Over the past five years, the Syrian Civil War has cost over 400,000 lives, displaced more than 13 million Syrians and destabilized an entire region, entangling the world in an unpredictable crisis driven by complex political, economic and religious motives. There are dozens of governments, rebel groups and jihadist organizations at play, each with their own goals and means.
The conflict began during the Arab Spring in 2011, when Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad ordered his military to fire upon peaceful demonstrators seeking to change his oppressive policies. In response, rebel militias formed with the intent of bringing an end to Assad’s regime. Jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda, began sending troops to fight Assad, some of which would later form the Islamic State (IS). These organizations centered around extremist ideologies that advocated for the spread of fundamentalist Islam through violent means. As the civil war raged on, the Kurds, an ethnic minority who have been seeking independence for decades, saw the opportunity to gain territory for themselves. These events brought out the four main factions fighting on the ground: the Syrian government under Assad, the rebel opposition, IS and the Kurds.
When foreign powers intervened, Syria became grounds for proxy wars between global and regional powers. The U.S. and its allies, including Western European countries and Saudi Arabia, support both the rebel groups and the Kurds in the quest to remove Assad from power and eradicate the IS’s presence in the Middle East. On the other hand, Russia and Iran back Assad’s government, while also opposing the IS. Under this system of alliances, U.S.-backed troops and Russian-backed troops frequently clash, echoing the Cold War-era conflicts that once defined U.S. foreign policy. As the two countries struggle for influence, airstrikes from both continue to kill thousands of civilians and contribute to the number of refugees fleeing Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has long been a supporter of the rebels, officially intervened when he sent tanks, planes and special forces soldiers into Syria in late August. The Sunni-majority U.S. ally has much at stake in the conflict because of the more than 2 million Syrian refugees now living in Turkey, and because of the success of the Kurdish faction. Erdogan fears that Kurds fighting in Syria are linked to Kurdish militants in Turkey fighting a guerilla war for independence, so his forces have had confrontations with U.S.-backed Kurds. This pitting of two U.S. allies against one another demonstrates just how complicated the war is.
Saudi Arabia and Iran, the largest Sunni and Shia powers in the region, respectively, are interested in the conflict for mostly religious reasons. Assad practices Alawi Islam, a minority branch closely related to Shia Islam. One of the motives behind the original wave of protests was to end the Alawite domination of Syrian politics, since just 12 percent of the population follows Alawi Islam. Iran, interested in expanding Shia influence, supports Assad and has spent billions of dollars for his cause.
Saudi Arabia, as a Sunni-led country, opposes Assad and funnels aid to the rebels. Both countries are large, wealthy and incredibly powerful, so the outcome of their proxy war has the possibility of changing the Middle East forever.
The key to understanding the Syrian civil war is understanding the motives behind each of the major players involved. However, with Syria ravaged and its people demoralized by years of brutal conflict, it is clear that there will be no simple solution.