Understanding Syria

Are you having difficulty in understanding Syria? With conflict arising every day, the events surrounding the civil war and terrorism are getting increasingly complicated.  With chemical weapons, Russian involvement and the humanitarian crisis, it’s difficult to remain informed, even if you want to. Summarising the principle elements regarding Syria, this article describes how it all began and where it went so desperately wrong.

Background to Syria

Ethnic and Religious Groups


Map of Syrian occupation by various group

To understand Syria is to recognise a highly divided country. Diverse religious practise and ethnic groups embody Syria. Two denominations primarily divide Islam in Syria, Shia and Sunni. Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the population.  Much of the government practice a branch of Shia Islam and are called the Alawites. Occupying many positions in power, Alawites remain a religious minority. There are also Kurdish, Jewish and Christian population, among others.

Why Did Syrian’s Protest? How Did It All Begin?

In the latter stages of the Arab Spring, in 2011, high employment, repression, lack of political freedom, and corruption, motivated Syrian civilians to start peaceful protests. Beginning in Daraa, protests spread to Homs, Hama, and Latakia. Countering demonstrations, security forces opened fire and occupied the towns. Protesting escalated, when the President Bashar al-Assad did not resign after demands. Eventually, protestors began bearing arms, first as a means of defence and then to expel the government security forces. Culminating into civil war, local conflict reached the capital, Damascus, and later, in 2012, Aleppo.

The Sides

Syrian conflict rests on three opposing sides, but there are complications between them.

  1. The first group consists of Sunni Muslims, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, The United Kingdom, The United States and France (to name a few).

Conflictingly, Turkey is supportive of Sunni civilians, but also wants to quash any hopes the Kurdish people have of an uprising. Following centuries of oppressing the Kurds, Turkey wishes to prevent political, or state, Kurdish independence.  Populous in Iran, Syria, Turkey and Iraq, Kurdish people are ethnic minorities in a vast amount of countries. Irrespective of the mutual plight against the government and IS, Turkey continues to bomb Kurdish people.

2. The second group concerns the Syrian Government Alawites, allied with other Shia Muslims, Iran, Russia, Tehran, and Lebanon.

Iran, a Shia Muslim country, supports Assad because Syria transports weapon shipments to the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah: a political, military group. Lebanese, Shia Hezbollah Islamists exchange weapons for fighters to Syria.

3. The third group is the so-called Islamic State (IS).

Speculative accusations from Iran allege Saudi Arabia, and some other Gulf States of funding IS. Publicly opposed by all, claims are based on theories of Saudi Arabian political objectives and IS sympathisers.

The first and second group are still in civil war with each other.  Additionally, both are in combat with, IS.

Why Does Russia Support Assad?

What is a Proxy War?

Bashar Al-Assad and Vladimir Putin

Bashar Al-Assad and Vladimir Putin

Intervening regional and world powers define Syria as a proxy war. Indirectly, the U.S. and Russia are in opposition. The proxy status of the war has actually been detrimental to Syria, as military, financial and political support have intensified the conflict, rather than resolved it.

There are various reasons to why Russia, and more importantly President Vladimir Putin so adamantly supports Bashar al-Assad. Creating a stronghold in the Middle East motivates Russia. Protecting Russia’s naval base, restoring peace i.e. squander thoughts of uprising/revolution in Russia, and continuing the  proxy war embarrasses the U.S. creating support for Russia.

Russia’s ties with Assad reveal a desire to expand in the Middle East Generally. The Syrian coastal city of Tartus hosts Russia’s only major naval port on the eastern Mediterranean. Last year, in June, Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince and defence minister, Mohammed bin Salman, visited Putin in St. Petersburg, where he signed a number of agreements to share nuclear technology and establish cooperation in the oil and space exploration fields. In other words, Russia wants to protect and expand on its assets.

Despite this, Russia claims their allegiance with the Syrian government is in response to lessons learnt from the Arab Spring. With dictators such as Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein killed, the void of power led to chaos and revolts. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asked reporters at the U.N.  “Saddam Hussein, hanged. Is Iraq a better place, a safer place?”. Consequently, if revolutions or civilian revolts are squandered in the Middle East, it dissuades Russia’s population from doing the same.

Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: The Loyal Super Power

Increasingly, Russia is attempting to establish itself as a trusted ally more than the U.S. In an interview in 2012, with Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s U.N. Envoy, he stated “if you have good relations with a country, a government, for years, for decades, then it’s not so easy to ditch those politicians and those governments because of political expediency”  This comment references America’s involvement in the removal of Iraqi Saddam Hussein and Egyptian Hosni Mubarak.  Post Arab Spring, the U.S. has decreased military involvement and many have seen this as leaving the region in the lurch.

With the U.S. becoming more resistant to military involvement in the Middle East, and Russia willing to do so, animosity for the U.S. turns the region to loyal Russia. Russia is not concerned with human rights or lawful warfare. Putin has sent a clear message that countries do not have to rely on the States for support, they can turn to Russia. Russia’s previous involvement in Egypt led to posters displaying support of Putin and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Appearing in English, not Arabic or Russian, the signs displayed a clear message to the U.S. Seemingly, Putin hopes Assad’s replacement secures regional influence for Russia.

How Do War Crimes Come Into This?

In Times of War, What is a Crime?

War crimes are defined in The Study on Customary International Humanitarian Law, conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Rule 156: violations of international humanitarian law.

A war crime endangers civilian people and objects or involves conduct that breaches important human values.  If the government deliberately targets a civilian hospital, without any militaristic cause, such as housing terrorists/weapons, this constitutes a war crime. Dying in the thousands, to UN condemnation, warfare has affected populous civilian areas in Syria.

Starving civilians, as a method of war, constitutes a war crime. This also includes deprivation of indispensable relief supplies, necessary for survival. Parties, including Russia and the government, have been accused of blockading supplies consisting of food, water, and health services.

Additionally, war crimes include the abuse of dead bodies, subjecting people to humiliating treatment, violating the right to a fair trial, and recruiting those under fifteen into the armed forces. Including public executions, beheadings, amputations and mass killings, war crimes prominently encompass IS attacks.


Chemical Weapons

Using prohibited weapons is a war crime. Law forbids ‘weapons that are of a nature to cause superfluous injury, or unnecessary suffering, of which are inherently indiscriminate’, including chemical weapons.  Additionally, the Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, transfer and use of chemical weapons.  Recently, Aleppo has been frequently subjected to chemical weapon attacks. Amnesty International claim, not only would this constitute a war crime, but also show signs ‘Syrian government forces are intensifying their use of chemical weapons against civilians.

Syrian government forces are suspected of carrying out dozens of horrific attacks with chlorine and other chemical weapons on opposition-held areas since 2012, killing hundreds and inflicting terrible injuries on others. Denying responsibility and blaming rebel forces, Assad was accused of dispensing the nerve agent Sarin, in Damascus, in 2013. With U.S. military looming, Assad agreed to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons; however, it has continued to be documented by third parties.  Past months have brought more chlorine bombs to the city of Aleppo and Syrian civilians have been injured. Specifically using sulphur mustard, which can chemically burn and blind, IS are also accused of chemical warfare.

UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, stated that he’d like to see Russia, and those guilty of war crimes, to stand in front of International Criminal Court.  However, Russia has rejected claims of war crimes and actions in Aleppo.

The Kurdskurds

10-15% of the Syrian population, around two million people, are Kurds. Today, they form a distinctive community, united through race, culture, and language, even though they have no standard dialect. Predominantly, Kurds are Sunni Muslims.


Kurds have a long history of repression in Turkey. After attempts to revolt in the 1920s and 30s, many civic restrictions were put in place. Kurdish names, costumes, language and ethnic identity were forbidden and ethnically renamed ‘Mountain Turks’. In 1978, The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) called for an independent state which resulted in armed struggles.  Over 40,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.

Kurds and IS

In 2012, the PKK and Turkish government established a ceasefire.  Despite this, today, both parties accuse the other of affiliation with terrorism. Turkey has sought to limit US support for Kurdish forces battling IS militants in northern Syria, accusing them of being affiliated with the PKK, which Turkey banned.  Kurdish people have played a large role in resisting IS within Northern Syria. With help from the U.S., the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party (PYD) has established control over a 400km stretch along the Turkish border, protecting it against IS.

Kurdish Syrians

Due to Syrian citizenship law, Kurds may not necessarily be citizens, even if they may have been born in the country.  Some 300,000 have been denied citizenship since the 1960s. Unlike the UK, it is not as simple to gain citizenship as ‘I was born in Britain, ergo, I am British’.  Primarily determined by the parent’s nationality, Syrian place of birth is irrelevant. Until last year, citizenship was passed on through Father’s citizenship, not the mothers. Consequently, some Kurdish people cannot be relocated because they are stateless.  Without citizenship, people lack official documentation, passports or internationally recognised documentation.  Kurdish people who are not citizens are unable to run for office and cannot vote. Hindering education, Kurds cannot be awarded university degrees.

Humanitarian Crisis


Ever increasing, more than 4.5 million refugees from Syria are in just five primary countries, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt.  Around one million have requested asylum in Europe. The EU’s top receiving countries, Germany, with around 140,000 approved applications, and Sweden 32,000. As seen in the graph, the number of refugees in other Middle Eastern Countries vastly outweighs Europe.  The UK has only allowed 13,000 approved Refugee applications.

The influx of people into Europe this year has put the spotlight on the Syrian refugee crisis. While people have fled Syria due to years of horrific war, most Syrians driven from their homes actually remain in the country — largely out of reach of the international community’s help and protection.  Refugees flee a country due to persecution or conflict, Internally Displaced People (IDPs) flee conflict, but remain in their country of origin.

Internally Displaced People

IDPs face challenging circumstances for safety as there are limited areas without conflict.  UN figures show there are over 6.5 million IDPs, and at least 1.2 million homes have been destroyed.  Guillaume Charron, a monitoring expert at the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, told The WorldPost that many of Syria’s internally displaced population were also economically disadvantaged prior to the conflict. This exacerbates their problems once they are forced to flee. IDPs usually want to leave the country, but cannot. Inability to leave a country can be due to expensive transport and smuggler fees or identification documents being lost in conflict.

Kim Gee, a fellow at Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Program, told The WorldPost that IDPs are at the mercy of the Assad government, relying on the existing legal rights framework.  Due to residing in difficult to reach areas, humanitarian care cannot access IDPs and do not recieve the same care or asylum as refugees. Censorship on government media restricts the evidence of IDPs and so information is incredibly limited.


John Kerry and Sergey v. Lavrov

What’s Next?

Due to the divided nature of fighters in Syria, no parties can physically defeat the other, and so the solution lies with politics. Earlier this year, the U.S. and Russia began peace talks, discussing Security Council-Endorsed road maps.  John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State, led negotiations with Sergey v. Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister. Both parties agreed on a cease-fire and transitional period to end in possible elections, policy, and negotiations.

The cease-fire began in September but quickly unravelled as the U.S. bombed Syrian troops in an airstrike against IS. Claimed as an accident, Russian and Russia and Syrian government did not take it lightly, responding by bombing a humanitarian convoy headed to Aleppo. Negotiations quickly deteriorated and the Syrian government went as far to say that the U.S. airstrike was not a mistake, accusing America of aiding Islamic State to oust Bashar al-Assad. Since then, Aleppo has been targeted further with various artillery, killing hundreds, and hospitals have been destroyed. Putin has also withdrawn his agreement to an arms control deal, which called for the disposal of plutonium, used in nuclear weapons.

International Committee of the Red Cross, Study on customary international humanitarian law. Conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and originally published by Cambridge University Press.

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