Who's Who in Syria, Explained in Plain English


Rumblings of civil unrest began in Syria during the height of the Arab Spring. One such protest occurred on February 17, 2011 following an incident of police brutality. However, it was the events in Dera’a, a small Syrian village on the border with Jordan, that ignited the Syrian uprising. In March 2011, a group of young boys were arrested and tortured for writing the now infamous refrain “Al-sha’ab yurid isqat al-nizam” (The people want the fall of the regime) on walls in the town. In response, people took to the streets demanding the boys’ release, a violent crackdown followed, and a war began.

What began as a revolution quickly disintegrated into a fractured and horrific civil war. An estimated 100,000 people have died thus far.

Domestic Players

Syria is a religiously and ethnically diverse country with an Arab majority and Kurdish and Armenian minorities. Approximately 74% of the population is Sunni Muslim, 15% Alawite Muslim (the religion of the ruling family), 10% Christian, and 3% Druze.

Presently, President Assad is fighting for his survival and to maintain his power against forces that seek to unseat him. His rule and that of his father were known for its repressive nature. The press was restricted and censored and dissidents were disappeared, tortured, and killed. In this war, the regime’s violation of human rights has only continued. The U.S. has accused the Syrian government of carrying out a recent chemical attack which killed over 1,000 people.

The Syrian Civil War, however, is not simply a battle between the Assad regime and the anti-government forces. Those opposing President Bashar Assad’s rule are divided by their competing interests and differing opinions regarding the shape of any future government. Since the onset of fighting, there have been two attempts to unite the various rebel movements under a coalition. The Syrian National Council was created in October 2011 and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces in November 2012 in order to unite the various anti-government groups and act as a representative to the international community. However, both of these coalitions have failed to attain legitimacy and were rejected by some opposition groups.

A number of independent militias have been formed to combat government forces. The Free Syrian Army is made up of military defectors. Salafist groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra (which is linked to Al-Qaeda) and The Syrian Islamic Front, have also joined the fighting and want to establish an Islamic state. Fighting is also occurring amongst the various opposition groups. For instance, in northern Syria, Kurdish fighters have been resisting Al-Qaeda linked militants’ attempts to take their territory.

Furthermore, groups within the anti-government forces have been guilty of committing atrocities themselves. Some armed opposition groups have summarily executed individuals and attacked Shi’a and Alawite populations, according to Human Rights Watch.

International Players

This civil war is further complicated by the tangled web of regional and international alliances and interests. Al-Jazeera English has created a wonderful chart depicting these alliances and positions regarding a possible U.S. military strike.

Iran, Russia, and China were close allies of President Assad prior to the conflict, and they continue to support his rule. Additionally, Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shi'a militant group closely allied with Syria and Iran, is directly involved and sends fighters to support the Syrian government.

The U.S. condemned the government’s crackdown and gave its backing to the rebels. The Obama administration has provided humanitarian aid and promised military aid. However, the military aid has yet to arrive. Likewise, the UK and France have given their support to the rebels. Following the recent chemical attack, the U.S. and France are leading calls for military action against the Syrian government.

In addition, Saudi Arabia and Qatar currently finance and supply weapons to the rebels in support of Assad’s ouster. During the Syrian war, Israel has attacked weapons shipments in Syria reportedly intended for Hezbollah. Israel also supports a military strike against the Syrian regime and worries that a lack of response would embolden Iran.

The Syrian crisis has quickly become a regional crisis as refugees flee. According to the UN, the number of Syrian refugees now exceeds 1.5 million, and most have fled to neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. These countries have a vested interest in Syrian events as their resources are strained by humanitarian demands and they fear destabilization. Violent spillover has already occurred as bomb attacks have taken place in Lebanon and Turkey has seen cross-border fire.

The situation in Syria is a truly complicated web of interests and alliances grounded in an equally complex history. The military option would likely deepen the conflict and exacerbate an already dire humanitarian crisis. Unfortunately for Syria’s people, there does not appear to be a peaceful end in the near future.