Just when you thought the Syrian civil war couldn’t get any messier, developments last week proved that it could. For the first time in the armed conflict that has raged for nearly five years, militia fighters from the Assyrian Christian community in northern Iraq clashed with Kurdish troops. What made that incident especially puzzling is that both the Assyrians and the Kurds are vehement adversaries of ISIS—which is also a major player in that region of Syria. Logically, they should be allies who cooperate regarding military moves against the terrorist organization.
But in Syria, very little is simple or straightforward. Unfortunately, that is a point completely lost on the Western (especially American) news media. From the beginning, Western journalists have portrayed the Syrian conflict as a simplistic melodrama, with dictator Bashar al-Assad playing the role of designated villain and the insurgents playing the role of plucky proponents of liberty. Even a cursory examination of the situation should have discredited that narrative, but it continues largely intact to this day.
There are several layers to the Syrian conflict. One involved an effort by the United States and its allies to weaken Assad as a way to undermine Iran by depriving Tehran of its most significant regional ally. Another layer is a bitter Sunni-Shite contest for regional dominance. Syria is just one theater in that contest. We see other manifestations in Bahrain, where Iran backs a seething majority Shiite population against a repressive Sunni royal family that is kept in power largely by Saudi Arabia’s military support. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf powers backed Sunni tribes in western Iraq against the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Some of those groups later coalesced to become ISIS. In Yemen, direct military intervention by Saudi Arabia and Riyadh’s smaller Sunni Gulf allies is determined to prevent a victory by the Iranian-backed Houthis.
The war in Syria is yet another theater in that regional power struggle. It is no accident that the Syrian insurgency is overwhelmingly Sunni in composition and receives strong backing from major Sunni powers, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. Assad leads an opposing “coalition of religious minorities,” which includes his Alawite base (a Shiite offshoot) various Christian sects, and the Druze. But there is an added element of complexity. The Kurds form yet a third faction, seeking to create a self-governing (quasi-independent) region in northern and northeastern Syria inhabited by their ethnic brethren. In other words, Syrian Kurds are trying to emulate what Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed for many years in Iraqi Kurdistan, where Baghdad’s authority is little more than a legal fiction. That explains the clash between Assyrian Christians and Kurds. Both hate ISIS, but the former supports an intact Syria (presumably with Assad or someone else acceptable to the coalition in charge), the latter does not.
Such incidents underscore just how complex the Syrian struggle is and how vulnerable to manipulation well-meaning U.S. mediation efforts might become. Our news media need to do a far better job of conveying what is actually taking place in that part of the world, not what wannabe American nation builders wish were the case.