Image: Russian forces in Aleppo, Syria / mil.ru / Wikimedia Commons
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the current conflict raging in the Middle Eastern nation of Syria is among the most difficult to understand in modern history. Dozens of different nations, factions, terror groups and more are all vying for control of the country, or at least seeking to gain a foothold for their own geopolitical interests.
Adding to the confusion is a great deal of media chatter about how the conflict could be the trigger for World War III. While some outlets have condemned the scaremongering, they also agree that the risk of a large-scale war – particularly between the nuclear-armed United States and Russia – is a very real one.
So, what, exactly, is going on in Syria, and how did we get to where we are now? Villainesse explains.
How did Syria get to the state it’s in?
Inhabited by humans for thousands of years, modern Syria separated from the United Arab Republic (a nation that consisted of modern-day Syria and Egypt) in 1961. However, the government was soon toppled by a political group known as the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. A series of intra-party struggles eventually resulted in a man named Hafez al-Assad taking control of the country, and he ruled for nearly 30 years. A dictator known for being incredibly brutal, he died in 2000. In a manner similar to how North Korea transfers power, rule passed to one of his sons, Bashar al-Assad, upon his death.
For a while, there were hopes that things would get better in Syria. A trained ophthalmologist (eye doctor), Bashar al-Assad had spent more time in the West than his father. His London-born wife, Asma al-Assad, was seen as a progressive who championed women’s rights, education and the rights of children – and was even featured in a profile in Vogue (it has since been taken down in what has been called the lowest point for the magazine under Anna Wintour, but it can still be seen here). The economy was growing, tourism was increasing, and the nation seemed poised to become an “it” destination.
Yet all that changed in 2011, when a protest movement spreading throughout the Middle East known as the “Arab Spring” came to Syria. Rather than allow protests to take place, Bashar al-Assad ordered the military to clamp down.
But the protesters resisted, and the movement spread into an attempt to overthrow the Assad regime. Soon, members of the military abandoned their posts and joined the protesters-turned-rebel-fighters, leading to a full-blown conflict that would become known as the Syrian Civil War.
What about ISIS?
Seeing an opportunity to take advantage of the chaos engulfing Syria, a terrorist organisation calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (more commonly known as ISIS) also decided to attempt to take over. They seized the city of Raqqa in 2013, establishing it as their new capital and imposing their barbaric “laws” on its citizens.
ISIS is opposed to both the Syrian government and most of the rebel groups fighting the government. The Syrian government and most rebel groups also oppose ISIS, though some rebel groups are sympathetic to ISIS. The US and Russia and their allies all also oppose ISIS, but have been unable to agree on the best way to fight them – or even coordinate attacks. Unsurprisingly, the Syrian government and the rebels also do not work together to fight ISIS.
Who else is involved?
Understanding the Syrian conflict is difficult because of the sheer number of different players involved, all of who have their own goals. Most of the rebel groups fighting in the country are not united, and many of them want power for themselves. Then there’s the Kurds, an ethnic minority in the country’s northeast who, along with parts of northern Iraq (which is east of Syria) and southern Turkey (north of Syria), want to form their own independent nation.
Another key player is Russia, an ally of the Syrian government because Assad allows them to use government-controlled ports for their warships and because Syria was a close ally of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Just as the Syrian government appeared about to fall in 2015, Russian president Vladimir Putin sent troops into Syria to support Assad. Although he claimed the reasoning was to keep ISIS fighters from Chechnya (a Muslim-majority region in southern Russia that has been wracked by instability, and is home to an insurgency that seeks to topple Putin) busy so they would not return home (one reason ISIS has been so hard to defeat is because they lure people from all over the world to fight for them thanks to their extensive social media presence), some experts believe the real reason was to distract ordinary Russians from economic problems and to create an “enemy” that Putin could exploit to help him stay in power. A telling fact is this: of the thousands of airstrikes by Russian warplanes, the majority of them have targeted rebels fighting the Syrian government – not ISIS.
Why is the US involved?
In short: oil.
Syria has vast reserves of crude oil, but under the Assads has been reluctant to sell it to the US because one of its key allies besides Russia is Iran. Many of the rebel groups have said they would be willing to sell more oil to the US if they took over, and to support them the US has given them weapons, offered training, and even sent soldiers.
The US is also at war with ISIS, and has been fighting the terror group in Syria in the hopes that they will be too busy to plot attacks abroad if they are constantly fighting for their lives. Although ISIS has lost a significant amount of territory, the group’s leader, a man named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is still thought to be alive.
What about the recent missile strikes?
US president Donald Trump ordered missile strikes this past weekend against Syrian government targets after evidence emerged that Assad had ordered deadly Sarin gas to be used in an attack against a village controlled by rebel fighters. While some have speculated the US attack was a response to an obvious international war crime (and the worst chemical weapons attack the world has seen since another chemical attack in 2013), others have speculated that the strikes may have also been ordered to send a signal to North Korea to stop the development of nuclear weapons, or face a similar attack. Still others have suggested the strikes were a way for Trump to show that he’s not a “puppet” of the Russian government (after, of course, he praised Putin and Russia repeatedly during his presidential election campaign and mounting evidence seems to suggest that the Russian government actively worked to help Trump get elected), or to distract from record-low approval ratings in the US or even to rally his often-racist supporters behind him.
What comes next?
That’s the big question.
Following the US missile strikes, there’s great fear as to what Russia might do to respond. Already, an important military hotline created to avoid mid-air collisions between warplanes and prevent accidents that may trigger an armed conflict between the two nuclear-armed nations has been cut, and Russian warships have been racing to Syrian ports from the Black Sea and Mediterranean. The US has responded by saying the missile strikes may be just the beginning of attacks against the Syrian government, while Russia has sworn it will respond to any “provocations.” Upping the ante yet again, the US has claimed Russia had advance warning of the chemical attack, and intentionally bombed a hospital where victims were being treated to hide evidence.
The real problem is that both US President Trump and Russian President Putin’s power depends largely on being able to project a macho, “tough guy” image of someone who never backs down. If one of them were to do so, they could be seen by their supporters as “weak,” and they would lose power. So, to compensate, they continue raising the stakes with ever-more-dangerous moves – which could lead to a real war. As The Daily Beast writes, the situation is a textbook example of why toxic masculinity is so dangerous.
Other writers have written about the eerie similarities between what is happening in Syria and the political climate of Europe just before World War I. It would only take a small spark, they argue – such as the US accidentally killing Russian soldiers when bombing a Syrian government airbase, or Russia accidentally shooting down a US warplane – to start a conflict that could quickly become World War III.
How are women affected?
Syria might just be the worst place in the world to be a woman – and it’s not difficult to see why. If the largest civil war currently raging in the world today isn’t enough, there’s also ISIS (which Villainesse has previously described as being one of the worst oppressors of women in known history). Add to that the fact Syria is an incredibly conservative nation where women are encouraged to cover themselves at all times and not to go out without the accompaniment of a man – as well as extreme poverty and what’s thought to be high rates of domestic violence – and it really isn’t too hard to understand why millions of women (as well as children and men and people of all genders) have fled the nation to become refugees.
Unfortunately, the plight of refugees has been well-documented, as have the hostile attitudes of citizens in the nations they flee to. In the US, Trump even went so far as to ban all refugees from Syria as part of his controversial travel ban, which was understandably seen by many as racist and Islamophobic.
The issues of resettling refugees is also a hot topic of debate in Australia and in New Zealand. Although there have been calls to bring in more refugees from Syria, so far New Zealand has only taken in a few hundred.
What about New Zealand and Syria?
New Zealand is allied with United States, and as such is opposed to the Syrian government and ISIS. The New Zealand Defence Force has at least 106 personnel stationed nearby in Iraq, primarily in the form of military instructors helping train Iraqi soldiers to fight ISIS.
However, Prime Minister Bill English has said the New Zealand government “understands” the US missile strikes against the Syrian government, and would not rule out sending troops to Syria should the US ask for assistance.