Mapping Syria's devastating conflict

3:17 pm on 4 October 2016

Analysis - More than half a million dead, more than 10 million displaced and more than 25 factions fighting in five loose armies, all in an area roughly the size of the North Island. How best to explain Syria's devastating and ongoing conflict?

Civilians return to the neighbourhood of Bani Zeid in Aleppo, a day after Syrian government forces took control of the previously rebel-held district.

Civilians return to the neighbourhood of Bani Zeid in Aleppo, a day after Syrian government forces took control of the previously rebel-held district. Photo: AFP

It began in the 2011 Arab Spring with a protest movement against the repressive Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, the former London ophthalmologist who 'inherited' Syria from his father.

The protesters called for democracy and human rights - radical requests in a country where the small Alawite Shia Islam minority had for 50 years utterly dominated the large Sunni Islam majority as well as the Kurds, Christians, Druze and other minorities, in a melting pot of cultures, religions and languages.

The government responded to civilian protests with live fire and artillery, including a naval bombardment.

After several brutal massacres, parts of the security forces reneged and the people began fighting back. The defecting military formed the Free Syrian Army and began a simple, two-sided civil war.

It didn't stay simple for long. There are now more than 25 different factions and groups fighting in five loose armies. Those armies are being armed, assisted or attacked by 17 other countries including Russia, Iran, Israel, the United States and much of both Europe and the Arabian peninsula. New Zealand is not involved.

Diagrams of the Syrian conflict that show who is fighting whom are so muddled with arrows as to be almost pointless. It is surely the most confused, multi-sided conflict in modern history.

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Syria is about two thirds the size of New Zealand. Photo: Google Maps

Mapping the conflict

Syria isn't very large, about two thirds the size of New Zealand, but with a pre-war population of some 24 million.

To simplify things, I suggest a parallel. Let's imagine this war is happening in the North Island. The current situation would look like this:

The densely populated west coast of the North Island from the Bombay Hills down to Wellington is a patchwork of government forces and rebel troops.

Wellington is held by the government after a vicious campaign that included 1300 civilians killed in a government gas attack on Karori.

The government forces are aided by eight allied groups, as well as militias from Iran and Hezbollah, and Russian forces.

Against them, in the patchwork quilt of territories across Taranaki, Manawatu and western Waikato are the Free Syrian Army and its allied factions that make up the secular opposition (who are loosely supported by the west), and the five or so factions that make up the Sunni Islamist opposition (who are supported by the Sunni Arabian peninsula).

The secular and Islamist militias usually cooperate but have different ultimate objectives.

Rescue workers move an injured man from the rubble after airstrike in the Al-Ansari district of Aleppo.

Rescue workers move an injured man from the rubble after an airstrike in the Al-Ansari district of Aleppo. Photo: AFP

Pause and imagine 350,000 troops fighting each other in dozens of battles across the western third of the North Island.

Kurdish majority Northland, Bay of Plenty and East Cape are controlled by the Kurds. They have declared a democratic federation called Rojava that is proudly multi-religious, multi-ethnic and gender equal (including militarily). They are being attacked by so-called Islamic State (IS) from the south and by Turkey from the north.

Turkey fears that new Kurdish states in northern Iraq and Syria will demand the oil-rich Kurdish southeast of Turkey as well.

The oil-rich deserts of Hawke's Bay are controlled by IS. Its territory reaches up through Taupo into Coromandel and the fringes of Auckland. It is being attacked by everyone and bombed by the air forces of Operation Inherent Resolve (US with European and Sunni allies).

The UNESCO world heritage site, Auckland (standing in for Aleppo here, with a pre-war population of 2.3 million), wasn't initially involved in the civil war at all. It is now divided in half and in rubble. West Auckland is held by the government; the opposition armies (Kurdish, Islamist and secular), hold the east. Downtown Auckland is in rebel hands but surrounded. IS presses the rebels from the north and east.

The population of Auckland has been decimated with illegal chemical weapons, artillery, and barrel bombs dropped from government helicopters on soft targets like Starship Hospital. For a year the Russian air force has also pummelled rebel Auckland after promising to only attack IS. In the besieged downtown, 250,000 people are short on food, water and medicine with winter coming.

Nationwide the main cause of death has progressed from shootings, through mortar fire, and is now air strikes.

More than half a million have died. At least 4.8 million have fled the country and a further six million are displaced internally. The UN estimates 13.5 million require humanitarian aid.

It's difficult to imagine isn't it? Sadly, it's all too real.

Syrian volunteers carry an injured person on a stretcher following Syrian government forces airstrikes on the rebel held neighbourhood of Heluk in Aleppo.

Across Syria the main cause of death is now due to air strikes. Photo: AFP

Resolution

After months of negotiation a ceasefire started on 12 September, partly so the UN could provide medical supplies to besieged civilians. Most convoys were stopped, delayed or pillaged by government forces. No supplies reached Aleppo. The ceasefire lasted barely a week, ending after a Russian and Syrian government airstrike on a UN aid convoy.

The renewed obliteration of rebel-held Aleppo is so bad the severely wounded are being zipped into body bags while still alive.

Russia and the Syrian government are breaching international law to gain the upper hand before talks. The west is nervous to get further involved for fear of either a quagmire or a uncontrollable conflagration. The UN is powerless to intervene militarily because permanent members of the UN Security Council are fighting for different sides and will veto any resolution.

Turkey could relieve Aleppo with an incursion across just 50km of Syrian territory, but such an action could be difficult to withdraw from, might bring NATO's second largest military into direct conflict with Russia and, despite great generosity with refugees, Turkey appears more interested in controlling the Kurds than saving Aleppo.

Only a stalemate and a negotiated settlement is likely to end the war and that must await the defeat of IS and the deaths of countless thousands more Syrians.

Phil Smith is an award-winning journalist who has reported for RNZ from China, India and Australia.