Photo by flickr user ‘Freedom House’
Middle East / Syrian Civil War

The Syrian Maelstrom

ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), also referred to as ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), has ignited global apprehension and attentiveness. ISIS is a unique and significant threat to Arab governments as well as to the United States and its allies. It began in 2004 as a section of al-Qaeda and soon split off, evolving into the more ruthless terrorist body it is today. ISIS made its public debut in the spring of 2013 when it seized the Syrian city of Raqqa. It hopes to establish a caliphate in the Arab world, and then to spread across the map. Many believe that this group is among our most pressing national security concerns and demands urgent action, and, as a result, the media has tended to concentrate on this syndicate established in Syria.

Yet there is much more to the Syrian Civil War than ISIS. In fact, four other independent factions currently battling in the country have not received prominent news coverage. These include the Syrian Arab Army, loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; the Free Syrian Army, fighting to overthrow Assad’s regime; al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al Qaeda; and the Kurds, an ethnic group who solely seek autonomy within the country. To understand the participants in this conflict as well as the significance of their participation, let us first examine the origins of the Syrian Civil War.

From 2010 to 2012, governments across the Middle East were overthrown by protests in a series of events later called the Arab Spring. In the midst of this political turmoil, three teenagers in the Syrian city of Daraa were tortured for drawing “the people want to topple the regime” as graffiti on a school wall. Protests immediately began and the ruthless President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, started to suppress the uprising violently. But some of his military officers defected and formed the Free Syrian Army. ISIS was established soon after, and the Syrian Civil War as we know it unfolded.

At the center of the fighting is the “government” of Syria headed by Bashar al-Assad, who is a president in name and dictator in practice. Following the post-graffiti protests, his regime began to brutally abuse disloyal citizens, killing them by the thousands. President Barack Obama and other world leaders were forced to comment on the atrocities. President Obama formulated the “red line” Assad was not to cross: the use of chemical weapons against his people. Yet Assad crossed it. And when America did not react as promised, the fighting persisted. Assad is backed by his incredibly loyal soldiers of the Syrian Arab Army, which is receiving support from Russia and Iran.

Established in direct defiance to Assad’s regime is the Free Syrian Army (FSA). It was a group formulated by former military officials in the Syrian Arab Army and is essentially a nationalist party vying for a more democratic government. At first, their forces were not under unified hierarchical control, as multiple groups sprouted up all over the country. But other states, including the U.S., told each of the discernible faction’s commanders that there must be a unification of rebel soldiers in order for any military support to be provided. This led to the formation of the Supreme Military Council (SMC), which consists of thirty members from all the regions of Syria. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the U.K., the U.S., and several other Western democratic powers support this militia and have been sending support in the form of training, weapons supplies, and airstrikes.

Al-Nusra Front is a compelling participant in the Syrian Civil War as it attempts to topple the Assad regime. Yet unlike the FSA, al-Nusra has publicly declared its affiliation with al-Qaeda and utilized similar terror tactics, such as suicide bombings and guerrilla warfare, to combat the oppressive Syrian government. Also, like ISIS, al-Nusra Front aims to establish an Islamic caliphate in Syria; however, the group is less brutal than ISIS and actively advocates civilian safety, while attempting to appeal to the “average” Muslim. This other offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq creates a difficult problem for the U.S. and its allies in Syria, since the group provides an influential militia against Assad, but it is blacklisted as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and thus cannot be supported through conventional military techniques.

Whereas al-Nusra Front is solely concerned with Syria, the Khorasan Group consists of senior al-Qaeda operatives sworn to “develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations.” Its members are essentially the voices of experience and command for al-Nusra, and with the conflict raging in Syria, it has provided the organization ample opportunity to conduct live training in an environment that makes such an undertaking relatively unnoticeable. These facts make the Khorasan Group particularly dangerous, as it is their goal to conduct attacks on Western powers in Europe and the U.S. The U.S. Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, stated in a recent intelligence meeting that, “in terms of threat to the homeland, Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as the Islamic State.”

Trapped in the middle of the chaos is the non-Arab ethnic group known as the Kurds. They have no defined nation-state and control several cities in northeastern Syria. The Kurds have proved pivotal in the fight against both Assad and ISIS, as they have repelled multiple vicious assaults. This ignited U.S. interest in the Syrian branch of the group; it has supported the Iraqi Kurds for years. The Kurds seek only autonomy within a new Syria, and they see the forces of the Islamic State to be as much of a threat to their ambitions as the authoritarian forces of the crumbling regime in Damascus. The U.S. has now been predominantly supporting Kurdish fighters with weaponry and training, as they have become the most reliable force in the conflict in congruence with American interests.

All of these different factions in Syria have unique purposes and characteristics, all of which are vital to comprehending the complexity of this conflict. The ideological discrepancies amongst these feuding participants make the Syrian Civil War incredibly volatile. It has forced neighboring countries and world officials to take notice, spurring international involvement and becoming a proxy war. We must continue to analyze the situation in Syria as it continues to cause global repercussions.