Modern day Syria resembles more the ruins of a former civilization than a vibrant country. The catastrophe to their society and the loss of human life is incalculable in scope, depressing to describe, and unfortunately – still ongoing.
It is difficult to make sense of the conflict. At the most elementary level it is a civil war between the Assad regime which is still in power throughout the chaos and the rebel forces fighting against the government.
The rebels fighting Assad include the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front, the Jayash al-Mujahideen, and many other rebel military groups. Some with progressive values and aspirations, and some with goals of turning Syria into a more conservative Islamist country.
Al-Nursa, essentially Al-Qaeda, is also against the Assad regime and has mobilized Islamic fighters all across the region to fight against Assad. Al-Qaeda is also fighting against some of the more moderate rebels who are also fighting Assad.
Thrown into this mix is the rise of the so-called Islamic State. IS has taken control over much of Syria and Iraq however has made enemies of nearly everyone along the way. IS is currently fighting Assad, but also more broadly fighting against the rest of the world.
Supporting Assad on the ground are groups such as Hezbollah, but also a few of the world’s key players such as Russia. Russia wants the conflict to end and is making efforts to kill off groups like IS. Russia supports Assad and so is also attacking the more moderate rebels.
The US has partnered with Russia to help with the conflict but there are fundamental differences between them. The US is against Assad and is actively aiding some of the rebel forces that Russia is attacking. Russia and the US do not agree on who is a rebel and who is a terrorist, they also do not agree on the future of Assad.
To the North West you have Turkey and the Kurds. Turkey is a member of NATO but acts very independently in its foreign policy. Turkey has tensions with Russia. The Kurds are a country-less people who have major population centres between Turkey and Syria. Turkey hates the Kurds and is using the Syrian conflict to attack them under the pretense of “fighting rebels”. The Kurds are some of the heaviest fighters attacking IS. There are credible but conflicting rumours that Turkey is allowing IS safe passage and economic stimulation in the hopes that IS will destabilize the Kurds.
Calling the relationship between the US and Russia a partnership is a bit inaccurate, while both agree IS and the extremists need to go, they differ fundamentally in their vision of Syria’s future. Furthermore, both are using the conflict as a catalyst to spread their own geopolitical control and influence throughout the region. The two countries are in a power struggle and the Syrian conflict is caught in the middle of it.
Beyond the political complications is also the ongoing conflict between the Sunni and Shia Muslims who for generations have warred and alienated the opposing religious group. This Sunni-Shia tension is exacerbated by the even larger conservative vs secularism conflict rampant in nearly all of modern Islam. What Islam is, what values it teaches, and how fundamental its teachings should be, are all up in the air as many Muslims are having an identity crisis in response to modernism and secularism. Whether Islam will have a reformation or continue to spiral out will necessarily be determined by its followers in the upcoming years and decades.
Furthermore, the population of the region is experiencing economic and social upheaval. The rejection of the Assad government, the lack of liberty, the rampant spread of of IS and extremism, the constant bombardment from foreign troops, and the spreading complexity of modernism and secularism have all disillusioned average citizens and created an environment of hostility, hopelessness, and violence.
Syria is a country with multiple fundamental competing interests, multiple different terrorist groups, multiple different rebel groups, multiple different countries sending in weapons, tensions between allies, tensions between Russia and the US, tensions between Sunnis and Shias, and tensions between conservatism and secularism. It is a country facing the calamity of a population on the brink of oblivion facing an oppressive regime that is using every option, including chemical weapons, to keep its claw on power.
Syria is a modern social disaster, a depressing example of what happens when competing actors strive for power, when culture and values clash, when religion self-implodes, and when brothers and sisters turn their weapons on each other. What is clear about Syria is that, one solution is not enough, one answer is not enough, one battle is not enough. For peace to come in Syria it will take a mountain of negotiating, compromise, and unfortunately, more conflict.
One can only hope that when the dust settles, some humanity still exists.
By Daniel Govedar (Sept 2016) (Edited Feb 2017)