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9 Reasons That Syria Is (Still) A Hot Mess

Fresh chemical weapons attacks and over 100,000 dead. Why isn't anyone helping?

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1. First of all, this is a seriously old fight. Some elements of the conflict date back to 632 AD

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When the Prophet Muhammed died in 632, the early Islamic community was divided over who should succeed him as leader and his followers broke into two groups - the Sunnis and the Shiites. Although it would be a mistake to reduce the current conflict to just the issues between Sunnis and Shiites, sectarian conflict is a huge part of what's going on. Bashar al-Assad's government and those loyal to him are mostly Alawites - a branch of Shiism, and the rebels and their allies - including Saudi Arabia and Qatar - are mostly Sunni.

3. Turkey and Iran are using the conflict as a proxy war

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Although Turkey used to be an ally of the Syrian government, they backed the rebels once Assad's government crackdown turned violent. Turkey has been at the forefront of what they hoped would be a wave of democratic transitions to moderate Islamist governments, so they supported the protesters against a monarchy. Given Iran's staunch support for Assad, this has created a deep rift in once-cordial relations.

4. Israel and Iran are using the conflict as a proxy war

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In 1982, when a Palestinian splinter group attempted to assassinate Israel's ambassador to the UK, Israel launched what would later be known as the First Lebanon War. In order to fight the invading Israeli army, Muslim leaders created the paramilitary group Hezbollah (which the US and EU consider a terrorist organization). Hezbollah was funded and trained by Iran, and is now considered stronger than the Lebanese Army.

As the Syrian government has gotten weaker, Iran risks losing a valuable ally and has called on Hezbollah to step in and support the Syrian Army. But, a new fight means new weapons shipments, and Israel is determined to prevent new weapons from arriving at their border. In order to stop the shipments, the Israeli Army has been launching discreet attacks on the shipments inside Syria. This risks exacerbating existing tensions over Iran's nuclear program, and escalation by either side could lead to a broader regional war.

5. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are using the conflict as a proxy scuffle

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Saudi Arabia and Qatar are both supporting the rebels, but they have each backed different factions and are fighting for influence in the region. Saudi Arabia has been a dominant power in the Middle East for the better part of the last century and the Qataris are tired of it -they have a lot of money and now they want power. Although both the Saudis and the Qataris would like to see an end to the conflict and a Sunni-led government established in Syria, Qatar - like Turkey - was hoping for a wave of moderate Islamist governments to pop up in the Middle East. The House of Saud sees these mass popular movements as a threat to their monarchy, and has been trying to curtail them in both Syria and Egypt.

6. Egypt is too busy dealing with internal problems to throw any diplomatic weight around.

Egypt is traditionally a diplomatic heavyweight in the region, but since the coup on June 30, their attention has been focused internally.

The fight in Egypt mirrors the disagreement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. While Qatar supported the Muslim Brotherhood-led government, Saudi Arabia backed - and probably instigated - the coup.

There are still about 100,000 Syria refugees in Egypt, and as the protests become increasingly violent, there is fear that Egypt may face its own civil war, or worse, the two conflicts would merge and destabilize the entire region.

7. China and the United States are fighting a proxy war.

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After watching the Western-led coalition overstep its mandate in Libya, the Chinese government is afraid of setting a precedent that may one day come back to haunt them. When the UN voted to intervene in Libya, the mission had a very limited mandate to establish a no-fly zone and to protect civilians. Instead, NATO directly intervened and aided the rebels in toppling Gaddafi's government.

China has consistently vetoed Security Council resolutions to intervene in Syria because they're afraid that actions in Syria and Libya might establish a legal precedent for the international community to step in and topple any regime they don't like. It's not hard to imagine a scenario in which China cracks down on protesters and the US claims that the oppressive Chinese government needs to be toppled.

China is also backing Russia in exchange for support against North Korea.

9. If the United States sends support, we could end up fighting on the same side as Al Qaeda.

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Beyond navigating the complex international political climate, the other big factor affecting any decision by the United States is the presence of al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters on the rebel side. One faction of the rebel alliance is a group called al-Nusra, which has ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq. Although the al-Nusra Front has said it would accept support from The Great Satan, the US is wary of sending additional weapons that might end up in the hands of longtime enemy and has been decidedly cautious despite pledges of support for the rebels.

Images of Syria from Shaam News. Cover image by Maher Zeibaq.

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