A Proxy War


DAMASCUS/BERLIN (Own report) - German government advisors are warning against further military reinforcement of the Syrian rebel militias and are insisting instead on finding common ground for an agreement on Syria with Russia and Iran. The situation of the civilian population is already catastrophic and will become even worst, according to the most recent analysis of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). According to the paper, whereas the Syrian civil war has developed into a proxy war between the West on the one hand and Teheran and Moscow on the other, there is no perspective of finding a domestic solution independent of the external powers. Some western forces view the neutralization of the regime in Damascus, an ally of Teheran, as the prerequisite for war on Iran, which is why Teheran supports Damascus at all costs. The SWP points out that political structures still exist in Syria, that are seeking a political solution, but they are still being ignored by the West. The think tank warns that if an escalation to the conflict cannot be halted, the country risks disintegrating into splinter fiefdoms under individual warlords for a long time to come.

Victims of the War

In a newly published analysis, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) reminds, first of all, of the catastrophic situation being suffered by the Syrian civilian population, explaining that since the beginning of combat in March 2011, more than 39,000 people have been killed. 390,000 have sought refuge in neighboring countries, three times more than in August 2012. The United Nations' High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that that number could rise to 700,000 by the end of the year. The number of internal displaced persons is already estimated at 1.2 million. Both the industrial and agricultural production, writes SWP, has "nearly completely collapsed, due to sanctions and combat." In combat regions public services, including medical aid, have also almost come to a halt. Relief organizations have extremely limited access to combat zones and insurgent-controlled areas, leading to sparse and very expensive supplies of heating oil and food.[1]

Iraq Model

Whereas SWP authors do not put the brutality and crimes of torture being committed by government forces into doubt, the think tank points out that a radicalization is also taking place among the insurgents, and that they are beyond any control. For example, "the Salafist or Jihadist oriented portion of the combatants" has drastically increased. "Foreign Jihadists are infiltrating into Syria in greater numbers." A significant number of the Islamist or even Salafist influenced brigades refuse to coordinate their actions with local military councils and wage their battles independently, which has "led to the conflict becoming more confessionalized," therefore particularly threatening the Shia and Christian minorities. "Above all, the Alawites and Christians have fled their mixed neighborhoods," report the SWP. Yesterday's bombing attack on a characteristic Christian neighborhood, killing dozens of civilians, is confirmation of a threat that Syria is developing into a confessionalist war, along the lines of the Iraqi model. Warnings of this development have been made for a long time. (german-foreign-policy.com reported.[2])

The Lines of Conflict

With astonishing frankness, the SWP explains that a domestic solution to the civil war is hardly possible, because, de facto, it has long since become a proxy war between foreign powers. On the one hand, there is the West, taking sides with the rebels, against Russia and China, on the other, opposing the violent overthrow of the government. "In Russian-American relations," writes the SWP, "competition for zones of influence remind of confrontations during the cold war." But this also involves the question of "the regional role of Iran," whose influence has "appreciably grown" since the downfall of its former rival, Iraq in 2003. The West and its allied Gulf dictatorships have registered their first successes in their power struggle against Teheran. The Hamas has turned its back on Iran and moved its headquarters to Qatar. One of Iran's most important allies, the Syrian government, has literally been sidelined. The Lebanese Hezbollah is expected to be weakened, should the Syrian government be definitively overthrown. On the one hand, it is said to receive its weapons by way of Syrian territory, which would hardly be possible without Assad, and on the other, it also owes its standing in Beirut to Assad's influence. Some strategists, according to SWP, see the war in Syria as "an opportunity to weaken Iran decisively." Assad's overthrow would "also reduce the risks incurred with an attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities."

War Parties

"This is why Iran is supporting the Syrian regime with military advisors, financing and energy supplies," writes SWP, "while the rebels are receiving political and logistical support from western participants, such as France, the USA and Turkey, and financial and military support from the Gulf countries." The think tank does not mention the German government's considerable support to the insurgents. (german-foreign-policy.com reported.[3])

Money and Weapons

"External sponsors" for both sides, predicts the SWP, must, therefore continue "to take great pains to avoid a negative outcome of the civil war, from their respective perspectives." Both the regime as well as the insurgents can "expect a continuous - or, in the case of the opposition, a growing - flow of money and weapons, for the foreseeable future." This will hardly lead to a military decision, but to a reinforcement "of the positions of the hardliners within the Syrian parties to the conflict." This means, there is no foreseeable end to this conflict.

Berlin as Mediator

The SWP urgently proposes that Germany undertake efforts to mediate. A negotiated settlement requires that Iran cooperate, which is only possible, if Teheran does not have to fear being attacked. Therefore, the aim is to finally "reach a convergence on the nuclear issue," to also be able to de-escalate the war in Syria. At the same time, the SWP pleads for de-escalating, rather than escalating the conflict with Russia. The government advisors suggest that "a point of departure could, for example, be to more strongly include Russia in decisions on NATO's missile defense shield." Both suggestions, correspond to Berlin's old strategy of enhancing Germany's standing by serving as mediator to third parties.[4] The think tank points out that there are still sectors of the opposition in Syria "attempting to launch a political process in the country" - for example "in the entourage of the 'National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change' or the 'Current Syrian State-Building' movement." They, of course, have been ignored by politicians and the media, also here in Germany, because, unlike the circles of exile opponents such as the "Syrian National Council" and the recently (in Qatar) formed "National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Oppositional Forces," they are not unconditional and exclusively out to overthrow the regime.

Facing Total Disintegration

If it is not possible to reach an understanding between the West, on the one hand, and Russia and Iran, on the other, the SWP predicts Syria's total disintegration. The government, because it is also growing financially weaker, will, in the long term, lose control over the "Shabiha" paramilitary units, fighting on its side. "If this happens, the Shabiha may turn more to plunder, kidnapping, and war taxes for its resources and begin fighting more among themselves." A unification of the very disparate rebel militias is also nowhere in sight. "Syria is heading toward a period characterized by warlord rule, in other words, leaders of autonomously operating paramilitary units, whose struggles for influence and territorial control lead to more violence. Since simultaneously "the ethnic-confessional dimension of the conflict is becoming more prevalent, this could lead to the systematic murder or ethnic cleansing of ethnic minorities, considered inimical," warns SWP. If this blood bath takes place, it would be a sort of "collateral damage" of the proxy war being waged in Syria.

Other reports and background information on Germany's policy toward Syria can be found here: War Threats against Syria, Iran's Achilles Heel, War Scenarios for Syria, War Scenarios for Syria (II), With the UN toward Escalation, Market Economy for Syria, The Yemenite Solution, Smuggle Supervisors, The Day After, The Day After (II), The Day After (IV), The Islamization of the Rebellion and Air Defense for the Exile Leadership.

[1] Zitate hier und im Folgenden aus: Muriel Asseburg, Heiko Wimmen: Syrien im Bürgerkrieg. Externe Akteure und Interessen als Treiber des Konflikts, SWP-Aktuell 68, November 2012
[2] see also The Islamization of the Rebellion
[3] see also Market Economy for Syria, The Day After, The Day After (IV) and Air Defense for the Exile Leadership
[4] see also Potenzial zum Partner, Die Präventivkriegslogik and Eine Phase der Kooperation