The Syria Game

The Syria Game

The leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, recently called on Al-Qaeda fighters to join the revolution in Syria and help overthrow Bashar al-Assad.  That the United States and al-Qaeda find themselves on the same side in Syria highlights the complexity of the conflict.

Syria is about more than just Syria.  Its geographic location, ethnic and religious divisions, ties to Iran and Hezbollah, influence in Lebanon, relationships with Russia and China, vast chemical weapons program, conflict with Israel, and pivotal role in the Arab Spring movement has made it the center of a geopolitical struggle that extends far beyond Syria’s borders.

The Syrian Civil War is well on its way to becoming a proxy war, much like the Lebanese Civil War of the 1970s and 80s.  It is also part of a larger strategic rivalry between East and West, much like The Great Game between the British and Russian Empires in Central Asia during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The players in this new Great Game in Syria have chosen their sides and have enough at stake that they’ll do almost anything to win.

Team Assad

Map of the most influential countries supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria

The most influential countries supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad

Russia and China

Russia is engaged in a desperate bid for survival and relevancy in a rapidly changing world.  It has declined from a world superpower to a flawed, corrupt, quasi-democratic, largely dysfunctional shadow of its former self that is desperately grasping at spheres of influence that are steadily shrinking away.  Most of these spheres of influence are in the Arab world, Asia, and Africa, where the Russians maintain significant economic and military interests.  In Syria, these include billions of dollars in defense contracts and Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base (at the Syrian port of Tartus.)

China is a rising power with similar economic and military interests in Syria.  More importantly, both Russia and China realize that the Arab Spring is just the beginning of a wave of revolutions likely to spread across the globe, and that eventually the Arab Spring will morph into a Russian and Chinese Spring that will land at their doorsteps.  They will do whatever they can, from obstructing the United Nations to advising, arming, and supporting authoritarian regimes, in order to slow the advance of democracy around the world.


Iran and Syria have an extremely close relationship that has endured for over 30 years.  They are both ruled by Shia Muslims, are opponents of Israel, and provide funding and weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Iran will do everything in its power to prevent the fall of the Assad regime because it would eliminate their strongest Arab ally, choke off Hezbollah, deny them territory from which to launch attacks against Israel, and drastically reduce Iranian influence in the Arab Middle East.  Iran also fears that once Syria falls, Iran will be among the next countries to experience a popular uprising that threatens their own regime.


Iraq, run by a Shia-dominated government that maintains a close relationship with Iran, has supported Assad throughout the uprising.  Iraq fears that a civil war punctuated by sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni could spill over the border and reignite more serious problems in Iraq.  There is no doubt that close ties with Iran also guide their support of the Assad regime.


Hezbollah receives support from Syria, and funding and weapons from Iran.  The removal of Assad would be devastating to them, and if it paved the way for regime change in Iran as well, the organization would be unlikely to survive.


Hezbollah’s political alliance, “March 8,” has been the ruling coalition in Lebanon since 2011.  Although the rival “March 14” Alliance and the majority of Lebanon’s population support the uprising against Assad, Hezbollah will use their political power to keep Lebanon in Assad’s corner, or at least on the sidelines.

Team Free Syrian Army

Map of the most influential countries supporting the Free Syrian Army

The most influential countries supporting the Free Syrian Army

The West

The United States and Europe are driven by a belief in democracy and human rights.  Although they have turned a blind eye to many protest movements in the past and considered regional stability their main priority (as evidenced by the tepid response to Egypt’s uprising against Mubarak), public outcry driven by social media has combined with a realization that the Arab Spring is unstoppable and that their political, economic, and strategic interests are best served by allying with the winning side (the revolutionaries) who will form the governments of the future.

The United States and Europe also want to remove Assad because it would severely weaken Iran strategically and politically.  Regime change in Syria, combined with economic sanctions, the covert war currently being waged against Iran, and the likelihood that Iranian nuclear facilities will be bombed within the next year, could help incite an Iranian Spring and the downfall of the regime.

The West’s enthusiasm for the revolution in Syria is nevertheless tempered by concerns that a militarized, post-Assad Syria could result in a failed state that would be disastrous for regional security, especially for the security of Israel.  The fact that Syria has one of the largest chemical weapons programs in the world and the likelihood that some of these weapons will end up in the hands of terrorists after the war ends dramatically exacerbates those concerns.


Assad’s regime is among several secular governments in the Middle East that have long been on al-Qaeda’s target list.  They are especially motivated to fight since Assad and his regime are Alawite Shia Muslims, considered heretics by al-Qaeda.  Al-Qaeda views Syria as an opportunity to join the right side of a popular revolution, and by doing so gain popularity and new recruits, weapons, and influence.  The overthrow of Assad is also central to their belief system, as the Islamic faith mandates helping oppressed Muslims.


Turkey has no interest in a protracted, years-long civil war on its border.  But the calculations that led them to provide sanctuary to the Free Syrian Army run much deeper.  Turkey has had a contentious relationship with Syria and Iran over their neighbors’ sponsorship of Kurdish PKK insurgents who are fighting Turkey’s government.  Turkey now sees an opportunity to cut off the PKK’s funding and supply lines by removing Assad from power.  They have gone all-in on the Syrian uprising, as an Assad victory would be a significant boost to the PKK, and result in a contentious relationship that could impact regional trade for years.


The Gulf Cooperation Council, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar as its most vocal critics of Assad, is siding with the Syrian protestors because the majority of them are Sunni, and because they want good relations with the new government after Assad falls.  They also want to weaken Iran.  While it may seem hypocritical for the authoritarian regimes of the GCC to be supporting popular uprisings, they have calculated that it is better to be seen as supportive of the Arab Spring, thereby diminishing calls for reform in their own countries.

The Game Has Begun…

All of these players in the Syrian game make the debate about foreign intervention rather meaningless.  Foreign intervention is already taking place.  The United Nations has been rendered useless by Russian and Chinese obstructionism, and the game is now being played through covert action, supplying weapons to the rebels, and diplomatic maneuvering.  The players of this game intend to win at almost any cost.  Although the outcome of the Syrian Civil War appears to favor the downfall of Bashar al-Assad, the amount of time it takes and the number of lives that are lost will be largely dependent on who plays the game the best.

The Lebanese Civil War should serve as a cautionary tale for foreign intervention in Syria.  That proxy war lasted 15 years with over 1 million killed or wounded.  The similar demographics and sectarian divisions in Syria virtually ensure a repeat scenario if the international community plays the game the same way in Lebanon.

The countries that support a free Syria must intervene in an unambiguous, direct way that signals a full commitment to the removal of Assad.  The Syrian rebels must consolidate under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.  Once they have done this, they must be well-equipped with all of the weapons, ammunition, intelligence, and supplies needed to defeat Assad as quickly as possible.

Foreign intervention in Libya helped us win the war far more quickly and with fewer casualties than would have been possible on our own.  The NATO campaign was not only strategically important, but it signaled an international commitment to the removal of Gaddafi that led to far more Libyans joining the rebel ranks.  Once this happened, we were unstoppable.

The international community has the ability, and the obligation, to ensure that the outcome of the Syrian Civil War looks like Libya, not Lebanon.

Matthew VanDyke with his Kawasaki KLR650 motorcycle at the Castle of Assassins in Musyaf Syria

Matthew VanDyke with his Kawasaki KLR650 motorcycle at the Castle of Assassins in Musyaf, Syria

Why I Fought in the Libyan Civil War

Why I Fought in the Libyan Civil War (The Libyan Revolution)

(also available in French here)

Freedom Fighter Matthew VanDyke in the Libyan Civil War

Freedom Fighter Matthew VanDyke in the Libyan Civil War

If I die, please tell your friends about me.  On February 25, 2011 when my friend Muiz made this request, the revolution against Gaddafi had been going on for a week.  On the streets fighting…fighting with hands…but we have no guns…people dying for Libya.  His brother in law had already been killed, and Muiz was resolved to die as well.  You have to know something, we Libyans aren’t scared to die anymore.  I love Libya and I don’t want anything to happen to it.  I will die for it.

I never imagined having such a conversation with a friend on the internet.  The last time I saw Muiz in Tripoli he was happy, smiling,  and carefree, a computer engineer and fellow motorcycle enthusiast with his whole life ahead of him.  Now his city was under siege by the mad man Gaddafi, one of the worst dictators of our time, and Muiz’s world was being destroyed.

Muiz was part of a group of a dozen Libyan bikers who had become good friends of mine during my time in Tripoli in 2008.  Hitem was their leader, a heavy-set, jovial biker with a heart of gold and smile always on his face.  He was a master mechanic, and lived and breathed motorcycles.  I asked Muiz if he had talked to Hitem.  He said he tried to call him but there was no answer.

I had been introduced to the bikers by Tarik, who had gotten me into the country at a time when Americans were not being issued tourist visas to Libya.  He had bribed an official to get me a business visa that said I worked for a company I had never heard of, for what was supposed to be a one week “tour” of the country.  Tarik let me stay in his office instead of a hotel, and I remained in Libya for six weeks before he was brought in for questioning by the regime and told by an official that he had to get me out of the country within 48 hours.  We drove over 1,000 kilometers from Tripoli to Tobruk in one day to make sure I got out in time.  We did, and Tarik had no problems from the regime.

He had problems now, like everyone else in Libya.  My lawyer cousin was shot in the leg yesterday while protesting.  And Abdou, the bald guy who’s always with us, his  cousin was shot with an anti-aircraft gun where Hitem lives. Two pieces when buried.  I was out and saw three gunned down right in front of me by snipers.

Tarik had made his decision.  I’m going to see if I can buy an AK-47 tomorrow morning from a guy in the army.  This is a duty.  What has to be done shall be done.

The words of my friends haunted me.  I watched the news as the revolution began to unfold.  The international community appeared to be doing nothing.  There was no appetite for military intervention.  Gaddafi had the weapons, the ammunition, the tanks, most of the army, and his air force.  The rebels had some pickup trucks with machine guns mounted in the back and Kalashnikov rifles.  It was a dire situation, and the world seemed to not care.

Muiz asked me why nobody is helping them.

That was it.  I told him I would be there.  I called my mother and told her I was flying to Libya to help my friends.  She understood and was supportive.  I then called my girlfriend at work and told her that she should come home soon because I was leaving for Libya that evening.  She was naturally not as understanding or supportive.

I wasn’t going to sit by and watch as Gaddafi killed my friends and their families.  Tarik was right, it was a duty, and what had to be done would be done.  I would go and stand by my friends, fight with them for victory and freedom, or die with them trying.

I had spent years living and working in the region, filming a motorcycle adventure documentary in eight Arab countries, and had witnessed and occasionally experienced firsthand what life was like under authoritarian regimes.  The Arab Spring was a pure revolutionary movement, one that was long overdue, and one that was noble, just, and necessary.  There would be only one opportunity to overthrow the regimes, because each would learn from the mistakes of the other, and each would arrest the troublemakers and spread the fingers of their security apparatus so deep into society that they’d have children informing on their own parents by the time it was over.  There was only one chance to get it right, all or nothing, before the regime could get back on its feet.

My ideological belief in freedom and democracy, formed by years in the region, combined with my strong friendships in Libya compelled me to take up arms as a freedom fighter.  I would not have gone if it weren’t for my friends.  I would also not have gone if the war was taking place along mere ethnic, religious, or sectarian lines.  I would have had no role in such a fight, even to help my friends.  But when my friends were fighting for freedom I could not abandon them.

So I went.  My plan was to go to Benghazi, join the revolution in whatever capacity I could (as a fighter or civilian volunteer, if they refused my participation as a fighter), check on my friends in Tripoli when the war was over, and come home.  When I got to Benghazi I called my Libyan friend Nouri Fonas, whom I had met in Mauritania in 2007.  Nouri, who was a hippie the last time I had seen him in 2008, had become a warrior.  When I saw him now in his military uniform and flak jacket, a man who had travelled the world for ten years in the name of “peace and love” but who now talked of it being “the time for war,” I knew that yes, it was the time for war, and that I could join the ranks of the Libyan rebels.

Starting that first day I was working for the revolution, helping to repair the pickup truck we would be using, moving weapons and ammunition, and planning for the war.  I called Americans I knew with military experience to ask for advice on weapons.  We worked tirelessly to get ready for our departure to the front lines, as Gaddafi’s forces swallowed one town after another on their way towards Benghazi.

On March 12 I went to Brega on a reconnaissance mission with three other men while Nouri continued his work at an army base in Benghazi.  On March 13 we were captured in an ambush.  Knocked unconscious during the ambush, I have no memory of what happened.  I woke up in a prison cell to the sounds of a man being tortured in the room above me.

I was kept in solitary confinement for 165 days, undergoing severe psychological torture.  The Gaddafi regime denied having me for over 4 1/2 months.  The world thought I was dead.  Finally they admitted I was in custody but refused to say where I was.  I was in Libya’s most notorious prison, Abu Salim.

On August 24 escaping prisoners broke the lock off my cell and we ran for our lives from Abu Salim Prison.  I waited in Tripoli for Nouri to arrive from Benghazi, and checked on my Tripoli friends I had come to fight for.  Muiz, Hitem, Tarik and the others had all survived.  Nouri and I returned to the war.

Some people in America questioned my decision to return to the front lines.  I had just spent five and a half months undergoing psychological torture in solitary confinement in one of the world’s worst prisons, and they thought I should come home.  So did my girlfriend.

My mother didn’t pressure me to come home.  She knew what I would do after prison.  She was the one who raised me to keep my commitments.  I had made a commitment to the revolution when I went to Libya, a commitment to my friends and to the men I was captured with that I would not leave Libya until Libya was free, and I was going to honor that commitment.  She also knew that I wouldn’t leave behind the men I was captured with.

Nothing had changed just because I went through a horrible experience in prison.  I was still alive, still physically able to continue service, and I had an obligation to return to duty.  If anything I owed more because I had not been able to contribute during the time I was in prison.

My reasons for fighting in the war had changed, however.  My friends in Tripoli were now safe.  But there was no way I would leave Libya while the three men I was captured with, Ali, Mohammed, and Sharif, might still be alive in prison somewhere in Libya.  Furthermore, as a POW I wouldn’t leave the country if there were any POWs still being held in Libyan prisons.  When all cities in Libya were free, then I would go home.

Nouri and I returned to the front lines together.  We joined the Ali Hassan al-Jaber Brigade of the National Liberation Army of Libya.  I was issued a Libyan military ID and we were assigned a jeep, which we outfitted with a Dushka heavy machinegun.  Nouri was the driver, and I was the machine gunner.  We had 40 engagements with the enemy, mostly at the Battle of Sirte, and were nearly killed a few times.  We served honorably and helped defeat Gaddafi’s forces in Sirte.  On October 20 Gaddafi tried to escape Sirte, and was captured and executed.

With the war over, Gaddafi dead, and all POWs free, I said goodbye to my friends in Tripoli and Benghazi, boarded a plane, and came home.  The men I had been captured with in Brega were never found, and the information we have suggests that they were executed by the regime with many other prisoners shortly before Tripoli fell in August.

I have no regrets about fighting in the Libyan Civil War.  I would do it again without hesitation, and if Libya ever faces the threat of authoritarianism again, I’ll be there helping to overthrow that regime as well.

My experiences in the war and in prison changed me forever.  Serving with brave and honorable men on the battlefield, suffering in solitary confinement, hearing the cries of those tortured by the regime echo through the prison walls, and seeing people’s faces as they celebrated freedom for the first time radically transformed me.  I am now defined by an unyielding opposition to authoritarianism, and will do whatever I can to remove this blemish from the pages of human history.

A wave of democratization is sweeping across the world.  Authoritarian regimes will fall like dominoes, and I will do whatever I can to help kick those dominoes over, including participating again as an armed combatant.  This begins with the Arab Spring, but it ends with the Iranian, African, and Asian Springs.

The 21st century is the century of freedom.