On the outskirts of Syrian capital Damascus, thousands of people wait to die beneath the bombs. They’re the latest victims of a tangled regional power struggle fought amid the carnage of a bloody counter-revolution.
Syrian and Russian airstrikes are hammering Ghouta, one of the last rebel enclaves—where 400,000 people are trapped.
Meanwhile in the Kurdish-held north of the country, national liberation fighters play dangerous power games. The US-backed Kurdish YPG now side with the Syrian regime to fight Western ally Turkey.
And in the south two of the Middle East’s biggest military powers, Israel and Iran, edge closer to war.
It’s a horrifying mess that has grown from the defeat of the Syrian revolution—when Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad crushed the revolutionary movement that began in 2011.
Millions of people fled Assad’s attacks, while those that stayed could only struggle to survive. Assad had made it impossible to organise the mass demonstrations that marked the beginning of the revolution.
Armed groups that at first defended the demonstrations became the focus of resistance—together they were known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Sectarian tensions, deliberately stoked by the regime, fuelled rivalry and competition between them.
Meanwhile rival regional powers muscled in, all vying for influence over the Syrian society that would emerge from the counter-revolution.
FSA groups began to depend on funding from rich Gulf states—particularly Saudi Arabia. But armed Islamists, also backed by various Gulf states, sidelined the FSA.
Saudi Arabia’s biggest rival, Iran, intervened on the side of Assad.
Major global powers intervened to tighten their grip on the Middle East.
Russia joined the campaign against the rebels, hoping to prop up Assad and tie a future regime to itself.
Meanwhile the US intervened in an effort to push Isis back. The sectarian group had taken control of large parts of Syria’s north which had been abandoned by the regime.
Britain backed the US, and strengthened their allies’ influence in Syria.
Thanks to the US and Russia, most of Syria is now in the hands of the Kurds in the north, or the regime and its allies to their south.
But now the rival powers are coming into more direct confrontation with each other.
The Syrian civil war could give way to a war between major regional powers. It’s a terrifying prospect, and there’s no easy solution.
But in the revolutionary movement after 2011, Syrians showed their fates don’t have to be left to warring regional powers that care nothing about them.
Ordinary people can challenge the lot of them and take control of their own lives.
A return of revolution across the Middle East is the only way out of the nightmare.
Kurds fight against Turkey
The Kurds of northern Syria are an oppressed minority. Syrian Kurds have been denied citizenship rights and other basic freedoms for decades.
Armed Kurdish group the YPG began to carve out a Kurdish statelet after the regime withdrew from northern Syria.
The YPG militia are the main group in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US-backed coalition that controls most of northern Syria.
Turkey has waged its own war against the Kurds.
And their growth has worried president Recep Tayyip Erdogan who fears northern Syria will become a base for Kurdish fighters in Turkey.
Turkey invaded the Afrin area of northern Syria to fight the Kurds in January, causing tension with its Nato ally the US.
Now the SDF has made a deal with the Syrian regime to jointly defend the area against the Turkish invasion.
Any major clash between Syria and Turkey would almost certainly see the Kurds crushed.
They can’t win freedom as by allowing themselves to be used in regional power struggles.
Iran aims to be a key player in Syria
Iranian forces, along with groups backed by Iran, help the Assad regime to control much of Syria’s southern border. Joining the war in 2013 helped Iran to grow its power across the Middle East.
Reports say Iran now has permanent military bases inside Syria as a result of the war.
Its forces also control parts in northern Iraq, after intervening in the war there in 2014.
Iran hopes to build its economic strength against its rival Saudi Arabia. Iranian investment in the Iraqi economy has made it a powerful economic force there.
Iran hopes to become a key part of the Syrian economy after the war.
But its expansion has brought it right to the border of its long-time enemy Israel.
Iran has funded Palestinian resistance group Hamas, and Hizbollah which defended Lebanon from Israeli invasion in 2006.
Recently Israel has threatened war on Hizobllah, and even on Iran itself.
Waving a piece of what he claimed was a downed Iranian drone, warmongering Israeli president Binyamin Netanyahu threatened Iran recently, “Do not test Israel’s resolve.”
Only small pockets of Syria are now controlled by rebels.
Most of these groups have little connection with the armed brigades that rose up in defence of the revolution in 2011.
These were made up of defecting regime soldiers and ordinary civilians to defend their towns and neighbourhoods from regime attacks.
But as the revolution descended into civil war, and foreign powers intervened with arms and funding, they were replaced by better equipped militias and Islamist groups.
Today “rebel” can refer to anything from the Southern Front—a British-backed group that controls a small pocket of land in Syria’s south east—to the Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra.
As many as five different rebel groups are reported to be resisting the regime’s assault on Ghouta.
Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is responsible for most of the bloodshed in Syria after the revolution in 2011.
Bashar took over as Syrian dictator after his father president Hafez al-Assad died in 2000.
Assad drove through a series of economic reforms that opened up Syria’s economy to the market and privatisation, while cutting subsidies and welfare.
A handful of elites connected to the Syrian state grew wealthy.
Meanwhile most Syrians became poorer.
Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt inspired the Syrian uprising.
Seeing the fall of Tunisian and Egyptian dictators Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, Assad crushed the revolution with brute force.