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While the war in Syria started as a traditional civil war, in recent years it has taken on a very international dimension. A wide variety of international countries are overtly or covertly supporting their favored groups and sides in the conflict. As well, some nations are now using air power and even limited ground troops in order to swing the war in their favor. Combined with this conflict spilling over into Iraq in 2014, the situation is very complicated indeed. The infographic below seeks to make sense of the tangled web of alliances and military support in Syria and Iraq, between local fighting groups and outside countries. Within the infographic, light green indicates diplomatic support and dark green indicates direct military support. On the other hand, orange indicates diplomatic opposition, and red represents direct aggressive military action.
As well, it is important to note that this graphic shows official diplomatic and military support rather than covert operations or unofficial military support.
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Following US Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to Moscow on Tuesday where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, Kerry announced a critical shift in the US position on the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad: he can stay in power for a bit longer if Russia and America cooperate together in overseeing the transition from Assad's chaos to peace. ...What?
Assad is the very kind of "dictator" the US prides itself in fighting to remove. For the past four years, President Obama has called for Assad to step down. From Assad's alleged use of chemical gas to barrel bombs to ISIS overtaking Syrian territory, Assad attracts a very diverse response from world leaders on how to achieve peace because the situation in Syria is so complex.
Within the United States, where political debates are increasingly revolving around foreign policy -- especially to do with Assad and ISIS -- the presidential candidates (as well as politicians in general) find themselves equally divided on the Syrian solution. In fact, shifting positions on Assad seems to be the norm.
Below is a brief timeline of major American politicians on their stances regarding Assad and Syria, especially in relations to Putin and Russia.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tells the press "it's not going to be any news if the United States says, 'Assad needs to go.'"
A week later, US President Barack Obama announces for the first time -- after weeks of political pressure -- that Assad "must step down".
The American announcement happened in coordination with key allies' announcements: Germany, France, and the UK, amongst others, also called for Assad's departure from his presidency position around this time.
Western powers reportedly ignore a Russian proposal to securely remove Assad from his position, as the US, French, and British leaders believe the Syrian president would not last much longer in power.
President Obama addresses the nation, detailing the brutalities of the Assad regime and announces the US will strike Assad's forces to deter the regime from the use of chemical weapons.
The US and Russia then pushed for Syria to become party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which banned the use of chemical and biological weaponry in warfare.
President Obama states at the G20 press conference that "there’s no expectation that we are going to in some ways enter an alliance with Assad. He is not credible in that country."
The US president continues on to say that "we are looking for a political solution eventually within Syria that is inclusive of all the groups who live there -- the Alawite, the Sunni, Christians. And at some point, the people of Syria and the various players involved, as well as the regional players -- Turkey, Iran, Assad’s patrons like Russia -- are going to have to engage in a political conversation."
When that point would be, though, was never clear. He then ended the Assad discussion with this:
Four years later, increased diplomacy between major powers -- especially the US and Russia -- start to cause US leaders to soften their "Assad must go" position.
The New York Times quotes an unnamed senior American official as saying, "It’s encouraging, but we’re still a long ways off [on a solution for Assad]."
Donald Trump tells Americans to let Russia take care of Assad and ISIS.
"Let Syria and ISIS fight. Why do we care? Let ISIS and Syria fight. And let Russia, they're in Syria already, let them fight ISIS. Look, I don't want ISIS. ISIS is bad. They are evil. When they start doing with a head chopping … these are really bad dudes. … Let Russia take care of ISIS. How many places can we be? … Russia likes Assad seemingly a lot. Let them worry about ISIS. Let them fight it out."
Hillary Clinton, now a presidential candidate and no longer Secretary of State (since 2013), states removing Assad is America's top priority, four years after she said it wouldn't make US news.
A month after the Paris attacks, a week after the San Bernardino attack, the day Los Angeles shut down its public schools due to a bomb threat, and the last Republican debate of the year before the holidays. Also the day Kerry meets Putin and Lavrov in Moscow.
The Secretary of State officially reverses the position of the US on Assad, while Republican contenders for the 2016 election spar over what to do. The more memorable quotes are are anti-Russian and anti-intervention.
Donald Trump: "Spend the money [used in striking in the Middle East] in the US... It's a tremendous disservice to humanity, and for what? [The Middle East is] a mess, [a] total and complete mess."
John Kasich: "In regard to Syria, understand that Assad is an ally of Iran who wants to extend that Shi’i radicalism all the way across the Middle East. He has to go. And for the Russians, frankly, it's time to punch the Russians in the nose. They’ve gotten away with too much in this world, and we need to stand up against them, not just there, but also in Eastern Europe where they threaten some of our most precious allies."
Rand Paul: "We need to confront Russia from a position of strength."
Chris Christie: "Reckless was inviting Russia into Syria."
As of posting, President Obama has yet to make an official statement confirming Kerry's comments in Moscow. Kerry maintained that it is in the best interest for the world when Russia and the US cooperate, and that this cooperation is "a sign of maturity" between the two presidents.
While it's great for the US and Russia to be on slightly better terms again, time will only tell if this rekindling of relations will bring Assad to justice and peace to the Syrian people.
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The involvement of Turkey in the war in Syria has been extensively covered, but now over the last week, it appears the country is also gearing up for a greater role in the neighbouring and connected war in Iraq. While talk of a Turkish ‘invasion’ of Iraq is somewhat overblown, the consequences of Turkish troops deploying to Iraq could have far-reaching geopolitical ramifications.
The current controversy between Iraq and Turkey began last week following the emergence of reports that Turkey had deployed a number of soldiers to Bashiqa, a small Peshmerga-held town around 15km away from the ISIS-controlled city of Mosul in northern Iraq. While initial reports of the number of troops varied, the most credible information now has around several hundred troops and up to 25 associated vehicles deployed.
What is not yet clear is the mandate of these troops, and the role they will play in Iraq. According to Turkish statements, "the mandate of the Turkish elements in Bashiqa is to provide training to Iraqi volunteers within the scope of the fight against Daesh, and they have not been given combat duties and responsibilities". Nonetheless many still believe these troops may play a larger, and more direct combat role against ISIS into the future.
Whatever role Turkey intends for these troops, what is more important is the international (and intranational in the case of Iraq) response to their deployment. The Iraqi government of Al-Abadi has widely condemned this as a breach of Iraq sovereignty, with his government giving several deadlines for the Turkish troops to withdraw, before they faced retaliation. These deadlines were backed up by similar threats from Shia militia groups within the Popular Mobilisation Units which form a significant part of the Iraqi forces.
While these deadlines and threats may indeed be serious, the fact that they have passed without incident stands testament to the fact that it is actually very difficult for Iraqi government forces to attack the Turkish troops. Notwithstanding their much more critical war with ISIS, the Iraqi government/Shia militias would also have to attack through territory controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Given the good relations between Turkey and the KRG (in contrast to other Kurdish groups), and the fact that the Turkish deployment likely has the tacit approval of KRG leader Masoud Barzani, this is unlikely to happen without a fight. Furthermore, the relations between KRG Peshmerga forces and Shia militia have suffered a serious deterioration over recent months following clashes around the town of Tuz Khurmatu, making any deployments against Turkish forces likely to face Peshmerga resistance.
With all of this considered, Turkey’s deployment will have several geopolitical ramifications. Firstly, the KRG will become more deeply aligned with Turkey due to their hosting of Turkish troops, as well as their own Peshmerga troops receiving Turkish training and support. Secondly, the Iraqi government may be forced to align itself more with Russia, as the US is unable to prevent the erosion its of sovereignty by another NATO player. In the long-run these positions could serve to solidify a formal partition of Iraq following the defeat of ISIS as a major military force in the country.