The war in Syria, explained

How did the war begin? Why is Russia involved? What has this to do with the so-called “Islamic State”? When will there be peace? Here are some answers by Rico Grimm.

Of course you are not going to become experts in middle-eastern politics. Mainly you are only interested in one question:

The war in Syria began six years ago. I can’t understand all the news anymore. The important thing is just this: When will the war ever be over?

This question preoccupies many people, but unfortunately no one is able to answer it. At least no one who doesn’t want to discredit himself. What is possible: We can outline how it could possibly end one day. But before we start we need to clarify what we mean by “Syria”. Currently there are quite a few.

Before you start: Please, show me where I can find Syria on the map.

That Syria which we can still find on the maps is located in the Mediterranean, four hours by plane from Berlin. On the western border there is Lebanon, which was in civil war before. To the east, the civil war ridden country Iraq, which was occupied by the US back in 2003. In the south there is the peaceful country Jordan, and there is Israel which is at war with Syria until this day. To the north there is Turkey.

Due to its proximity to other conflict zones it’s important to understand Syria’s current situation. It’s also important to be aware of the fact that the Syrian population was not evenly distributed in the country before the war. Previously, the majority were based in the West, close to the coast, whereas in the East there was only desert.

OK. Countries in the midst of civil war as neighbors and more people near the coast. Understood. What kind of state was Syria before the war began?

Officially, Syria was ruled by a multiparty system. But practically, Syria was and still is a one-party state, because the so-called Baath-party has been in power since the coup in 1963. On paper the Baath-party is a non-religious, socialist party. Therefore they persecuted Islamists and acted in accordance with the socialist Soviet Union in the Cold War. The head of the party is the President of Syria at the same time. He possesses sweeping powers, so his capabilities are very similar to a dictator’s.

Okay, but I didn’t mean that. I rather wanted to know how life was in Syria before the war.

Ah! Okay…oh. That is difficult to describe so generally, even for Germany, my own country. But David Roberts explained it for Syria in these remarkable words:

“Its society is one of the most heterogeneous in the Middle East and yet its leaders have been the proponents of a radical integrative political movement: Arab Nationalism. It has kindly and hospitable inhabitants, but it is also a police state where a man can be locked up indefinitely without a trial. Your Syrian friends are your friends for life, but a curious current of xenophobia runs through the country. Syrians love culture and natural beauty, but the ugliness of many Syrians towns and their architecture has to be seen to be believed.”

But you can also ask some Syrians their own opinion. Ask them what they think of Omar Suleyman, this singer here:

He has an incredible career. Starting as a wedding singer in Syria, he published the unbelievable amount of 500 albums and cassettes. Later in 2007 he received a record contract with an arcane label from the US. In the West he became so famous that he appeared at the world renowned Glastonbury festival. His current album was produced by the Berlin based techno giant “modeselektor”. But the payoff of the joke is: Young Syrians don’t really like him…

Um, well, I guess you digress from the subject…

I’m sorry!

Let’s have a look on the data from 2011, when the civil war began:

The educational system is competitive.
But many people possess very little money.
Before the war started, many Syrian men were jobless. Mostly the young couldn’t find an occupation.

Many young unemployed men, who are bored…

Yes. They were going to become the reserves for the upcoming war. But it’s also important to be aware of the multiple religions that are present in Syria.

It’s not always easy to distinguish between religions and ethnicities, but let’s try the most common methods. In Syria live Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Turkmens, Circassians. So, are you already confused? There are many more: Assyrians, Arameans and Palestinians. The two most influential groups in this war are formed by Arabs and Kurds. The Arabs make up the majority of the Syrian population with 90 percent, whereas the Kurds have approximately 9 percent. The Kurds speak in their own language (“Kurdish”) and they are often called “the biggest people without a state”. Both Arabs and Kurds, are mostly Muslims, so-called Sunni Muslims. There are also Shiites.

Do I really need to know the difference between a Kurd, a Shiite, a Sunni and an Alawi?

Yes, if you want to understand why hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived in Europe, you should know why. And in general: Islam is a world religion with more than 1.6 billion followers. Come on, you should definitely know at least the two tendencies, shouldn’t you?

Well, all right!

The difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims is a theological one, which means a difference in faith. Like other religions do as well, followers of Islam interpret some aspects of their religion in a different way. In this case, the most important distinction, not the only one, but the most important one, is the question of the legitimate successor of the founder of the religion Mohammed.

After his death in 632, the Sunnis wanted to decide freely about the successor, whereas the Shiites were convinced that he should be one of Mohammed’s family. The Sunnis were the majority, so they prevailed. The Shiites still decided on their own successor. During the following centuries the two religious tendencies drifted apart, they dominated dynasties, countries and philosophies. Both movements were in war against each other. It began as a conflict about religion, but today it’s a dispute over money, power and reputation. No one is talking about the legitimate successor of Mohammed anymore.

To be honest: I can keep this in my mind, but I always struggle remembering who the Shiites and who the Sunnis are.

Honestly, me too. But we still need to do it.

But if I read the graphic above correctly, the Shiites do not play such a big role in Syria. The Alawis are much more important. Who do they think is the successor of Mohammed?

Ali, too. But they are not Shiites in the classical sense. For a millennium they lived as a secret sect, and no outside observers knew very much about them. Only in the end of the 19th century they started to see themselves as Shiites. That is really important to understand because Alawis form the elite of Syria. The current head of Bashar al-Assad’s government is Alawi, and so are his followers in the military and in the intelligence service.

Oh, the Sunnis form the majority with 74 percent, but the minority of 13 percent is in power? Is this supposed to go well?

You are right, a lot of the Sunnis are angry, but Assad’s family built a uniquely powerful police state within their period of reign. Hafiz al-Assad, commander of the air force and father of Assad reigned without mercy from 1970 to 2000. Within these year Syrians with the wrong religion were discriminated against, were disappeared without a trial and imprisoned, and were tortured and murdered.

Since his takeover, Assad senior was challenged by the moderate Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. They killed members of the government and wanted to kill Assad. He answered with harshness and created a precedent in 1982 which will be remembered by his son when he is confronted with the same decision. In February 1982 an open uprising broke out in Hama, the centre of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hafiz al-Assad needed to decide: Will he be benevolent and punish only the worst revolutionaries or will he get rid of them once and for all? Assad senior decides to do the latter and eradicates the majority of the Syrian town Hama in a 27 day long siege. Up to 20,000 people die, and the city lies in ruins. It is no accident that the most popular anti-Assad-song was created during the Arab Spring in this town.

OK, Syria is an authoritarian state. But was this the only reason for the civil war? For example, Egypt was an authoritarian state, too and it stayed calm.

You are right. In the West, we called the Arab Spring a “Facebook-Revolution”. Via Facebook, activists could create a network and organise the protest in a straightforward way. Although the riots could have been called the “Bread-Revolution” because of the massive increase in the prices of food due to a rampant drought in many countries of the world. Not many people know about that. But in combination with the high rate of unemployment, the high prices of food were probably as crucial a motivation as the authoritarian system for the uprisings.

Photo: Jonathan Rashad/Wikipedia

It seems to me that this was ages ago: All those pictures from the Tahir-square in Egypt. We were sitting in front of the TV and were stunned by these demonstrations. It was another world.

The Syrian civil war is five years and six months old now. Before it began, the country looked like this:

Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Photo: Upyernoz/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
A child in Damascus. Photo: Upyernoz/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
Krak des Chevaliers. Photo: Upyernoz/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
Today it looks like this:
The market of Aleppo after a suicide attack. Photo: Govorkov/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Oh no.


Five and a half years of civil war have changed Syria. Yet the war began in the same way as the Arab Spring did in the whole region: with a couple of demonstrations. However, they ended up bloody in the southern Syrian city of Der’a. There, security forces started shooting on unarmed demonstrators in March 2011. Shortly afterwards Assad dismissed the government, repealed the contingency and released political prisoners in order to settle the conflict. But it’s too late. In Hama, Damascus, Homs and the rest of the country, Syrians demand the overthrow of the government.

Assad replies with even more harshness. He vows to destroy the “terrorists”. In April 2011, a day remembered as “bloody Friday”, more than 120 people die across the country. Each dead civilian means a new burial, which in turn means a new demonstration against the government. A lethal cycle, reinforced by the fact that in May 2011 Iran is openly supporting the Assad government.

What has Iran got to do with this?

Assad is an Alawi. And Alawis are Shiites. The Iranians form the biggest Shiite country in the world and consider themselves as the protecting power of this denomination. Therefore they intervened. But also because they stood to gain more influence with their ally Assad over the events in Syria and their neighbouring Lebanon. If Assad were to be overthrown, the internationally isolated government of Iran would lose their only real ally. Besides, there are plans for a gas pipeline, which is going to run from Iran to Iraq, and another Syrian government could probably prevent the construction of such a pipeline.

So this foreign help is part of Assad’s strategy to survive. There is another part in the dictator’s mindset: If the world is forced to choose between me and Islamic terrorists, then they will decide in favour of me.

To really give the world this choice, Assad relocates unpolitical and not particularly religious youth offenders to prisons that are made for Islamists. But he goes one step further, and this shows that he has had his back to the wall since at least Summer 2011: He releases Islamists from their prisons. These men, who battled Assad senior and his family for more than 40 years, who wanted to kill his father, are now free to act. They swear to take revenge on him — and literally this is what Assad wants.

How does Germany react?

In August of 2011, Germany, France and the UK published a statement calling for the Assad government to resign, as it had “lost all legitimacy”. US President Barack Obama also calls for resignation. The West imposes sanctions. The UN Security Council negotiates a resolution to condemn Assad’s action. But the vetos of Russia and China prevent this. The Gulf States Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait recall their ambassadors from Damascus. A few months later, in November 2011, the Arab League, a union of almost all Arab states, takes a historic step: it excludes Syria from its round and presents a peace plan. It is the first in a long series of peace plans that remain ineffective.

With whom should Assad officially make peace? With the people who swore to overthrow him?

Peace must be concluded with one’s enemies, right? Especially since at this time not so many parties are active in the civil war. An agreement would have been much easier to achieve than today. At that time, the main actors were the Assad government with its official security forces, the unofficial Shabiha militia and the so-called Free Syrian Army, the FSA for short. The FSA is initially mainly composed of army units which have crossed over to the opposition parties. The fighters of the FSA are divergent. Sometimes they only want to defend their home village, sometimes they are religious, sometimes they are Kurdish. When Western politicians, especially US Americans, speak of “moderate” rebels (which lately they scarcely do), they mean the FSA.

In the summer of 2012, the FSA is at the peak of its power. At that time, the group succeeded in establishing itself in several regions of the country and was therefore increasingly perceived abroad as the voice of an alternate Syria. At a conference in the Turkish city of Antalya, the FSA commanders meet with military officers from the US, UK, France, Jordan and the Gulf States — which makes it quite clear who supports the FSA, at least politically … Because now it gets a bit complicated.

As if it wasn’t already…

If something is unclear post your questions in the comments. I will answer every question.


So let’s continue. The various supporters of the rebels all want to overthrow Assad, but they differ in opinion as to what comes after. That is why they support those rebel units that best fit their political goals. The US is against Assad but also for stability in the region, but since they do not pursue any goal with as much vigor as they could, it is difficult to single out one aspect. Turkey wants to overthrow Assad, but thereby prevent the Kurds from having their own state — and the Gulf States want to put up an Islamic-Sunni state. Simultaneously there are also differences in the nature of aid provided. While the US is initially reluctant and supplies only non-lethal equipment to moderate rebel units, the Gulf States invest hundreds of millions of dollars to arm Islamic groups. The arms reach the rebels over Turkish-Syrian border points, which are under the control of the FSA.

At the same time, several Iranian transport planes land in Damascus every day, which not only bring equipment to the country but also fighters. In the summer of 2013, the Shia militia Hezbollah from the neighboring civil war joins the fight on Assad’s side and prevents him losing several strategically important cities.

Local limited insurrections have now become a true proxy war of the regional powers. On the one hand, there are the Sunni powers of Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, on the other the Shia powers Hezbollah and Iran. This contrast is not new. For years, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been competing for supremacy in the region. Turkey is somewhat marginalized as a non-Arab country, but has long dreamed of the pre-eminence that the country had a hundred years earlier during the Ottoman Empire. At that time Syria was an Ottoman province.

Soon, however, a new power emerges that shatters this comparatively clear order — and is regarded as an enemy by both Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The Islamic State

The Islamic state, which at the time was called “Islamic state in Iraq and Syria”, in short ISIS. The organization will only become “IS” later, and the new abbreviation will underscore its global claim. I will consistently use the new term.

In order to understand the rise of the IS, we have to jump back briefly. At the end of 2011 / start of 2012, Al-Qaeda in Iraq carried out a series of deadly attacks destabilizing the country. A certain Abu Bakr-al-Bagdadi leads the Iraqi offshoot of Al-Qaeda. He had already started to send fighters to Syria a few months earlier to build another Al-Qaeda branch there. When the world’s Al-Qaeda chief calls on the Muslims of the world to carry the holy war to Syria and overthrow the Assad government, the so-called Al-Nusra Front responds, led by the young, ambitious Syrian, Abu Mohammed al-Golani. Qatar feeds them with money. Some presume that Qatar, with its commitment to the Syrian civil war, wants to secure its own planned gas pipeline to the Mediterranean, in competition with the Iranian one.

Abu Mohammed al-Golani — this photo was probably taken during his imprisonment in Iraq. Photo: Irakische Regierung

Why does the West not do something about it? The US have excellent relations the Gulf?

The US is trying, but has no convincing arguments. What are they going to threaten countries with that can buy everything? The best weapons, peace in their country and in the case of Qatar perhaps also a football World Cup. A further complication is that the Gulf States are also at odds with who they should support. Qatar is delivering to the Nusra front, but since it’s rapidly becoming the most powerful rebel group, Saudi Arabia is starting to build its own militia.

How could the Nusra front become so powerful?

During the summer, the Nusra Front attracts attention with several suicide attacks in the Syrian capital of Damascus and in the largest city of the country, Aleppo. It aims primarily at Syrian army units. In this way, it can establish itself as a decisive alternative to the FSA. But Al-Nusra does not only use suicide attacks, a guerrilla tactic, but also acts in part as a regular army.

In January 2013, it seems highly likely that the Nusra Front will play a role in a post-war Syria. Thus Assad’s strategical thinking pays dividends. Islamists are suddenly a serious force in the country. For the Western powers, any intervention against Assad would be difficult to defend against their own home population. After all, any intervention against Assad is now also one for the Islamists.

But then something happens that is unique in the recent history of Islamic organizations.

Hold on a moment. You only talk about warriors and weapons and strategies. Now the war is almost two years old. How are the people of Syria?

Where, at the outset, cautious optimism still prevailed, now pure despair has set in. Many Syrians are already on the run in summer of 2013. At the moment, the United Nations counts 2.8 million refugees in the neighboring countries alone. The world community has grown accustomed to the war and ignores it. The aid organizations, especially the truly important World Food Program of the United Nations, have problems to provide for refugees. Jordanian statisticians must suddenly change the list of the largest cities in the country. Because Zaatari, a refugee camp in the north of the country, is in fourth place. 80,000 Syrians live there.

Photo: Rico Grimm

People are fleeing the fighting, but they are also fleeing from a very special weapon, which is primitive, cheap and terribly inaccurate. Barrels had their debut in the 1960s in the Vietnam War, now they are deployed by the Syrian army against its own population. They fill barrels, water tanks, boilers with explosives and metal parts and then drop them over the Syrian cities. These weapons are called barrel bombs. Their use against civilians is a war crime. Thousands die.

How many exactly?

It is difficult to count the dead when everyone seems to be fighting everyone and public order is slowly collapsing. Therefore, these numbers should be treated with caution. But on behalf of the UN, a team of statisticians has evaluated death lists. At the end of April 2013, 92,901 people were killed in the Syrian civil war. Therefore it already then was considered one of the deadliest wars of the century.

In the refugee camps and cities of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, the Syrians still hope that the war will end soon. Comparatively few of them are on their way to Europe. 9,427 Syrian refugees seek asylum in Germany between January and October 2013, in comparison 162,510 Syrians applied for asylum in 2015, according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.

OK. Before I interrupted you, you mentioned that something unique happened in 2013. What was that?

It comes to open war between brothers. The two powerful, ambitious jihadis, Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi of the IS, and Abu Mohammed al-Golani of the Nusra front, are tangled up.

Encouraged by the successes of his Syrian brothers, Bagdadi takes a microphone, on April the 8th of 2013 and announces to the world that the Nusra front is part of his organization, which is henceforth called “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”. But with his advance, he angered Golani. One day later, he published a report in which he rejected the merger of the two militias. The chief of the two, Aiman ​​al-Zawahiri, tries to mediate, but again hits a brick wall with Bagdadi, who travels to Syria, in order to recruit militants of the Nusra front. The situation escalates.

Golani accuses the IS of murdering an affiliated commander. The IS responds by killing a commander of the Nusra Front together with his entire family. In May 2014 in the east of Syria, in Deiz Ez-Zoor, open fights begin between the two Islamic groups. The IS wins, and together with the city of Raqqa, which the group had conquered more than six months ago, the two cities form the springboard for future conquests in the region.

Do I really need to know all these details?

Yes, because if you do not understand the motivations and history of the fighters, you can not understand the situation in which they are today. A good example of this is US behavior in the war in Syria, especially in the autumn of 2013. US President Barack Obama had already clarified in the early stages of the fighting that there was a red line for his country: the use of chemical or biological weapons. Should Assad use these weapons, Obama would intervene. The taboo must not be broken.

On 21 August 2013, someone used these weapons in Ghouta, a suburb of the capital of Damascus. Several rockets, filled with Sarin gas, hit the city — up to 1,400 people die, including hundreds of children. The Syrian government and Russia claim that the rebels have used the poison gas, and the respected investigative journalist Seymour Hersh defends this theory. But the majority of experts and intelligence agencies claim that the Assad government is responsible. I can not decide who is right.

The US response is important because Barack Obama is ready to go to war in Syria. In August 2013, he announces air raids but wants to ask the US Congress for permission.

Why is Obama doing this?

He didn’t have to. Unlike the German Chancellor, a US president can use military force without consulting the parliament. The Vietnam and Korean war started without any official declaration of war.

So why did Obama do it?

Now we have to look back at the year 2008. At that time, Obama was also chosen to end the whole disastrous and expensive wars in the Middle East, which were futile in the eyes of many Americans. If he now intervenes in the Syrian civil war, he risks that the US will be dragged into such a war again. That is why he wants to be on the safe side, not to bear responsibility alone. He wants to ask Parliament — and this takes time. Many US members are not convinced. It is not certain whether the airstrikes will begin.

US President Barack Obama promises a new beginning in the relations with the Arab world at the Cairo University in 2009. Photo: US-Regierung/gemeinfrei

This uncertainty first opens up the way to a completely different player: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, President of the Russian Federation. To a rather rhetorical proposal of the US Foreign Minister, John Kerry, that Syria could also destroy all its chemical weapons, Syria suddenly responds, under pressure from Russia. A resolution is passed by the UN Security Council, and a year later the inspectors report completion. The Assad government has destroyed all its chemical weapons — and Russia has averted a US attack on its most important ally in the region.

Luck for Assad.

Bad luck for the rebels. They come under increasing pressure in the coming months. The Free Syrian Army is a mere shadow of its former self, the IS achieves territorial gain and in June 2014 its biggest coup so far: the capture of the Iraqi city of Mossul. In one stroke the IS is world famous; then they decapitated the American journalist James Foley in a video and harass members of the religious minority Yazidi in Iraq. The US must react — and without letting Congress vote, Obama gives the order for air raids on the IS. From now on, the US is an active party in the Syrian Civil War. Together with the Kurdish militia units on the ground, the US fighters form the most important front against the IS.

In the Sunni-Arabic parts of Iraq, the IS can operate almost unhindered, but they are met with fierce resistance in the north of the country where the Kurds live. In the aftermath of the US military intervention in Iraq, which was in 2003, the Kurds established a de facto state, which they do not want to give up. The Syrian Kurds hope for a similar development. This is why the Kurds fight hard and receive support from the West. Germany sends instructors and weapons to Iraq.

I beg your pardon? Where to?

Yes, shipment of arms into a war zone. This has not yet happened in the history of the Federal Republic. The Syrian war breaks the last taboos.

Where do the weapons, that are being fought with in Syria, come from?

This question can not be answered by anyone comprehensively, because it happens, of course, very much in secret. Nevertheless, my colleague, Dominik Wurnig, has investigated what is known about the supply of arms to Syria. According to official statistics, Russia is particularly benefiting from armament sales to the Syrian government. These figures, however, represent only a part of the reality, since every great power arms its own troops. For example, according to CNN, the US dropped 50 tonnes of ammunition and hand grenades from the air for the Syrian-Arab coalition in October 2015 and Saudi Arabia supplied anti-tank weapons to the rebels. The IS, in turn, also uses equipment that they captured in Iraq in 2014. However, Russian, Chinese, Sudanese and Iranian ammunition were also found in its camps in Kobane.

Mmm, OK. How is the struggle between the Kurds and IS going?

The Kurds succeed in repelling jihadis in several decisive places. The Syrian Kobanê is especially fiercely contested. The struggle for the strategically unimportant city leads to a PR war that the IS will lose, as well as the city in January 2015. Since the 2014 summer victory, this is the first serious defeat for the Islamic militia.

But aren’t the US air strikes decisive? I mean, the Islamic State can hardly oppose that.

Certainly. But after they’ve suffered heavy losses, the militia changes their tactics. No more convoys, constant location changes of their leaders. The US Air Force, therefore, runs out of targets. In spring 2015 it flies only a few attacks per day. Without ground troops the IS will not be defeated. Experts had predicted this, now it is official.

OK. But what I do not understand: if the US is not able to weaken the IS — why does Russia bombard the militia? Only an idiot does the same thing twice and expects a different result.

That’s true. But, quite likely, Russia is hardly bombarding the IS — even though the spokesmen of the Russian government do not tire of emphasizing that they are.

Puh! This is only anti-Russian propaganda.

Probably not. For where Russia is attacking, it is quite precise. First, because Russia itself publishes videos of the air strikes, which can be attributed by an accurate analysis to certain places. Secondly, because of the different regions of Syria, air strikes are reported by independent observers who have proven to be reliable during the course of the war years. It is impossible to falsify all these messages.

Who does Russia bomb then?

The rebels. Nusra front, which in the meantime has separated from al-Qaeda and renamed itself; the FSA, local militias, some of which are directly supported by the US. The distribution of the airstrikes shows that Russia is attacking where the Assad government has been in military distress. Only five percent of the Russian attacks are expected to apply to the IS. According to estimates by the British non-governmental organization Airwars, 3,600 civilians were killed by the Russian attacks.

And how many in the attacks by the US-led coalition?

900 — but in a significantly longer period. Translated to a rate, civilians would die eight times as fast by Russian bombs as by the US coalition. The numbers are different because the strategies are different. While the US coalition is trying to avoid civilian casualties, this is precisely part of the Russian plan, says the chief of Airwars to the Guardian.

Why just last fall? Why hasn’t Russia already intervened over the past few years?

Let’s remember: Syria is the most important ally of Russia in the whole region. In the small village of Tartus, Russia maintains its only militia facility outside the territory of the former Soviet Union: a port which significantly increases the radius of action of the Russian navy in the Mediterranean. Throughout the war Russia had provided Assad with weapons.

The fact that the country is now actively intervening is probably not for any one reason. The Russian president Putin, who is said to be a great tactician, has rather deemed the situation favorable in order to achieve a number of goals through a military deployment:

  1. Support the Assad government to keep Russia’s military bases and retain that important ally.
  2. As a prominent actor, Russia can not be ignored in any peace settlement.
  3. This plays into the country’s hands, because due to the war in Ukraine it had no flexibility in its foreign policy. Western countries had imposed sanctions. Russia accompanies its military offensive with a diplomatic one. It makes the West the offer to form an “anti-terrorist alliance” against the IS. Assad would, of course, be a part of this alliance and thus become part of the Syrian future.

Okay, I’ve finally understood that, but it’s hard to keep track.

Here I have listed again all actors of the Syrian War and their core objectives.

What is the current situation in Syria?

This map shows the front lines. As you can see, they are anything but clear. There are entrapments of rebels and government forces and IS units. Almost all of them build their own administrative structures. That’s what I meant when I said at the beginning that there are currently many “Syrias”. Some observers are making comparisons to Somalia.

Map of the Syrian Civil War. Red: Controlled by pro-Assad forces or Syrian forces — Yellow: Controlled by Kurdish forces or the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — Black: Controlled by the Islamic State (IS) — Green: Controlled by Rebels — White: Controlled by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Nusra Front). Source: Wikipedia/CC Sa 4.0.

What has happened since Russia intervened in October 2015?

First, Russia has prevented a defeat of the Assad government or at least further losses of territory. Then, through constant concentrated air raids late in the winter of 2016, it has been able to recapture the military initiative. This means: suddenly, Assad, Iran and Russia were again on the attack, the rebels could only defend. Assad wants to recapture Aleppo, the fighting there has become more violent. At the same time, all armistice agreements concluded since the deployment of Russia have remained more or less ineffective. The last collapsed in September 2016.

OK. One after the other. Why is the fight for Aleppo so ferocious? Is the city important?

Anyone who controls Aleppo controls the formerly populous northwest of Syria, the connecting roads to the Turkish border, and the buffer zone for the truncated state governed by the Assad government. If Aleppo falls, that does not necessarily mean defeat for the rebels. But without Aleppo, victory is just as impossible, because areas controlled by the rebels are becoming more and more isolated and widely distributed across Syria.

But did Turkey not also interfere? How so?

Three reasons are mentioned repeatedly: First, the Turkish President Erdogan wanted to show that he is now in control of the military after the failed coup attempt of the army . Secondly, like Russia, he wants to take part in the future of Syria. Turkish soldiers on Syrian soil are a guarantee that Erdogan will not be overshadowed. Thirdly, the continual advance of the Kurds has frightened Turkey. One of the greatest strategic risks in the eyes of Turkey are the ambitions of the Kurds to their own state. In the course of the war, the Syrian Kurds had succeeded in conquering two more or less self-sufficient areas along the Turkish border. When they were about to join these territories by conquest, Turkey invaded in August 2016. It advanced its units straight into the middle. Turkish troops then began to attack IS positions. Erdogan, who promoted Islamic fighters for years, thus corrected a policy that had led to suicide attacks in Turkey itself. In October, rebels supported by Turkey gained an important victory: they conquered Dabiq, a place which is very important for the mythology of the IS.

What is the exact role of the Kurds?

Here I must immediately clarify: There is no “the Kurds”. At least the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds differ strongly enough that they can not be thrown together. For a long time, the Syrian Kurds were regarded as the “ground troops” of the US Air Force. Hope is placed in them to fight the IS. However, the Syrian Kurds are willing to pursue their goals regardless of what the US wants. They proved this in January 2016 when, amidst Russian air raids, they overran rebellious positions and so de facto collaborated with Assad. They will play a central role in the conquest of the IS-Hochburg Raqqa.

But what about the no-fly zone, for which Green politician Cem Özdemir, for example, is making a strong push?

Only the US Air Force and the Russian Army can jointly enforce this zone at the moment. Russia has deployed powerful air defense missiles in the region and must therefore agree to such a zone. However, Moscow rejects this proposal. As long as the basic Russian interests do not change in Syria, the NFZ is not a credible option. Even though the Assad barrel bombs are reason enough to set it up.

Hey sorry, what you wrote here was really long . I have skipped all of it to find out how it could end. I want peace!

No one can say how the war in Syria ends. It is certain that peace will be more difficult to achieve than in classical wars between states. Researchers have found out that wars last longer the more external support exists, the better the rebel groups are financed and when ethnic minorities are involved. All these factors apply to Syria. However, these are just statistical statements; they are probabilities. It’s possible that it won’t happen that way.

Wars are so abstruse, so unpredictable, that there are always opportunities that no one has ever anticipated. History is full of prophecies, which afterwards turned out to be without substance (“By Christmas we will be back home,” said the young German fighters and moved to France in the summer of 1914). The only thing that is certain is the aims of the major powers. Keep them in the mind through everything that happens in the coming months.

Nevertheless, I want to look into the future. I do not want to sketch possible end scenarios, but paths to peace. In doing so, I rely on the “Norwegian Peace Building Center”. It describes three approaches:

  1. Internal solution — without mediation from outside, Syria is pacified. Either because one side wins or because all sides negotiate with each other.
  2. An international agreement, driven from the outside — The world community, probably in the form of the United Nations, succeeds in mediating peace between the various parties and transforming the whole into a binding agreement.
  3. Syrian Forces and Supporting Parties agree — All parties directly or indirectly involved in this war abide to an agreement.

All these scenarios have a decisive flaw: the fact that the IS will probably not participate. The militia wants to build a caliphate that encompasses the world. For them the Syrian war is only part of a larger plan.

Be honest: What could Germany do?

To end the war? Unfortunately not very much. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had tried to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table last year, but failed. Germany has little influence on Russia, and certainly not on Assad.

So the prospects don’t look very good?

The situation for the normal Syrian people is the most severe. In November 2016, 4.8 million of them are on the run, more than 200,000 dead. This war is a disaster.

This article was originally published in German on
Translation: Efthymis Angeloudis,
Markus Kowalski
Editing: Alexia Eastwood

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