As it currently stands, the Syrian civil war is a complicated conflict divided amongst four different groups, each backed by different foreign powers. Neither side can be caricaturized as a moustache wielding, Hitler heil-ing antagonist, nor can it be painted with halo and wings. The groups are more like rival gangs, wherein there exists no regard for innocent lives and each gang is as equally brutal and bloodied as the next.
Unhappiness and rebellion have been stirring amongst Syrians since Bashar al-Assad’s father took to power in 1971. Hafez al-Assad had served in office for 30 years, during which he revolutionized the country and oversaw the completion of the Tabqa Dam. However, this modernization came at a great cost: the entire country experienced a brutal repression under the elder Assad’s government. Thus, when Hafez died in June 2000, Bashar came to power promising to free the country of his father’s oppression.
Unfortunately, as Assad quickly started tightening free speech and isolating the economy, it became clear that the freedom promised to them was not in sight. In indignant response, groups of protestors started peaceful demonstrations against the Assad-regime.
Around this time, the people in several other Middle Eastern countries had fought back and ousted their leaders after enduring decades of oppressive, authoritarian regimes. In Egypt and Tunisia, the uprisings led to the exiles of President Hosni Mubarak and President Ben Ali. In Libya, a civil war broke out, ending in Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s death in October 2011, six months after the protest began. This series of uprisings throughout the Arab League came to be known as the Arab Spring.
Fearful that a similar fate would await him, Assad fought back by violently attacking the protestors in March 2011. This resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Syrians, while thousands more were arrested.
By July 2011, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had formed and had started fighting the Assad regime. A combination of Jihadists, some from Syria and others from around the region, joined the FSA. The freedom fighters lacked both weapons and manpower, so they were incentivized to form a union with the powerful Islamic extremists. At the same time, in order to discourage foreign powers from backing the FSA, Assad had strategically released jihadist prisoners into the rebel groups.
While this was happening, Syrian Kurdish groups took advantage of the conflict and settled in northern Syria at the beginning of 2012. The Kurds and other Non-Arabs account for ten percent of Syria’s population, and have long sought autonomy from the Syrian government.
Iran, Assad’s foremost ally, intervened at the beginning of the conflict and by 2012, had numerous soldiers fighting in Syria and was providing myriad resources to Assad’s army. To combat Iran’s influence, the Gulf States started sending weapons to the FSA through Turkey, another backer of the rebel cause.
By 2013, Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia had all acted in their capacities to support Bashar al-Assad, while the FSA was backed by the US, Jordan, Turkey and Iran. The USA, in its self-appointed role as the world’s principal, secretly authorized the CIA to train and arm the FSA and the Kurds. It hoped that this would allow the rebel groups to fight back against the atrocities Assad had performed.
Then, in August 2013, Assad released chemical weapons on the town of Ghouta. Estimates of between 300 and 1,700 deaths occurred, resulting in the deadliest use of chemical weapons since the Iran-Iraq War. The USA intervened once more, urging Syria to release its chemical weapons under the threat of a targeted military strike. Russia, a supporter of Assad, recommended Syria to conform in order to avoid future attacks by the US.
In this way, Syria turned into a powers dispute between American and Russian forces. The factions in the country seemed to be acting only as pawns, under orders from their far more powerful backers.
2014 arrived and the rebel groups soon met another obstacle. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had formed at this time, having broken off from al-Qaeda over disputes regarding Syria. The extremist group started targeting the FSA and Kurds, slowly but surely building its Caliphate through guerrilla warfare techniques.
The result today is a division of four groups, each fighting for its own separate cause, and where there exists no sense of morality. The country exists as a chaotic mess wherein one group has access to advanced weaponry and resources and another welcomes death as martyrdom. Cruel and inhumane acts of war have become the norm and not the outlier in Syria, and there’s no end to the war in sight. It’s difficult to imagine a world where food and shelter are scarce and bombings and public executions happen only meters away from your home. Yet, half-way across the world, a country and its citizens are begging our attention.