Syria has been going through a brutal civil war for six years now. And it doesn’t show signs of ending anytime soon.
How did this all start?
In 2011, Syria caught the Arab Spring bug happening across the Mideast. Anti-government protests broke out. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad did NOT appreciate these and responded with a massive crackdown, torturing and killing those who disagreed with him. This prompted protesters to form groups, and to eventually arm themselves against him. Soon, this was a full-blown civil war, with at least a thousand rebel groups with different agendas.
I remember something about chemical weapons?
For a while, there were rumors of both sides using chemical weapons. Then, in August 2013, graphic images surfaced that appeared to show a massive chemical weapons attack on civilians in Syria. The US and friends freaked out, and blamed Assad. Assad blamed the rebels. For a second, it looked like the US was on the brink of military intervention in Syria. Until the UN and Assad cut a deal, and he turned over all his chemical weapons to be destroyed. Talk of intervention cooled off, at least for a little while.
Then in April 2017, more than 80 people were killed in a chemical weapons attack in northern Syria. All signs pointed to Assad's forces. President Trump responded by ordering an airstrike on the Syrian air base where the attack originated from. This was the US's first military intervention against Assad. It was considered a warning that the new Trump administration isn't afraid to use force.
Tell me more about the groups involved.
Well, one of them is ISIS. But Assad’s been more focused on quashing other rebel groups, who’ve made it their explicit mission to take him down. A lot of the fighting has been concentrated in the key city of Aleppo, with government forces camped out in the city's west, and rebel groups camped out in the east. Meanwhile, ISIS has been indirectly helpful to Assad since it has been fighting off the other rebel groups. So Assad has mostly let ISIS do its thing, which has helped the group grab more land and become even more powerful. So powerful that in 2014, the US and friends intervened in Syria for the first time with airstrikes – but only with the goal of taking down ISIS, not Assad.
What do people think?
This civil war has become a proxy war, with multiple countries propping up different groups. Here’s the breakdown…
The US...Team moderate rebels. Aka the ones that have been crowded out by more extreme groups. It wants Assad and ISIS gone STAT. In late 2014, former President Obama made the decision to intervene militarily for the first time. But some argue that not arming and training Syria’s rebels years ago created a vacuum for ISIS to thrive. Then in July of 2017, Trump decided to end a covert program that had trained and armed rebels since 2013. Plus he and President Putin shook on a partial cease-fire in Syria. Marking a shift in US foreign policy away from arming allies and towards negotiating cease-fires.
Russia...Team Assad. Russia is one of Assad’s most important allies for a few reasons. One, it has a naval base in Syria that gives it access to the Mediterranean. Two, Moscow makes a lot of money from arms sales to the Syrian military. Three, it doesn’t like the idea of Western powers meddling in the region. In late 2015, Russia started coordinating with Assad's forces by launching airstrikes against what it said were ISIS targets, but were actually rebel groups – some backed by the US.
Iran...Team Assad. As the most powerful Shiite country in the Mideast, Iran has an interest in protecting Assad’s Shiite-run government. But Iran’s also very anti-ISIS. Yes, this is Iran and the US actually agreeing on something.
Turkey...Team moderate rebels. More than one million Syrian refugees have camped out in Turkey, which is a strain on its resources. Meanwhile, Turkey’s been working with the US to train and arm rebel groups. Recently, the US-Turkey relationship took a turn for the worse when the US also started helping Kurdish rebels in the region. Turkey has a long, violent history with Turkish Kurds and sees this as the US aiding their enemy. That's led to clashes between US troops and Turkish-armed rebels.
A civil war in a country the size of Washington state has turned into a massive humanitarian crisis. Almost 500,000 people have died so far in this conflict.