What began in 2011 as a mostly peaceful uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad has grown into a multisided war of attrition in which alliances are constantly shifting and an array of foreign powers is pursuing diverse, sometimes conflicting, objectives.
Syria’s intractable civil war became even more complicated last week when Russian warplanes started attacking rebel positions to support the country’s government.
What began in 2011 as a mostly peaceful uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad has grown into a multisided war of attrition in which alliances are constantly shifting and an array of foreign powers is pursuing diverse and sometimes conflicting objectives.
The fighting has killed an estimated 250,000 Syrians, driven millions more to flee their homes and country, fueling a refugee crisis in Europe, and given rise to the violent extremist Islamic State group.
Some of the main foreign players and who they are fighting:
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The U.S. is leading an international coalition that has conducted hundreds of airstrikes against Islamic State group militants in Syria and neighboring Iraq since last year. The U.S. has also provided limited support, including weapons, training and special-forces assistance, to some of the more moderate rebel factions trying to overthrow Assad. But these groups are outnumbered and outgunned by more radical Islamist factions. A separate Pentagon program to train and equip a Syrian proxy force to fight the Islamic State group has been beset with problems. The first graduating class of fighters was ambushed by the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front when it entered northern Syria this year. The next group gave the militants six pickup trucks with mounted machine guns and some of their ammunition in exchange for safe passage, the Pentagon disclosed last week.
Russia says its attacks support Assad’s government and are targeting positions held by the Islamic State group. However, U.S. officials and Syrian opposition activists say the Russians aren’t discriminating between the militants and other groups arrayed against Assad. Russia argues that the extremist Sunni group won’t be defeated without shoring up Assad’s government, Russia’s chief Arab ally in the Middle East. Russia, along with China, has also used its veto power on the U.N. Security Council to block efforts to sanction Syria. That has put it in direct conflict with the U.S., which views Assad as the source of Syria’s problems and has demanded that he step down.
Iran has been Assad’s most important backer, providing funding, weapons and other critical aid. When the Assad government started losing control over parts of Syria to rebel groups in 2012, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon sent fighters to support Assad’s forces. Iran has also sent military advisers to Syria.
Frustrated that the U.S. has not acted more forcefully against Assad, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states have been bankrolling a number of rebel groups fighting the Syrian government, which they view as a proxy of Shiite-led Iran. The kingdom and its regional allies have also provided warplanes and other support to the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group, which has taken aim at the Saudi royal family and its control over Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.
Like other Arab states, Qatar has provided funding and military aid to a number of Syrian rebel groups. But it has been at odds with Saudi Arabia over which groups to support. Although Qatar rejects any intimation that it provides help to al-Qaida, regional diplomats and analysts contend the country has ties with Syrian factions that coordinate with the group’s affiliates and share their aim to establish an Islamic state in Syria. Qatar has used its contacts with the Nusra Front, which may be through intermediaries, to help negotiate the release of foreign hostages. The country also plays host to a U.S. command center, where the coalition’s airstrikes in Syria and Iraq are coordinated.
Turkey has been a reluctant ally in the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State group. Until July, it refused to allow coalition warplanes to use Turkish air bases to launch attacks in Syria. Turkish jets joined in the bombing campaign for the first time in August. At the same time, however, Turkish authorities renewed airstrikes against separatists from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, whose allies in Syria provide the most reliable ground forces working with the anti-Islamic State coalition. Turkey denies it has provided tacit support to the extremists. But fighters from numerous Syrian rebel factions have flowed across the border since early in the conflict, along with weapons and black-market oil.
France was the first European country to launch airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq. It resisted getting drawn into coalition operations in Syria because it didn’t want to help Assad. It launched its first strikes on Syrian territory in September.
The British Parliament voted against taking military action in Syria and the country has directed most of its efforts on behalf of the coalition to targeting Islamic State forces in Iraq. In August, however, Britain carried out a drone strike in Syria in which two of its citizens were killed. Prime Minister David Cameron presented the strike as self-defense, saying there was evidence the militants were planning attacks against their homeland.