There have been many misconceptions flying around social media in the past few days surrounding the Syrian civil war. We’ve addressed some of the biggest mistakes people seem to be making.
Words: Megan Townsend, Subeditor: Mariya Savova
“It’s Assad vs the Rebels right? That’s how it’s always been.”
No. This is one of the biggest misconceptions on the war. Currently, there are four seemingly distinct sides:
- The Assad regime, backed by Russia, Iran, Iraq and the Iranian-financed, Lebanon-based group Hezbollah.
- The “Free Syrian Army” who have been backed by many gulf states like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar, Jordan and Turkey. Not to forget, of course, airstrikes and training from the US and France.
- The Kurds are a completely separate force in Northern Syria and are loosely backed by NATO due to commitments during the gulf war. However, as NATO concentrates less on fighting Assad and is battling ISIS instead, Turkey began bombing Kurdish lands, and the Kurds are seemingly left alone.
- ISIS are a completely separate force. Mostly influenced by extremists from Iraq, they were previously joined with the rebels before splitting off in 2014 and establishing their own state in Northern Syria.
“The fight against ISIS is completely separate from the Syrian War?”
As explained above, no. ISIS are in fact probably the only real opposition to Assad in Syria, as the rebel groups are fighting amongst each other, and the Kurds are more interested in securing the borders of what they now call Rojava.
“ISIS are the only extremists?”
Certainly not. Though the rebels are backed by the US, there are many factions among them who are involved in extremism. As the war has progressed, there have been reports of ethnic cleansing and genocide of Kurds, Christians, Shi’a muslims and other groups in rebel controlled areas. Al-Qaeda are still fighting for the rebels in Syria and other extremist groups from the surrounding countries have taken up arms with them. Though not all rebel groups are guilty of this, it should be considered that it isn’t really a like-minded force, and there is certainly a sinister faction of the Free Syrian Army.
“Britain is at war with Syria now?”
No. It’s a civil war, so it would be very difficult to proclaim we are at war with Syria. We have promised to take action on one of the groups involved in the war, who also have land in Iraq. Interestingly, we could have been involved in 2013. The US piled on the pressure for its allies to join them in opposing the Assad regime, but Britain voted no to launching airstrikes on government-held areas in Syria.
“This will end up exactly like Iraq, won’t it?”
Probably not. This is actually an even more complex situation, as there are many different sides participating in the war, with very contradictory beliefs. A Syrian invasion is out of the question as it stands, mainly due to the other opposition forces involved and the fact there is no real opposition to Assad, which could bring forward a stable government. Many have also compared the war to what happened in Libya. However, in Libya’s case, rebel factions appeared to fight alongside until Gaddafi was overthrown, but it left the country lawless as groups battled for dominance.
“There is no other way to stop ISIS or improve the Syrian war without airstrikes?”
Not true. Isis is certainly getting funded from somewhere, which is probably the oil fields it controls in the heart of Syria. Much of its weaponry has come from its days as a rebel organisation, where it was receiving ludicrous funding from the oil-rich gulf states. A way to stop ISIS would be to cut off its funding, not selling arms to countries like Saudi Arabia, and sanctioning any country that is caught buying their oil.
Still confused? Here’s a brief timeline:
2011 – Arab Spring
The war began in 2011, as Assad started firing on peaceful Arab Spring protesters. Syria before this was a multicultural country with many different factions living together united. As things heated up, the protesters fired back, many soldiers from the Syrian Army joined them and began an armed rebellion. Extremist groups from Iraq, like Al-Qaeda, joined with the rebels in order to aid them. Meanwhile, Assad began releasing jihadi prisoners to tinge the rebellion with extremism and make it more difficult for foreign forces to back them.
2012 – Proxy War
Kurdish groups in northern Syria, a long downtrodden group who have sought autonomy in the past, took up arms against the Assad regime. As Iran became involved in 2012, the civil war turned into a proxy war, as they deployed hundreds of soldiers on the ground on behalf of Assad. The oil-rich gulf states intervened on the rebels behalf and sent money and weapons through Turkey and Jordan. By mid-2012 Hezbollah invaded Syria on Assad’s behalf.
2013 – Intervention of the US
Of course the gulf states responded by sending even more money and weapons to the rebels. At this point it became clear that the Syrian conflict is a secular war. Many of the countries backing the rebels are Sunni powers, whereas those backing Assad are Shi’a. In August of 2013, Assad used chemical weapons on rebel-controlled cities, killing thousands of innocent civilians. Appalled by these atrocities, the US and France condemned Assad and began training Syrian rebels on the ground. Assad’s ally Russia asked the Syrian Government to give up their chemical weapons to avoid US air strikes. However, it is very clear from 2013 that the US opposes Assad, while Russia backs him.
2014 – The rise of ISIS
In February 2014, the war shifted as an Al-Qaeda affiliate from Iraq splitted from the rebels and gained its own territory. The new group, calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), actually became Al Qaeda’s enemy. ISIS started fighting other rebel groups as well as the Kurds, and quickly gained territory, establishing a mini-state. Though it would seem that everyone in Syria would be more motivated to destroy ISIS at this point, this actually complicated the war massively. The US and France now will not back Syrian rebels who do not fight ISIS. The Kurds now receive little support and, historically, they received a great deal of support from the US following the Gulf War. It’s established now that there is no force in Syria that has the same motivations, with not only the internal, but also external forces, unable to really work towards a common goal.
2015 – Turkey, Russia and the UK became involved.
Turkey, though already involved in the Syrian war by training rebels, began bombing Kurdish forces in the North. This deepened tensions with the US, as they are part of NATO, but bombing the US-backed Kurdish rebellion at the same time. In the meantime, Assad began losing ground and actually controlled only a small strip of land on the western coast of Syria, with ISIS controlling the majority of the land and the Free Syrian Army and the Kurds controlling large portions. Russia then intervened as well, declaring that they will only be bombing ISIS. However, the evidence proves they are in fact bombed mostly Syrian-rebel-controlled cities like Aleppo. Assad began gaining ground again, and the rebels and ISIS seemed to lose it as the US launched airstrikes on ISIS-controlled areas like Al-Raqqah.
This was the general situation ahead of the Paris attacks. However, since then Russia began bombing ISIS frequently, and the city of Aleppo is under siege as Assad is battling for dominance. Turkey directly opposed Russia – and Assad, by bringing down a Russian fighter jet flying in its airspace. The UK voted in favour of airstrikes in Syria, and will concentrate on defeating ISIS. France also stepped up their game and led a number of airstrikes in Northern Syria. The French government officially declared war on ISIS, recognising it as a state, and asked many of its allies to get involved in the Syrian war, under the UN.