Straightforward Answers to Basic Questions About Syria’s War

We adapted this from our site, but even our straightforward answers are complex. So for the full explanation, you'll want to read this: http://nyti.ms/2cUaijs
  1. What is the Syrian civil war?
    The war makes more sense if you think of it as 4 overlapping conflicts. The core conflict is between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels who oppose him. Over time, both sides fractured into multiple militias, including local and foreign fighters, but their fundamental disagreement is over whether Assad’s government should stay in power.
  2. What about the Kurds?
    That's the second conflict: Syria’s ethnic Kurdish minority took up arms amid the chaos. The Kurds carved out a de facto ministate. While Assad has not focused on fighting the Kurdish groups, they are opposed by neighboring Turkey, which is in conflict with its own Kurdish minority.
  3. And ISIS?
    Yep, the third conflict involves the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which emerged out of infighting among jihadist groups. In 2014, the Islamic State seized large parts of Syria and Iraq. It has no allies and is at war with all other actors in the conflict.
  4. Where do foreign governments come in?
    The fourth, and most complex, dynamic of Syria's civil war may be the crisscrossing foreign interventions. Assad receives vital support from Iran and Russia, as well as the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. The rebels are backed by the U.S. and oil-rich Arab states like Saudi Arabia.
  5. How did the war happen?
    On the surface, the conflict began in 2011 with the Arab Spring. But Syria was also weak in ways that made it inherently unstable and prone to violence. The government was dominated by a minority group. A decade of war in neighboring Iraq had produced extremist groups that now flowed into Syria. Plus, Syria was sucked into the regional power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
  6. Which countries are involved?
    IRAN was first, sending supplies and soldiers to prop up Assad. It sees Syria as crucial to its regional strategy. SAUDI ARABIA supported Syria’s rebels in the hopes of replacing Assad with a friendlier government and of countering Iran’s influence. The UNITED STATES funnels weapons to Syria’s rebels and has armed Kurdish groups. TURKEY sheltered Syrian rebels and ushered in foreign recruits. RUSSIA has backed Assad from the beginning, selling him arms and providing diplomatic cover.
  7. Why is the war so bloody?
    Because neither Assad nor the rebels are strong enough to win, the battle lines push back and forth in waves of destruction that kill thousands but accomplish little else. Foreign interventions have made those shifting front lines even bloodier and have deepened the stalemate. And militias have filled the vacuum. Their leaders often behave more as warlords, forcibly extracting resources from local communities.
  8. Why is it divided by religion?
    It helps to start about 100 years ago.
  9. Wait, what? I thought you said this was straightforward.
    Bear with us. After World War I, France took control of an Ottoman Empire territory that is now Syria. France ruled through minority groups, and that included Alawites, followers of a branch of Shiite Islam. The last French troops left in 1946, and Syria’s military consolidated power in a 1970 coup led by Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite general and the father of Bashar al-Assad.
  10. And now?
    Syria’s authoritarian government favored Alawites and other minorities, widening social and political divides along sectarian lines. As the war has worsened, many Syrians have based their allegiance on sectarian identity. This contributes to atrocities: If Alawites are seen as innately pro-Assad, then Sunni militias could conclude that all Alawite civilians are a threat and treat them accordingly, which prompts more defensive sorting.
  11. Why is the refugee crisis so large?
    The war in Syria has produced nearly five million refugees. Host countries often bar them from working, meaning that families cannot provide for themselves. Many Syrian children are deprived of education. European voters have largely rejected them, supporting extreme measures to keep out Syrians and other migrants. As a result, many refugees are stuck in camps in Italy and Greece. Many others die trying to reach Europe.