Syria’s conflict began with peaceful anti-government protests in March 2011, part of a wave of popular opposition to authoritarian regimes across the Arab world. It evolved into a sectarian war after President Bashar al-Assad’s troops fired on demonstrators.
On the battlefield, the fighting pits the mainly Sunni opposition against the backers of Assad, whose Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The U.S. blamed Assad’s government for a Aug. 21 sarin gas attack that it said killed more than 1,400 people, including 400 children. An effort by the Obama administration to marshal global support for military strikes to punish the Syrian regime has been suspended after Assad agreed to a U.S.-Russian plan to eradicate his stockpiles of chemical munitions.
Assad’s forces are stretched after more than two years of fighting, while the rebel fighters have failed to unite their ranks. Various strains of al-Qaeda and other radical militants have joined the war, raising international concerns about an Islamist state should Assad be deposed, and Western weapons falling under their control.
* The Players
Bashar al-Assad: He inherited the Syrian presidency in July 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled the country for three decades. Assad was getting advanced training as an ophthalmologist in London in 1994 when his elder brother and father’s first choice for president, Basel, died in a car crash. Assad returned home to be groomed to lead Syria. He was born on Sept. 11, 1965 and graduated from medical school at Damascus University in 1988. Assad’s promises of new freedoms and pay increases failed to halt the protests of 2011, as his security forces tried to crush dissent.
Ahmad Tomeh: Syria’s opposition National Coalition elected Tomeh as prime minister this month and tasked him with forming a transitional government. The 48-year-old is thought to be have been a consensus candidate accepted by secular members in the coalition and moderate Islamist groups fighting to oust Assad. He replaced Ghassan Hitto, a Syrian American businessman. Tomeh is from the country’s oil producing east.
Ghassan Hitto: Hitto stepped down as opposition prime minister in July. He was given the responsibility of administering areas inside Syria held by the rebels. He pledged to enforce laws and provide logistical support for opposition forces. The communications executive was born in Damascus and has a bachelor’s degree from Indiana’s Purdue University and an MBA from Indiana Wesleyan University.
Ahmad al-Jarba: He became the opposition coalition’s new president in July. As a leader of the Shammar tribe, one of the largest in the region and from which the mother of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia also hailed, Al-Jarba is viewed as someone the leadership in Riyadh can work with. Al-Jarba was born in 1969 in the north-eastern Syrian city of Qameshli.
George Sabra: He was elected in April as the acting president of the coalition, and held the post until July. He’s still head of the Syrian National Council after being appointed in November 2012. During his role leading the opposition bloc he stirred controversy by refusing to rule out talks with Assad’s government. He speaks about Syria without any religious or sectarian bias and supports the formation of a secular government after the ouster of Assad.
General Salim Idris: He became the head of the rebel Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Command in December. The East Germany-trained electronics professor was a general in the Syrian army when he defected in July 2012. He has been vocal in trying to persuade the U.S. to intervene militarily against Assad after the use of chemicals weapons in August. Idris has tried to convince the U.S. that the FSA isn’t an Islamist or radical group as portrayed by the Assad government.
* The Political Groups
Syrian government: Assad’s family has ruled the country for 40 years, and has been backed by the Alawite community and other minorities. Assad’s father left behind an authoritarian government that’s been led by the socialist Baath Party since 1963. Under Hafez al-Assad, Syria allied itself with Shiite Muslim-led Iran. Lebanon’s Shiite-Muslim Hezbollah has aligned with the Syrian government and fought with them to take the strategic city of al-Qusair in June.
Syrian National Coalition: The National Coalition is an umbrella group of opposition blocs whose main goal is toppling Assad’s government. The group has sought international recognition and the formation of a transitional government, according to its website. It has pledged to guarantee the “rights, interests and the participation of all components of Syria.” The coalition was formed in November 2012 after talks in Qatar, leading the Arab League to recognize it as the sole representative of the Syrian people. The Istanbul-based coalition has a president, a prime minister and about 114 members.
Syrian National Council: The council of opposition groups has its main offices in Istanbul and Cairo, and was formed in 2011. It falls under the umbrella of the Syrian National Coalition. The group seeks a civil and democratic state in Syria after the toppling of Assad. Its charter lists human rights, press freedom, independence, democracy and political pluralism as its guiding principles. The chairman is Syrian Christian George Sabra.
Free Syrian Army: As Syrian government forces started to crack down on peaceful protesters in 2011, members of the army started to defect. The FSA includes former regime soldiers and civilian volunteers. The FSA is aligned to the Syrian National Coalition. Fighters from the rebel group are financed and armed in part by some Gulf Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They have struggled to hold territory. They have also battled Islamists, who see the Syrian conflict as a religious war.
Militant Groups: They number around 100,000 fighters, with about 1,000 different factions, according to IHS Janes, a defense consultancy. It estimates that there are about 10,000 jihadists -- who include foreign fighters -- fighting for factions linked to al-Qaeda. Another 30,000 to 35,000 are Islamists who share much of the outlook of the jihadists, but are focused purely on the Syrian war rather than a wider international struggle, Janes said.
Assad’s Forces: Assad’s forces have fallen to about half of their notional strength of 220,000 men a year ago, according to a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. More than 15,000 soldiers have died during the two years of fighting. Syrian forces have become more reliant on heavy weaponry including attack aircraft, helicopter gunships, artillery and tanks as the conflict has drawn out.
* International Participants
The war has pitted the U.S. and its Sunni-Muslim Gulf allies, who want to see Assad removed from power, against Russia and Shiite-Muslim Iran. Russia, which maintains its last naval base in the Middle East in Syria, brokered a contentious agreement with the U.S. as a way of heading off American airstrikes against Assad after chemicals weapons were used on Aug. 21 outside of Damascus. Saudi Arabia wants “effective” steps taken to end the Syrian conflict, and international support for the opposition that allows them to more effectively fight government forces.
* Human Toll
The United Nations estimated in July that more than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict in Syria. About 2 million Syrians have registered as refugees or are pending registration, with an average of almost 5,000 people fleeing into neighboring countries each day, the office of the UN High Commission on Refugees said Sept. 3. At the end of August, there were 110,000 refugees in Egypt, 168,000 in Iraq, 515,000 in Jordan, 716,000 in Lebanon and 460,000 in Turkey, it said. Inside Syria, a further 4.25 million people are displaced, according to data from the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.