Since the start of the civil war, fighters from within Syria and from outside Syria were recruited for the more important (so important that even terrorist elements were enlisted for this) cause: overthrow the Syrian government headed by Bashar al-Assad. Some world and regional governments were so determined to achieve this goal even if that meant fighting side by side with genocidal Wahhabi Salafist terrorists. And they did and some still do.
Since 2011, these actors worked methodically to achieve that singular goal. First, they created the umbrella organization, which they called the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to lead the campaign (July 2011) and provide the public face for all armed groups.
Since outside actors were many and with many agendas, the FSA quickly splintered into separate factions depending on their “funders” and ideological supporters. Saudi Arabia funded Wahhabi Salafists–and some secular armed groups for cover. Qatar and Turkey threw their weight behind members of the Muslim Brotherhood fighters–and some secular fighters, for cover as well. The United Stated government and its EU allies sponsored secular fighters but also tolerated the factions associated with Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.
That uneasy arrangement lasted until the Wahhabi Salafists grew strongest to become the most powerful armed group that would wrestle way territory not only from other Syrian armed groups and from the Syrian government, but also from the Iraqi government. ISIL’s fast rise to power stunned and threatened its supporters and those who tolerated it. When ISIL carried out waves of cruel crimes and acts in Syria and abroad, the anti-Assad coalition cracked. They agreed that ISIL must be downsized and contained and its offshoot—Nusra—be rehabilitated. By that time, Russia decided to step up its involvement (September 2015) and support the Syrian government. They found the Iranians there already doing just that.
Since then, all territory previously controlled by ISIL was reclaimed by the Syrian government (30%) and its allies. Meanwhile the US-sponsored armed groups fighting under a new umbrella organization called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) retook nearly 15% of ISIL’s territory mainly east of the river (Euphrates) and annexed it to their Kurdish controlled areas. As of now, the Syrian government controls about 55% of Syria, the SDF controls about 30%, and all other armed groups control pockets amounting to about 15%.
To preserve their gains and have some leverage going into the political talks, SDF fighters are building an alternative military force to control north and northeast Syria. Given that the territories they recently took were inhabited by Sunni Arabs, not Kurds, the SDF leaders and their backers are now recruiting Sunni Arab fighters, including former ISIL members.
These activities and the level of foreign interference will delay peace in a country that lost too many of its people and too much of its wealth and resources. These foreign actors ought to realize that the longer instability lasts in Syria the less stable their own countries will be. It is in the interest of everyone that this crisis is solved and solved quickly.