The Afghans on the road in Serbia were wet from the rain. They were trying to hitch a ride into the border town of Presevo to make the way north to Hungary. Later I saw them sitting next to a train station drying their socks. Did they fear for the future? ‘This is nothing, we came from Syria,’ one of them said. That was in 2015 at the height of the refugee crisis as more than a million people sought refuge in the EU. Many of them had fled the conflict in Syria. But the traffic of people was not all in the same direction: Afghans, Lebanese, Tunisians, Uighurs from China, Hazaras from Pakistan, British, French, Germans and Chechens have all come to Syria in the last six years to fight in the war. What began with the Arab spring is often called a ‘civil war’ or a rebellion, but it is time to acknowledge that it is actually a world war.
From Russia to the US, Saudi Arabia and France, the world is not only involved in Syria, but proxy forces, militias, jihadists and foreign fighters form the kaleidoscope of participants. As with the history of the Thirty Years War in Europe it has also become the graveyard for nations and an epic cauldron of suffering from which nearly five million people have fled and where hundreds of thousands have been killed. Ancient cities have been destroyed, and their modern suburbs gutted.
Syria became a world war in phases. From the spring of 2011 to the autumn of 2012, it was primarily a contest between mostly Sunni Syrian rebel groups, such as the Free Syrian army and the regime of Bashar al-Assad. By the spring of 2013, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s Shia Hezbollah, boasted that the group was fighting in the battle of Qusayr. According to a study at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, at least 865 Hezbollah fighters had been killed by February 2016.
In 2013, the war entered a new phase as Qatar led the 22 Arab League states in support of the Syrian rebels. The small gulf nation sent financial support totalling $1bn (£800m), according to the Financial Times. By 2014, the proliferation of jihadist groups and the Syrian power vacuum led to the rise of Islamic State which expanded from its base around Raqqa to invade and conquer parts of northern Iraq. The escalation made the war in Iraq and Syria essentially one large conflict. Isis recruited volunteers from all over the world. Of its 50,000 jihadist recruits, many came from countries within the EU, as well as Chechnya, Tunisia and China. Kurdish fighters in Kobani described Chechen snipers as the most effective marksmen they faced. Eventually more than 60 countries signed on with a US-led coalition to help defeat Isis.
Russia also sought to bolster its ally in Damascus through airstrikes and combat operations in the autumn of 2015. US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Russian escalation was a ‘matter of pouring gasoline on the civil war in Syria, that is certainly not productive from our point of view’. What was productive from the US view was supporting Sunni rebel groups in a largely failed CIA-program, as well as supporting Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), who proved effective against Isis. Around the same time, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps sought assistance for Assad’s embattled army which had been bled white in years of battles. To bolster it, Iran recruited 20,000 members of the Shia minority Hazara community in Pakistan and Afghanistan, often offering them rights to work in Iran and pay that amounted to around $600 (£480) a month. The Hazaras came face to face with Chinese Uighurs who had come from an area not so far from their native Afghanistan. This in itself shows the oddity of the Syrian civil war. Sunni and Shia men from central Asia journeying thousands of miles to die in someone else’s conflict, much as fascists and anti-fascists had once gone to Spain in the 1930s.
It’s unclear what the new US administration in Washington’s involvement will be, although as Paul Wood suggests in his Spectator cover piece this week, Trump seems to want ‘a big win over Isis within 90 days’. ‘We’re backing rebels. We don’t know who the rebels are. We’re giving them lots of money, lots of everything,’ Donald Trump said in an October debate with Hillary Clinton. Although Russia and Iran have succeeded in propping up Assad, it has been at great cost. The assassination of the Russian ambassador and numerous terrorist attacks in Turkey, one at a nightclub in January allegedly carried out by an ethnic Uighur, are one result. Western diplomacy has failed because Assad and his allies believe time is on their side.
Great conflicts of the past had equally great conferences to end them: the Peace of Westphalia; the Congress of Vienna; Versailles. There has been no Syrian Versailles because the conflict hasn’t ended. The likelihood is that it will not end. But a renewed push for ending it from those in positions of influence in Syria, Russia and Turkey, along with a Kurdish sector, might offer promise. It is also time for the international community to acknowledge it too has a role to play in this peace – Syria’s war is a world war. It has divided the Muslim world, and encouraged Shia and Sunni sectarianism. If the war rages on, it will continue to fuel sectarian extremism, Iranian expansion, and instability in the Middle East.