“A maelstrom of violence and destruction”

John Mainland discusses the past, present, and future of the complicated conflict in the war for Syria

Source: Flickr

With President Trump having recently ordered strikes on Syrian air bases last month, the seemingly never-ending war is back in the news. So, from how the brutal tangled conflict began in the first place, to the role of the West, to Russia—here’s everything you wanted to know about the Syrian war, but haven’t been able to ask.

We’re starting off in March 2011. Rapper Nate Dogg had just died, and the Royal Wedding was a month away. Elsewhere, the Arab Spring was in full bloom—right across the Middle East people were rising up and turfing out corrupt autocratic governments in the hope of shiny new democratic ones. Tunisia’s President was the first to go, with Egypt’s following suit.

Libya’s dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, was refusing to take the hint that it might be time to call it quits—and was waging a grisly civil war against rebel groups. By September 2011 he too would have joined the list of vanquished Arab leaders.

A far cry from the tumultuous goings-on in other parts of the Middle East, at this point in time Syria looked relatively quiet. Beneath the surface, though, a storm was brewing. The entirely undemocratic President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, had a family history of beastliness towards his own people and was no doubt on edge as pro-democracy sentiment spreads like wildfire around the Arab world.

In March 2011 a handful of pesky teens were arrested by police for anti-government graffiti in the southern city of Dera’a. The boys were from established and well-known families so the arrests did not go unnoticed. Citizens in Dera’a turned out in peaceful protest to demand that the lads were released.

It could have all ended there—the entire maelstrom of violence and destruction that would engulf Syria for the next years could have been entirely avoided if the Syrian government had just released the boys and made a handful of political concessions. Tragically, though, the Assad regime made the fatal error of firing upon the protesters.

This was where Syria first started to heat up. Protests quickly started popping up across the country as citizens demanded, ever more loudly, that President Assad step down. The regime tried to deal with this using a two-pronged method of reform and violent crackdown, but the reforms were too little too late, and the crackdowns only served to fuel the unrest.

With the deaths that ensue, by late 2011 Syria first started featuring in news around the world. Maybe you remember it. The ferocity with which the government was responding to protests drew international criticism, sanctions, and calls for an end to Assad’s regime. Everyone agreed that Assad had to go—the only question was, would this be revolution à la Egypt (where the leader steps down voluntarily) or, God forbid, another Libya?

As we now know, Syria turned out to be far bloodier, more protracted, and more complex than even the Libyan conflict, which in comparison now seems to have been mercifully brief.

So Assad dug his heels in and by 2012 the situation had deteriorated into an all-out civil war. Rebels across the country had taken up arms and were fighting the regime, which had also been suffering from defections in the army. What’s critical to note is that there wasn’t one unified rebel force, there were heaps of them.

The main headache for Assad was a group known as the Free Syrian Army, which was seen by the West as the main alternative to the Assad government. The Free Syrian Army benefitted enormously from military defections and managed to capture pretty impressive swathes of land from the regime. These were our guys. When it came to liberal secular democracy, they could talk the talk.

Western governments started bending over backwards to support the Free Syrian Army and, before long, the rebel movement was receiving arms and funding from the US and Great Britain. Despite this, the Obama administration, and the West in general, remained highly averse to being sucked into actually fighting another war in the Middle East.

When we remember that Obama had been elected in the wake of the colossal disaster that was the Iraq war, we can understand that the idea of another shoot-from-the-hip American misadventure in the region was unappealing to him.

What this meant for the Free Syrian Army was, though they received a boatload of rhetorical support and money from Western governments, that no Western troops would ever materialise to fight alongside them.

In July 2012, as Fifty Shades of Grey hit the top of Western bestseller lists, the Free Syrian Army had their breakthrough—capturing Syria’s second largest city and biggest commercial hub, Aleppo. Aleppo is a name that would be in the news for years to come. You almost definitely will have heard it at some point. Damascus, the capital of Syria, was never successfully captured by the Free Syrian Army—but there was sporadic fighting in its suburbs. From the outside it looked like Assad, and his whole nasty regime, was in trouble.

We need to take a quick breather here. Syria is one of the Middle East’s most diverse countries. The ex-French colony is about 90 per cent ethnically Arab, and ten per cent ethnically Kurdish. Religiously, Syria really is a mixed bag—most of the country is Sunni Muslim but there are all kinds of other religions sprinkled across the nation—from Christians to Jews to your more boutique options like Druze and Yazidi.

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Syria’s ruling elite are Alawite—a subsection of Islam that looks quite a lot like Shi’a. This is of critical importance. You have a country with a Sunni majority being ruled by a small Shi’a elite. This is usually the point where people turn off. Once the terms Sunni and Shi’a rear their big complicated heads most readers throw in the towel and swap over to Netflix. If you can bear it though, understanding the Sunni-Shi’a split does clear up a lot of the madness of the Middle East—including Syria.

The actual difference between the two schools of Islam isn’t enormously important —it’s primarily based on who became the leader of the Islamic faith after the death of Mohammed. What you need to know is that 85-90 per cent of the world’s Muslims are Sunni and that pretty much all the others are Shi’a.

The most powerful and important Sunni country is Saudi Arabia. Indonesia does actually have a larger economy, but they don’t have a dog in this fight. The undisputed king of the Shi’a world is Iran. Whenever there’s a conflict between Sunnis and Shi’as in the Muslim world, the Saudis and the Iranians are inevitably somewhere behind the scenes, locked in indefatigable attempts to expand their respective spheres of influence. As such, the idea of Sunni rebels ousting Shi’a affiliated Assad sounded lip-smackingly good to the Saudis.

From the very beginning of the conflict in Syria, Saudi Arabia was pouring funds and arms into the hands of the rebels. In response, Iran was doing everything possible to keep the regime in power. This helps explain why the war has been so excruciatingly drawn-out. It’s not just a conflict between the Syrian government and rebels, but between various other interests willing to spend whopping sums of money on their side of choice. It’s not just Saudi Ara side of choice. It’s not just Saudi Arabia and Iran that are battling it out: Putin is a close ally of Assad’s and has been supporting his regime since the start of the conflict. On the flipside, Turkey, which borders Syria, has been funding rebel forces looking to topple the regime.

The Syrian war has often been categorised as a chessboard for foreign powers, who are using the conflict to push their own agendas. It’s a decent analogy which has been bandied about at many a cocktail party. Really though, Syria is a Chinese checkers board—different countries have slightly different interests in the conflict—and are all pushing it in slightly different directions.

Sometimes, foreign interests can be neatly compartmentalised: the West, the Saudis, and the Turks all want Assad gone; Iran and Russia want him to stay. However, this war is so impossibly confusing because it has not always been clear which countries have been supporting which groups.

Back to our timeline: 2013 was when everything fell apart, primarily because the moderate rebel forces became less and less moderate. Western powers pulled funding and arms pretty early on, as it became clear that the main opposition to Assad was switching from being the Free Syrian Army, to a ragtag collection of jihadist groups.

This was an awkward moment for the West. By December 2013 moderate rebels controlled so little land that most onlookers had to come to terms with the fact that Assad was probably not going to be toppled. The focus swapped in the West from indirectly combatting Assad, to eliminating the threat of terrorism—even if that meant Assad had to stay in power.

There was now no easy way out for the West. A madman, who’d used chemical weapons against his own people, was pitted against a group of terrorists.

Try to understand the intricacies of the jihadist factions who are fighting Assad in Syria and you can be sucked into a never-ending blackhole of long Arabic names, ever shifting alliances, and constant re-branding exercises. Only a couple of groups are really worth noting. The first is called Jabat al Nusra.

They’ve since gone through a series of unsavoury mergers and acquisitions, and have transformed into a revamped conglomeration named the “Levant Liberation Committee”—undoubtedly the single most accounting firm-esque name ever given to a violent terrorist group.

Don’t get distracted by all the names though, you already know these guys— they’re al Qaeda. Al Qaeda and other equally nasty groups started capturing territory off the government and off moderate rebels like the Free Syrian Army in December 2013. Over the course of 2014, more and more of Syria fell into extremist hands.

In June 2014, so-called Islamic State (or Daesh) entered the fray. Daesh’s leader, a man by the name of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, split from al Qaeda to do his own thing. Daesh quickly made headlines around the world, mainly due to their slick marketing campaigns partnered with their unmatched savagery.

Before long even their old chums at al Qaeda were criticising the unnecessary brutality of their tactics. The problem was, Daesh proved to be alarmingly good fighters, and before long they’d captured a huge amount of territory not just in Syria—but also in neighbouring Iraq.

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Daesh’s military breakthroughs triggered a rapid shift in international priorities. You probably remember this period. Daesh was in the papers every other day and none of it was good. From beheading Western journalists, to destroying UNESCO world-heritage ruins in Palmyra, to waging genocide against the Yazidi people, they quickly established themselves as both barbaric and highly effective.

By August 2014, the West had had enough. The United States, Australia, France, Jordan, and a number of additional nations began bombing the jihadists. To re-cap, it’s mid 2014. The moderate rebels we liked are basically holed up in Aleppo, and aren’t looking particularly moderate anymore.

The West is bombing Daesh and a couple of other equally unsavoury groups. Saudi Arabia and Iran are still battling it out by funding groups on either side. Finally, Assad is chugging away, fighting both extremists, and moderates, and is now more or less being left to his own devices by Western governments.

One extra group should be mentioned before we go on—the Kurds. The Kurds are harder to fit in naturally because they’re fighting for a slightly different set of reasons. They’re a group of people with their own language, culture, and ethnicity who live split across four different countries (Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran) and have historically had a pretty tough time in all four.

As such, Kurdish fighters aren’t interested in marching on Damascus, their goal has primarily been to carve out and secure an independent Kurdish region in the North East of Syria. That Kurdish area is surrounded by Daesh-controlled land, and from 2014 onwards the Kurds have been the ones putting in a lot of the grunt-work on the ground against Daesh—both in Iraq and in Syria.

To complicate matters a bit, Turkey doesn’t like anything that smacks of Kurdish independence, as they’ve been battling the Kurdish independence forces in their own backyard for quite some time. What this means is that even though Turkey is a key Western ally and doggedly anti-Assad, they’ve actually been bombing the same Kurdish forces that the West is relying on to fight Daesh. Confused? Welcome to Syria.

The final hopes of a moderate rebel victory came to an end in 2015. This was largely the fault of one key international player: Russia. We’ve already heard that Russia had, like Iran, been providing money and arms to the Assad government over the course of the conflict. Around September 2015, though, Putin ramped up his involvement significantly and began bombing the rebels directly.

Much of this bombing was directed at terrorist groups, but Russia also targeted CIA trained ‘moderate’ rebels. It was seriously downhill for the non-jihadist rebels from this point on. Over the coming months they gradually lost ground, and in December 2016 they lost Aleppo. Nowadays they’ve basically been pushed back to the Turkish border, with no realistic hopes of turning their situation around.

What’s important to note though, is that even at his weakest point, Assad controlled 13 out of 14 provincial capitals in Syria. It remains highly unlikely that, even with additional Western air support and without Russian bombing, the rebels would ever had had a serious chance at taking Damascus.

One final element of the war, which has re-surfaced recently, needs to be mentioned. Way back in 2012, when Obama was coming up with reasons not to get militarily involved in another Middle Eastern war, he specifically mentioned that if Assad were to use chemical or biological weapons against his own people, he would be crossing a “red line” that could prompt military action from the United States.

The problem was, Assad did. America looked weak. Basically, Obama’s bluff had been called—which has since been held up by those on both sides of the political fence as one of the greatest failings of his presidency. Rather than attack Assad directly, the Obama administration sought to make a deal (assisted by Putin) with Assad, which led to the destruction of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons stockpile.

At the time it looked like this had done the job, but recently there have been new chemical attacks against rebels. In response, President Trump ordered the first American air strikes directly against Assad forces since the beginning of the conflict.

This brings us to the present day. The war remains far from over. Daesh controls what appear on a map to be an enormous amount of territory to the East of Syria (though the reality is most of the land controlled is empty desert). The Kurds have held on in the North West and Assad, despite his critical victory in Aleppo, is still at war with disparate jihadist and non-jihadist rebel groups around the country.

Putin is still strongly supportive of Assad, and has harshly criticised the recent Trump airstrikes. Only time will tell what changes the new White House administration will bring about, but one way or another the conflict is unlikely to end any time soon.

The Greek poet Meleager of Gedara once described Syria as “one country which is the whole world”. It’s fitting then, that the Syrian conflict feels very much like the whole world is at war.