Syria dissolved into civil war nearly five years ago. Since the war began, the United Nations estimates 250,000 people have died while 11 million have been displaced. Although many of the warring parties agreed to a cessation of hostilities on Feb. 23, there is little hope for immediate resolution to the conflict.
A country roughly the size of Washington state, Syria’s 22.85 million residents are trapped in horrendous violence stemming from the conflicting interests of local and international powers.
Two conflicts are occurring simultaneously in Syria. The first is being waged between the Syrian government, under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad, and a medley of rebel groups seeking to overthrow the government along Syria’s populous western border. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) estimates that the Syrian government is responsible for nearly 96 percent of deaths (180,879) since the conflict began.
President al-Assad has two prominent allies—Russia and Hezbollah. Hezbollah, a Shi’a militant group based in Lebanon, entered the conflict in 2013. Marisa Sullivan, contributor to the Institute for the Study of War, argues that Hezbollah has shifted the momentum of the civil war in the government’s favor, allowing the re-capture of large amounts of rebel held territory.
The United States State Department reports that Hezbollah receives support from Iran, which has been designated as a state sponsor of terror since 1984.
Russia, a long time ally of al-Assad, solidified the government’s advantage and began an air campaign against “all terrorists” in Syria on Sept. 30, 2015, the BBC reports. Since Russia entered the conflict, SNHR estimates they have been directly responsible for 263 civilian deaths.
The Syrian government’s main opponent is a conglomeration of rebel groups. Jabhat al-Nursa, an al-Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria, is perhaps the most prominent of the group, which is comprised of 5,000 to 7,000 fighters, the BBC estimates. Although al-Nursa is a powerful force in the region, there are approximately 1,000 opposition groups, commanding 100,000 fighters. SNHR estimates that the rebels have killed 2,669 civilians.
The U.S. has been attempting to train a moderate force of rebels in addition to supporting already existing groups in the region. Efforts to create a new force failed spectacularly, successful in training only five soldiers rather than the projected 5,000.
Additionally, Seymour Hersh reported that at least 70 recruits immediately defected to al-Nursa. On Oct. 9, the U.S. announced its suspension of the training program, and declared it would instead move towards supporting pre-existing groups in the region.
The second, though inextricably linked, conflict in Syria is between ISIS and the U.S.-led international coalition. Although partially waged in Syria, the majority of the conflict is on Iraqi soil.
While the U.S. is attempting to fight ISIS, they have only recently publically announced a reduction in efforts to overthrow President al-Assad. This marks a large change in policy, given that the CIA has been funding ‘moderate’ rebels in attempt to overthrow al-Assad since 2011, reports Hersh.
The Russian government denies the existence of moderate rebels. The New York Times quoted Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, as saying: “Nobody’s really heard about the moderate opposition.”
From the Russian State’s perspective, it is a matter of state power versus extremism.
Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia are allies of the United States, and, Hersh reports, have been directly funding al-Nursa and ISIS. Both nations have a history of poor relations with Syria.
SNHR estimates that, in Syria, the international coalition (led by the U.S.) has killed 251 civilians, while ISIS is responsible for 1,712 deaths. Although the U.S. is attempting to rally local rebels to fight ISIS rather than the government, they are having limited success.
One notable exception is the Kurds of Syria and Turkey. Operating on the Turkish border, Kurdish territory is in close proximity with ISIS, and they have been gaining ground with coalition backing. Turkey, however, has a history of oppressing their own Kurdish minority, and has been bombing the Kurds intermittently throughout the Syrian conflict.
On Feb. 23, the government and opposition groups agreed to a cessation of hostilities plan written by the U.S. and Russia. Although promising on paper, the plan is unlikely to succeed. The Syrian government agreed to the terms, with the small stipulation that they would continue “military efforts to combat terrorism” (according to the government, they have been fighting ‘terrorism’ all along). There is no way of monitoring the agreement.