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The Key Players in the Syria Crisis, Explained.



Four years ago, there were 22 million people living in Syria. As many as 12 million are now gone. 

More than 200,000 have been killed, 7.6 million have fled their homes, but remain inside Syria. 

More than four million more have fled the country.

The scale of violence in Syria. 

Source: The New York Times

The security vacuum in Syria has attracted a dangerous mix of players.

Syria’s President Assad is reaching out to old friends. 

ISIS is entrenched. 

The US and some of its allies are involved. 

Russia’s President Putin has charged into the fray. 

Turkey’s President Erdogan is ordering airstrikes, the Saudis are issuing threats, and Iranian soldiers are already on the ground.

 Qatar, Syrian Kurds, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are also important players.

In recent days, we’ve learned a new military term. “Deconfliction” is the process of changing the flight path of an aircraft or weapon to avoid an accidental collision. 

In Syria, this word refers to a lot more than just flight patterns. 

Given the number of players in this small arena, how can this conflict possibly end well? 

Here's a breakdown of what each player wants.

The United States

What does the Obama administration want? To get rid of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and destroy ISIS.

What has President Obama pledged to do? 

To “hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons” and to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. 

What is the Obama administration actually doing? 

As for Assad, Obama famously drew a red line before his use of chemical weapons.

 When Assad crossed that line, Obama backed off threats of force and accepted a Russian-brokered compromise that forced Assad to give up his remaining banned weapons.

Radar tracking of Russian (green) and US (yellow) aircraft over Syria. Source: CBS News.

Since September 2014, the US has joined allies in bombing ISIS and other jihadi groups. An earlier attempt to train Syrian rebels to take down both Assad and ISIS has become a serious political embarrassment. The US is now preparing to do more

The president has announced a new plan to train and arm 5,000 Syrian rebels to team with 20,000 Kurdish fighters to directly attack ISIS strongholds with support from coalition aircraft from France, Australia, Canada, Turkey and other countries. 

The problem? Beyond the question of whether any of its goals is achievable without an unthinkably costly ground war, unless you believe that a patchwork of Syrian rebel groups is ready to govern what’s left of Syria, and that Iran and Russia will choose not to interfere, the removal of Assad and destruction of ISIS are not compatible goals.


What does Putin want? 

To strengthen long-time ally Assad, assert that Russia is an international player with national interests to protect outside its immediate neighborhood, boost Russian pride in the country’s military prowess, and secure an end to European sanctions by presenting Russia as a force for long-term stability in Syria that can ease Europe’s refugee crisis.

Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin. 
Source: Handelsblatt

What does Putin say he’s doing? Joining the international fight against “terrorists,” an enemy of civilization.

What is Putin actually doing? 

Defining terrorists to include US- and Saudi-backed Syrian rebels who oppose Assad. He has ordered the bombing of those groups to protect the Syrian president, Russia’s position in the region, and its only port facility outside the former Soviet Union. He’s also dropping a few bombs on ISIS to create the appearance of cooperation with the West.

The problem? Putin doesn’t have the level of domestic support for action in Syria that he has in Ukraine. Just 14 percent of Russians surveyed in a recent poll favor direct military involvement to support Syria’s president. 

Nearly 70 percent are opposed. Other polls show much higher support for attacks on ISIS, and that’s part of why Putin has chosen to sell his action on these terms. But what happens if something goes wrong? Or if declaring war on ISIS triggers a terrorist attack in Moscow? Might Russia find itself sucked into deeper trouble?


What does the Iranian leadership want? To bolster Assad, its most valuable ally in the Middle East, beat back the ISIS threat to both the Syrian and Iraqi governments, and prove that a nuclear deal with the US and its allies does not mean Iran has gone soft. 

What does the Iranian leadership say it’s doing? It’s not saying much publicly. Iran has long preferred to play this game behind the scenes. 

Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran's Quds force. Source: ISNA

What is the Iranian leadership actually doing? Until recently, Iran confined its support for Assad to financial backing and weaponry for the Syrian president and support for Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia militia groups fighting inside Syria. But Reuters has reported that Lebanese sources say hundreds of heavily armed Iranian soldiers have now entered Syria to support Assad directly. 

The problem? It’s the lifting of sanctions, and the hoped-for economic surge expected to follow, that enjoys solid popular support inside Iran. If Iranians that are already skeptical of their government decide these gains are being squandered on military adventurism, the clerical leadership could lose a lot of the good will they’ve won back since the election of reformist President Hassan Rouhani.

Saudi Arabia 

What do the Saudis want? 

Assad gone, the Russians chastened, and ISIS contained.

What do the Saudis say they’re doing?

 There is no future for Assad in Syria,” said Saudi foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir last week, but beyond calling for a no-fly zone to undermine Assad’s ability to bomb rebels, the Saudis haven’t taken on a direct role—though they are threatening direct military action if Assad doesn’t leave. 

What are the Saudis actually doing? 

Providing financial support for Sunni rebels threatening Assad from the south and threatening to sell them much more sophisticated weaponry. 

The problem? The Saudis are already directly involved in a civil war in Yemen. The Saudis also face a declining economy as lower oil prices take a toll on the government’s longer-term ability to buy public support through higher spending. 

Increased oil production from Iraq and the lifting of sanctions on Iran will cut into Saudi market share and empower the Saudis’ primary Shia rivals. All this at a time when American staying power is open to question. Finally, ISIS is useful for the Saudis when it creates trouble in Iraq and Syria, but it can become a major threat if it begins to carry out successful attacks inside Saudi territory. The fight against ISIS is one the Saudis will let others lead.


What does President Erdogan want? Assad gone, the Russians chastened, Syrian Kurds beaten, and the return of two million Syrian refugees from Turkey back into Syria.

Syrian refugee children in a camp in Turkey. 
Source: The Guardian

What does Erdogan say Turkey is doing?

 Joining the fight against ISIS following an attack in southern Turkey in July blamed on ISIS militants. 

What is Erdogan actually doing? Turkish air strikes appear mainly to have targeted Kurds in Syria (and maybe Iraq) to prevent them from providing support for Kurdish separatists inside Turkey. Erdogan’s government is also supporting rebels attacking Assad from the north and providing coalition members with access to the strategically important Incirlik air base for bombing runs against ISIS.

The problem? Turkey is at risk of making a lot of new enemies. First, Erdogan has said he feels that Russia has blindsided and bullied his country with multiple illegal intrusions into Turkish airspace en route to Syria. He has since issued threats that Russia might face a NATO response. 

In addition, Turkey already faces militant Kurds within the country’s southeast. Inviting new support from Iraqi and Syrian Kurds can only make matters worse.


What does it all add up to? 

Here’s one telling story. 

A few days after U.S. officials began talking publicly about their efforts to avoid accidental conflict with Russia in Syria, they had to walk back their talking points. 

The appearance that the US was cooperating with Russia, even on such a minimal scale, was causing trouble for the White House. 

All the US and Russia had done, the defense secretary explained, was conduct “basic technical discussions.” Even “deconfliction” seems to much to hope for.

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