The independent resource on global security

2. The armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq


Overview [PDF]

I. The Syrian and Iraqi civil wars [PDF]

II. The socio-economic impact of the Syrian civil war [PDF]

III. Arms transfers and the use of force against Islamic State [PDF]


In 2014, the armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq intensified and included jihadi success and, especially, the rise of the Islamic State (IS). Several factors led to this crisis: years of virulent conflict of an increasing sectarian nature, a concurrent loss of state legitimacy, and large-scale social and institutional breakdown in both countries. However, IS is only one, albeit important, actor moving within the larger Syrian–Iraqi zone of war, social crisis and sectarian polarization. It is a crisis that is also characterized by an overlapping and often unclear assortment of allegiances backed by regional and international actors and associated support structures.



In Syria, the failure of the 2014 United Nations Geneva Conference on Syria (Geneva II) in January and February 2014 confirmed that the conflict was not amenable to a negotiated solution. A new UN negotiator, Staffan de Mistura, was appointed and began planning for a local Aleppo ceasefire, but by the end of the year this ‘bottom-up’ peace process was also failing. Instead, the ongoing ‘enclavization’ of rebel, regime and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) territories accelerated. The Syrian presidential elections in June 2014 were neither free nor fair, but President Bashar al-Assad was able to turn them into a show of strength, displaying his continuing ability to mobilize millions of Syrians.


Support from the United States, Saudi Arabia and other states backing the rebels has increasingly moved from trying to topple Assad to seeking to maintain an anti-jihadi rebel force amenable to their interests, albeit with limited success. However, Assad’s long-term prospects remain difficult, and despite his growing military advantage, in 2014 he was unable to re-establish dominance in Syria. The regime’s structural and economic base continues to wither, and Assad’s dependence on international allies continues to grow.


The conflict has had even more catastrophic consequences for the Syrian people. As of January 2015, the conflict had claimed more than 206 000 lives, another 840 000 wounded and more than 85 000 people are reported missing. Close to 4 million Syrians of a total population of 22 million have fled the country seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, and another 7.6 million are displaced within Syria. With these population movements comes a growing humanitarian crisis that has disastrous implications for the country and the region. With widespread economic devastation and the collapse in service provision in Syria, the future looks bleak for the millions who have lost family members, homes and livelihoods.



In Iraq, the civil war continued to show trends evident since 2011, including sectarian polarization and the shrinking remit of the central government. The Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki essentially transformed into a ‘failed state’ in Sunni Arab areas, leaving them vulnerable to IS, which took over several cities from June 2014. Maliki was eventually replaced by Haider al-Abadi, but the new government is not fundamentally different from Maliki’s—the Iraqi Army in particular remains heavily dependent on Iranian-backed Shia militias—and will find it hard to reconnect to Sunni Arab areas.


From January 2014, IS entrenched itself in eastern Syria with Raqqa as its ‘capital’ and from June 2014 captured areas in northern Iraq, including Mosul and Tikrit. This momentum led to a ‘snowballing’ of recruitment and an influx of captured arms and resources in both Iraq and Syria. In June, the group announced a ‘caliphate’ and changed its name from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—to IS. While IS has increasingly overshadowed its former parent group, al-Qaeda, it has failed to move beyond Sunni Arab territory and remains structurally unable to govern even those areas.


IS also fought a protracted battle with PKK-linked Kurdish forces for the northern Syrian city of Kobane. Turkey did not actively oppose IS militarily and inhibited the flow of support and fighters to Kurdish units. Indeed, Kurdish politics were another crucial ingredient in the two conflicts. Institutionalized rivalries between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) were interlocked with complex regional divisions: the KDP allied to Turkey and the USA; and the PUK allied to Iran and the PKK. The rising PKK influence in Iraq following the events of 2014 may prove of long-term significance.


Arms transfers and the use of force against the Islamic State

The US-led air campaign that began in Iraq in August 2014 and Syria in September 2014—combined with US and other states’ efforts to strengthen the Iraqi military via intelligence sharing and weapon supplies—helped to slow and then check IS’s territorial advances. However, considering the political and sectarian fragmentation in Iraq and Syria the arms supplies risk fuelling violence between the many militant groups in the two countries or even beyond them. Furthermore, for the USA this involved walking a political tightrope, especially with some traditional allies, given the de facto alignment of the US military with Iran, the PKK, and—to some extent—Assad.


The military successes of the anti-IS coalition in late 2014 may yet turn out to be temporary, and the longer-term international peace and security implications of the two conflicts remain both complex and uncertain.

Pieter D. Wezeman and Aron Lund