A Highly Simplified Overview of the Complex Situation in Syria


Last week, a singular image from Aleppo, Syria arrested hearts across the globe. A stunned five-year-old child, Omran Daqneesh, pulled from the rubble of his bomb devastated home, sat ghost-like, blurry-eyed and filthy, in a bright-lit ambulance, his smallness highlighted by the seat that held him like a doll.
CNN’s Kate Bolduan tearfully reported the incident, and a large audience shared the solemn moment with her live. That audience grew thereafter, as the newscast was uploaded to the Internet, receiving nearly one million views per day since it’s original broadcast. Slowly, these numbers are sure to dwindle off, and while each day will bring new news from Syria, the searing image of Omran will remain for many American’s the defining image and story of the war in Syria.
Omran’s story triggers our humanity, and awakens our empathy, in a way that others stories out of Syria – populated by jihadist rebels, authoritarian leaders, and foreign diplomats – fail to do. The situation in Syria is unarguably tied up in complexity. It might seem like one needs advance degrees in politics, history, and religion to even begin parsing through the details. However, it’s a current affair of global importance, and should be open to basic comprehension.
To this point we’ve prepared a highly simplified overview of the complex situation in Syria in an attempt to help readers gather a cursory understanding of the key developments and major players of the conflict.

Syria Enters Civil War

The current conflict in Syria was sparked by teenage graffiti in March of 2011. A couple of friends, excited by the news of Arab Spring uprisings in their region of the world, got the idea to tag their high school’s walls with incendiary slogans.
‘Ejak el door ya Doctor’ (‘It is your turn, Doctor’, aimed at trained ophthalmologist and despotic president, Bashar al-Assad.)
‘Eskot Bashar al-Assad’ (‘Down with Bashar al-Assad.)
When the teenagers were arrested and tortured, peaceful, pro-democracy protesters took to the streets in the teenagers’ hometown of Deraa.
Governmental security forces opened fire on the demonstrators, killing several, triggering nationwide protests demanding the resignation of President Assad. The government increased their force, and was eventually met by civilians and defecting rebel brigades taking up arms. The rebels organized under the title of the Free Syrian Army.
The country entered a civil war, divided almost exclusively between those for and against President Assad. However, in a short time, new actors would engage in the conflict, complicating affairs and muddying the lines between allies and enemies.

Extremists Join the Fight, Syrian Kurds Secede

In early 2012, during the infant stage of the conflict, extremists from Syria and the surrounding region flocked to join the rebel army. President Assad saw a potential defensive strategy in this development, and ordered the release of jihadist prisoners who would join the opposition movement. President Assad rightly anticipated that democratic, Western nations opposing his rule would be reluctant to support any rebel group that contained a jihadist constituency.
Around this time Syrian Kurds, who had long sought autonomy, took advantage of the nation’s instability and seceded from President Assad’s rule. They took up arms in the north, creating a third divide among the population, and suddenly Assad’s loyalists had to fight a war on two fronts: one against the generally Sunni rebel forces, and one against the Kurdish rebels.

Syria Becomes a Regional Proxy War

In the summer of 2012, Iran began to give aid via cargo drops to President Assad and his forces.
Saudi Arabia responded by diverting funds and weaponry to the rebel forces, through Turkey, in hopes of countering the effects of Iran’s help. In a counter-response, Iran sent Hezbollah to invade Syria and fight alongside Assad’s army. Saudi Arabia increased their commitment to the rebels with additional funds and weaponry, this time supplied over Syria’s southern border with Jordan.
By the start of 2013, Syria was no longer simply a nation at war with itself. The nation and its people played host to a wide gamut of regional conflicts.

Al-Qaeda Fractures, ISIS is Born

In 2014, a new extremist faction split away from Iraq-based Al Qaeda, over strategic disagreements amongst leadership, and this new group, ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), forged into Syria, gaining a stronghold in central Syria between the Kurdish rebels and the Free Syrian Army, and engaged in armed conflict with both.

World Powers Enter the Proxy War

Up to this point, the U.S. had been hesitant to get involved with the conflict. In 2013, when Assad’s army used chemical weapons on Syrian citizens, President Obama, with support from the international community, ordered Syria to surrender its chemical weapon arsenal, which it did, and the U.S. stopped short of military engagement.
However, a year later, with the emergence of an Al Qaeda affiliate in the region, the U.S. began its first air strikes in Syria, targeting ISIS.
Russia joined in with campaigns of air strikes, supposedly targeting ISIS, though opposition forces report most of Russia’s air strikes have killed Western-backed rebels and civilians, and point to Russia’s sympathies with President Assad as proof of deception. The war has effectively drawn in the leading global powers, and has reawaken old tensions between the U.S. and Russia.

No End in Sight

One quickly comes to realize, this complex conflict has unsettled an array of disputes amongst nations and regimes as well as religions and ethnic groups, forcing uncertain alliances between hesitant allies and distorting lines drawn between bitter enemies.
For now, there is no end in sight. And it’s devastating, because this geo-political chess match of varied interests has resulted in nearly half a million casualties, and millions of other Syrians have been injured and displaced, with their life left in ruins. That’s the human story that socks people in the solar plexus when they’re confronted with a troubling image, like the one of Omran in the back of an ambulance.
But maybe, to know what has to change for Omran to grow up, at home, in a peaceful nation, we have to scratch at the surface, to try and begin comprehending what has happened to bring us here.