This here is Syria
The state of Syria more or less dates from the aftermath of the First World War, when it was created as a dependent of the French Empire. It gained full independence after WWII. It was once a major power in the region, coming within inches of defeating Israel in the Yom Kippur War (1973). But it started declining militarily after the Soviet Union collapsed, and after the Arab Spring movement in 2011 the central government more or les collapsed, plunging the once-stable country into one of the worst civil wars in history.
Introducing Bashir Al-Assad
The Assad family has ruled Syria since the early 70s, Bashir taking over on the death of his father in 2000. At first people thought he’d be a moderate, possibly even leading Syria toward democracy (“he’s an ophthalmologist, after all!”). But he was a cruel bastard with close ties to the military, and after the protests in 2011, he cracked down with a viciousness that boggles the mind. Last time I checked the list of counts in his potential war crimes trial has reached 20 counts, including crimes against humanity. He refuses to even consider stepping down. He’s long since wiped out the moderates, leaving only the fundamentalists alive — in fact he released a lot of Jihadists from prison in order to shape his war as being against fundamentalism. But his presence, and his crimes, are the biggest reason why the war continues. It is impossible to picture a return to a reunited, stable Syria with him at its head. The rebels will keep fighting as long as he’s in power.
Syria is a patchwork of people
Like neighboring Iraq, Syria’s borders are the product of Western imperialism rather than of domestic forces. As a result you’ve got a complicated interplay of faiths and ethnicities, and the areas of control in the civil war reflects that. In the north you’ve got the Kurds, who have a lot of enemies (mostly because they seek independence); you’ve got huge areas of majority Sunni Muslim areas, in the north, south and east. And in the west you’ve got the Alawites, who form a unique corner of the Muslim neighborhood, but who are broadly considered Shiite Muslims. Though sometimes not. Anyway they have dominated the Syrian establishment under the Assad family. This sectarianism is another factor in Syria’s inherent instability.
The Syrian military employs brutal tactics
Let’s talk about barrel bombs. What are these? Simple: a very low-tech method for blowing things up. Literally fill a big barrel with explosives, maybe weld on some fins (or not), and drop it from a helicopter onto a neighborhood that opposes you. The result: entire city blocks blown to bits. They’ve dropped a lot of these things – nearly 20,000 people have died. At last count, around 96% of the victims have been civilians and half of those victims have been women and children.
You won’t believe this one
Guess how many countries have jets operating over Syria? The answer is Thirteen. Thirteen countries are operating in Syria’s skies. They are: The US, Britain, Canada, France, Australia, Russia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, Turkey and of course Syria. Technically none of these countries are at war with one another, but tensions are extremely high, near-clashes are frequent (Russian jets have been shot down by the Turks and have come close to dog fighting Israelis. It’s a dangerous mess).
Navies are there too
Syria has a sea-coast, which means navies are operating there too. The US Navy is there in force, partly because the Russians are operating as many ships as they can in the region (they’ve got a little base on the Syrian coast they’re hoping to keep using). The Brits are there, the French have had their big nuclear-powered carrier there, subs of many nations. Again, it’s a tense situation with plenty of opportunities for clashes and war.
Defeat after defeat: The Syrian Army
Syrian forces were once among the most formidable in the Mideast, having rammed its mighty armored divisions up Israel’s backside almost to the Dead Sea. However since that amazing military feat, the army has experienced steady decline, and the civil war has caused devastating losses. At the start of the fighting, the army was hit by large-scale desertion, and since then has suffered severe casualties. The rebels have proven particularly skilled in blowing its once terrifying tanks. YouTube is full of videos taken by rebels of deadly missile attacks. It’s estimated that the Syrian government has lost around 60,000 men and perhaps 3,000+ tanks. That is a lot of casualties. Syria’s manpower reserves are severely depleted, and the government would probably have fallen long ago if it weren’t for the help it’s been getting from its pals. The Syrians also employ assorted militias and death squads.
Hezbollah: Assad’s buddies in bad times
Hezbollah is a militia based in southern Lebanon. It earned its spurs fighting Israel during that nation’s occupation of Lebanon in the 1980s and 90s. Since then it has engaged in sporadic conflict with Israel, including outright war in 2006. However the Syrian civil war now dominates the militia’s attention. Hezbollah has always been very close to the Syrian government, and nowadays Hezbollah has involved itself militarily in the civil war to a very major degree. No one knows how many Hezbollah fighters are in Syria, but it has to be several thousand, as they’ve been reported to be operating all over the place. They’re very tough and are a crucial part of the opposition to the rebels, but they have taken heavy casualties: maybe 2,000 killed and 5,000 wounded, but no one really knows. It is known that Hezbollah leaders have begun offering juicy perks for fighters who volunteer for the fighting, including $2,000 cash and free schooling for their families. It’s also known that the fighting has begun to blow back against the group, with the recent killing of Hezbollah’s ground commander in Syria at the hand of Jihadists making the headlines (at first it was assumed that Israel had done it).
Iran: keeping Assad afloat
Syria would probably have collapsed without the support it receives from Iran. The Iranians see the survival of the Syrian regime as crucial to its interests. For one thing it has been closely tied to Syria for many years, and would lose a lot of prestige. But also the fighting has taken on the character of a flight between Shiite and Sunni Muslims (Iran is Shiite), and dreads the advent of murderous anti-Shiite groups like ISIS. They’ve pumped loads of weapons, equipment, training and other support, into the government regime. There have also, reportedly, been Iranian combat troops on the ground, under the guise of militias, perhaps 15,000 soldiers, mostly elite Republican Guards and various special forces guys; it’s not known how many of these are engaged in combat and how many are training and advising Syrian forces. Note that Iran is also fighting on the eastern side of the battle, in Iraq, where Shiite militias are trying to push back groups like ISIS. Iran has also taken casualties, having lost a general or two and who knows how many men. It’s been speculated that the recent dropping of Iranian sanctions will give Iran more cash, which will result in stepped-up military participation and, therefore, more death (and possible advances for the Syrian government).
A key Syrian friend: Russia
Russian leader Vladimir Putin surprised the world by suddenly announcing the deployment of air forces into Syria. Russia (and the Soviets) had long been friendly with Syria, serving as primary arms supplier. Putin said the deployment was intended to fight back Islamic extremism, particularly ISIS, which is a big help because most of Syria’s jets have been destroyed (shot down, destroyed on the ground or just plain busted). However, while rebels have been targeted, the Russians have basically brought an element of unpredictability to the fighting. For starters, their low-tech aircraft lack smart bombs and targeting pods; they rely on so-called “dumb bombs”, which are unguided. The result has been an unknown number of civilian casualties, including at least two hospitals destroyed with at least dozens of people killed. Hospitals are crucial in a war where civilians suffer so much, with maybe 200,000 patients scattered across many medical locations. Almost half of the patients are women and children. The Russian strikes (which also employ helicopter gunships) have helped the Syrians hold their military collapse, and have even assisted in pushing back the rebels. Putin recently announced he was pulling his planes out, but a force remains (mostly helicopters now), and continues to blow things up.
The rebels. In Vietnam, there was basically just the communists; in Afghanistan, it’s mostly the Taliban. In Syria there are lots of rebel groups. How many? No one knows and if they did, the number changes almost daily. Let’s say 100 groups. Yeah, 100 rebel groups. They change names. They team up. They form larger groups. Those larger groups form “armies.” Those “armies” then split apart. The larger groups split apart. No one can get along. Their names change. They win victories. They suffer defeats. They’re all united in their hatred of the murderous Assad regime. They are dominated by Islamic fundamentalists, though some are more dangerous (to us) than others. Some want to topple Assad. Others have a larger vision. But the huge number of groups will make any real peace deal supremely difficult to negotiate (is there even a table big enough for all those guys?). Imagine trying to get all those groups to agree on anything when they’re constantly falling out with one another.
ISIS – The biggest rebel group
These guys are more or less the dominant rebel group. They’ve manage to stay united, and have held on to most of their territory, which includes large areas of Iraq as well as Syria. They’re also among the sickest, most brutal, and horrifyingly evil bunch of humans who ever fought a war. They’re up there with the Nazi Einzatsgruppen in terms of horrible. ISIS soldiers routinely force children to be soldiers. They routinely employ torture, murder and rape. Rape as punishment, rape as rewards for soldiers. Women and girls (i.e. kids) are force in to marriage with ISIS soldiers. They once killed some men by locking them in cages then tossing those cages into the sea. Their brand as the “true” Islamic caliphate means a continued flow of new recruits, as well as new outlets sprouting up across the Muslim world, including Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, Indonesia, even the Philippines, where they recently beheaded a kidnapped Canadian tourist. They’ve also inspired terror attacks in Turkey and Europe. They’ve even been reported in the Caribbean. People aren’t wrong when they call these guys a major threat.
The Kurds – Fighting the good fight
Personally, I consider the Kurds the good guys in this whole mess. They fight hard and they fight well. Their goal is an independent Kurdish nation, but that’s taking a backseat to fighting forces determined to destroy them, mostly ISIS. They also fight the Syrian regime, and have successfully carved out territory along the Turkish border. If they can completely cut off ISIS from Turkey, they’ll have severed ISIS’s main supply routes. However they’re always short of supplies and support. The Turkish government hates them, because some maps of an independent Kurdistan have Turkey losing up to 40% of its territory. So they actually have been bombing the Kurds even as the Kurds fight ISIS and the Syrian regime too. The West does help the Kurds, mostly with training, but it’s hard to get too chummy with them for fear of pissing off the Turks, and, well, we need the Turks. And yes, the Kurds routinely use female soldiers in combat. They all basically prefer suicide over capture, because they’re aware of the horrors that await them if ISIS (or the Syrians, frankly) get them alive. ISIS meanwhile hates them, because they consider it a horrible disgrace to be wounded by a woman and if they die in combat at the hands of a women, they’re not considered martyrs.
The rebels aren’t just Syrian
People are flocking to Syria from all over. From Russia, from all over the EU, from the US and Canada, from every Muslim nation. There are even ethnic Uighurs from China. This isn’t a generation content with posting updates to social media (though they’re extremely active across all social media) — the ultimate goal is to get over there, and get into the fight. All the countries flying jets over the war? There are also volunteers from those same nations involved in the fighting. In a sense, we’re fighting both sides of the war. Efforts are being made in the West to stop the radicalization of young men, but with only mixed results at best. We should expect the flow of manpower to continue for the time being. The guys who arrive without training or experience are mostly used as cannon-fodder, their lives thrown away with indifference.
Out of all the many factions and groups involved in the war, we’re focused on ISIS because they’re the biggest threat to us. In theory, the goal is to defeat ISIS using airpower only, without the risks associated with “putting boots on the ground.” Airpower has indeed damaged ISIS, and has definitely halted their progress. They also have to be careful about moving around in the open. However, no war has ever been won by airpower alone. A ground force would clean their clocks, but as happened in Iraq, would almost certainly get bogged down in a guerrilla war. So yes, there are boots on the ground (and casualties have been taken) but they’re mostly in a support role, training Kurdish fighters and Iraqis. There’s also a Marine artillery firebase operating in Iraq targeting ISIS (and being targeted in return) but so far the ground commitment has been pretty small. I don’t think anyone is eager to repeat the Iraq War.
The Saudis are in there too
Saudi Arabia has a large, well-equipped military with modern weapons and equipment. Like most of the region’s (Sunni) governments, they view Assad and his regime as the main problem. As a result they’ve been supporting the rebels in hopes of toppling the Syrian government. They have jets in the air and have sent weapons to rebels. Apparently they helped out ISIS in its early days but (reportedly) don’t anymore. However, many Saudi officials buy into the Sunni-versus-Shiite spin on the conflict. Some have been quoted as predicting a wholesale genocidal slaughter of the Shiites. Back in February, the Saudis scared Iran by angrily promising a major ground intervention in Syria to wipe out Assad and his backers. That never happened, but it’s a constant threat. One thing to remember, though: the Saudi Regime is very shaky; it’s dominated by a royal family that’s widely viewed as hypocritical and corrupt. Also, about those high-tech ground forces — they recently intervened in Yemen to fight Iranian-backed rebels and did not do well at all. So getting too deeply involved in Syria could destabilize the Saudi government, and that is something we don’t want (ISIS is already active there). They have sent a lot of antitank missiles to Syria, though, and those have taken a devastating toll on Syrian tanks.
The human cost
This war has been a nightmare. How many have died? Estimates vary, but let’s call it half a million killed. Of those, most are civilians, and at least half have been women and children. In fact Children have suffered horribly. The Syrian government routinely arrests and tortures children, while the rebels routinely force them into uniform. Kids are routinely raped an murdered. Add the killed and wounded together and you get maybe 2 million people. Around 5 million Syrians are refugees outside Syria, mostly in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. An estimated 10% of them have fled the region in hopes of finding safety in Europe, with thousands dying in the attempt; after an initial warm welcome, they’re now stirring up hostility. Many of these people are severely traumatized by what they’ve experienced — for young people, all they’ve known is war. Around 6.5 million Syrians are refugees within Syria, and suffer terribly. Most kids aren’t going to school, there isn’t enough food, and war is everywhere. The suffering is extreme, and looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. And a we know well, the suffering is likely to just make more war, extremism and suffering. This thing could still be causing damage a hundred years from now.
So what does the future hold?
More war, more deaths, more nightmarish suffering, more refugees. These things are all but certain. ISIS is unlikely to be snuffed out anytime soon — their strength is growing in many countries, particularly Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. The rebels are unlikely to unite under one flag, except by force. Countries in the region are vulnerable and in danger of collapse, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Iranian ambitions are unlikely to be squashed in the immediate future. Public figures in the US and elsewhere may talk tough but are unlikely to devote a major ground force to Syria and are also unlikely to take serious action against Assad and his cronies, for fear of strengthening ISIS. The Kurds will hopefully continue holding off the Syrians and ISIS, because if hey don’t they risk genocide. Iraq is a mess that will continue to play a role in the Syrian War.