The Syrian war has been a slowly unfolding catastrophe; one that has embroiled several of the world’s major powers, and caused a mass humanitarian crisis. Early last Saturday, the United States and its British and French allies conducted airstrikes on three targets outside Damascus and Homs in response to an alleged chemical attack by the Syrian government. The allies’ goal was to destroy the facilities where President Assad’s chemical weapons are held. President Trump later declared, “Mission accomplished!” via Twitter, and warned Assad not to use chemical weapons again.
For many, the question is how did the Syria war start?
While lack of freedoms and economic woes drove resentment of the Syrian government, the harsh crackdown on protesters inflamed public anger. The 2011 Arab spring was the catalyst for the Syrian conflict; this successful uprising toppled the Tunisian and Egyptian Presidents, inspiring hope for pro-democracy activists. The March of 2011 inspired further peaceful protests across Syria, in support of the Arab Springs, yet many peaceful protests were met with sheer brutality. 15 boys were detained and tortured for writing graffiti in support of the Arab Spring. One of the boys that were detained, at just thirteen-years-old, he killed after having been brutally tortured. The Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, responded to the protests by killing hundreds of demonstrators and imprisoning many more.
In July 2011, defectors from the military announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group aiming to overthrow the government, which led Syria to slide into civil war. While the protests in 2011 were mostly non-sectarian, the armed conflict surfaced starker sectarian divisions. Most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, but members of the Alawi sect, of whom Assad is a member, has long dominated Syria’s security establishment. Climate change has massively played a role in sparking the 2011 uprising. Severe drought plagued Syria from 2007-10, causing as many as 1.5 million people to migrate from the countryside into cities, exacerbating poverty and social unrest.
Foreign backing and open intervention have played a large role in Syria’s civil war. Russia entered the conflict in 2015, by becoming President Assad’s main ally through Military support. Arguably since Russia lost its main ally in 2011 due to the Arab Springs when President Gadhafi was overthrown, Putin sought allegiance with Assad as an insurance for support in the Middle East. The governments of majority-Shia Iran and Iraq, and Lebanon-based Hezbollah, have supported Assad, while Sunni-majority countries, including Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia supported anti-Assad rebels.
Since 2016, Turkish troops have launched several operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) near its borders, as well as against Kurdish groups armed by the United States. The US has armed anti-Assad rebel groups and led an international coalition bombing ISIL targets since 2014.
Israel carried out air raids inside Syria, reportedly targeting Hezbollah and pro-government fighters and facilities.
USA and Russia?
The USA has had a long history of conflict with the Russians dating back to the cold war, and these tensions are still felt today. The US has repeatedly stated its opposition to the Assad government backed by Russia but has not involved itself as deeply. Chemical weapons and the threat they impose has been at the forefront of the dispute between the USA, Russia and Syria. Former US President Barack Obama had warned that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was a “red line” that would prompt military intervention. In April 2017, the US carried its first direct military action against Assad’s forces, launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air force base from which US officials believe a chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun had been launched.
One year later, on April 14, despite Russian warnings, the US launched an attack together with France and the UK, at “chemical weapon sites. In 2013, the CIA began a covert programme to arm, fund and train rebel groups opposing Assad, but the programme was later shut down after it was revealed that the CIA had spent $500m but only trained 60 fighters. September 2015 saw Russia launch a bombing campaign against what it referred to as “terrorist groups” in Syria, which included ISIL as well as anti-Assad rebel groups backed by the USA. Russia has also deployed military advisers to shore up Assad’s defences. At the UN Security Council, Russia and China have repeatedly vetoed Western-backed resolutions on Syria.
Since the conflict began, many new rebel groups have joined the fighting in Syria and have frequently fought one another. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a loose conglomeration of armed brigades formed in 2011 by defectors from the Syrian army and civilians backed by the United States, Turkey, and several Gulf countries. December 2016 saw the Syrian army scored its biggest victory against the rebels when it recaptured the strategic city of Aleppo. Since then, the FSA has controlled limited areas in north-western Syria.
Syrian opposition fighters in 2018 evacuated from the last rebel stronghold near Damascus. However, backed by Turkey, the FSA took control Afrin, near the Turkey-Syria border, from Kurdish rebel fighters seeking self-rule. Other groups fighting in Syria include Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, Iran-backed Hezbollah, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
ISIL emerged in northern and eastern Syria in 2013 after overrunning large portions of Iraq. The group quickly gained international notoriety for its brutal executions and its energetic use of social media to recruit fighters from around the world.
The war in Syria is complicated, brutal and a cause of the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II as the UN refugee agency reported that 6.5 million people have left their homes as a result of the war. The attacks orchestrated by the USA, UK and France is arguably the most significant air strike as the number of missiles used has been doubled since the previous air strike in 2017. Whilst the strikes are over, for now, the war and conflict is not and there is a clear warning that if the Assad regime resorts to chemical weapons again, then further strikes may well follow.