Is Syria in the news again? Sadly, yes.
The Context: The conflict in Syria has lasted for over 8 years. It started as an internal civil war in 2011. Some teenagers had spray-painted anti-government slogans on a school wall. These teenagers were arrested and tortured by the Syrian government. Angry at this harsh treatment, people began protesting against the government led by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The government used force to try and crush the rebellion. But instead of scaring the rebels, it galvanised (catalysed, encouraged) them to fight harder against the government.
The region was so volatile that this sparked a Syrian war that has lasted longer than World War II, and involves many players, all fighting in Syria for very different reasons.
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- the soldiers who support the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They are backed by Iran and Russia.
- the various groups that do not want Assad to be in power – they are called rebels.
- a group of militants from the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).
- a large ethnic group called the Kurds that were backed by the US.
Who are the Kurds?
The Kurds are an ethnic group in the Middle East that share the same language and culture. There are about 25 to 35 million Kurds in the Middle East of which roughly 15 million live in Turkey. The rest are in Syria, Iraq and Iran. The Kurds don’t have a country of their own, but the New York Times reports that they make up 5-10% of the population of Syria.
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Current Status of the War: Over the past 8 years, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his forces have recaptured much of Syria’s land from the rebels. This would not have been possible without the support of Russia and Iran, both of whom are looking to use Syria to grow their power in the Middle East.
Millions of people have fled from Syria, seeking refuge or safety in other countries. They are called refugees. Turkey has a few million Syrian refugees who have fled there over the border.
The US has supported the Kurdish forces for many years in their fight against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the militants, ISIS. One of the biggest victories of this alliance has been its success in fighting ISIS.
ISIS has lost practically all the land it controlled in Syria and 10,000 ISIS fighters from Iraq and Syria are being held and guarded in Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) jails. Kurdish forces are controlling large areas of land in Syria, close to the Turkish border.
Phew! So what’s the news?
Over the weekend President Trump decided to pull American troops out of the country. Within three days of the American troops pulling out, Turkey launched an assault on the border and captured Kurdish territory. Many civilians were killed and thousands more injured in this invasion. Even more have fled their homes.
Why did Turkey do that?
Turkey is no fan of Syrian President al-Assad, but their biggest enemy in Syria’s civil war is the Kurds. Today the Kurdish forces control a large area in Northern Syria. They share a border with Turkey.
Turkish President Erdogan claims he wants to resettle as many as 2 million Syrian refugees in this newly captured territory. This policy would end the control that Kurds have over this area and change the ethnic map of the land too.
So the Americans just got up and left?
Sort of. President Trump said he didn’t want his troops to be in danger from all the fighting between the groups. Trump feels that now that ISIS is no longer a threat, he can begin to remove U.S. troops from the country and deliver on one of his campaign promises to bring U.S. soldiers home.
It felt like a betrayal of the Kurds, especially as they helped the US bring down ISIS in Syria. The troop withdrawal was criticized by US Congress and other defense experts saying that it will destabilize the region as well as ruin US credibility.
So how are the Kurds managing now?
Without the US’s backing, they have been desperately trying to get help in fighting off Turkey’s attacks. With few options, they turned to President Bashar al-Assad to help them. A deal was struck between the two sides, which is a significant shift in the war in Syria.
What exactly is the deal?
The Kurdish-led leadership in northern Syria said the Syrian army would send forces along the border with Turkey as part of the deal to help the Kurdish forces halt the attack from Turkey.
Could it get any worse?
There was an incident that was quite bad. After a Turkish airstrike, Islamic State (ISIS) inmates of the Ain Issa prison rioted, setting their tents on fires and breaking down fences. In the chaos, more than 500 of them escaped and are now unaccounted for.
That’s terrible! What is President Trump saying now?
With military strikes against Turkey not being an option because Turkey is a NATO ally, Trump said that he was preparing to hit Turkey with some extreme economic sanctions or punishments if it continued its assault on the Kurds in Syria.
Written by: Pereena Lamba. Pereena is a freelance writer, editor and creative consultant. She is also co-author of Totally Mumbai.