Briefing: Syria and Iraq

U.S. involvement in Iraq and the Syrian civil war seemingly have gone on forever. Below is a brief overview of the history of these wars, their major actors and what’s happening today. These are extremely complex situations that we have attempted to boil down into a short, digestible snapshot. As such, undoubtedly there will be missing details, events and actors. Linked throughout the briefing are articles for more information on certain events, maps showing current (as of April 2020) land control in each country, and at the end, a list of books about each conflict for further reading.

Who’s Who

The Iraq and Syrian wars have much overlap in major players, given their close proximity. Check out the graphic below from The Atlantic, which outlines which state and non-state actors sided with who during the Syrian war, including proxies.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad backed by:
  • Syrian army
  • Russia
  • IRGC from Iran
  • Hezbollah
  • Iraq
  • Iran
  • Lebanon
  • Other pro-Assad forces
Terror groups (fighting against Assad, rebels and their allies):
  • So-called Islamic State (IS)
  • Other terror groups and moderate groups
Kurdish rebel groups:
  • Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF): Alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias; YPG is the bulk of SDF forces along with smaller groups of Arab, Turkmen and Armenian fighters
  • Syria: Democratic Union Party (PYD)
    • People’s Protection Units (YPG)
    • Women’s Protection Units (YPJ)
  • Iraq: Peshmerga
  • [Turkey: Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK)]
Rebel groups backed by:
  • United States (US)
  • International coalition
  • NATO
  • Israel
  • EU countries
  • Turkey*
  • Gulf States like Saudi Arabia
    *Does not support Kurdish groups like SDF and YPG


The United States has had a military presence in Iraq since it invaded and decapitated Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003. This invasion is often seen as a defining moment in history due to the many destabilizing effects it has had in the region since, including the formation and rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS). Years later, a civil war erupted in Syria, Iraq’s neighbor, spilling over the borders and further weakening the region. Now as fighting winds down, but COVID-19 ramps up, it is unclear what the future holds for these war-torn countries.

Map screenshot from syriancivilwarmap.com as of April 13, 2020. For a live, updated map and more information, please visit syriancivilwarmap.com

Iraq’s Instability:

After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and dismantled Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, a power vacuum ensued. Sectarian tensions among Iraqi Sunni, Shia and Kurdish groups intensified as well. Members of Saddam’s Sunni government, many of whom had government and military training, were left without work; as a result, they joined militias in Iraq and crossed Syria’s porous border. In 2006 a group broke off of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to form the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), which would later become what we know as the so-called Islamic State. The US began its Surge of Iraq, in which over 20,000 Army and Marine forces were sent to the country to fight alongside tribes in the Anbar province. Though these forces made great progress in rolling back ISI, in December 2011 US military forces completed a withdrawal from Iraq.

Completely disbanding the government left Iraq without any functioning political parties, and the best-positioned groups were Shia Islamist political movements. These sectarian Shia political elites came to dominate politics in Iraq, alienating Sunni Arab and Kurdish populations in Iraqi society. The US tried to create a power-sharing government that involved all of Iraqi society; however, this quota-based system has morphed into a political elite class who power grab and paralyze political reform. It has also given Shia-dominated Iran a great stake in Iraqi politics and society, deepening sectarian divides.

Iraq Today:

Iraq faces many challenges in its recovery from effects of the US invasion and the wake left by the Islamic State. More than two million people remain internally displaced, nine million need humanitarian assistance, and billions of dollars in reconstruction is required. Additionally, the prevention of an Islamic State resurgence has the potential to become an issue given the current political instability.

In October 2019, protests began against Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government due to its failure to deliver basic services, create jobs and decimate corruption. Security forces’ violent response to the protests left hundreds of Iraqi citizens dead and thousands injured. The protestors, mostly under the age of 30, hope to completely overhaul the post-2003 government, which it views as ineffective. They are also particularly angry at Iran and accuse it of complicity in Iraq’s failures and continued interference in Iraqi internal affairs.

Additionally, Iraq serves as a tit-for-tat battleground between the US and Iran. After President Donald Trump authorized the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in early 2020, Tehran retaliated by conducting air strikes against US military bases in Iraq. Shortly after, Iraqi parliament voted to expel US troops from Iraq. Since then, numerous attacks between the US and Iran-backed Shia militia have ensued even as US troops begin withdrawing.

Now, Iraqi President Barham Salih has appointed intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi (his third appointee so far) as the new prime minister in an attempt to solve the societal unrest in Iraq, but Kadhimi must form a Cabinet and obtain parliamentary approval. As the political situation plays out in Iraq and the United States continues to withdraw troops, we will see what the future holds for this country where peace is long overdue.

Map screenshot from syriancivilwarmap.com as of April 13, 2020. For a live, updated map and more information, please visit syriancivilwarmap.com

Syria’s Civil War:

The Syrian conflict began as part of the Arab Spring in 2011 with protests against Bashar al-Assad’s ruling brutal regime. However, these protests soon echoed across the country and President Assad’s violent crackdown and imprisonment of civilians caused even more nationwide dissent. Defectors from the military began the Free Syrian Army (FSA) while other anti-government rebel groups took up arms to battle Assad’s forces. It wasn’t long before this widespread civil unrest escalated into a war fought among a variety of countries, non-state actors, and proxies.

In early 2013 it was discovered that President Assad had used chemical weapons against his oppositional rebel groups. US President Barack Obama claimed that Assad had crossed a “red line” with its use of chemical weapons and began supporting the Kurdish rebel groups–but promised the US would not put boots on the ground in Syria.

The Islamic State emerged from ISI and began seizing territory in Syria in 2013 in an effort to build a khilafa (caliphate). In 2014, IS began taking over parts of the Anbar province and expanded into much of the northern part of the country. A group of regional forces including Iranian troops, local Iraqi tribes, and the Kurdish Peshmerga rebel group joined the Iraqi army in slowly taking back territory from the group. By December 2017, the Iraqi government declared victory over the Islamic State.

Though the war technically began between two entities, but broadened into involving a myriad of other countries and non-state actors. The United States, United Kingdom, and France – supported by Turkey Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-Arab partners – conducted air campaigns in Iraq and Syria, while the US continued assisting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the ground. Turkey fought against the Islamic State, but also against the US-supported PYD which it sees as associated with the PKK. Russia began airstrikes in 2015 on behalf of the Assad government, claiming their strikes were against IS targets. Iran, interested in keeping its vital land bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon, invested billions into propping up the Assad regime as well. Eventually, the Syrian government forces, with assistance from its partners, managed to regain control of most of its lost territory, including Aleppo. Now, almost all the territory held by IS in Iraq and Syria has been reclaimed by Iraqi security forces and the SDF. Fighting still carries on in Idlib, northwestern Syria and the Iraq-Syria border. Efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to this conflict via the United Nations and other peace talks have been largely unsuccessful.

Syria Today:

In December 2018, Trump announced the polarizing decision to withdraw the remaining US troops in Syria. According to United Nations estimates, more than 400,000 people have been killed since the start of the war, over 5 million have fled the country as refugees and over 6 million have been internally displaced. Countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece have taken in large swaths of refugees, but resources are limited and they are feeling the extra pressure.

Meanwhile, in late 2019 US troops pulled back from the Syrian border, which Turkey took as a green light to invade the area. Trump’s response came in the form of a letter in which he threatened to destroy Turkey’s economy and told President Tayyip Erdogan: “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”

Despite US threats, Turkey launched a cross-border excursion into Syria to set up a “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the border to clear Kurdish rebels part of the PYD, like the YPG. President Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin reached a deal that Turkey could keep forces in a 120km-long, 30km-deep strip of territory and YPG fighters would be removed. Turkey also launched a military offensive against Assad’s regime in March 2020 in retaliation for the killing of Turkish groups in Idlib, the last rebel-held stronghold in Syria. Since December, Idlib has had a sharp increase in violence and the humanitarian disaster—more than 300 civilians have been killed and almost a million displaced in just a few months. In early March, Putin and Erdogan announced a ceasefire in Syria that has been adhered to with the exception of a few instances.

Syrian refugees at UNHCR camp. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Coronavirus: What Now?

As the COVID-19 coronavirus spreads rapidly around the world, it is the vulnerable populations that will be hit the hardest. In late March, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for a “global ceasefire” around the world—that the threat of the virus is larger than the reasons for war.

In Syria the first case has been reported and the World Health Organization (WHO) warns that the effects could be catastrophic. Syria’s healthcare system has been destroyed and overcrowded living conditions, stress, and a lack of food and other resources make displaced Syrians especially susceptible. Humanitarian groups are intensely advocating for inclusive, global aid. Refugees International estimates that currently at least 12 million refugees and internally displaced people live in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey.

Iraq faces similar issues as Syria given its limited healthcare system and close proximity to Iran, a COVID-19 hotspot. There have been over 700 cases in Iraq and that number is expected to rise and potentially overwhelm Iraq’s healthcare system. WHO in Iraq estimates that the number of cases will spike in the upcoming weeks due to an increase in testing materials and spread of the virus. Besides the huge humanitarian risks involved in the spread of this virus, the fear of further destabilizing this already fragile countries make some fear what will happen next.

Further Reading

Live Maps:

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