The Syrian Proxy War: A World War III-esque Summary

Even before any major world powers were willing to go public (so to speak) with their involvement in Syria’s five-year, bloody civil war, it was difficult to keep track of the myriad rebel factions, militant groups, and jihadists battling the Assad regime for control of the country.

In a testament to just how confusing (not to mention terrifying) the situation had become by the time Iran began to mull asking the Russians for help, in April, 18,000 civilians ended up trapped in the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus where al-Nusra, ISIS, Hamas, the FSA, and the Assad regime were all fighting each other simultaneously in what UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon called “the worst circle of hell.”

At that juncture, the conflict was still largely a true proxy war. That is, sure there were probably some US Spec Ops running around with the Kurds and perhaps with the FSA and there were almost undoubtedly a handful of Iranian commanders shuttling back and forth between Damascus and Tehran while coordinating with Hezbollah, but the war didn't look anything like it does now in terms of overt military action by multiple world powers. 

After Quds commander Qassem Soleimaini visited the frontlines in Latakia in June, the general vowed to "surprise the world," with Iran's next move. Weeks later Soleimaini was in Moscow plotting a Russian intervention with The Kremlin. By the end of September, Russia had built an air base at Latakia and on September 30, a three star general strolled into the US Embassy in Baghdad and informed the Americans that Russian airstrikes in Syria "begin in 1 hour." 

The rest, as they say is history and as we reported earlier today, things just got more complicated as it now appears both Britain and Germany are set to enter the fray. All of this is made immeasurably more difficult to grasp when you consider that it's nearly impossible to sort through which rebel groups are Saudi, Qatari, and Turkish proxies. 

Now that the tense standoff between Ankara and Moscow looks set to usher in a new phase in the conflict characterized by world powers engaging one another directly, we though it an opportune time to take inventory of who is who and what is what in Syria which just might be remembered as the theatre for the start of a third world war. 

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And here, for those who missed it, is The New York Times' attempt to explain who's fighting who:


Here are the stories that document the key events of the past six months:

Finally, in case anyone is still confused, here is the really simple recap:

  • Russian fighter jets (now armed with air-to-air missiles) over Syria
  • Russian missile cruisers off the Syrian coast protecting Russian assets on the ground and occasionally enforcing a no fly zone over the Mediterranean  
  • US, French fighter jets over Syria and Iraq
  • The US Aircraft Carrier USS Harry Truman is set to arrive by the Syrian coast in a few weeks
  • The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is parked off the Syrian coast
  • UK fighter jets deployed over Syria within days
  • German jets deployed over Syria within days
  • German frigate to protect the French aircraft carrier
  • German troops to be deployed
  • US "special" troops officially deployed to Iraq, unofficially operating in Syria
  • Russian "special" troops unofficially on the ground in Syria