Syria’s Civil War

By | Updated Jan 25, 2017 4:05 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 sixth year, has killed an estimated 370,000 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. The new American president, Donald Trump, has suggested the U.S. ally with Russia to fight Islamic State. That alone, however, wouldn’t resolve the underlying conflict in Syria over Assad’s rule.  

The Syrian Catastrophe Explained

The Situation

Russia, Iran and Turkey, the three countries with significant forces inside Syria, agreed in January to bolster a December ceasefire that has calmed but not stopped fighting. Russia has led diplomatic efforts since enabling the Syrian regime to gain momentum against the rebels. Notably, government forces recaptured Aleppo, the country’s commercial capital. Worried that advances by Kurdish rebels in Syria would stir up separatists among its own Kurdish population, Turkey has moderated its opposition to Assad and moved closer to Russia. Trump’s positions on Syria are hazy, but he’s suggested that partnering with Russia to combat Islamic State takes precedence over supporting rebels fighting Assad. Both Russia and the U.S. were drawn deeper into the conflict in Syria by Islamic State’s initial gains in the country and its terrorist attacks in cities such as Paris. The war has leveled Syrian cities and uprooted about half the country’s prewar population, creating more than 4 million refugees. They are straining the resources of neighboring countries and testing the welcome of European governments.

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 UN inspectors to tally and destroy Syria’s known chemical weapons stores, but there’s concern such weapons are still being used, both by Assad and Islamic State. 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. 

Source: IHS Conflict Monitor

The Argument

Even before Trump’s presidency, the U.S., in the interest of the broader fight against Islamic State, had softened its position that Assad must go. Russia, for its part, says its goal is to keep Syria secular, independent and, most important, intact. Some analysts have expressed concern that Assad’s defeat could leave a vacuum that radical Islamic groups would rush to fill. In backing the rebels, the U.S. had hoped to achieve a negotiated settlement that would ease Assad out and pacify the country. Some analysts worry that abandoning the rebels could provoke even greater chaos, aggravating infighting among rebel groups and helping extremist groups that are favored by some of the rebellion’s Arab backers.

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

The Reference Shelf

  • The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad group, reports casualties on both sides of the conflict.
  • The Syrian Accountability Project’s website has interactive battle maps.
  • A blog on Syria from the Institute for the Study of War.
  • The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work to dismantle Syria’s stockpile, has a special section on the country on its website.
  • Patrick Seale’s 1989 book “Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East,” provides insight into the regime and its role in the region.

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:
Leah Harrison at