The Syrian civil war is often characterized a complex conflict with so many sides and players that it is impossible to understand who is who. This cliché clouds our understanding of a conflict that, at its heart, is not that complex. In 2011, it began as an outgrowth of the Arab Spring with a populist, mostly Sunni Arab, uprising against the ruling dictator, Bashar Assad. Since then it has gone through several phases of greater foreign involvement.
Like the Thirty Years War that rocked Europe in the 17th century, the foreign involvement has transformed the region. The war can be divided into several phases that blend together: A phase of protest in 2011. A phase of armed rebellion in 2012. A phase of brutal regime suppression, including chemical weapons attacks in 2013. The rise of Islamic State and the greater Islamification of the rebellion in 2014. The intervention of Russia in 2015. The intervention of the United States and Turkey in 2016. The defeat of ISIS in 2017.
So what does 2018 hold? The slow consolidation of regime gains. The defeat of the Syrian rebels and their becoming clients of Turkey and Jordan. The cementing of the US presence in the east. The occupation of Afrin by Turkey and some of the Kurds being forced to seek a deal with the regime.
The main groups:
THE SYRIAN GOVERNMENT
Bashar Assad took office after the death of his father Hafiz in 2000. The Assads are members of the Alawite minority and their Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party is a remnant of the 1960s era of Arab nationalism. They run the state as a family kleptocracy but their regime receives support from minorities and other Syrians because the alternative appears to be chaos and extremism. The regime’s main ally is Russia, as it has been for decades. It is also allied to Iran, which has sent mercenaries to support it. Due to its alliance with Iran it is also supported by Hezbollah in Lebanon. As such the regime is part of the Iranian and “Shia” crescent or “corridor” to the sea. The regime has committed widespread human rights abuses, using barrel bombs and driving millions of Syrians to become refugees.
The regime is supported by a variety of militias of the National Defense Forces and Local Defense Forces. These include numerous units, some close to Iran and Hezbollah. There are also Iranian-backed mercenaries such as the Fatemiyoun Afghan Shia units. These have been used to fill the gaps as the Syrian Arab Army, the official government forces, have weakened from attrition loses. Sometimes they are referred to as “cannon fodder.” Most recently some of the Liwa al-Baqir, one of these units, entered Afrin to aid the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the fight against Turkey and Syrian rebels.
Hezbollah, Russian contractors and the IRGC
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has put down roots in Syria. Along with Hezbollah and Russian contractors of private companies like Wagner, which have upped their presence since 2017, these groups help to support the regime while also conducting their own policy sometimes. Iran has built bases in Syria that have been targeted by Israel, according to foreign media reports. Hezbollah is present in more than a dozen locations from eastern Syria to the north.
Russia’s air force and some troops have been seriously fighting in Syria since 2015 and helped the regime turn the tide against the rebellion. They have bases in the country. Russia has sought to draw down its soldiers and use its air power to support the regime.
THE SYRIAN OPPOSITION
The Free Syrian Army
Founded in 2011, it is the umbrella group of opposition to the regime. It has been undermined by factionalism and the fact it has numerous small units within it. Over time it has become less relevant even though its name is used to give legitimacy to rebel units that have become less moderate over time. In the north, many of these units work closely with Turkey while near Jordan, and near the Golan borders they work with the Jordanians, and have connections with western powers and Israel.
Since the beginning of the rebellion many of the Syrian rebel groups who are rooted in the Sunni Arab majority of the country have drifted towards more Islamist elements. This is generally because the moderate rebels proved ineffective. Not all these groups are Arab, some of them are Syrian Sunni Turkmen. Very few of them are Syrian Kurds. Some of these groups have committed atrocities in Syria.
Jabhat Tahrir Souriya
Formed in February 2018, this group is made of Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zinki. It has been fighting in Idlib in northern Syria and has connections with Turkey.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham
Originally Al-Qaeda in Syria, it has gone through other iterations, calling itself Nusra Front for a while. Its latest incarnation is an extreme Islamist group that is strongest in northern Syria in the Idlib province. There are accusations that it has escorted Turkish military convoys and that it has even been able to acquire weapons from Syrian rebel groups that were initially supported by the US in 2015. It has a very limited presence in southern Syria.
Appearing in force in 2013, the Islamic State grew exponentially in 2014 and 2015 as it absorbed around 50,000 foreign fighters, most of whom traveled via Turkey illegally into Syria. Using captured Syrian army supplies, it expanded down the Euphrates and into Iraq, committing genocide against minorities. It was stopped in 2015 by a combination of US-led coalition airstrikes and the resistance of Kurdish YPG fighters in Kobani and Shia militias in Iraq. By 2018 it had lost ninety-nine percent of its “caliphate” and exists in a few small pockets near the Iraqi border and near the Golan. The lasting affects of ISIS will be felt for years. It destroyed archaeological sites such as Palmyra and laced the landscape with IEDs.
Made up of 74 members, the coalition has been fighting ISIS since 2014. However it’s main component is the US in Syria which has been conducting its own policy in eastern Syria, partnering with Kurdish YPG and also the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella group of anti-ISIS fighters. The US now says it wants to conduct “stabilization” and train up to 30,000 security forces. It is increasingly working with Arab tribes in the Euphrates valley and trying to balance its policy in Syria with the criticism it faces from Turkey. The coalition has a growing footprint, including artillery, air bases and special forces as well as humanitarian aid workers operating in eastern Syria.
THE SYRIAN DEMOCRATIC FORCES
Originally composed of the YPG and other allied units, this force grew out of resistance to ISIS. It was supported by the US and the West and received weapons, liberating ISIS’s capital of Raqqa in 2017. The US seeks to portray this group as a united force of various groups, as opposed to “Kurdish” which was its original YPG component.
The People’s Protection Units (YPG)
The YPG is the main Kurdish group in Syria. It is connected a political party called the PYD and Turkey accuses it of being part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The YPG has been successful in liberating eastern Syria. It blends a unique ideology that is rooted in secularism and more radical left ideas. It also controlled a section of Aleppo up until February 2018. It controlled the Afrin province in northwestern Syria. In January, Turkey launched a major operation called Olive Branch to push the YPG out of Afrin, accusing it of being a “terrorist” group. The US said it was not involved in Afrin and the YPG found itself fighting alone. In mid-February rumors emerged of a deal with the Syrian regime and pro-regime militias entered Afrin to defend against what they called “Turkish and jihadist aggression.”
Turkey intervened in Syria in the fall of 2016 in an operation called Euphrates Shield. It aimed to clear ISIS from its border and work with Syrian rebel groups in northern Syria. After brief clashes with the regime and with US-backed YPG near Manbij, Turkey stopped its offensive but still controls a corridor in northern Syria. Turkey launched another operation in Idlib in 2017 and in early 2018 has sought to erect of outposts in Idlib between the rebels and the regime. In January 2018 it launched a major offensive alongside 20,000 Syrian rebels against the YPG in Afrin. It has threatened to oppose the YPG and the US in Manbij as well.
THE PEACE PROCESS
Since 2012, there have been numerous meetings to resolve the Syrian conflict. None of them have been successful, although various types of “de-escalation” have taken place.
Geneva I, II, III
The Geneva talks began in 2012. The Geneva process is ostensibly a United Nations backed process. As such, it combines numerous groups from the West and Syria and has never produced anything meaningful. It continues to this day and provides a framework under which there would be peace and elections after.
The Astana process
Basically a Russian-backed process, it held its eighth meeting in December 2017. Russia, Turkey and Iran have participated. Since 2016 a series of “de-escalation” zones have been created. This has allowed the regime breathing space and ostensibly provided some ceasefires and peace for the rebels. It allows the regime to concentrate on destroying one rebel canton at a time.
In January, Russia hosted a peace conference in Sochi. Many Syrian rebel groups did not attend and neither did the US or the Kurds. In that respect it was primarily a Russian–Turkish show. It did not appear to have accomplished much.