Syria’s war: Who is fighting and why


Syria’s war is mess. After 6 years, the conflict is divided between
four sides, each side with foreign backers. And those foreign backers don’t even agree
with each other on who they are fighting for and who they are fighting against. And now, Syria’s use of chemical weapons has
provoked President Donald Trump to directly attack Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This is a major development, because, up until now, the US has only been focused on fighting ISIS. To understand the criss-crossing interventions
and battle lines in Syria today, and how it got this way, it helps to go back to the beginning of the conflict and watch to see how it unfolded. The first shots in the war were fired, in March
2011, by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad against peaceful Arab Spring demonstrators. In July the protesters start shooting back, and some Syrian troops
even defect from the Syrian army to join them. They call themselves the Free Syrian Army
and the uprising becomes a civil war. Extremists from around the region and the world start traveling to Syria to join the rebels. Now, Assad actually encourages this by releasing
jihadist prisoners to tinge the rebellion with extremism and make it harder for foreign
backers to support them. In January 2012, al-Qaeda forms a new branch
in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra. Also around that time, Syrian Kurdish groups, who
had long sought autonomy, take up arms and informally secede from Assad’s rule in the
north. That summer is when Syria becomes a proxy
war. Iran, Assad’s most important ally, intervenes
on his behalf. By the end of 2012, Iran is sending daily
cargo flights and has hundreds of officers on the ground. At the same time, the oil-rich Arab states
on the Persian Gulf begin sending money and weapons to the rebels, mainly to counter Iran’s
influence. Iran steps up its influence in turn, in mid-2012 when Hezbollah,
a Lebanese militia backed by Iran, invades to fight along Assad. In turn the Gulf States respond, Saudi Arabia really stepping up this time, to send more money and weapons to the rebels, This time through Jordan who
also opposes Assad. By 2013, the Middle East is divided between mostly Sunni powers, generally supporting the rebels, and Shias, generally supporting Assad. That April, the Obama administration, horrified by Assad’s atrocities and the mounting death toll, signs a secret order authorizing the
CIA to train and equip Syrian rebels. But the program stalls. At the same time, the US quietly urges Arab
Gulf states to stop funding extremists, but their requests basically go ignored. In August, the Assad regime uses chemical weapons, provoking condemnation around the world Obama: “Men, women, and children lying in rows – killed by poison gas…” It is in the national security interests of
the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons
through a targeted military strike. Russia proposed on Monday that Syria surrender
control over its chemical weapons to the international community for its eventual dismantling, to avoid a US military strike. The US ends up backing down, but the whole thing establishes Syria as a great-powers dispute, with Russia backing Assad and the US opposing him. Just weeks later, the first American CIA training
and arms reach Syrian rebels. The US is now a participant in the war. In February 2014, something happens that transforms
the war: an al-Qaeda affiliate, based mostly in Iraq, breaks away from the group over internal
disagreements. The group calls itself the Islamic State of
Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and it becomes al-Qaeda’s enemy. ISIS mostly fights not Assad, but other
rebels and Kurds, carving out a mini-state it calls its Caliphate. That summer, it marches across Iraq seizing
territory, galvanizing the world against it. In September, one year after the US almost
bombed Assad, it begins bombing ISIS. Obama: “We’re moving ahead with our campaign
of airstrikes against these terrorists, and we’re prepared to take action against
ISIL in Syria as well.” That summer, in July, the Pentagon launches
its own program to train Syrian rebels — but will only those who’ll fight ISIS, not Assad. The program fizzles, showing that America
now opposes ISIS more than Assad, but that there’s also no like-minded Syrian proxy forces on the ground in Syria. In August, Turkey starts bombing Kurdish groups in
Iraq and in Turkey, even as these Kurdish groups are fight ISIS in Syria. But Turkey doesn’t bomb ISIS. This gets to one of the big problems in this conflict: the US sees ISIS
as its main enemy, but the US’ allies like Turkey and a lot of other Middle Eastern states have
other priorities. This makes for a lot of unclear and confusing alliances. The next month, in September, Russia intervenes
on behalf of Assad, sending a few dozen military aircraft to a long-held Russian base in the
country. Russia says it’s there to bomb ISIS, but in fact only ends up bombing anti-Assad rebels, including some backed by the US. The next year, Donald Trump wins the White
House, vowing to stay out of Syria, and signaling that Assad should be able to stay in power. At the end of 2016, Assad, helped by Russian
airpower and Iranian sponsored militias, retakes the Syrian city of Aleppo, knocking the rebels
out of their last remaining urban stronghold. Then, in Spring 2017, Assad once again
uses chemical weapons against his people, killing 85, including 20 children. Back in the US, Trump says his attitude toward
Syria and Assad has “changed very much” due to the attacks. He vows to respond and within days the White House launches dozens
of tomahawk missiles that strike an airbase in Syria. This is the first time the United States has directly attacked the Assad regime. This adds yet another criss crossing complication
to an already multidimensional civil war. So as it stands now, Syria is in ruins. Even as Assad recaptures land, the rebellion
perseveres. And with outside countries fueling each of
the groups, it’s clear that there is still no end in sight.

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