The Syrian war is at once incomprehensibly byzantine and very simple. It is complex in the number of countries involved, in the shifting and fragile internal alliances and resentments of the groups constituting the rebellion, in the threads of national interest that circle back and consume themselves like a snake eating its own tail. To take just one example: after a decade of friendly relations with Syria, Turkey turned on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and decided to work toward his downfall, and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed that his country would “support the Syrian people in every way until they get rid of the bloody dictator and his gang.” Since then, Turkey has served as a staging ground for the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), but it has also been repeatedly accused of funneling funds and arms to ISIS, which regularly attacks FSA bases and beheads the soldiers it captures. Turkey has provided military aid to the effort to combat ISIS, but it also devotes energy and resources to fighting Kurdish nationalists, who have been more effective in fighting ISIS than any other group to date. In November 2016, Erdoğan reiterated his determination to unseat Assad, saying Turkish forces had entered Syria in August 2016 for no other reason than to remove Assad from power. One day later, he retracted his statement and claimed Turkey’s military campaign in Syria had been designed solely to defeat ISIS, the terrorist group whose operations Turkey had at least tacitly and perhaps actively supported. Turkey is now working closely with Russia, which has done more than any other country to prevent Erdoğan from realizing his goal of bringing down Assad. Turkey is just one of at least nine countries involved in the conflict.
The simple part of the war is that it is a human, social, and environmental disaster that equals some of the 20th century’s worst conflicts. Around half a million have died, with another two million wounded, in a country whose prewar population amounted to just more than twenty million. Since the conflict’s beginning, in 2011, Syrian life expectancy has dropped by more than twenty years, from roughly 79 to 56. More than half of the country’s population has been forced to leave their homes, including some six million internally displaced and nearly five million refugees. Their movements have in turn contributed to political upheaval across Europe and North America, with right-wing nationalists campaigning against the supposedly dangerous influx of refugees. The use of torture against political enemies and captured soldiers has been widespread, especially on the part of the Assad regime. Many refugees cite their female family members’ dramatically increased risk of being raped as a major reason for leaving. In addition, a country with a strong national identity and a tradition of religious tolerance — including for a dozen Christian denominations and esoteric sects like the Druze — has been transformed into a place of bitter sectarian violence. Much of Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on Earth and one of the region’s architectural and cultural jewels, has been reduced to rubble. As regime forces, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian ground troops, made their final, decisive assault on the rebellion’s dwindling territory there in December 2016, many residents found themselves trapped and began to tweet out their good-byes. In one such video, an old man rocked back and forth in the middle of a bombed-out street, pushing his hands away from his face as he called out, “We are starving. There is nothing.”
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