A brief primer
Syria’s conflict has devolved from peaceful protests against the government in 2011 to a violent insurgency that has drawn in numerous other countries. It’s partly a civil war of government against people; partly a religious war pitting Assad’s minority Alawite sect, aligned with Shiite fighters from Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, against Sunni rebel groups; and increasingly a proxy warfeaturing Russia and Iran against the United States and its allies. Whatever it is, it has so far killed 220,000 people, displaced half of the country’s population, andfacilitated the rise of ISIS.
When we asked readers what they wanted to know about the civil war, one asked: “Who are the various groups fighting in Syria? What countries are involved?” By one count from 2013, 13 “major” rebel groups were operating in Syria; counting smaller ones, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency puts the number of groups at 1,200. Meanwhile, the number of other countries involved to various degrees has grown; including the United States, nine countries have participated in U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS in Syria (though Canada’s newly elected prime minister has vowed to end his country’s involvement in the military campaign); Russia is conducting its own bombing against ISIS and other rebel groups, in coordination with ground operations by Iranian and Hezbollah fighters. This is before you tally the dozens of countries whose citizens have traveled to join ISIS and other armed groups in Syria.
Thomas van Linge, the Dutch teenager who has gained renown for his detailed maps of the Syrian conflict, groups the combatants into four broad categories: rebels (from “moderate” to Islamist); loyalists (regime forces and their supporters); Kurdish groups (who aren’t currently seeking to overthrow Assad, but have won autonomy in northeastern Syria, which they have fought ISIS to protect); and finally, foreign powers.
The Battle for Syria
What started in Syria has spread to multiple countries—to Iraq, where ISIS has effectively erased part of the border with Syria and taken over a chunk of the northwest; to Turkey and Lebanon, which together have taken in more than 3 million of the 4 million registered Syrian refugees; to Europe, which has receivedmore than 500,000 asylum applications from Syrians since 2011; and to the United States, which as of this writing has resettled fewer than 2,000 Syrian refugees since 2011 but has pledged to take in 10,000 more over the next year.
Why did Syria’s protests of 2011, which began in part as a response to the arrest and mistreatment of a group of young people accused of writing anti-Assad graffiti in the southern city of Deraa, morph into today’s chaos? Or as one reader asked: “What are they fighting about?” The protests started after two Arab dictators, in Tunisia and Egypt, had already stepped down amid pro-democracy demonstrations in their countries. Syria’s war is unique among the Arab Spring uprisings, but it is not unique among civil wars generally. Stanford’s James Fearon has argued that “civil wars often start due to shocks to the relative power of political groups that have strong, pre-existing policy disagreements. … War then follows as an effort to lock in … or forestall the other side’s temporary advantage.” The Syrian uprising presented just such a shock, and the opposition to Assad may have seen a short-term opportunity to press for more gains by taking up arms before their Arab Spring advantage disappeared. An International Crisis Group report from 2011 noted that Assad at first responded to protests by releasing some political prisoners and instructing officials “to pay greater attention to citizen complaints,” but that “the the regime acted as if each … disturbance was an isolated case requiring a pin-point reaction rather than part of a national crisis that would only deepen short of radical change.”
To paraphrase one reader’s question: When does this end? The political-science professor Barbara F. Walter has pointed out that since the end of World War II, civil wars have lasted an average of 10 years, but that the number of factions involved is likely to prolong this one. Ben Connable and Martin Libicki of the Rand Corporation have meanwhile found that insurgencies tend to end when outside state support is withdrawn, and that “inconsistent or partial support to either side generally presages defeat.” With foreign involvement increasing on both sides, neither is likely to win, or lose, anytime soon.
Syria in 60 Seconds:
Here’s how Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, summarized the conflict:
The Syrian Civil War is arguably the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, with over a quarter million killed, roughly the same number wounded or missing, and half of Syria’s 22 million population displaced from their homes. But more than that, Syria today is the largest battlefield and generator of Sunni-Shia sectarianism the world has ever seen, with deep implications for the future boundaries of the Middle East and the spread of terrorism.
What started as an attempt by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to shoot Syria’s largest uprising into submission has devolved into a regionalized civil war that has partitioned the country into three general areas in which U.S.-designated terrorist organizations are dominant. In Syria’s more diverse west, the Alawite and minority-dominated Assad regime, and a mosaic of Shia militias trained and funded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), hold sway. In the center, Sunni moderate, Islamist, and jihadist groups, such as ISIS and the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, share control. And in the northeast, the Kurdish-based People’s Protection Units (YPG) have united two of three cantons in a bid to expand “Rojava”—Western Kurdistan. As the country has hemorrhaged people, neighboring states have carved out spheres of influence often based on sectarian agendas that tear at the fabric of Syrian society, with Iran (and now Russia) propping up the Assad regime; Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the U.A.E. supporting the Sunni-dominated opposition; and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) supporting the YPG.