The many wars within Syria

After nearly seven years of war in Syria, many people hoped the recent military defeat of the Islamic State might help bring a stop to the violence.

It hasn't.

In fact, the Syrian war may be more complicated than ever. There are now four separate but overlapping conflicts being fought in one country. Foreign powers are being dragged deeper into the fighting, and there is a serious risk that Syria's war will spill over into a broader regional conflict.

Abdulmonam Eassa/AFP/Getty Images

This browser does not support the video element.

Conflict 1

The Syrian government and its allies against rebels and their allies.


The Syrian war began in 2011, when President Bashar al-Assad brutally put down peaceful demonstrations against his rule. The protest movement then morphed into an armed rebellion.

That original conflict remains once one of the war's most violent elements. The horrific stories of barrel bombs and chemical attacks stem from the regime's attempts to retake rebel-held territory. After years of stalemate between the rebels and the government, Russia's military intervention in 2015 helped turn the war decisively in Assad's favor.

The Syrian government now controls the majority of land in the country.

But rebels still control significant parts of Syria, including the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, where hundreds of civilians have been killed by regime attacks in recent days.

conflict 2

Turkey versus the Kurds.

Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Pool Photo via AP

In January, Turkish forces and allied rebels launched an offensive called Operation Olive Branch in northwestern Syria, attacking Kurdish militias in an enclave called Afrin.

The Turks have long expressed concern that such Kurdish pockets are a threat to them. Turkish Kurdish groups waged a decades-long guerrilla war in the southeast of the country, and Kurds throughout the region aspire to independence or self-rule.

The assault on Syrian Kurds places Turkey in de facto opposition to the United States, its NATO ally, which has partnered with Kurdish groups in the fight against the Islamic State.

This browser does not support the video element.

conflict 3

Israel versus Iran-backed forces.


At the start of February, Israel made its biggest move yet in Syria, hitting numerous regime bases with airstrikes after the Israeli military said an alleged Iranian drone violated its airspace. An Israeli jet was also shot down, the first time that has happened since 1982.

Israel has carried out more than 100 cross-border airstrikes in Syria since 2011, but it has held back from a full-scale intervention. Now Israeli leaders are voicing increased concern about Iran-backed forces, including the Lebanese group Hezbollah, using Syria as a base for attacks on Israel.

This browser does not support the video element.

conflict 4

The United States (and everyone else) against the Islamic State.

U.S. Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs

The Islamic State was once a major factor in the war, controlling vast swathes of Syrian territory. But the extremist group has been militarily decimated by both the U.S.-led coalition and the Syrian-Russian-Iranian alliance. It now holds only small pockets of land.

But the Islamic State must still be reckoned with. Some analysts think the group has deliberately pivoted away from holding territory toward launching a broader insurgency, comparable to what the Taliban and its allies did after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Such a tactic will make it far harder to conclusively defeat the militants, especially as other conflicts take precedence.

Many international powers are finding themselves further drawn into the conflict as it becomes more complicated. In the space of just a week, four foreign powers — Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel — lost aircraft in Syria to hostile fire.

The United States also made a rare strike against pro-regime forces, and there have been reports that scores of Russian mercenaries attacked a U.S. base and were killed in retaliatory airstrikes on Feb. 7.

The conflict also risks expanding into neighboring countries like Israel, Turkey and Lebanon — all currently parties to the fighting.

The complexity also means that Syrian civilians are still stuck in harm's way with little clear hope of escape. The United Nations recently warned that the humanitarian situation in Syria had “dramatically deteriorated,” with hundreds of thousands of people displaced or at risk of starvation at the beginning of 2018.