assad-led Syrian government. Russia has supported the Assad regime mainly in the form of targeted air strikes in Syria, particularly Northern Syria. As of 2017, Russia has carried out an estimated 71,000 air strikes. Though Russia has officially claimed that it is targeting ISIS forces in these strikes, many Western nations have claimed that such airstrikes are deliberately targeting anti-Assad rebels.
3.1 Local Actors
3.1.1 Assad Forces Strategy and Tactics
With respect to the Assad Regime, Assad’s overall strategy, particularly in regard to the taking of Aleppo, appears to be one of basic siegecraft and waiting, garnering the name ‘surrender or starve’ by some opponents. This basic strategy employed by Bashar al Assad harkens back to the same general strategy of ‘the long breath’ previously employed by Bashar’s father when having to deal with internal political resistance of various sorts. The general thought in such a strategy is primarily that of patience and, above all else, not ever appearing to be conciliatory or to make concessions to violent actors or groups from a place of perceived weakness. Accordingly, even if the ongoing violence and demands of the rebel forces strongly signal to the Assad regime the prudential and political necessity for a more decentralized and provincially-oriented set of governmental reforms, the Assad regime nonetheless has and likely will continue to hold out and simply wait, as its paramount goal is to at least appear to be the prime mover when it comes to the initiation of any such reforms. Accordingly, such recalcitrance on the part of Assad has resulted in a costly and drawn-out attrition-style conflict between regime forces and the rebels with much of the harms being distributed onto the remainder of the Syrian civilian populace caught in the middle.
Backed by Russian airstrike bombardments, Iranian militiamen, and Hezbollah fighters (primarily acting in an aide and assist capacity but sometimes offering kinetic support), Assad has used this combination of siege and bombing tactics to oust rebel forces out of what was their last major urban positional stronghold. The Assad regime coupled these tactics with the use of phone texts, leaflets, and even graffiti that carried messages of imminent bombing coupled with promises of amnesty. The UN estimates that 275,000 people are trapped in the rebel-held east, with up to 1 million people still under siege with no access to medical aid or humanitarian assistance. With the short-term high success of such bomb and siege tactics in the effective recapturing of Daraya and Aleppo, some political and military theorists predict that Assad will continue to use these tactics on other places such as Madaya. In addition to the use of siege and bombardment tactics, Assad has also relied on chemical gas attacks such as in Ghouta in 2013 and in Khan Shaykhun in April 2017 which resulted in the US launching 59 Tomahawk missiles on Syrian military targets as a form of reprisal.
3.1.2 Rebel Forces Strategy and Tactics
With respect to Syrian rebel forces, their positional defeat in Aleppo has meant that they have had to fall back to the Maoist strategic phase of insurgent guerrilla tactics aimed primarily at harassment and disruption of Assad’s conventional forces. These tactics have largely taken the form of sniping and assassinations, armed raids, roadside bombs, and (largely indiscriminate) mortar shelling. In addition to the estimated 8,000 rebel fighters who were fighting inside Aleppo, military analysts estimate around 30,000 more who are operating in the Aleppo countryside near Idlib. According to Kyle Orton, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society think tank, Syrian rebel forces “[w]ill shift away from any kind of governance structures to insurgency tactics and the regime won’t even be able to hold Aleppo properly once they take it. The insurgent attacks will be really full raids and the regime won’t be able to maintain any kind of stability.” As the Assad regime continues to employ its long-game attrition-style strategy with predictably slow but incremental successes in terms of positional gains, Syrian rebel forces have largely been placed on the back foot and therefore increasingly face a strategic impasse; either choose to go to the bargaining table or continue to employ insurgency and harassment tactics against the Assad regime until a new major positional foothold can be re-established.
3.1.3 ISIS and Al Nusra Front/Jabhat al-Sham/AQ in Syria
As the ongoing battle between the Assad regime and Syrian rebel forces has destabilized the social and political order within the region, jihadist terrorist groups ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Al Nusra Front/AQ in Syria) have sought to exploit the political power vacuum for their own strategic and political benefit. After initial strategic successes in Raqqa and Mosul in 2014, coupled with an aggressive social media campaign tactics, ISIS saw an influx of thousands of foreign fighters into Syria. However, over the course of 2015 and 2016, largely due to US targeted drone strikes, ISIS has continued to give up considerable strategic ground both in Mosul and recently in its last major urban stronghold of Raqqa. Despite this situation, ISIS has employed what military theorists have described as ‘active defense’ insurgency tactics similar to those used Nazi Germany circa 1944-45 insofar as they have been exceptionally violent and aggressive even in retreat. Specifically, ISIS has shifted from conventional to more insurgency tactics in the form of fixed and mobile sniper teams, mortars, IEDs, and booby-trapped houses. Military experts have recently argued however that such active and aggressive defensive tactics have nonetheless constituted a form of strategic over-reach insofar as ISIS’s tactics have continually out-paced its operational, material, and logistical infrastructure resulting in moments of violent tactical success but increasing positional (i.e. strategic) losses. Several reports suggest that ISIS leadership is now retreating from Raqqa to Deir al-Zour.
Meanwhile, AQ in Syria has metastasized in several directions and forms since its political fallout with ISIS in 2013. Given Al Qaeda’s internationally recognized status as a terrorist group, its Syrian affiliate has absorbed considerable aerial strikes from both US as well as Russian forces. After not being included in the February 2016 ‘cessation of hostilities’ talks in Munich, the Al Nusra Front leadership re-branded itself in July 2016 as Jabhat al-Sham with its stated mission being to overthrow the Assad regime without further support from Al Qaeda. This distancing between Jabhat al-Sham and Al Qaeda therefore entails two distinct and divergent strategic ends; one in alignment with other local Syrian jihadist factions looking to specifically overthrow the regional regime and the other focused on organizing jihadists for future attacks against the ‘far enemy’ of the west.
3.2 International Actors
3.2.1 US Strategy and Tactics
Within Syria, US strategic efforts have been placed on combatting ISIS and AQ in Syria mainly through the use of Syrian Kurds under the banner of the SDF. In doing so however, the US-backed SDF has clashed at times with Turkish-led forces looking to contain Kurdish expansionist interests. The SDF is now playing a key role in beginning to oust ISIS from the city of Raqqa. As this fight to re-take Raqqa occurs, another more unpopular option that is still on the table is for the US to begin cooperating with Assad and Russia towards the common goal of defeating ISIS. However, the recent US shooting down of a Syrian fighter jet over Raqqa, ostensibly in defense of US-backed SDF forces fighting ISIS (according to official US reports) has made such an option considerably less likely as it has created a ratcheting effect between both sides. Indeed, Russia responded to this incident with the conditional threat of targeting any US/coalition plane flying west of the Euphrates river as well as with a jet fly-by 5 feet from a US air reconnaissance plane. The US has responded in kind by presently trying to usher in a new bill to strengthen economic sanctions against Russia for its meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. It is at this level where military strategy and political statecraft begin to blur.
3.2.2 Russia Strategy and Tactics
Regarding Russia, Russia has continued to provide steady military support to the Assad regime, mainly in the form of air strikes but also in the form of troop, since it entered the conflict in September of 2015. Russia’s motivations for continuing to back to the Assad regime are mixed, having to do with wanting to maintain and strengthen their ally’s power, to expand global influence via Assad’s Syria, particularly via Syria’s port city of Tartus, and to prop up the Assad government in its own efforts to fight regional radical Islamist threats to Russia. Russia’s recently announced conditional threats against US and coalition forces in response the US shoot down of a Syrian fighter jet have served to both bolster Russia’s alignment with the Assad regime as well as worsen US/Russian relations in general as well as with respect to mutually defeating ISIS.
4.1 Tentative Predictions
The trajectory of the Syrian conflict is still highly uncertain. However, given the recent re-taking of Aleppo by Assad forces, several political theorists believe that a way forward towards an eventual peace is now closer within reach, provided that certain conditions obtain between key actors and within key regions. According to a recent report published by the Center for a New American Security, “Syria has fragmented into several ‘distinct zones of control’, each governed by different local players and heavily influenced by various external powers…This fragmentation has provided the foundation for a tentative cessation of hostilities brokered by Russia, Turkey, and Iran that has at least reduced violence in some areas.” Broadly speaking, what soon transpires in these zones of control/centers of gravity will largely dictate how political order becomes re-established, where, and by whom, or whether further instability and violence continues.
4.2 ‘Zones of Control’ Model
4.2.1 Assad’s Statelet
Since the onset of the Syrian conflict, both Russia and Iran have continued to strongly support the Assad regime and to offer pushback to US and western initiatives against Assad. Assad’s statelet provides the basis for Russia’s and Iran’s strategic goals throughout the greater Middle East, though it is still uncertain how much their goals will align or diverge in the near future. For the foreseeable future however, Iran and Russia will continue to lend support to the Assad Regime.
4.2.2 AQ’s Northwest Haven
Areas north and west of Aleppo are approaching another humanitarian crisis due to the Assad government’s military efforts aimed at opposition forces in the Idlib province. Northern Syria is at an increased risk of becoming a haven for Al Qaeda. The revolutionary movement in this region is being heavily shaped by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham as well as Ahrar al-Sham, a militant Salafist organization, often compared to the Taliban, with close ties to Turkey. The consolidation of these groups in Northern Syria could serve as potential platform for future AQ power projection against US and Western interests. Accordingly, this region must be retaken if the US wants to disrupt, contain, and diminish the growing AQ threat.
4.2.3 Northern Syria Divided Between Turkey and the Kurds
Turkey, with the assistance of the US-led coalition, has achieved sizable control in the region North and East of Aleppo. This area is presently serving as a buffer zone and will likely remain under Turkish control for the foreseeable future. In this effort, Turkey is attempting the balancing act of driving ISIS from its borders while simultaneously preventing Kurdish expansionism. This second objective is becoming increasingly difficult for Turkey to control as the (primarily Kurdish) SDF has been gaining momentum due to positional gains and US backing.
4.2.4 ISIS-Held Eastern Syria
As ISIS’s attempted caliphate collapses, the remnants of ISIS will likely pose significant challenges in Eastern Syria for the foreseeable future. Consequently, one key question that remains is the question of over who will retake Raqqa and what mix of actors will govern Raqqa after it is liberated. Additionally, there are signs that ISIS is relocating its key leadership from Raqqa to Deir al-Zour. As Raqqa is liberated the question of who seizes Deir al-Zour will likely become a next major concern.
4.2.5 Moderate Opposition Buffer between Jordan and Israel in the Southwest
The Southwest region of Syria is controlled by the moderate Southern Front opposition coalition, supported by Jordan and Israel. This area functions as a buffer both for Israel against the IRCG and prevents the flow of extremist groups into Jordan. Since several Sunni extremist groups continue to operate in the area, the U.S. has good reason to help the Southern Front while ensuring that it maintains primary responsibility for its own security and control over the region.
In conclusion, the war in Syria represents a series of interrelated and layered struggles. On one level, the war represents a local struggle between local factions and interest groups. On another level, the war represents a regional struggle between Sunni-Saudi Arabia and Shiite-Iran. Still on another level, the war represents an international struggle between groups and coalitions of international actors, both state and corporate, loosely held together by political, cultural, and economic commitments and by physical, technological, and pragmatic constraints. Beneath all of these layers, however, resides the specific minds of individual persons choosing to opt into, to reaffirm, or to deny the legitimacy of these various groups and relations in accordance with some set of articulated or unarticulated reasons (moral, epistemic, and practical). The war in Syria therefore represents a momentary fissure in the international space of reasons whereby the balance of these reasons will tend toward greater order and stability or toward greater dynamism and discord in accordance with these aforementioned factors, with the specific personalities of leaders willing to press their interests, and with the overall set of incentives to be gained, real or imagined, of those who choose to follow them.