In my previous post (The Death of Middle East Conspiracy Theories – Egypt), I discussed how the political confusion in Egypt can be explained by identifying the interests and ideological principles of each faction and how these 2 factors shape the decisions of each actor on the political stage. The same concept can be applied to the events unfolding in the Syrian Revolution (or Civil War, depending on your perspective on what’s occurring there).
To start off: The simplest of facts is that in Syria, we currently have 2 alliances fighting for survival and the destruction and annihilation of the other. The first of these alliances is the Free Syrian Army-Nusra Front alliance. The second of these is the Assad regime-Hezbollah alliance.
Of course, to get a clearer understanding, we need to briefly go over a simple fact: Peaceful protests, fueled by the successes of Tunisia and Egypt in toppling their corrupt leaders, filled the streets of Syria; demanding, of course, the removal of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Assad first relied on security personnel and state-sponsored thugs to deal with the situation. Their failure at ending the peaceful revolution lead Assad to decide to use military brute force. Military personnel who rejected the idea of killing their own people began to split off and formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA for short). They were originally formed to defend protesters, yet as Assad’s violence against the protesters escalated, and as more military forces joined the FSA, a full-scale war eventually formed.
At this stage, Assad is merely interested in surviving and crushing the revolution. The revolutionaries (or rebels, however you see them) at this stage are also interested in surviving, crushing Assad’s regime, and establishing the foundations of a new country.
At this point, 2 new factions step into the scene: The Sunni Nusra Front (جبهة النصرة Gabhat Al-Nusra) and the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. Both of these factions have one thing in common: Both have an Islamist ideology. Yet the one thing that differentiates them is the reason they ally themselves to opposing camps: One is Sunni, while the other is Shiite.
Hezbollah has had a historic alliance with the Assad regime. The Assad regime also has had a historic alliance with Iran, which has enormous influence of Hezbollah.
Despite Assad’s Baathist (a form of pan-Arabism that existed in Iraq and Syria) ideology, he eventually found himself isolated from Arab nations as their relations with the United States grew through the years. This lead him to search for support in the Shiite nation. (Assad himself is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiism which mainstream Shiites themselves consider to be a false sect.) Iran welcomed Syria as a close ally with open arms. This relationship grew as both countries began to be isolated internationally, with the exception, of course, of Russia and China. (Iran became isolated due to its nuclear project, and Syria became isolated by the West due to his hostile language toward Israel, and the fact that he never signed a peace treaty with the occupier of the Golan Heights.)
Hezbollah supplied the Assad regime with some of its own brigades from Lebanon. Numerous battles between the revolutionary alliance in Syria and Hezbollah alone have taken place.
Assad has been a major sponsor for Hezbollah, supplying it with military equipment (and probably training). Losing an ally in Syria would force Hezbollah to rely only on Iranian cargo ships that would sail from the Gulf of Arabia, through the Red Sea, and onto Lebanese shores; a much longer timespan that would prove to be inefficient in times of war, in comparison to immediate delivery of weapons from across the border.
The Nusra Front is similar to what we had in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. Muslims from around the world travelling to fight against an oppressive regime they consider to be oppressing a Muslim population. Under the banner of jihad, Arab (including, of course, local Syrians), South Asian, East Asian, European, and American Muslims travelled to Syria and formed a various multiethnic Sunni-Islamic armed groups. The Nusra Front became one of those armed groups. (The group has alleged ties to Al-Qaeda.) (The group has managed to prove its major role in the war against the Assad regime. One Washington Post article published in August of last year described its growing “prominence in [the] war to topple Assad.” Another opinion article in the Washington Post published in the end of November last year described it as “the most aggressive and successful arm” of the anti-Assad alliance.)
(Another Islamist coalition of military brigades, the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front [SILF] has also managed to become a major participant in the war against Assad’s regime. According to a New York Times article published in April, 2013, this coaliition has distanced itself from the Nusra Front due to the latter’s allegiance to Al Qaeda.)
The two factions have reached somewhat of a stalemate so far, both constantly gaining and losing land.
Then comes the 21st of August, 2013. That day, the Assad regime launched chemical weapons at the farming region of Ghouta in the Rif Dimashq governorate. This event (though probably not the first use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime) sent a shock throughout the international community. The massacre that occurred then by the use of chemical weapons has lead the United States, along with some European nations, to declare that it may very well use force to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons.
(And this is where I decide to delay the discussion of foreign intervention in Syria for another post.)