Syria’s Civil War Explained From the Beginning

The Syrian civil war is the deadliest conflict the 21st century has witnessed thus far.

As the Syrian conflict enters its seventh year, more than 465,000 Syrians have been killed in the fighting, more than a million injured and over 12 million Syrians – half the country’s prewar population – have been displaced from their homes.

In 2011, what became known as the Arab Spring revolts toppled Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak .

That March, peaceful protests erupted in Syria as well, after 15 boys were detained and tortured for having written graffiti in support of the Arab Spring. One of the boys, 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb , was killed after having been brutally tortured.

The Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad , responded to the protests by killing hundreds of demonstrators and imprisoning many more. In July 2011, defectors from the military announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group aiming to overthrow the government, and Syria began to slide into civil war.

What caused the uprising?

Initially, lack of freedoms and economic woes fuelled resentment of the Syrian government, and public anger was inflamed by the harsh crackdown on protesters. Successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt energised and gave hope to Syrian pro-democracy activists. Many Islamist movements were also strongly opposed to the Assads’ rule.

In 1982, Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, ordered a military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, which killed between 10,000-40,000 people and flattened much of the city.

Although the initial protests in 2011 were mostly non-sectarian, armed conflict led to the emergence of starker sectarian divisions. Minority religious groups tend to support the Assad government, while the overwhelming majority of opposition fighters are Sunni Muslims.

Most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, but Syria’s security establishment has long been dominated by members of the Alawite sect, of which Assad is a member.

The sectarian split is reflected among regional actors’ stances as well.

Even global warming has been claimed to have played a role in sparking the 2011 uprising. A severe drought plagued Syria from 2007-10, spurring as many as 1.5 million people to migrate from the countryside into cities, which exacerbated poverty and social unrest.

Foreign involvement

Foreign backing and open intervention have played a large role in Syria’s civil war. An international coalition led by the United States has bombed targets of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant ( ISIL , also known as ISIS) group since 2014.

The US has repeatedly stated its opposition to the Assad government, but has hesitated to involve itself deeply in the conflict, even after the Assad government allegedly used chemical weapons in 2013, which former US President Barack Obama had referred to as a “red line” that would prompt intervention.

On April 7, the US carried its first direct military action against Al-Assad’s forces, launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air force base from which US officials believe a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun had been launched.

The White House spokesman said : [Trump] “made it very clear that if those actions were to continue, further action will definitely be considered by the United States.”

In October 2015, the US scrapped its controversial programme to train Syrian rebels, after it was revealed that it had spent $500m but only trained 60 fighters.

In February 2017, the CIA froze funding and logistical support for rebel factions in northern Syria but according to Free Syrian Army (FSA) sources , the funding has been restored to a certain extent late March.

Russia launched in September 2015 a bombing campaign against what it referred to as “terrorist groups” in Syria, which included ISIL as well as rebel groups backed by western states. Russia has also deployed military advisers to shore up Assad’s defences.

Several Arab states, along with Turkey, have provided weapons and materiel to rebel groups inSyria. The governments of majority-Shia Iran and Iraq support Assad, as does Lebanon-based Hezbollah ; while Sunni-majority states including Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others staunchly support the rebels.

Turkish troops and special forces, backed by the Free Syria Army, launched in August 2016 operation “Euphrates Shield” against ISIL to liberate the strategic Syrian city of Jarablus on the border with Turkey and stop the advance of Kurdish militia fighters. Turkey’s government fears its large native Kurdish population may grow more restive and demand greater autonomy as a result.

Euphrates Shield operation is considered to be the first Turkish ground intervention in Syria since the Syrian crisis started in 2011.

In March 2017, Turkey officially ended the Euphrates Shield military operation, but Prime Minister Binali Yildirim suggested there might be more cross-border campaigns to come.

Rebel groups

Since the Free Syrian Army formed in 2011, many new rebel groups have joined the fighting in Syria, including ISIL, Jabhat Fateh al Sham, Iran-backed Hezbollah, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units ( YPG ).

The FSA has weakened as the war has progressed, while explicitly Islamist groups such as the al-Nusra Front became empowered. Al-Nusra Front leader,Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, announced in 2016 his group’s name changed to Jabhat Fateh al Sham, or The Front for liberation of al Sham, and severed ties with al-Qaeda .

ISIL emerged in northern and eastern Syria in 2013 after overrunning large portions of Iraq. The group quickly gained international notoriety for its brutal executions and its energetic use of social media. The ranks of ISIL include a sizeable number of fighters from around the world.

Kurdish groups in northern Syria are also seeking self-rule in areas under their control.

Lebanese members of Hezbollah are fighting on the side of Assad, as are Iranian and Afghan fighters .

Rebel groups have jockeyed against one another for power, and frequently fight each other .

Since the Assad forces recaptured Aleppo from rebel fighters, a new military alliance of rebel groups in northern Syria was formed with the aim to consolidate military control over Idlib province, the western part of Aleppo province and parts of Latakia province, according to an FSA commander.

Fighting has occasionally spilled over from Syria into Lebanon, contributing to the country’s political polarisation. Several rounds of peace talks have failed to stop the fighting.

The situation today

Chemical weapons have been a recurring footnote in the bloody narrative of Syria’s civil war. On April 4, a suspected chemical attack , that killed at least 80 civilians in the Idlib opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, is being investigated by the United Nations as a potential war crime.

Despite the fact that 1,300 tonnes of sarin nerve gas and its precursors were removed from Syria, chemical attacks persist there nearly four years later.

In March, an alliance of US-backed fighters said it has begun a new phase of its campaign on the ISIL-held city of Raqqa in northern Syria, aiming to complete its encirclement and sever the road to the group’s strongholds in Deir Az Zor province.

Also in March, fighting in and around Damascus has intensified after surprise attacks by rebel fighters in the northeastern parts of the city. The United Nations said fighting around Syria’s capital has cut off 300,000 people from humanitarian assistance and pauses in the conflict are needed to allow aid convoys to get to the area.

Last December, the Syrian army announced that Aleppo has been fully recaptured from rebel fighters, the government’s biggest victory in the nearly six-year civil war. Syrian government forces used chemical weapons in rebel-held areas of Aleppo during the final weeks of the battle to retake the key city, killing at least nine people and wounding hundreds more, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

In addition to Aleppo, the Syrian government currently controls the capital, Damascus, parts of southern Syria and Deir Az Zor, much of the area near the Syrian-Lebanese border, and the northwestern coastal region. Rebel groups, ISIL, and Kurdish forces control the rest of the country.

WATCH: Death of Aleppo [45:00]

Syrian refugees

The Syrian war is creating profound effects far beyond the country’s borders. Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan are now housing large and growing numbers of Syrian refugees , many of whom have attempted to journey onwards to Europe in search of better conditions.

With much of Syria in ruins , millions of Syrians having fled abroad, and a population deeply traumatised by war, one thing is certain: Rebuilding Syria after the war ends will be a lengthy, extremely difficult process.

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Syria’s War: What you need to know about the conflict 


Reprinted with permission from Al Jazeera