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6 Major Players Who Turned the Syrian Crisis Into a Devastating Proxy War Nightmare

What started out as a civil uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime has turned into a regional proxy war that is engulfing the Middle East.

The Syria flag painted on cracked ground with vignette.
Photo Credit: Aleksey Klints/


The Syrian uprising’s first stirrings in 2011 marked the Arab Spring’s arrival to a country ruled by a regime intent on holding onto power forever. But two and a half years after protests first broke out, the uprising has turned into a catastrophic civil war fueled by outside powers jockeying for their own interests.

Inspired by the fall of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, Syrian children in the border town of Deraa drew anti-government graffiti on a school in February 2011. The arrests and brutal torture of the 15 young boys sparked protests that spread across the country. The Assad regime unleashed immense firepower on Syrian demonstrators calling for democracy and an end to the Assad family’s 43-year reign. The opposition then took up arms, eventually forming what came to be known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a ragtag group of fighters loosely organized to try to bring down Assad’s regime. While the FSA has taken over some territory, the Assad regime still exercises power in the country.

Meanwhile, the ongoing fighting has attracted thousands of foreign fighters, some of them radical Islamists, to take on Assad, who is viewed unfavorably by them because of his Alawite religious sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Outside powers also got involved quickly. So what started out as a civil uprising against years of repression, poverty and government corruption turned into a regional proxy war that is now engulfing the entire Middle East, with the nonviolent section of the opposition withering under the weight of civil war. Refugees have poured into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, and Lebanon has itself seen fighting linked to the Syrian crisis.

Now, the United States’ threats to rain cruise missiles down on Damascus threatens to ignite more turmoil in the region. Here’s a guide to the external players playing a role in and fueling the Syrian crisis, which has claimed the lives of over 100,000 people and displaced a third of the population.

1. United States

The looming military strikes on Syria by the U.S. would be the most forceful intervention yet from the world’s superpower. But even without the strikes, the U.S. has long played an outside role during the Syrian civil war.

President Barack Obama first showed his hand in 2011, when he said, “ the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” By the next year, the CIA was training Syrian rebels in Jordan, a longstanding ally of the U.S. now playing an important role as a base for the rebels and a haven for millions of refugees. CIA agents have trained a small group of FSA fighters with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons in the hopes of helping American-vetted rebels gain an upper hand in the civil war. And in March 2013, the New York Times reportedthat “with help from the C.I.A., Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters.”

The training of rebels represented a direct break from past U.S. dealings with the Assad regime. Before the uprising emerged, the U.S. had a complicated relationship with Syria which included cooperation on anti-terrorism, sanctioning the regime and meeting with the Assads to encourage U.S.-backed reform measures.

But the U.S. training of the rebels made only a small impact. Perhaps the most effective fighting force within Syria has been the Jabhat al-Nusra front, an Al-Qaeda linked group. Trepidation about U.S. arms falling into the hands of jihadist groups that could threaten Israel and other U.S. allies has tempered the willingness to open the arms floodgates. Although the U.S. Congress authorized arming the rebels earlier this year, much of the equipment hasn’t reached the rebels.

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