After three years of sectarian violence that has killed more than 150,000 people and led to the rise of Islamic State, the conflict shows no sign of ending. On Sept. 23, the U.S. and its allies began airstrikes in Syria as part of a military campaign to destroy the extremist group. The U.S. also plans a $500 million program to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition forces that are rivals to Islamic State in the country’s civil war, joining allies like Saudi Arabia that have been backing the rebels. The U.S. overcame a reluctance to intervene inside Syria after the militants seized a swath of territory in Syria and northern Iraq with a rampage of terror that has included the beheading of two American journalists and a British aid worker. Earlier in the year, a Western-backed coalition of opposition groups and negotiators from the Syrian government held two rounds of peace talks in Geneva without any agreement. The U.S. and Russia had pushed for the meetings, saying a political solution was the only way to end the conflict. The two countries also worked together to get UN inspectors to tally and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons after the U.S. threatened to bomb Syrian government positions following a poison gas attack in August 2013. The violence has leveled cities and included massacres of women and children.
Once a French-run mandate, Syria got independence after the end of World War II. By 1963, the Arab nationalist Baath party was ruling the country after a coup. A party member, Hafez al-Assad, seized power in 1970. (His son Bashar took over after Hafez’s death in 2000.) That placed the Alawite minority, whose faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, in power in a country where more than 70 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. Syria, which has 22 million people in total, also has sizable Christian, Druze and Kurdish communities. In 1982, Hafez used tanks and artillery against residential neighborhoods to crush a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama, which killed an estimated 25,000 people. Bashar turned to his father’s playbook to end the latest threat to his family’s rule, crushing peaceful protests in March 2011 and then unleashing attack aircraft, helicopter gunships, artillery and tanks against lightly armed rebels. The conflict has created more than 2 million refugees and displaced more than 8 million people within Syria. The rebels hold some cities and large swaths of the countryside, though neither side appears close to a decisive military victory. Assad is being armed by Iran and Russia, which has used its UN Security Council veto four times to protect the regime. Russia maintains its only military base outside the former Soviet Union at Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus.
With no sign that Assad is willing to give up the fight and Islamic State holding territory, there’s not a lot of optimism that peace will return anytime soon to Syria. Rebel groups are vying for power and there’s concern the U.S.-led airstrikes might ultimately help Assad. The UN’s deployment of unarmed observers to the country two years ago didn’t halt the violence, and Lebanon and Somalia serve as reminders of states where peacekeepers weren’t able to stabilize a country in a civil war. Efforts to arm and train moderate Syrian rebel groups may be rendered useless by sudden power shifts on the ground. There’s also concern that if foreign governments supply more-advanced weapons to the rebels, they might fall into the hands of the Islamic State or other al-Qaeda-inspired groups, which could turn them against the U.S. and its allies. Russia, for its part, says its goal isn’t to keep Assad in power, but rather to keep Syria secular, independent and, most importantly, intact.
The Reference Shelf
- A Bloomberg Markets article on the threat to the Syrian regime as the country’s economy collapses from sanctions.
- Facts & Figures from Bloomberg News on the combatants and politicians participating in the Syrian civil war.
- The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work to dismantle Syria’s stockpile, has a special section on the country on its website.
- The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad group, reports casualties on both sides of the conflict.
- Patrick Seale’s 1989 book “Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East,” provides insight into the regime and its role in the region.