Syria’s war is mess. After 6 years, the conflict is divided between multiple sides, each side with foreign backers and those foreign backers don’t even agree with each other on who they are fighting for and who they are fighting against. Now, Syria’s use of chemical weapons has provoked President Donald Trump to directly attack Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. This is a major shift because the US has, for years, only focused on fighting ISIS. To understand the criss-crossing interventions and battle lines in Syria today, and how it got this way, it helps to go back to the beginning and watch how it unfolded.
The first shots in the war are fired, in March 2011, by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, against peaceful Arab Spring demonstrators. The protests grow, as do Assad’s increasingly violent crackdowns. In July, the protesters start shooting back, and some Syrian troops even join them. They call themselves the Free Syrian Army and the uprising becomes a civil war. Extremists from around the region start traveling to Syria to join the rebels. Assad actually encourages this by releasing jihadist prisoners to tinge the rebellion with extremism and make it harder for foreign backers to support them. In January 2012, al-Qaeda forms a new branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra.
Also around then, Syrian Kurdish groups, who had long sought autonomy, take up arms and informally secede from Assad’s rule in the north. That summer is when Syria becomes a proxy war. Iran, Assad’s most important ally, intervenes on his behalf. By the end of 2012, Iran is sending daily cargo flights and has hundreds of officers on the ground. At the same time, the oil-rich Arab states on the Persian Gulf begin sending money and weapons to the rebels, mainly to counter Iran’s influence. Iran steps up its influence in mid-2012 when Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia backed by Iran, invades to fight alongside Assad. The Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, respond with sending more money and weapons to the rebels, this time through Jordan, who also opposes Assad.
By 2013, the middle east is divided between sunni powers, generally supporting the rebels and Sshias generally supporting Assad. That April, the Obama administration, horrified by Assad’s atrocities and the mounting death toll, signs a secret order authorizing the CIA to train and equip Syrian rebels. However, the program stalls. At the same time, The US quietly urges Arab Gulf states to stop funding extremists, but the requests go unheeded. In August, the Assad regime uses chemical weapons, provoking condemnation around the world. Obama: “Men, women, and children lying in rows, killed by poison gas.” It is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.
Russia proposed on Monday, that Syria surrender control over its chemical weapons to the International Community for its eventual dismantling, to avoid a US military strike. The US backs down under a Russia-brokered deal, but the incident establishes Syria as a great-powers dispute between America and Russia. Just weeks later, the first American training and arms reach Syrian rebels through the earlier-authorized CIA program. The US is now a participant. In February 2014, something happens that transforms the war: an al-Qaeda affiliate, based mostly in Iraq, breaks away from the group over internal disagreements. The group calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and it becomes al-Qaeda’s enemy.
ISIS mostly fights not Assad, but the other rebels and the Kurds, carving out a mini-state that it calls its Caliphate. That summer, it marches across Iraq, seizing territory, galvanizing the world against it. The opposition in Syria divides between anti-Assad rebels and ISIS, who fight one another as well. In September, one year after the US almost bombed Assad, it begins bombing ISIS. It’s joined by a coalition of Western and MidEast states, who all also oppose Assad. Obama: “We’re moving ahead with our campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists, and we’re prepared to take action against ISIS in Syria as well.” That summer, in July, the Pentagon launches its own program to train Syrian rebels, but only those who’ll fight ISIS, not Assad.
The program fizzles, showing that America now opposes ISIS more than Assad, but that no like-minded Syrian proxy force exists. In August, Turkey bombs Kurdish groups in Iraq and in Turkey, even as the Kurds fight ISIS in Syria, but doesn’t bomb ISIS. This got to a core problem: the US sees ISIS as its main enemy, but the US’s allies like Turkey and a lot of other MidEast states have other priorities. The next month, in September, Russia intervenes on behalf of Assad, sending a few dozen military aircraft to a long-held Russian base in the country. Russia says it’s there to bomb ISIS, but in fact bombs anti-Assad rebels, including some backed by the US. The next year, Donald Trump wins the White House, vowing to stay out of Syria and signaling that Assad should be able to stay in power.
At the end of 2016, Assad, helped by Russian airpower and Iranian sponsored militias, retakes the Syrian city of Aleppo, knocking the rebels from their last remaining urban stronghold. Then, in Spring of 2017, Assad once again uses chemical weapons against his people, killing 85, including 20 children. Back in the US, Trump says his attitude toward Syria and Assad has “changed very much” due to the attacks. He vows to respond. Within days, the white house launches dozens of tomahawk missiles on an airbase in Syria, attacking the Assad Regime for the first time. This adds yet another criss crossing complication to an already multidimensional civil war. Syria is in ruins. Millions have fled the country and any attempt at a ceasefire has failed. Even as Assad recaptures land, the rebellion perseveres. And with outside countries fueling each of the groups, it’s clear that there is still no end in sight.