Gain an understanding of the ongoing Syria conflict in 'Syria: A Conflict Explored', a season of exhibitions and events held at IWM North— part of IWM's Conflict Now programming strand.

Christopher Phillips, Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London and Associate Fellow at Chatham House, has co-curated 'Syria: Story Of A Conflict' alongside IWM, looking at the origins, escalations and human impact of the conflict.

Here he answers frequently asked questions about the events in Syria and beyond and explains the UK's involvement in the conflict, the role played by ISIS and the refugee crisis caused by the conflict. 

Find out more about the exhibitions and activities here.


Christopher Phillips: “The Syria conflict is both a civil war and a proxy war. It has legitimate domestic origins. The opposition are fighting the government for ideological reasons. The Kurds are fighting both sides for historical and ideological reasons, while Assad is fighting for survival. However, each side receives vital support from outside players who are using the Syrian conflict to fight a wider proxy war. Iran and Russia are supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Western governments, led by the United States, have backed the opposition. The United States has also supported Kurdish forces. The fact that it is both a domestic civil war and an international proxy war played out by the United States, Russia, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran is one of the reasons why this is such a complex conflict.” 

Why Is The Syria Conflict So Complex?


Christopher Phillips: “ISIS have their origins in the 2003 Iraq war, the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime created a vacuum in parts of Iraq that was filled by radical jihadists, many coming from abroad, keen to attack American troops. When Syria descended into civil war, the jihadists took advantage of the chaos there, moving over the border to set up ISIS. ISIS have a radical jihadist ideology. They want to resurrect the Islamic caliphate that first emerged in the 7th century. The idea is to recreate a single Islamic State across the entire Islamic world. However, most would argue there is nothing Islamic about ISIS. If you look at how they ruled the areas they conquered, it would seem religion was just used as an excuse for a murderous ideology. These days, ISIS are in retreat. They were defeated in Syria by two separate forces by the United States and their international allies, supported by Syrian Kurds on one side and by Assad, Russia and Iran on the other. However, though ISIS’ dream of a physical caliphate may be over, their radical jihadist ideology has not been defeated, and new support may yet emerge.” 

How Is ISIS Involved In Syria?


Christopher Phillips: “The Sunni-Shia Divide is a division within Islam based on different interpretations of the religion dating back to the 7th century. Some have suggested Syria is a religious war between Sunnis and Shias, but this is a simplification. Syria has many different religions and ethnicities. The Sunni Arabs are about 65% of the population, while the Shia Alawis are about 12% of the population. The reason people think it's a religious war is that Assad's government has been dominated by Alawis, which is resented by some among the Sunni Arabs who traditionally dominated before Assad's father took power in 1970. However, the reality of the war is more complex than simply Shia Alawis fighting for the government, and Sunnis fighting for the opposition. Assad receives support from many people who are not Shia Alawis, for example, Christians who are 10% of the population, Druze who are 3% and in fact many Sunnis, often the wealthier middle and upper classes. If you look at who backs the opposition, Sunni supporters tend to be poorer, so there is an economic component. There's also a strong ideological component, some Alawis, Christians and Druze have supported the opposition because they oppose Assad, irrespective of religion.” 

Is The Syria Conflict All About Religion?


Christopher Phillips: “Syria has been an ally of Russia since the Cold War. The only Russian naval base in the Mediterranean is in the Syrian city of Tartus. As well as this, Moscow was worried that if Assad fell, he would be replaced by a Pro American government, giving its rival yet more allies in the Middle East. Russian leader Vladimir Putin therefore defended Assad from the beginning of the conflict. Protecting him at the UN and supplying money and weaponry. In 2015, however, Assad looked under threat. So Putin intervened directly, sending the Russian Air Force into battle. Putin was also concerned about Russian jihadists fighting in Syria and said he was intervening to defeat ISIS, but actually mostly targeted opposition positions at first. In late 2016, Russia, alongside Iran, scored a major success helping Assad reconquer eastern Aleppo, which looked like a fatal blow to the opposition. After intervening, Putin has tried to position Russia as the leading international power in Syria. He's persuaded Turkey and the US to support ceasefires between the opposition and government and has attempted to broker peace talks that will end the war but keep Assad in power. However, while Russia will likely remain deeply involved in Syria moving forward, it's unclear whether it can successfully end the war in its favour and avoid being stuck in a long-term quagmire.” 

What Is Russia Doing In Syria?


Christopher Phillips: “Syria's Kurds, who make up roughly 10% of the population, have long been discriminated against by Assad's government. However, because many didn't trust the opposition either, when the conflict broke out, Kurdish militia joined neither side. Pretty soon, one Kurdish group, the PYD, came to dominate and they declared the north eastern Kurdish parts of Syria self-ruling in 2013. However, they were soon attacked by ISIS, who also claimed that territory. When the PYD successfully fought back the United States started to sponsor them as an ally in the war against ISIS, providing them and their allies with weapons, training and air cover. As ISIS was pushed back, the PYD expanded into non-Kurdish areas and even though they claim to be democratic, some worry that they seek to take over. The future of the Kurds in Syria is unclear. Because the PYD is affiliated with the Turkish Kurdish militant group the PKK, Turkey sees them as terrorists. Turkey invaded Syria in 2016 and again in 2018 to limit the PYD's presence on its border. Assad also has said he wants to reconquer the Kurdish lands in the long run, although some wonder if you might negotiate instead. Neither Turkey nor Assad is likely to attack the Kurds as long as the US remains protecting them so much will depend on whether Washington decides to stay for the long haul.” 

How Are Syria's Kurds Involved In The Conflict?


Christopher Phillips: “At the United Nations Security Council, Western governments in particular have tried several times to condemn Bashar al-Assad's government, whether with sanctions or the prospect of military action. However, each time Assad's close ally, Russia, has vetoed at the UN Security Council any attempt to punish him. This has basically killed any legal condemnation of the Syrian government because most people believe that if it doesn't have UN support, then it would be an illegal action and few Western governments are willing to make that move. The UN has sponsored several rounds of peace talks between the different sides, but all have failed. There are many reasons for this. Perhaps the government of Bashar al-Assad and the opposition haven't taken the talks seriously enough. Perhaps their external sponsors haven't put sufficient pressure on their Syrian allies to make the peace talks work. Either way, each attempt in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017 has ended in failure. Talks will likely continue, but with limited prospect of success.” 

How Is The UN Involved In Syria?


Christopher Phillips: “In 2013, there was a huge chemical weapons attack in oppositionheld eastern Damascus, and fingers immediately pointed at Assad. Many expected Barack Obama, who had declared that chemical weapons usage would be a red line for him, to launch a military strike on Assad in response. Obama prepared a military attack but called it off and instead accepted a Russian plan for Assad to give up his chemical weapons peacefully without a shot being fired. Obama was criticised for this because it seemed he was giving Assad a green light to keep killing as long as chemical weapons weren't used. Syria was not a signatory to the treaty that forbade the use of chemical weapons in 2013 and so wasn't officially breaking international law. However, as part of the Russian deal that Obama agreed to, Syria did sign the chemical weapons treaty. This matters because in 2017, Assad used chemical weapons again against opposition areas in the northwest. The new US President, Donald Trump, responded immediately with a missile strike on Assad, saying he dared to do what Obama wouldn't. But the strike was small and largely ineffective. Because Assad had signed up to the treaty, he should have been punished at the UN, but his ally Russia blocked any attempts to hold into account. The use of chemical weapons seems to provoke public reaction in a way that conventional weapons don't. However, far more people have been killed by conventional weapons in this conflict.” 

Chemical Weapons In Syria


Christopher Phillips: “The Arab Spring was a series of public uprisings across the Arab world from late 2010 throughout 2011. People took to the streets demanding bread, freedom and dignity. Bread - they opposed their poor economic conditions. Freedom - they opposed the autocratic governments that ruled over them for decades and dignity - they opposed the appalling treatment of the population by these government security services. Protests started in Tunisia and spread across the region. The Syrian teenagers that scrawled graffiti attacking Bashar al-Assad that began the unrest were writing slogans that they'd seen on television in Egypt. Clearly, there was some inspiration from the Arab Spring as a whole, however, what happened in Syria was also particular to that country. A lot of the economic and political demands being made were specifically Syrian. As well as that, how the conflict evolved has been particular to Syria's geography and its international relations. External players have poured more money and weapons into this conflict than any other that emerged after the Arab Spring.” 

Was The Syria Conflict Started By The Arab Spring?


Christopher Phillips: “The refugee crisis has seen a huge movement of people leaving their homes, often due to conflict. Over 5 million people have fled Syria since the conflict broke out, a quarter of the pre-war population and another 6 million are internally displaced. Actually, a very small proportion of Syria's refugees have come to Europe. The vast majority are heading to Syria's immediate neighbours. The massive influx of refugees into neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan is placing huge strain on these countries, many of whom are quite poor and politically unstable. Turkey has received over 3 million refugees, Lebanon has received a million despite only having a population of 4 million, itself, meaning one in five people in Lebanon is now a Syrian refugee. This is likely to have a very long-term impact. Studies on refugees have shown that it takes refugees 10 years after the conflict has ended, before half of those that have fled return. So we should expect the majority of Syrians to stay in their host countries for some time. If you think of similar displacements in the past, notably the Palestinian crisis in 1948, that is something that still hasn't been resolved today, and Palestinians still live in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and until recently, Syria.” 

Why Is There A Refugee Crisis?


Christopher Phillips: “I don't believe that direct intervention from the United States would have ended the war, even if it toppled the government of Bashar al-Assad. As we've seen elsewhere in the Middle East, removing a government can lead to a power vacuum and further chaos. Barack Obama was quite a cold realist. He didn't believe that the US could improve the situation in Syria. If he sent forces to topple Assad, Syria would be the US's responsibility to fix. With the different factions fighting each other inside the country and the many foreign powers involved, I think Obama feared that the US couldn't afford to be sucked into another unwinnable quagmire like Iraq. The US has been involved a huge amount in Syria, though. It did intervene, just not with its military directly against Assad. It sponsored the opposition and that encouraged regional allies like Turkey and Saudi Arabia to do likewise. This has played a major role in exacerbating the conflict. Assad's allies have done exactly the same, providing even more support to his government. The US is no more guilty than other powers involved, but they have all poured fuel on the fire of conflict rather than seeking to deescalate and compromise.” 

Could The US Stop The Syria Conflict?


Christopher Phillips: “The Free Syrian Army, or FSA, are a collection of opposition militia fighting Assad's government. They originally formed locally, often to defend protesters, and some were defecting soldiers from Assad's army. Because of these local origins, they struggled to coordinate as an effective national body. They were called an army but were anything but in reality, a bit like the French resistance in the Second World War, they shared the brand of the FSA but were not a single coordinated entity. One difficulty for the FSA was maintaining ideological cohesion. Different fighters wanted different things after Assad was toppled. Some were secular, wanting the continuation of non-religious rule. Some were religious and wanted a balance and others were outright Islamists, though perhaps not as radical as ISIS or Al-Qaeda. The role of Islamists among the opposition was a problem when it came to attracting foreign backing because some foreign powers, like the United States were worried that weapons and money would fall into radical Islamists hands. The FSA still exists today, but they're far smaller. In opposition held areas, it's often the more radical elements that dominate, including Al-Qaeda. Sometimes they cooperate and fight Assad together, sometimes they fight each other. Unfortunately for the FSA, few foreign powers now believe they can win, and the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have cut back their support.” 

What Is The Free Syrian Army?


Christopher Phillips: “The British Government called for the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, to stand down in August 2011. Since then, the British have given various forms of support to the opposition - money, training and political support, but they haven't openly sent weaponry. 

Britain has also been involved in the campaign against ISIS since 2014, sending military support for the American led operations in Iraq and Syria. When Assad was alleged to have used chemical weapons in 2013, Britain was expected to join the retaliation proposed by Barack Obama at the time. However, controversially, the British Parliament voted against British involvement and that played a role in Obama's decision to call off the strikes and instead accept a political deal with the Russians to disarm Assad peacefully. 

Britain has been restrained in Syria for several reasons. Its actual power is limited. The UK generally takes the lead from the US in the Middle East, and because America has been restrained in Syria, so has the UK. In fact, it has been other powers who have played the most prominent role in this conflict, particularly Assad’s Allies, Russia and Iran.” 

How Is The UK Involved In Syria?

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A cyclist watches a fire caused by the explosion of a mortar shell
© Sergey Ponomarev
Contemporary conflict

Reporting from Syria

Pulitzer-prize winning photographer Sergey Ponomarev has covered subjects ranging from daily life in his homeland of Russia to conflicts including the Libyan civil war and combat in Afghanistan. 

Free Syrian Army
© Rick Findler
Contemporary conflict

Photographing the Free Syrian Army with Rick Findler

During a trip to Aleppo, Rick Findler took this image of Free Syrian Army fighters using a catapult to fire home-made explosives.