Syria’s bloody civil war, which has killed more than 220,000 people and uprooted millions, began in 2011 as a conflict between Bashar al-Assad’s government and the rebels fighting to overthrow him, with a number of foreign powers backing each side. The emergence of ISIS, a new destabilizing force opposed to both Assad and the rebels, complicated the picture significantly and spread the conflict into neighboring Iraq. Now, the entry of Russian airpower will further scramble a conflict already defined by overlapping and contradictory alliances and rivalries.
Many of the powers involved in the conflict have found themselves on the same side as countries they’re normally at odds with, and vice versa. The chart below, an update of our “Middle East Friendship Chart” from last year, provides a look at who’s fighting whom in the dizzyingly complex and brutal war.1
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Syrian government – Rebels: Enemies
Since cracking down on protests against his government linked to the Arab Spring in 2011, Bashar al-Assad has been locked in a bloody battle with a number of armed opposition groups.
Syrian government – ISIS: Enemies
ISIS and the Syrian government are at war, though they’ve only really started significant fighting against each other in recent months. Bashar al-Assad’s opponents say he purposely allowed the group to grow in order to weaken the opposition and convince foreign powers not to oppose him.
Syrian government – Jabhat al-Nusra: Enemies
Al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate has been a major player in the conflict since 2012 and has taken a significant amount of territory from government forces in the northwest of the country.
Syrian government – Kurds: It’s complicated
The Kurdish militia in Syria—the Democratic Union Party, or PYD—and Assad’s forces have mostly steered clear of each other to focus their fire on ISIS, though there have been several clashes between them, and in the long term, the large swath of Syrian territory now under Kurdish control is a threat to Assad’s rule. PYD officials have suggested they might be open to cooperation with Assad.
Syrian government – U.S. and allies: Enemies
The official U.S. position, repeated in Barack Obama’s recent speech to the U.N. General Assembly, is that Bashar al-Assad must step down. But the U.S. has also avoided directly attacking Assad’s forces and has lately seemed to be coming around to the idea of him taking a transitional role in a peace settlement. Other Western governments are even more open to the idea.
Syrian government – Iraq: Friends
Despite the current Iraqi government’s ties to the U.S., it has backed Assad by sharing intelligence and allowing weapons from Iran and Russia to cross its territory.
Syrian government – Iran and Hezbollah: Friends
Iran has backed Assad’s government since the beginning of the war, sending weapons and advisors both to the Syrian military itself, and to its proxy Hezbollah, which has fought against the rebels on the government’s behalf.
Syrian government – Russia: Friends
Russia has given the Syrian government aid, diplomatic backing, and more recently direct military support. Vladimir Putin argues that partnering Bashar with Assad’s government is the only way to defeat ISIS.
Syrian government – Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states: Enemies
The Sunni Arab governments in the Persian Gulf have been the main backers of the rebel groups fighting Assad.
Syrian government – Turkey: Enemies
Turkey has supported the rebels from the beginning and has urged international allies to help create a no-fly zone to protect rebels and civilians. It is also one of the main recipients of Syrian refugees.
Rebels – ISIS: Enemies
While many rebel fighters join ISIS hoping to battle the Syrian government, the Islamic State actually spends much more time battling against other rebel groups.
Rebels – Nusra: It’s complicated
Syrian rebel groups hold a variety of aims and ideologies, and while the Nusra Front has fought with Western-backed rebels, it has cooperated with more religious non-ISIS groups such as the Islamic Front. Even the “moderates” and the Nusra Front have teamed up on several occasions.
Rebels – Kurds: It’s complicated
Kurdish forces and rebel groups have cooperated in some battles against ISIS, but there’s also a lot of mutual suspicion, with Syrian Arab rebel groups concerned about the Kurds permanently seizing territory.
Rebels – U.S. and allies: Friends
The U.S. has provided training and funding to vetted “moderate” Syrian rebels. But this program has been a lot less effective than hoped, and rebels have been frustrated by the U.S. reluctance to take on Assad. That frustration will grow if the U.S. can’t stop Russia from bombing the rebels.
Rebels – Iraq: Enemies
The Iraqi government has backed Bashar al-Assad in his fight against the rebels.
Rebels – Iran and Hezbollah: Enemies
Iranian troops and Hezbollah are reportedly planning a new ground offensive against the rebels with Russian support. Iran has opposed the largely Sunni rebellion against Bashar al-Assad’s government from the beginning.
Rebels – Russia: Enemies
Vladimir Putin’s government makes little distinction between extremists like ISIS or the Nusra Front and the other groups fighting against what it views as the legitimate government of Syria. Russia’s initial airstrikes have targeted factions from the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army.
Rebels – Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states: Friends
The Gulf states have been major funders of the Syrian revolution.
Rebels – Turkey: Friends
Turkey has backed the opposition and a number of rebel groups operating along the Syrian-Turkish border.
ISIS – Nusra: Enemies
Formerly known as al-Qaida in Iraq, ISIS formally split from the global al-Qaida network in early 2014 and has been fighting against al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, ever since.
ISIS – Kurds: Enemies
ISIS has carried out numerous massacres of Kurdish civilians, who it views as apostates. Kurdish forces have been among the most effective at fighting the group in both Iraq and Syria.
ISIS – U.S. and allies: Enemies
It was the emergence of ISIS and its beheading of several American prisoners that finally prompted the United States to begin airstrikes in Syria in the fall of 2014 after months of reluctance.
ISIS – Iraq: Enemies
ISIS took control of the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in January 2014 and the third largest city, Mosul, in June of that year. Since then, it’s been battling Iraqi forces for control of western Iraq.
ISIS – Iran and Hezbollah: Enemies
Iran has provided aid, logistical help, and special forces fighters to battle ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.
ISIS – Russia: Enemies
Russia launched airstrikes in Syria in September 2015 with the stated intent of battling ISIS, though it hasn’t actually struck the group so far.
ISIS – Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states: Enemies
Though the Gulf countries have been accused of turning a blind eye to citizens who send money to ISIS, they’re officially opposed to the group, which supports the overthrow of pro-American monarchies.
ISIS – Turkey: Enemies
Though Turkey’s main priorities are defeating Assad and keeping the Kurds under control, it agreed in July to support the international coalition battling ISIS. ISIS has taken dozens of Turkish hostages in the past.
Nusra – Kurds: Enemies
The Kurdish PYD has mainly focused on fighting ISIS but has also clashed with the Nusra Front in northern Syria.
Nusra – U.S. and allies: Enemies
The U.S. has carried out numerous airstrikes against al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate.
Nusra – Iraq: Enemies
The Nusra Front’s activities are mainly confined to Syria, but they’re definitely on opposite sides.
Nusra – Iran and Hezbollah: Enemies
The Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah has clashed with the Nusra Front along the Lebanese-Syrian border.
Nusra – Russia: Enemies
The Nusra Front is among the anti-Assad rebel groups targeted in Russia’s latest offensive.
Nusra – Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states: It’s complicated
Formally, the U.S.-allied governments in the Gulf aren’t supporting jihadist groups in Syria, though they haven’t always tried that hard to keep their citizens from doing so. Qatar, in particular, has maintained channels of communication with Nusra.
Nusra – Turkey: It’s complicated
Turkey gave at least tacit support to Nusra early in the conflict, viewing it as the most effective fighting force against Assad but finally followed its Western allies in designating the group as a terrorist organization in the summer of 2014. However, other rebel factions have accused Turkey of continuing to cooperate with Nusra.
Kurds – U.S. and allies: Friends
The U.S. has cooperated with the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, and the YPG rebels in Syria in the fight against ISIS, providing funding, weapons, and training. However, the KRG, as well as its supporters in the U.S. Congress, complain that the U.S. has been reluctant to provide arms directly rather than going through Baghdad.
Kurds – Iraq: Enemies
Though not in open conflict, the Kurdish Regional Government in Northern Iraq makes it quite clear that it seeks to be independent from Baghdad and believes the current chaos in Syria, which threatens to dismember the Iraqi state, could be an opportunity to finally accomplish that goal.
Kurds – Iran/Hezbollah: Friends
It’s an unlikely alliance—Iran, which has a substantial Kurdish population of its own, views Kurdish national aspirations warily—but Iran began providing Iraqi Kurdistan with weapons in the summer of 2014.
Kurds – Russia: Friends
Initially at least, Kurdish leaders have welcomed Russia’s involvement in the fight against ISIS and called on Washington and Moscow to coordinate their strategies.
Kurds – Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states: It’s complicated
Gulf countries have given most of their support to Sunni Arab rebel groups rather than the Kurds.
Kurds – Turkey: Enemies
The Kurdish YPG in Syria has ties to the PKK, the Kurdish rebel group in Turkey. After a yearslong peace process, fighting between the Turkish military and the PKK has recently intensified, and Turkey has expressed anger at U.S. support for Kurdish groups within Syria.
U.S. and allies – Iraq: Friends
The U.S. is a major backer of Iraq’s government despite concerns over Iran’s growing influence in Baghdad. So far, the U.S. has pursued a controversial “Iraq first” strategy, concentrated on fighting ISIS in that country before destroying it in Syria.
U.S. – Iran and Hezbollah: It’s complicated
Both U.S. and Iranian leaders insist that the recently negotiated nuclear deal does not mean the two rivals are in agreement on other issues. For now, their interests are aligned on fighting ISIS, though they are divided on the question of Bashar al-Assad’s ultimate fate.
U.S. – Russia: It’s complicated
Both Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin devoted much of their recent U.N. speeches to trashing the other’s foreign policy outlook, but two leaders did meet and said they were open to cooperating on ending the conflict. However, since then, Russia has begun bombing U.S.-supported rebels and Obama predicted the strikes would strengthen ISIS. For the moment, the two appear to be keeping a wide berth to avoid direct confrontation.
U.S. – Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states: Friends
The U.S. and the Gulf monarchies remain allies, despite concerns among Sunni leaders about the Iran nuclear deal.
U.S. – Turkey: Friends
Turkey and the U.S. agreed in July to cooperate on airstrikes against ISIS and to work to set up a buffer zone in northern Syria to protect civilians and rebel forces. Nonetheless, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has been frustrated with the Obama administration’s reluctance to confront Bashar al-Assad and support for Kurdish rebels. Russia’s entry into the Syrian air war will undoubtedly complicate the picture further.
Iraq – Iran and Hezbollah: Friends
Iran has become increasingly influential in the Shiite government in Baghdad and Iranian commanders have reportedly coordinated Iraqi offensives against ISIS.
Iraq – Russia: Friends
Iraq reached a deal in September to share intelligence on ISIS with Russia as well as Iran and Syria and has allowed Russian planes to cross its airspace into Syria.
Iraq – Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states: It’s complicated
Relations between Iraq and the Sunni governments in the Gulf are tense over a number of issues though not openly hostile.
Iraq – Turkey: It’s complicated
While the two are both involved in the fight against ISIS and are each suspicious of Kurdish nationalism, relations between them are historically strained. Turkey blames former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for allowing the ISIS crisis to fester, and Iraq has objected to Turkish airstrikes against the PKK on Iraqi territory.
Iran and Hezbollah – Russia: Friends
Iran is a major customer for Russian arms and the two share an interest in keeping Bashar al-Assad in power.
Iran and Hezbollah – Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states: Enemies
Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia are major rivals for regional influence, view each other with extreme suspicion, and are backing opposite sides in the war between Bashar al-Assad and the rebels.
Iran and Hezbollah – Turkey: It’s complicated
The two countries have deepening economic and political ties but in the context of Syria are backing opposing sides.
Russia – Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states: Enemies
While Saudi Arabia and Russia, two leading oil exporters, have commercial ties, they are rivals in Syria and Riyadh has demanded an end to Russian airstrikes. There’s been speculation in the Russian media that Saudi Arabia’s moves to keep oil production high, even with prices crashing, is meant in part to weaken Russia.
Russia – Turkey: Enemies
Turkey’s strategy of fighting both Assad and ISIS by backing the Syrian rebels has been thrown into disarray by Russian airstrikes against the rebels. Turkey protested on Oct. 5 over what it said was a violation of its airspace by Russian jets.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states – Turkey: Friends
While rivals for regional interest, their interests are mostly aligned when it comes to Syria.
1. A few actors in the conflict have been grouped together into broad categories for the sake of simplicity and readability, which doesn’t imply they are entirely unified: “The rebels” are a diffuse and fractious array of armed groups with a variety of ideologies and aims, both religious and secular. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states involved in the conflict—mainly Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait—don’t always see eye to eye. Neither do the countries such as France, Canada, Australia, Britain, Jordan, and others who are participating in the U.S.-led military intervention against ISIS. “The Kurds” includes the Kurdish Regional Government, which administers a semiautonomous region in Iraq, as well as allied but separate YPG rebel group in Syria and the PKK, which fights in Turkey. All that being said, for the purposes of this chart, all actors lumped together have the same friends and enemies.