ISIS in Syria: a New Development in a Long War

Syria has had quite the month. Well, quite the last few years really. The beginning of military strikes by the United States-led coalition on Syrian soil and the threat of ISIS/ISIL/the Islamic State (for the sake of consistency, ISIS will do) have led to a renewed media focus on the nation of approximately 20 million. But what makes September 2014 any different from August ’14? Or September 2013? Or March 2011 (the start of the Syrian Civil War)? While the ISIS incursion into Iraq certainly brought international attention to the issue, Syria itself has been experiencing a similar state of affairs in the many months since 2011.

In the month of September, Syria has dealt with mass exodus of over 130,000 refugees who are fleeing not only the terrors of war, but also the wrath of ISIS.[1] For the first time in over 30 years, a Syrian aircraft has been attacked by Israel, as the civil war spills over the border in the Golan.[2] In addition to this, Syria is now experiencing air attacks from nations in a coalition the likes of which has not been seen since the 1990-91 Gulf War coalition against Saddam Hussein. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, France, the United States and more are striking ISIS targets, while dozens of other nations are providing military, diplomatic, and humanitarian support.[3] While these developments might seem strikingly stark, they pale in comparison to the last three and a half years of war.

As of January of this year, the death toll in Syria was well over 130,000, and more than a third of the population was either displaced (6.5+ million) or refugees (another 2.3 million). These numbers have only gotten grimmer as ISIS has incurred its wrath on much of Eastern Syria, but the trend was still established well before ISIS became a hot topic in the US. What is just as bad as the human toll, however, is the destruction of infrastructure that is one of the many costs of war. According to the Associated Press, through this January more than 40% of Syrian hospitals are now unusable, and at least 17 cases of Polio have been found only a little over a decade after the disease’s eradication.[4]

The complex situation in Iraq and Syria—two conflicts linked by a common belligerent: ISIS (the Islamic State). Source: The Economist

So why hasn’t there been nearly as much attention given to this civil war as there is currently to the ISIS threat? More importantly, will anything change with regards to the war for control of Syria? The short answer is no. All too often, the Syrian Civil War (an active conflict in Syria that began in March of 2011) and the ISIS incursion into Iraq (an active conflict that began June 2014) are structurally linked. This should absolutely not be the case. While it is true that ISIS controls parts of both Iraq and Syria, and is conducting active warfare on both fronts, they are in fact two separate conflicts. American and Western involvement has been limited to attacking ISIS forces, and expanded those attacks to ISIS positions within Syria proper. Think of it this way: each conflict has its own wiki page, but because they share similar key words (ISIS, Syria, etc.), they would both show up on a basic Google search.

Why does this matter, and what will September 2014 be considered in terms of the history of the Syrian Civil War? This is important because understanding that the Syrian conflict involves an incredibly complex web of belligerent parties and is not simply ISIS versus the world is crucial to understanding the future of these conflicts. In terms of this month’s impact, it will be viewed as an important part of the ISIS story and timeline, but a minor note on the timeline of the civil war itself. While these two conflicts, one thing is clear: the destruction and death carried with them are far from over.

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