The bloody Syrian civil war has left an estimated half a million Syrians dead, wounded or missing and forced half the nation’s population from their homes.
Neighboring Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon have been flooded with refugees. Many more have fled to Europe. The country has witnessed war crimes, including use of chemical weapons against civilians.
Many Westerners are bewildered by the conflict, having difficulty grasping who is fighting whom, much less why. Here we’ll try to briefly explain a convoluted and complex subject.
The roots of the conflict go back some 13 centuries to the period after the death of Muhammad, founder of Islam. Muhammad died without naming a successor, and Islam soon divided into two major branches, Sunni and Shiite, over who would be the legitimate leader of the Muslim world.
Sunni Muslims, who make up about 85 percent of the world’s Muslims, believe that Abu Bakr, father-in-law and longtime companion of Muhammad, was the legitimate caliph,or religious and political successor, to Muhammed.
Shiite Muslims, comprising the other 15 percent of the global Muslim population, believe that Ali ibn Abi Talib, son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad, was the legitimate successor. His wife Fatima was the only child of Muhammad to bear children who survived. Shiites believe that only Muslims directly descended from Muhammad (and thus from Ali and Fatima) can be his legitimate successors.
Today Iran, Iraq and Lebanon are the predominately Shiite Muslim nations—the Shiites making up 15 percent of the world’s Muslims.
Fast-forward to the 20th century. Hafez al-Assad, a Syrian military officer who was Alawite (an offshoot of Shiite Islam) and an ally of the Soviet Union, participated in a series of coups that ultimately led to him becoming undisputed leader of Syria in 1970. He became a typical secular Mideast Arab dictator, instituting one-man rule. To maintain control of predominately Sunni Syria, he appointed minority Alawites into positions of control over the military, intelligence and security forces.
Hafez al-Assad ruled Syria for 30 years before dying of a heart attack in 2000. He was succeeded by his similarly secular and brutal son Bashar al-Assad, who for the few preceding years had overseen the Syrian occupation of neighboring Lebanon.
In early 2011, as the Islamist-fueled “Arab Spring” spread through much of the Arab world, mass protests broke out in Syria, soon becoming all-out war against Assad’s rule. In general, lining up against Assad are Sunni Syrians, which includes al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups, not least the Islamic State (IS, ISIS or ISIL), which formed in the collapsing chaos of Syria and neighboring Iraq. Their goal is to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state.
The Islamists opposing Assad have drawn jihadist fighters from throughout the Muslim world, as well as from Europe, North America and Australia. Sunni nations such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have helped fund those fighting for Assad’s overthrow.
Supporting Bashar al-Assad, who again is Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, are the Shiite nation of Iran and predominately Shiite Lebanon, providing military and financial aid. Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Basij and Quds Force make up many of the foot soldiers propping up Assad’s government. Various other smaller militia groups are involved fighting on both sides.
To complicate the list of players further, in northern Syria, as in northern Iraq, Kurdish militia groups fight against both the Assad government and Islamist groups to establish an independent homeland and hope to link up with fellow Kurds in Turkey and Iraq.
Lately a potential game changer has entered the conflict—Russia, the Assad family’s longtime ally. Russia has long sought a greater role in the Middle East, and its extensive bombing campaign and introduction of highly advanced weapons shows that President Vladimir Putin doesn’t want to let this opportunity for expanded Russian influence in the region slip through his hands.
This short summary shows why peace is never easy to come by in this long-suffering region, and its ongoing conflicts will continue to dominate the news until true peace comes at last with the coming reign of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. To learn more, download or request our free study guide The Middle East in Bible Prophecy.