Missiles and guerillas heat up Syria’s war

A dangerous game: Syrian rebels take a break from fighting © Getty Images

Stalemate in Syria, as the country’s civil war enters its third year. The arrival of Lebanese fighters and Russian missiles could break the deadlock – and tear the Middle East apart.

When government repression turned peaceful protests in Syria into an armed revolt, many thought the regime of Bashar al Assad would quickly fall. In Tunisia, Egypt and then Libya, popular uprisings had quickly toppled tyrants long thought to be unshakeable.

But Syria turned out to be very different. Two years (and thousands of deaths) later, Assad still holds power. In fact, it is the rebels who are now on the defensive. Politically speaking, Assad has reason to be confident against a divided and leaderless opposition.

And on the battlefield, he has two powerful new weapons. From the north, Assad is receiving shipments of high-tech Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, designed to deter foreign air strikes. From the south, he is being reinforced by Hezbollah fighters from neighbouring Lebanon. These are some of the finest infantry soldiers in the Middle East: tough, ruthless and ready to kill.

These new developments have raised fears that – unless a peace deal is found at talks in Geneva in coming weeks – Syria’s war could spiral out of control, becoming a regional or even global conflict.

The war in Syria is not like the simple nation vs nation wars of the 19th or 20th centuries. It is more like five conflicts all rolled together. There is the local war between religious and ethnic communities within Syria defending their own turf: Alawites against Sunnis against Christians against Wahhabists against Kurds and so on. There is the national war: people vs government. There is the religious war that simmers under the surface across the Middle East: Sunnis led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia against Shiites led by Iran. Then there is the regional war which pits Israel against terrorist organisations like Hezbollah and Hamas and their foreign backers.

Finally, there is the global conflict between Western powers, led by the US, and rivals like Russia and China. The West is actively supporting the Syrian rebels, so far with aid but soon perhaps with weapons too. It was the lifting of an EU ban on arms shipments to the rebels which caused Russia to send its own missiles to Assad.

Playing with fire

It is time to stop playing this dangerous game, say many commentators. The more the West helps the rebels, the more Russia will help Assad. What happens when, for example, a Western warplane takes out a Russian arms shipment? Or when a Russian made missile brings down an Israeli airliner? We must stop interfering or Syria’s war will spread.

But many Western politicians cannot stand the idea of Assad, the torturer and tyrant, being allowed to get away with his crimes. The rebels, they say, deserve our help because justice is on their side.

You Decide

  1. What do you think is the commonest reason for people killing one another: land, money, religion, or something else?
  2. The US constitution guarantees the right to carry weapons, so that citizens can defend themselves against tyranny. Is this a good idea?


  1. Write a short story set in an alternate universe in which the citizens of your own country are rising against their own government.
  2. In groups of two or more, act out a peace conference on Syria. Each person should represent one of Syria’s communities – or one of the other interested parties.

Some People Say...

“People who supply weapons are as guilty as those who use them.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why on earth would anyone bother interfering in Syria’s war?
A lot of politicians really do feel like intervening is a moral necessity. Not all of international relations is about narrow self interest.
There must be more at stake than just good conscience!
There is. At the regional level, the outcome of the war in Syria could redraw the map of the Middle East, splitting Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and possibly Jordan along ethnic lines.
What about for other countries?
For Russia, Europe and the US, the Syrian conflict is a fight for international prestige. Russia wants to show it can protect its allies and to embarrass the US. The US wants to show it is a force for good in the world, and remove an enemy of Israel in the process. Britain and France want to show that they still matter.

Word Watch

Hezbollah is a Shiite militia group based in Lebanon, founded in the 1980s to resist an Israeli invasion. It is now the most powerful military force in that country. Hezbollah’s primary support comes from Iran, by way of Syria. If the Assad regime falls, Hezbollah leaders fear their supply routes could be cut.
Bashar al Assad and many of his closest allies belong to the Alawite religious sect. Although Alawites are a minority in Syria, they control most high ranking government and military positions. The Alawite faith is generally regarded as a branch of Shia Islam.
Wahhabists, who belong to the Sunni branch of Islam, are religious fundamentalists who believe in a version of Islam modelled on the faith of the first ever Muslims. Movements like this, often called Salafi movements, enjoy growing popularity around the Middle East.
When the political map of the Middle East was drawn by British and French diplomats after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, the region’s millions of Kurds got a particularly rough deal. Split across Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, Kurds have often fought for independence and paid a bloody price as a result. Now, with Syria and Iraq falling apart, the Kurds may finally get a country of their own.


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