One of the first things to know about this war is that, although it has been making been headlines lately, it has been going on for two years. It started during the surge of pro-democracy movements in North Africa and the Middle East known as the Arab Spring.
Initially, Syria saw a series of peaceful protests, but the Syrian leader, President Bashar al-Assad, responded with harsh crackdowns on demonstrators. (While he is called a president, and did run for the position, Assad ran unopposed for office following the death of his father, the former president, and had already been appointed the head of the Baath Party and the military.)
The repression sparked violence from some protesters in return, and the conflict escalated into the full-fledged civil war we have today.
So the next question is, who is involved in this conflict? Well, obviously, there is Bashar al-Assad. He has the support of the Syrian military.
Hezbollah, a militant Shi’a organization active in Syria and Lebanon, also supports him, although they say their main interest is in protecting Shi’a Syrians and ensuring that Shi’a holy sites in Syria are not destroyed.
Russia has long been an ally of Syria’s, and Russian opposition to intervention in Syria or sanctions against the Assad regime has hindered a coordinated UN Security Council response.
The rebels are a mix of more secular pro-democracy forces and an increasing number of extremist groups wishing to establish an Islamic State of Syria. The latter are now receiving support from Al Qaeda and other radical groups. So even if Assad is defeated, the conflict may very well continue as the disparate elements of the rebel forces battle for the right to determine Syria’s future.
That situation complicates the possible U.S. response. Currently, our country is providing non-lethal humanitarian aid to the rebels. However, it is possible that the U.S. will begin arming the rebels.
This is partly due to the fact that credible reports have emerged alleging that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against the rebels and the civilian population. President Obama has previously stated that the use of chemical weapons would be a “game changer” for U.S. involvement in the conflict.
Here are the potential problems with that: one, we are just winding down two long wars that proved unexpectedly costly not just in terms of money, but in lives lost or irrevocably damaged, domestic political will, and our standing in the international community.
Two, the last thing we would want to do is arm and train fighters who could later prove a security threat to U.S. interests. And that is precisely what we did do previously in Afghanistan. In the 1980s, we armed and trained the Taliban in Afghanistan to help them fight the Russian invasion, because we worried about growing Soviet influence in the region and around the world. Years later, those same weapons were used against U.S. forces, and the Taliban arguably provided the kind of rule that allowed Al Qaeda to grow in Afghanistan.
So basically, the key to a successful intervention in Syria would be to limit U.S. boots on the ground, to ensure that we only arm rebels who will continue to support U.S. interests in the aftermath of the civil war, and work in coordination with other coalition partners. Not exactly a straightforward course of action.