Crisis in Syria: Who Do We Support?

Since fighting broke out in March 2011, the Syrian Civil War has become one of the most complex and dire international crises of the 21st century. The conflict has been heavily politicized, but nobody on either side of the aisle seems to have a resolution. There are many justifiable causes for this hesitation, but I think I know the principal reason: there’s no faction truly worth supporting.

While there are many factions vying for power in the war-torn nation, there are really only four that really matter in terms of land control, population and military strength. The four are the Assad Regime, ISIS, the Free Syrian Army, and the Syrian Democratic Forces.

If you’ve been paying close attention to the Syria situation over the last couple years, than you definitely know of the first two factions that I mentioned. However, in the event that you don’t, I will give a rundown of each faction. For reference, this map of Syria based on faction control will be helpful to enhance your understanding.

The Assad Regime:

Bashar al-Assad (Photo: Getty Images)

Bashar al-Assad has been the president of Syria since 2000. However, during the Arab Spring of 2011, the Syrian population began a civil uprising to demand democratic reforms, end civil rights violations, and halt government corruption. Assad did not react positively.

Assad made no changes, while protests calling for his resignation were met with often lethal force. Civil war quickly resulted, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight six years later. Anti-Assad rebels gained ground in 2011-12, but support from Iran, Russia and Lebanese Hezbollah kept Assad’s Regime afloat.

Assad and loyalist forces have routinely violated internationally recognized human rights, most notably in 2013’s sarin gas attack. The United States under both Barack Obama and Donald Trump have denounced and threatened the Assad Regime, but outside of Trump’s April 2017 missile barrage of a Syrian airfield, little has been done to directly harm Assad.

While I doubt the United States would ever come out in support of Assad, it’s not difficult to see why a “ceasefire” went into effect earlier this July. Though Assad is an obviously despotic autocrat who routinely violates international law, he is backed by Russia. A powerful ally like Russia dissuades the United States from doing anything about Assad, especially as he continues to fight ISIS in the region. Assad currently controls most of South and West Syria, including Damascus, Syria’s capital.

The Islamic State:

I assume you know exactly why the United States does not have a great relationship with ISIS. The Islamic State is undoubtedly the most horrific and dangerous faction in the Middle East. In fact, they are the only group in Syria that the U.S. military is actively fighting, and for good reason.

ISIS took advantage of the mass confusion and power vacuum in Syria, and seized territory extraordinarily quickly, peaking in late 2015/early 2016. There was even concern that they would take Syria’s most heavily populated city (pre-war), Aleppo in 2016. Their slaughter of the innocent makes them an easy target, even if they were not the initiators of the Syria conflict.

Though they have suffered numerous defeats as of late, they still control a very large portion of Southeast Syria. For more information on the origin of ISIS, you can check out my article on it here.

Free Syrian Army:

The Free Syrian Army was originally Syria’s best bet to defeat and oust the Assad government. Their main purpose remains securing freedom from the Assad Regime, and putting into place a less hostile government. In the beginning of the civil war, the FSA was primarily comprised of former soldiers of the Syrian Armed Forces. Military victories in 2011-12 have since been replaced with defeats at the hand of Assad and ISIS.

In 2013, the Obama administration approved plans to arm, train and fund the FSA. However, by the time aid was coming in, all momentum had been lost and the FSA was clearly on its heels. President Trump actually ended the CIA program assisting the FSA in early July.

If it were 2012, the FSA would be a great option. But since their early victories, there have been three major red flags that lead me to believe that supporting them would be a waste of time, money and effort.

  1. Poor Leadership: Deserting has become commonplace and corruption is rampant in Turkey-based commanding officers. The FSA lacks discipline and cohesion.
  2. Lack of Territory: Of the four major factions, the FSA has the least amount of land. Their two largest areas of control are also not connected.
  3. Willingness to Work with Jihadists: While the FSA has been fighting ISIS for years, their willingness to work with the Al-Nusra Front (a jihadist group) shows democracy may not be high on their priority list.

Essentially, it comes down to the fact that the FSA has virtually no chance of victory. This Washington Post article details why fighters are leaving the FSA for other rebel groups in much more detail.

Syrian Democratic Forces:

Surely the faction with the word “democratic” is worth supporting, right? Yes and no. The U.S. currently supports the SDF, and for good reason. So, I’ll start with the positives.

The SDF is ethnically diverse; it is comprised of Kurds, Arabs, Turks, Armenians, Assyrians and even Westerners.

The SDF is backed by a number of of Western nations, including the United States. There have even been operations in which U.S. Special Forces have had boots on the ground to assist the SDF.

Their primary targets are jihadist groups, namely the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State.

So, they’re an ethnically diverse, democratic, U.S. backed fighting force whose primary purpose seems to be to fight ISIS. Sounds perfect. Unfortunately, it’s not.

Before the SDF was formed in 2015, the main fighting force in Northern Syria was a group of Kurdish fighters called the YPG (People’s Protection Unit). There’s nothing wrong with the YPG per se, but they represent the largest segment of the SDF, and hold a lot of power. Before joining the SDF, their end goal was to create an independent Northern Syria under Kurdish control.

The Kurds are one of the largest ethnic groups in the world that don’t have a permanent, internationally recognized state. Even though they should continue to work with the West in ridding the region of ISIS, I’m concerned about the fallout if they are successful. If the SDF and Western forces clear Syria of ISIS, the Kurdish fighters of the YPG may decide to return to their original goal.

While I personally have no problem with the idea of a Kurdish state, and I’m sure the West won’t, the Assad Regime certainly will. The geopolitical situation in the Middle East is extremely volatile, and the idea of a new nation dominated by Kurds could potentially set off a number of Arab nations. This issue is theoretical, but the risk of ending the conflict in Syria and replacing it with a new one is undoubtedly one that needs to be considered.


Sources: Washington Post, BBC, ABC, Syria.liveuamap, The Atlantic