The Conflict at a Glance
Who (are the main combatants): The Syrian Armed Forces and militia groups loyal to the Bashar Assad regime versus a diverse and disjointed opposition. Some rebel groups, such as the Free Syrian Army, have drawn on defections from the Syrian Armed Forces for strength, while emerging Islamist groups have relied heavily on support from foreign fighters. Infighting has increased within and between opposition groups.
What (are the major aims and events): Armed conflict began in 2011 when Arab Spring protests demanding greater rights and freedoms were met with brutal repression by government forces. More than 100,000 have died in fighting between pro-government forces and opposition factions. President Assad remains in power. A chemical weapons attack that was widely ascribed to the Assad regime, but which it vehemently denied, killed more than 1,000 in 2013. In 2014 the Islamic State stepped up attacks in Syria, declaring a caliphate in captured territory from Syria in the northwest to the eastern Iraqi Diyala province. The conflict produced a grave humanitarian crisis and displaced millions of Syrian civilians, producing more than three million refugees.
When (has fighting occurred): In March 2011, peaceful demonstrations in Damascus and Deraa were met with violent repression from the government, resulting in the deaths of some protestors. Violence has since escalated and the conflict has increased in intensity and complexity over the last three years.
Where (has the conflict taken place): The conflict has spread across the country. Government troops and armed opposition groups have clashed in major cities, including the capital of Damascus and the Old City of Homs, which has been under siege for most of the conflict. Eastern and Western Ghouta, suburbs of Damascus, were the sites of a major chemical weapons attack in August. The Islamic State made territorial advancements in areas bordering Iraq and along the Euphrates, and moved westward toward Aleppo, attacking the city of Kobani.
2015 In the first half of the year, non-Islamist rebels made inroads in northeastern Syria while Islamic State dominated the central region. The Assad regime was confined largely to its strongholds of Damascus and Aleppo. In September Russian forces joined the conflict to support President Assad. Russian air and ground support enabled government forces to take new territory. A roadmap for peace was agreed upon by coalition powers at a November 11-14 meeting in Vienna. The UN Security council agreed to the plan and Syrian rebel groups expressed tentative support.
2014 Conflict escalated with approximately 76,000 conflict deaths. The Islamic Statend Jabhat al-Nusra increased their activities. Parties to the conflict, along with international backers, met in early January in Switzerland for the Geneva II talks, with no tangible outcomes; there were no further negotiations this year. The Assad regime received 88.7 per cent of the vote in June elections. The validity of the election was disputed. Government and opposition forces were accused of extreme human rights violations. Mass displacement remained an international humanitarian concern.
2013 The situation in Syria continued to deteriorate, with total conflict deaths reaching over 100,000. The Assad regime allegedly used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians on multiple occasions, most notably on August 21. Tens of thousands of people were killed on both sides of the conflict with no definitive gains by any party. Both government forces and opposition militias have been accused of severe human rights violations, including torture, sexual violence, and attacks on civilians. The conflict was further destabilized by increased fighting within the opposition, spurred by the creation of new rebel groups and the increasing dominance of Islamist groups relying on foreign fighters. While a diplomatic solution was reached by the United States and Russia on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, no agreements were reached on the conflict at large. Mass displacement of Syrians, a vast humanitarian crisis, continued to rise dramatically, with millions fleeing within and beyond Syria’s borders.
2012 In its second year, the conflict continued to descend into civil war, with clashes between armed opposition groups and security forces and heavy shelling of cities contributing to thousands of deaths. Humanitarian concerns grew as nation-wide anti-regime protests increased. The international community remained divided. China and Russia vetoed two United Nations Security Council (UNSC) draft resolutions – the first condemning the violent government crackdown and a second that threatened sanctions. In May UN/Arab League Special Envoy Kofi Annan pushed for the implementation of a peace plan, but there was little evidence of Syrian government compliance. Annan resigned as envoy in August and was replaced by Lakhdar Brahimi. Also in August United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) suspended operations in the face of increased safety risks to monitors and a general lack of willingness to seek a peaceful transition. In November the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF) formed after a week of talks in Qatar. The six Gulf states, as well as France, Turkey, the United Kingdom and Spain formally recognized the coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
2011 In Syria, the Arab Spring arrived in March when peaceful protests began to grow over issues such as rural poverty, corruption, freedom of expression, democratic rights and the release of political prisoners. The country has been under a state of emergency for 48 years. President Bashar Assad responded to protests with brutal military force and blamed foreign elements and armed groups for fomenting the uprising; Syrian opposition groups rejected the claim. Popular resistance to the security forces ensued. Assad offered a few concessions, including dropping the state of emergency, but he refused to consider stepping down. By April, 1,000 people had been killed. The Free Syrian Army, made up of defectors from the security forces was formed and began to launch offensives against the regime’s forces. By year’s end the number of dead reached 5,000. In August 2011 U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order, imposing sanctions on Syria’s energy sector and freezing all Syrian government assets in the U.S. In September, the EU imposed a ban on crude oil imports from Syria—which sends 90 per cent of its oil to the EU. In November, the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership and imposed economic sanctions. However, action by the United Nations was blocked by China and Russia, which supplies arms to Syria and maintains a military base in the country.
1. Baath Party: In power since 1963, the Baath Party remained the sole government authority in Syria. Although the government offered some concessions to protesters in 2011, little reform has occurred. The country’s first multiparty parliamentary election in decades took place in 2012 and resulted in a major victory for the Baath Party—this outcome was contested by opposition groups. In 2013 the regime expressed a willingness to engage in peace talks, but rejected the idea of a change in government. President Bashar Assad, who inherited the presidency from his father Hafez Assad, rejected plans to step down. In 2014 Assad was re-elected President for a seven-year term.
1b. Alawites: The Assads are Alawites, a Shiite sect that is a minority within Syria, which is predominantly Sunni Muslim. The majority of key positions of the State apparatus are held by Alawites. However, the Alawite minority as a whole is not a privileged group. For years the regime has left Alawite villages in a state of abject underdevelopment. According to International Crisis Group, during the initial uprisings the regime stoked fears among the minority Alawites with exaggerated and sometimes imaginary stories of protesters’ alleged barbarism in an effort to retain Alawite support. The added effect is that latent prejudices against the Alawites are coming to the surface, and the likelihood of retribution looms large.
2. Syrian Armed Forces: Syria’s armed forces total 178,000 active personnel, backed by heavy artillery, tanks, warplanes and a small navy. There are 314,000 reservists. In March 2011 the term of military conscription went to 18 months from 21. Steady defections during the conflict have augmented opposition forces. While the initial focus of the Syrian Armed Forces was the repression of protests, they are now engaged in active conflict with various rebel factions for the control of Syria.
- Ground Forces: 110,000 soldiers, including conscripts. Assad’s brother Maher controls the Presidential Guard, the Republican Guard and the Fourth Armoured Division, which, together with Syria’s secret police, form the heart of the country’s security forces.
- There are no recent numbers for paramilitary forces. In 2012 there were 108,000 personnel: 8,000 Interior Ministry gendarmerie and 100,000 Workers Militia or People’s Army (Baath Party).
- Navy: 5,000 personnel, with bases located at Lakatia, Tartus and Minet el-Baida
- Air Force: 17,500 personnel
- Air Defence: 30,000 personnel
3. Mukhabarat (Intelligence): the intelligence agencies of Syria. They play a powerful role in Syrian society, monitoring and repressing opposition to the government. The services also monitor dissent outside Syria.
4. Shabbiha Militia: A pro-regime civilian militia that is comprised of Alawites. Shabbiha is a disparaging term referring to criminal gangs with ties to the ruling family that terrorized people on the Syrian coast in the 1980s. According to the United Nations the militia is comprised of civilians who are armed by the government and are used to crush anti-government demonstrations. The militia group has been allegedly linked to widespread attacks on civilians, including execution style attacks. In 2013, the United Nations reported evidence of sexual crimes perpetrated by this militia group in towns and villages, actions which could amount to war crimes.
5. Iran: Iran has been a long-time ally of Syria, united in their opposition to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Israel, and in their support for Hezbollah in Lebanon. It supports the Syrian regime with arms and forces. Iran reiterated its opposition to Western military intervention in Syria in light of the chemical weapons attacks in August 2013, claiming that it would incite greater conflict and further destabilize the region. In May 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned General Mohsen Chizari of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps for helping the Syrian government repress protests. A month later, U.S. sanctions were imposed on two Iranian national police officials, Ismail Ahmadi Moghadam and Ahmad-Reza Radan after, according to the U.S., Radan travelled to Damascus in April 2011, “where he met with Syrian security services and provided expertise to aid in the Syrian government’s crackdown on the Syrian people.” Early in 2012, documents leaked from a cyber-attack by hacker group Anonymous and reported by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, revealed Tehran gave the Assad regime more than $1-billion in 2011 to overcome the oil embargo.
6. Russia: Russia’s deep-water port and military base at the Syrian city of Tartus is one of its most strategically important assets, giving Russia military access to the Mediterranean Sea. In 2009 it invested $19.4-billion in Syria, much in the oil industry. In 2013 Russia actively opposed military intervention in Syria following the use of chemical weapons. With the United States, Russia was a key partner in finding a diplomatic solution. Russia has consistently opposed UN involvement in Syria’s internal affairs. It has refused to curtail its supplying of arms to Syria and opposed an international arms embargo. In 2014 Russia and China blocked a resolution at the Security Council intended to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Russia currently has a $2.5-billion active arms contract with Syria.
In September 2015 Russian military forces entered the conflict in support of the Assad regime. Russia established a military base at Latakia to provide Syrian government ground forces with tactical support. The Russian air force bombarded non-IS opposition groups.
7. Free Syrian Army (FSA): This army formed in 2011 and is made up of defectors from the Syrian security forces and volunteers opposed to the government. It is purportedly divided in its goals and tactics, which has diminished its effectiveness. The FSA has faced opposition from other rebel coalitions, including the Syrian National Council (SNC), and has conflicted with more hardline Islamist opposition groups. The FSA has been supported by Saudi Arabia.
8. Supreme Military Council (SMC): Led by General Salim Idris, the SMC was formed in December 2012 as a military alternative to Islamist militant groups. It is a faction of, and serves as a centralized leadership for, the Free Syrian Army. The SMC has 30 member groups and is affiliated with a number of opposition groups, including the Martyrs of Syria Brigade, the Northern Storm Brigade, the Ahrar Souriya Brigade, the Durou al Thawra Commission and the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade.
9. National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces: The National Coalition is led by Ahmed Jarba and was created in 2012. It aims to overthrow the current regime to create a civil, democratic state. Support is drawn from local revolutionary councils, the Supreme Military Council, and Local Co-ordination Committees. It is increasingly recognized as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people by the international community and attended peace talks held in early 2014.
10. Syrian National Council (SNC): Formed in 2011, this coalition group is led by George Sabra and was intended at its creation in 2011 to act as a contact and credible opposition group in the international community. The SNC rejects foreign intervention and wishes to overthrow the Assad regime to form an interim government, followed by the drafting of a new constitution and parliamentary elections. While it was formerly seen as the main opposition by international actors, infighting and the splintering of various other coalitions has detracted from the perception of the SNC as the leader of the opposition. The SNC expressed in 2013 that it would not undertake peace talks in Geneva without preconditions.
11. Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC): The LCC date back to March 2011 and the launch of the widespread protest efforts against the Assad regime, when communities pulled together to organize events in their areas. It now serves as an umbrella group to coordinate and share information from the local committees on a nationwide –and, with media exposure— global scale. The LCC seeks regime change to establish a state built on democracy and political pluralism, but is not pursuing political power.
12. Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG): The YPG is the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party. Independent security estimates indicated that the YPG has about 30,000 fighters (GlobalSecurity.org). The YPG is most active in northeastern Syria, which has a large Kurdish population.
13. Al-Nusra Support Front for the People of the Levant: Considered the official Syrian al-Qaeda central affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front has been able to attract many foreign jihadists and is composed of an estimate of up to 7,000 fighters. It was created in 2012 and is led by Abu Mohammed al-Julani. It is a highly militant force and has played a significant role in the fighting. It is considered to be a terrorist group by the United States.
14. Islamic State: Initially called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL), the organization was created in April 2013 with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, more commonly known as Abu Dua, at its head. ISIS was the result of an amalgamation between the Islamic State of Iraq and Jab hat al-Nusra. It is said to have between 30,000 and 35,000 core and affiliated fighters in Syria and Iraq; its aim is to create a state based on Sharia law. ISIS has clashed with many other rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army, and has targeted Shia and Alawite groups. Its creation was opposed by the Al-Nusra Front. It is said to draw in a significant number of foreign fighters, in part because it has international jihadist ambitions beyond the Syrian borders. In 2013 ISIS advanced into northern regions of Syria. While it began as an al-Qaeda affiliate, in 2014 al-Qaeda cut its ties. ISIS then renamed itself the Islamic State and proclaimed a caliphate in its captured territory. It is internationally regarded as a terrorist organization.
15 Levant Front: This Sunni rebel coalition of five factions was established on Christmas Day 2014. By 2015 the group had become the main alliance of non-jihadi rebels in Aleppo (International Crisis Group). In March 2015 the coalition absorbed a major Western-backed fighting group, Harakat Hazm.
16. Islamic Front: The Islamic Front (IF) is a coalition of seven Islamist groups that split from the SMC in late 2013. With an estimated 45,000 fighters, the IF is considered to be the largest rebel alliance. Its inception is thought to have weakened the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), another rebel coalition, as it absorbed some of its notable members, creating questions about whether the SILF will join the IF. It has rejected offers to attend peace talks. The IF operates with a goal of building an Islamist state, but excludes al-Qaeda affiliates.
17. Arab League: In 2013 the Arab League advocated for peace talks, encouraging opposition groups to participate. It granted Syria’s seat at the League to opposition group the Syrian National Coalition in 2013. However in 2014 it decided that the seat would remain vacant until the SNC made institutional progress. In August 2011 the Arab League issued a statement condemning human rights violations against protesters in Syria; in November it suspended Syria’s membership, with three members—Syria, Lebanon and Yemen—voting against the suspension, while Iraq abstained. The Arab League also imposed economic sanctions; all Arab League members ceased contact with the Central Bank of Syria, while commercial flights between Arab countries and Syria stopped.
18. Anti-Islamic State Coalition: AU.S.-led international coalition against the Islamic State was organized in 2014. It has been responsible for multiple airstrikes in support of local ground forces.
a) Allies providing air support and military equipment include the United States, Canada, Iraq, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Czech Republic, Albania, Netherlands, Estonia, Hungary, Turkey and Lebanon.
b) Allies providing humanitarian aid include Sweden, Kuwait, Switzerland, Japan, Austria, New Zealand, South Korea, Ireland, Spain, Slovakia, Norway, Luxembourg and Qatar.
c) Allies who have only expressed support include Bulgaria, Egypt, Finland, Georgia, Greece, Israel, Kosovo, Oman, Poland, Croatia, Romania, Singapore and Taiwan.
d) Coalition supporters with unspecified commitment, but with United States State Department confirmation of membership include Andorra, Bosnia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malta, Mexico, Moldova, Morocco, Portugal, Serbia, Slovenia, Tunisia and Ukraine.
e) Non–nation supporters include the Arab League and the European Union.
19. Turkey: Until recently, Turkey was a close ally and major trading partner with Syria. However, in 2011 Turkey repeatedly condemned the Syrian crackdown and stopped at least two weapons shipments to Syria. Turkey closed its airspace to aircraft travelling to or from Syria (most Syrian flights cannot land in most airports in Europe or the Arab world). Turkey also hosted a number of meetings for Syrian opposition parties and serves as the base for the Syrian National Council. Turkey is hosting more than 800,000 Syrian refugees and has begun to resist the influx of refugees on its borders. In a response to Islamic State militancy, in October 2014 Turkey passed a law that allows foreign forces to be stationed in Turkey and Turkish troops to be deployed to Syria and Iraq.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, Turkey has participated in coalition airstrikes on targets in Syria (US Department of Defense). However, Turkey is at war with the Kurds, a U.S. ally in Syria. In 2015 relations between Russia and Turkey soured when Turkey shot down a Russian war plane that had allegedly violated Turkish airspace.
20. European Union: The EU arms embargo on Syria ended in 2013 and the ban on crude oil imports was relaxed for opposition forces. Around 20 percent of Syria’s gross domestic product derives from oil sales and 90 per cent of these exports go to countries in the European Union, primarily France, Germany and Italy.
21. United States: After chemical weapons were used in Syria, the United States initially urged military intervention, but then, with Secretary of State John Kerry, became deeply involved in diplomatic negotiations to reach a solution. In August 2011 U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Syria’s energy sector and freezing all Syrian government assets in the United States. The United States has provided arms and non-lethal aid to moderate, non-Islamist Syrian opposition groups, including the Supreme Military Council. The BBC reported in December 2013 that the United States had suspended all non-lethal aid to Syrian rebel groups for fear that goods could be accessed by Islamist rebel groups, but continued to provide humanitarian assistance. In 2014 the United States delivered limited numbers of anti-tank weapons and other arms to select rebel factions to evaluate the capacity and reliability of the groups. In June the United States announced a $500-million plan to support moderate rebel forces. As part of an international coalition opposed to the Islamic State, the United States initiated a series of airstrikes in Syria.
22. China: Like Russia, China has consistently voiced opposition to international intervention in the Syrian conflict. Charges of economic self-interest have been leveled at China, but are difficult to support. In 2014 China and Russia blocked a Security Council resolution intended to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.
2015 In late January Kurdish forces backed by U.S. air support captured Kobani from Islamic State (IS). In June, IS attempted unsuccessfully to retake the town. Human Rights Watch reported that IS killed between 233 and 262 civilians during the operation (Human Rights Watch).
In central Syria, IS took complete control of the ancient city of Palmyra in May. Over the following months, IS destroyed many cultural, historical and religious landmarks (International Crisis Group). By the middle of 2015 IS controlled the Homs region of western Syria and threatened Alawite, Christian, and Ismaili villages (Military Balance, 312).
In September Russia dispatched a major military force to Latakia in northwest Syria. Beginning September 30, Russian jets bombarded rebel positions. A major escalation in ground operations by the Syrian army and its allies began on October 7. Human Rights Watch documented 20 separate uses of cluster munitions by the Assad regime and its allies between October 4 and December 14 (Human Rights Watch).
The U.S.-led coalition stepped up its bombing campaign in eastern Syria. On September 27, France launched its first airstrike against IS in Syria; it ramped up airstrikes following the November 13 IS terrorist attacks in Paris. On December 7 NATO decided not to send ground troops to Syria.
In November Turkey shot down a Russian warplane that had allegedly invaded Turkish airspace. In response, Russia launched airstrikes in support of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units.
2014 Government forces and pro-government militias intensified attacks on civilian areas. Human Rights Watch identified at least 249 sites in 10 of Syria’s 14 governorates where the Syrian government used cluster munitions between July 2012 and July 2014. The government also used many barrel bombs on civilians. Between February and July, more than 650 new major damage sites suggesting barrel bomb detonations were recorded by Human Rights Watch in parts of Aleppo held by armed opposition groups. The Syrian government arbitrarily arrested and tortured opponents; anti-government non-state groups also committed serious abuses, attacking civilians, using child soldiers, kidnapping and using torture.
Insurgent groups Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (renamed Islamic State in June) committed systematic abuses, including violence against civilians, abductions and executions. Islamic State intensified attacks in Syria and announced the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in captured territories from Syria in the northwest to the eastern Iraqi Diyala province. Clashes in July between the northern armed opposition and IS ended in an IS victory that brought territory in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour, along with oil and manpower. The situation for the northern armed opposition worsened in August and September as they faced regime forces and IS. IS captured a series of towns as it approached Aleppo in a push west. Dozens of towns around the largely Kurdish city of Kobani were besieged in September. At least 160,000 Kurds fled to Turkey. In January 2015 Kurdish forces were able to fight off IS advances in Kobani.
In late September the United States, with the support or participation of Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, initiated airstrikes, targeting Islamic State militants and fighters linked to al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra. There were more airstrikes in October, including increased air support for the Kurdish forces and anti-regime rebels defending Kobani. In mid-November the UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, launched an initiative to “freeze” the fighting between the regime and opposition in Aleppo.
2013 Both sides of the conflict made gains and experienced losses, but it was difficult to determine who, if anyone, made advancements. The fighting was incessant, incredibly violent, and was complicated by infighting amongst opposition groups. The government continued to perpetrate extreme violations of human rights, including indiscriminate (and sometimes directed) attacks on civilians, torture, unlawful detention and mass executions. Bodies of executed Syrians began appearing in the Aleppo River, and a mass summary execution in early May killed at least 215 people, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). HRW also alleged that the Syrian government used cluster munitions, causing immense harm to civilians; the regime denied the charge. Government forces were also reported to be using incendiary devices.
In January, nearly 200 were killed in separate attacks by the government, including a missile strike on a student housing complex in Aleppo. Regime ballistic missile strikes in February killed at least 100 civilians. An alleged chemical weapons attack by government forces took place in March, and was later confirmed by UN investigators. According to International Crisis Group (ICG), several hundred people were killed on April 22 as the result of an alleged regime massacre in Damascus.
Increased reliance on foreign fighters, particularly by Islamist opposition groups, helped to fuel the conflict. Jihadist groups were alleged to be among the worst perpetrators of human rights abuses, including attacks on civilians and torture. According to ICG and HRW, 50 civilians were killed on July 21 as opposition forces made gains in Homs and Damascus, and an operation in Latakia in early August killed at least 190 civilians. The deadliest attack of the year took place on August 21 when sarin gas, a nerve agent, was released in the opposition-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta through surface-to-surface rockets. According to the ICG, the chemical weapon attack, which was later confirmed by a UN inspection team, killed 1,300 people. General consensus from the international community (notably with the exception of Russia) attributed the attack to the Assad regime, who denied all responsibility and claimed it was a ploy by rebel forces to gain international sympathy and intervention.
Opposition forces became increasingly fractured in 2013, with high tensions between Islamist groups and other major rebel forces as a result of oppressive and hardline tactics in areas controlled by the former. The growing influence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in the North in the fall was seen as particularly problematic by other opposition representatives and was a source of infighting within Islamist groups, as well as conflict with Kurdish militias. According to HRW, local sources report that at least 490 detainees died in detention in 2013.
2012 Fears of civil war in Syria grew at the beginning of 2012. The Assad regime targeted protestors and civilians on an unprecedented scale and there were continuous clashes between the Syrian Armed Forces and the Free Syrian Army. In February the regime began a campaign of heavy shelling in Homs that killed two Western journalists, among many others. Later in the month regime security forces fired on an estimated 15,000 demonstrators in Damascus. In April activists claimed that Hama had been shelled by the regime as punishment for a UN visit, with dozens reportedly killed. Violence continued in May, despite the presence of UN monitors. During a campaign of shelling in Houla 108 people were killed, according to UN reports. Many civilians were also massacred by a pro-regime Alawite militia. Among those killed were scores of women and children. Also in May security forces stormed the Aleppo university campus following an anti-regime protest by students. Five were killed and over 2,000 were arrested. Following the incident, thousands of Syrians demonstrated in the streets of Aleppo, showing solidarity with the students. The massacre of civilians continued in June. Fierce fighting spread, especially in Aleppo and Damascus, while the number of Syrians fleeing to neighbouring countries surged.
The descent into civil war continued as the year progressed, with more clashes between armed opposition groups and security forces. As humanitarian concerns grew, anti-regime protests continued throughout the country. In July numerous massacres were reported by opposition activists. Concern over Syria’s unconventional weapons stockpile also increased. Syria’s foreign ministry stated in July that chemical weapons were to be used only against external aggression.
In August, displacement continued to rise as fighting between the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian military intensified. Regime forces conducted large-scale military operations, including airstrikes and bombing raids in opposition-controlled areas. A Commission of Inquiry mandated by the UN Refugee Agency reported “gross violations of human rights,” with indiscriminate attacks by the regime against civilians occurring daily.
At the end of the year, fighting between the government and rebels continued, with death tolls frequently exceeding 100 per day. The UN Commission of Inquiry stated that the conflict was becoming increasingly sectarian.
2011 In March, protests erupted in the southern city of Daraa after 15 young boys were arrested for spraying anti-government slogans—made popular during protests in Egypt and Tunisia—on a city wall. After reports the boys were tortured, the protests spread. Following Friday prayers on March 18, government forces opened fire on the peaceful demonstrators, killing four people. At the funerals for the victims, security forces opened fire again, killing another person and inflaming the city. In late March, the army’s Fourth Armored Division – commanded by the president’s brother, Maher – was sent in to crush the protest. Dozens of people were killed. Popular resistance to the security forces followed. Assets and symbols of the regime were destroyed. By mid-April anti-regime demonstrations were held in Baniyas, Deir el-Zour, Hama, Homs, Latakia, the Kurdish northwest, and the suburbs of Damascus.
On April 22, human rights group accused Assad’s forces of killing 110 protestors. By mid-May, the death toll reached 1,000. On July 31, one of the bloodiest days since the beginning of the uprising, 130 people died across the country during protests. During a three-week period in November 260 protestors were killed, and some 170 people were killed in mid-December. A twin car bomb attack on December 23 on security buildings in Damascus killed 44 and injured 150. Syrian officials blamed terrorist organizations, while opposition figures and activists accused the government of staging the attack, according to International Crisis Group. Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern that crimes against humanity were being committed in Syria.
The United Nations reported that security forces were indiscriminately shooting at unarmed protestors, while snipers targeted those using loudspeakers or carrying cameras. The UN also reported that the Syrian security forces use patterns of summary execution, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearances and torture, including sexual violence and abuse. The International Crisis Group reported that 105 people died in custody, with their bodies baring unmistakable marks of torture.
Total: In February 2015 the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights placed the total death toll at 210,060, including approximately 100,973 civilians, 35,827 rebels, and 45,385 government soldiers. By March 2016 the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that the conflict had killed over 250,000 people (UNOCHA).
2015 The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 55,219 conflict deaths including (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights):
- 20,977 civilians
- 16,212 Islamist rebels
- 17,686 regime forces
- 8,800 army troops
- 7,000 Syrian pro-regime militiamen
- 378 members of Hezbollah
- 274 unidentified
Refugees and IDPs: The UNHCR reported that the Syrian conflict had produced 7,632,500 internally displaced people, 4,194,554 refugees and 90,751 asylum seekers (UNHCR).
2014 According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 76,021 were killed:
15,488 rebel and Islamic fighters
259 soldiers and officers who had defected
16,979 Arab, European, Asian, U.S. and Australian fighters from the Islamic State, al-Nusra Front, Junoud al-Sham battalion, Jund Al-Aqsa battalion, Jund al-Sham Movement and al-Khadra’ battalion
12,861 government soldiers and officers
9,766 combatants from Popular Defence Committees, National Defence Forces, al Shabiha, pro-regime informers and the “Syrian resistance to liberate the Sanjak of Alexandretta”
2,167 pro-regime militiamen
366 Hezbollah militiamen
345 unidentified individuals
Refugees and IDPs: The UN estimated that approximately 7.6 million Syrians were internally displaced and that 12.2 million require humanitarian assistance. By September 3, 2014 more than three million Syrians had registered or were pending registration as refugees with the UNHCR in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.
2013 By comparing United Nations figures on the Syrian death toll from the end of 2012 until July, it can be determined that approximately 30,000 to 40,000 people died as a result of the Syrian conflict in the first half of 2013. A deadly chemical weapons attack in August, allegedly by the Assad regime, killed over 1,000 people.
Refugees: The conflict has had a highly destabilizing effect on Syria’s civilian population. The UNHCR placed its estimate of refugees registered in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey at 2.4 million by the end of 2013, an increase of 340 per cent from 2012; estimates from other sources run as high as 3 million refugees. An additional 31,000 people are reported to have sought asylum (UNHCR). Surrounding countries have expressed frustration with the lack of resources from the international community. Some border clashes have resulted from the strain of incoming populations. In October, the United Nations estimated that an additional 6.5 million people in Syria have been internally displaced, with 9.3 million in need of humanitarian assistance.
2012 The UN reports that more than 70,000 people have died since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of civilians that died in Syria between January and November 2012 is approximately 3,500. Many of the civilian killings were the result of attacks on protesters and funeral processions.
2011 For much of 2011 Syria was off-limits to international journalists and human rights groups, making confirmation of fatality figures difficult. Relying on figures obtained from local activists within Syria, the UN confirmed that at least 5,000 people were killed since protests began in March. The UN also reported that 12,400 Syrian refugees fled to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan over the same period. The Syrian government reported that more than 2,000 security forces were killed during this time; according to Human Rights Watch many of those were killed by other security force members for refusing to shoot on unarmed protestors or for defecting.
2015 In January Russia was not able to convince rebel groups to attend talks with Syrian government officials in Moscow. The Syrian government sent lower-level representatives. The talks produced no significant results.
The majority of Syria’s non-Jihadi rebel groups accepted the 2012 Geneva Communiqué on September 15. The groups still demanded the exclusion of President Assad and major regime figures from any political solution (International Crisis Group).
Syrian President Assad and Russian President Putin met in October. Key external players met to discuss the situation in Syria on October 30. A November 11-14 meeting of foreign ministers in Vienna resulted in an agreement for a roadmap for peace. According to International Crisis Group, details included non-sectarian governance within six months, a nationwide ceasefire within 18 months, and a new constitution followed by UN-monitored elections (International Crisis Group). Opposition groups then met in Saudi Arabia from December 8-10 with many expressing conditional willingness to accept the Vienna roadmap for peace. A tentative date for a meeting between opposition and government representatives was scheduled for late January 2016. On December 19 the United Nations Security Council unanimously agreed to the Vienna roadmap.
2014 In January and February parties to the civil war and their international supporters met in Switzerland for two rounds of political negotiation known as the Geneva II talks. There were no tangible outcomes and negotiations did not resume. UN Security Council Resolution 2139 on February 22 demanded safe and unhindered humanitarian access into Syria. In direct violation of the UN resolution, the Syrian government continued to besiege communities, endangering more than 200,000 civilians. A second resolution in mid-July authorized UN agencies and their implementing partners to bring aid into Syria. On May 22 Russia and China blocked a resolution – sponsored by more than 60 countries and supported by more than 100 non-governmental organizations – that would have referred the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. On April 24 the UN mission stated that 92.5 per cent of all chemical weapons declared by Syria had been removed from Syria or destroyed. The government surrendered its last declared chemical weapons on June 23 and, in mid-September, revealed previously undeclared chemical facilities to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Allegations that chlorine gas was again being used were being investigated.
In the first elections since civil war began in 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was re-elected with 88.7 per cent of the vote on June 3, 2014. These results, though verified by watch groups, were vehemently questioned by western states.
2013 The United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of Chemical Weapons Use in the Syrian Arab Republic was established in March. An investigation was conducted between April and November; of 16 allegations of chemical weapons usage, five were confirmed, the most notable being the August 21 attack in the Ghouta area of Damascus. In the aftermath of the August attack, United States’ President Barack Obama called for military intervention in Syria on specific targets, to which Russia was strongly opposed. On September 14, the signing of the Framework for the Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons by Russia and the United States, outlined a plan for the destruction of the chemical weapons in coordination with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). A resolution approving the framework and making it legally binding on Syria was passed by the Security Council on September 27, requiring the destruction of chemical weapons production and mixing equipment by November 1. Assad agreed to abide by the plan on September 29. The deadline for the complete destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons material was set for the first half of 2014. Syria acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention on October 14.
A second set of Geneva-based peace talks, initially intended to take place in June, was delayed repeatedly due to lack of agreement from the Syrian opposition and later pushed until January 2014. Assad agreed in November that the government would be present, but would not negotiate a transition from power.
Humanitarian access was a pressing concern in 2013, with a series of reports by the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs on impeded access for organizations due to bureaucratic obstacles. Some progress was made towards the end of the year on visa approval for humanitarian workers. In November, the UN General Assembly issued a condemnation of human rights abuses and violations of international law in Syria.
2012 In January the UNSC failed to agree on a resolution calling on Assad to step down. Russia stated that it would reject any proposed sanctions and use its veto to block proposals for military intervention. The same month the Arab League withdrew observers after the Syrian government rejected a plan for President Assad to surrender power. Large-scale demonstrations in support of the Free Syrian Army continued, despite violent crackdowns on anti-government protests.
Division continued in UNSC meetings in February. China and Russia vetoed a UNSC draft resolution backed by the Arab League, condemning the violent crackdown and supporting the Arab League roadmap produced in January. Later that month the “Friends of Syria” contact group and representatives from 60 other countries met in Tunis to recognize the Syrian National Council as the “legitimate representative of Syrians,” with Saudi Arabia and Qatar vowing to arm the opposition. The Syrian government approved a new constitution that removed the Baath party monopoly. In March the UNSC issued a non-binding statement supporting the UN/Arab League Special Envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan. The plan included calls for a UN-supervised ceasefire and humanitarian access. Syria accepted the peace plan, but questions remained regarding implementation.
In April the Assad regime agreed to a ceasefire following pressure from the UN. In the weeks following the agreement, however, violence surged. The UN Secretary-General expressed alarm and stated that Assad had contravened the peace plan. France stated that the UNSC should consider using force and the United States declared that “patience has been exhausted.” The UNSC unanimously approved the deployment of 30 UN observers, later voting to increase the number to 300.
In May, Annan arrived in Damascus to push for implementation of the peace plan. Parliamentary elections were held that month, but voter turnout was low amid an opposition boycott. In June, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that there was little evidence of Syrian government compliance with the peace plan. UNSMIS suspended its operation as safety risks to monitors increased.
In July, Russia and China vetoed another UNSC resolution that threatened sanctions against Syria. Later in the month, the UNSC extended the UNSMIS mandate for a final 30 days. In August, Annan resigned and was replaced by veteran diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi. The UNSC ended the UN observer mission in August and passed a resolution condemning the Syrian government’s use of heavy weapons.
Brahimi met with interlocutors, including President Assad, throughout September. In October a ceasefire brokered by Brahimi for the Eid festival was repeatedly broken, with extensive fighting across the country. In November the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF) was formed after a week of talks in Qatar. The six Gulf states, as well as France, Turkey, the United Kingdom and Spain, formally recognized NCSROF as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The Friends of Syria contact group and the United States recognized NCSROF in December. That month Brahimi met with President Assad and the opposition in Damascus. Groups later visited Moscow to discuss proposals for ending the conflict. However, NCSROF leader Moaz al-Khatib rejected Russia’s invitation for peace talks and demanded an apology for its support for Assad.
2011 In Syria, the Arab Spring arrived in March when peaceful protests began to grow over issues such as rural poverty, corruption, freedom of expression, democratic rights and the release of political prisoners. The country has been under a state of emergency for 48 years. President Bashar Assad responded to protests with brutal military force and blamed foreign elements and armed groups for fomenting the uprising; Syrian opposition groups rejected the claim.
In April, the Syrian government offered a concession by passing a bill lifting Syria’s 48-year emergency rule but continued to use brutal force in an attempt to put down the protests. In May, the EU imposed sanctions on Assad and nine other senior government officials. On July 26, the Syrian cabinet approved a law allowing the formation of political parties other than the ruling Baath party and within a few months the Syrian National Council, National Coordination Committee, and al-Legaa were established as the opposition. In early August, the UN Security Council and the Arab League issued statements condemning human rights violations against protesters in Syria. In September, the EU imposed a ban on crude oil imports from Syria, which was expected to hit Damascus hard because the EU buys 95 per cent of Syrian oil exports. In October, Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution. In November, the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership and imposed economic sanctions. On December 20, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn human rights violations in Syria. Russia toughened its stand in drafting a resolution to condemn this violence. Beginning on December 11, the SNC said the dignity general strike and civil disobedience against the government happened in all twelve provinces and hoped to add economic pressure on the government. On December 26, monitors from the Arab League entered Syria.
Syria became an independent republic in 1946. In 1949, a U.S.-backed military coup removed Shukri al-Quwatli from power. A popular uprising against military rule in 1954 led to a transfer of power to civilians. In 1955, free elections resulted in al-Quwatli being elected. A brief union with Egypt –beginning in 1958—ended in 1961 with Syria’s secession. A military coup brought the Baath Party to power and Syria has been ruled by the Baath Party since 1963.
In 1970, then Defense Minister Hafez Assad seized power and declared himself President. Since then, the Baath Party has remained the sole government authority in Syria, and Syrian citizens may only approve the President by referendum and do not hold multi-party elections for the legislature. In 1982, at the height of a six-year Islamist insurgency throughout Syria, Hafez Assad sent troops into the town of Hama to quell an uprising by the Sunni opposition Muslim Brotherhood. Tens of thousands were killed and the town destroyed. The Muslim Brotherhood has since been exiled from Syria. The event has come to be known as the Hama massacre.
In 2000, Hafez Assad died of natural causes. He was succeeded by his son Bashar Assad, who was appointed after a constitutional amendment lowered the age requirement for President from 40 to his age of 34. Bashar Assad initially inspired hopes for reform; a “Damascus Spring” of intense political and social debate took place from July 2000 to August 2001. The Damascus Spring ended in August 2001 with the arrest and imprisonment of ten leading activists who had called for democratic elections and a campaign of civil disobedience.
Renewed opposition activity occurred in October 2005 when activist Michel Kilo collaborated with other leading opposition figures to launch the Damascus Declaration, which criticized the Syrian government as “authoritarian, totalitarian and cliquish” and called for democratic reform.
The Assad family comes from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam that comprises an estimated 12 percent of the Syrian population. It has maintained tight control on Syria’s security services, generating resentment among some Sunni Muslims who make up about three quarters of Syria’s population.
Syrian Armed Forces: According to Military Balance 2013, Syria had two major deals with Russia for a missile system and flight combat trainer in 2012, valued at $200-million and $550-million, respectively. Russia supplied Syria with an unspecified number of surface-to-air missiles, ordered in 2007 with a first delivery date of 2008. Russia also supplied Syria with 36 Air Defence Units at a cost of $730-million. It is thought that deliveries began in late 2009. According to SIPRI Yearbook 2012 Russian arms deals with Syria and Iran were the subject of much attention and controversy in 2010. During the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, Syria withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In May 2012 the Security Council Sanctions Committee reported that Russia had violated a UN Arms Embargo; authorities discovered a ship loaded with weapons in Tartus.
Rebel forces: The provision of weapons to rebel groups became increasingly contentious as al-Qaeda-affiliated forces became involved in the conflict. Rebels obtained most of their weapons from Syrian Army defectors. Weapons were also smuggled into Syria by rebels through a network of land and sea routes. The weapons arrived in cargo ships and trucks that moved through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. The Free Syrian Army claimed to have bought assault rifles and grenades from Iraq, some trucked across the border and some carried on donkeys. Weapons from Lebanon were easily bought from arms dealers. Weapons from Turkey reportedly came on ships. Turkey claimed that it was not supplying the rebels with arms, nor did it allow the passage of arms through its ports. Officials agreed, however, that arms shipments were hard to patrol and always prone to smuggling. Not every port had the scanning equipment and facilities needed to cope with large amounts of cargo. Syrian security officials stated that there had been attempts by Syrian rebels to procure light arms from private security firms in South Africa. The supply of arms was financed mainly by wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as expatriate Syrians and supporters. In 2014 the United States delivered limited numbers of anti-tank weapons and other arms to select rebel factions to evaluate the capacity and reliability of the groups. In June 2014 the United States announced a $500-million plan to support moderate rebel forces.
The New York Times reported that the CIA was helping countries such as Turkey send more military aid to Syrian rebels by, for example, expanding the secret airlift of arms and equipment. The airlift began on a small scale in early 2012, but then expanded, using Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari military-style cargo planes, that usually landed in Ankara. International Crisis Group reported that CIA-approved rebel groups were receiving anti-tank weapons (International Crisis Group, 2 Nov 2015).
Syria’s GDP plummeted in 2013 at a rate of -22.5 per cent. According to the CIA World Factbook, the 2012 inflation rate was 36.9 per cent, while the estimated 2013 rate was 89.6 per cent and the estimated 2014 rate was 34.8 per cent. Syria’s oil minister estimated in May 2013 that oil production had fallen by 95 per cent since the onset of conflict, as a result of oil embargos and loss of territory to rebel groups. In a 2014 working paper, the World Bank estimated that oil production had declined by 90 per cent. Some exemptions to the European Union oil import embargo were made in 2013 and financial restrictions were eased to better aid rebel forces. Syria’s main trading partners were the European Union, Turkey, Iraq, China and Saudi Arabia.
Russia’s investment in Syrian infrastructure, energy and tourism amounted to $19.4-billion in 2009. According to Human Rights Watch, oil exports normally made up one-third of Syrian government revenue; 90 per cent of exports went to EU countries, primarily France, Germany and Italy. At the end of 2013, Syria and Russia signed a 25-year, $100-million contract that granted Russia oil exploration rights off the Mediterranean coast.
Early in 2012 documents leaked from a cyber-attack by hacker group Anonymous revealed that Tehran had given Assad more than $1-billion in 2011 to offset the oil embargo.
The Syrian regime needs money to pay the armed forces and the militias – the Shabbiha – it uses against the demonstrators. It also needs to pay the tens of thousands of officials whose loyalty is vital. Economic growth before the crisis was insufficient to alleviate overall poverty, especially in rural areas.
In 2014 the World Bank estimated that the conflict had resulted in a 14-per-cent drop in Syria’s per capita welfare. The CIA World Factbook estimated that Syria’s unemployment rate in 2014 was 33 per cent. The Socioeconomic Roots and Impact of the Syrian Crisis, a report published in February 2013 by the Syrian Center for Policy Research, estimated economic losses of the Syrian economy during the conflict at $48.4-billion. Most losses were incurred by internal trade, transportation, manufacturing and mining. In two years, Syria lost nearly two decades of human development achievement. The report also estimated a contraction in Syria’s GDP of 18.8 per cent in 2012.
In a 2013 report for the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, Syrian experts stated that the country’s GDP had shrunk by about 35 per cent since the start of the conflict and predicted that it would decrease by a further 18 per cent each year—estimating that post-conflict reconstruction would cost $45-billion. Since the conflict began inflation had risen to 40 per cent and the value of the Syrian pound had fallen by 51 per cent. International sanctions and diminished domestic consumption and production contributed to Syria’s failing economy. International sanctions by the United States and the EU in late 2011 and similar sanctions by the Arab League severely affected Syria’s oil industry. The United States and the European Union continued to impose sanctions on anyone conducting business with Islamic State or the Syrian government.
The insurgent group Islamic State made significant profits after capturing oil-rich areas in Syria and Iraq. The Council on Foreign Relations estimated in 2014 that the group received between one and three million dollars per day in revenue through crude oil sales. It is estimated that 44,000 barrels of oil from Syrian wells and 4,000 from Iraqi wells were extracted in one day. The crude was sold at below market price, giving buyers an incentive to engage with the insurgent group. Coalition bombing deliberately targeted IS oil fields. Reuters reported that, during a one-month period that ended November 18, 2015, the United States hit 177 targets, including wells and trucks, in Islamic State’s main oil-producing region (Reuters).
Other sources of Islamic State income included taxation of religious minorities, trafficking in antiquities, and ransom payments. It is estimated that the Islamic State made as much as $20-million in ransom payments in 2014.
Food security is an ongoing issue in Syria. According to journalist Benedict Moran, the United Nations World Food Program was feeding 6 million people in Syria in 2015. As of September 26, 2015, the UN’s Syria food security operations faced a $300-million budget shortfall (Al Jazeera). Sieges of a number of Syrian towns kept out even this food. According to Al Jazeera, an estimated 400,000 people were cut off from external food supplies in January 2016. The UN pointed out that only 10 per cent of aid requests from besieged areas were approved and delivered (Al Jazeera).