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The Proxy Warfare in Syria

Published by Political Reflection, Vol. 4, Issue 4, 2018

It has been seven years since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. When the Arab uprisings spread throughout Syria, it was not thought that the peaceful protests would turn into one of the worst human-made disasters since World War II. After the Assad regime’s security forces shot dead protesters in southern city of Daraa, the level of violence has been steadily increased nationwide. The situation has been even more complicated when the civil war turned a proxy warfare led by the most powerful countries in the world. This paper aims to draw a picture of why and how proxy warfare occurred in Syria.

The coalitions of powerful states caused to change the map of Syria again and again over the last few years. While the logic was to demolish a radical terrorist group at the beginning that helped the powerful states to battle under the same umbrella, the characteristics of the coalition rapidly changed due to the alteration in their conflict of interest. The rationale behind this can be the aim to play the leading role in the formation of new Syria. An expected outcome of this was the emergence of different projects which resulted in backing different sub-state armed groups in Syria.

The distinction between the opposing forces stems from the two conflicting ideas on the future of Syria: countries who support President Assad’s government, and countries who is against it and defend that peace can only be achieved if Assad is removed. These opposing ideas constituted two major forces: Syrian Arab Republic’s allies and Syrian opposition forces.

Which states support which forces and armed groups in Syria determined the war in Syria entirely. On the one hand, the Syrian Arab Republic’s forces are the security forces of the Syrian government whose allies are Russia, Iran, Iraq, China, Cuba and Belarus.[1] The Russia-led coalition mainly aim to keep the Assad regime, and so the influence of Russia on the Middle East. The biggest help to Russia comes from Iran which also follows expansionist policy in the region. On the other hand, Syrian opposition rebel groups are consisting of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish PYD and Arab forces. This group called the global coalition against ISIL which had different sects which later served the aim of powerful states to consolidate their influence on different regions of Syria. These groups are supported by the US, UK, UAE, France, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Israel and Israel.[2] Turkey supports non-Kurdish factions in the SDF which are mainly Free Syrian Army (FSA).[3]

But, why did these states apply a proxy warfare strategy? Mumford suggests that proxy warfare occurs when states or non-state actors admit that direct intervention in a conflict is financially, materially or politically too costly, not unavoidable, unjustifiable, unfeasible or illegitimate.[4] The situation on Syria is not different. The proxy war in Syria witnesses complicated relationships between powerful states and insurgencies in which the Baathist regime and insurgency groups are becoming increasingly dependent on powers of global actors.[5]

The involvement of four states in the Syrian civil war is critical as they changed the nature of the conflict entirely: the US, Russia, Turkey and Iran. It is difficult to argue that there is a consensus within both sides with regards to strategies and future plans. The US initially supported the loyal groups to President Assad through military training and weapons. Then, the US stopped supporting these groups and began to provide air and heavy weapons support to the SDF.[6] This means that the US then officially supported Kurdish terrorist group PYD to fight against another terrorist group; the ISIL.[7]  Since then, the main ally of the US in Syria have been the PYD. Although the President Trump ordered an air missile attack to Syria in response to a Syrian government’s chemical weapon attack against civilians, this did not change the proxy war strategy of the US. In addition to this, the US aimed to establish a peace agreement through the UN Security Council. However, this peace initiative was broken by the Russia-China coalition. Therefore, the US plan to UN Security Council could not provide a peace resolution. While the peace plans are not the topic of this paper it is important to know that both the US and Russia aim to lead peace negotiations just like their proxy war strategies.

Russia is backing the Baathist regime since the beginning of the civil war. As an outcome of this, the Russian government have been accused that Russian airstrikes directed against non-ISIL rebel forces –besides the ISIL- who fight against the Assad government.  It is clear that the Russian government’s objective is to keep Assad in charge. This in return will keep Russia’s military influence in the Middle East. Hence, in addition to heavy weapon and training support, Russia keep defending to remain the Assad government in power in peace talks, namely the Geneva and Astana negotiations.[8]

Turkey has played key role since the beginning of the civil war and much before the beginning of the proxy warfare in Syria. Turkey has always defended that Assad should go for a peaceful resolution in Syria. Therefore, Turkey supported Syrian opposition forces, but not the PYD. Turkey’s main ally against the ISIL is the FSA. Whilst Turkey conducted several airstrikes against ISIL targets, the Turkish government provided weapon support to the FSA. However, the Syrian civil war is more critical for Turkey as it shares the longest border with Syria. As the PKK used northern Syria for their camps to attack targets in Turkey for a long time, Turkey’s experience on fighting against terrorism prioritises to destroy the PYD on northern Syria. This is in line with the hope of PYD to establish a federal Kurdistan in the north of Syria.[9] Therefore, Turkey has to fight against both the ISIL and PYD to secure its borders against terrorism. Turkey’s direct intervention in Afrin and Idlib were also part of the plan to end the existence of the PYD in the region.[10] Turkey also play critical role in the Astana talks with Russia which negotiations excluded the US and PYD. It can be said that this is Turkey’s counter-strategy against the US in order to defuse the PYD as a proxy in the region.

Iran is another supporter of the Baathist regime which emerged through extensive military aid through intelligence sharing, military training and weapon support. Similar with Russia, the Iranian authorities fight against both moderate and extremist factions of all opposition forces. As Syria has been the biggest ally of Iran in the Middle East, the Iranian government’s main strategy is to keep the Assad regime and stand with Syria against Israel and Saudi Arabia which are Iran’s biggest rivals in the region. This aim also serves Russia’s goal which result in these two countries take action against the US and western powers in Syria.

To sum up, the long-standing civil war has caused half-a-million people to lose their lives and almost half of the country lost their home and had to move to another country.[11] At the seventh year of the conflict, terrorist groups are even more deadly. The fall of the ISIL also did not de-escalate the conflict. This is mainly because of the fact that the external support to other insurgency groups has made them more powerful and resulted in their claims to establish federal governments in the areas under their control. It can be said that unless these conditions do not change, it is difficult to end the war in Syria and establish a peaceful resolution in the country.

[1] Telegraph (2015). Vladimir Putin Confirms Russian Military Involvement in Syria’s Civil War. URL: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/11845635/Vladimir-Putin-confirms-Russian-military-involvement-in-Syrias-civil-war.html accessed on: 1 May 2018; Al Arabiya (2015). Assad: Iran is sending arms to Syria. URL: http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2015/09/16/Assad-Iran-is-sending-arms-to-Syria.html accessed on: 1 February 2018; Business Insider (2014). It Looks Like Iraq Has Joined Assad’s Side In The Syrian War. URL: https://www.businessinsider.com.au/iraq-joins-assads-side-in-syrian-war-2013-3 accessed on: 20 February 2018; Irish Times (2016). China Enters Fray In Syria on Bashar Al-Assad’s Side. URL: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/middle-east/china-enters-fray-in-syria-on-bashar-al-assad-s-side-1.2764979 accessed on: 24 May 2018. Fox (2915). Top Cuban General, Key Forces In Syria to Aid Assad, Russia, Sources Say. URL: http://www.foxnews.com/world/2015/10/14/cuban-military-forces-deployed-to-syria-to-operate-russian-tanks-say-sources.html accessed on: 24 May 2018.

[2] Schmitt, E. (2012). C.I.A. Said to Aid in Steering Arms to Syrian Opposition. The New York Times. URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/21/world/middleeast/cia-said-to-aid-in-steering-arms-to-syrian-rebels.html accessed on: 3 May 2018; AFP (2014). Hollande Confirms French Delivery of Arms to Syrian Rebels. URL: http://www.enca.com/hollande-confirms-french-delivery-arms-syrian-rebels accessed on: 3 May 2018. Harel, A. (2018). To Push Iran Back, Israel Ramps up Support for Syrian Rebels ‘Arming 7 Different Groups’ URL: https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/syria/with-eye-on-iran-israel-increases-military-support-for-syrian-rebels-1.5826348 accessed on: 3 May 2018.  Telegraph (2017). Britain withdraws last of troops training Syrian rebels as world powers distance themselves from opposition. URL: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/09/02/british-troops-halt-training-syrian-rebels-world-powers-distance/ accessed on: 22 February 2018.

[3] Hurriyet Daily News (2018). Turkish Army Moves To Southeastern Idlib To Set Sixth Observation Point. URL: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-army-moves-to-southeastern-idlib-to-set-sixth-observation-point-127101 accessed on: 18 February 2018.

[4] Mumford, A. (2013). Proxy warfare. Polity Press, Cambridge.

[5] Hughes, G. A. (2014). Syria and the perils of proxy warfare. Small Wars & Insurgencies, 25(3), 522-538.

[6] Middle East Monitor (2017). US speeds up military aid to PKK/PYD. URL: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170718-us-speeds-up-military-aid-to-pkkpyd/ accessed on: 6 May 2018.

[7] DW (2017). Syria Conflict: What do the US, Russia, Turkey and Iran Want? URL: https://www.dw.com/en/syria-conflict-what-do-the-us-russia-turkey-and-iran-want/a-41211604 accessed on: 8 June 2018.

[8] EIPISA (2017). Geneva or Astana? A War, Two Dıfferent Round Table. URL: http://www.eipisa.eu/topics/geneva-or-astana-war-two-different-round-table accessed on: 10 May 2018

[9] NYT (2016). Syrian Kurds Hope to Establish a Federal Region in Country’s North URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/17/world/middleeast/syria-kurds.html accessed on: 4 April 2018.

[10] SETA (2018). Afrin Operasyonuyla Türkiye’nin 6 Kazanımı. URL: https://www.setav.org/afrin-operasyonuyla-turkiyenin-6-kazanimi/ accessed on: 29 April 2018; HaberYirmi (2018) Kuşatma Devam Ediyor: İblib Son Durum. URL:  http://www.haberyirmi.net/2018/01/kusatma-devam-ediyor-idlib-son-duru.html accessed on: 15 March 2018.

[11] Telegraph (2016) What Has Been The Real Cost of Syria’s Civil War? URL: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/12146082/What-has-been-the-real-cost-of-Syrias-civil-war.html accessed on: 25 June 1018.

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The End of Turkey’s Kurdish ‘Peace Process’?

Written by Aytac Kadioglu.

Turkey’s Kurdish peace process was cut off by two catastrophic incidents in July 2015: the Suruc suicide bombing took place during a press statement outside the Amara Culture Centre which claimed 32 lives and two police officers were murdered by the PKK in their home. These incidents were the beginning of a terrifying escalation of violence. Hundreds of militants belonging to the insurgent Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), many Turkish security officers and civilians lost their lives in subsequent security force operations and PKK attacks as of 2016.

The Cessation of the Peace Process

So why has this violence flared now – and what are the implications for the long-standing peace process? To give some background, the peace process began with the Turkish government’s ‘democratic opening’ project in 2009. On the one hand, the official changes included some reforms such as Kurdish courses in private schools, the first official Kurdish TV channel and giving back the ancient Kurdish names of some villages. On the other hand, the secret talks between the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) and senior members of the PKK in Oslo between 2009 and 2011 formed the basis of negotiations. The Oslo talks were followed by covert talks between the Turkish government and the jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan.

Nevertheless, slow progress in political efforts came to a halt before the national election on June 7, 2015. The Erdogan administration and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) sharpened their discourse in their election campaigns. While the HDP constantly said ‘We won’t let you become president’ and announced it as an election slogan, Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was blaming the HDP for being a spokesperson of the PKK. Therefore, the Kurdish question was transformed to a zero-sum game which allowed the AKP to win a majority in the Parliament and the HDP to pass the 10% national election threshold. During the election campaign, the peace process lost its momentum and the dissatisfaction of the government and the pro-Kurdish side at each other’s demands emerged clearly. It was because of the fact that both sides have different demands and aims to achieve.

Consent vs. Demand

Although both the Turkish government and the pro-Kurdish parties (the HDP and its predecessor, the Peace and Democracy Party) had the consent for a non-violent resolution, the differences in their demands have affected the nature of the peace process. Whilst the pro-Kurdish side (the HDP and Ocalan) was demanding democratic autonomy, the Turkish government was opposed to this idea by assuming that it would damage the unitary system of Turkey. Furthermore, the HDP and PKK announced the declaration of democratic autonomy in different towns of eastern Turkey which was followed by the establishment of self-defence forces, the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H) that was often referred to as the youth wing of the PKK in the region. These unlawful attempts created a great reaction in Turkish society and intensified the armed struggle.

Moreover, one of the major disputes along with the peace process was PKK militants’ withdrawal from Turkey. As a part of the peace process, the Turkish government and the PKK agreed on PKK militants’ withdrawal from Turkey. Even though the PKK began to withdraw in May 2013, they stopped their retreat and returned to Turkey by blaming the government for establishing the headquarters of the security forces in the southeast of Turkey. It was one of the most significant situations to interrupt the progress. It was mostly overlooked that the attempts to change the constitution significantly slowed down after this unsuccessful attempt. Afterwards, the Turkish government constantly blamed the PKK for not withdrawing from Turkey and for not disarming. Hence, the peace process had been limited to disarming the PKK instead of changes in the constitution that embraces all citizens of Turkey and rejects any type of discrimination.

The Influence of the Civil War in Syria

The last factor that interrupted the peace process was the civil war in Syria. Although Turkey paid great attention to the situation as a neighbour of Syria, it became top priority when the Democratic Unionist Party (PYD), which is identified as having the same basis of the PKK, became one of the major rebel groups in northern Syria. The PYD’s war against the Islamic State (IS) resulted in western states’ arming, training and offering financial support for the PYD which was strongly criticised by Turkish officials.

While Turkey was reluctant to join the western states in supporting the PYD, the country was shocked by the most dreadful terrorist attack in Turkey’s history. A peace event in Ankara was destroyed by the twin bomb attacks of the IS which claimed 99 lives and left many more wounded. After this attack, the government increased its support for fighting against the IS, but did not help the PYD.

The lack of Turkey’s support did not affect the PYD’s success. In contrast, the PYD expanded the territory under its control in the Turkish-Syrian border thanks to aid and air strikes of the western states. Because of this fact, the Turkish government aims to defend Syria’s territorial integrity for preventing the foundation of a Kurdish state in northern Syria which is a casus belli for Turkey. As one of the greatest aims of the PKK-PYD is to establish a Kurdish state in northern Syria, it is vital to bring the civil war in Syria to an end together with the violent conflict in the southeast of Turkey for the Turkish government.

Lastly, the PYD’s territorial gain led Kurdish people to think about a Kurdish uprising which is a threat to a peaceful solution. The current situation in the territory, therefore, did not help to apply political resolution efforts instead of armed struggle. The demands of the pro-Kurdish side and the Turkish government and the cyclical violence of the region demonstrate that the Syrian civil war and Turkey’s Kurdish peace process are two interrelated issues for Turkey. It is less likely to maintain the peace process and to disarm the PKK unless the civil war in Syria is de-escalated.

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Review: Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace by Feargal Cochrane

Written by Aytac Kadioglu.

‘Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace’ critically assesses the background and evolution of the violence created by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its followers. It examines the determinants of the Northern Ireland solution process from violence to a long-term peace between 1690 and the present day and the influential factors behind the conflict, including the religious, historical, political, economic and cultural factors.

The author clearly details the reasons for the conflict in the region through ten chronological chapters. The book has three distinct sections which refer to different terms and solution attempts. The first section, which covers 1690 to 1920, critically assesses the history of the problem by discussing the term ‘sectarianism’ and the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. Its explanation of the disputes between the unionist and nationalist communities of Ireland provides a strong background for understanding this tension. The second section, which covers 1921 to 1990, analyses the traditional efforts to bring terrorism to an end. However, the third part, covering 1993 to the present day, underlines the alternative methods to armed struggle for solving conflicts. These modern efforts include political attempts to bring disputing sides to the table. However, the author highlights the fact that the failure of political endeavours deepens military struggle (p. 96-97). As the scope suggests, this book provides a thorough overview of the history of the Northern Ireland conflict.

One particularly strong argument in the book regards violent and non-violent solution efforts. Cochrane analyses different reasons for armed and political struggles and looks at how the IRA finds a space to survive and expands its movement area by analysing unsuccessful political attempts. This explains the existence of a nationalist approach and on-going violence against the British army when political efforts collapse.

The author grew up in East Belfast and is Catholic. Although this situation might have created a problem in terms of objectivity, it actually helps the author to analyse the issue in detail. For example, the author clearly assesses the relationship between Catholic and Protestant societies, demonstrating the goals and attacks of the IRA and the response of the British government.

Certain themes arise throughout the book, for instance the psychological element of terrorism, such as political speeches, negotiations and hunger strikes. He also recounts hunger strikes as a psychological factor and argues that they are not only a determinant but also a supportive factor for the IRA to manufacture public opinion.

The author is wholly aware of the historical and political dimensions and frames the book around major breaking points of the conflict, such as Bloody Sunday, the Downing Street Declaration and the Good Friday Agreement. While the analysis of the conflicting sides and counter-insurgency acts of the British government, as well as other determinants, provides a strong background for understanding the conflict, it also draws a general perspective for future research.

Indeed, the author describes the nature of this issue as multifaceted and it has an international dimension which comprises the pressure of the international society on the IRA to end the violence. The international dimension does not consist solely of the force of powerful states or NGOs; it also covers the Irish-Americans’ lobby in the U.S. and peaceful solution efforts towards this tension.

Often, Cochrane’s thoughts on modern ways for resolving conflicts focus on ‘talking to the enemy’. As is expected, he describes this process as very sensitive towards armed conflict. He demonstrates a great degree of acquaintance with non-violent peace efforts and clearly explains them through diplomatic relations, the media’s role in the disarmament of the IRA and social networking sites. This focus on peaceful operations is very important; however, I would have expected more specific details in this area. Hence, the author addresses general mediation and negotiation terms for bringing the British government and the representatives of the IRA into discussions. However, he does not describe the nature of these conflict resolution terms. The study would be strengthened by analysing these terms in depth through the components of conflict resolution efforts and comparing them with negotiation efforts in other parts of the world.

Overall, this book is well-structured; the IRA violence and peace attempts are explained in detail. Indeed, the book analyses this issue from a broad perspective. Therefore, this book would appeal to different levels of readers, such as, scholars, students, peace-building actors and other practitioners.

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