After seven long and bloody years, the Syrian Civil War appears to be ending. Despite the hopes of the original peaceful Syrian protesters – who dared to demand an end to torture, more political rights and the right to freedom of assembly – the war is ending with Syrian President Bashar Assad still firmly in power. This outcome is not what conventional wisdom foresaw five years ago.
When Jerusalem Post commentator Herb Keinon spoke on the situation in Israel and the surrounding region at the Agudath Israel Congregation in Ottawa in 2013, I posed a question about the likely outcome in Syria and how it would affect Israel. While he dismissed my concern about al-Qaida taking over the country, one thing he thought was certain was that Assad would soon fall from power. At the time, Assad controlled far less than half the country and his demoralized forces were having no success in retaking any of the territory that had been lost.
Assad had put himself in what seemed to be an untenable position by reacting violently to peaceful protests that began in early 2011. Protesters demanded political and human rights, as well as autonomy for the Kurdish minority. Starting in April 2011, Assad’s army began to kill protesters in several cities, including Daraa, where the protests began. Many of the victims were Sunni Muslims, who made up the majority in Syria, but were excluded from power. As a result, the Syrian army split, Sunni Muslims deserted and Assad lost control of the heart of the country. ISIS emerged from the chaos in Sunni areas, drawing Western powers into the war.
From the earliest days of the civil war, Assad enjoyed the support of Iran. Hezbollah forces took on a significant role in fighting on the ground and Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces stepped in to advise and bolster the remnants of the Syrian army.
With a few exceptions when fighting spilled over the border, the conflict had not affected Israel directly, and Israel officially maintained a stance of neutrality in the Syrian Civil War. However, Israel did secretly intervene to prevent Iran from transferring advanced equipment to Hezbollah. They also provided humanitarian aid to people near the northern border who were affected by the war.
In 2015, the Russians intervened and the tide of the war began to turn. Russian forces in the air and Iranian forces on the ground advanced into areas that had been controlled by the rebels since 2011. The singularly brutal tactics of the Russian and Syrian air forces resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties. These tactics led to protests, but no effective action by the world’s democracies, which left the Syrian-Russian-Iranian alliance free to commit war crimes with impunity.
As Iranian forces advanced across Syria on the ground, they established themselves throughout the country. At Limmud Ottawa 2018, Michael Shkolnik, a PhD candidate in international affairs at Carleton University, described the IRGC presence in Syria and how it threatened the Jewish state. Israel’s interventions had become more extensive, as it sought to prevent the Iranians from consolidating their positions in Syria. Russia and Israel developed a “deconfliction regime” that was aimed at preventing clashes with Russian forces when Israel conducted air operations against Iranian forces.
On Sept. 18, Syrian air defences shot down a Russian spy plane, after Israel launched an attack, and Russia blamed Israel for the incident. Russia has since provided more advanced weapons to the very Syrians who were responsible for downing the Russian plane. If this development prevents Israel from continuing its operations against Iranian forces in Syria, the establishment of an Iranian forward base in Syria may be successful. This presents the risk of a future Iranian attack launched from Syria and Lebanon simultaneously, possibly supported from Gaza. Russia’s recent actions suggest that it may be taking a more menacing stance against Israel now that its influence in Syria has been consolidated.