syria-flag | Syrian Perspective

Syrian Civil War

We've been avoiding doing a deep dive on Syria because, quite frankly, it's hard. But Syria is important.

We’ve been avoiding doing a deep dive on Syria because, quite frankly, it’s hard. But Syria is important. The civil war is one of the biggest failures of every country’s foreign policy — millions of people are continually affected and no one knows how to end it. So we have attempted to make some sense of it as follows:

First, the numbers:

  • The war has lasted four and a half years.
  • 250,000 to 300,000 people are estimated dead.
  • 4 million people are refugees.
  • 10 million people are internally displaced (of a prewar population of ~22 million).
  • 75% of the population is Sunni Muslim, 15% is Shiite and 10% is Christian and other religious minorities.
  • Over a dozen countries are “involved” in the Syrian war in one way or another. (Russia, Britain, France, United States, Australia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Israel).

The key players:


  • Bashar Al-Assad: Syrian dictator. Inherited the job from his dad (wasn’t his dad’s first choice). The Syrian war started after he clamped down on protests during the “Arab Spring.” He has been implicated in war crimes and has used chemical weapons on his own people. He is Alawite (a minority sect of Shiite Islam) and allied with Iran.
  • Iran: Assad’s biggest supporter (they are also Shiite, but a different kind of Shiite). They oppose Saudi Arabia, America and Israel.
  • Hezbollah: A Lebanese Shiite militia, allied with Assad (he supplies them with weapons). Generally hate Israel, America and Saudi Arabia.
  • Russia: Long-standing ally of Assad. Showed up late to the war, but that didn’t stop them from making an entrance. They are fighting a “war against ISIS,” but there seems to be general confusion over who exactly they are bombing.

Anti-Assad Groups:

  • The Free Syrian Army (FSA): They are supposed to be the “good guys.”* They generally lack military prowess and don’t control significant territory. They often suffer from defections to Islamist groups. Have also been implicated in war crimes.
  • Kurds: Ethnic minority across Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Generally secular outlook. Fighting against Assad, Turkey and ISIS at the same time. Also “good guys.”
  • Saudi Arabia: Generally opposed to Arab Spring but decided to back the uprising in Syria because of its long-standing hatred of Iran (a nation close to Syria).
  • Turkey: Opposed to Assad, turns a blind eye when jihadis use the country to get to Syria, often found supporting Al-Qaeda in Syria. Now fighting “war on terror” primarily against the Kurds.
  • America: Hates Assad and thinks he should go. Habit of drawing red lines then not following through. Has trained up to four to five moderate rebels to fight against ISIS. Generally confused about what to do in Syria. Currently bombing ISIS (actually) and not happy with Russian involvement.

Other countries are also involved in the Anti-Assad or Anti-ISIS “coalition,” but for the sake of sanity we won’t include them here.

Terror groups (also Anti-Assad):

  • ISIS: Genocidal group in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq. Born out of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, but they had a fight and now hate each other.
  • Al Nusra Front: Al-Qaeda in Syria (not ISIS). Powerful anti-Assad force, often mistaken as “moderate rebels.”

Ok, so who is bombing whom?

  • Russia says it is bombing ISIS but is bombing other groups (including Al-Nusra) some of which are being supported by the US and Arab states.
  • Turkey says it is bombing ISIS but it is actually bombing the Kurds who are America’s allies. Russia and Turkey don’t get along.
  • America is bombing ISIS and doesn’t like Assad but isn’t bombing him. Russia and the US are sort of engaged in a proxy war with each other despite the fact that they are both “bombing ISIS.” Things have been chilly with them since the Ukraine war last year.
  • Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are funding Anti-Assad groups (a lot of this money ends up in the wrong hands… Al-Nusra).
  • Iran and Hezbollah are supporting Assad with whatever he needs.
  • The French are also bombing ISIS…

Confusing? Yeah, we know! And the worst part is no one we talked to seemed to have any idea how to solve it. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to stop everyone from sending more weapons and money to the country.

We don’t really know how things will end, but there are a few things that might happen:

  • Accidental collision: At least four air forces, including Russia and the US (who aren’t exactly getting along) are now flying uncoordinated bombing raids. Already a Russian incursion in Turkish airspace has everyone on edge.
  • Assad falls: As terrible as he is, there is no unified opposition force that will replace him. If he falls, the void will likely be filled by a series of extremist groups who will continue fighting with each other and target the ethnic minorities that are huddled in the territory he still controls.
  • Assad wins: Will take several years. Expect brutal reprisals and hundreds of thousands more dead.
  • Stalemate: Killing continues, thousands more dead. Refugee crisis continues.
  • Negotiated outcome: That would be the best solution… the only problem is not everyone doing the fighting will be invited to the table.

The problem is, as the war drags on, more and more Syrians are dying. The security vacuum and the presence of so many violent groups engaged in war crimes and wanton killing are prompting millions of Syrians to leave the country. As the situation turns from dire to hopeless what was a temporary stay in a refugee camp in Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon becomes a quest for permanent resettlement and a better life in Europe, the US and elsewhere. We saw a glimpse of it over the summer as thousands took the trek to Germany. If the world is serious about ending the refugee crisis once and for all, ending the war in Syria is a must. 

It almost seems like heads, Syrians lose and tails, Syrians lose. Sorry that we couldn’t be very helpful or provide you with the “right” answer. We hope this at least clarified just who is involved and how complicated it is.

If you are interested in the topic, we’ve compiled some suggested reading below:

Humans of New York series on Syrian refugees
“The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life” by Roger Owen
“The Rise of Islamic State” by Patrick Cockburn
“How Bashar Al-Assad Became so Hated” via The Atlantic
“Counting the Dead in Syria” via The Atlantic Yassin Al Hajj on Syria
“The Syrian Heartbreak” from 2013 but still relevant
“What will Happen to Syria” by Hugh Roberts
“Outside Powers will be Burnt by Syria” by Gideon Rachman (via FT paywall)
UNESCO on Palmyra

Finally, If you want to feel a little less helpless about the crisis donate to the UNHCR’s Kickstarter campaign.

Yes, I want to sound marginally more intelligent: