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Six years since it began, we spoke to an expert to answer the public's questions on the war in Syria

Who started it? And who are we supposed to be supporting?

Six years since the war in Syria began, we sent Edd Dracott to ask young people what questions they have about the conflict.

We put questions from the public to professor Simon Mabon of Lancaster University, a research associate with the Foreign Policy Centre and expert on international relations who has written four books on Middle Eastern politics, to find some answers.

Who started it? – Freya Hepworth Lloyd, 19, medicine student

It’s perhaps more of a “what” than a “who”, and we’ve got to think about a few different phases. The war started in 2011, when various groups of the Syrian people took to the streets across Syria demanding political reform.

The people were frustrated by President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. They said they wanted more democracy, a better economic situation and a greater respect for human rights. This feeling had been exacerbated by a drought which caused huge numbers of people to move from rural areas into cities and struggling to make ends meet.

It was expected Assad would concede some token reforms, but instead he cracked down on protesters, being quite brutal in the way he dealt with these movements and that led to a cycle of violence.

At this time, Assad’s government started a policy of releasing violent Islamist figures from prison, such as those associated with al Qaida and other extremist groups. The aim of this was to try and justify his actions and say to the West “look, this uprising is being led by terrorists and I’m doing what I can to prevent Syria falling into their hands” – helping to create Daesh (Islamic State).

Daesh in turn needed Assad, as his inhumane actions encouraged more people to travel to Iraq and Syria and fight for them. So the war had very complex beginnings.

Which countries are still involved, and where in Syria are they based? – Fiona Gillespie and Pauline Quirin, master’s students

First of all it’s a civil war, or at least it started out that way. However, because of Syria’s position in the Middle East and alliances across the region, it quickly became important to others. The conflict is quite fluid though, so perhaps it’s best to explain how they are involved.

The Iranians, who are allies of Assad, have pumped in money and military personnel assisting his regime. Hezbollah, a Shi’a Islamist group, have done the same.

Meanwhile, wealthy Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have sent millions of dollars to finance the opposition, largely because they saw a chance to gain legitimacy and presence in the area by toppling Assad – but also due to animosity between Iran and the Saudis.

The US and UK have sent in advisers and not directly fought on the ground, but then recently launched air strikes. At different times, Britain and America have helped give advice to rebel groups who are against Assad, but also target Daesh, who are against him.

You’ve also got Russians involved militarily. Their air strikes are supposed to be against Daesh but are hitting pretty much anyone who is against Assad.

Organisations such as the United Nations are trying to bring aid to besieged areas across the state. Meanwhile, Turkey are playing a bit of a waiting game to see what happens, not getting too involved while also being accused of allowing IS fighters through their borders to attack their rivals, the Kurds, in Syria.

There will be more on the Kurds later.

Who are we supposed to be supporting? – John Sinden, 23, history student

A lot of people focus on the brutality of Daesh, but the Syrian conflict is pushing 400,000 casualties and the Assad regime is responsible for 95% of them. This supposed government of Syria has also imprisoned and maimed hundreds of thousands more of its own people and forced 11 million to flee from their homes.

One answer to the question would be “no-one, it’s not our war”, but I’m not sure I agree. If we support democracy and human rights then we should support those who are fighting for that.

However, this is difficult. Even if we want to support the opposition groups, we don’t know who all of them are, and supporting the opposition can then involve allying yourself with the side of extremist groups such as Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra. At the same time, targeting Daesh targets and destroying their strongholds – as Britain has – is sort of tantamount to supporting the Assad regime.

We’re not supporting Assad though, and not supporting Daesh. What we have to make sure is that our help is getting to the people of Syria and not the regime.

What is the West’s involvement in the mediation process? – Arsalaan Khan, 19, history and politics student

The West is trying to bring all sides together to talk in Geneva and use the UN as a vehicle for this. To be honest though it’s not going well, as they’ve not gone past the debate on who should even be involved in such talks.

Obviously Daesh hasn’t got an invitation to talks and nor does Jabhat al-Nusra, but there was one debate where the Iranians and the Saudis weren’t there – despite the huge influence they have exerted.

Meanwhile it’s difficult for opposition parties to accept having peace talks when President Assad is in power and is bombing his own people and destroying the country’s infrastructure and economy. How you can have a president declare peace then rule over people after he’s done that is a difficult pill to swallow.

Will the president stay? – Sulmas Fray, 18, foundation student

Probably. Assad is winning the war and the opposition is on the back foot. Given his powerful position – unless his allies the Russians and the Iranians exert a great deal of pressure on him – he doesn’t have to leave.

Should he stay? No.

Why have Russia’s actions not been considered war crimes? – Lucy Rawlings, 24, master’s student

Well, they have by many. War Child, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have all said Russia committed war crimes when they were bombing Aleppo, and Syrian opposition groups have also said this. The UN Security Council even spoke about it. These war crimes include bombing hospitals and aid convoys – I’ve lost count of the number of things they have done to be honest.

It’s the nature of international law and the Syrian conflict though that, if Assad wins, these crimes will be scrubbed from history.

What actors have access to oil in Syria at the moment? – Maddy Medina, 21, international relations student

Wars in the Middle East can often be painted with the same brush, so I think answering questions like this is important. Despite perhaps some confusion, there is no interest from Western countries in oil in Syria at all. The US gets most of its oil from either its own country through fracking or from the Gulf.

Predominantly, Daesh and Assad own Syria’s oil. Daesh have seized most of the oil fields and Assad buys it off them. Daesh needs money and Assad needs oil so the two of them deal despite being on opposite sides.

How should the international community deal with the problem of stateless child refugees? – Issy Langdale, 21, anthropology student

I’ve got a pretty basic answer to this. Humanely take them in, make sure everyone takes in a quota of refugees, houses them and keeps them safe. I struggle to hear politics being played with the lives of children, but political will means many countries don’t take their share.

With regards to refugees as a whole, Lebanon has an indigenous population of about four million and it’s taken in about 1.7 million Syrians – which is unsustainable economically and physically. I’ve been to the camps and seen what it’s like. You walk around Beirut and you see women and children with missing limbs just begging on the streets to make ends meet.

Political will says I’m an idealist, but I’d say it’s far cheaper and better to house a thousand refugees than to send tens of thousands of military forces and billions of pounds of aid to a place that’s collapsed.

What will happen to the Kurds in Syria? – Tommaso Serra, 22, history student

So the Kurds are an ethnic group spread across a number of states in the region in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. They are the largest ethnic group that doesn’t correlate to a nation state in the world today and have a complex identity in their host states.

After the war they might get greater autonomy and greater political accountability but beyond that not very much. I don’t think there’s the appetite for a Kurdish state from Turkey or powers in the Middle East, while the West doesn’t want to redraw the map or fragment the area.

The Kurds are taking the fight to groups like Daesh and Assad and we are supporting and training them, but only to a point because we don’t want to jeopardise the regional status quo.

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