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Understanding the war in Syria

Why is the Syrian war so complex? Who are the main countries involved and which are their agendas?

Security Council discusses the situation in Syria

What triggered the war in Syria?

Unemployment and corruption were very high in 2011, there were ongoing pacific demonstrations inspired by the Arab Spring in countries like Tunisia and Egypt. The use of force by President Bashar Al Assad in the pacific demonstrations against the protesters provoked nationwide mobilization asking for reforms. Time after the population asked for his complete resignation over this use of force against the civil population. The opposition supporters, trying to defend themselves, started to fight the security forces. This was considered by the Government as an act of terrorism. The violence rapidly turned into a civil war and Assad used a strategy based on attacking civilians and violating human rights and international law.

Why is the conflict so complex?

The conflict turned very complex due to the number of actors involved, each actor has its own objectives in the conflict and in the region. It is no longer a war pro or against the Government of Assad. It is also important noticing that President Assad is part of the Alawite Shia minority, while the opposition is mainly Sunni, which fuelled the sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia.

Who is involved in the conflict?

There are many actors involved: the countries supporting the Assad regime (Russia and Iran) and the countries against the regime, on the rebel side (the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and some European countries like France and the UK).

Let’s clarify the agenda and intentions of each of the actors involved in the conflict:

Russia: Assad’s best international supporter. Unofficially targeting rebels and civilians and supplying weapons to Assad to defend itself from terrorism. Russia has been blocking key resolutions at the UN Security Council (Permanent Member) to act and resolve the Syrian crisis. Before the war, Russia already had military bases in Syria, important for its access to the Mediterranean Sea.

Iran: supporting Assad and his regime financially and by providing military supplies, mainly by air, as well as troops on the ground. The fall of Assad regime would decrease Tehran’s capability to project its power in the region. If the regime collapses, the new regime would be Sunni dominated and probably opposed to Iran (Shia majority country). It is worth mentioning that during the Iran/Iraq war in the 1980s, Syria was the only Arab state on the Iranian side. Iran and Syria have been old allies.

Saudi Arabia: trying to dominate the region and prevent an increase of the Iranian influence, leading to escalating tensions and even a proxy war. Saudi is, therefore, financing and supporting the opposition against Assad.

USA: one of the main members of the Global Coalition to defeat ISIS. The US financially backs the Syrian main opposition alliance and provides military support to ‘moderate’ rebels. With the approaching defeat of ISIS, President Trump has announced a withdrawal of US troops as soon as possible. The US targeted Syria’s chemical weapons facilities in a response to a chemical attack in April 2017 and 2018. The tensions with Iran are growing after the US withdrawal of the nuclear Iran deal, snapping back strong economic sanctions against Tehran and asking for the withdrawal of all its troops.

ISIS: after occupying 1/3 of the Syrian territory in 2014-2015, it only controls now a few pockets. Yet, still many fighters are present and a comeback in certain parts of Syria might occur.

Global Coalition to defeat ISIS: 71 countries alongside with the EU, NATO, Interpol and the Arab League. Helping defeat ISIS (also in Iraq), with the support of Arab militias and Kurdish groups (US cooperation with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)).

Turkey: Northern neighbor, the country has been one of the main supporters of the (Sunni) opposition. With the increased influence of and control by the Kurds, in particular, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) claimed to have links with the PKK, Ankara has tried to cooperate more with Russia to find a solution to the crisis (cf. Astana process with Moscow and Tehran). Military operations inside Syria have also been conducted against the Kurds.

Israel: in direct tensions with Iran (supporting Assad). It has conducted airstrikes in reaction to the Iranian support of Hezbollah, whose fighters are now closing the Israeli border and seen as a strategic threat.

Shia Muslim militiamen: supported by Iran, like the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah. Iraqi Shi‘a militants are also fighting in Syria in support of Assad.

What are the possible solutions for Syria?

After 7 years of conflict, solution for Syria will not happen soon and will not be easy.

President Assad turned the narrative of a revolution to a war against terrorism and extremist groups, using ISIS, Al Qaeda, and groups related. Thanks to the support of Russia, Iran and its allies, important parts of the country are again under Assad’s control and will remain for the coming months or years. The Kurds control some territories in the North. The Sunni opposition is basically limited to a zone around Idlib (North of the country and next major battle after Aleppo, Ghouta and Damascus).

Out of Syria, there are several possibilities with a low level of success:

1. The effect of the UN-backed Geneva Talks, but failing since 2012. The Government does not consider Assad stepping down and the opposition does not consider Assad in power under any circumstance. The Assad regime has no incentive to negotiate a deal on the transition since it has been strengthened by its allies. The opposition has been divided, not providing a serious interlocutor for the Government.

2. Astana talks brought to the table armed groups agreed on de-escalation zones, but with no clear results. Russia is backing the ‘Syrian national dialogue congress’, at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, with the idea of having Assad in power and reconcile Sunnis and Shias, change the constitution and go to elections that Assad could win. The Russians are trying to turn the conflict into a political transition but no real progress has been made so far and Geneva remains the best hope.

After 8 years of war, what are the figures of the conflict?

  • The conflict has produced more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees.

  • More than 6.1 million internally displaced people (as of March 2018).

  • More than 13 million people inside Syria require humanitarian assistance, including nearly 6 million children.

  • At the end of 2017, more than half the country’s hospitals, clinics and primary health care centers were only partially functioning or had been damaged beyond repair. (United Nations Official Figures)


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