Don’t confuse Syrian civil war, ISIS campaign

The Syrian civil war, which started in March 2011, and the U.S.-led war against ISIS for more than a year now, have just become more complicated after President Obama’s 13-minute address to the nation Sunday night.
Many people are already finding it hard to understand the difference between the two wars, who is fighting who (and why?), which countries are supporting which combatants, and why are manned and unmanned American, Russian, French, German, British, Jordanian, Saudi, Emirati, Turkish and Israeli combat aircraft flying attack missions in Syria…all at the same time!
To help clarify — here is my updated “Syrian War Lexicon”:


  • A large country that never really existed throughout history.
  • Gained independence from France 1941.
  • Doomed from the outset to be a failed “nation state” since its artificially drawn borders encompassed people of different and hostile
  • ethnic and religious backgrounds:
  1. Sunnis (Arabs, Kurds) — 72 percent
  2. Alawites (Shiites) — 12 percent
  3. Christians — 10 percent
  4. Druze — 6 percent
  • France imposed democratic rule, under the Sunni majority.
  • A 1966 coup removed the Sunni elected leadership, and Alawite General Hafez al-Assad seized power as prime minister. In 1971 Assad declared himself president and head of the secular Baathist party.
  • Since then, the Baathist party, dominated by members of the Alawite minority and headed by the president, has been the only political party allowed. Syrian voters can only “approve” the president by referendum, but cannot vote in multiparty elections for the parliament.
  • 2002: Bashar al-Assad became President when his father died. He and his British-born Sunni wife, Asma, inspired hopes for democratic reforms that never materialized.
  • By 2011, there was a growing bitterness among the marginalized and disenfranchised Sunni majority population against the privileged and affluent Alawite (Shiite) dictatorship.
  • The Civil War: Started in 2011 after 15 Sunni schoolchildren were arrested and tortured for writing anti-government graffiti on a wall. When the town’s leaders held a peaceful protest to free the kids, Assad’s army opened fire, killing four protesters. The next day the Alawite soldiers opened fire on the funerals.
  • Unrest spread. At first the Sunni protesters just wanted democracy and greater freedom, but as government forces opened fire on more demonstrations, they demanded that President Bashar al-Assad resign. He refused, starting one of the most brutal civil wars in history, with fighters and countries from all over the world taking sides.
    To date more than 250,000 people have been killed, over 9 million have been displaced inside Syria and at least 1 million have become refugees after crossing into Turkey and Jordan.

Who’s who?

Pro Assad:

  • Regime forces: About 25 percent of the original Syrian military: mostly Alawites, Christians, Druze and Shiite volunteers, and Hezbollah.
  • Iran: Over 3,000 IRGC fighters and growing, including regular forces, “special forces,” missile command units, artillery, air and logistical support. Iran is determined to maintain control of its over 100,000 missiles and rockets currently deployed in Syria and Lebanon and aimed at Israel. They know that Sunni rebels that get their hands on them will point them at Iran — the Sunnis’ archenemy.
  • Russia: Full commitment to maintain Alawite control over their historical coastal homeland, where Russia has invested heavily in building a modern naval base in Tartus and two air force bases. Russia is currently focusing its attacks on preventing Sunni rebel forces — including those supported by the U.S. — from getting near that area or threatening the regime.

Against Assad:

  • Sunni rebel organizations: The main fighting forces attempting to overthrow Assad and establish a Sunni Caliphate. These include:
  • Jabhat al-Nusra: al-Qaida franchise at war with U.S. and the West. Muslim Brotherhood-supported.
  • ISIS: Muslim Brotherhood-supported.
  • Free Syrian Army (FSA): U.S. supported.
  • Islamic Front: Muslim Brotherhood-supported.
  • A number of smaller “moderate” Sunni groups that are supported by the U.S.
  • The United States: Having learned nothing from the “unintended consequences” of the Arab Spring, the U.S. is demanding the removal of the last anti-Muslim Brotherhood dictator in the region, and to replace him with “democratic national elections.”
    But with an overwhelming majority of Sunni Muslim citizens who support anti-American and anti-Israeli jihadi groups, such elections will establish another Muslim Brotherhood-inspired extreme Islamist regime, that will slaughter, enslave, torture, rape, plunder and destroy the non-Sunni communities throughout Syria and Lebanon and directly threaten Israel, Europe and the U.S.

So far U.S. activity against Assad has been limited to diplomatic calls for his resignation, failed attempts to unite “moderate” rebel groups and failed attempts to build, train and equip a reliable “Free Syrian Army” (FSA).

  • Saudi Arabia: The Sunni Kingdom’s policy has always been to rid all Arab lands of “non-Sunni” infidels, in this case the Alawite regime in Syria, and replace them with solid Sunni regimes, in the hope that they will unite against the real threat to Saudi Arabia: Iran.

The War on ISIS: Separate from the civil war, this is the war the U.S. declared against ISIS, and obviously has nothing to do with getting rid of Assad. If it did, then what is the logic of bombing the strongest Sunni rebel group (ISIS) dedicated to defeating the regime?
And by putting together a “coalition” against ISIS (which most of the members are only paying lip service to), the U.S. has created a dangerous situation where in the very small airspace over Syria there are: pro-Assad (Russia, Iran, Syria), anti-Assad (U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia), anti-ISIS (U.S., France, UK, Jordan, UAE) and anti-Hezbollah (Israeli) supersonic fighter bombers flying attack missions at the same time.
In summary

  • Syria is an artificial country established by France in 1946 encircling all or parts of four distinct and separate ethnic homelands: Arab (Sunni), Alawite (Shiite), Kurd (Sunni), Druze.
  • Since 1966, the country has been under oppressive dictatorship of Alawite military and political leaders, to the detriment of the Sunni majority.
  • Following the “Arab Spring” a Sunni rebellion broke out. Regime forces reacted with brutality, including chemical weapons and devastating blockbusting “barrel bombs.”
  • The Sunni rebels include terrorist groups affiliated to al-Qaida and ISIS, which already control most of the country.
  • The U.S. supports the anti-Assad rebels.
  • Russia, supporting Assad, has established air, ground and naval bases in the Alawite Homeland area, and is launching daily air and artillery strikes against the Sunni rebel groups that threaten its bases and Assad’s regime forces in the Alawite area.
  • In a separate war, the U.S., France, Germany, Turkey, the UAE, Jordan, Syria and a few other allies are bombing ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq.
  • Adding to the already dangerous situation — Israel, determined to prevent missiles and heavy weapons from reaching Hezbollah in Lebanon, is also flying combat sorties over Syria.

With Turkey and Russia on opposing sides of this war, and with the skies over Syria and Lebanon getting more crowded with adrenaline-driven combat pilots, the shooting down of the Russian bomber by a Turkish F-16 will not be the last of such incidents.
The Syrian civil war can only be resolved by splitting the country into its five natural “nation states” under a strong, no-nonsense military guarantee of a reliable superpower (Russia?) or the Arab League.
The war against ISIS cannot be won, no matter how many of its leaders are killed. The organization will move, morph, regroup, recruit and radicalize Islamic terrorists worldwide that will continue its Jihadi mission for years to come. This is not the time for clueless politicians, or for an impotent UN.
Agree or disagree, that’s my opinion.
Lt. Col. (IDF res) Gil Elan is president and CEO of the Southwest Jewish Congress, and a Middle East analyst. Email:
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