Syria’s Civil War

4 minute read
Ishaan Tharoor

According to the U.N., at least 80,000 Syrians have died since the start of hostilities in 2011, and more than 4 million have been forced from their homes. What was once a peaceful uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad has turned into a vicious sectarian conflict pitting Iran-backed Shi’ites allied with the regime against Sunni rebels backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Each side has attracted asymmetrical support: Lebanon-based Hizballah for the regime and disparate Islamist-extremist fighters for the rebels. The U.S., Russia and other regional players hope the road to peace can begin with talks in Geneva–for which no dates have yet been set–but neither of Syria’s warring camps seems in a mood to cease hostilities. Here’s a primer on the world’s bloodiest contemporary conflict.

1 WHERE DOES THE CIVIL WAR STAND NOW?

The northeastern city of Ar Raqqah is the only Syrian provincial capital fully in the hands of the rebels; an al-Qaeda-linked militia is dominant there

[The following text appears within a map. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual map.]

[The following text appears within 2 maps. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual maps.]

TURKEY

ALEPPO

AL-HASAKAH

AR RAQQAH

IDLIB

LATAKIA

SYRIA

DEIR EZ-ZOR

HAMA

HOMS

QUSAYR

TARTUS

LEBANON

IRAQ

DAMASCUS

AS SUWAYDA

DARA’A

JORDAN

If the regime’s position worsens, Assad may fall back to the coastal region, which is heavily populated by Alawites, the minority Shi’ite sect to which Assad belongs

While battles rage across most of the country, there are four main war zones: around the most populous city, Aleppo; the strategic transport corridors of Idlib near Turkey; the war-battered cities of Hama and Homs and their environs; and the capital, Damascus, the regime’s stronghold

BELARUS

2 WHO IS SUPPORTING EACH SIDE?

UKRAINE

ROMANIA

BULGARIA

E.U. On May 27, the E.U. let an arms embargo on Syria’s rebels expire, a move aimed at boosting the outgunned opposition’s fighting chances

TURKEY

372,326

refugees

LEBANON The powerful Shi’ite group Hizballah, backed by Iran, is aligned with the Assad regime, but the rebels also enjoy support among many Lebanese

EGYPT

500,654

refugees

472,764

refugees

RUSSIA

RUSSIA A longtime Syrian ally, Russia keeps supplying the regime with military equipment while pushing for a negotiated peace that could perhaps even keep Assad in power

GEORGIA

AZERBAIJAN

TURKEY The Erdogan government led early calls for Assad’s removal and says the Syrian regime was behind a recent deadly bomb attack in a Turkish border town

SYRIA

IRAN

IRAQ

LEB ANON

ISRAEL

154,372

refugees

JORDAN

SAUDI ARABIA

SAUDI ARABIA The kingdom sees the Syrian conflict as a chance to undermine regional rival Iran and is reportedly funding and arming elements of the rebellion

KAZAKHSTAN

IRAQ Plagued by its people’s own sectarian divisions, Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated government shelters Syrian refugees while allowing Iranian arms shipments to Syria to move through its airspace

UZBEKISTAN

TURKMENISTAN

AFGHANISTAN

IRAN Desperate to preserve its main Arab ally, Iran has sent arms–and reportedly troops–to aid Assad. Syria is a vital conduit for Iran to supply its Lebanese proxy, Hizballah

QATAR The tiny Gulf state has used its petro-wealth to play an outsize role in the conflict, backing some of the more radical rebel militias

QATAR

UAE

3 WHO ARE THE COMBATANTS?

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine.]

4 WHAT ARE U.S. PRIORITIES?

AVOIDING A MESS

The White House has been criticized for its go-slow approach to the conflict; its caution is due in part to the U.S.’s humbling experience occupying Iraq

PROTECTING ISRAEL

Chaos in Syria may pose new security risks for the U.S.’s main regional ally, spurring more decisive action on Washington’s part

HURTING IRAN

The fall of the Assad regime would strip Iran of its closest Middle Eastern ally and shrink the Islamic Republic’s regional reach and clout

CURBING AL-QAEDA

The Obama Administration is wary that a post-Assad vacuum would benefit extremist groups among the rebels

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