If one thing has been made clear by the horrendous events of the past few weeks, it is that the Syrian conflict is getting more and more complex on a daily basis. Simultaneously, due to rising emotions, media coverage becomes ever more biased and less informative. This article aims to transcend myopic conclusions which are arrived at by focusing solely on events – however tragic they may be – and neglecting the bigger geopolitical narrative in which they occur.
Currently, over twenty nation states and perhaps an even larger number of different rebel groups are engaged in combat activities at various locations in Iraq and Syria. Apart from making us aware of the deep-rooted hatred which divides a considerable part of the Sunni and Shia peoples living in the Middle East, the saber-rattling offers us insights into prevailing geopolitical relations. Unfortunately, a blanket of official government discourse often conceals the true intentions of states, making it challenging to form an accurate image of political reality. In this context, confidential government correspondence could serve as a useful tool for guiding analysis. Luckily, WikiLeaks offers access to 251,287 diplomatic reports sent to the U.S. State Department by diplomats stationed at embassies around the world. Since nearly all of these documents stem from 2003 to 2010, they do not directly cover the conflict of our interest. However, reading carefully, one can trace the conflict back to its origins and uncover the structural political tensions that underlie the current human suffering in the Middle-East and elsewhere.
American strategies for destabilizing the Syrian Government
Diplomatic files from the American Embassy in Damascus reveal that the desire to “up the pressure on Assad and his inner circle” has been felt from at least 2006 onwards. In December of the same year, after concluding that Assad’s regime appeared disappointingly stable, the embassy provided a list of the regime’s potential vulnerabilities and possible means to exploit them. Among others, Syria’s alliance with Shia Iran was mentioned as an important weakness, which could be exploited by playing on the fears of the increasingly upset Sunni community through better publicizing and focusing regional attention on the issue. Other strategies aimed at promoting political and economic unrest consisted of discouraging foreign direct investment, designating corrupt government officials, and encouraging rumors and signals of external coup-plotting.
A year later, the U.S. Embassy in Damascus stressed the necessity of financial support for political dissidents and of helping political opposition to spread their message. Accordingly, the U.S. government needed “to decide how to overcome Syrian government barriers” to U.S. funding of Syrian groups. In March 2008, diplomats proposed to develop designation packages for corrupt and widely resented businessmen. Further, the embassy suggested to step up pressure on foreign investors from the Gulf region, Turkey and Europe. According to the embassy, these tools could function as “both a threat and an incentive to convince business elites to add to the pressure on Bashar.”
U.S. discuss Iranian and Syrian threats with regional allies
In December 2006, Colonel Amit Aviram of Israeli Defense Intelligence briefed Senator Bill Nelson on regional security threats facing Israel. The Israeli colonel said the growing Iranian threat – referring to Iran’s nuclear program – formed Israel’s chief security concern. Aviram added that, while both Syria and Iran had been longtime weapons suppliers to Shia Hezbollah, in the past Syria had shown a willingness to supply weapons that even the Iranians refused to provide. Under Bashar al-Assad, he said, Damascus had shown a cavalier lack of concern over the traceability of its weapon supplies to Hezbollah. Thereupon, Senator Nelson noted that there appeared to be a growing alignment of interests between Israel and Sunni Arab states, such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, who see a growing threat in Iran. Aviram agreed but cautioned that the ongoing Palestinian conflict made it difficult for the Arab states to cooperate with Israel.
Later that month, Senator Bill Nelson met with Saudi minister of interior Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz, who told him that the U.S. should not leave Iraq until its sovereignty has been restored, otherwise it would be vulnerable to the Iranians. He warned that, if the U.S. leaves precipitously, the Saudis would stand with the Sunnis.
In January 2007, the American Embassy in Ankara advised the State Department to initiate consultations with NATO-member and American ally, Turkey, on the defense and security implications of a resurgent, possibly nuclear-armed and missile-equipped Iran.
Moscow supports Russian companies involved in weapon supplies to Iran and Syria
At about the same time an American government official visited Moscow and asked for transparency on a number of arms transfers to Syria and Iran, which had previously been sanctioned under American law. Russian foreign ministry officials acknowledged that Russia harbored misgivings about obtaining “U.S. approval” of its arms transfers. The Russians also asked the U.S. to continue to consult with Russia on ballistic missile defense deployments in Europe.
What can we learn from all this?
All in all, an examination of U.S. diplomatic documents reveals that the ongoing conflict has not appeared out of thin air, rather it seems to be a, more or less, logical continuation of longstanding geopolitical frictions. That is, very roughly, the Middle East is divided into two camps, one consisting of predominantly Sunni regimes like Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the other of Shia Iran and Alawite Syria. The United States is obviously supportive of the former group, whereas Russia – which leases a naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus – is loyal to Syria.
Arguably, the U.S. can be held responsible for the rise of ISIL. Not only did the U.S. create a fertile breeding ground for the emergence of extremist groups like ISIL in Iraq, it is very likely that the U.S. also played an active role in creating political and economic unrest in Syria and, in so doing, gave rise to an environment in which radical groups could gain momentum. Since September 2014, the U.S. and its allies have been conducting air strikes on jihadist groups, but they avoid attacks that might benefit Assad. Of course, this strategy is ineffective when it comes to truly eliminating ISIL, however, it gives the U.S. government a chance at reaching their initial goal: getting rid of Assad.
Concurrently, Russia’s air attacks against Assad’s opponents directly undermine U.S. interests. Meanwhile it is believed that Shia powers in Iran, which reached a deal on its nuclear program last April, spend billions of dollars a year supporting Hezbollah – a Shia rebel group that has recently been supporting Assad in Syria – as well as the Syrian government. One can only guess how the U.S. State Department is going to react to these Russian and Iranian provocations. If only we had access to all the documents that circulate between Washington and its embassies these days…