Why Syria is so important

Syrian men play backgammon at a market in Damascus during more peaceful times, 26 October 2005. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Syrian men play backgammon at a market in Damascus during more peaceful times, 26 October 2005. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

By Pauline Bock

Syria is entering its fifth year of gruesome armed conflict — a war that has important implications for the region and increasingly for global security.

The Syrian conflict arose from the Arab Spring that swept across states in North Africa and the Middle East.

But for a mix of reasons — historical, religious, geographic and geopolitical — Syria now represents one of the world’s biggest and thorniest challenges as it spawns a refugee crisis and puts Russia and Iran on a possible collision course with the United States and its allies.

Unrest broke out in 2011 when opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, emboldened by Arab Spring protesters who had toppled or were threatening longstanding regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, took to the streets against his autocratic regime.

The conflict started as a civil war, but a complex web of alliances involving Middle East nations, Western powers and Russia, against the backdrop of rising Shia-Sunni tensions in the region, quickly raised the stakes.

By January 2015, some 220,000 Syrians had been killed in the conflict, according to the United Nations. More than four million Syrians have fled their country, creating a wave of refugees who first flooded Syria’s neighbors and increasingly are headed to Europe.

Although the UN has made Syria a priority, differences between Russia and other members of the Security Council have tied the world body’s hands.

Strategic player

Syria shares borders with Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Lebanon and the Mediterranean to the west and Israel and Jordan to the south, making it a major strategic player in the Middle East.

Once part of the ancient Assyrian kingdom, the region is rich in culture and history.

The Syrian Arab Republic includes various religious groups — primarily majority Sunni Muslims, Christians and Alawites, a branch of Shia Muslims.

Bashar al-Assad is the leader of the Alawite minority. The Free Syrian Army, the main rebel force, is 90 percent Sunni, lending a sectarian element to the conflict.

Syria’s neighbors have aligned themselves along religious lines: majority Shia Iran supports Assad while Sunni majorities in Qatar and Saudi Arabia are backing the rebels.

Formerly the Arab Levant and part of the Ottoman empire, the modern state of Syria was created after World War One as a French mandate. In October 1945, Syria gained independence.

Military coups ensued during a tumultuous post-independence period. A referendum in 1961 created the Arab Republic of Syria, but the country remained unstable until the Ba’ath party under the autocratic Assad family claimed power with yet another coup d’état in 1970.

Hafez al-Assad led the country until 2000 and was succeeded by his son Bashar.

Escalation

The conflict started as a civil war opposing Assad and rebels demanding his departure. Government forces stepped up repressive tactics, and the fighting quickly worsened.

In 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama warned Assad that the use of chemical weapons by his forces would violate a “red line” that would “change the U.S. calculus.” In August 2013, a Damascus suburb was attacked with sarin gas and 1,400 civilians were killed. The White House blamed the attacks on the Syrian government, but the United States did not intervene.

Islamic State (ISIS), a violent jihadist group, took advantage of divisions in opposition forces and Sunni outrage to take control of a large swathe of territory in Syria and Iraq in its bid to set up a caliphate. Its public executions of adversaries including members of other rebel groups, as well as foreign journalists and aid workers, and its territorial ambitions helped pave the way to air strikes by a U.S.-led coalition against the jihadist group.

More recently, Russia has entered the fray. Syria has long been one of Russia’s main allies in the region and an important military client. Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union is in Syria, which supported Moscow during the Cold War.

Keen to prop up Assad and retain influence in the region and beyond, Russia last week started flying bombing missions over Syria. The Kremlin says its fighters are targeting ISIS, although the United States and its allies have said other, more moderate opposition forces including the Free Syrian Army have been attacked.

Now for the first time since the end of World War Two, U.S. and Russian military forces are involved in a common armed conflict with opposing aims as the world holds its breath.

Who’s who in Syria

Here is a breakdown of how outside powers are involved in the Syrian conflict (Assad’s backers in red, opponents in blue).

Country Backing: Opposing: What are they doing?
U.S. The Free Syrian Army and moderate Syrian rebel groups. Assad, ISIS, extremist Islamic groups including al-Qaeda’s local branch, Jabhat al-Nusra. Strikes by drones and war planes against ISIS.

The U.S. military trains and equips Syrian rebels. A Pentagon program to train opposition fighters against ISIS has won few recruits.

Iran Assad. Iran is the Syrian regime’s strongest regional ally. Shia Iran opposes Sunni fighters including the Free Syrian Army, ISIS and Sunni extremists. Iran has provided military support including advisers, weapons and financial aid to Assad since start of the war in 2011. Hezbollah, Iran’s ally in Lebanon, joined its effort in supporting Assad in 2012.
Turkey The U.S. coalition and rebel Syrian forces. Assad’s government and ISIS, which Ankara says has ties to the PKK rebel opposition group in Turkey. Turkey, a NATO member, allows the U.S. to use Turkish air bases and the Free Syrian Army to seek refuge on its soil while providing supplies to fighters in Syria. Turkey has taken in millions of Syrian refugees.
Saudi Arabia Some Syrian rebel groups. Assad’s government. Saudi Arabia ships weapons and funds to Syrian rebels. It is participating in U.S.-led air strikes in Syria against ISIS.

 

Qatar Some Syrian rebel groups. Assad’s government. Qatar funds and trains Syrian rebels. The main U.S. air strike military base, Al Udeid Air Base, is in Qatar. It supports U.S.-led air strikes.
Britain Moderate Syrian rebel groups. ISIS, Islamist extremists and Assad’s government. Britain is in the U.S.-led coalition. British pilots have participated in air strikes in Syria, but UK war planes have not been involved. The government recently announced that a UK drone strike in Syria killed two British citizen who had joined ISIS.
France Moderate Syrian rebel groups.   ISIS, Islamist extremists and Assad’s government. France is in the U.S.-led coalition and has conducted air strikes in Syria. 
Russia Assad’s government, Russia’s main ally in the Middle East. Officially ISIS although the U.S.-led coalition says Russian planes have bombed other rebel groups and killed civilians. Syria is a long-time ally of Russia, which has a military base in Syria — its only base outside of the former Soviet Union — and is a long-time supplier of weapons to Assad’s forces. Recently Russia started launching air strikes against rebels.

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