What is going on in Syria?
There is a civil war being fought between the Syrian government, led by president Bashar al-Assad, and various rebel groups, whose goal is to overthrow Assad and his regime. The two sides are backed by various groups, both internal and external to the country.
What are the different sides involved in the war and what is America’s role?
One of the underlying causes for many of the conflicts throughout the Middle East is the division between the two main sects of Islam, Sunni and Shi’a. Saudi Arabia is dominated by Sunni Muslims, while Iran is dominated by Shi’ite Muslims (a Shi’ite is one who practices Shi’a Islam). These two countries have the largest oil reserves in the Middle East, which along with other factors makes them important geopolitical pieces in the region. As a result, most conflicts in the Middle East in one form or another have pitted Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other. This is the case in Syria.
Although Assad is a secular ruler, he is an Alawite, which is a smaller branch of Islam that makes up about 11 percent of the country. While Alawites form an independent sect of Islam, they are often associated with Shi’ites. Assad and his regime have long been backed by Iran. The Iraqi government, which was taken over by factions loyal to Iran as a result of the Iraq war in 2003 (more on that later), supports Assad as well. Hezbollah, a prominent Shi’a militia group based in Lebanon, as well as Russia, also side with the Syrian regime. Shi’ites in the country, along with other minorities like the Alawites, Christians, and Druze, overwhelmingly support the Syrian state and its goals in the war. Also, despite the Sunni/Shi’a conflict, a plurality, if not a majority of the Sunnis in the country support the government as well.
On the other side, the rebels are composed of Sunni militia groups and are dominated by al-Qaeda and other jihadist militants. ISIS, which is a break-off of al-Qaeda (explained more later), also fights against the Syrian state. Backing the rebels are the Saudis, as well as majority-Sunni states Turkey, Qatar, and Jordan. Israel also supports the rebels. Israel’s primary enemy in the region is Hezbollah. Hezbollah resides in southern Lebanon, near Israel’s northern border, and have had numerous conflicts with the Israelis over territory near the border throughout the years. Iran is a mortal enemy of Israel, mainly because Iran supports Hezbollah. Syria is also a supporter of Hezbollah, which is the main reason Israel decided to back the rebels against them. Finally, you have the United States. America’s main allies in the region are Israel and Saudi Arabia, both enemies of Iran. The U.S. has worked with the Assad regime in the past, one that has been in power going back to 1971, when Assad’s father first assumed the presidency. Syria supported the U.S. in the first Gulf War in 1991 and was the main participant in America’s “Extraordinary Rendition” program during the George W. Bush years, where the U.S. sent prisoners labeled as “illegal combatants” to Syria to be tortured. America’s role in this war is multi-faceted, but it has stood mainly on the side of the rebels, in opposition to the Syrian regime.
To add another element, you also have the Syrian Kurds, a leftist political group that resides in the north of the country. They’re backed by the U.S. and oppose the Syrian state, although they claim they don’t wish to see Assad overthrown. However, they also fight against the rebels and ISIS, as well as the Turks.
While not all parties involved are affiliated with one of the two major sects of Islam, a very broad way to understand this conflict is that it is a sectarian war where the Syrian government is fighting on the side of Shi’ite Muslims, while the rebels are fighting on the side of Sunni Muslims. In summation, here are the major factions fighting directly or indirectly on each side.
Iraqi Shi’ite militias
Syrian Sunni militia groups
How did it all begin and how did America get involved?
In 2011, a phenomenon referred to as the “Arab Spring” broke out across the Middle East and northern Africa. The Arab Spring refers to a series of revolutions that took place across the region where the people rose up in protest of their oppressive rulers. It began in Tunisia and quickly spread with uprisings taking place in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and eventually Syria.
The protests in Syria began rather peacefully, but Assad was able to maintain power and fend off the more violent part of the resistance. At this point, foreign involvement in the conflict was relatively limited, although there was a major push by much of the American establishment to intervene on the side of the rebellion against Assad, arguing that he was committing genocide against his own people. However, President Obama and his advisors decided to refrain for the time being, claiming the Syrian people needed to decide their future for themselves.
In an interview with CBS in 2012, secretary of state Hillary Clinton, when asked why the U.S. was not doing more to help the rebels in Syria, explained that the rebels were supported by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man and the new leader of al-Qaeda following bin Laden’s death. Essentially, she was saying that support for the uprising would mean supporting and empowering the very group that was responsible for 9/11 and the group that is consistently depicted as the biggest threat to U.S. national security. Despite these claims, by mid-2012 there were reports of CIA activity in Turkey and northern Syria, where they were scoping out possible strategies for supporting the rebels.
In 2013, Assad was accused of using chemical weapons to kill hundreds of his own people. Despite little to no evidence that Assad was behind these attacks, the American neoconservatives, the most hawkish faction of the Republican Party that includes Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, used these allegations to push for further intervention against Assad. Israel and its many foreign policy think tanks in the U.S. were the strongest supporters of American military action to overthrow the regime in Syria. Claims that Assad was behind the attacks have never been proven and there are many holes in the narrative, namely the fact that the major intelligence agencies, including the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, were unwilling to sign off on the report. There were even a number of intelligence analysts who threatened to quit if a report was released in their name claiming Assad was undeniably responsible for the attacks. Instead, the White House simply released a report of its own, in spite of the skepticism of the intelligence community, which blamed Assad. Despite the pleas from the pro-war factions of the American establishment and his insistence that Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attacks, Obama decided against unilateral intervention and went to the congress, which strongly rejected a regime change operation as a result of overwhelming opposition from the American people.
In late 2013, Assad and his military were making major progress and were on the verge of defeating the main rebel forces. It was apparent that without help, these rebel groups would not survive and the war would likely conclude with Assad remaining in power. This is the point in the war where America really ramped up its involvement. Despite the lack of a direct military strike against Assad in Damascus, the CIA began a program to train and arm the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, a group of so-called “moderate” rebels. However, as Clinton alluded to in the aforementioned interview, the rebel groups were dominated on the ground by forces loyal to al-Qaeda. This fact was less clear at the beginning of the war, although based on Clinton’s statements, the Obama administration had at least an idea that this was true. As the war has progressed, it has become more and more clear and thus more difficult for the U.S. government to dispute that the rebel forces are predominately composed of al-Qaeda and similar jihadist terrorist groups. As a result, many of the weapons distributed by the CIA to these supposedly moderate fighters wound up in the hands of al-Qaeda and its allies.
I thought we were fighting against ISIS in Syria. Who exactly are they and how do they fit into the picture?
ISIS is essentially a break-off of al-Qaeda. In the beginning of the war, ISIS was part of al-Qaeda and they fought together against Assad. Many of the members of al-Qaeda were veterans of the Iraq war. They had fought against the Americans in Iraq during the Bush years and came to Syria to fight in the Syrian civil war. However, in early 2013 there was a split amongst the leadership and many of the Iraqi members of al-Qaeda, led by current ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, broke off and formed their own group. In 2014, they went back to Iraq and seized Fallujah and then Mosul, a city in northwestern Iraq with a population of around 2 million people. There, they declared themselves an Islamic caliphate, which essentially means a group that rules the entire Muslim community. They named themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or, ISIS. ISIS revoked its claim of loyalty to Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, but still claimed the legacy of Osama bin Laden. The al-Qaeda faction that remained in Syria renamed itself the al-Nusra front and maintained its loyalty to Zawahiri.
ISIS has controlled much of northwestern Iraq since 2014, although they are quickly losing ground and their presence in Mosul is very tenuous, as they are currently being driven out by opposition forces. They also control a sizeable region in eastern Syria, including the city of Raqqa. While many ISIS members went back to Iraq, some remained in Syria to continue fighting in the Syrian civil war. ISIS does to some extent battle the al-Nusra front, their former allies, but mainly they still fight against Syrian government forces.
One thing that is rarely discussed in the mainstream media is how ISIS became so powerful in the first place, seemingly out of nowhere. The implication is often that the rise of ISIS happened as a result of American inaction. What is seldom mentioned is that many of the weapons ISIS used to create their quasi-state were the same weapons originally given to the Free Syrian Army by the CIA. As has been the case all along, the FSA has basically served as the arms procurement branch of al-Qaeda. Many of the groups receiving weapons were direct allies of al-Qaeda and those that weren’t often had their weapons taken forcefully by ruthless al-Qaeda fighters. There are many factors that led to the creation of ISIS, but it is all but impossible to conceive that a group as well-armed and destructive as ISIS could have formed without America’s CIA program that provided training and arms to rebel fighters, many of whom became members of ISIS.
After the rise of ISIS, America continued to back the FSA, but began a new air war to combat ISIS, bombing them heavily in Iraq as well as in their strongholds in eastern Syria.
Who would take over if Assad gets overthrown?
This is maybe the most important question there is regarding this conflict and it’s the one that no one in the American establishment or mainstream media seems to have an answer to. The real answer is, it would likely be al-Qaeda. They are by far the strongest group in the country outside of the Syrian government and the clear leaders of the rebel forces. The problem is not so much that America and its allies have failed to formulate a plan to install a new leader in place of the Assad regime, it’s that there are no other options in the country outside of al-Qaeda. America has never had success attempting to install functional democracy after overthrowing a leader, so the idea that they could accomplish this when the forces doing the overthrowing are made up of radical jihadist terrorists is a bit optimistic. Consider the disaster that ensued in Iraq after America overthrew a secular dictator, Saddam Hussein. Now imagine how much worse it would’ve been if America had done this while Saddam was in the middle of fighting a war against an army of jihadist terrorist groups. That hypothetical is analogous to what is really happening in Syria right now.
The allegiance of many of the Syrian civilians shows strong evidence that they too believe it will be al-Qaeda taking over if Assad is overthrown. The mainstream media portrays this as a war pitting all of the minorities against the Shi’ite, Iranian-backed government, but this is simply not true. At the beginning of the war, many of the minority factions in the country, including the Christians, Druze, and Alawites, did participate in the protests against Assad. However, as the war has gone on, almost all of these minorities have taken sides with the government. Even a large number of the Sunni Muslims in the country have come to support the state’s goals in this war. Although many of these people do not particularly like Assad, they believe if he is overthrown, al-Qaeda will take over and they will be much worse off. This short documentary of three undercover reporters in rebel-held territory in Idlib province shows how thoroughly these areas are controlled by al-Qaeda and the barbarous rule the civilians there live under. Another short documentary shows the experiences of Syrian women, mainly in Damascus, and the obvious concern they have of how a rebel victory would affect their lives in a negative way.
While the American media consistently points out Assad’s human rights abuses and authoritarian behavior, some of which is true, the Syrian people under Assad live relatively free and normal lives. Syria is one of the more liberal countries in the region and compared to life under the rule of ISIS or al-Qaeda, which behead children and enforce strict and brutal Sharia law, there is no question that Syrians are better off living under Assad.
How is Russia involved in the war? CNN and Fox News tell me that this is all Vladimir Putin’s fault.
Russia has long been an ally of Assad, but was not a direct participant in the war until late 2015. In 2013, the war looked like it would come to an end as the rebel forces were losing power, but after America began its CIA program to train and arm the FSA, the war became more and more violent, as al-Qaeda and ISIS gained strength. Still, Assad appeared to be in control until mid-2015 when the al-Nusra front continued to gain territory and began to threaten one of the major highways leading south towards Damascus. At that point, the Russians believed the rebels were enough of a threat to overthrow Assad that they decided to intervene. They began launching airstrikes against al-Nusra and ISIS in late 2015 to try to push them back and prevent them from gaining any more ground.
There is no doubt that Russia’s airstrikes have killed innocent civilians and caused destruction in the rebel-held territories they’ve bombed. However, their actions were a direct response to the advances of the CIA-backed terrorist groups against their ally Assad. Russia, like the Syrian civilians, understands that if Assad falls, it will probably be terrorist groups like al-Nusra that will take over the country. Assad being an ally notwithstanding, the Russians are not particularly keen on the idea of a country that’s basically in their backyard being run by a bunch of al-Qaeda guys. Similarly, if there was a civil war going on in Belize, the U.S. probably wouldn’t be too thrilled if the rebellion was dominated by groups that engaged in suicide bombings, beheadings, and international terrorist attacks, and would likely take action.
What are the positions of Donald Trump and others in the establishment on Syria?
During the campaign, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton did take somewhat different stances on Syria. Clinton’s position was essentially that the U.S. needed to do more to back the rebels and fight against Assad. This is the position held by the majority of the Republican Party, as well as many Democrats. During the debates, one of the main ideas that came up in regards to Syria was to install a “safe zone” or a “no fly zone”. This would mean America sending in troops and air cover, carving out a section of land in Syria, and declaring that no enemy planes would be allowed to fly over. According to its advocates, the intention of this plan would be to deter Russian airstrikes and protect innocent civilians. Clinton, as well as many of the Republican candidates, such as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, strongly supported this idea. Clinton’s aggressive foreign policy in Syria as well as most of the other hot spots around the world was the main reason why she gained the support of most of the neoconservatives in Washington.
The problem with this plan, in practice, is that even if we were able to set up a “safe zone”, which would be no easy task and would involve a lot of violence and destruction, what would we do if Russia did fly a plane over it? Would we really be prepared to shoot down a Russian jet and possibly start a catastrophic war with one of the world’s nuclear powers? After all, Russia is an actual ally of Syria, whereas America is an uninvited guest in a sovereign nation. This would be akin to if Canada was fighting a war against a bunch of terrorist groups and Russia came over and invaded, carved out a space in Alberta, called it a “safe zone”, and said they would shoot down any American planes that flew over, despite Canada inviting America to help it defeat the terrorists.
Trump was not in favor of this plan and strongly criticized Clinton and his Republican opponents for their affinity for regime change in Syria as well as in Libya and Iraq. The Trump position was that the U.S. needed to focus all of its energy on “beating the hell out of ISIS.” While Trump’s stances were never particularly clear, his statements implied he supported ramping up airstrikes and potentially putting boots on the ground in order to throw ISIS out of Mosul and Raqqa.
While this may seem like a more consistent and less treasonous approach, to fight against, not for, those who have actually threatened U.S. national security and killed American citizens, there are still many flaws. To start, this isn’t by any means a new approach. America has bombed al-Qaeda and ISIS in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Libya for eight years straight under Obama and terrorist groups have only gotten stronger in all of those countries. The simple explanation for this is that when an American bomb kills someone, everyone related to that person now hates America. The more people hate America, the more likely they are to be radicalized and join a terrorist group. As a result, Obama’s drone wars have been al-Qaeda and ISIS’ most effective recruiting tools.
It is true that if the U.S. really wanted to, it could send in the marines and put thousands of troops on the ground to drive ISIS out of Mosul and Raqqa. It would mean an incredible amount of death and violence, both for American servicemen and innocent civilians, but the U.S. potentially has the capability to do it. But what would this really accomplish? All it would really do is turn ISIS back into an insurgency and in the process create more hatred towards America for all of the destruction it would have caused. On top of that, ISIS doesn’t need to control cities in order to carry out terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States, so does it really enhance national security to fight a massive war just to take Mosul and Raqqa?
Despite campaigning on an anti regime change stance, Trump recently launched 59 tomahawk missiles on a Syrian airfield in response to more claims that Assad used chemical weapons against his people. These claims against Assad, like those in 2013, remain un-proven, while the White House and mainstream media push the narrative as if it were undisputable fact. It is unclear whether this is the start of a consistent policy of trying to overthrow the Syrian regime or simply a one-time reaction to the allegations against Assad. Either way, the U.S. continues its policy of using the CIA to arm and train rebels, despite Trump regularly denouncing this policy during the campaign.
The start of Trump’s presidency is very consistent with past presidents who campaigned on a more restrained foreign policy, yet failed to live up to promises of limiting America’s intervention abroad. Obama was the clear peace candidate in 2008 and campaigned on getting the U.S. out of Iraq. He proceeded to become the first president in history to be at war all 8 years of his term, dropped over 26,000 bombs in 2016 alone, involved the U.S. in new wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and continued wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Pakistan. George W. Bush campaigned on a “humble” foreign policy and went on to start the disastrous Iraq War, while completely dismissing international law and basic humanity with his use of torture. Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson both won elections in part based on their promises to keep America out of foreign conflict, but shortly after being elected, entered the U.S. into World War I and the Vietnam War, respectively.
Why are America and Israel so hell-bent on getting rid of Assad?
To really understand the motives, you have to go back to the Iraq War of 2003. In a nutshell, America’s goal in the Iraq war was to overthrown Saddam Hussein and end up with a U.S.-friendly government, which would give Israel another ally in the region and give them more power in their conflicts with Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. Instead, what happened was that after Saddam was overthrown, the Shi’ite majority in Baghdad simply demanded democratic elections, which the Americans couldn’t refuse because they had sold the war as a way to install democracy in Iraq. The Shi’ites won the election, took over the government, and kicked all the Sunnis out. This drove many Sunnis into the hands of the insurgency, which fought against the U.S. and the Shi’ites and later morphed into al-Qaeda in Iraq, which never existed in the country before Bush’s invasion. This group was essentially ISIS 1.0, as many of these fighters would eventually join the Syrian civil war and then break off to form ISIS.
The result of the Iraq war, along with the creation of violent terrorist groups throughout the northwest of the country, was that the Shi’ites now controlled the capital city and all the land to the south. The government was taken over by the Dawa Party, which is an Iranian-backed Shi’a group that brutalized the remaining Sunni minority. So essentially, the war was a complete failure from America’s own goals in that instead of giving Israel an ally in the region, it empowered Iran even further by giving them a satellite state in Iraq.
At this point, there was a major shift in U.S. policy. Basically, the American national security establishment realized they had screwed up in a big way by empowering Iran and decided to shift back in favor of the Sunnis in order to weaken Iran and its influence in the region. In 2007, Seymour Hersh wrote a piece in the New Yorker called The Redirection that outlined all the steps taken by the U.S. to shift power, as they began to back Sunni groups in Lebanon, Iran, and all across the region.
Syria plays a major role in the so-called “Shi’ite Axis”, which includes Iran and Hezbollah, that America and Israel were intent on weakening after the Iraq war. They are Iran’s main ally in the region and toppling Assad would weaken Iran. This strategy was transparent in an interview President Obama gave in 2012 with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic magazine. “It is our estimation that [Assad’s] days are numbered. It’s a matter not of if, but when. Now, can we accelerate that? We’re working with the world community to try to do that…if that happens, that will be a profound loss for Iran.” This is one of many quotes from Obama in the interview referencing Iran as a strategic piece in the Syrian conflict.
There are many subsidiary reasons why the U.S. has involved itself in this war, as well. The arms and weapons industry is a massive economy by itself and is a constant advocate for more war. As is the case in all areas of government, there is a constant need for those in charge to justify their existence. If America decreases its presence overseas, that makes many jobs in the national security industry unnecessary. As a result, everyone involved has an incentive to keep the U.S. more and more engaged around the world because it secures their jobs and sustains their positions. While the American people do not benefit from more war, there are many people in positions of power who do.
How do the Kurds fit into the war?
If this war wasn’t already complicated enough, let’s add one more element. The Kurds are a periphery group involved in the conflict that doesn’t fit clearly into one side or the other. They reside in southern Turkey and northern Syria, as well as northern Iraq and a few other countries in the region. The Kurds are a leftist group that is very religiously and politically diverse, but majority Islam, both Sunni and Shi’a. The Turkish faction is called the PKK and the Syrian faction is called the YPG and they are very adept and experienced fighters. The PKK and YPG both want autonomy in their respective regions and some members of the PKK seek outright secession from Turkey, which Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sees as a threat to his rule.
Since mid-2015, the PKK and Turkey have been engaged in a violent struggle. Meanwhile, the YPG in Syria has battled ISIS and many of the extremist rebel groups. The Syrian Kurds oppose the Assad government, but have stated that they are not interested in seeing him overthrown. Their main concern is battling Turkey to their north, while at the same time dealing with the rebels that also inhabit northern Syria, as well as ISIS.
So how is America involved with these groups? We know the U.S is a NATO ally of Turkey and that the CIA has backed the anti-Assad rebel groups since 2013. But what about the Syrian Kurds, who fight against both of these sides? They must be America’s enemy, right? Actually, no. The U.S. Department of Defense has supported Syrian Kurdish groups with funding and weapons since the beginning of the war. In fact, since 2016, there have been consistent reports, like this one by the L.A. Times, of violent conflict between these Pentagon-backed Kurds and CIA-backed rebels. Meanwhile, America’s ally Turkey also arms and funds rebel groups that fight the Syrian Kurds, while directly fighting the PKK in the south of their country.
To sum up, the U.S.A is on three different sides in Syria that fight one another, as well as against Assad. The CIA backs the rebel groups that are mostly made up of jihadist fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri and fight against the Syrian government. The Pentagon backs the YPG Kurds in the north, who fight against the rebel groups, ISIS, and America’s NATO ally Turkey.
What’s the alternative to engaging in this war? Can we really just do nothing?
The mainstream thought process seems to be that if America does nothing in Syria, then nothing will change and the situation will continue to be horrible for the Syrian people. But the fact is that America has been involved essentially since the beginning of this conflict and has yet to try disengaging, so does it really make sense to think that if America drastically alters its policy, nothing will change? What’s harder to understand is the idea that continuing to do the same thing that we’ve done for six years, or slightly altering the strategy while maintaining an interventionist policy, will yield significantly better results.
Doing nothing does not mean the American people should do nothing; it simply means the U.S. government should not be involved in military or covert operations. However, there is plenty the American people can do in terms of providing humanitarian aid and charitable support to those affected by the war.
There is no easy solution to this situation and if America were to pull out, Syria certainly would not become a western utopia overnight. The struggles the country dealt with after the Arab Spring have been compounded so greatly by the intervention of America and its allies that no matter what the U.S. does from this point forward, the country is in for a tough road ahead. Still, the first step to solving a problem so great as this one should be to stop doing the things that caused the problem in the first place.
While an American disengagement in Syria would certainly alter the landscape of the war in a major way, there’s little reason to think it would cause any significant additional harm to the Syrian people. Pulling forces out of Syria would simply mean no more arms and training support for violent jihadist rebels. Throughout the war, the Syrian government and its allies have shown the ability to fend off the terrorist insurgents, despite the intervention from America and its coalition. If America and its allies ceased their support for the rebels, the war could potentially be ended fairly quickly.
The humanitarian instinct to oppose the Assad regime is understandable, but it’s important to realize that Assad’s actions, as brutal as they may have been at times, were in direct response to the rise of extremist groups in his country who engaged in far worse and more vial acts. There is no clear reason to think that a guy who has been in charge for many years before this civil war started is interested in committing genocide against his own people just for fun. These groups threatened his regime, which was only possible because of the support of America and its CIA, and a post-Assad regime led by the rebels would certainly be far worse for Syrian civilians.