The Syrian uprising’s first stirrings in 2011 marked the Arab Spring’s arrival to a country ruled by a regime intent on holding onto power forever. But two and a half years after protests first broke out, the uprising has turned into a catastrophic civil war fueled by outside powers jockeying for their own interests.
Inspired by the fall of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, Syrian children in the border town of Deraa drew anti-government graffiti on a school in February 2011. The arrests and brutal torture of the 15 young boys sparked protests that spread across the country. The Assad regime unleashed immense firepower on Syrian demonstrators calling for democracy and an end to the Assad family’s 43-year reign. The opposition then took up arms, eventually forming what came to be known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a ragtag group of fighters loosely organized to try to bring down Assad’s regime. While the FSA has taken over some territory, the Assad regime still exercises power in the country.
Meanwhile, the ongoing fighting has attracted thousands of foreign fighters, some of them radical Islamists, to take on Assad, who is viewed unfavorably by them because of his Alawite religious sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Outside powers also got involved quickly. So what started out as a civil uprising against years of repression, poverty and government corruption turned into a regional proxy war that is now engulfing the entire Middle East, with the nonviolent section of the opposition withering under the weight of civil war. Refugees have poured into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, and Lebanon has itself seen fighting linked to the Syrian crisis.
Now, the United States’ threats to rain cruise missiles down on Damascus threatens to ignite more turmoil in the region. Here’s a guide to the external players playing a role in and fueling the Syrian crisis, which has claimed the lives of over 100,000 people and displaced a third of the population.
1. United States
The looming military strikes on Syria by the U.S. would be the most forceful intervention yet from the world’s superpower. But even without the strikes, the U.S. has long played an outside role during the Syrian civil war.
President Barack Obama first showed his hand in 2011, when he said, “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” By the next year, the CIA was training Syrian rebels in Jordan, a longstanding ally of the U.S. now playing an important role as a base for the rebels and a haven for millions of refugees. CIA agents have trained a small group of FSA fighters with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons in the hopes of helping American-vetted rebels gain an upper hand in the civil war. And in March 2013, the New York Times reportedthat “with help from the C.I.A., Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters.”
The training of rebels represented a direct break from past U.S. dealings with the Assad regime. Before the uprising emerged, the U.S. had a complicated relationship with Syria which included cooperation on anti-terrorism, sanctioning the regime and meeting with the Assads to encourage U.S.-backed reform measures.
But the U.S. training of the rebels made only a small impact. Perhaps the most effective fighting force within Syria has been the Jabhat al-Nusra front, an Al-Qaeda linked group. Trepidation about U.S. arms falling into the hands of jihadist groups that could threaten Israel and other U.S. allies has tempered the willingness to open the arms floodgates. Although the U.S. Congress authorized arming the rebels earlier this year, much of the equipment hasn’t reached the rebels.
Now, the alleged chemical weapons attack on a Syrian suburb seems to have overridden past qualms about not getting in too deep. Cruise missile strikes may not shift the battlefield, but it could embroil the U.S. further into the war while doing little to calm the refugee and humanitarian crises.
The Obama administration’s pitch to lawmakers to convince them bombing Syria is a good idea centers on the alleged threat from Iran. They have been telling Congress it’s important to send a message to Iran about its own nuclear energy program. And hawkish U.S. politicians have long framed the Syrian crisis as an opportunity to strike a blow at Iran.
There’s a reason for all the focus on Iran: it's a crucial ally of the Assad regime. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the two countries have been largely united by the common political goals of opposition to the U.S. and Israel, though there have been rough patches in their partnership. For Iran, Syria is a crucial foothold in the Arab world and a conduit for arming the Lebanese group Hezbollah. Iran has poured billions of dollars of investments in Syria. And during the Syrian civil war, Iran has been a key force helping Assad stay in power. Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops have reportedly fought on the side of Assad.
The Iranian leadership is opposed to a U.S. strike on Syria, though Iran’s past with chemical weapons has led officials to denounce their use in the civil war without explicitly assigning blame. The potential U.S. strike on Syria could impact hopes of rapprochement between Iran and the U.S.—hopes that have intensified since the election of Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani earlier this year.
Closely linked to Iran’s involvement in Syria is Hezbollah’s even greater involvement. The Lebanese militant group that grew out of resisting the Israeli occupation of Lebanon and won the praise of Arabs in various countries for that feat is a key ally of Iran and Syria. Iran provided the arms that made Hezbollah such a potent force because Syria allowed it to do so. Now, Hezbollah is deeply enmeshed in the Syrian civil war, acting as an effective fighting force to keep Assad in power. Hezbollah sees the survival of the Assad regime as crucial to its own survival.
Since the civil war started, there have long been reports of Hezbollah fighters backing Assad. But it was decisively confirmed in May 2013, when Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech casting the Syrian conflict as a battle against America, Israel and the radical Sunni jihadists he claimed they were backing. Hezbollah fighters were sent to fight alongside Syrian forces in the strategic town of Qusayr, and in June Syria captured the town from rebels.
Hezbollah’s actions have been controversial within Lebanon, with some questioning why Hezbollah is fighting other Arabs instead of Israel. And the war has followed Hezbollah back home. Lebanon—which, like Syria, is composed of various competing ethnic and religious groups—was beset by intense fighting between sides who back different players in Syria over the summer. Car bombs have targeted Lebanese Shiite neighborhoods, where Hezbollah’s power is the strongest. And refugees have flowed into Lebanon, adding considerable economic and political strain to the country.
Israel and Syria have a complicated relationship. Officially, they are enemies. Syria was one of a handful of Arab states that fought Israel in a number of wars, most notably the 1967 war, when Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria and occupied it ever since. In a move never recognized by the international community, Israel annexed the part of Golan it controlled in 1981, and it has built illegal settlements in the Israeli-controlled side of the area. It has long been a Syrian goal to regain the Golan Heights, and negotiations between the two sides have accelerated over the past decade with that goal in mind. But they have not been successful, and Israel continues to control part of the Heights.
The Syrian regime has long used anti-Israel rhetoric as a rallying cry to bolster its own legitimacy. But that rhetoric has never matched military action to retake the Golan. And Israel has been perfectly content with the Assad regime’s rule, since it provided much needed stability on its border with Syria, though Syria has backed Israel’s more potent enemies, Hamas and Hezbollah, though the relationship with Hamas has frayed since the Palestinian group announced it was supporting the uprising against Assad.
Israel’s preferred outcome of the conflict is to have no solution at all—to have both sides, neither of whom Israel particularly likes, fight and bleed each other dry. Although the fall of the Syrian regime would greatly weaken Hezbollah and Iran, Israel is wary of the prospect of radical Islamists who are willing to turn their arms toward the Jewish state.
The most decisive action Israel has taken has been to bomb Syria as the regime sought to transfer weapons to Hezbollah. Israel has launched airstrikes on Syria three times since the uprising began. But those strikes were not aimed at toppling Assad.
Now, Israel is backing U.S. bombs on Syria, and supplied intelligence to the U.S. to make its chemical weapons case. But its willingness to see U.S. intervention is more about Iran than Syria. Israel wants the U.S. to show Iran that a “red line” crossed would mean military action. That’s why the pro-Israel U.S. lobbying group, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is also backing U.S. strikes on Syria.
While the U.S. has only tepidly backed the overthrow of Assad, Russia has decisively backed the Assad regime. Russia has vetoed every UN Security Council attempt to take action against the Assad regime. It is also steadfastly opposed to any military action against Assad, and retains close political and intelligence links to the Syrian regime.
Russia’s close ties to Syria dates to a Cold War-era alliance, but the collapse of the Soviet Union did not end the relationship. Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean is located in Syria, providing it a military foothold outside of its normal purview and a sphere of some influence in the Middle East. Syria is also a frequent buyer of Russian arms. Furthermore, Russia also has its own reasons to worry about the radical Islamists who are part of the rebel groups in Syria. Russia has battled an Islamist-fueled insurgency in Chechnya, and it’s wary of any similar group gaining power.
Lastly, as former U.S. intelligence officer Wayne White explains, Russia “may well view supporting Bashar al-Assad as yet another way of expressing displeasure with much of the criticism they have received from Washington predating the Syrian uprising, and demonstrating that their Middle East policy is not subject to American approval.”
6. Saudi Arabia
This theocratic monarchy and close U.S. ally has been a crucial node of opposition to the Arab Spring in many countries. But in Syria, Saudi Arabia would like nothing more than to see the Assad regime fall in order to install a Sunni Arab regime friendly to Saudi interests. And they’re forcefully backing the prospect of U.S. military action.
Saudi Arabia’s preoccupation in recent years has been Iran. Both powers have their own spheres of influence, and are locked in a battle for regional hegemony. So they see the downfall of the Assad regime as a decisive blow against Iran’s government.
Saudi Arabia has translated this desire into action. It has funded and armed Syrian rebels, including to Islamists. (Qatar, another oil-rich country, is backing its own group of rebels, and these also include jihadists.) A small number of Saudis funded by rich compatriots have also flocked to Syria to fight the Assad regime.