What started as a bid to spread the so-called Arab Spring to Syria, with the aim of transforming a secular classic dictatorship (one party state, secret police, torture chambers) into a secular political democracy (which would have been a welcome development) was soon hijacked by Islamists of one degree of extremism or another with a quite different agenda. They won the support of the Islamic states, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and of Erdogan in Turkey who would like to turn his country into one too.
With Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey using Sunni Muslim groups as their puppets and Iran, which supports the Syrian government, using Shia Muslim ones as theirs, the conflict has taken on the appearance of being a religious one. Some commentators have suggested, much more plausibly, that the real issue, for these states at least, has been for control of territory through which an oil pipeline from the Gulf to a Mediterranean port could pass most directly.
For the West and Russia, it has been more a matter of geopolitics. The Syrian government, long controlled by a wing of the Arab Nationalist Baath party, has been sympathetic to Russia since the days of the Cold War, if only because during that period America kept trying to overthrow it. It even claimed to be 'socialist' but only in the sense of running a state-directed capitalist economy as in the former USSR, to which its dictatorial political system was similar too.
Although Syria was not specifically included in Bush's 'axis of evil' it was still regarded as a hostile state deserving regime change. Russia, even though the pretence of being socialist has (thankfully) been dropped, continued to support the regime, if only to maintain its naval base in the Mediterranean, an objective of the Russian state since the time of the Tsars. For the moment at least, Russia has proved more determined in the defence and pursuit of its interests than the West, and it looks as if the regime is not going to be changed.
These various clashes between rival capitalist interests have led to a minimum of at least 300,000 being killed, many more injured and much destruction as in the images from Aleppo. Millions more have been displaced both within Syria and as refugees living in misery in camps in Turkey and, if they didn't drown trying to get there, Greece.
As socialists, we place on record our abhorrence of this latest manifestation of the callous, sordid, and mercenary nature of the international capitalist system, while hoping that the fighting, the killing and the destruction stop immediately and unconditionally.
From this months editorial (February 2017) Socialist Standard