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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Syrian Civil War

The civil war in Syria is complicated.  

I could also say that the civil war in Syria is a *********** of incredible proportions.  
You can choose your own obscenity to fill in the blank.  Mine has eleven letters.

One of the themes of this blog is the graphical representation of information, because a picture really is worth a thousand words.   I’m hoping that a graphical representation of the conflict can show the complexity of the conflict, and the global scope of the secondary parties to the conflict. 

Any policy that does not recognize the complexity of the war is doomed to failure.  The global scope of the secondary parties raises the risk that the Syrian Civil War could develop into a much larger conflict, in the way that a terrorist act in Serbia in 1914 led to World War I. 

This post will examine the war in a progressive fashion, and build a schematic illustration representing the internal and external combatants, the direct military actions, and the flows of money, weapons and military advisors into the war, and religious, ethnic and political affiliations.  Here is the final schematic:
I'm sure all this will soon be clear. 

Syria is a small nation on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.  Syria is about the size of Washington State.  It is a bit smaller than Belarus, and a bit larger than Cambodia.

Syria is bordered by Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan.  The population of the country was about 22 million at the beginning of the war in 2011. 

About 12 million people are now homeless due to the war.  About 3.5 million people have fled the country, including about one-half million to Europe.  Most of the refugees are located in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.  About 8.5 million people are internally displaced within Syria. 

Although estimates vary, it is likely that about 250,000 people have died in the war to date; perhaps one-half to two-thirds of the deaths were civilians.  There is no estimate on the number of wounded.

Syria has suffered from a multi-year drought from 2006 through at least 2014.  Some climate researchers assert that the drought is due to the northward migration of deserts due to global warming.   Declining agricultural productivity and the rising cost of food may have been factors in the original civil unrest at the beginning of the war.

The Warring Factions
The war began in 2011, as part of the “Arab Spring” revolts throughout the Middle East.  Government suppression of protests was particularly harsh in Syria.   The protests became and armed conflict, and then a civil war, as the violence escalated.  Some of the Syrian Army rebelled, forming the Free Syrian Army.  Other groups also formed, to pursue their own goals, or were pushed into the conflict by the escalating violence on all sides.   By 2013, the BBC estimated that over 1000 distinct armed rebel groups were active in Syria.  Some of these groups have formed alliances, such as the Islamic Front; the alliances are sometimes contentious, and there is violence between rival rebel groups.  Wikipedia lists 38 distinct armed Syrian factions in the war, plus 16 external nations or organizations

I’ve divided the warring factions into seven groups.
·         Syrian Government – a dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, and the Baathist Party (formerly associated with Saddam Hussein).
·         Free Syrian Army – formed by Arab Spring protesters and rebels from the Syrian Army, this is the group considered to be “moderate” rebels, supported by the U.S. government.
·         Islamic Front – formed by an alliance of seven Islamic groups, and successor to an earlier alliance.  The Islamic Front was formerly allied with the Free Syrian Army, but one of the member groups, Ahrar Al Sham, violently turned on the FSA, capturing weapons.  
·         Al Nusra Front – allied with Al Qaeda.   Formerly associated with the ISIL, but split in the early days of the war.  Relatively small, but one of the most effective of the rebel groups.
·         Syrian Kurds – one of four groups of Kurds (the others being in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran).  A very significant ethnic minority in Northern Syria. 
·         Turkmen – A smaller ethnic minority, but significant because of ties to Turkey.   The escalating conflict between Russia and Turkey results issues regarding Russian aggression against the Turkmen, and Turkish retaliation by shooting down a Russian warplane.
·         ISIL – The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.  The word Levant is significant, because it indicates that ISIL aspires to control an area including Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel.   ISIL, like Al Qaeda, is a global jihadist/terrorist organization, with operations in Libya, Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia, and capable of performing terrorist acts around the world.  

Figure 1.  Warring Factions in Syria.   Locations are schematic; the Islamic Front and Nusra Front are active in the north of the country.
The besieged Syrian government controls remnants of territory, mostly in Western Syria, with a few islands around population centers in other areas.   The Free Syrian Army and Islamic groups have established a number of enclaves in the heavily populated western part of the country, but most areas are still under government control.  Population centers of Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus have been the site of intense conflict and destruction.   Kurds have gained control of the northern part of the country, along the border with Turkey.  ISIL controls the sparsely populated, eastern and central desert. 

Figure 2.  Active Zones of Control by Warring Factions in Syria.  Figure modified from Wikicommons, 2015.
In-Country Direct Military Conflicts
All of the rebel factions are in conflict with the Syrian government, as might be expected.  What is unusual in the Syrian Civil War is the degree of conflict between rebel groups.   ISIL in particular has been savage and brutal in acquiring territory in Iraq and Syria.  Genocide against ethnic minorities and brutal execution of prisoners has been standard procedure as part of a campaign of intimidation against all opponents.   ISIL is in direct military conflict with the Free Syrian Army, the Kurds, the Al Nusra Front and the Syrian government.   The Islamic Front has also been in conflict with the Free Syrian Army.

Figure 3.  Dark red arrows indicate direct military action between the warring factions in Syria.
Other Countries Participating or Supporting the Conflict
The war has attracted supporters on various sides of the conflict.  The reasons for intervention by outside countries vary.  In a way, no doubt every country intervening in the war has the best of intentions, to make the situation better, according to their values and interests.

The brutality of the conflict, particularly against civilian populations, provoked  intervention by Western nations.  The use of poison gas by the Syrian government against a rebel village, killing 1700 civilians, brought the United States and the United Kingdom into the conflict, firmly on the side of the rebels.  Wealthy private Islamic interests in the Arabian Gulf region funded ISIL, the Nusra Front and the Islamic Front on the basis of religious fundamentalism.  Sectarian interests against the Sunni fundamentalists, as well as traditional alliances, brought Iran and Hezbollah in support of the Syrian government.  Russia supports the Syrian government as a strategic ally.   Russia has a long-standing friendly relationship with the Syrian government and has maintained a naval facility at Tartus (the only Russian facility in the Mediterranean) since 1971.  Turkey supports the ethnically related Turkmen and opposes the Kurds, who are related to the separatist Kurds within Turkey.  Traditional alliances and conflicts have drawn other nations into the conflict as well.

Figure 4.  External countries and groups involved in the Syrian Civil War.
Every nation opposes ISIL.  ISIL has an unmatched record of brutality against all of humanity, including genocide of ethnic and religious minorities in conquered territories; sex slavery of captive women; brutal executions of captured prisoners and kidnap victims from the US, UK, Jordan, Japan, France , Ethiopia and others; the bombing of a Russian passenger jet; a major terrorist attack in Paris, and a minor terrorist attack in the United States.

Direct Military Action by External Countries
External countries have engaged in direct military strikes against combatants in the civil war.  Most of the military actions have been air strikes against ISIL.  The United States, France, Britain, Jordan, and Russia have conducted air strikes against ISIL.  Russia has conducted air strikes against other rebel groups as well.   Turkey has conducted strikes against the Kurds, and shot down a Russian warplane.  Israel has made strikes against Hezbollah weapons shipments and personnel in Syria.

Following the disastrous war in Iraq, the United States has been reluctant to commit ground forces to combat in Syria.  But air strikes alone are insufficient to defeat ISIL, even in support of Iraqi and other ground forces.

Figure 5.  Direct Military Action by External Countries
Figure 6. Internal and External Direct Military Actions in Syria.
Financial Support, Weapons , and Military Personnel provided by External Countries
External countries have provided financial support, weapons, and military advisers to warring factions in Syria.  Recently, Russia has committed the largest contingent of active ground troops in the conflict. 

Figure 7.  Color-coded arrows indicate flows of money, weapons, resources, and military advisors to warring factions in Syria.
Figure 8.  All external military actions and support in the Syrian Civil War.
Figure 9.  Internal and External Military Actions, plus External Flows of Money, Weapons and Advisors
Affiliations and Alliances
Ethnic and religious affiliations, alliances and long-standing enmities shape and exacerbate the conflict, within Syria and between the other countries involved.    The Shiite – Sunni religious divide is one of the deepest enmities on the planet.   There are further divides between Arab groups seeking government by Islamic Law, and those seeking secular government.   Russia, and nations related to the former Soviet sphere of influence are aligned in opposition to NATO allies.  Enmity between Russia and Turkey is high, and is unlikely to improve in the aftermath of Turkey’s downing of Russia’s warplane.   

Figure 10.  Affiliations and Alliances of Groups Involved in the Syrian Civil War.
The civil war in Syria has left a quarter of a million people dead, and 12 million people homeless.  This blog post is intended to provide understanding of the complexity of the war and the number of powerful external countries participating in the war.  For four years, the American government has failed to recognize the seriousness of the conflict, or to implement policies that lead to peace.  The first step toward forming appropriate policies is to better recognize the complexity of the problem.

Here are some of my conclusions.

·         The war will not end as long as external countries continue to supply money, weapons and advisors to the warring factions.  To put out the fire, you must first stop adding fuel. 

·         There is no unilateral policy that can end the war, due to the complexity of the war and the number of powerful nations participating in the war.  Some American politicians believe that America can do some simple thing to solve the problem (such as dropping more bombs).   Any solution to the conflict will require the actions of more than one nation.

·         There can be no political settlement without the approval and active support of Russia, Iran, and Turkey.  Russia and Iran have existing interests in Syria that must be respected to end the war.  Turkey is also essential, because of its proximity, military strength and place of sanctuary for Syrian refugees.

·         The Islamic State (ISIL) is an existential threat to the security of all nations.  It is clear that the air campaign alone is insufficient.  We cannot bomb ISIL until they behave better, and this strategy exacts an inhumane toll on civilian population.  ISIL must be eradicated by coordinated action by the US, NATO, Russia and Iran, including a standing ground force that will not allow a resurgence of the terrorist movement.

·         There is a risk of a larger conflict.  There are troubling similarities between the Syrian Civil War and the situation in the Balkans before World War I.  There are many entangling alliances and powerful external nations, involved in a conflict in a war-torn region, beset by religious and ethnic enmity.  There is a real risk that the Syrian conflict could spiral out of control, and consume some of the countries that are now only on the periphery of the conflict.

From 2011 to the present, the world fiddled while Syria burned.  In fact, in many ways the rest of the world was pouring gasoline on the fire.   An immense human tragedy occurred and is still unfolding.  If any lesson can be learned from this catastrophe, it is that the powerful nations of the world should never again allow such a civil war to occur.   The human costs of the war exceed the wrongs which were the cause of the war.  The people whom America was trying to protect have been damaged more by the civil war than they were damaged by the government of Syria.

·         On a more hopeful note (it is always good to close on a hopeful note, no matter how unlikely), perhaps the process of arriving at peace in Syria can become a template for ending conflicts in neighboring nations – Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, Iraq and the Kurdish territories.  It is possible.


As I was writing this post, my son brought to my attention two other graphical representations of the complexity of the Syrian Civil War.  The first is Slate’s Syrian version of their Middle Eastern Friendship Chart.  I have used this without permission and without profit, and will remove it upon request.
The second is from Atlantic Magazine, titled “The Confused Person’s Guide to Middle East Conflict”.

This is also used without permission and without profit, and I will remove it upon request.

Syrian Civil War References
Syrian Civil War.    38 internal factions listed.  16 external countries and groups listed.
Good 5-minute video on the history of the war.   Divides the war into four warring factions with foreign supporters.

Casualties in the Syrian War
Over 250,000 killed.  October, 2015
most reliable estimates between 220,000 and 340,000 killed, as of early 2015.

Syrian Warring Factions
Figure 2 modified from Wikicommons:

       Controlled by the Syrian Armed Forces
       Controlled by the People's Protection Units (Kurdish Forces)
       Controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
       Controlled by the Syrian National Coalition (Opposition Forces)
       Controlled by the al-Nusra Front
       Disputed frontline between the forces

Guide to the Syrian Rebels  -- BBC  Dated 2013
As many as 1000 different armed rebel groups in Syria, representing 100,000 fighters.
Free Syrian Army –  Formed by rebel defectors from Syrian Army in 2011.  “Moderate” rebels supported by the U.S. and some Gulf States.  Leadership has little operational control over the movement.  Leadership acts as spokesman and conduit for weapons and funding.
Islamic Front – An alliance of seven Islamic groups not directly aligned with ISIL.  One of the strongest, Ahrar-Al-Sham, led an earlier Islamic alliance(Syrian Islamic Front) which was allied with the Free Syrian Army.   With the formation of the Islamic Front, Ahrar-Al-Sham turned on the Free Syrian Army, causing the US and UK to suspend military support for rebels in Northern Syria.  Ahrar Al Sham provides social services and public works. 
Nusra Front – includes Al Queda in Iraq, and is one of the most effective rebel groups.
5000 – 7000 fighters. 
Performs social services and public works.
ISIL (Daesh) – fought with other rebels groups, including those considered Islamist.  Targeted Shia and Alawite civilian populations.
5000 fighters (2013)
Kurdish Rebels – YPG
10,000 – 15,000 Kurdish fighters
Syrian Democratic Forces include Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, and Turkmen militias. 
SDF founded in October 2015.
1.5 million to 3.5 million ethnic  Turkmen; estimated 200,000 in Syria.
Discussion of Turkmen – widely varying estimates of population.

Foreign Participants in the Syrian War:
Conflict between Syrian rebel groups.
US govt report on war against ISIL
Indicates no direct strikes against Syrian government.  US provides one hour advance notice of strikes against ISIL.

Interactive site showing global distribution of US foreign aid.


Complexity of the War


  1. Thanks Doug, I really feel like another Civil War is going to start in America with all of the bombings and killing back and fourth as of late.

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