The war in Syria is a real mess. In the past years it involved so many powers and it caused so much pain and destruction in the region that the Syrians had to leave their homes and become war refugees throughout the entire Europe. And it doesn’t seem to end pretty soon.
After almost five years of intensive combat, the conflict is divided between four different sides on the ground: Assad, ISIS, the Syrian Rebels and the Kurds.
Each side has its foreign backers, but even those foreign backers don’t fully agree with each other about who they’re fighting for, or who they’re fighting against.
To better understand all of these actions taking place in Syria, the crisscrossing interventions, as well as the moving battle lines, we will have to go back to the beginning of the war and watch how it unfolded.
The peaceful protests
The first shots in the Syrian war were fired in March 2011 by Bashar al-Assad against peaceful Arab Spring demonstrators.
The beginnings of The Free Syrian Army
In July some of the protesters start shooting back and some Syrian troops even defect from Assad’s army to join them, under the name of The Free Syrian Army. What was thought to be only an uprising actually becomes a real civil war.
The extremist uprising
The rebels are joined by extremists from Syria and from all around the region.
By releasing jihadist prisoners with the main purpose to tinge the rebellion, Assad actually encourages this movement and it makes it really harder for foreigners to back the rebellion.
It’s January 2012 and Syria is facing the formation of a new al-Qaeda branch in its territory, called Jabhat al-Nusra.
The Kurds secede
Also at the beginning of 2012, Syrian Kurdish groups, who’ve long sought autonomy, take up arms and de facto secede from Assad’s rule in the north.
The entrance of regional powers
The summer of 2012 is the summer in which Syria becomes a proxy war. It was time for Iran to step in – which is Assad’s most important ally – and intervene 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, and mainly through Turkey.
The entrance of Hezbollah
Iran steps up its influence, in turn, in mid-2012 when Hezbollah – which is a Lebanese Shia group backed by Iran – invades the Syrian streets to fight alongside Assad.
The Gulf steps up its support
In respond to the Hezbollah movement the Gulf States respond by sending even more money to the rebels, with Saudi Arabia leading the effort at this point. This time the support goes through Jordan, who also opposes Assad.
The year is 2013, and the Middle East is divided between generally Sunni powers on one side supporting the rebels and Shias on the other side supporting Assad.
USA wants to train rebels
In April the same year the Obama administration, horrified by Assad’s atrocities, signs a secret order authorizing the CIA to train and equip Syrian rebels. But the program stalls out at first. At the same time, the US quietly urges the Arab Gulf states to stop funding extremists, but their requests are ignored.
In August, Assad uses chemical weapons against civilians in the town of Ghouta, an assault that caused the death of more than 1700 lives.
USA almost bombs Assad
In September 10th, 2013 President Barack Obama held a press conference related to Assad’s most recent attack in which he wanted to respond by force:
“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.”
Three days later, the media was covered in news that Russia proposed Syria to surrender control over its chemical weapons to the International Community for its eventual dismantling, in order to avoid a US military strike.
The USA ends up backing down, but the whole thing establishes Syria as a great-powers dispute, with USA against Assad and Russia backing him.
CIA to train Syrian rebels
A few weeks later, the first American training and arms through that CIA program in April 2013 finally reaches Syrian rebels. At this very moment The United States of America is a participant in the Syrian war.
Extremists fracture & the beginning of ISIS
In February 2014, something happens that transforms the war: an al-Qaeda affiliate, mostly based in Iraq, breaks away from the group over internal disagreements over Syria. The new group calls itself the ISLAMIC STATE of IRAQ and SYRIA, and it soon becomes al-Qaeda’s enemy.
ISIS does not fight against Assad. Instead, it fights against the Kurds and the other rebels for their main purpose: to form its Caliphate, a mini-state in Syria, which they eventually succeeded.
The ISIS march
That summer, ISIS marches across Iraq seizing territory, and galvanizing the world against it with horrible crimes. They even posted some live executions online in order for the world to fear their name.
Then in September, almost exactly one year after it had almost bombed Assad in Syria, President Obama has another announcement to make:
“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”
* ISIL stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, alternatively translated as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria
The Pentagon training
Also, in the summer of 2014, the Pentagon dispatches its own system to prepare Syrian rebels, but unlike the CIA program, this one will train only rebels who battle just ISIS, not Assad.
The program fizzles out, showing that USA now opposes ISIS more than Assad, but also that there’s really no like-minded force on the ground in Syria.
Turkey bombs Kurds
In August 2015, Turkey starts bombing Kurdish groups in Iraq and in Turkey, even as the Kurds are battling ISIS in Syria. Turkey also doesn’t bomb ISIS in Syria.
All of these events deepens tensions with the US over this question of whether they need to see Assad or ISIS as the primary enemy. Kurds are now very confused about where the US stands in this case.
The Russian intervention
All this time Assad has been losing ground to ISIS and to the rebels, but in September 2015, Russia decides to intervene on his behalf.
Russia claims it’s there to bomb ISIS, but in fact it just bombs the anti-Assad rebels, including some rebels who are backed by the US.
Vienna peace talks
Syria peace talks were held in Vienna on the 30th of October and also two weeks later. They were initiated by the US, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in which Iran participated for the first time in negotiations on Syrian settlement. The participants couldn’t come up with an agreement on the future of Bashar al-Assad.
Russia & France
In mid-November 2015, after ISIS attacks a Russian passenger plane over Sinai and the atrocious Paris attacks, both Russia and France significantly intensified their strikes in Syria. In this case, France was closely coordinating with the US military.
So as it stands now, there are lots of different groups and outside countries involved in the Syrian war and even among allies there are big disagreements about who their enemies are, who to support and how to do it.
And those contradictions are a big reason why, for this war, there is just no end in sight yet.
What do you think about the Syrian war? What position should USA take on this matter? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.