War has been raging in Syria for over three years, and an end to hostilities looks more remote now than it did when protesters were asking for democratic control amid the successes of the Arab Spring. After the death of over 200,000 people and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more, little progress has been made by any side.
The old regime holds power in the capitol of Damascus and most of southern Syria. Rebel groups control significant territories in the north. These Rebel groups are, however, severely fractured from each other and conflict between them is frequent and deadly. Attempting to unite them is the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), Pro-democracy and moderately pro western, the members of this coalition started the militant revolution and are generally supported by the west. Also combating the Syrian government, but with entirely different goals, are Islamic extremists, many of whom have ties to al Qaeda and the Taliban. Recently, a group known as the Islamic State (IS) has emerged. Their leadership splintered from al Qaeda and they are now attempting to establish a Sunni caliphate in Iraq and Syria. They have made major gains in both countries. Also involved are the Kurds. The Kurds control land in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran and are a major ethnic and political force. They have been fighting for their own state since the end of the Second World War. First they fought against the governments of the countries they live in and now, the Islamic State. All of these groups are well armed and increasingly well trained.
In the west, there has been an ongoing debate on how to handle the situation. Most foreign policy experts, including former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, agree that arming revolutionaries before Islamic extremists had the chance to unify would have helped put an end to the war sooner. This would have ended with more favorable results to both the west and the people of Syria. The situation is now too uncertain to arm any side without equipment falling into the hands of terrorist organizations.
The west has had one victory in the conflict. After a string of chemical weapons attacks on mostly civilian targets, the United States, Iran, and Russia were able to remove all declared chemical weapons from Syria and safely destroy them. There could still be chemical weapons hidden is Syria, but whoever uses them would be demonized by the international community and would likely face western military intervention.
With the expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq, the question of Syria only becomes more complex. The US is now allying with Kurdish forces to fight the extremists. Both Iran and the Syrian Government have voiced support for American actions. This begs the question, are the enemies of your enemies your friends? In the past the US has answered “yes,” but in light of the clear human rights violations perpetrated by IS, including crucifixion and beheading non-Muslims in the streets, the US has begun bombing IS targets in Iraq.
The next step would be to expand US military operations into Syria. Both Israel and the United Kingdom have voiced willingness to conduct air strikes, and both have the capacity to do so.
Where does this leave the people of Syria? In war torn and besieged cities eating grass to survive; in refugee camps in the surrounding countries that often lack the most basic services and are always over-crowded; and all too often, killed.