Did The War In Syria Cause ISIS? This Simple Explainer Will Clear Things Up, Just In Time For Those Thanksgiving Dinner Debates

Thanksgiving is rapidly approaching, which means the top headlines of the day will soon become the topic of family-wide dinner table conversations across the country. One of the biggest news items of the present day is the Syrian refugee crisis. Or, rather, the rise of ISIS. Or maybe it's the Syrian civil war? In fact, all three issues are closely intertwined, and it's difficult to understand any of them without understanding all of them. So, an explainer on ISIS, refugees, and the Syrian civil war is in order; that way, when your cousin opines on the topic while shoveling gravy in his face, you'll be able to respond in a way that makes it clear you know what you're talking about.

As a quick preface, the conflict in Syria is mind-bogglingly complicated. It involves the Syrian government, ISIS, Russia, Turkey, Kurdish revolutionaries, France, Iran, Jordan, the U.S. and many other players. Complicating matters further is the fact that there are more than two sides in the overarching conflict; a lot of the states and groups involved are allied on some issues but at direct odds on others.

It would take a full-length book to explain every aspect of the conflict in Syria. However, the general backstory can easily be summed up in a single article. Here I go.

There Were Syrian Refugees Long Before ISIS Came Along

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It's important to note that the Syrian refugee crisis predates ISIS, although ISIS has certainly made the situation worse. There were already 1.5 million Syrian refugees in 2013, according to the U.N., a year before ISIS took huge swaths of territory and started calling itself a state. ISIS exacerbated, but didn't cause, the refugee crisis.

The true cause is the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011 and has continued unabated since. It's an extremely complex conflict, but the result of it is unambiguous: Cities have been bombed, homes have been destroyed, and millions of Syrians have been forced to leave their home country due to an imminent, daily threat of violence and death. That is, of course, in addition to the 200,000+ Syrians who have been killed in the conflict, according to the Syrian Observatory Of Human Rights.

Having said that, ISIS's brutal and violent reign in Syria has worsened the refugee crisis, as it's given the country's remaining citizens yet another reason to flee the country and seek refuge elsewhere.

ISIS Started As A Branch Of Al Qaeda

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ISIS was originally al Qaeda's regional affiliate in Iraq, as Vox details in its history of ISIS, and indeed, it used to go by the name "al Qaeda In Iraq," or AQI. Over time, however, AQI began having disagreements with al Qaeda, and it formally split off from its parent organization in 2014. One area of disagreement was who the real enemy is. Al Qaeda's primary target was, and is, the United States, but AQI wanted to focus its wrath on Shi'a Muslims, whom both groups consider to be apostates. Another reason for the split was that al Qaeda, believe it or not, thought AQI was too violent.

It wasn't until the summer of 2014 that ISIS became a household name, though. That's when, over the course of several weeks, it mounted an astonishingly successful offensive that resulted in it controlling wide swaths of Iraq and Syria, respectively.

The War In Iraq Directly Fueled ISIS' Rise

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One of the U.S.'s primary goals in invading Iraq in 2002 was to topple Saddam Hussein. After Hussein was captured and executed, the U.S.-backed politician Nouri al-Maliki became the country's prime minister.

But al-Maliki did not unite the country. He is a Shi'a Muslim, and during his eight years in office, he did many things that alienated Iraq's Sunni population. Demographically, the country is roughly evenly split between the two branches of Islam, according to the Pew Research Center. What's more, he had the full support of the U.S. government in doing this. (Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, did more or less the exact opposite during his reign, oppressing Shi'ites, though with much more violence and ferocity than al-Maliki.)

This is a big reason why, when ISIS mounted its offensive in Iraq in the summer of 2014, it was so immediately successful. ISIS is a Sunni group, and there was a lot of resentment amongst the country's Sunni Muslims due to al-Maliki's policies. This made it easy for ISIS to attract followers in the country.

Furthermore, al-Maliki's divisive rule resulted in an armed forces that wasn't all that devoted to preserving the Iraqi state. When the Iraqi military was confronted by ISIS, huge numbers of soldiers literally dropped their weapons and fled. These weapons, of course, were supplied by the U.S. government — as was the rest of the military equipment that ISIS soon plundered from the Iraqi government. This gave ISIS enormous firepower at its disposal, which further fueled its rise.

The Syrian Civil War Has Helped ISIS, Too

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While ISIS' success in Iraq is a direct result of the American intervention in 2002, the group has been able to gain a stronghold in Syria due to that country's ongoing civil war. To simplify a very complicated situation, during the Arab Spring, there were countrywide protests in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad. Assad responded not with accommodation but with violence; as a result, many of the protesters became more and more radical. Violent rebel groups soon joined the fight against Assad, and pretty soon, the country had descended into civil war.

But the "rebels" fighting Assad aren't anywhere close to a united group, and many are openly fighting with each other. As a result, Syria is more or less in a state of chaos. ISIS is one of these rebel groups — yes, ISIS and Assad, both very bad entities, are enemies of one another. After ISIS seized territory in Iraq, it used its newfound membership and firepower to take advantage Syria's chaos and bring large amounts of the country's territory under its control as well.

Some Refugees Have Been Taken In By Other Countries — But Not Nearly Enough

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There are around 4 million Syrian refugees, according to the U.N. — or 9 million, if you include those who have been internally displaced but remain in Syria. Some of those who've fled have been taken in by neighboring countries. Turkey, which shares a border with Syria, has accepted 1.9 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country. The next biggest recipient is Lebanon, which houses 1.1 million displaced Syrians. Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt have accepted between one and several hundred thousand Syrians each, while Australia and several European countries have taken in smaller amounts.

But that hasn't been nearly enough, and other countries in the region have been condemned for not taking their fair share of refugees. The Arab Gulf states are the most frequent source of criticism: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates — all wealthy, oil-rich states — haven't taken in a single refugee amongst the three of them. As a result, there are millions of Syrians — many of them women and children — who have nowhere to go. That, sadly, is where we are at now.