During the second presidential debate earlier this month, both candidates made references to the ongoing conflict in Syria, particularly in the city of Aleppo. The war in Syria began as an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad five years ago, and has since split Syria into many parts, killed more than 400,000 people, and displaced millions more. Several major international efforts to end the civil war have failed. Syria is important to the United States both for humanitarian reasons and because of its connection to the terrorist organization ISIS (also known as the Islamic State or ISIL).
A Violent History
In March 2011, after peaceful pro-reform, pro-democratic protests in Damascus and Aleppo were violently repressed, an armed uprising began against President al-Assad. After months of fighting, President Obama froze Syrian government assets and called for al-Assad’s resignation. Attempts to create a Syrian National Coalition, which would bring together all opposing factions, failed. All-out civil war began in 2012; by October 2013, the number of Syrian refugees topped two million.
(For one perspective on the history of Syria’s troubles, watch this Vlogbrothers video from September, 2013.)
In 2014, fighting between the various rebel groups began to spread, while UN peace talks repeatedly failed. One of the rebel groups–a breakaway al-Qaeda group called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS)–began to seize large portions of northern and western Iraq while committing atrocities against the populations there. In September of 2014, the U.S. and five Arab countries began to launch airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria.
By 2015, nearly one-third of Syria’s prewar population of 23 million had become refugees. In September, Russia also began launching airstrikes in Syria. While they claimed to be targeting the Islamic State, the West and Syrian opposition believed they were targeting anti-Assad rebels instead. In December, in the wake of the Paris suicide bombing attacks, Britain joined the U.S.-led bombing raids against the Islamic State.
This year, the U.S. and Russia agreed to a partial ceasefire, which failed, as did several other attempts to establish peace in the region. As the situation in Syria worsens, so do relations between the U.S. and Russia. In September, the U.S. stopped cooperating with Russia’s continued bombing of the city of Aleppo. Diplomatic talks with Russia have been tense and ended inconclusively. Recently, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with foreign ministers in London to discuss placing new sanctions against Russia and Syria due to their continued bombing of Aleppo.
Meanwhile, the fighting on the ground continues. Earlier this month, 2,000 Turkish and Syrian opposition fighters took control of Dabiq, a major ISIS stronghold in northern Syria that has both political and symbolic importance to the group. However, more than 370 people (including 70 children) have been killed since September 22 as Russia and the Syrian government continue to carry out air strikes against Aleppo.
Impact on the U.S.
The situation in Syria is important to the United States for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it represents a humanitarian crisis. The U.S. population remains divided on whether or not to allow increasing numbers of Syrian refugees into the country--an issue that will no doubt play a role in how people decide to vote in the upcoming presidential election (Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is in favor of accepting refugees, while Republican candidate Donald Trump is not). Furthermore, as relations between the U.S. and Russia continue to deteriorate, each nation’s differing ideas about how to contain the situation in Syria, as well as how to defeat terrorist groups like the Islamic State, become more and more significant.