Foreign Involvement in the Syrian Civil War
The Syrian Civil War was quickly seen by the Sunni Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, and to a lesser extent Turkey, as an opportunity to "roll back" the arc of Iranian influence in the Middle East. That opportunity brought political and financial support for the Free Syrian Army from Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as the other Gulf states. It also brought financial assistance from wealthy donors and Islamic charities, some of which went to more radical groups that had begun operating in Syria. The emergence of more radical jihadist groups in the Syrian civil war was a source of concern for the United States, which feared, quite correctly, that jihadist violence in Syria could spill over into Iraq and potentially destabilize the country.
Foreign Support for the Syrian Government Russia has had a long-standing relationship with the Assad government that goes back decades. The Russian navy has a base in the Syrian city of Tartus. The naval base goes back to the Soviet era and is the only foreign military base outside the former Soviet Union. Russia has remained Syria's chief source of weapons, either directly or via Iran, and it has continued to train Syrian soldiers in their use. In 2012, there were news reports that "Russian military advisors" were in Syria and were manning some of the anti-aircraft defensive systems that had been provided by Russia. As the civil war intensified, Moscow has stepped up its military support for Damascus and has provided a broad array of new weaponry including armored vehicles, laser guided bombs, surveillance equipment, and electronic warfare systems.
Russia has attempted to use its political influence in Syria as a bargaining chip in its broader agenda with the United States. It has proposed, on several occasions, diplomatic initiatives to "resolve" the violence in Syria, but it has not been successful in leveraging its influence in Syria in any meaningful way. Russia was successful in spearheading a United Nation's administered program overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons and their supporting manufacturing facilities, doubts however remain about the completeness of the Assad government's compliance.
The fact is that while the Assad regime is dependent on Russia for advanced weaponry and diplomatic support, Russia does not have the ability to "deliver" Assad as part of any broader "peace agreement." The best that it can expect to do, should Assad be replaced, is to ensure that it can continue to retain influence in Syria post-Assad and maintain access to the naval facilities in Tartus.
Hezbollah has been closely allied with the Assad government from its very beginning and is dependent on Syria for much of its weaponry, including those weapons that originate in Iran. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, has denied reports that Hezbollah has 3,000 fighters in Syria, although he has admitted that "volunteers" from Hezbollah have gone there independently to fulfill their "jihadist duties." Two unexpected players in the Syrian Civil War have been Venezuela and North Korea. Venezuela, while Hugo Chavez was in power, supplied Syria with millions of gallons of diesel fuel, on at least four separate occasions, between 2010 and 2012. It is not clear whether that assistance has continued since Chavez's death.
North Korea has historically supplied arms to Syria. Although such shipments are in violation of international sanctions, they have continued via a complex set of intermediaries that disguise the source and contents of the arms shipments. There have been reports in South Korean media that Arabic speaking advisors from the Korean People's Army have been advising the Syrian military. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has also claimed that 15 North Korean pilots are operating combat helicopters in Syria. The Iraqi government has provided financial and material assistance to Syria, although the amount of that assistance is unclear. A number of leading Iraqi leaders, including former Prime Minister Maliki, have long standing ties with the Assad government. Maliki spent 15 years in exile in Syria. Iraq has allowed transit of Iranian planes carrying arms and supplies to the Syrian government.
There were a number of joint Syrian-Iraqi military operations designed to secure the border areas and western Anbar province from jihadists. The extent of the current cooperation between the two countries is unclear at the moment, although it is fair to say that both governments see themselves combating a common foe in Islamic State (IS).
There have been reports of additional assistance to the Syrian government being offered by a number of other countries and groups, including Algeria, the Houthi Partisans of God militia in Yemen, and various groups in Lebanon. The extent of this assistance is unclear, however, and in any case it does not appear to be material. IS has claimed that it is holding prisoners from the Lebanese Army. What role the Lebanese Army has played in the Syrian Civil War is not apparent nor is the extent of its involvement. Foreign Support for the Syrian Rebels Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been the two principal Arab supporters of the Syrian rebels. In addition, a number of the smaller Gulf States have also provided financial aid. The Arab League, at their Summit in Doha, on March 6, 2013, recognized the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, as the only representative body of the Syrian people. Two weeks earlier, they had given a "green light" to supply aid to the Syrian rebels, although such aid had started in 2012. According to a report in the Financial Times, Qatar had supplied over three billion dollars in aid through early 2013. It is believed an additional two billion dollars in cash and arms was supplied between 2013 and the end of 2014.
There have been over 100 cargo flights of weapons from Qatar via Turkey to the Syrian rebels. In addition, it's believed that Qatar operates a training facility, in conjunction with the Central Intelligence Agency, for the training of Syrian rebels. Approximately 2,000 rebels have gone through the three-week course.
Starting in December 2012, Saudi Arabia began financing the purchase of heavy weapons for the Syrian rebels. These weapons included the Yugoslav designed M79 OSA Recoilless anti-tank gun currently manufactured in Croatia. The Saudis also supplied light infantry weapons and ammunition. These weapons were transferred to the rebels through Jordan underscoring the importance of controlling the few border posts in the relatively road less region of western Iraq. Much of the financing went to pay the monthly salaries for Syrian rebels. These typically averaged around 50 to 100 dollars per week, although they were higher for experienced officers. In addition, defectors from the Syrian Army were being offered bonuses, depending on their rank, of as much as 50,000 dollars.
The Saudi government, in August 2013, appointed Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a former ambassador to the United States (1983-2005) and Director General of the Saudi Intelligence Agency, to direct Saudi Arabia's effort to help the Syrian rebels. He stepped down as the Intelligence Chief and Special Envoy to the Syrian opposition on April 15, 2014. Ostensibly, the resignation was for health reasons, although there were reports that the White House had complained to the Saudis that bin-Sultan had been unnecessarily confrontational in trying to resolve policy differences over helping the Syrian rebels and that some of the aid had gone to militant groups that Washington found objectionable..
The Saudis also set up a training facility in Jordan, headed by bin Sultan's half-brother, Salman bin Sultan, for the Syrian rebels. In January 2015, the United States announced that it was sending 400 troops to train Syrian fighters at camps in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Collectively, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and their Gulf allies had, as of the end of 2014, supplied in excess of 10 billion dollars in aid to the Syrian rebels.
One of the primary objectives of the Saudis and their allies was to organize the various groups into larger coalitions. Partly this objective was driven by the need to "bulk up" some of the other smaller Islamic groups so that they could better resist the larger forces of the Syrian government and the Islamic State. Larger coalitions would also reduce the amount of duplication between the various groups and reduce competition among them, especially the efforts of the different groups to recruit each other's members. The coalitions themselves were rather fluid, with member organizations joining and leaving, and in some cases being expelled, by the other members for various improprieties--theft being the most often sited reason for expulsion.
In some cases specific groups could belong to more than one coalition at a time. The largest group organized was the Jaish al-Islam (the Army of Islam or JAI). JAI was a coalition of 43 different Syrian rebel groups. Estimates of its strength ranged from as little as 5,000 men to as many as 50,000. The coalitions excluded those groups directly linked to al-Qaeda, like Jabhat al-Nusra, but did include both Salafist and non-jihadist rebel groups. The Army of Islam was led by Zahran Alloush, a Salafist jihadist. He was also the head of Liwa al-Islam (Banner or Flag of Islam). Among the other coalitions formed were the Salafist group Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islami (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant or IMFML), who's substantial funding came almost exclusively from wealthy donors in Kuwait. IMFML were briefly part of the Islamic Front, but then left. It is one of the groups that have been targeted by US air strikes. Another group, supported primarily by Qatar, was the Suquor al-Sham (Falcons of the Levant Brigade or FLB).
The Jabhat Thowar Suriyya (Syrian Revolutionary Front or SRF) was an alliance formed in December 2013 composed of Free Syrian Army units as well as non-jihadist groups fighting in the Syrian Civil War. Its organization was in response to the organization of al-Jabhat al-Islamiyah (Islamic Front or IF) a coalition of seven Islamist groups also backed and armed by Saudi Arabia.
As 2015 began the Syrian Civil War continued to show a never-ending kaleidoscope of rebel groups and ever-shifting alliances. There are over 50 different militant organizations engaged in the Syrian Civil War. Aid donors continued to push for broader coalitions, while at the same time competing amongst each other to have the largest and most effective group among the rebels, in order to ensure their influence in a post-Assad Syria. Turkey's role in the Syrian Civil War has been particularly complex. It was an early supporter of the Free Syrian Army. It allowed the FSA and its head, Colonel Riad al-Assad, to set up offices in Istanbul, and it supplied arms and financial support. Indeed, Turkey's Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı, (National Intelligence organization or MIT), and its director, Hakan Fidan, played a major role in the organization and birth of the FSA in July 2011. Turkey has hosted, in Istanbul, both the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, and its predecessor the Syrian National Coalition. Starting in May 2012, MIT also began the training some of the Syrian rebels.
On the other hand, Ankara has been reluctant to be seen as acting in concert with the United States. Notwithstanding its early and continuing support for the FSA and other Syrian rebel groups, the Turkish government has refused the United States permission to stage strikes in Syria from Turkish airbases. It had also been concerned about the widening role of Kurdish groups in the fight against IS, and was resistant to allowing Peshmerga forces from Iraqi Kurdistan to cross Turkish territory to come to the aid of Syrian Kurds doing the siege of Kobani. Although it eventually permitted reinforcements and supplies to cross the border into Kobani. Moreover, according to news reports in the Turkish press, Turkey's National Intelligence organization has been accused of secretly arming jihadist groups affiliated with al-Qaida. Turkey's relations with Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurds in Syria is particularly complicated, especially given Ankara's own complex relationship with Turkey's Kurds and, until recently, with a long running Kurdish insurgency within Turkey. Ankara has supported the efforts of the Kurdistan Regional Government to export oil from fields under its control via Turkey. From the Turkish government's perspective, good relations with the predominantly Sunni Kurds in Iraq gives it influence within Iraq and potential leverage with the government in Baghdad. It also helps ensure that Iraqi Kurdistan does not become a safe haven for the militant Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK). Notwithstanding its relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government, however, it's estimated that there are about 3,000 members of the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan, between one-third and one-half of the PKK's total strength. There have been numerous instances of Turkish military incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan in pursuit of PKK militants and even an occasional clash with Peshmerga forces along the border areas. The PKK has, at Ankara's insistence, historically been considered a terrorist organization. Its participation in the campaign against the Islamic State, however, may lead, much to Ankara's alarm, in having the United States remove the PKK from its list of "terrorist" organizations. Turkey's biggest concern is that the growing links between Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, the Kurdish Regional Government's desire to seek independence, and the continuing turmoil in Syria, could lead to the creation of an independent Kurdish state and to renewed demands by Turkish Kurds to either be part of it or for greater autonomy within Turkey.
Support for the Syrian rebels also become an issue in Turkish-American relations. Ostensibly, both governments are in agreement to support the Syrian rebels. Ankara wants the White House to come out firmly in favor of the removal of Assad from power and wants US and allied air strikes to target Syrian Military Forces. Through 2014, US air strikes have been directed primarily against the Islamic State's forces and, to a lesser extent, at al-Qaeda affiliated jihadist groups.
Initially, Washington was quite vocal in condemning Assad's attacks on Syrian civilians and even specified a "red line" that would prompt American intervention if Assad used chemical weapons in the conflict. It does appear that chemical weapons have been used in the Syrian Civil War, although by which side is debatable. In any case, it was only the collapse of Iraqi military forces fighting the Islamic State that finally prompted an armed American response. Lately, however, the White House has been ambivalent about its position regarding the future of the Assad government.
Turkey is concerned that in order to secure Iranian assistance in pushing back Islamic State forces in Iraq, Washington will agree to take the overthrow of the Assad regime "off the table." For all practical purposes this has already occurred. Given how fluid the situation in Iraq and Syria is, however, American acquiescence to the continuation of the Assad regime could change very quickly. One of the most unusual factors in Turkey's role in the Syrian Civil War concerns the status of the Tomb of Suleiman Shah. Suleiman is the grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire in 1299. His tomb is in Syria, near Aleppo, and is about 20 miles from the Turkish frontier with Syria. In accordance with Article 9 of the Treaty of Ankara signed in 1921 between France and the Turkish Republic, the tomb and the immediate area around it, is sovereign Turkish territory. The Turkish flag flies over the site and the Turkish military has historically maintained an honor guard of between 15 and 30 soldiers there.
On March 20, 2014, ISIS threatened to attack the site unless Turkish troops were immediately removed. Ankara responded by increasing the number of troops stationed there. The next week, there were numerous reports in Turkish media that the Turkish government would use an attack on Suleiman's tomb as a pretext to intervene militarily in the Syrian Civil War. On October 2, 2014, specifically citing the threat that Islamic State might capture the tomb of Suleiman Shah, the Turkish Parliament authorized the use of Turkish military force against IS. As of January 2015 however, Turkey had not yet deployed any of its military forces to directly attack Islamic State militants.
See also Part 1, Iranian Intervention in the Syrian and Iraqi Civil Wars. Forthcoming: Part 3, The Role of the United States; Part 4, Postscript: The Enemy of my Enemy
Footnotes have been omitted from these articles but are included in the book version.