Making Sense of the Syrian Civil War

By Isaac Greenwood

Since its onset over four years ago, the Syrian conflict has claimed over 250,000 lives and forced 11 million civilians to flee as refugees.

The conflict began as a domestic revolt against the policies of repressive President Bashar al-Assad, escalating into a sectarian war as the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) and other radical terror groups soon eclipsed moderate rebels. Until recently the U.S. and other Western powers abstained from direct intervention, relying instead on strategic airstrikes and support from Kurdish resistance fighters. However, increased Russian involvement in the conflict last month, starting with its deployment of fighter jets to the region, will change the dynamic and role of players as the war continues.

Beyond international intervention, the atrocities of the Assad regime should be considered in evaluating the conflict. Early opposition to Assad resulted from the denial of civil rights and fair elections. After opposition intensified in early 2011 and despite calls from Western leaders to re-evaluate his policies or step down, Assad deployed the Syrian military and began eliminating rebels. As the violence increased and rebels took key towns, Assad resorted to the use of chemical warfare and aerial gasoline bombs. The international community failed to act as its numerous “red lines” were crossed with growing concerns about a Syrian power vacuum.

One of the key complications of the war remains Assad’s role and how he shapes the nature of foreign involvement. Whereas the U.S. and its Allies aid Assad on the condition that he steps down when possible, Russian and Iranian leadership continue to support him vehemently. This friction has created issues in the coordination of support, finally manifesting itself in the Russian airstrikes in the country’s northwestern region last month. The move, targeting the cities of Homs and Hama, demonstrates the culmination of poor international cooperation, evolving the battlefield into one with the United States on one side and Russia on the other.

The economic implications of the conflict are also notable, ranging from defense to refugee relocating. The United States contributed $1.6 billion to humanitarian causes in 2015 alone, and Europe has become engulfed in a debate regarding the issue following German Chancellor Merkel’s call for Europeans to take more refugees. Beyond long lasting damage to its heritage and cultural sites, Syria’s energy-based economy has struggled following the installment of sanctions by many major world powers. Exports have fallen from $12 billion a year to $2 billion since the onset of the conflict and the Syrian pound is worth 80% less in the global market.

Although President Obama recently announced the deployment of U.S. troops in an advisory role to Syrian forces, the American level of involvement is not close to what it was in Iraq or Afghanistan during the early part of the millennium. Whereas the U.S. learned its lessons, to an extent, from the mistakes made in those conflicts, the increasing Russian involvement suggests our counterpart did not. Similar to its mistaken undertaking of the long and arduous Afghanistan War in 1979, Russia and its struggling economy will only be further affected as the war drags on and develops into a quagmire set by its precedents.