The Syrian war has captured the world’s attention. Hundreds of thousands have died and millions have been displaced in a bloody fight for power.
The UN has condemned combatants for using chemical weapons and committing atrocities against civilians, including countless children. Ceasefires have come and gone as Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime and his main backer, Russia, show little interest in stopping the bloodshed. The millions displaced by the conflict are putting immense strain on neighbouring countries’ infrastructure and stretching international aid agencies’ budgets to breaking point. The flood of refugees has even created unrest in western Europe and forced many nations there to rethink immigration policies and close borders.
The Newsroom examines the background, the continuing problem and the search for a solution.
History of conflict
At the core of the conflict are ancient divisions between Islamic sects: the Sunni, the Shi’a and their off-shoot the Alawites. The sectarian divide, going back over 14 centuries, has caused disruption and violence among Muslims in many places including Pakistan, Syria and Iran and persists to this day. In Syria the vast majority of the population are Sunni adherents, while the dynastic ruling family of Assads and their power base are Alawite. The country also hosts a substantial number of Kurds concentrated in the north, towards the Turkish border.
There is a further complication at the heart of any attempt to understand and resolve political and territorial conflict in the Middle East: the legacy of borders imposed by an insensitive carve-up of territory and spheres of influence by the great Western powers after World War One. There had been no Iraq, Syria, Jordan or Saudi Arabia as we know them today. Power was wielded ineffectually by the Ottoman empire in the north and disputed by the nomadic tribes of the Arabian peninsula.
The religious, ethnic and tribal affiliations that characterised the region were largely ignored as the conquered territory was divided into neat geographical compartments that lumped together historically antagonistic groups. As the new countries gained political sophistication, traditionally antagonistic factions vied for power. In most countries the controlling faction has sought to oppress tribal or religious dissent and crushed political opposition.
In Syria the Ba’athist movement gained the ascendancy, leading to the rise of Hafez al-Assad, father of the present ruler Bashar al-Assad. The elder Assad toppled the then prime minister in 1970 and assumed power as president in 1971, when he proceeded to place Alawite allies in top government posts, replacing many Sunni leaders and sowing the seeds of present-day Sunni distrust of the Assads. Alawites comprise just 15 per cent of the total population but occupy almost every significant security and military post. Since Bashar succeeded his father as president in 2000 the government has become increasingly dictatorial and maintained close ties with Russia. Relations with the US have deteriorated since 2004, with Washington accusing Syria of supporting terrorism and failing to stop Sunni militants entering Iraq to oppose the Shi’ite government in Baghdad. Sanctions were imposed and remain in place.
In 2011 during what became known as the Arab Spring, 15 students were tortured and arrested in the city of Deraa after they painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall. Civilians opposed to the Assad regime protested peacefully but the government responded by killing and imprisoning hundreds of protestors. Following this incident, a defector from the Syrian army started the Free Syrian Army. The situation escalated as more rebel groups were formed and battled with the government for control of cities, towns and countryside. The conflict eventually reached Aleppo and Syria’s capital Damascus in 2012.
The chaos created by the conflict and the proliferation of rebel groups created the perfect scenario for a charismatic group like the extremist ISIS – the so-called Islamic State – to unite dissidents under a common flag and offer the promise of an aspirational alternative government. It moved swiftly to seize control of large parts of the country.
From 2013, government forces have been accused of using chemical warfare against the opposition. President Assad agreed to remove and destruct Syria’s chemical weapon arsenal but the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons continues to document the use of toxic chemicals there.
Who is fighting and why?
Free Syrian Army (FSA) – The FSA is a mix of rebel fighters, formed in 2011, fighting against the Assad regime. They loosely represent all rebel forces in Syria. Their Supreme Military Council solicits backing from western countries in the form of armaments and is regarded as the head of the FSA. The rebel group was formed in response to the government’s heavy-handed use of the military to put down pro-democracy protests in March 2011.
Assad government – Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father in 2000. Assad is a member of the Alawite minority in Syria who are not recognised by the Sunni majority as truly Muslim. Throughout the civil war Assad has asserted he is acting in the best interests of the Syrian people as a whole. His opponents argue that his “concern” has resulted in the deaths of about 350,000 people since the conflict began.
The Kurds – A partly nomadic ethnic group distributed across the northern Middle East they account for a quarter of the total population of the region but have no formally defined independent territory. They are bitterly opposed to ISIS attempting to take control of their traditional lands.
They are fighting for the rights of the Kurdish people within Syria and seek, ultimately, autonomous control of their traditional territories along the borders of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.
ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria)
The group arose from the conflict within the Middle East. In June 2014 ISIS declared a caliphate under its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In Islamic theology a caliph is the successor to the prophet Muhammad and the moral leader of all Muslims, with absolute authority to rule. It has imposed its rigid interpretation of Sharia law over the protests of citizens and silenced opposition through wholesale slaughter. It is opposed by the other rebel groups, the Al Nusra front, the FSA and the Kurds as well as government forces.
Al Nusra Front (Jabhat Fateh al-Sham)
This rebel group, associated with Al-Qaeda, emerged in 2012 when it claimed responsibility for a series of suicide bombings during the 2011 uprising. The US has listed it as a terrorist group. Its theology is little different than that of ISIS, but the leadership says its ambitions are limited to overthrowing the Assad government, and it has been vastly more conciliatory towards Syrians opposed to its support for Sharia law.
The world is bitterly divided on how to handle the Syrian crisis. Opposition or support for Assad has been influenced in part by old Communist bloc alliances and trade deals, and partly by concern about the spread of radical Islamic philosophies and the mounting refugee crisis. It is a complex web of rivalry and jockeying for advantage.
The Assad government has military and economic backing from three key nations; Russia, China and Iran.
Syria sided with Russia during the Cold War. Russia remains a significant trading partner and has supplied Damascus with at least $4 billion in armaments over the past few years. Its support for Syria is also strategic: the naval base in Tartus, Syria, provides Russia with direct access to the Mediterranean, crucial for global trade.
Russia’s historic opposition to US global influence is now reflected in its support for Assad’s battle against the US-supported rebels. the situation in Syria. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin recently wrote an article for The New York Times in which he addressed the hostility between the two nations, saying “It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it.”
Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull said last month that Syria may be heading towards a proxy war. “This conflict in Syria cannot continue to develop into, in effect, a proxy war,” he said.
The UN Security Council has repeatedly attempted to condemn the Assad regime and impose sanctions but Russia, as a permanent member of the council, has exercised a veto on any formal military UN action to remove Assad. Without council approval, any direct military action against Syria by the West would (arguably) breach international law.
While China has condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria and calls for an amicable solution it has consistently opposed Security Council attempts to impose sanctions against an important trading partner.
Iran remains one of Syria’s only allies in the Middle East mainly because of its religious ties. A large amount of Iran’s population is Shiite and therefore closer to Assad’s Alawite minority. Iran views Syria as a strategic ally providing it with a prime position to attack Israel if necessary.
The rebel groups are funded by the US, France, Britain, Turkey and the Arab League which have formed a coalition to fight against ISIS and the Assad government.
The US believes that President Assad is responsible for the conflict in Syria and have called for him to quit and let the Syrian people determine their own future. Since September 2014 the US has conducted airstrikes on ISIS and other groups but some observers argue that its actions have simply helped extremist groups spread their influence. Its attempts to train and arm 5,000 Syrian rebels have been ineffectual.
Like the US, it wants Assad to hand power to a transitional administration. Saudi Arabia provides military and financial assistance to multiple rebel groups. The regime’s fear of extremist Islamic tendencies destabilising the Middle East prompted it to join the coalition against ISIS.
Turkey has been critical of Assad since the beginning of the Syrian uprising and assisted rebel groups to ship supplies through its territory. It has accepted almost 2 million Syrian refugees and allowed the US to use Turkish air bases to launch strikes against ISIS.
Effects of War
Neighbours in conflict
Neighbouring countries have been forced to reassess old alliances and take sides, or simply defend their borders against incursions as rebels or Syrian government forces pursue each other. In 2012 Israel bombed the Syrian military after stray shells fired at rebels detonated in the Golan Heights while in Lebanon there is growing tension between Sunni and Shiite/Alawite groups who are split on support for Assad or the rebels. The powerful Hezbollah group supports Assad, sending fighters to Syria to bolster his regime. Though Turkey supports the rebels, it is fearful of growing Kurdish influence and militarisation leading to more vocal demands for Kurdish autonomy. Turkey is engaged in a delicate balancing act, trying to support the rebels while trying to stop Turkish Kurds crossing the border to support their kinsmen’s struggle against both ISIS and against Assad.
Sanctions on Syrian trade
In 2012 the European Union imposed a travel ban on Syria as well as an asset freeze on certain individuals suspected of violence against civilians, including, President Bashar al-Assad’s wife. The US has placed a ban on goods exported to Syria and a sanction on dealings with the Commercial Bank of Syria. The Arab League of Nations, which Syria is a founding member of, imposed similar economic sanctions on Syria in 2011. But the impact of any sanctions is weakened while Russia and China continue to trade with Damascus.
The last official death toll came from a UN report in 2014 that said 250,000 lives had been lost. No official figure has since been released but recent reports say the number of casualties has risen to over 400,000 people. About 6.6 million people have been displaced by the conflict, 4.5 million of them fleeing across borders to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. For more information about the Syrian refugee crisis, see CNN Syrian Refugees. – Compiled from web sources by Alicia Camilleri and Nikolina Matijevic