Tl;dr The Arab Spring that swept the Middle East and Northern Africa in the early 2010s led to Syrian rebels vs. Syrian leader Al-Assad. Islamic jihadis join Syrian rebels fighting Assad. Assad uses chemical weapons against civilians to fight rebels. The Syrian conflict becomes a proxy war, with Iran and Russia backing Assad and gulf states and the U.S. backing rebels. Russia says they back Assad in order to fight ISIS, but they have only bombed rebel groups. The U.S. reinforced themselves in the conflict by bombing a Syrian air base on April 6.
Two weeks ago, the United States struck a Syrian air base with 59 Tomahawk missiles. President Trump said the attack was a response to chemical weapons used on Syrian civilians, killing 80. This comes as a step in a series of escalating and complicated steps in Syria. But first, what exactly is going on in Syria?
Let’s break it down. The Syrian conflict started off as a standard civil war. Syrians peacefully protested their dictator, Bashar al-Assad, in 2011. Assad responded with violence and ordered the Syrian military to fire into the crowds. These protesters fought back and Syrian military members even defected to join the protesters. These protestors became the Syrian rebels we see referred to on the news so often.
This is where things get complicated. Islamic jihadis traveled into war-torn Syria and joined the rebels fighting against Assad. Assad even released extremist prisoners so they could join rebels and make it harder for other countries to back the rebels. This didn’t stop the civil war from reaching proxy-war status. Iran started to send funds to Assad to fight the rebels, and Arab Gulf countries did the same for the Syrian rebels to fight Assad. Assad continuously attacked his own people and millions of them fled to other countries as refugees.
In response, Obama drew his infamous “red line,” which was a statement he made saying that the U.S. would intervene in Syria if Assad uses chemical weapons. Assad did, and the U.S. ended up backing off. Russia then backed Assad in the name of fighting Islamic extremism. ISIS had since joined rebels fighting in Syria, and occupied the part of Syria bordering Iraq. However, Russia did not attack ISIS, as promised. They instead primarily went after Syrian rebel groups.
Here’s the central problem for the United States. Who is more of our enemy? Assad or ISIS? Is it possible to help the rebels without indirectly helping Islamic jihadis?