People want to know what’s going on in Syria, either because it’s interesting, because they feel a duty to others to recognise their suffering, or maybe they just don’t want to seem uninformed in front of their friends. The problem is that you can actually read 10 news articles about Syria without understanding what’s going on, or why it’s happening. When we read the news, we see refugees and a war torn country, and ISIS, and persecution, but that’s not the same thing as knowing why those things are the way they are.
Let’s start off with this: Syria is a country in the Middle East. During something called the Arab Spring, where people in lots of countries protested and sometimes overthrew the people in power, there was also protests in Syria.
The president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, cracked down on the protesters, which only made the people angrier. What started out as street protests and riots grew into an insurgency and full-blown conflict, with the rebels on one side and the government on the other. This part was simple: rebels versus Assad.
Here’s where it gets a little trickier. We’re going to tackle the Sunni/Shia divide. You might have heard people reference it, but here’s what it really means. We all know that Christianity has multiple sects or denominations, like Protestants and Catholics, and that those groups haven’t historically gotten along. It’s very similar in Islam, where the sects are Sunni Islam and Shia Islam respectively. You don’t need to know the theological difference – people barely know the religious differences between Catholics and Protestants – just that they exist.
Now, whether you’re Sunni or Shia makes a big difference in the Middle East, because it’s seen as part of a struggle between the two sects for dominance. Two of the biggest players in this struggle are Saudi Arabia and Iran, and we’re going to learn a trick to remember which is which. If you think that “it’s always sunny in Saudi Arabia”, you’ll remember that Saudi Arabia is the Sunni power, and that leaves Iran to be the Shia one. (And if you’re very stuck and can’t tell Iran and Iraq apart, try “we did Not invade IraN”).
So Saudi Arabia and Iran are constantly jostling for regional dominance, and this plays into the Syrian conflict. Most of the rebels are Sunni, so Saudi Arabia backs them by channeling aid, money and sometimes arms. Iran, meanwhile, supports Assad, and does the same for him. This makes the conflict continually more dangerous, as each side pumps in more money and more resources. This dynamic is also playing out in other conflicts like Yemen, and it is easy enough to follow: two rival states are influencing a conflict so that their preferred side wins.
But the rebels and Assad aren’t the only people fighting in Syria: you’ve definitely heard of ISIS, though you’re not quite sure what they want. ISIS have declared an ‘Islamic State’, or a state for Muslims, in parts of Iraq and Syria. They use brutal methods to control the territory they control, and they’re linked to terrorist attacks across the world over the last few years. The type of Islam that ISIS preaches is incredibly harsh and radical, and very different to what most Muslims around the world practice. Nonetheless, a couple of thousand of Muslims from around the world have come to fight for ISIS, partly because they believe that the West is at war with Islam, and it’s their duty to fight to protect other Muslims. This view is made easier to understand when you consider US actions in Muslim countries since 9/11, like the use of drones and outright invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. So, ISIS are a terrorist group that wants to establish power in Syria and Iraq while things are so unstable.
The last major player in Syria are the Kurds. Broadly, the Kurds are a group of people in the Middle East who want to create their own state just for themselves. There are Kurdish populations in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and other countries. The Kurds are good for fighting ISIS when they are threatening their territory. The problem is that when the US or anyone else supports the Kurds by giving them resources to fight ISIS, Turkey gets very hostile. Turkey is an ally of the US and is part of NATO, so its stance on these things matters. Turkey has had lots of problems with its own Kurdish population, some of whom have used violence to further their goals. This makes US support for the Kurds in Syria and Iraq more difficult, as it doesn’t want to alienate Turkey.
The last thing you need to know is that these four groups, the rebels, Assad, ISIS and the Kurds, are all struggling for different territory in Syria, and a lot of the refugee situation comes from when people flee as a different group takes over an area. As Syria is a four-sided conflict, it makes dealing with it very difficult, as you have to worry that if Assad is gone ISIS will get stronger, and vice versa; neither of which we want. The conflict there is complex, but can be understood: and the answer is not to turn away people who are fleeing this war.