Syrian Civil War Explained

The Fight for the Middle East

Syrian civil war grew out of a popular uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011, part of Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East. The brutal response of the security forces against initially peaceful protests demanding democratic reform and end of repression triggered a violent reaction. An armed Why Hezbollah Supports Syrian Regimerebellion to the regime soon took hold across Syria, dragging the country into a full-scale civil war.

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Main Issues: The Roots of the Conflict

Rebels of the Free Syrian Army prepare to engage government tanks that have advanced into Saraquib city on April 9, 2012 in Syria
Rebels of the Free Syrian Army prepare to engage government tanks that have advanced into Saraquib city on April 9, 2012 in Syria. John Cantlie/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The Syrian uprising started as a reaction to the Arab Spring, a series of anti-government protests across the Arab world inspired by the fall of the Tunisian regime in early 2011. But at the root of the conflict was anger over unemployment, decades of dictatorship, corruption and state violence under one of the Middle East’s most repressive regimes.

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Why is Syria Important?

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Syria’s geographical position at the heart of the Levant and its fiercely independent foreign policy make it a pivotal country in the eastern part of the Arab world. A close ally of Iran and Russia, Syria has been in conflict with Israel since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, and has sponsored various Palestinian resistance groups. Part of Syria’s territory, the Golan Heights, is under Israeli occupation.

Syria is also a religiously mixed society and the increasingly sectarian nature of violence in some areas of the country has contributed to the wider Sunni-Shiite tension in the Middle East. International community fears that the conflict could spill over the border to affect the neighboring Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan, creating a regional disaster. For these reasons, global powers such as the US, European Union and Russia all play a role in the Syrian civil war.

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The Main Players in the Conflict

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma al-Assad. Salah Malkawi/Getty Images

The regime of Bashar al-Assad is relying on the armed forces and increasingly on pro-government paramilitary groups to fight the rebel militias. On the other side is a broad range of opposition groups, from Islamists to leftwing secular parties and youth activist groups, who agree on the need for Assad’s departure, but share little common ground over what should happen next.

The most powerful opposition actor on the ground are hundreds of armed rebel groups, which have yet to develop a unified command. Rivalry between various rebel outfits and the growing role of hardline Islamist fighters prolong the civil war, raising the prospect of years of instability and chaos even if Assad were to fall.

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Is Civil War in Syria a Religious Conflict?

Conflict in Syria
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Syria is a diverse society, home to Muslims and Christians, a majority Arab country with a Kurdish and Armenian ethnic minority. Some religious communities tend to be more supportive of the regime than the others, fuelling mutual suspicion and religious intolerance in many parts of the country.

President Assad belongs to the Alawite minority, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam. Most of the army generals are Alawites. The vast majority of armed rebels, on the other hand, come from the Sunni Muslim majority. The war has raised the tension between Sunnis and Shiites in the neighboring Lebanon and Iraq.

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The Role of Foreign Powers

Prince Albert II Of Monaco Visits The Kremlin
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Syria’s strategic importance has turned the civil war into an international contest for regional influence, with both sides drawing diplomatic and military support from various foreign sponsors. Russia, Iran, the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, and to a lesser extent Iraq and China, are the main allies of the Syrian regime.

Regional governments concerned about Iran’s regional influence, on the other hand, back the opposition, particularly Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The calculation that whoever replaces Assad will be less friendly to the Iranian regime is also behind the US and European support for the opposition.

Meanwhile, Israel sits on the sidelines, anxious about the growing instability on its northern border. Israeli leaders have threatened with intervention if Syria’s chemical weapons fell in the hands of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

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Diplomacy: Negotiations or Intervention?

Bashar Ja'afari, Syrian Arab Republic representative to the United Nations (UN), attends a UN Security Council meeting regarding the on-going civil war in Syria on August 30, 2012 in New York City. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The United Nations and the Arab League have dispatched joint peace envoys to persuade both sides to sit at the negotiating table, with no success. The main reason for the paralysis of the international community are the disagreements between Western governments on one side, and Russia and China on the other, which hinders any decisive action by the United Nations Security Council.

At the same time, the West has been reluctant to intervene directly in the conflict, wary of the repeat of the debacle it had suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan. With no negotiated settlement in sight, the war is likely to continue until one side prevails militarily.