Should the UK be involved in Syria? 8 important things to consider


This week MPs will vote over whether to take military action against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. David Cameron says voting against military action makes you a terrorist sympathiser. What’s going on in Syria and should we get involved?

Everything you need to know about Syria from the news

Update: On Wednesday 2nd December 2015 British MPs voted in favour of using airstrikes on the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.  This article was written before the vote and explored the situation in Syria.


What’s going on in Syria?

graffiti image of President Assad in Syria

Graffiti image of President Assad in Syria

Syria has been in the midst of a civil war since 2011. Since 2000, the country has been under the rule of a supposed dictator, President Bashar Al-Assad.

Protests over the imprisonment of a group of children in 2011 led to a rebel uprising. Now the Syrian government is fighting against thousands of rebel groups. Throw in an extremist Islamic group called Islamic State, and it’s easy to see why the UK government is advising people NOT to go to Syria.The rebel groups are fighting to change the way the country is governed for political reasons. The Islamic extremists want the country to be ruled under Islamic law.

The UK government voted against getting involved in Syria in 2013. Later it was revealed that UK pilots have been helping with American airstrikes. Recent attacks have unearthed the debate on whether the UK should enter Syria today.


OK, I think I want a little more detail – What’s Syria’s history?

Map of Syria in the Middle East

Where we talking?

Syria is a country in the Middle East in between Iraq and Turkey. Over the last century power struggles have rocketed.

Syria considers itself a republic. It has an elected President and a government. But in reality the country has been ruled as a dictatorship; where one individual has absolute power.

The current President Bashar Al-Assad took office in 2000 after the death of his father, who had ruled since the 1970s. Assad has been described as a dictator; removing anyone who stands up to him, and the evidence we have supports this. Human rights activists claim that his opponents are often tortured and killed. Social media websites and online chat rooms are also routinely blocked. 

The majority of Syrian Muslims belong to a branch of the Islam faith called Sunni Islam. President Assad is part of a separate group; the Alawites. This is part of a smaller branch of Islam; called Shia Islam. Most of Syria’s ruling class are Alawites. Why are we stating this? History has taught us that Middle Eastern religious differences often translate into political tensions.

Sunni and Shia Islam; what’s the difference?


Why was there a civil war?

In 2011 a group of children were arrested for writing anti-government messages on a wall. It was reported that they were also tortured. Peaceful protests called for the release of the children and for changes in the way the country was run.

Protesters called for democracy and an end to the oppressive regime led by Assad. Instead the Syrian authorities sent in the riot police, who opened fire and killed four people. Violent protests began throughout the country and rebel groups began organising and fighting back. To date more than 200,000 people have been killed as a result of the conflict. 


When did the USA and the UK get involved?

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- Two F-15E Strike Eagles perform a low-level training mission  over the Sawtooth Mountain Range. The Strike Eagles give the 366th Fighter Wing here sophisticated air-to-ground attack capabilities and air-to-air superiority. They can be equipped with both laser-guided weapons and air-to-air missiles, and use the low-altitude navigation and targeting infrared for night, or LANTIRN system, to find and destroy targets at night in all kinds of weather with  precision. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Debbie Hernandez) Syria

UK pilots have been assisting US airstrikes over Syria

In recent years Syria’s relationship with the West has gone sour. This is partly due to Syria’s military actions in parts of the Middle East and its poor human rights record. It didn’t help when in 2009 man-made Nuclear materials were discovered in Syria. The Islamic State are of course not the biggest fans of the West either. 

The international community considered stepping in when it was reported that both the Syrian government and rebel groups were committing war crimes.

In 2013 bombs were dropped just outside of Damascus releasing deadly Sarin gas. Western countries blamed the Syrian government; and the government blamed the rebels. President Assad eventually agreed to the destruction of all chemical weapons belonging to the Syrian authorities, when the USA said “any more of that and we’ll come to sort this mess”.

Since then the United Nations security council has heard further reports of chemical attacks on rebel territories in the north. Given the West has their own battle with the so-called Islamic State or ISIS, the USA and other countries found enough reason to eventually get involved, and collectively have carried out over 1,600 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria. The UK government voted against military action in Syria in 2013, however the UK government has some explaining to do; it’s been reported that UK pilots took part in airstrikes despite the vote against military action.

What we should question at this point: Is the West’s involvement to help the people of Syria or as a vendetta against ISIS?


And what has ISIS got to do with all this?

The self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) took advantage of the chaos created by the civil war in order to work towards their goals. Fighters for IS want to create an Islamic state. They call it a caliphate. This is a universal state-run under Muslim Sharia Law; derived from teachings in the Qur’an – Islam’s holy book. Islamic State is led by Sunni Muslims.

Broadcasters refer to ISIS as the “so-called” or “self-styled” Islamic State to show that they do not recognise the Islamist group as a state. Politicians have also started calling them Daesh which the group finds offensive.

READ MORE: our five-part series “ISIS explained”

Islamic State declared the Caliphate in 2014. Since then they’ve been attacking high-profile targets and taking hostages. The US has just changed its policy on ransoms for hostages; allowing family members to pay to get their loved ones back. IS have also made Christianity punishable by death. Islamic State fighters control areas in northern Iraq and northern Syria. Having taken over oil and gas fields, their daily revenue is estimated at $3,000,000.


Who controls Syria now?

Current situation in Syria. Red: Syrian government. Grey: ISIS Green: Opposition groups. Yellow: Kurds  Source: Wikipedia (this image dated  30 November 2015)

Current situation in Syria. Red: Syrian government. Grey: ISIS Green: Opposition groups. Yellow: Kurds
Source: Wikipedia (this image dated 30 November 2015)

Bashar Al-Assad is still President, but Syrian authorities have lost control of large parts of the country. Territory boundaries change every day; intelligence from even a few weeks ago is largely useless.

Government forces control the West of the country. Rebel groups control the North. In the East a group of Kurdish fighters are also fighting against ISIS.

Islamic State is said to control 50% of Syria’s land, according to The Guardian. The group controls land through the middle of Syria with support networks throughout other areas. The rise of the Islamic group has also brought a religious aspect to what began as a political struggle.

The opposition against the Syrian authorities and President Assad is… a bit of a mess. It’s estimated that there are over 1,000 rebels groups in the country. Many different alliances have been formed. The four main coalitions are; the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the Syrian National Council (SNC), the National Coordination Committee (NCC) and the Kurdish Supreme Committee. So far they’ve been unable to agree on a strategy to combat Assad. Ever thought of working together, guys?

Four million people have left the country since the start of the conflict. These migrants have been travelling through countries like Libya, attempting to reach safety in Europe. That hasn’t stopped UK citizens travelling to the country and joining forces with Islamic State.


Syria learnings: It’s not all about the Islamic State

UK involvement should not be deliberated lightly. If we’re fighting ISIS in Syria should we be thinking more carefully about the consequences?


Subscribe to our weekly explainer The Week: Decoded, like us on Facebook and follow @scenesofreason