In March 2011, a group of teenagers scrawled anti-government graffiti in the southern Syrian city of Deraa and, unknowingly, set their country on fire. Their subsequent arrest and torture prompted protestors to take to the streets of Deraa, emulating similar demonstrations across the Arab world at that time. As government forces reacted violently and killed several, protest spread across Syria, especially in poorer areas, now demanding that the President, Bashar al-Assad, stand down. But Assad refused, claiming the swelling opposition movement were Islamists, criminals and foreign agents, and ordered a brutal crackdown. Slowly, parts of the opposition took up arms in response to government violence, and the stage was set for a vicious civil war.
Despite its simple origins, Syria’s conflict is anything but. What began as a peaceful protest movement challenging an autocratic government has evolved into a complex multi-layered war. Domestically, despite capturing territory from the Government early on, opposition fighters have been divided, allowing Assad to slowly reclaim some lost ground. Over time new groups have emerged to complicate the Government-Opposition contest. Syria’s Kurds have formed militia and joined the fight as has the sinister Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Both have fought the Opposition, the Government and each other to capture and hold Syrian territory.
Internationally, foreign powers have gradually escalated their involvement, playing a vital role in the conflict. Russia and Iran have stood by the Government from the start, providing diplomatic, economic and military support, and more recently sending troops, air and naval power. The Opposition has been supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, the US and others offering political and economic support, along with weaponry and training, but far less than that provided by the government’s backers. The US also supports Kurdish forces in their fight with ISIS, including air support, much to the anger of the Opposition, which was refused this in their conflict with Assad, and its ally Turkey, who see these Kurds as terrorists.
Segments of the western media often offer simplified narratives of the conflict. Some reduce it to a battle between Sunni Muslims, who tend to back the Opposition, and Shia Muslims, who tend to back the Assad government, or a proxy war between regional enemies Saudi Arabia and Iran, or global rivals, the US and Russia. The reality is far more complicated, often made more so by the competing narratives put out by the different sides and the passions raised by the conflict.
The IWM London’s new display, Syria: Story of a Conflict doesn’t shy away from the conflict’s complexities, but seeks to explain them. Using objects from the conflict and the stories of real Syrians, it aims to offer members of the public an introduction to the war, outlining its origins, key players and consequences. Six years after the graffiti first appeared in Deraa, nearly 500,000 Syrians have been killed, cities lie in ruins and over half the pre-war population of 21 million have been forced from their homes. The conflict looks set to run on for years yet, and its aftermath long after. ‘Syria: story of a conflict’ helps to understand why.
Christopher Phillips is curator of Syria: Story of a Conflict, part of the Syria: A Conflict Explored season, and author of The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East (London: Yale university Press, 2016). He is Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London and Associate Fellow at Chatham House.