Syria’s Civil War
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 U.S. for the first time attacked Syrian forces in 2017. An American F-18 fighter downed a Syrian jet in June, prompting Russia to threaten to target U.S. warplanes. According to the U.S., the Syrian jet had dropped bombs close to mostly Kurdish fighters backed by a U.S. coalition combatting Islamic State. In April, the U.S. launched a missile strike on a Syrian air base it said was used in a poison-gas attack in Idlib Province that killed more than 80 people. Some U.S. officials spoke afterward of a need for Assad’s departure, although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the first priority remained defeating Islamic State. 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 beyond Syria and Iraq in cities such as Paris. Russia’s support enabled the Assad regime to gain momentum against the Syrian rebels in 2016. The war has leveled Syrian cities and uprooted about half the country’s prewar population, creating more than 5 million refugees. They have strained the resources of neighboring countries and tested the welcome of governments in Europe and the U.S.
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 sectarian 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.
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.
The Reference Shelf
- Related QuickTakes on fighting Islamic State and the Kurds.
- 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.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Lisa Beyer at email@example.com