The Syrian Civil War and its Effects


Shaheryar Gill

October 26, 2015

6 min read

Middle East



Do you have questions about what is happening in Syria, who is fighting whom and what side everyone is on? You’re not alone.

As headlines and news stories detail the latest developments in Syria, it’s vitally important that people know the truth of what is going on and what is at stake.

The United States’ most dangerous enemies are all on the ground in Syria in one capacity or another, part of a proxy war and geopolitical struggle that could alter the global balance of power for years and possibly even decades.

Here’s what you need to know:

Since the early 1970s, Syria has been controlled by a single family – first by a man named Hafez al-Assad, who seized power in 1970, and then by his son Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded Hafez in 2000 and has ruled Syria ever since.

The Assad family is Alawite, which means they adhere to a minority branch of the Islamic faith that is related to Shiite Islam. However, Alawite Islam is not the majority religion in Syria: most of the population is Sunni Muslims. The relationship between the Sunni branch of Islam and the Alawite and Shiite branches is extremely adverse; both believe followers of the other sect are not true followers of Islam. In order to maintain power, the Assad regime has ruthlessly suppressed the Sunni population ever since Hafez al-Assad came to power, fostering conditions ripe for an uprising.

In 2011, a series of revolutionary anti-government uprisings spread across the Middle East, which has been referred to as the Arab Spring. The kick-off incident was the Tunisian Revolution in December of 2010, which emboldened anti-government rebellions throughout other Arab countries. In Syria, a civil uprising against Assad’s regime began as public demonstrations and protests, but as the government clamped down with harsh security measures, the uprising intensified into violent armed conflict. The long-suppressed Sunni Muslims saw this as an opportunity to overthrow the Alawite Assad Regime and to create a Sunni Arab nation in its place. Thus, the Syrian Civil War began.

The Syrian Civil War is a complicated web of alliances and rivalries, which has drawn several international actors into its turmoil.

Assad’s Allies
Iran, a predominately Shiite Muslim nation, is supporting Assad due to the close relation between Alawite Islam and Shiite Islam. Iran also has an interest in keeping Assad in power because it has significant influence over him, and because Syria is strategically positioned close to Iran’s enemy, Israel.

Following Iran’s lead is Hezbollah, a Shiite terrorist group which operates as Iran’s proxy. Hezbollah supports Assad because of Iran’s influence.

Iraq is also supporting Assad. Iraq’s central government is dominated by Shiite Muslims, and therefore it fears a Sunni-controlled Syria.

Finally, Russia has entered the fray on Assad’s side. Russia has several interests in Assad’s continued dominance. First, it desires to protect its military bases that it has established in Syria, and to increase its control in the Middle East. Second, allying with Assad will provide Russia with more influence and favor from his regime in the future. Finally, Russia seeks to oppose the United States’ interests in the Middle East.

Assad’s Enemies
Things get more complicated when one explores the various forces opposing Assad’s regime. This is because the opposition is not a single unified force, but rather several disparate groups, each with its own purpose and goals, and many of these forces are not allies of one another.

The primary rebel force opposing Assad’s regime is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which formed in 2011. The FSA is headed by a body called the Supreme Military Council (SMC). The FSA, however, has been characterized as a loose coalition of armed groups, rather than a unified army. The individual groups operate more-or-less independently, with their own command structures, and simply report to the SMC through the chain of command. The SMC in turn functions mostly as a channel for foreign funding and arms supplies.

Two radical Jihadist groups have also joined the fray: the al-Nusra Front and ISIS – the Islamic State. Although they operate as separate entities, both groups want to overthrow Assad and establish an Islamic caliphate that will extend beyond Syria’s borders.

Several international actors have organized into an “international coalition” against Assad and in favor of the rebels. The primary member of this coalition is the United States, which has supported some rebel groups, which it considers to be “moderate,” with weapons, financial support, and some training. The United States’ primary goal, however, is to contain ISIS, unlike the rebels who primarily wish to remove Assad and establish a Sunni state. As such, the U.S. has focused its air strikes only against ISIS targets, and not directly against the Assad government. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are also members of this international coalition, and are primarily opposed to ISIS.

Thus, the presence of radical Jihadist groups (particularly ISIS) has created a complicated triangle of hostility among the various actors: ISIS is opposed to Assad and his allies, Assad and his allies are opposed to ISIS and the other rebel groups, and the rebel groups are opposed to Assad, but are also backed by an international coalition led by the United States which primarily seeks to defeat ISIS.

Assad’s Goals
Assad’s primary goal is to suppress the Sunni rebel groups and maintain his authoritative control over Syria. However, the regime’s military strategies have exacerbated disorder, perpetrated severe human rights violations, and fostered an atmosphere of instability, which has allowed radical jihadist groups such as ISIS to expand and grow in strength.

This represents a serious threat to American interests, which the current administration has failed to properly address. In addition, it poses a clear and present danger to Christians in the region, as persecution quickly expands and with extraordinary barbarity. Furthermore, all of the primary combatants in this war (Assad, the rebel forces, and ISIS) are enemies of Israel, including the so-called “moderate” rebel forces that the United States has been supporting. Thus, the situation in Syria is an extremely critical one that cannot be ignored or underplayed.