Syrian war explained: did Russia invade, why has there been a war in Syria - and what was the US’ involvement?

As far as complicated geopolitical conflicts go, Syria’s is one of the most convoluted

The current war in Ukraine has rightly been getting high levels of media attention over the last few weeks.

It’s a conflict that very likely will change the course of history, whatever its outcome, and with large scale attacks falling so close to Nato borders, not to mention the incredibly far-reaching humanitarian crises it has sparked, it’s not difficult to see why it’s getting such coverage.

But it’s far from the only conflict the globe is experiencing right now. In fact, it’s not even the only one Russia has been involved with.

The war in Syria has been ongoing for more than a decade. Things flared up in 2011 with the Arab Spring - a wave of demonstrations and protests, riots and civil wars - and again a few years later, when fighting intensified with the involvement of US and Russian forces.

The conflict is still ongoing, but why do we hear relatively little about it? And why is it happening in the first place?

Here is everything you need to know.

Why did the Syrian civil war start?

Unrest began in March 2011, with protests against the Syrian government taking place across the country.

Many of these - calling for President Bashar al-Assad’s removal - were violently suppressed, leading to armed conflicts after protests calling for Assad's removal were violently suppressed, when the Syrian Army fired on demonstrators.

The protests turned into an armed rebellion, with opposition forces made up in the first instances mostly of soldiers who had left the Syrian army and civilian volunteers.

Over the years, various domestic and foreign have entered the fight, muddying the makeup of the conflict, and the Syrian conflict is especially complicated in that it does not really involve two distinct, clear-cut “sides”.

Heavy smoke rises following an airstrike by US-led coalition aircraft in Syria in 2014 (Photo: Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images)

Who is involved in the fighting?

Essentially, the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic - led by Bashar al-Assad, whose family has held the presidency in Syria since 1971 - is fighting against rebels who want it removed from power.

But it’s not as simple as that, and among the rebelling forces, there are distinct domestic and foreign bodies that oppose both the Syrian government and each other, in varying combinations.

On the one hand, the loose alliance of rebel factions wants to bring down Assad’s government in favour of a much freer Syria.

But at the same time, many of these rebel groups are also known terrorist cells, including al-Nusra Front (or “al-Qaeda in Syria”) and Islamic State, both of which have carried out attacks on Western countries.

This has meant that intervention in the war from countries like the US has been especially tricky, with forces seeking to aid legitimate rebels (Assad has accused the US and its Allies of attempted “regime change”) while eliminating terrorist threats in the process.

It is thought that nearly six million Syrians have been forced to flee to other countries since the conflict began,

How are Russia and the US involved?

Russia is one of the major international government’s supporting Assad, and has provided both political and logistical support by providing military equipment, training and troops.

On the other “side” are the US, Britain and France, who have provided political, logistical and military support to the Syrian rebel coalition.

Both have had troops on the ground at some point during the conflict.

A convoy of US forces armoured vehicles drives near the village of Yalanli in Syria in 2017 (Photo: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Most notably for Russia, both it and the Syrian government conducted a campaign that focused on the destruction of hospitals and medical facilities within areas not under the control of the Syrian government.

It is these brutal tactics against civilians in the city of Aleppo which are often cited as proof of Russia’s extreme military tactics, ones that could be replicated in Ukraine.

Russian thermobaric weapons, also known as "vacuum bombs", were also used by the government side during the war.

The US’ involvement came mainly in the form of a covert rescue attempt involving dozens of Special Operations forces to rescue Americans and other foreigners held captive in Syria in the wake of the beheading of photojournalist James Foley.

The US also began airstrikes against ISIS in 2014, but otherwise its involvement mostly consisted of funding to arm and train Syrian rebels.

Both sides do share common ground over the opposition of ISIS, further highlighting the complexity of this conflict.

The Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF–OIR) is a multinational military formation established by the US with the aim to "degrade and destroy" the organisation, while Russia formed the Russia–Syria–Iran–Iraq intelligence-sharing coalition.

Why is it not getting as much attention?

Newly arrived Syrian refugees after crossing into Turkey from the Syrian border in 2014 (Photo: Stringer/Getty Images)

Cast your mind back a few years, and Syria was at the forefront of the nightly news.

In 2015, the fighting reached a crescendo, and with international forces involved, things looked worrisome.

You may remember the posting of Syrian flags - and much debate over which flag was the “right” one to post - on social media to highlight awareness of the conflict, as well as various fundraising efforts and humanitarian aid schemes.

But in recent years, we haven’t heard as much from the region. So the whole thing’s over right?

Not so. The conflict still rages on, and though violence in the country has since diminished, the situation remains a crisis.

One reason that international coverage in the incident may lie in the complicated nature of the various forces involved, and the fact that it is hard to define a “good versus evil” narrative in the conflict.

International organisations have accused virtually all sides involved, including the US-led coalition against IS, of severe human rights violations and massacres.

Another reason could be that the conflict has essentially petered out, and Syria has once again returned towards the status quo it experienced ahead of the Arab Spring.

There was a time in 2014 when Islamic State was the most powerful opposing force against the Syrian army, controlling more territory than the Syrian government itself.

However, by just a few years later, government forces had taken back most of this territory.

The US and its Allies have also met many major objectives in the displacement of ISIS and al-Qaeda in recent years, taking out high-ranking members of each in both Syria and elsewhere.

With the threat of such groups relatively scaled back compared to what they have been, that means that interest in the conflict from this side has waned, with involvement almost non-existent.

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