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Background

Assad government

The secular Ba'ath Syrian Regional Branch government came to power through a coup d'état in 1963. For several years Syria went through additional coups and changes in leadership,[122] until in March 1971, Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, declared himself President. The secular Syrian Regional Branch remained the dominant political authority in what had been a one-party state until the first multi-party election to the People's Council of Syria was held in 2012.[123] On 31 January 1973, Hafez al-Assad implemented a new constitution, which led to a national crisis. Unlike previous constitutions, this one did not require that the president of Syria be a Muslim, leading to fierce demonstrations in Hama, Homs and Aleppo organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and the ulama. The government survived a series of armed revolts by Islamists, mainly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, from 1976 until 1982.

Upon Hafez al-Assad's death in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad was elected as President of Syria. Bashar and his wife Asma, a Sunni Muslim born and educated in Britain,[124] initially inspired hopes for democratic reforms; however, according to his critics, Bashar failed to deliver on promised reforms.[125] President Al-Assad maintained in 2017 that no 'moderate opposition' to his rule exists, and that all opposition forces are jihadists intent on destroying his secular leadership; his view was that terrorist groups operating in Syria are 'linked to the agendas of foreign countries'.[126]

Demographics

The total population in July 2018 was estimated at 19,454,263 people; ethnic groups – approximately Arab 50%, Alawite 15%, Kurd 10%, Levantine 10%, other 15% (includes Druze, Ismaili, Imami, Assyrian, Turkmen, Armenian); religions – Muslim 87% (official; includes Sunni 74% and Alawi, Ismaili, and Shia 13%), Christian 10% (mainly of Eastern Christian churches[127] – may be smaller as a result of Christians fleeing the country), Druze 3% and Jewish (few remaining in Damascus and Aleppo).[128]

Socioeconomic background

Socioeconomic inequality increased significantly after free market policies were initiated by Hafez al-Assad in his later years, and it accelerated after Bashar al-Assad came to power. With an emphasis on the service sector, these policies benefited a minority of the nation's population, mostly people who had connections with the government, and members of the Sunni merchant class of Damascus and Aleppo.[129] In 2010, Syria's nominal GDP per capita was only $2,834, comparable to Sub-Saharan African countries such as Nigeria and far lower than its neighbors such as Lebanon, with an annual growth rate of 3.39%, below most other developing countries.[130]

The country also faced particularly high youth unemployment rates.[131] At the start of the war, discontent against the government was strongest in Syria's poor areas, predominantly among conservative Sunnis.[129] These included cities with high poverty rates, such as Daraa and Homs, and the poorer districts of large cities.

Drought

This coincided with the most intense drought ever recorded in Syria, which lasted from 2006 to 2011 and resulted in widespread crop failure, an increase in food prices and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers.[132] This migration strained infrastructure already burdened by the influx of some 1.5 million refugees from the Iraq War.[133] The drought has been linked to anthropogenic global warming.[134][135][136] Adequate water supply continues to be an issue in the ongoing civil war and it is frequently the target of military action.[137]

Human rights

The human rights situation in Syria has long been the subject of harsh critique from global organizations.[138] The rights of free expression, association and assembly were strictly controlled in Syria even before the uprising.[139] The country was under emergency rule from 1963 until 2011 and public gatherings of more than five people were banned.[140] Security forces had sweeping powers of arrest and detention.[141] Despite hopes for democratic change with the 2000 Damascus Spring, Bashar al-Assad was widely reported as having failed to implement any improvements. A Human Rights Watch report issued just before the beginning of the 2011 uprising stated that he had failed to substantially improve the state of human rights since taking power.[142]

Timeline

Protests, civil uprising, and defections (March–July 2011)

Initial armed insurgency (July 2011 – April 2012)

Kofi Annan ceasefire attempt (April–May 2012)

Third phase of the war starts: escalation (2012–2013)

Rise of the Islamist groups (January–September 2014)

US intervention (September 2014 – September 2015)

Russian intervention (September 2015 – March 2016), including first partial ceasefire

Aleppo recaptured; Russian/Iranian/Turkish-backed ceasefire (December 2016 – April 2017)

Military situation in August 2016

Syrian-American conflict; de-escalation Zones (April 2017 – June 2017)

ISIL siege of Deir ez-Zor broken; CIA program halted; Russian forces permanent (July 2017–Dec. 2017)

Army advance in Hama province and Ghouta; Turkish intervention in Afrin (January–March 2018)

Douma chemical attack; U.S.-led missile strikes; Southern Syria offensive (April 2018 – August 2018)

Idlib demilitarization; Trump announces US withdrawal; Iraq strikes ISIL targets (September–December 2018)

ISIL attacks continue; US states conditions of withdrawal; Fifth inter-rebel conflict (January–May 2019)

Demilitarization agreement falls apart; 2019 Northwestern Syria offensive; Northern Syria Buffer Zone established (May–October 2019)

U.S. forces withdraw from buffer zone; Turkish offensive into north-eastern Syria (October 2019)

Northwestern offensive; Baylun airstrikes; Operation Spring Shield; Daraa clashes; Afrin bombing (late 2019; 2020)

Belligerents

Syrian factions

There are numerous factions, both foreign and domestic, involved in the Syrian civil war. These can be divided in four main groups. First, the Syrian Armed Forces and its allies. Second, the opposition composed from the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army,[143] the Free Syrian Army and the jihadi Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.[144] Third, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.[145] Fourth, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.[146] Both the Syrian government and the opposition have received support, militarily and diplomatically, from foreign countries leading the conflict to often be described as a proxy war.[147]

Foreign involvement

Map of countries surrounding Syria (red) with military involvement
  Countries that support the Syrian government
  Countries that support the Syrian rebels
  Countries that are divided in their support

The major parties supporting the Syrian Government are Iran,[148] Russia[149] and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Syrian rebel groups received political, logistic and military support from the United States,[150][151] Turkey,[152] Saudi Arabia,[153] Qatar,[154] Britain, France,[155] Israel,[156] and the Netherlands.[157] Under the aegis of operation Timber Sycamore and other clandestine activities, CIA operatives and U.S. special operations troops have trained and armed nearly 10,000 rebel fighters at a cost of $1 billion a year since 2012.[158][159] Iraq had also been involved in supporting the Syrian government, but mostly against ISIL.[160]

On August 06, 2020, Saad Aljabri, in a complaint filed in a federal court in the Washington accused Mohammed Bin Salman of secretly inviting Russia to intervene in Syria at a time when Bashar al-Assad was close to falling in 2015.[161]

Spillover

In June 2014, members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) crossed the border from Syria into northern Iraq, and took control of large swaths of Iraqi territory as the Iraqi Army abandoned its positions. Fighting between rebels and government forces also spilled over into Lebanon on several occasions. There were repeated incidents of sectarian violence in the North Governorate of Lebanon between supporters and opponents of the Syrian government, as well as armed clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli.[162]

Starting on 5 June 2014, ISIL seized swathes of territory in Iraq. As of 2014, the Syrian Arab Air Force used airstrikes targeted against ISIL in Raqqa and al-Hasakah in coordination with the Iraqi government.[163]

Advanced weaponry and tactics

Much of Raqqa suffered extensive damage during the battle of Raqqa in June–October 2017

Destruction of chemical weapons

Sarin, mustard agent and chlorine gas have been used during the conflict. Numerous casualties led to an international reaction, especially the 2013 Ghouta attacks. A UN fact-finding mission was requested to investigate reported chemical weapons attacks. In four cases UN inspectors confirmed the use of sarin gas.[164] In August 2016, a confidential report by the United Nations and the OPCW explicitly blamed the Syrian military of Bashar al-Assad for dropping chemical weapons (chlorine bombs) on the towns of Talmenes in April 2014 and Sarmin in March 2015 and ISIS for using sulfur mustard on the town of Marea in August 2015.[165]

The United States and the European Union have said the Syrian government has conducted several chemical attacks. Following the 2013 Ghouta attacks and international pressure, the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons began. In 2015 the UN mission disclosed previously undeclared traces of sarin compounds in a "military research site".[166] After the April 2017 Khan Shaykhun chemical attack, the United States launched its first attack against Syrian government forces.

In June 2019, United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Mulroy stated that the United States "will respond quickly and appropriately,” if the government uses chemical weapons again. He added that Bashar al-Assad has done more than any other to destabilize the region by "murdering his own people" and that both Russia and the Syrian government have shown no concern for the suffering of the Syrian people creating one of the "worst humanitarian tragedies in history".[167]

On April 15, the UN Security Council briefing was held on the findings of a global chemical weapons watchdog, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which claimed that the Syrian air force used sarin and chlorine for multiple attacks, in 2017. The close allies of Syria, Russia and European countries debated on the issue, where the claims were dismissed by Moscow and the Europeans called for accountability for government's actions.[168] The UN Deputy ambassador from Britain, Jonathan Allen stated that report by OPCW's Investigation Identification Team (IIT) revealed that the Assad government is responsible for using chemical weapons against its own people, on at least four occasions. The information was also exposed in two UN-mandated investigations.[169]

Cluster bombs

Syria is not a party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions and does not recognize the ban on the use of cluster bombs. The Syrian Army is reported to have begun using cluster bombs in September 2012. Steve Goose, director of the Arms Division at Human Rights Watch said "Syria is expanding its relentless use of cluster munitions, a banned weapon, and civilians are paying the price with their lives and limbs", "The initial toll is only the beginning because cluster munitions often leave unexploded bomblets that kill and maim long afterward".[170]

Thermobaric weapons

Russian thermobaric weapons, also known as "fuel-air bombs", have been used by the government side during the war. On 2 December 2015, The National Interest reported that Russia was deploying the TOS-1 Buratino multiple rocket launch system to Syria, which is "designed to launch massive thermobaric charges against infantry in confined spaces such as urban areas".[171] One Buratino thermobaric rocket launcher "can obliterate a roughly 200 by 400 metres (660 by 1,310 feet) area with a single salvo".[172] Since 2012, rebels have said that the Syrian Air Force (government forces) is using thermobaric weapons against residential areas occupied by the rebel fighters, such as during the Battle of Aleppo and also in Kafr Batna.[173] A panel of United Nations human rights investigators reported that the Syrian government used thermobaric bombs against the strategic town of Qusayr in March 2013.[174] In August 2013, the BBC reported on the use of napalm-like incendiary bombs on a school in northern Syria.[175]

Anti-tank missiles

An
US led intervention against ISIL