Syria is a word that you can’t avoid these days. On the television, on the Internet, in newspapers – Syria is a country that everyone is talking about. The Civil War that began in 2011 has shown no signs of stopping, and the conflict has drawn in dozens of other nations, many of whom have conflicting interests in the region. This article will focus on the geopolitical importance of Syria, and why so many other countries choose to involve themselves in the Civil War. It will also look at the geographic and demographic factors that have played a large role in the war’s inception.
- Population: 17,064,854 (July 2014 est.)
- Size: 183,630 square kilometres
- Capital: Damascus
- Official Language: Arabic
- AKA: Syrian Arab Republic
Sources for figures: CIA World Factbook.
Syria is located in the Middle-East, with access to the Mediterranean Sea. It has Turkey to its north, Iraq to its east, Jordan to its south, and Lebanon and Israel to its southwest. Syria has been home to countless empires and states throughout the millennia. Romans, Assyrians, Ottomans and Arabs have all ruled the region and had a profound affect on its culture and identity. Like many of its neighbours, Syria’s borders are a legacy of the European colonial era, when European powers such as France and the UK exerted tremendous control and influence over less developed regions of the world.
The borders of Syria were initially drawn during the First World War, as part of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Under this agreement, the Britain and France proposed to divide the then crumbling Ottoman Empire into various spheres of influence, assuming the future defeat of the Ottomans. Following the First World War, Syria did fall under the control of France as part of the French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon. The Franco-Syrian Treaty of Independence was signed in 1936, but resistance from French politicians and the outbreak of the Second World War delayed official recognition of the independent Syrian Republic until after the war.
This era of Syrian history is crucial because of the way the borders were drawn. There was little regard shown for the geographic or demographics of the Middle East when Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot sat down and carved the territory up into various spheres of influence. Looking at a map or atlas, the completely straight line which makes up the southern border of Syria seems artificial, because it absolutely is. This line runs through the sparsely populated Syrian Desert and merely sought to delineate spheres of European colonial influence, rather than create borders that reflected the tribal and/or religious boundaries of existing residents. Some even suggest that these borders have led to the conflicts which exist in Syria and Iraq today.
Syria’s geography is as diverse as its population. On the west, the coastal Mediterranean regions are relatively flat and green, but farther inland the terrain becomes more rugged and mountainous. The Syrian Coastal Mountain Range acts as a natural barrier between the fertile coastal regions and the flat desert plateaus of the East. Through this desert plateau runs the Euphrates River, which is Syria’s most important water source. The Euphrates, much like the Nile in Egypt, provides an invaluable source of drinking water and irrigation for the various towns and cities dotted along its route, such as Al-Raqqah and Deir ez-Zor. For thousands of years the Euphrates has been a crucial part of the Fertile Crescent, an area stretching from modern day Israel to the Persian Gulf.
Syria has at least one ongoing territorial dispute with one of its neighbours (not counting the currently active civil war). Since the disastrous Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbours in 1967, Israel has occupied the territory known as the Golan Heights. This tactically important piece of land was formally annexed by Israel in 1981. However, this annexation has never been internationally recognized, and officially it is still Syrian territory. This issue, amongst others, has led to Syria’s relationship with Israel being tense and often hostile. With the Civil War and the recent Israeli discovery of a potentially vast amount of oil within the Golan Heights region, it seems extremely unlikely that this territory will ever return to Syrian control.
The diverse geographical features of the Syrian landscape are reflected in its people. The primary ethnic group is Arab, with Kurdish, Turkmen, Assyrian and Armenian minorities. A major factor in the diversity of Syria is found in the religious makeup of the country. Whilst around 74% of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, a significant minority, including the ruling Assad family, are Alawite Muslims, a smaller sect of Islam closely related to Shia Islam. Followers of Christianity consist of around 10-12% of the population.
The population of Syria went through a period of rapid expansion in the 20th century, growing from 3 million in 1950 to 14 million by 1995. However, since the Civil War began in 2011, millions of refugees have poured into neighbouring Turkey and Jordan. It’s estimated that 7 million Syrians have been displaced by the fighting. The population of Syria has decreased to an estimated 16.6 million, from a pre-civil war peak of over 22 million.
While not entirely segregated, it is worth noting that Syria is a country in which certain regions do have dominant ethnic or religious groups. The green and fertile coastal provinces have traditionally been home to the Alawite and Shia religious groups, whilst the vast desert plains of the west are home to a Sunni majority. The northeastern areas of Syria are largely inhabited by ethnic Kurds. If one views a map showing the current state of the Syrian Civil War, it is immediately apparent that the lines of control from the various groups involved in the conflict often correlate with the ethnic and religious groups living in the country. Predominantly Kurdish areas are now under the control of Kurdish militias, such as the PKK. The government forces headed by Bashar Al-Assad still control much of the West, where most of the Alawite and Shia populations lives. And the self-proclaimed Islamic State exists in the primarily Sunni areas of Syria. This is no coincidence. To understand the Syrian Civil War, one has to consider the sectarian nature of the conflict. The various factions involved in the fighting have often used sectarian grudges and historical grievances for their own ends.
To understand why the Syrian Civil War has dragged on for so long, one has to look beyond the borders of Syria itself. While a desperate dictatorship clinging to power, sectarian violence and religious extremism have all played roles in increasing the scale of the violence, outside forces have also been influencing the conflict from the moment it began.
Looking at the Middle-East from a broader perspective, it’s worth noting that there are two states that are competing to be the dominant player in the region: Iran and Saudi Arabia. These two countries sit in strategically key locations, and both have access to vast amounts of energy in the form of oil and natural gas. They are located on opposite sides of the Persian Gulf, a key shipping lane for oil, with around 20% of the world’s petroleum passing through it annually. Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, America and its western allies have largely been at odds with Iran. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has maintained a very close relationship the United States and the United Kingdom since the end of the Second World War. Another key factor in this conflict is that Iran is the home to the world’s largest Shia Muslim population, a minority sect of Islam globally. Mecca, the holiest site in Islam, is located in Saudi Arabia, and this along with its immense oil wealth, arguably makes Saudi Arabia the most important Sunni Muslim country in the region.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have used this religious divide to advance their political and economic interests in the region. In Lebanon, Iran has supported the Shia population present there via political and militant organizations. Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist group, receives a large amount of financial and military support from Iran. Iran also has close ties with the southern population of nearby Iraq, which is predominantly Shia. Saudi Arabia has often supported groups that would weaken Shia, and therefore Iranian, influence in the Middle-East, with the Civil War in Yemen being a recent example.
But what does this have to do with Syria? Syria is, in many ways, just another place for Iran and Saudi Arabia to compete for political and economic influence. Syria is currently governed by the Assad family, who are members of the Alawite sect of Islam, which itself is related to Shia Islam. Syria has had a close relationship with Iran for many decades, and Iran has supported the ruling Assad regime throughout the Civil War. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia would welcome the fall of the Assad-led government. If this were to happen, it is most likely that a Sunni-dominated government would follow. Such a government would be much more inclined to have a favorable view towards Saudi political and economic interests. Because of this, Saudi Arabia has supported many of the rebel groups fighting in Syria against the Iranian-backed government.
The major allies of Iran and Saudi Arabia are also worth noting. In Iran’s case, Russia has long been an important political and economic partner. Russia’s role in the Syrian Civil War has become more prominent in recent months, but Russia’s interests in the conflict are not particularly new or surprising. Since the Cold War, the Russian Navy has maintained a port in the Syrian city of Tartus, which gives Russia access to the Mediterranean Sea. Whilst it remains a relatively minor port, losing access to it would severely hamper Russian efforts to project naval power beyond the Black Sea. Another factor is that Syria is a large purchaser of military hardware from Russia. If the Syrian government were to fall, this revenue stream for the Russian military would almost certainly dry up.
Opposing Iran, we have Saudi Arabia and many of the other Gulf states supporting some of the rebel groups in Syria. As a major ally of Saudi Arabia, the United States has played a key role in the Civil War. Since the conflict began, the United States has stated that President Bashar Al-Assad and his government must be willing to give up power for there to be peace in Syria. This has placed the United States in direct opposition to both Iran and Russia’s stance on the conflict.
Finally, there is one last factor to consider when discussing Syria and its current political situation. This is the factor of energy production and distribution. Syria is home to a modest amount of natural gas and petroleum resources, but it sits in a key location. If any state to the South or East of Syria wishes to supply energy overland to Europe, it makes sense to pass through Syria. For many years, the energy-producing states of the Gulf, as well as Iran, have proposed various pipelines to supply natural gas to Europe via Syria. In July 2011, Iran, Iraq and Syria announced that they were due to sign a contract to build a pipeline running towards Europe from a large offshore gas field in the Persian Gulf. This announcement was a tacit rejection of the Qatar-Turkey Pipeline, which was also designed to head towards Europe, supplying gas from Qatar to Turkey and then Europe, via Syria. This has led some to suggest that Qatar and Turkey are supporting certain Syrian rebel groups in response to Assad rejecting its pipeline plan. This could also potentially explain Russia’s involvement in the conflict. If such a pipeline were built, then it would most likely undermine Russian energy sales to Europe at a time when Russia desperately needs energy-based revenue. By propping up the Assad-led government, Russia is securing its own economic interests.
Right now, Syria is in a terribly difficult situation. Whilst the initial protests that precipitated the Civil War may have been an organic pro-democratic movement, the conflict has regressed into a primarily sectarian one, with different ethnic and religious groups fighting their own interests rather than those of the Syrian state. The most extreme of these groups, Islamic State (IS), has made headlines around the world and attracted disenchanted Sunni youth to its fanatical cause. However, whilst IS once appeared invincible, they now look incredibly vulnerable. In Iraq, the Iraqi Armed Forces have slowly taken back territory from IS; additionally, IS’s advances in Syria have largely ceased. But even if IS ends up being destroyed by Syrian government forces with the help of Russia and the Kurdish militias, Syria will be very far away from any kind of unity.
If the conflict were to end tomorrow, the cost of rebuilding Syria would likely run into the billions of dollars – money which the Syrian state likely doesn’t have now. This rebuilding would be difficult enough with a united populace, but the wounds that have been opened up by the past five years of fighting are unlikely to heal overnight. Ideally, the Syrian government would continue to exist, but would agree to some degree of power sharing and representation from the non-Islamist or extremist rebel organizations. However, this reality seems very far away. And all of this fails to take into account foreign interests in the result of the Syrian Civil War, which may seek to undermine any peaceful resolution which goes against their geopolitical goals. A potential outcome of this conflict could be a disintegration or Balkanisation of the Syrian state into several smaller states. But, as the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s demonstrated, this would likely be a protracted and painful process.
[ This article was proofread and edited by my good friend Miles Raymer. Please check out his fantastic blog at http://www.words-and-dirt.com/ and his goodreads profile at http://www.goodreads.com/user/show/7208369-miles ]