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What we think we know about the Syrian war



You could be forgiven for never having heard of Deir ez-Zor. There is virtually no mention of it in the Western press, except by British journalist Robert Fisk. Yet this ancient Syrian city of just over 200,000 people on the banks of the Euphrates is the site of what looks to be the final defeat of the dream of ISIS of creating an ethnically cleansed, sectarian caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

Deir ez-ZorIronically, way back in 2012, a US Defence Intelligence Agency document suggested that the emergence of a 'declared or undeclared Salafist [fundamentalist Sunni] principality' in the area of Hasaka or Deir ez-Zor would be useful in isolating the Syrian government. While it is not known what exact status this document enjoyed, some more conspiratorially minded folk noted that that was indeed the area of Syria where ISIS first emerged two years later.

As it happens, the Syrian government held the city itself against a three and a half year ISIS siege, only lifted last month by a combination of Russian and Syrian airpower, Syrian special forces and ongoing counterattacks by the troops besieged within. Unlike the ongoing efforts of Kurdish forces, backed by US airpower, to liberate the other remaining ISIS centre in Raqqa, the Syrian Government's extraordinary successes in pushing back the terror organisation across most of the non-Kurdish regions of Syria has gone largely unnoticed in the West. These successes are important for a number of reasons.

Firstly, they give the lie to the oft-repeated claims of use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. There are no angels in the Syrian war and Assad runs a government which is as authoritarian as many in the Middle East: it's hard to imagine that he would have ethical qualms about their use. Nevertheless, chemical weapons are weapons of desperation — while they can be effective under limited conditions, they are universally condemned and would almost inevitably drag other countries into the conflict. Why take such a gamble when you are winning — and winning handsomely?

Secondly, the nature of the forces the government has ranged against ISIS gives the lie to many of the glibly-repeated nostrums of the Syrian war. While it is often said that this is a Shi'a v Sunni conflict, with Iran backing fellow Shi'a Assad against the radical Sunni movements ISIS and Al Qaeda, this is also false.

Assad's family are Alawite, a monotheistic faith whose status within Islam is disputed. While allied with Shi'a Iran and Hezbollah, his army is mostly Sunni. The Syrian general who held Deir ez-Zor against ISIS during the long years of the siege, Issam Zahreddine, is a Druze (a member of a non-Muslim but monotheist faith). The Baath Party which runs Syria is Arab nationalist, rather than confessionally based and is insistent on the secularity of the state.

As a result, while Christians, Shi'a and indeed many Sunnis have no illusions about Syria's level of democracy or the human rights record of its notorious intelligence services, it is hardly surprising that they find the Arab nationalist government more congenial than the self-described 'moderate opposition' who fight under the slogan, 'Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave'.

On the other hand, it is precisely this Arab nationalism on the part of the Syrian government (the army is called the Syrian Arab Army) which so alienates many of the Kurdish population. There are restrictions on the public expression of Kurdish language and culture and many Kurds were stripped of citizenship in a controversial census in 1962. As a result, Kurdish armed formations which have been fighting ISIS are less than keen on the government regaining control of the whole country either.


"Despite these promising signs, there are still no easy answers. Nevertheless the lifting of the siege of Deir ez-Zor seems as good a time as any to question what we think we know about the Syrian Civil War."


The influence of foreign powers in fomenting this complicated and toxic brew cannot be ignored. Russia and Iran openly back the Syrian government — but at least have the distinction of being in Syria legally, as they have been invited by the government. Saudi Arabia and Israel, afraid of growing Iranian influence in Syria, have been supporting rebel movements (Al Qaida and ISIS among them), providing, amongst other things, money, supplies and medical treatment.

Aside from the CIA and Pentagon's own support for rebel groups and newly established US bases in Northern Syria, evidence has emerged that the US collaborated with Saudi, the UAE and others in shipping weapons to selected rebels through the Bulgarian diplomatic bag.

The rise of the Kurds has also alarmed Turkey. That increasingly authoritarian state — afraid of its own restive Kurdish population — has lately changed its focus from the now-unrealistic goal of removing Bashar al Assad to the suppression of the Syrian Kurds. This has put some distance between itself and the US, who see a Kurdish state running through Syria and Northern Iraq as a convenient buffer to disrupt communications between Iran and Syria.

Fortunately, there is now a peace process in place. De-escalation zones have been negotiated between Russians, Syrians, Turks and Iranians, ISIS and Al Qaida are on the run and negotiations seem in prospect between the Syrian government and the Kurds. Despite these promising signs, there are still no easy answers. Nevertheless the lifting of the siege of Deir ez-Zor seems as good a time as any to question what we think we know about the Syrian Civil War.



Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ is studying canon law in Canada. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, ISIS, Syria



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Existing comments

With Donald Trump in the White House the whole Middle East question is up in the air. I do take seriously what Robert Fisk says but I disagree with him that the Syrian government did not use chemical weapons. The UN seems to think they did. Sadly, the use of chemical weapons, in the horror saga of the Middle East, is almost a side issue. Syria's Alawites have, in fact, been accepted as proper Shi'ites by the mullahs in Tehran. Technically, like the Druse, they did originate within Shi'ism. The Druse, like the Sikhs, are now a separate religion. The Druse have traditionally supported the state they live in. Hence Israeli Druse do military service, as do their Syrian counterparts. Robert Baer, ex CIA operative in the Middle East, thinks we should have rapprochement with Iran rather than the Saudi Wahhabi state which is the source of major terrorism. Christians in the Levant support a coalition with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Assad in Syria. There are still Christians in Iran, albeit in reduced numbers. Many of them were Armenians who migrated to either California or Armenia. Supporting the Saudis is against both our interests and that of Christians in the Middle East. Turkey has a large Alevi-Bektashi minority, as well as the Kurdish one. In South East Turkey Alevis and Christians (mainly Syrian Orthodox) get on extremely well. Israel is also a volatile ingredient in the Middle East powder keg.

Edward Fido | 19 September 2017  

I visited ,D-ez-Z on a marvellous driving holiday around Syria, having flown in from Tehran where I was working in the early 90's. It's an ancient and interesting city and, if I am not mistaken, claims a link with Moses in the bull rushes.

Bruce wallace | 20 September 2017  

E Fido: The UN has not gathered evidence on gas attacks based on access on the ground to the incidents alleged. "Commission chairman Paulo Pinheiro told a news conference: “Not having access did not prevent us from establishing facts or reasonable grounds to believe what happened during the attack and establishing who is responsible.” http://tinyurl.com/y7nngkj3 Who did the UN talk to? What was the chain of custody for whatever material evidence was produced? Proceed with caution EF. Re: Assad authorization for use of chem weapons: " . . . it's hard to imagine that he would have ethical qualms about their use." You know this man? You have a very active imagination. His people die for their country under his leadership, but you think he would gas them without "qualms" ?

pogohere | 20 September 2017  

A well-balanced account of a complex military - political situation, thank you Justin Glyn. Some better news out of Syria at last.

Tony Kevin | 20 September 2017  

pogohere: I suggest you have a look at Robert Fisk's column in The Independent, which is readily available online. Although Fisk doubts the chemical weapons attacks, he is well aware of the excesses of Assad's forces, as is Patrick Cockburn, who also writes for the same paper. Unless you are totally ignorant of recent Middle Eastern History and/or an apologist for the Syrian Ba'athists, you would know of the long and brutal regime of Hafez Assad, whose role and brutal apparatus of repression his son Bashar took over.

Edward Fido | 20 September 2017  

Justin, how do you get your head around all this? Thank you.

Mahdi | 21 September 2017  

There he was, an eye doctor set for a career of being paid in copious amounts of grace from a generous God (or Allah in Arabic) for helping the vision-affected, and then his dad and elder brother died and someone had to run the murderous family business. The Ba’ath secularist family patriarch, Hafez Assad, had a daughter. Like all wise men, his sons should have got the woman to do the work. The family business might have reformed and we might have had a better Syria. Instead, the former eye doctor is stuck in a career which, being a spectacular waste of eternal time, probably returns very little grace. Like Stalin’s daughter, Bashar Assad, studying in London, should have bolted when he could.

Roy Chen Yee | 22 September 2017  

Edward, thank you for your learned points on the religious breakdown of Syria. I would disagree with your faith in the UN on this one. The Organisation for Prevention of Chemical Weapons should have investigated (but has not) and no-one (whether from the UN, OPCW or anyone else) has yet conducted a site inspection (as the site is controlled by Al Qaida and too dangerous to visit). As I mentioned in a previous ES post, the videos on which the UN relied in coming to its conclusions (that there were reasonable grounds to suspect the government) were scarcely neutral and were prepared by people who clearly have an interest. As others have mentioned, they also strain credibility because they show "rescuers" handling sarin victims with unprotected hands and faces - which should result in them dying along with the victims. The OPCW has also not indicated that Syria is in breach of its obligations to destroy all its sarin stockpiles. So, I am highly sceptical of the UN claims.

Justin Glyn SJ | 24 September 2017  

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