Why is there a Civil War in Syria?
The Syrian civil war began in 2011. Since then, more Syrians have died than Americans in World War Two. Half the population have fled their homes, and more than five million have left the country and become refugees. It is impossible to understand suffering on this scale.
Why is this war still going on? What is it even about? Here’s a ten-point answer.
1. A Diverse Country
For centuries, Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled a huge arc around the Eastern Mediterranean, from Algeria to Greece. The empire was very diverse, and the province of Syria was home to many different ethnicities (including Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, and Jews), and religions (including Sunni Islam, Shia Islam, Judaism, and Christianity). Under Ottoman rule, these groups lived next to each other with minimal conflict. That would all change in the twentieth century.
2. A Divided Country
The most important moment in Syria’s last hundred years took place just after World War One. The Ottoman Empire was on the losing side in the war, and the victorious powers decided to take over much of its former territory. From 1923, Syria was ruled by the French.
France knew that most of the locals resented them being there. Their solution was to set the different ethnic and religious groups against each other. That way, they wouldn’t join forces and rebel.
When the French abandoned Syria in 1946, they left behind a people with little sense of national unity and little experience in government. It was no surprise that Syria found independence hard. Chronically divided, it lurched from democracy to military dictatorship. In 1970, Hafez al-Assad seized power. Before he died in 2000, he transferred power to his son, Bashar, who still rules Syria today.
3. The Cold War
The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union dominated international affairs in the second half of the twentieth century. Countries all over the world lined up on one side or another. Syria could have gone either way but once it became clear that the US backed Israel, Syria moved into the Soviet orbit.
Why? If you look at a detailed map of the Ottoman Empire, you will see that the current state of Israel used to be part of the province of Syria. Arabs in every country have long opposed the idea of a Jewish state on lands that, until recently, were in Arab hands. Syrian Arabs have this extra geographical reason to be upset.
The Soviet Union provided weapons and military training to Syria. But the relationship would prove to have a sting in the tail: Russian involvement in the current civil war is a major reason it has lasted as long as it has.
4. The Assads
Two men, father and son, have ruled Syria since 1970. Hafez and Bashar al-Assad come from a small, Shia Muslim community known as the Alawites, who make up 10% of the population. Syria has fared poorly under the Assads’ rule. The economy grew slowly while corruption and military spending grew fast. To stay in power, both men used force to crush opponents from the Muslim group that makes up 75% of the population—the Sunnis. In 1982, Assad’s troops killed at least 10,000 after protests in the city of Hama.
When thousands of Egyptians, Libyans, and Tunisians took to the streets in 2011 to call for political change, Syrians were quick to join what became known as the Arab Spring. Frustrated by unemployment, corruption, and a lack of democratic freedom, many Syrians took to the streets. When Bashar al-Assad ordered his troops to fire on the crowds those who survived were unwilling to lie down. Militia groups formed across the country. Syria has been at war every since.
5. Fractured Forces
Assad would no longer be president if his opponents had been united. But Syria’s diversity and history ensured that they weren’t. There were moderate Sunni Muslim armies, Kurdish armies, extremist Muslim armies, and more. These divisions meant Assad could take his time, picking off his opponents one by one and at times even standing by to watch as they fought each other instead of him.
6. Islamic State
Islamic State (IS) began in Iraq in 2006. It was a group of radical Sunni Muslims with links to al-Qaeda (Osama Bin Laden’s group) that aimed to establish a pure, Muslim kingdom in the Middle East. When Syria descended into chaos in 2011, IS fighters crossed the border from Iraq and took over a large slice of the country. Millions of Syrians lived under their frightening control.
For outsiders who wanted peace in Syria, the success of IS complicated the war enormously. No one wanted to see Assad fall if that meant IS would control Syria.
7. American Reluctance
Obama and Trump, Democrats and Republicans—hostility to Assad’s odious regime has united Americans as almost nothing else has in recent years. Yet America’s leaders have offered only words in support of Assad’s opponents (with a few military exceptions). It’s easy to understand why. The answer can be summed up in two words: Afghanistan and Iraq.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush launched the War on Terror. Central to his strategy was to oust governments in Afghanistan and Iraq that he believed supported terrorists. With America’s military might, that proved easy. But rebuilding these two countries and turning them into contented democracies was anything but. Public support for the wars evaporated once it became clear that American forces weren’t coming home any time soon.
There was no way Bush’s successors were going to send thousands of US troops to take down Assad. America no longer believed regime change would be quick and easy.
The Kurds are an ethnic group that lives in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Armenia. Their desire to have their own independent state has fueled their politics for more than a hundred years, with the result that the countries in which they live see them as potential traitors.
Approximately 8% of the Syrian population is Kurdish, and many of them have taken up arms against Assad. And they have been successful, controlling hundreds of square miles of Syrian territory.
Their success has led Kurds in neighbouring countries to hope that their dream of a homeland may be coming true. That is terrifying for the governments of countries such as Turkey, who have no desire to see a militant Kurdish independence movement spill into their lands. They would rather Assad stayed in control, if that’s the cost of keeping the lid on Kurdish aspirations. If Assad’s forces and the Syrian Kurds keep killing each other, that suits Turkey’s strategic interests just fine.
9. Russian Involvement
Syria has been a Russian ally in the Middle East for a long time. Russia has its only Mediterranean naval base in Syria. So it has not been a surprise that Russian president Vladimir Putin has propped up Assad. Russia has provided weapons to the Syrian government and its air force has conducted hundreds of strikes on rebel positions.
Russia’s support for Assad makes the war even more difficult to solve. Neither America nor anyone else wants to wade into Syria if it means risking a war with Russia.
Hafez al-Assad supported his fellow-Shia Iranians during their war with Iraq in the 1980s. It was one of the many reasons why Syria’s Sunni majority hated him. Now, Iran is sending weapons, military advisors, and almost certainly troops to keep Assad in power. This is just one part of Iran’s increasingly successful strategy to extend its influence in the Middle East.
The Sunni Muslim rivals of Iran, notably Saudi Arabia, have supported the rebels. But as long as America—traditional ally of Saudi Arabia and opponent of Iran—sits on the sidelines, it is Iran that is having the easier job of reshaping the Middle East to its liking.
The Syrian people are the victims of regional and global political games that their leaders have played for decades. Assad has powerful international friends and shows no signs of giving up. Moderate rebel groups long for more support from the US and others. For the people in Syria who want only peace and a return to normal life (even if it’s the oppressive normal of Assad), the end of the tunnel looks dark.