Syria’s Civil War

By | Updated April 25, 2017 4:30 PM UTC

It’s the land where the Arab Spring collided with a dictatorship determined to stay in power. Now Syria has become the Middle East’s biggest humanitarian disaster in decades. For most of the last 40 years, Syria’s leaders imposed stability on the country’s mix of religious and ethnic groups. Then civil war erupted. Secular Syrians, homegrown Islamist radicals and foreign Sunni jihadists battle forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and — at times — each other. The violence, in its seventh year, has killed an estimated 400,000 people and fed the growth of Islamic State. The war has pulled in Russia, Iran and the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah on the side of the regime, and the U.S., Turkey and a number of Arab states in support of the Syrian rebels. It has seen repeated instances of chemical weapons attacks, blamed mostly on the regime even after it agreed to surrender such munitions in 2013.


The Syrian Catastrophe Explained


The Situation

The U.S. for the first time attacked Syrian forces in April. After blaming the regime for an April 4 poison-gas attack in Idlib Province that killed more than 80 people, the U.S. launched a missile strike on the Syrian air base it said was used. Some U.S. officials also spoke of a need for Assad’s departure. They were inconsistent about it and about how it might be achieved, but such talk marked a change for Donald Trump’s presidency. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the first priority remained defeating Islamic State in Syria. Both Russia and the U.S. were drawn deeper into the conflict by Islamic State’s initial gains in the country and its terrorist attacks in cities such as Paris. Russia’s support has enabled the regime to gain momentum against its non-Islamic State opponents, including some backed by the U.S. and its allies. Notably, government forces recaptured Aleppo, the country’s commercial capital, from the rebels. Turkey has moderated its opposition to Assad and moved closer to Russia out of concern that advances by Kurdish rebels in Syria would stir up separatists among Turkish Kurds. The war has leveled Syrian cities and uprooted about half the country’s prewar population, creating more than 5 million refugees. They are straining the resources of neighboring countries and testing the welcome of governments in Europe and the U.S.

The Background

Once a French-run mandate, Syria became independent after World War II. In 1966, military officers belonging to the Alawite minority took power. That assured the domination of the group, whose faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, in a country where more than 70 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. Syria’s 22 million people include sizable Christian, Druze and Kurdish communities as well. Long-time President Hafez al-Assad, who brutally suppressed dissent, was succeeded by his son in 2000. Using his father’s playbook, Bashar al-Assad crushed peaceful protests in March 2011 and unleashed attack aircraft, helicopter gunships, artillery and tanks against lightly armed rebels. Both within Syria and in the larger region, the conflict broke largely along secular lines, with Syria’s Alawites and Shiites elsewhere supporting Assad and Sunnis backing the opposition. After a poison-gas attack in August 2013, the U.S. and Russia worked together to get United Nations inspectors to tally and destroy Syria’s known chemical weapons stores. But there’s evidence, including before the Idlib Province attack, that both Assad’s forces and Islamic State have used such weapons since. Russia, which maintains its only military base outside the former Soviet Union at Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus, has used its UN Security Council veto repeatedly to protect the regime. 

Credit: IHS Conflict Monitor

The Argument

How the U.S. might pursue Assad’s removal is unclear. Trump appeared to rule out a major U.S. military campaign in Syria, which anyway would risk a confrontation with Russian and Iranian forces. Peace talks led by a UN envoy have been stymied: The rebels want a transitional government in which Assad would play no part, and he wants a new joint government with a limited role for the opposition. Then there’s the question of what would happen were Assad to depart. In defending its support of him, Russia has said its goal is to keep Syria secular, independent and, most important, intact. Some analysts have expressed concern that Assad’s removal could leave a vacuum that radical Islamic groups would rush to fill. 

Source: Dr. M. Izady, Columbia University, Gulf/2000

The Reference Shelf

First published Oct. 24, 2013

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Glen Carey in Riyadh at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Lisa Beyer at