Syrian Civil War
|Syrian Civil War|
|Part of the Arab Spring, the Arab Winter, the spillover of the Iraqi Civil War, Iran–Saudi Arabia proxy conflict|
Current military situation: Red: Syrian Government, Green: Syrian Opposition, Yellow: Federation of North Syria (SDF), Grey: Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, : Jabhat Fateh al-Sham
For a more detailed map, see Cities and towns during the Syrian Civil War. The map above was last updated on 28 November 2016.
(denied by Egypt)
Turkey (until October 2016)[b]
|Commanders and leaders|
Syrian Armed Forces: 178,000
|31,500–100,000||Army of Revolutionaries: 3,000|
|Casualties and losses|
5,163 killed ( 463)
104,390–130,390 fighters killed[c] (Ahrar al-Sham: 7,805)
18 soldiers killed (2016 ground incursion)
11,522+ killed (per SOHR)
16,089+ killed (per SAA and YPG)
refugees (August 2016 estimate NRC Handelsblad); over 4,000,000 (July 2015 UNHCR estimate)
a Fatah Halab (English: Aleppo Conquest) also includes groups from the FSA.
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The Syrian Civil War (Arabic: الحرب الأهلية السورية) is a multi-sided armed conflict in Syria in which international interventions have taken place. The war grew out of the unrest of the 2011 Arab Spring and escalated to armed conflict after President Bashar al-Assad's government violently repressed protests calling for his removal. The Syrian government has since then refused efforts to negotiate with what it describes as armed terrorist groups. The war is being fought by several factions: the Syrian Government and its various supporters, a loose alliance of Sunni Arab rebel groups (including the Free Syrian Army), the Syrian Democratic Forces, Salafi jihadist groups (including al-Nusra Front) who often co-operate with the Sunni rebels, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The factions receive substantial support from foreign actors, leading many to label the conflict a proxy war waged by both regional and global powers.
Syrian opposition groups formed the Free Syrian Army and seized control of the area surrounding Aleppo and parts of southern Syria. Over time, factions of the Syrian opposition split from their original moderate position to pursue an Islamist vision for Syria, as al-Nusra Front and ISIL. In the north, Syrian government forces largely withdrew to fight the FSA, allowing the Kurdish YPG to move in and proclaim de facto autonomy. In 2015 the YPG joined forces with Arab, Assyrian, Armenian and some Turkmen groups, forming the Syrian Democratic Forces, while most Turkmen groups remained with the FSA.
International organizations have accused the Syrian government, ISIL and other opposition forces of severe human rights violations and of many massacres. The conflict has caused a refugee crisis. On 1 February 2016, a formal start of the UN-mediated Geneva Syria peace talks was announced by the UN but fighting continues.
Syria became an independent republic in 1946, although democratic rule ended with a coup in March 1949, followed by two more coups the same year. A popular uprising against military rule in 1954 saw the army transfer power to civilians. From 1958 to 1961, a brief union with Egypt replaced Syria's parliamentary system with a highly centralized presidential regime. The secular Ba'ath Syrian Regional Branch government came to power through a successful coup d'état in 1963. For the next several years Syria went through additional coups and changes in leadership.
In March 1971, Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, declared himself President, a position that he held until his death in 2000. Since 1970, the secular Syrian Regional Branch has 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. On 31 January 1973, Assad implemented the new Constitution which led to a national crisis. Unlike previous constitutions, this one did not require that the President of Syria must be a Muslim, leading to fierce demonstrations in Hama, Homs and Aleppo organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and the ulama. They labeled Assad as the "enemy of Allah" and called for a jihad against his rule. Robert D. Kaplan has compared Assad's coming to power to "an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia—an unprecedented development, shocking the Sunni majority population which had monopolized power for so many centuries." The regime survived a series of armed revolts by Sunni Islamists, mainly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, from 1976 until 1982.
In 2000, Bashar al-Assad took over as President of Syria upon Hafez al-Assad's death. He and his wife Asma al-Assad, a Sunni Muslim born and educated in Britain, initially inspired hopes for democratic reforms. A Damascus Spring of social and political debate took place between July 2000 and August 2001. The Damascus Spring largely ended in August 2001 with the arrest and imprisonment of ten leading activists who had called for democratic elections and a campaign of civil disobedience. In the opinion of his critics, Bashar Assad had failed to deliver on promised reforms.
The Assad government opposed the United States' invasion and occupation of Iraq. The Bush administration then began to destabilize the regime by increasing sectarian tensions, showcasing and publicising Syrian repression of Kurdish and Sunni groups, and financing political dissidents. Assad also opposed the Qatar-Turkey pipeline in 2009. A classified 2013 report by a joint U.S. army and intelligence group concluded that the overthrow of Assad would have drastic consequences, as the opposition supported by the Obama administration was dominated by jihadist elements. According to Michael T. Flynn, the then-director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the report was ignored by the Obama administration.
Prior to the outbreak of the war, according to the U.S. government's estimates that were not based on any official Syrian sources, Syria's population was 18 million: Sunni Muslims represented approximately 74% of the population; other Muslim groups, including Alawites, together constituted approximately 13% of the population; Druze accounted for approximately 3%; various Christian denominations and ethnicities made up the remaining 10% or approximately 1.7 million persons. The majority of Syria's Christians belonged to the Eastern Christian churches, such as the Syriac Orthodox Church, Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, Assyrian Church of the East, Armenian Orthodox Church, and branches of the Eastern Catholic Churches, which have existed in the region since the earliest days of Christianity.
The Assad family is mixed. Bashar himself is married to a Sunni, with whom he has several children. His parents belong to the minority Alawite sect that comprises an estimated 12% of the total population. Alawites control Syria's security apparatus.
Syrian Kurds, an ethnic minority making up approximately 9% of the population, have been angered by ethnic discrimination and the denial of their cultural and linguistic rights, as well as the frequent denial of citizenship.
Assyrians, an indigenous Eastern Aramaic-speaking Christian Semitic people, numbering approximately 500,000, are found mainly in northeast Syria. A larger population lives over the border in northern Iraq.
Socioeconomic inequality increased significantly after free market policies were initiated by Hafez al-Assad in his later years, and 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.
This coincided with the most intense drought ever recorded in Syria. It lasted from 2007 to 2010 and resulted in widespread crop failure, an increase in food prices and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers. The drought is considered to have been a consequence of, and exacerbated by a warming climate in the region, a consequence of global warming. Syria had also received in the same period around 1.5 million refugees from Iraq. By 2011, Syria was facing steep rises in the prices of commodities and a clear deterioration in the national standard of living. The country also faced particularly high youth unemployment rates.
At the start of the war, discontent against the government was said to be the strongest in Syria's poor areas, predominantly among conservative Sunnis. These included cities with high poverty rates, such as Daraa and Homs and the poorer districts of large cities.
The state of human rights in Syria had long been the subject of harsh critique from global organizations. Rights of free expression, association and assembly were strictly controlled in Syria even before the uprising. The country was under emergency rule from 1963 until 2011 and public gatherings of more than five people were banned. Security forces had sweeping powers of arrest and detention.
Authorities have harassed and imprisoned human rights activists and other critics of the government, who were often detained indefinitely and tortured while under prison-like conditions. Women and ethnic minorities faced discrimination in the public sector. Thousands of Syrian Kurds were denied citizenship in 1962 and their descendants labeled "foreigners". A number of riots in 2004 prompted increased tension in Syria's Kurdish areas, and there have been occasional clashes between Kurdish protesters and security forces ever since.
Despite hopes for democratic change with the 2000 Damascus Spring, Bashar al-Assad was widely regarded 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.
Course of events
Protests, civil uprising, and defections (January–July 2011)
The protests began on 15 March 2011, when protesters marched in the capital of Damascus, demanding democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners. Security forces retaliated by opening fire on the protesters, and according to witnesses who spoke to the BBC, the government forces detained six of them. The protest was triggered by the arrest of a boy and his friends by the government for writing in graffiti, "The people want the fall of the regime", in the city of Daraa. Writer and analyst Louai al-Hussein, referencing the Arab Spring ongoing at that time, wrote that, "Syria is now on the map of countries in the region with an uprising". On 20 March, the protesters burned down a Ba'ath Party headquarters and "other buildings". The ensuing clashes claimed the lives of seven police officers and 15 protesters. Ten days later in a speech, President Bashar al-Assad blamed "foreign conspirators" pushing Israeli propaganda for the protests.
Until 7 April, the protesters predominantly demanded democratic reforms, release of political prisoners, an increase in freedoms, abolition of the emergency law and an end to corruption. After 8 April, the emphasis in demonstration slogans shifted slowly towards a call to overthrow the Assad government. Protests spread. On Friday 8 April, they occurred simultaneously in ten cities. By Friday 22 April, protests occurred in twenty cities. On 25 April, the Syrian Army initiated a series of large-scale deadly military attacks on towns with tanks, infantry carriers, and artillery, leading to hundreds of civilian deaths. By the end of May 2011, 1,000 civilians and 150 soldiers and policemen had been killed and thousands detained; among the arrested were many students, liberal activists and human rights advocates.
Significant armed rebellion against the state began on 4 June in Jisr al-Shugur, a city in Idlib Governorate near the Turkish border, after security forces stationed on a post office roof fired at a funeral demonstration. The mourners set fire to the building, killing eight security officers, and then overran a police station, seizing weapons from it. Violence continued and escalated over the following days. Unverified reports claim that a portion of the security forces in Jisr defected after secret police and intelligence officers executed soldiers who had refused to fire on civilians. Later, more protesters in Syria took up arms, and more soldiers defected to protect protesters.
Initial armed insurgency (July–October 2011)
On 29 July 2011, seven defecting Syrian officers formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA), composed of defected Syrian Armed Forces officers and soldiers, aiming "to bring this regime (the Assad government) down" with united opposition forces. On 31 July, a nationwide crackdown nicknamed the "Ramadan Massacre" resulted in the death of at least 142 people and hundreds of injuries.
On 23 August, a coalition of anti-government groups called the Syrian National Council was formed. The council, based in Turkey, attempted to organize the opposition. The opposition, however, including the FSA, remained a fractious collection of political groups, longtime exiles, grassroots organizers and armed militants divided along ideological, ethnic and/or sectarian lines.
Throughout August, Syrian forces stormed major urban centres and outlying regions, and continued to attack protests. On 14 August, the Siege of Latakia continued as the Syrian Navy became involved in the military crackdown for the first time. Gunboats fired heavy machine guns at waterfront districts in Latakia, as ground troops and security agents backed by armour stormed several neighbourhoods. The Eid ul-Fitr celebrations, which began at the end of August, were muted after security forces fired on protesters gathered in Homs, Daraa, and the suburbs of Damascus.
By September 2011, organized units of Syrian rebels were engaged in an active insurgency campaign in many different parts of Syria. A major confrontation between the FSA and the Syrian armed forces occurred in Rastan. From 27 September to 1 October, Syrian government forces, backed by tanks and helicopters, led a major offensive on the town of Al-Rastan in Homs Governorate, in order to drive out army defectors. The 2011 battle of Rastan between the government forces and the FSA was the longest and most intense action up until that time. After a week of fighting, the FSA was forced to retreat from Rastan. To avoid government forces, the leader of the FSA, Colonel Riad Asaad, retreated to Turkey. Many of the rebels fled to the nearby city of Homs.
By October, the FSA started to receive active support from Turkey, which allowed the rebel army to operate its command and headquarters from the country's southern Hatay Province close to the Syrian border, and its field command from inside Syria.
In October 2011, clashes between government and army units which had defected were being reported fairly regularly. During the first week of the month, sustained clashes were reported in Jabal al-Zawiya in the mountainous regions of Idlib Governorate. Syrian rebels also captured most of Idlib city. In mid-October, clashes in Idlib Governorate included the city of Binnish and the town of Hass in the governorate near the mountain range of Jabal al-Zawiya. In late October, clashes occurred in the northwestern town of Maarrat al-Nu'man between government forces and defected soldiers at a roadblock on the edge of the town, and near the Turkish border, where 10 security agents and a deserter were killed in a bus ambush. It was not clear if the defectors linked to these incidents were connected to the FSA.
According to defectors, in 2011 the Syrian government intentionally released imprisoned Islamist militants and provided them with arms "in order to make itself the least bad choice for the international community, though the "claims could not be independently verified" of the one defector quoted, who "did not have documents supporting" the allegations."
On 19 October 2011 U.S. media reported that "large crowds of Syrians rallied in the northern city of Aleppo in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad". The Syrian government estimated over a million pro-government demonstrators, while others estimated crowds at least "tens of thousands" comparable in size to a pro-government rally "a week earlier in Damascus."
Escalation (November 2011 – March 2012)
In early November, clashes between the FSA and security forces in Homs escalated as the siege continued. After six days of bombardment, the Syrian Army stormed the city on 8 November, leading to heavy street fighting in several neighborhoods. Resistance in Homs was significantly greater than that seen in other towns and cities, and some in opposition have referred to the city as the "Capital of the Revolution". Unlike events in Deraa and Hama, operations in Homs have thus far failed to quell the unrest.
November and December 2011 saw increasing rebel attacks, as opposition forces grew in number. In the two months, the FSA launched deadly attacks on an air force intelligence complex in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, the Ba'ath Syrian Regional Branch youth headquarters in Idlib Governorate, Syrian Regional Branch offices in Damascus, an airbase in Homs Governorate, and an intelligence building in Idlib. On 15 December, opposition fighters ambushed checkpoints and military bases around Daraa, killing 27 soldiers, in one of the largest attacks yet on security forces. The opposition suffered a major setback on 19 December, when a failed defection in Idlib Governorate lead to 72 defectors killed.
In December 2011, former counter-terrorism specialist and CIA military intelligence officer Philip Giraldi asserted that already "unmarked NATO warplanes are arriving at Turkish military bases close to the Syrian border, delivering weapons from the late Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenals as well as volunteers from the Libyan Transitional National Council who are experienced in pitting local volunteers against trained soldiers" and that in addition, " French and British special forces trainers are on the ground, assisting the Syrian rebels while the CIA and U.S. Spec Ops are providing communications equipment and intelligence to assist the rebel cause." Giraldi stated that "CIA analysts are skeptical regarding the march to war" for reasons including that "the frequently cited U.N. report that more than 3,500 civilians have been killed by Assad’s soldiers is based largely on rebel sources and is uncorroborated" while cautioning in The American Conservative that "Americans should be concerned about what is happening in Syria... It threatens to become another undeclared war like Libya but much, much worse."
In January 2012, Assad began using large-scale artillery operations against the insurgency, which led to the destruction of many civilian homes due to indiscriminate shelling. By this time, daily protests had dwindled, eclipsed by the spread of armed conflict. January saw intensified clashes around the suburbs of Damascus, with the Syrian Army use of tanks and artillery becoming common. Fighting in Zabadani began on 7 January when the Syrian Army stormed the town in an attempt to rout out FSA presence. After the first phase of the battle ended with a ceasefire on 18 January, leaving the FSA in control of the town, the FSA launched an offensive into nearby Douma. Fighting in the town lasted from 21 to 30 January, before the rebels were forced to retreat as result of a government counteroffensive. Although the Syrian Army managed to retake most of the suburbs, sporadic fighting continued. Fighting erupted in Rastan again on 29 January, when dozens of soldiers manning the town's checkpoints defected and began opening fire on troops loyal to the government. Opposition forces gained complete control of the town and surrounding suburbs on 5 February.
On 3 February, the Syrian Army launched a major offensive in Homs to retake rebel-held neighborhoods. In early March, after weeks of artillery bombardments and heavy street fighting, the Syrian Army eventually captured the district of Baba Amr, a rebel stronghold. The Syrian Army also captured the district of Karm al-Zeitoun by 9 March, where activists said that government forces killed 47 women and children. By the end of March, the Syrian Army retook control of half a dozen districts, leaving them in control of 70 percent of the city. By 14 March, Syrian troops successfully ousted insurgents from the city of Idlib after days of fighting. By early April, the estimated death toll of the conflict, according to activists, reached 10,000.
Ceasefire attempt (April–May 2012)
Kofi Annan was acting as UN–Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria. His peace plan provided for a ceasefire, but even as the negotiations for it were being conducted, Syrian armed forces attacked a number of towns and villages, and summarily executed scores of people.:11 Incommunicado detention, including of children, also continued. In April, Assad began employing attack helicopters against rebel forces.
On 12 April, both sides, the Syrian Government and rebels of the FSA entered a UN-mediated ceasefire period. It was a failure, with infractions of the ceasefire by both sides resulting in several dozen casualties. Acknowledging its failure, Annan called for Iran to be "part of the solution", though the country has been excluded from the Friends of Syria initiative. The peace plan practically collapsed by early June and the UN mission was withdrawn from Syria. Annan officially resigned in frustration on 2 August 2012.
Renewed fighting (June–October 2012)
Following the Houla massacre of 25 May 2012, in which 108 people were summarily executed and the consequent FSA ultimatum to the Syrian government, the ceasefire practically collapsed, as the FSA began nationwide offensives against government troops. On 1 June, President Assad vowed to crush the anti-government uprising.
On 5 June, fighting broke out in Haffa and nearby villages in the coastal governorate of Latakia Governorate. Government forces were backed by helicopter gunships in the heaviest clashes in the governorate since the revolt began. Syrian forces seized the territory following days of fighting and shelling. On 6 June 78 civilians were killed in the Al-Qubeir massacre. According to activist sources, government forces started by shelling the village before the Shabiha militia moved in. The UN observers headed to Al-Qubeir in the hope of investigating the alleged massacre, but they were met with a roadblock and small arms fire and were forced to retreat.
On 12 June 2012, the UN for the first time officially proclaimed Syria to be in a state of civil war. The conflict began moving into the two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. In both cities, peaceful protests – including a general strike by Damascus shopkeepers and a small strike in Aleppo were interpreted as indicating that the historical alliance between the government and the business establishment in the large cities had become weak.
On 22 June, a Turkish F-4 fighter jet was shot down by Syrian government forces, killing both pilots. Syria and Turkey disputed whether the jet had been flying in Syrian or international airspace when it was shot down. Despite Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's vows to retaliate harshly against Assad's government, no such intervention materialised. Bashar al-Assad publicly apologised for the incident. By 10 July, rebel forces had captured most of the city of Al-Qusayr, in Homs Governorate, after weeks of fighting. By mid-July, rebels had captured the town of Saraqeb, in Idlib Governorate.
By mid-July 2012, with fighting spread across the country and 16,000 people killed, the International Committee of the Red Cross declared the conflict a civil war. Fighting in Damascus intensified, with a major rebel push to take the city. On 18 July, Syrian Defense Minister Dawoud Rajiha, former defense minister Hasan Turkmani, and the president's brother-in-law General Assef Shawkat were killed by a suicide bomb attack in Damascus. The Syrian intelligence chief Hisham Ikhtiyar, who was injured in the same explosion, later succumbed to his wounds. Both the FSA and Liwa al-Islam claimed responsibility for the assassination.
In mid-July, rebel forces attacked Damascus and were repelled in two weeks, although fighting still continued in the outskirts. After this, the focus shifted to the battle for control of Aleppo. On 25 July, multiple sources reported that the Assad government was using fighter jets to attack rebel positions in Aleppo and Damascus, and on 1 August, UN observers in Syria witnessed government fighter jets firing on rebels in Aleppo. In early August, the Syrian Army recaptured Salaheddin district, an important rebel stronghold in Aleppo. In August, the government began using fixed-wing warplanes against the rebels.
On 19 July, Iraqi officials reported that the FSA had gained control of all four border checkpoints between Syria and Iraq, increasing concerns for the safety of Iraqis trying to escape the violence in Syria. On 19 September, rebel forces seized a border crossing between Syria and Turkey in Ar-Raqqah Governorate. It was speculated that this crossing could provide opposition forces with strategic and logistical advantages due to Turkish support of the rebels, whose headquarters subsequently relocated from southern Turkey into northern Syria.
In October, rebel forces seized control of Maarat al-Numan, a town in Idlib Governorate on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo and captured Douma, marking increased influence in Rif Dimashq. Lakhdar Brahimi arranged for a ceasefire during Eid al-Adha in late October, but it quickly collapsed.
On 6 September 2012 Kurdish activists reported that 21 civilians were killed in the Kurdish neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsud in Aleppo, when the Syrian Army shelled the local mosque and its surroundings. Despite the district being neutral during the Battle of Aleppo and free of government and FSA clashes, local residents believed that the district was shelled as retaliation for sheltering anti-government civilians from other parts of the city. In a statement released shortly after the deaths, the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) vowed to retaliate. A few days later, Kurdish forces killed 3 soldiers in Afrin (Kurdish: Efrîn) and captured a number of other government soldiers in Ayn al-Arab (Kurdish: Kobanî) and Al-Malikiyah (Kurdish: Dêrika Hemko) from where they drove the remaining government security forces. It was also reported that the government had begun to arm Arab tribes around Qamishli in preparation for a possible confrontation with Kurdish forces, who still did not completely control the city.
At least 8 government soldiers were killed and 15 wounded by a car bomb in the al-Gharibi district of Qamishli on 30 September 2012. The explosion targeted the Political Security branch.
Rebel offensives (November 2012 – April 2013)
After Brahimi's ceasefire agreement ended on 30 October, the Syrian military expanded its aerial bombing campaign in Damascus. A bombing of the Damascus district of Jobar was the first instance of a fighter jet being used to bomb Damascus. The following day, Gen. Abdullah Mahmud al-Khalidi, a Syrian Air Force commander, was assassinated by opposition gunmen in the Damascus district of Rukn al-Din. In early November 2012, rebels made significant gains in northern Syria. The rebel capture of Saraqib in Idlib Governorate, which lies on the M5 highway, further isolated Aleppo. Due to insufficient anti-aircraft weapons, rebel units attempted to nullify the government's air power by destroying landed helicopters and aircraft on air bases. On 3 November, rebels launched an attack on the Taftanaz air base.
On 18 November, rebels took control of Base 46 in the Aleppo Governorate, one of the Syrian Army's largest bases in northern Syria, after weeks of intense fighting. Defected General Mohammed Ahmed al-Faj, who commanded the assault, stated that nearly 300 Syrian troops had been killed and 60 had been captured, with rebels seizing large amounts of heavy weapons, including tanks. On 22 November, rebels captured the Mayadeen military base in the country's eastern Deir ez-Zor Governorate. Activists said this gave the rebels control of a large amount of territory east of the base, stretching to the Iraqi border. On 29 November, at approximately 10:26 UTC, the Syrian Internet and phone service was shut off for a two-day period. Syrian government sources denied responsibility and blamed the blackout on fiber optic lines near Damascus becoming exposed and damaged; Edward Snowden in August 2014 claimed that this Internet breakdown had been caused, though unintendedly, by hackers of the NSA during an operation to intercept Internet communication in Syria.
In mid-December 2012, American officials said that the Syrian military had fired Scud ballistic missiles at rebel fighters inside Syria. Reportedly, six Scud missiles were fired at the Sheikh Suleiman base north of Aleppo, which rebel forces had occupied. It is unclear whether the Scuds hit the intended target. The government denied this claim. Later that month, a further Scud attack took place near Marea, a town north of Aleppo near the Turkish border. The missile appeared to have missed its target. That same month, the British Daily Telegraph reported that the FSA had now penetrated into Latakia Governorate's coast through Turkey. In late December, rebel forces pushed further into Damascus, taking control of the adjoining Yarmouk and Palestine refugee camps, pushing out pro-government Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command fighters with the help of other factions. Rebel forces launched an offensive in Hama Governorate, later claiming to have forced army regulars to evacuate several towns and bases, and stating that "three-quarters of western rural Hama is under our control." Rebels also captured the town of Harem near the Turkish border in Idlib Governorate, after weeks of heavy fighting.
On 11 January 2013, Islamist groups, including al-Nusra Front, took full control of the Taftanaz air base in the Idlib Governorate, after weeks of fighting. The air base was often used by the Syrian military to carry out helicopter raids and deliver supplies. The rebels claimed to have seized helicopters, tanks and multiple rocket launchers, before being forced to withdraw by a government counter-attack. The leader of the al-Nusra Front said the amount of weapons they took was a "game changer". On 11 February, Islamist rebels captured the town of Al-Thawrah in Ar-Raqqah Governorate and the nearby Tabqa Dam, Syria's largest dam and a key source of hydroelectricity. The next day, rebel forces took control of Jarrah air base, located 60 kilometres (37 mi) east of Aleppo. On 14 February, fighters from al-Nusra Front took control of Shadadeh, a town in Al-Hasakah Governorate near the Iraqi border.
On 20 February, a car bomb exploded in Damascus near the Ba'ath Syrian Regional Branch headquarters, killing at least 53 people and injuring more than 235. None of the groups claimed responsibility. On 21 February, the FSA in Quasar began shelling Hezbollah positions in Lebanon. Prior to this, Hezbollah had been shelling villages near Quasar from within Lebanon. A 48-hour ultimatum was issued by a FSA commander on 20 February, warning the militant group to stop the attacks.
On 2 March, intense clashes between rebels and the Syrian Army erupted in the city of Raqqah, with many reportedly killed on both sides. On the same day, Syrian troops regained several villages near Aleppo. By 3 March, rebels had overrun Raqqah's central prison, allowing them to free hundreds of prisoners, according to the SOHR. The SOHR also stated that rebel fighters were now in control of most of an Aleppo police academy in Khan al-Asal, and that over 200 rebels and government troops had been killed fighting for control of it.
By 6 March, the rebels had captured the city of Raqqah, effectively making it the first provincial capital to be lost by the Assad government. Residents of Raqqah toppled a bronze statue of his late father Hafez al-Assad in the centre of the city. The rebels also seized two top government officials. On 18 March, the Syrian Air Force attacked rebel positions in Lebanon for the first time. The attack occurred at the Wadi al-Khayl Valley area, near the town of Arsal. On 21 March, a suspected suicide bombing in the Iman Mosque in Mazraa district killed as many as 41 people, including the pro-Assad Sunni cleric, Sheikh Mohammed al-Buti. On 23 March, several rebel groups seized the 38th division air defense base in southern Daraa Governorate near a highway linking Damascus to Jordan. On the next day, rebels captured a 25 km strip of land near the Jordanian border, which included the towns of Muzrib, Abdin, and the al-Rai military checkpoint.
On 25 March, rebels launched one of their heaviest bombardments of Central Damascus since the revolt began. Mortars reached Umayyad Square, where the Ba'ath Party headquarters, Air Force Intelligence and state television are located. On 26 March, near the Syrian town of al-Qusayr, rebel commander Khaled al Hamad, who commands the Al Farooq al-Mustakilla Brigade and is also known by his nom de guerre Abu Sakkar, ate the heart and liver of a dead soldier and said "I swear to God, you soldiers of Bashar, you dogs, we will eat from your hearts and livers! O heroes of Bab Amr, you slaughter the Alawites and take out their hearts to eat them!" in an apparent attempt to increase sectarianism. Video of the event emerged two months later and resulted in considerable outrage, especially from Human Rights Watch which classified the incident as a war crime. According to the BBC, it was one of the most gruesome videos to emerge from the conflict to-date. On 29 March, rebels captured the town of Da'el after fierce fighting. The town is located in Daraa Governorate, along the highway connecting Damascus to Jordan. On 3 April, rebels captured a military base near the city of Daraa.
In mid-January 2013, as clashes re-erupted between rebels and Kurdish forces in Ras al-Ayn, YPG forces moved to expel government forces from oil-rich areas in Hassakeh Province. Clashes broke out from 14 to 19 January between the army and YPG fighters in the Kurdish village of Gir Zîro (Tall Adas), near al-Maabadah (Kurdish: Girkê Legê), where an army battalion of around 200 soldiers had been blockaded since 9 January. YPG forces claimed to have expelled government after the clashes. One soldier was reportedly killed and another eight injured, while seven were captured (later released) and 27 defected. Fighting at the oil field near Gir Zîro ended on 21 January, when government forces withdrew after receiving no assistance from Damascus. In Rumeilan, directly west of al-Maabadah, another 200 soldiers had been surrounded by YPG forces, and 10 soldiers were reported to have defected.
From 8 to 11 February, heavy clashes broke out between the YPG and government troops in the PYD/YPG-held district Ashrafiyah where, according to SOHR, at least 3 soldiers and 5 pro-government militiamen were killed. The fighting followed deadly shelling on 31 January on Ashrafiyah, in which 23 civilians were killed after FSA units moved into the Kurdish sector of Aleppo. According to its own reports, the YPG lost 7 of its members in the fighting, while also claiming that 48 soldiers were killed and 22 captured, and a further 70 injured.
In early March, YPG forces established full control of oil fields and installations in north-east Syria after government forces posted there surrendered. Also, YPG assaulted government forces and took control of the towns of Tall ʿAdas, which is adjacent to Rumeilan oil fields, and Al-Qahtaniya (Kurdish: Tirbespî).
Government offensives (April–June 2013)
On 17 April, government forces breached a six-month rebel blockade in Wadi al-Deif, near Idlib. Heavy fighting was reported around the town of Babuleen after government troops attempt to secure control of a main highway leading to Aleppo. The break in the siege also allowed government forces to resupply two major military bases in the region which had been relying on sporadic airdrops. On 18 April, the FSA took control of Al-Dab'a Air Base near the city of al-Qusayr. The base was being used primarily to garrison ground troops. Meanwhile, the Syrian Army re-captured the town of Abel. The SOHR said the loss of the town would hamper rebel movements between al-Qusayr and Homs city. The capture of the airport would have relieved the pressure on the rebels in the area, but their loss of Abel made the situation more complicated. The same day, rebels reportedly assassinated Ali Ballan, who was a government employee, in the Mazzeh district of Damascus. On 21 April, government forces captured the town of Jdaidet al-Fadl, near Damascus.
In April, government and Hezbollah forces launched an offensive to capture areas near al-Qusayr. On 21 April, pro-Assad forces captured the towns of Burhaniya, Saqraja and al-Radwaniya near the Lebanese border. By this point, eight villages had fallen to the government offensive in the area. On 24 April, after five weeks of fighting, government troops re-took control of the town of Otaiba, east of Damascus, which had been serving as the main arms supply route from Jordan. Meanwhile, in the north of the country, rebels took control of a position on the edge of the strategic Mennagh Military airbase, on the outskirts of Aleppo. This allowed them to enter the airbase after months of besieging it.
On 2 May, government forces captured the town of Qaysa in a push north from the city's airport. Troops also retook the Wadi al-Sayeh central district of Homs, driving a wedge between two rebel strongholds. SOHR reported a massacre of over 100 people by the Syrian Army in the coastal town of Al Bayda, Baniyas. However, this could not be independently verified due to movement restrictions on the ground. Yet the multiple video images that residents said they had recorded – particularly of small children, were so shocking that even some government supporters rejected Syrian television's official version of events, that the army had simply "crushed a number of terrorists."
On 15 June, the Syrian Army captured the Damascus suburb of Ahmadiyeh near the city's airport. On 22 June, the Syrian Army captured the rebel stronghold town of Talkalakh.
Continued fighting (July–October 2013)
On 28 June, rebel forces captured a major military checkpoint in the city of Daraa. On 12 July FSA reported that one of its commanders, Kamal Hamami, had been killed by Islamists a day before. The rebels declared that the assassination by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, was tantamount to a declaration of war. On 17 July, FSA forces took control of most of the southern city of Nawa after seizing up to 40 army posts stationed in the city. On 18 July, Kurdish YPG forces secured control of the northern town of Ras al-Ain, after days of fighting with the al-Nusra Front. In the following three months, continued fighting between Kurdish and mainly jihadist rebel forces led to the capture of two dozen towns and villages in Hasakah Governorate by Kurdish fighters, while the Jihadists made limited gains in Aleppo and Raqqah governorates after they turned on the Kurdish rebel group Jabhat al-Akrad over its relationship with the YPG. In Aleppo Governorate, Islamists massacred the Kurds leading to a mass migration of civilians to the town of Afrin.
On 22 July, FSA fighters seized control of the western Aleppo suburb of Khan al-Asal. The town was the last government stronghold in the western portion of Aleppo Governorate. On 25 July, the Syrian Army secured the town of al-Sukhnah, after expelling the al-Nusra Front. On 27 July, after weeks of fighting and bombardment in Homs, the Syrian Army captured the historic Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque, and two days later, captured the district of Khaldiyeh.
On 4 August, around 10 rebel brigades, launched a large-scale offensive on the government stronghold of Latakia Governorate. Initial attacks by 2,000 opposition members seized as many as 12 villages in the mountainous area. Between 4 and 5 August 20 rebels and 32 government soldiers and militiamen had been killed in the clashes. Hundreds of Alawite villagers fled to Latakia. By 5 August, rebel fighters advanced to 20 kilometers from Qardaha, the home town of the Assad family. However, in mid-August, the military counter-attacked and recaptured all of the territory previously lost to the rebels in the coastal region during the offensive. A Syrian security force source "told AFP the army still had to recapture the Salma region, a strategic area along the border with Turkey." According to a Human Rights Watch report 190 civilians were killed by rebel forces during the offensive, including at least 67 being executed. Another 200 civilians, primarily women and children, were taken hostage.
On 6 August, rebels captured Menagh Military Airbase after a 10-month siege. The strategic airbase is located on the road between Aleppo city and the Turkish border. On 21 August a chemical attack took place in the Ghouta region of the Damascus countryside, leading to thousands of casualties and several hundred dead in the opposition-held stronghold. The attack was followed by a military offensive by government forces into the area, which had been hotbeds of the opposition. On 24 August, rebels captured the town of Ariha. However, government forces recaptured Ariha on 3 September. On 26 August, rebel forces took over the town of Khanasir in Aleppo Governorate which was the government's last supply route for the city of Aleppo. On 8 September, rebels led by the al-Nusra Front captured the Christian town of Maaloula, 43 km north of Damascus, The Syrian Army launched a counterattack a few days later, recapturing the town.
On 18 September, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) overran the FSA-held town of Azaz in the north. The fighting was the most severe since tensions rose between militant factions in Syria earlier in the year. Soon after ISIS captured Azaz, a ceasefire was announced between the rival rebel groups. However, in early October, more fighting erupted in the town. On 20 September, Alawite militias including the NDF killed 15 civilians in the Sunni village of Sheik Hadid in Hama Governorate. The massacre occurred in retaliation for a rebel capture of the village of Jalma, in Hama, which killed five soldiers, along with the seizure of a military checkpoint which killed 16 soldiers and 10 NDF militiamen. In mid-September, the military captured the towns of Deir Salman and Shebaa on the outskirts of Damascus. The Army also captured six villages in eastern Homs. Fighting broke out in those towns again in October.
On 28 September, rebels seized the Ramtha border post in Daraa Governorate on the Syria Jordan crossing after fighting which left 26 soldiers dead along with 7 foreign rebel fighters. On 3 October, AFP reported that Syria's army re-took the town of Khanasir, which is located on a supply route linking central Syria to the city of Aleppo. On 7 October, the Syrian Army managed to reopen the supply route between Aleppo and Khanasir.
On 9 October, rebels seized the Hajanar guard post on the Jordanian border after a month of fierce fighting. Rebels were now in control of a swath of territory along the border from outside of Daraa to the edge of Golan Heights. The same day, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite fighters, backed up by artillery, air-strikes and tanks, captured the town of Sheikh Omar, on the southern outskirts of Damascus. Two days later, they also captured the towns of al-Thiabiya and Husseiniya on the southern approaches to Damascus. The capture of the three towns strengthened the government hold on major supply lines and put more pressure on rebels under siege in the Eastern Ghouta area. On 14 October, SOHR reported that rebels captured the Resefa and Sinaa districts of Deir ez-Zor city, as well as Deir ez-Zor's military hospital.
Government offensives (October–December 2013)
The Syrian Army along with its allies, Hezbollah and the al-Abas brigade, launched an offensive on Damascus and Aleppo. On 16 October, AFP reported that Syrian troops recaptured the town of Bweida, south of Damascus. On 17 October, the Syrian government's head of Military Intelligence in Deir ez-Zor Governorate, Jameh Jameh, was assassinated by rebels in Deir ez-Zor city. SOHR reported that he had been shot by a rebel sniper during a battle with rebel brigades. On 24 October, the Syrian Army retook control of the town of Hatetat al-Turkman, located southeast of Damascus, along the Damascus International Airport road.
On 26 October, Kurdish rebel fighters seized control of the strategic Yarubiya border crossing between Syria and Iraq from al-Nusra in Al Hasakah Governorate. Elsewhere, in Daraa Governorate, rebel fighters captured the town of Tafas from government forces after weeks of clashes which left scores dead. On 1 November, the Syrian Army retook control of the key city of Al-Safira and the next day, the Syrian Army and its allies recaptured the village of Aziziyeh on the northern outskirts of Al-Safira. From early to mid-November, Syrian Army forces captured several towns south of Damascus, including Hejeira and Sbeineh. Government forces also recaptured the town of Tel Aran, southeast of Aleppo, and a military base near Aleppo's international airport.
On 10 November, the Syrian Army had taken full control of "Base 80", near Aleppo's airport. According to the SOHR, 63 rebels, and 32 soldiers were killed during the battle. One other report put the number of rebels killed between 60 and 80. Army units were backed-up by Hezbollah fighters and pro-government militias during the assault. The following day, government forces secured most of the area around the airport. On 13 November, government forces captured most of Hejeira. Rebels retreated from Hejeira to Al-Hajar al-Aswad. However, their defenses in besieged districts closer to the heart of Damascus were still reportedly solid. On 15 November, the Syrian Army retook control of the city of Tell Hassel near Aleppo. On 18 November, the Syrian troops stormed the town of Babbila. On 19 November, government forces took full control of Qara. The same day, the Syrian Army captured al-Duwayrinah. On 23 November, al-Nusra Front and other Islamist rebels captured the al-Omar oil field, Syria's largest oil field, in Deir al-Zor Governorate causing the government to rely almost entirely on imported oil. On 24 November, rebels captured the towns of Bahariya, Qasimiya, Abbadah, and Deir Salman in Damascus's countryside. On 28 November, the Syrian Army recaptured Deir Attiyeh.
On 2 December, rebels led by the Free Syrian Army recaptured the historic Christian town of Ma'loula. After the fighting, reports emerged that 12 nuns had been abducted by the rebels. However, the FSA disputes this and said that the nuns had been evacuated to the nearby rebel held town of Yabrud due to the Army shelling. In early December, the Islamic Front seized control of Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, which had been in hands of FSA. The groups also captured warehouses containing equipment delivered by the U.S. In response, the U.S. and Britain said they halted all non-lethal aid to the FSA, fearing that further supplies could fall in hands of al-Qaeda militants. On 9 December, the Army took full control of Nabek, with fighting continuing in its outskirts.
Fighting between ISIS and other rebel groups (January–March 2014)
Tension between moderate rebel forces and ISIS had been high since ISIS captured the border town of Azaz from FSA forces on 18 September 2013. Conflict was renewed over Azaz in early October and in late November ISIS captured the border town of Atme from an FSA brigade. On 3 January 2014, the Army of the Mujahideen, the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front launched an offensive against ISIS in Aleppo and Idlib governorates. A spokesman for the rebels said that rebels attacked ISIS in up to 80% of all ISIS held villages in Idlib and 65% of those in Aleppo.
By 6 January, opposition rebels managed to expel ISIS forces from the city of Raqqah, ISIS's largest stronghold and capital of the Raqqah Governorate. On 8 January, opposition rebels expelled most ISIS forces from the city of Aleppo, however ISIS reinforcements from the Deir ez-Zor Governorate managed to retake several neighborhoods of the city of Raqqah. By mid January ISIS retook the entire city of Raqqah, while rebels expelled ISIS fighters fully from Aleppo city and the villages west of it.
On 29 January, Turkish aircraft near the border fired on an ISIS convoy inside the Aleppo province of Syria, killing 11 ISIS fighters and 1 ISIS emir. In late January it was confirmed that rebels had assassinated ISIS's second in command, Haji Bakr, who was al-Qaeda's military council head and a former military officer in Saddam Hussein's army. By mid-February, the al-Nusra Front joined the battle in support of rebel forces, and expelled ISIS from the Deir Ezzor Governorate. By March, the ISIS forces fully retreated from the Idlib Governorate. On 4 March, ISIS retreated from the border town of Azaz and other nearby villages, choosing instead to consolidate around Raqqah in an anticipation of an escalation of fighting with al-Nusra.
Government offensives and Presidential election (March–June 2014)
On 4 March, the Syrian Army took control of Sahel in the Qalamoun region. On 8 March, government forces took over Zara, in Homs Governorate, further blocking rebel supply routes from Lebanon. On 11 March, Government forces and Hezbollah took control of the Rima Farms region, directly facing Yabrud. On 16 March, Hezbollah and government forces captured Yabrud, after Free Syrian Army fighters made an unexpected withdrawal, leaving the al-Nusra Front to fight in the city on its own. On 18 March, Israel used artillery against a Syrian Army base, after four of its soldiers had been wounded by a roadside bomb while patrolling Golan Heights.
On 19 March, the Syrian Army captured Ras al-Ain near Yabrud, after two days of fighting and al-Husn in Homs Governorate, while rebels in the Daraa Governorate captured Daraa prison, and freed hundreds of detainees. On 20 March, the Syrian Army took control of the Krak des Chevaliers in al-Husn. On 29 March, Syrian Army took control of the villages of Flitah and Ras Maara near the border with Lebanon.
On 22 March, rebels took control of the Kesab border post in the Latakia Governorate. By 23 March, rebels had taken most of Khan Sheikhoun in Hama. During clashes near the rebel-controlled Kesab border post in Latakia, Hilal Al Assad, NDF leader in Latakia and one of Bashar Al Assad's cousins was killed by rebel fighters. On 4 April, rebels captured the town of Babulin, Idlib. On 9 April, the Syrian Army took control of Rankous in the Qalamoun region. On 12 April, rebels in Aleppo stormed the government-held Ramouseh industrial district in an attempt to cut the Army supply route between the airport and a large Army base. The rebels also took the Rashidin neighbourhood and parts of the Jamiat al-Zahra district. On 26 April, the Syrian Army took control of Al-Zabadani. According to SOHR, rebels took control of Tell Ahrmar, Quneitra. Rebels in Daraa also took over Brigade 61 Base and the 74th battalion.
On 26 April, the FSA announced they had begun an offensive against ISIS in the Raqqah Governorate, and had seized five towns west of Raqqah city. On 29 April, activists said that the Syrian Army captured Tal Buraq near the town of Mashara in Quneitra without any clashes. On 7 May, a truce went into effect in the city of Homs, SOHR reported. The terms of the agreement include safe evacuation of Islamist fighters from the city, which would then fall under government control, in exchange for release of prisoners and safe passage of humanitarian aid for Nubul and Zahraa, two Shiite enclaves besieged by the rebels. On 18 May, the head of Syria's Air Defense, General Hussein Ishaq, died of wounds sustained during a rebel attack on an air defense base near Mleiha the previous day. In Hama Governorate, rebel forces took control of the town of Tel Malah, killing 34 pro-Assad fighters at an army post near the town. Its seizure marked the third time rebels have taken control of the town.
Syria held a presidential election in government-held areas on 3 June 2014. For the first time in the history of Syria more than one person was allowed to stand as a presidential candidate. More than 9,000 polling stations were set up in government-held areas. According to the Supreme Constitutional Court of Syria, 11.63 million Syrians voted (the turnout was 73.42%). President Bashar al-Assad won the election with 88.7% of the votes. As for Assad's challengers, Hassan al-Nouri received 4.3% of the votes and Maher Hajjar received 3.2%. Allies of Assad from more than 30 countries were invited by the Syrian government to follow the presidential election, including Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, India, Iran, Iraq, Nicaragua, Russia, South Africa and Venezuela. The Iranian official Alaeddin Boroujerdi read a statement by the group saying the election was "free, fair and transparent". The Gulf Cooperation Council, the European Union and the United States all dismissed the election as illegitimate and a farce.
It is claimed in an opinion piece that as few as 6 million eligible voters remained in Syria. Due to rebel, Kurdish and ISIS control of Syrian territories there was no voting in roughly 60% of the country.
ISIL offensives and U.S. airstrikes (June 2014 – January 2015)
Starting on 5 June, ISIL seized swathes of territory in Iraq in addition to heavy weapons and equipment from the Iraqi Army, some of which they brought into Syria. Government airstrikes targeted ISIL bases in Ar-Raqqah and Al-Hasakah in coordination with an Iraqi Army counteroffensive. On 14 June, government forces retook the town of Kessab in northern Latakia Governorate, while rebels took over Tall al-Gomo near the town of Nawa in the Daraa Governorate, as well as reentering the Qalamoun area.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, on 17 July ISIL took control of the Shaar oil field, killing 90 pro-government forces while losing 21 fighters. In addition, 270 guards and government-aligned fighters were missing. About 30 government persons managed to escape to the nearby Hajjar field. On 20 July, the Syrian Army secured the field, although fighting continued in its outskirts. On 25 July, the Islamic State took control of the Division 17 base near Raqqah.
On 7 August, ISIL took the Brigade 93 base in Raqqah using weapons captured from their offensive in Iraq. Multiple suicide bombs also went off before the base was stormed. On 13 August, ISIL forces took the towns of Akhtarin and Turkmanbareh from rebels in Aleppo. ISIL forces also took a handful of nearby villages. The other towns seized include Masoudiyeh, Dabiq and Ghouz.
On 14 August, the Free Syrian Army commander Sharif As-Safouri admitted working with Israel and receiving anti-tank weapons from Israel and FSA soldiers also received medical treatment inside Israel. On 14 August, the Syrian Army as well as Hezbollah militias retook the town of Mleiha in Rif Dimashq Governorate. The Supreme Military Council of the FSA denied claims of Mleiha's seizure, rather the rebels have redeployed from recent advances to other defensive lines. Mleiha has been held by the Islamic Front. Rebels had used the town to fire mortars on government held areas inside Damascus.
Meanwhile, ISIL forces in Raqqah were launching a siege on Tabqa airbase, the Syrian government's last military base in Raqqah. Kuwaires airbase in Aleppo also came under fierce attack by ISIL. On 16 August, there were reports that 22 people were killed in the village of Daraa by a car bomb outside a mosque. The bomb was thought to be detonated by ISIS. Also on 16 August, the Islamic State seized the village of Beden in Aleppo Governorate from rebels.
On 17 August, SOHR said that in the past two weeks ISIL jihadists had killed over 700 tribal members in oil-rich Deir ez-Zor Governorate.
On 19 August, Abu Abdullah al-Iraqi, a senior figure in ISIL who had helped prepare and plan car and suicide bombs across Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq was killed. Some reports said that he was killed by Hezbollah fighters. There were also several reports that he was killed by the Syrian Army in the Qalamoun region, near the border with Lebanon.
On 19 August, American journalist James Foley was executed by ISIL, who claimed it was in retaliation for the United States operations in Iraq. Foley was kidnapped in Syria in November 2012 by Shabiha militia. ISIL also threatened to execute Steven Sotloff, who was kidnapped at the Syrian-Turkish border in August 2013. There were reports ISIS captured a Japanese national, two Italian nationals, and a Danish national as well. At least 70 journalists have been killed covering the Syrian war, and more than 80 kidnapped, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
On 22 August, the al-Nusra Front released a video of captured Lebanese soldiers and demanded that Hezbollah withdraw from Syria under threat of their execution.
On 23 August, the Tabqa airbase was no longer encircled by ISIL fighters and the Syrian Army had taken back the M-42 Highway from ISIL fighters, which leads to the city of Salamiyah in the Hama Governorate. Also in Raqqah, the Syrian Army took control of the town of Al-Ejeil. ISIL reportedly sent reinforcements from Iraq to the governorate of Raqqah. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 400 ISIL fighters had also been wounded in the previous five days in clashes with the Syrian Army and National Defence Force in Raqqah alone. At the same time, several senior UK and US figures urged Turkey to stop allowing ISIL to cross the border to Syria and Iraq. It was around this time that the Americans realized that the Turks had no intention of sealing their side of the border, and so Washington decided to work with the Syrian Kurds to close off the border on the Syrian side. A year later, with the Kurds in control of most of the Turkey–Syria border, and the Syrian army advancing under Russian air support to seal the remainder, the situation was causing great ructions in Ankara.
On the following day, the Islamic State seized Tabqa airbase from government forces. The battle for the base left 346 ISIL fighters and 195 soldiers dead. Prisoners taken by ISIL forces were executed and a video from the mass killing was posted on YouTube. The death toll varied from 120 to 250.
On 26 August, the Syrian Air Force carried out airstrikes against ISIL targets in the Governorate of Deir ez-Zor. This was the first time the Syrian Army attacked them in Deir ez-Zor as the Syrian Army pulled out of Raqqah and shifted to Deir ez-Zor in a bid to seize its oil and natural gas resources as well as strategically splitting ISIL territories.
American jets began bombing ISIL in Syria on 23 September 2014, raising U.S. involvement in the war-torn country. At least 20 targets in and around Raqqah were hit, the opposition group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Foreign partners participating in the strikes with the United States were Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Jordan. The U.S. and "partner nation forces" began striking ISIL targets using fighters, bombers and Tomahawk missiles, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
U.S. aircraft include B-1 bombers, F-16s, F-18s and Predator drones, with F-18s flying missions off the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) in the Persian Gulf. Tomahawk missiles were fired from the destroyer USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) in the Red Sea. Syria's Foreign Ministry told the Associated Press that the U.S. informed Syria's envoy to the U.N. that "strikes will be launched against the terrorist group in Raqqah". The United States informed the Free Syrian Army beforehand of the impending airstrikes, and the rebels said that weapons transfers to the Free Syrian Army had begun.
The United States also attacked a specific faction of al-Nusra called the Khorasan Group, who according to the United States had training camps and plans for attacking the United States in the future.
By 3 October, ISIL forces were heavily shelling the city of Kobanî and were within a kilometer of the town.
Within 36 hours from 21 October, the Syrian air force carried out over 200 airstrikes on rebel-held areas across Syria and US and Arab jets attacked IS positions around Kobanî. Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said the YPG forces in Kobanî had been provided with military and logistical support. Syria reported that its air force had destroyed two fighter jets being operated by IS.
By 26 January, the Kurdish YPG forced ISIL forces in Kobanî to retreat, thus fully recapturing the city. The U.S. confirmed that the city had been cleared of ISIL forces on 27 January, and ISIL admitted defeat in Kobanî city three days later, although they vowed to return.
The Southern Front (October 2014 – February 2015)
In February 2014, the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army formed in southern Syria. Six months later, they started a string of victories in Daraa and Quneitra during the 2014 Quneitra offensive, the Daraa offensive, the Battle of Al-Shaykh Maskin, the Battle of Bosra (2015) and the Battle of Nasib Border Crossing. A government counter-offensive (the 2015 Southern Syria offensive) during this period, that included the IRGC and Hezbollah, recaptured 15 towns, villages and hills, but the operation slowed soon after and stalled.
Since early 2015, opposition military operations rooms based in Jordan and Turkey began increasing cooperation, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar also reportedly agreeing upon the necessity to unite opposition factions against the Syrian government.
Northern Al-Nusra Front and Islamist takeover (October 2014 – March 2015)
In late October 2014, a conflict erupted between the al-Nusra Front on one side and the western-backed SRF and Hazzm Movement on the other (Al-Nusra Front–SRF/Hazzm Movement conflict). ISIL reportedly reinforced al-Nusra. By the end of February 2015 al-Nusra had defeated both groups, captured the entire Zawiya Mountain region in Idlib province and several towns and military bases in other governorates, and seized weapons supplied by the CIA to the two moderate groups. The significant amount of weapons seized included a small number of BGM-71 anti-tank missiles similar to weapons systems al-Nusra Front had previously captured from government stockpiles such as French MILANs, Chinese HJ-8s and Russian 9K111 Fagots. Reuters reported that this represented al-Nusra crushing pro-Western rebels in the north of the country. According to FSA commanders in northern Syria, however, the elimination of Harakat Hazm and the SRF was a welcome development due to the leaders of those factions allegedly involved in corruption. The Western-backed 30th Division of the FSA remained active elsewhere in Idlib.
By 24 March 2015 the al-Nusra Front dominated most of Idlib province, except for the government-held provincial capital, Idlib, which they had encircled on three sides along with its Islamist allies. On 28 March a joint coalition of Islamist forces, the Army of Conquest, captured Idlib. This left the north largely taken over by Ahrar ash-Sham, al-Nusra Front and other Islamist rebels, with the south of the country becoming the last significant foothold for the mainstream, non-jihadist opposition fighters.
Army of Conquest advances in Idlib (April 2015 – June 2015)
On 22 April, a new rebel offensive was launched in the north-west of Syria and by 25 April, the rebel coalition Army of Conquest had captured the city of Jisr al-Shughur. At the end of the following month, the rebels also seized the Al-Mastumah military base, and Ariha, leaving government forces in control of tiny pockets of Idlib, including the Abu Dhuhur military airport. In addition, according to Charles Lister (Brookings Doha Center), the Army of Conquest coalition was a broad opposition effort to ensure that the Al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front was contained, with the rearguard involvement of Western-backed factions being regarded as crucial. Still, according to some, the FSA in northern Syria had by this point all but dissipated. Many of the moderate fighters joined more extremist organizations, such as Ahrar ash-Sham, the largest faction in the Army of Conquest, which led to the subsequent rise of the Islamist Army of Conquest coalition.
Rebel advances led to government and Hezbollah morale plunging dramatically. In north-west Syria these losses were countered by a Hezbollah-led offensive in the Qalamoun mountains north of Damascus, on the border with Lebanon, that gave Hezbollah effective control of the entire area.
Resurgent ISIL advance (May 2015 – September 2015)
On 21 May, ISIL took control of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, after eight days of fighting. The jihadists also captured the nearby towns of Al-Sukhnah and Amiriya, as well as several oil fields. Following the capture of Palmyra, ISIL conducted mass executions in the area, killing an estimated 217–329 government civilian supporters and soldiers, according to opposition activists. Government sources put the number of killed at 400–450.
By early June, ISIL reached the town of Hassia, which lies on the main road from Damascus to Homs and Latakia, and reportedly took up positions to the west of it, creating a potential disaster for the government and raising the threat of Lebanon being sucked further into the war.
On 25 June, ISIL launched two offensives. One was a surprise diversionary attack on Kobanî, while the second targeted government-held parts of Al-Hasakah city. The ISIL offensive on Al-Hasakah displaced 60,000 people, with the UN estimating a total of 200,000 would be displaced.
In July 2015, a raid by U.S. special forces on a compound housing the Islamic State's "chief financial officer", Abu Sayyaf, produced evidence that Turkish officials directly dealt with ranking ISIS members.
ISIS captured Qaryatayn city from the government on 5 August 2015.
Russian intervention and government offensive (30 September 2015–February 2016)
|Russian military facilities involved in the war in Syria|
Aircraft group ASF RF
On 30 September 2015, at an official request by the Syrian government headed by President Bashar al-Assad, the Russian Aerospace Forces began a sustained campaign of air strikes against both ISIL and the anti-Assad FSA. Initially, the raids were conducted solely by Russian aircraft stationed in the Khmeimim base in Syria. Shortly after the start of the Russian operation, U.S. president Barack Obama was reported to have authorized the resupply of Syrian Kurds and the Arab-Syrian opposition, Obama reportedly emphasizing to his team that the U.S. would continue to support the Syrian opposition now that Russia had joined the conflict.
On 7 October 2015, Russian officials said the ships of the Caspian Flotilla had earlier that day fired 26 sea-based cruise missiles at 11 ISIL targets in Syria destroying those and causing no civilian casualties. On the same day, the Syrian government′s ground forces launched a ground offensive that in the following few days succeeded in recapturing some territory in northern Hama Governorate, close to the government's coastal heartland in the west of the country.
On 8 October 2015, the U.S. officially announced the end of the Pentagon’s $500 million program to train and equip Syrian rebels in an acknowledgment that the program had failed (other covert and significantly larger CIA programs to arm anti-government fighters in Syria continue).
Two weeks after the start of the Russian campaign in Syria, The New York Times opined that with anti-government commanders receiving for the first time bountiful supplies of U.S.-made anti-tank missiles and with Russia raising the number of airstrikes against the government’s opponents that had raised morale in both camps, broadening war objectives and hardening political positions, the conflict was turning into an all-out proxy war between the U.S. and Russia.
Despite multiple top-ranking casualties incurred by the Iranian forces advising fighters in Syria, in mid-October the Russian-Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah offensive targeting rebels in Aleppo went ahead.
At the end of October 2015, the U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter signalled a shift in the strategy of the U.S.-led campaign saying there will be more air strikes and ruling in the use of direct ground raids, the fight in Syria concentrating mostly on Raqqah.
On 30 October and two weeks later, Syria peace talks were held in Vienna, initiated by the United States, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, in which on 30 October Iran participated for the first time in negotiations on Syrian settlement. The participants disagreed on the future of Bashar Assad.
On 10 November 2015, the Syrian government forces completed the operation to break through the Islamic State insurgents′ blockade of the Kweires air base in Aleppo Province, where government forces had been under siege since April 2013.
In mid-November 2015, in the wake of the Russian plane bombing over Sinai and the Paris attacks, both Russia and France significantly intensified their strikes in Syria, France closely coordinating with the U.S. military. On 17 November, Putin said he had issued orders for the cruiser Moskva that had been in eastern Mediterranean since the start of the Russian operations to "work as with an ally", with the French naval group led by flagship Charles De Gaulle that had been on her way to eastern Mediterranean since early November. Shortly afterwards, a Russian foreign ministry official criticised France′s stridently anti-Assad stance as well as France′s air strikes at oil and gas installations in Syria as apparently designed to prevent those from returning under the Syrian government′s control; the Russian official pointed out that such strikes by France could not be justified as they were carried out without the Syrian government′s consent. In his remarks to a French delegation that included French parliamentarians, on 14 November, President Bashar Assad sharply criticised France′s as well as other Western States′ actions against the Syrian government suggesting that French support for Syrian opposition forces had led to the Islamic State-claimed attacks in Paris.
On 19 November 2015, U.S. President Barack Obama, speaking of the Vienna process, said he was unable to "foresee a situation in which we can end the civil war in Syria while Assad remains in power"; he urged Russia and Iran to stop supporting the Syrian government.
On 20 November 2015, the UN Security Council, while failing to invoke the UN's Chapter VII, which gives specific legal authorisation for the use of force, unanimously passed Resolution 2249 that urged UN members to "redouble and coordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL also known as Da’esh as well as ANF, and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al-Qaida, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the United Nations Security Council, and as may further be agreed by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) and endorsed by the UN Security Council". The adopted resolution was drafted by France and co-sponsored by the UK the following day after Russia introduced an updated version of its previously submitted draft resolution that was blocked by the Western powers as seeking to legitimise Assad’s authority.
On 24 November 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane that allegedly violated Turkish airspace and crashed in northwestern Syria, leading to the Russian pilot's death. Following the crash, it was reported that Syrian Turkmen rebels from Syrian Turkmen Brigades attacked and shot down a Russian rescue helicopter, killing a Russian naval infantryman. A few days after, Russian aircraft were reported to have struck targets in the Syrian town of Ariha in Idlib province that was controlled by the Army of Conquest causing multiple casualties on the ground.
On 2 December 2015, the Parliament of the United Kingdom voted to expand Operation Shader into Syria with a majority of 397-223. That day, two British Tornado aircraft took off from RAF Akrotiri immediately at 22:30, each carrying three Paveway bombs. Two further aircraft were deployed at 00:30 on 3 December, and all aircraft returned by 06:30 without their bombs. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said that the strikes hit the Omar oil fields in eastern Syria, and that eight more jets (two Tornados and six Typhoons) were being sent to RAF Akrotiri to join the eight already there.
On 7 December 2015, the government of Syria announced that US-led coalition warplanes had fired nine missiles at its army camp near Ayyash, Deir al-Zour province, on the evening prior, killing three soldiers and wounding 13 others; three armoured vehicles, four military vehicles, heavy machine-guns and an arms and ammunition depot were also destroyed. The government condemned the strikes, the first time the government forces would be struck by the coalition, as an act of "flagrant aggression"; the coalition spokesman denied it was responsible. Anonymous Pentagon officials alleged later in the day that the Pentagon was "certain" that a Russian warplane (presumably a TU-22 bomber) had carried out the attack. The claim was denied by the Russian military spokesman who noted that four Western coalition warplanes (other than U.S.) had been spotted over the Deir az-Zor area in Syria on 6 December.
The UN resolution 2254 of 18 December 2015 that endorsed the ISSG′s transitional plan but did not clarify who would represent the Syrian opposition, while condemning terrorist groups like ISIL and al-Qaeda; it made no mention of the future role of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
On 12 January 2016, the Syria government announced that its army and allied forces had established "full control" of the strategically situated town of Salma, whose pre-war population was predominantly Sunni, in the northwestern province of Latakia, and continued to advance north.
On 16 January 2016, ISIL militants launched raid on government-held areas in the city of Deir ez-Zor and killed up to 300 people. Counter-strikes by Russian Air Force fighter jets, in support of Syrian army forces, were reported to take back the areas.
On 21 January 2016, Russia′s activity presumably aimed at setting up a new base in the government-controlled Kamishly Airport was first reported; the northeastern town of Al-Qamishli in the Al-Hasakah Governorate had been largely under the Syrian Kurds′ control since the start of the Syrian Kurdish–Islamist conflict in the governorate of Al-Hasakah in July 2013. Similar activity by the U.S. forces was suspected in the Rmeilan Airbase in the same province, 50 km away from the Kamishly Airport; the area is likewise controlled by the US-backed Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).
On 24 January 2016, the Syrian government announced its forces, carrying on with their Latakia offensive, had seized the predominantly Sunni-populated town of Rabia, the last major town held by rebels in western Latakia province; Russian forces were said to have played an important role in the recapture. The capture of Rabia was said to threaten rebel supply lines from Turkey.
By 26 January 2016, the Syrian government established "full control" over the town of Al-Shaykh Maskin in the Daraa Governorate, thus completing the operation that had begun in late December 2015. The town′s capture by the Syrian government was remarked as a "turning of the tide in the Syrian war" by Al-Jazeera.
Partial ceasefire (from 26 February–July 2016)
On 26 February 2016, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2268 that endorsed a previously brokered U.S.-Russian deal on a "cessation of hostilities". The cease-fire started on 27 February 2016 at 00:00 (Damascus time). The ceasefire does not include attacks on UN-designated terrorist organizations. At the close of February 2016, despite individual clashes, the truce was reported to hold. By the end of March, the Syrian government forces with support from Russia and Iran successfully captured Palmyra from the ISIL.
By early July 2016, the truce was said to have mostly unraveled, violence again escalated, and the fighting between all the major parties to the conflict continued. At the end of July 2016, the fighting between the government and Islamist rebels in and around Aleppo intensified.
SDF advances and Turkish military intervention (August 2016–present)
On 12 August 2016, the Syrian Democratic Forces fully captured Manbij from ISIL. Some days later the SDF announced a new offensive towards Al-Bab, which could eventually connect the Kurdish regions in Northern Syria.
A few days after, the battle of al-Hasakah began. On 22 August, the Kurdish YPG, having captured Ghwairan, the only major Arab neighbourhood in Hasaka that had been in government hands, launched a major assault to seize the last government-controlled areas of the northeastern Syrian city of Hasaka, after a Russian mediation team failed to mend the rift between the two sides; the next day the capture of the city was completed. A few days prior, the Pentagon admonished the Syrian government against "interfering with coalition forces or our partners" in that region, adding that the U.S. had the right to defend its troops.
On 24 August 2016, Turkey′s armed forces invaded Syria in the Jarablus area controlled by ISIL starting what the Turkish president called the Operation Euphrates Shield, aimed against, according to his statement, both the IS and Kurdish ″terror groups that threaten our country in northern Syria″. The Syrian government denounced the intervention as a "blatant violation of its sovereignty" and said that "fighting terrorism isn’t done by ousting ISIS and replacing it with other terrorist organizations backed directly by Turkey". The PYD leader Salih Muslim said that Turkey was now in the "Syrian quagmire" and would be defeated like IS. Speaking in Ankara the same day, US vice president Joe Biden indirectly endorsed Turkey′s move and said that the U.S. had made it clear to the Syrian Kurdish forces that they should move back east across the Euphrates, or lose US support.
As Turkish troops and the Turkish-aligned Syrian rebels took control of Jarablus and moved further south towards the Syrian town of Manbij, they clashed with the Kurdish YPG, which led the U.S. officials to voice concern and issue a warning to both sides. On 29 August, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter specified that the U.S. did not support Turkey′s advance south of Jarablus. The warning as well as an announcement made by the U.S. of a tentative ceasefire between the Turkish forces and the Kurds in the area of Jarablus were promptly and angrily dismissed by Turkey′s officials. However, combat between the Turkish forces and the SDF died down, and instead Turkish forces moved West to confront IS. In the meantime the SDF, including Western volunteers, continued to reinforce Manbij.
At sunset on 12 September 2016, a U.S.-Russian brokered cease-fire came into effect. Five days later, the U.S. and other coalition members′ jets bombed Syrian Army positions near Deir ez-Zor—purportedly by accident, but with Russia contending that it was intentional—killing at least 62 Syrian troops that were fighting ISIL militants. Shortly after, the ceasefire broke down, and on 19 September the Syrian Army declared to no longer observe the truce. Also on 19 September, an aid convoy in Aleppo was attacked with the U.S. coalition blaming the Russian and Syrian governments for the attack and these same governments denying these accusation and instead blaming terrorists for the attack.
On 22 September, the Syrian army declared a new offensive in Aleppo.
On 26 October 2016 US Defence Secretary Ash Carter said that an offensive to retake Al-Raqqah from IS will begin within weeks.
Advanced weaponry and tactics
A UN fact-finding mission was requested by member states to investigate 16 alleged chemical weapons attacks. Seven of them have been investigated (nine were dropped for lack of "sufficient or credible information") and in four cases the UN inspectors confirmed use of sarin gas. The reports, however, did not blame any party for using chemical weapons. Many countries, including the United States and the European Union have accused the Syrian government of conducting several chemical attacks, the most serious of them being the 2013 Ghouta attacks. However, before this incident UN human rights investigator Carla del Ponte who has been investigating sarin gas use in Syria, in May 2013 accused the opposition of the 'regime' for using sarin gas and in her interview she said: "According to the testimonies we have gathered, the rebels have used chemical weapons, making use of sarin gas". 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".
Many nations including but not limited to Syria, America, Russia, China, Israel and India are not parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and do not recognize the ban on the use of cluster bombs. The Syrian Army began 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."
Russian Thermobaric weapons, also known as "fuel-air bombs", have been used by the government side during the Syrian civil war. Russia's lethal thermobaric rocket launchers have become a game changer in Syria. One Buratino launcher "can obliterate a roughly 200m by 400m area with a single salvo". 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. 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. In August 2013, the BBC reported on the use of napalm-like incendiary bombs on a school in northern Syria. 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."
Several types of anti-tank missiles are in use in Syria. Russia has sent 9M133 Kornet, third-generation anti-tank guided missiles to the Syrian Government whose forces have used them extensively against armour and other ground targets to fight Jihadists and rebels. U.S.-made BGM-71 TOW missiles are one of the primary weapons of rebel groups and have been primarily provided by the United States and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has also supplied many tonnes of Eastern European sourced 9K111 Fagot launchers and warheads to Syrian rebel groups under its Timber Sycamore program.
Ba'athist Syria and allies
A number of sources have emphasized that as of at least late 2015/early 2016 the Syrian government was dependent on a mix of volunteers and militias rather than the Syrian Armed Forces. According to one Syrian Army defector (Khaled al-Shami) speaking in November 2015, “one important thing to realise is that there is no Syrian Army anymore, it is just militias, mostly Iranians and Lebanese.”
Syrian Armed Forces
Before the uprising and war broke out, the Syrian Armed Forces were estimated at 325,000 regular troops, of which 220,000 were 'army troops' and the rest in the navy, air force and air defence force. There were also approximately 280,000–300,000 reservists. Since June 2011, defections of soldiers have been reported. By July 2012, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that tens of thousands of soldiers had defected, and a Turkish official estimated that 60,000 soldiers had defected.
The Syrian government enjoys high levels of support in certain areas under its control; according to a poll organised by British ORB International, up to 73% of the population in government-controlled areas support the government effort.
National Defense Force
The Syrian NDF was formed out of pro-government militias. They receive their salaries, and their military equipment from the government, and number around 100,000 troops. The force acts in an infantry role, directly fighting against rebels on the ground and running counter-insurgency operations in coordination with the army, who provides them with logistical and artillery support. The force has a 500-strong women's wing called "Lionesses of National Defense" which operates checkpoints. NDF members, like regular army soldiers, are allowed to loot the battlefields (but only if they participate in raids with the army), and can sell the loot for extra money.
The Shabiha are unofficial pro-government militias drawn largely from Syria's Alawite minority group. Since the uprising, the Syrian government has been accused of using shabiha to break up protests and enforce laws in restive neighborhoods. As the protests escalated into an armed conflict, the opposition started using the term shabiha to describe civilians they suspected of supporting Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government and clashing with pro-opposition demonstrators. The opposition blames the shabiha for the many violent excesses committed against anti-government protesters and opposition sympathizers, as well as looting and destruction. In December 2012, the shabiha were designated a terrorist organization by the United States.
Bassel al-Assad is reported to have created the shabiha in the 1980s for government use in times of crisis. Shabiha have been described as "a notorious Alawite paramilitary, who are accused of acting as unofficial enforcers for Assad's regime"; "gunmen loyal to Assad", and, according to the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, "semi-criminal gangs comprised of thugs close to the regime". Despite the group's image as an Alawite militia, some shabiha operating in Aleppo have been reported to be Sunnis. In 2012, the Assad government created a more organized official militia known as the Jaysh al-Sha'bi, allegedly with help from Iran and Hezbollah. As with the shabiha, the vast majority of Jaysh al-Sha'bi members are Alawite and Shi'ite volunteers.
The Christian militias in Syria (and northern Iraq) are largely made up of ethnic Assyrians, Syriac-Arameans, and Armenians. A CBS report showed that Christians in Syria are largely in favor of the government because they claimed that they believe their survival is linked to a largely secular government. Christian militias fight both on the Syrian government's side as well as with the Kurdish forces. According to the WorldTribune.com, "The sources said thousands of Christians were joining the Syrian Army as well as such regime militias as National Defense Forces and the Popular Committees. They said NDF helped organize Christian units to protect communities, particularly in the Assyrian regions of north eastern Syria. A major unit has been called the Christian Resistance, said to operate in the Homs province."
The Eastern Aramaic speaking Assyrians in north eastern Syria and northern Iraq have formed various militias (including the Assyrian Defence Force, Dwekh Nawsha and Sootoro) in order to defend their ancient towns, villages and farmsteads from ISIS terrorists. They often but not always fight in conjunction with Kurdish and Armenian groups. Assyrian fighters from Sootoro have also clashed militarily with the Kurdish dominated YPG, whom they have accused of attempting to appropriate Assyrian lands for the Kurds. A force of all female Assyrian fighters also exists in north east Syria and northern Iraq called The Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers which conducts military operations against ISIS alongside other Assyrian and Kurdish units.
The situation in northern Iraq is similar to that of Syria, with swathes of territory either occupied by or threatened by ISIS/ISIL, and Assyrian Christian militia have been highly active in this region defending Assyrian towns and villages (particularly in the Nineveh plains, Assyrian homeland, Sinjar and around Mosul) from ISIS attacks.
General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah denied Hezbollah had been fighting on behalf of the Syrian government, stating in a 12 October 2012 speech that "right from the start the Syrian opposition has been telling the media that Hezbollah sent 3,000 fighters to Syria, which we have denied". However, according to the Lebanese Daily Star newspaper, Nasrallah said in the same speech that Hezbollah fighters helped the Syrian government "retain control of some 23 strategically located villages [in Syria] inhabited by Shiites of Lebanese citizenship". Nasrallah said that Hezbollah fighters have died in Syria doing their "jihadist duties". In 2012, Hezbollah fighters crossed the border from Lebanon and took over eight villages in the Al-Qusayr District of Syria. The former secretary general of Hezbollah, Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli, confirmed in February 2013 that Hezbollah was fighting for the Syrian Army.
On 12 May 2013, Hezbollah, with the Syrian Army, attempted to retake part of Qusayr. By the end of the day, 60 percent of the city, including the municipal office building, were under pro-Assad forces. In Lebanon, there have been "a recent increase in the funerals of Hezbollah fighters" and "Syrian rebels have shelled Hezbollah-controlled areas." As of 14 May 2013, Hezbollah fighters were reported to be fighting alongside the Syrian Army, particularly in the Homs Governorate. Hassan Nasrallah has called on Shiites and Hezbollah to protect the shrine of Sayida Zeinab. President Bashar al-Assad denied in May 2013 that there were foreign fighters, Arab or otherwise, fighting for the government in Syria.
On 25 May 2013, Nasrallah announced that Hezbollah was fighting in Syria against Islamic extremists and "pledged that his group will not allow Syrian militants to control areas that border Lebanon". He confirmed that Hezbollah was fighting in the strategic Syrian town of Qusayr on the same side as Assad's forces. In the televised address, he said, "If Syria falls in the hands of America, Israel and the takfiris, the people of our region will go into a dark period." According to independent analysts, by the beginning of 2014, approximately 500 Hezbollah fighters had died in the Syrian conflict.
On 7 February 2016, 50 Hezbollah fighters were killed in a clash by the Jaysh al-Islam near Damascus. These fighters were embed in the SAA formation Army Division 39
Nevertheless, since the start of the civil war, Iran has expressed its support for the Syrian government and has provided it with financial, technical, and military support, including training and some combat troops. Iran and Syria are close strategic allies. Iran sees the survival of the Syrian government as being crucial to its regional interests. Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, was reported in September 2011 to be vocally in favor of the Syrian government. In the civil uprising phase of the Syrian civil war, Iran provided Syria with technical support based on Iran's capabilities developed following the 2009–2010 Iranian election protests. As the uprising developed into a civil war, there were increasing reports of Iranian military support, and of Iranian training of NDF (National Defence Forces) both in Syria, and in Iran.
Iranian security and intelligence services are advising and assisting the Syrian military to preserve Bashar al-Assad's hold on power. Those efforts include training, technical support, combat troops. By December 2013 Iran was thought to have approximately 10,000 operatives in Syria. But according to Jubin Goodarzi, assistant professor and researcher of Webster University, Iran aided the Syrian government with a limited number of deployed units and personnel, "at most in the hundreds ... and not in the thousands as opposition sources claimed". Lebanese Hezbollah fighters backed by Tehran have taken direct combat roles since 2012. In the summer of 2013, Iran and Hezbollah provided important battlefield support for Syrian forces, allowing them to make advances on the opposition. In 2014, coinciding with the peace talks at Geneva II, Iran has stepped up support for Syrian President Assad. The Syrian Minister of Finance and Economy announced that the "Iranian government has given more than 15 billion dollars" to Syria. Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force commander Qasem Suleimani is in charge of Syrian President Assad's security portfolio and has overseen the arming and training of thousands of pro-government Shi'ite fighters.
Foreign Shia militias
According to Ari Heistein and James West, Shia fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan are "far more numerous" than Sunni non-Syrian fighters, though they have received "noticeably less attention" from the media. The number of Afghans fighting in Syria on behalf of the Syrian government has been estimated at "between 10,000 and 12,000", the number of Pakistanis is not known (approximately 15% of Pakistan's population is Shia). The main forces are the liwa’ fatimiyun (Fatimiyun Brigade) -- which is composed exclusively of Afghans and fights "under the auspices" of Hezbollah Afghanistan—and the Pakistani liwa’ zaynabiyun (Zaynabiyun Brigade) formed in November 2015. Many or most of the fighters are refugees, and Iran has been accused of taking advantage of their inability to "obtain work permits or establish legal residency in Iran", and using threats of deportation for those who hesitate to volunteer. The fighters are also paid a relatively high salary, and some have told journalists, that “the Islamic State is a common enemy of Iran and Afghanistan … this is a holy war,” and that they wish to protect the Shia pilgrimage site of Sayyida Zaynab, from Sunni jihadis.
On 30 September 2015, Russia's Federation Council unanimously granted the request by President of Russia Vladimir Putin to permit the use of the Russian Armed Forces in Syria. On the same day, the Russian general Sergey Kuralenko, who represents Russia at the joint information center in Baghdad set up by Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria to coordinate their operations against Islamic State, arrived at the US Embassy in Baghdad and requested that any U.S. forces in the targeted area leave immediately. An hour later, the Russian aircraft based in the government-held territory began conducting airstrikes ostensibly against the Islamic State targets.
The armed opposition consists of various groups that were either formed during the course of the conflict or joined from abroad. According to Seymour Hersh, the opposition is financed by Saudi Arabia to the tune of $700 million a year (2014). In the north-west of the country, the main opposition faction is the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front allied with numerous other smaller Islamist groups, some of which operate under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The designation of the FSA by the West as a moderate opposition faction has allowed it, under the CIA-run programmes, to receive sophisticated weaponry and other military support from the U.S., Turkey and some Gulf countries that effectively increases the total fighting capacity of the Islamist rebels. In the east, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a jihadist militant group originating from Iraq, made rapid military gains in both Syria and Iraq. ISIL eventually came into conflict with other rebels, especially with al-Nusra, leaders of which did not want to pledge allegiance to ISIL. By July 2014, ISIL controlled a third of Syria's territory and most of its oil and gas production, thus establishing itself as the principal anti-government force. As of 2015, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are openly backing the Army of Conquest, an umbrella rebel group that reportedly includes an al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front and another Salafi coalition known as Ahrar ash-Sham, and Faylaq Al-Sham, a coalition of Muslim Brotherhood-linked rebel groups. Also, in the north-east, local Kurdish militias such as the YPG have taken up arms and have fought with both rebel Islamist factions and government loyalists.
Free Syrian Army
The formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was announced on 29 July 2011 by a group of defecting Syrian Army officers. In a video, the men called upon Syrian soldiers and officers to defect to their ranks, and said the purpose of the Free Syrian Army was to defend civilian protesters from violence by the state, and "to bring this [Syrian] regime down".
The IS leadership, interviewed by a German journalist, laughingly dismiss the FSA as the best source of arms they have. By December 2011, the estimated number of soldiers who had defected to the FSA was ranging from 1,000 to over 25,000. The FSA functions more as an umbrella organization than a traditional military chain of command, and was first "headquartered" in Turkey, but moved its command headquarters to northern Syria in September 2012.
In March 2012, two reporters of The New York Times witnessed an FSA attack with a roadside bomb and AK-47 rifles on a column of armored Syrian tanks in Saraqib in Idlib Governorate, and learned that FSA had a stock of able, trained soldiers and ex-officers, organized to some extent, but were without the weapons to put up a realistic fight.
In April 2013, the US announced it would transfer $123 million in nonlethal aid to Syrian rebels through defected general Salim Idriss, leader of the FSA.
In May 2013, Salim Idriss, the FSA leader, acknowledged that "the rebels" were badly fragmented and lacked the military skill needed to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Idriss said he was working on a countrywide command structure, but that a lack of material support was hurting that effort. "Now it is very important for them to be unified. But unifying them in a manner to work like a regular army is still difficult", Idriss said. He acknowledged common operations with Islamist group Ahrar ash-Sham but denied any cooperation with Islamist group al-Nusra Front.
Abu Yusaf, a commander of the Islamic State (IS), said in August 2014 that many of the FSA members who had been trained by United States' and Turkish and Arab military officers were now actually joining IS. On the contrary to the ISIS commander's claims, by September 2014 the Free Syrian Army was joining an alliance and a common front with Kurdish militias including the YPG to fight ISIS.
In early October 2015, shortly after the start of Russia's military intervention in Syria, Robert Fisk asserted the very existence of the FSA had been a charade, a fact acknowledged by U.S. officials, with virtually all U.S.-trained FSA rebels having defected to other rebel groups;
Russia's position is ambivalent: foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in October 2015 called the FSA "an already phantom structure", but later that month said that Russia was ready to aid the FSA with airstrikes.
The Islamic Front (Arabic: الجبهة الإسلامية, al-Jabhat al-Islāmiyyah) is a merger of seven rebel groups involved in the Syrian civil war that was announced on 22 November 2013. The group has between 40,000 and 60,000 fighters. An anonymous spokesman for the group has stated that it will not have ties with the Syrian National Coalition, though a member of the political bureau of the group, Ahmad Musa, has stated that he hopes for recognition from the Syrian National Council in cooperation for what he suggested "the Syrian people want. They want a revolution and not politics and foreign agendas." The group is widely seen as backed and armed by Saudi Arabia.
In September 2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that extremist Salafi jihadist groups make up 15–25% of rebel forces. According to Charles Lister, about 12% of rebels are part of groups linked to al-Qaeda, 18% belong to Ahrar ash-Sham, and 9% belong to Suqour al-Sham Brigade. These numbers contrast with a report by Jane's Information Group, a defence outlet, claiming almost half of all rebels being affiliated to Islamist groups. British think-tank Centre on Religion and Geopolitics, linked to former British PM Tony Blair, says that 60% of the rebels could be classified as Islamist extremists. Foreign fighters have joined the conflict in opposition to Assad. While most of them are jihadists, some individuals, such as Mahdi al-Harati, have joined to support the Syrian opposition.
The ICSR estimates that 2,000–5,500 foreign fighters have gone to Syria since the beginning of the protests, about 7–11 percent of whom came from Europe. It is also estimated that the number of foreign fighters does not exceed 10 percent of the opposition armed forces. Another estimate puts the number of foreign jihadis at 15,000 by early 2014. The European Commission expressed concerns that some of the fighters might use their skills obtained in Syria to commit acts of terrorism back in Europe in the future.
In October 2012, various Iraqi religious groups join the conflict in Syria on both sides. Radical Sunnis from Iraq have traveled to Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government.
In September 2013, leaders of 13 powerful rebel brigades rejected the Syrian National Coalition and called Sharia law "the sole source of legislation". In a statement they declared that "the coalition and the putative government headed by Ahmad Tomeh does not represent or recognize us". Among the signatory rebel groups were al-Nusra Front, Ahrar ash-Sham and Al-Tawheed.
The al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, being the biggest jihadist group in Syria, is often considered to be the most aggressive and violent part of the opposition. Being responsible for over 50 suicide bombings, including several deadly explosions in Damascus in 2011 and 2012, it is recognized as a terrorist organization by Syrian government and was designated as such by United States in December 2012. It has been supported by the Turkish government for years, according to US intelligence. In April 2013, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq released an audio statement announcing that al-Nusra Front is its branch in Syria. The leader of al-Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, said that the group would not merge with the Islamic State of Iraq but would still maintain allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda. The estimated manpower of al-Nusra Front is approximately 6,000–10,000 people, including many foreign fighters.
The relationship between the al-Nusra Front and the indigenous Syrian opposition is tense, even though al-Nusra has fought alongside the FSA in several battles and some FSA fighters defected to the al-Nusra Front. The Mujahideen's strict religious views and willingness to impose sharia law disturbed many Syrians. Some rebel commanders have accused foreign jihadists of "stealing the revolution", robbing Syrian factories and displaying religious intolerance. Al-Nusra Front has been accused of mistreating religious and ethnic minorities since their formation. On 10 March 2014, al-Nusra released 13 Christian nuns captured from Ma'loula, Damascus, in exchange for the release of 150 women from the Syrian government's prisons. The nuns reported that they were treated well by al-Nusra during their captivity, adding that they "were giving us everything we asked for" and that "no one bothered us".
Syrian Democratic Forces
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are an alliance of Arab, Assyrians, Armenian, Kurdish, and Turkmen militias fighting for a democratic and federalist Syria. They are opposed to the Assad regime, but have directed most of their efforts against Al-Nusra Front and ISIL.
The group formed in December 2015, led primarily by the predominantly Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). Estimates of its size range from 55,000 to 80,000 fighters. While largely Kurdish, it's estimated that about 40% of the fighters are non-Kurdish.
On 17 March 2016 the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the SDF, declared the creation of an autonomous federation in northern Syria.
Before the formation of the SDF, the YPG was the primary fighting force in Rojava. The Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) first entered this Syrian civil war as belligerent in July 2012 by capturing a town, Kobanî, that until then was under control of the Syrian Assad-government (see Syrian Kurdistan campaign).
Kurds – mostly Sunni Muslims, with a small minority of Yezidis – represented 10% of Syria's population at the start of the uprising in 2011. They had suffered from decades of discrimination and neglect, being deprived of basic civil, cultural, economic, and social rights.:7 When protests began, Assad's government finally granted citizenship to an estimated 200,000 stateless Kurds, in an effort to try and neutralize potential Kurdish opposition. Despite this concession, most Kurds remain opposed to the regime, hoping instead for a more decentralized Syria based on federalism.
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
Called Dā'ash or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (abbrv. ISIL or ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria]) made rapid military gains in Northern Syria starting in April 2013 and as of mid-2014 controls large parts of that region, where the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights describes it as "the strongest group". It has imposed strict Sharia law over land that it controls. The group was, until 2014, affiliated with al-Qaeda, led by the Iraqi fighter Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and has an estimated 7,000 fighters in Syria, including many non-Syrians. It has been praised as less corrupt than other militia groups and criticized for abusing human rights and for not tolerating non-Islamist militia groups, foreign journalists or aid workers, whose members it has expelled, imprisoned, or executed. According to Michael Weiss, ISIL has not been targeted by the Syrian government "with quite the same gusto" as other rebel factions.
By summer 2014, ISIL controlled a third of Syria. It established itself as the dominant force of Syrian opposition, defeating Jabhat al-Nusra in Deir Ezzor Governorate and claiming control over most of Syria's oil and gas production.
ISIL was able to recruit more than 6,300 fighters in July 2014 alone. In September 2014, reportedly some Syrian rebels signed a "non-aggression" agreement with ISIL in a suburb of Damascus, citing inability to deal with both ISIL and the Syrian Army's attacks at once. Some Syrian rebels have, however, decried the news on the "non-aggression" pact. ISIL have also planted bombs in the ancient city area of Palmyra, a city with population of 50,000. Palmyra is counted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as it is home to some of the most extensive and best-preserved ancient Roman ruins in the world. Having lost nearly half of their territory in Iraq since 2014, many more Islamic State leaders have begun to sell their property and sneak into Syria, further destabilizing the region.
A number of countries, including many NATO members, participate in the Combined Joint Task Force, chiefly to fight ISIL and support rebel groups perceived as moderate and friendly to Western nations such as the Free Syrian Army. Those who have conducted airstrikes in Syria include the United States, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France, Jordan, The Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. Some members are involved in the conflict beyond combating ISIL; Turkey has been accused of fighting against Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq, including intelligence collaborations with ISIL in some cases. The conclusion of a highly classified assessment carried out by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2013 was that Turkey had effectively transformed the secret US arms programme in support of moderate rebels, who no longer existed, into an indiscriminate programme to provide technical and logistical support for all elements of the opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.
Syrian National Coalition
On 11 November 2012 in Doha, the National Council and other opposition groups united as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The following day, it was recognized as the legitimate government of Syria by numerous Persian Gulf states. Delegates to the Coalition's leadership council are to include women and representatives of religious and ethnic minorities, including Alawites. The military council will reportedly include the Free Syrian Army. The main aims of the National Coalition are replacing the Bashar al-Assad government and "its symbols and pillars of support", "dismantling the security services", unifying and supporting the Free Syrian Army, refusing dialogue and negotiation with the al-Assad government, and "holding accountable those responsible for killing Syrians, destroying [Syria], and displacing [Syrians]".
Syrian National Council
Formed on 23 August 2011, the National Council is a coalition of anti-government groups, based in Turkey. The National Council seeks the end of Bashar al-Assad's rule and the establishment of a modern, civil, democratic state. SNC has links with the Free Syrian Army. In November 2012, the council agreed to unify with several other opposition groups to form the Syrian National Coalition. The SNC has 22 out of 60 seats of the Syrian National Coalition.
Reporting, censoring and propaganda
The Arab League, European Union, the United Nations, and many Western governments quickly condemned the Syrian government's violent response to the protests, and expressed support for the protesters' right to exercise free speech.
Initially, many Middle Eastern governments expressed support for Assad, but as the death toll mounted, they switched to a more balanced approach by criticizing violence from both government and protesters. Both the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation suspended Syria's membership. Russia and China vetoed Western-drafted United Nations Security Council resolutions in 2011 and 2012, which would have threatened the Syrian government with targeted sanctions if it continued military actions against protestors. China is deeply troubled by Turkey's assistance in helping Uyghur jihadi fighters from the Turkistan Islamic Party, Uyghur autonomist movement, move to Syria.
The conflict holds the record for the largest sum ever requested by UN agencies for a single humanitarian emergency, $6.5bn worth of requests of December 2013. The difficulty of delivering humanitarian aid to people is indicated by the statistics for January 2015: of the estimated 212,000 people during that month who were besieged by government or opposition forces, 304 were reached with food.
The international humanitarian response to the conflict in Syria is coordinated by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in accordance with General Assembly Resolution 46/182. The primary framework for this coordination is the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP) which appealed for USD $1.41 billion to meet the humanitarian needs of Syrians affected by the conflict. Official United Nations data on the humanitarian situation and response is available at an official website managed by UNOCHA Syria (Amman). UNICEF is also working alongside these organizations to provide vaccinations and care packages to those in need. It has launched a vaccination campaign to eradicate polio from the region, as 17 cases have come up since the war broke over three years ago.
USAID and other government agencies in US delivered nearly $385 million of aid items to Syria in 2012 and 2013. The United States has provided food aid, medical supplies, emergency and basic health care, shelter materials, clean water, hygiene education and supplies, and other relief supplies. Islamic Relief has stocked 30 hospitals and sent hundreds of thousands of medical and food parcels.
Other countries in the region have also contributed various levels of aid. Iran has been exporting between 500 and 800 tonnes of flour daily to Syria. Israel has provided treatment to 750 Syrians in a field hospital located in Golan Heights. Rebels say that 250 of their fighters received medical treatment there. Syrian refugees make up one quarter of Lebanon's population, mostly consisting of women and children. In addition, Russia has said it created six humanitarian aid centers within Syria to support 3000 refugees in 2016.
The World Health Organization has reported that 35% of the country's hospitals are out of service, and depending upon the region, up to 70% of health care professionals have fled. Cases of diarrhoea and hepatitis A have increased by more than twofold since the beginning of 2013. Fighting makes it impossible to undertake the normal vaccination programs. The displaced refugees may also pose a risk to countries to which they have fled.
Financial information on the response to the SHARP and assistance to refugees and for cross-border operations can be found on UNOCHA's Financial Tracking Service. As of 19 September 2015, the top ten donors to Syria were United States, European Commission, United Kingdom, Kuwait, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Japan, UAE, and Norway.
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. The major parties supporting the Syrian Government are Iran and Hezbollah. Both of these are involved in the war politically and logistically by providing military equipment, training and battle troops. The Syrian government has also received arms from Russia and SIGINT support directly from GRU, in addition to significant political support from Russia.
The main Syrian opposition body – the Syrian coalition – receives political, logistic and military support from the United States, Britain and France. Some Syrian rebels get training from the CIA at bases in Qatar, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. 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. The Syrian coalition also receives logistic and political support from Sunni states, most notably Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia; all the three major supporting states however have not contributed any troops for direct involvement in the war, though Turkey was involved in border incidents with the Syrian Army. The Financial Times and The Independent reported that Qatar had funded the Syrian rebellion by as much as $3 billion. It reported that Qatar was offering refugee packages of about $50,000 a year to defectors and family. Saudi Arabia has emerged as the main group to finance and arm the rebels.
French television France 24 reported that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, with perhaps 3,000 foreign jihadists among its ranks, "receives private donations from the Gulf states." It is estimated ISIL has sold oil for between $1m-4m per day principally to Turkish buyers, during at least six months in 2013, greatly helping its growth. The Turkish government has been also accused of helping ISIL by turning a blind eye to illegal transfers of weapons, fighters, oil and pillaged antiquities across the southern border.
As of 2015, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are openly backing the Army of Conquest, an umbrella rebel group that reportedly includes an al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front and another Salafi coalition known as Ahrar ash-Sham, and Faylaq Al-Sham, a coalition of Muslim Brotherhood-linked rebel groups. The major Syrian Kurdish opposition group, the PYD, was reported to get logistic and training support from Iraqi Kurdistan.
On 21 August 2014, two days after US photojournalist James Foley was beheaded, the U.S. military admitted a covert rescue attempt involving dozens of US Special Operations forces had been made to rescue Americans and other foreigners held captive in Syria by ISIL militants. The rescue attempt is the first known US military ground action inside Syria. The resultant gunfight resulted in one US soldier being injured. The rescue was unsuccessful as the captives were not in the location targeted.
On 11 September 2014 the US Congress expressed support to give President Obama the $500 million he wanted to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels. The question of whether the president has authority to continue airstrikes beyond the 60-day window granted by the War Powers Resolution remained unresolved.
On 12 September, US Secretary of State John Kerry met Turkish leaders to secure backing for US-led action against ISIL, but Ankara showed reluctance to play a frontline role. Kerry stated that it was "not appropriate" for Iran to join talks on confronting ISIL.
The plans revealed in September also involve Iraq in targeting ISIL. US warplanes have launched 158 strikes in Iraq over the past five weeks while emphasizing a relatively narrow set of targets. The Pentagon's press secretary, John Kirby, said the air campaign in Iraq, which began 8 Aug, will enter a more aggressive phase.
On the other hand, according to Fanack, initial refusal from the West to support the Syrian liberal opposition has contributed to the emergence of extremist Sunni groups. These include ISIL and the Nusra Front, linked to al-Qaeda.
Estimates of deaths in the conflict vary widely, with figures, per opposition activist groups, ranging from 140,200 to 470,000. On 2 January 2013, the United Nations stated that 60,000 had been killed since the civil war began, with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay saying "The number of casualties is much higher than we expected, and is truly shocking." Four months later, the UN's updated figure for the death toll had reached 80,000. On 13 June, the UN released an updated figure of people killed since fighting began, the figure being exactly 92,901, for up to the end of April 2013. Navi Pillay, UN high commissioner for human rights, stated that: "This is most likely a minimum casualty figure." The real toll was guessed to be over 100,000. Some areas of the country have been affected disproportionately by the war; by some estimates, as many as a third of all deaths have occurred in the city of Homs.
One problem has been determining the number of "armed combatants" who have died, due to some sources counting rebel fighters who were not government defectors as civilians. At least half of those confirmed killed have been estimated to be combatants from both sides, including 52,290 government fighters and 29,080 rebels, with an additional 50,000 unconfirmed combatant deaths. In addition, UNICEF reported that over 500 children had been killed by early February 2012, and another 400 children have been reportedly arrested and tortured in Syrian prisons; both of these claims have been contested by the Syrian government. Additionally, over 600 detainees and political prisoners are known to have died under torture. In mid-October 2012, the opposition activist group SOHR reported the number of children killed in the conflict had risen to 2,300, and in March 2013, opposition sources stated that over 5,000 children had been killed. In January 2014, a report was released detailing the systematic killing of more than 11,000 detainees of the Syrian government.
On 20 August 2014, a new U.N. study concluded that at least 191,369 people have died in the Syrian conflict. The UN thereafter stopped collecting statistics, but a study by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research released in February 2016 estimated the death toll at 470,000, with 1.9m wounded (reaching a total of 11.5% of the entire population wounded or killed).
Formerly rare infectious diseases have spread in rebel-held areas brought on by poor sanitation and deteriorating living conditions. The diseases have primarily affected children. These include measles, typhoid, hepatitis, dysentery, tuberculosis, diphtheria, whooping cough and the disfiguring skin disease leishmaniasis. Of particular concern is the contagious and crippling Poliomyelitis. As of late 2013 doctors and international public health agencies have reported more than 90 cases. Critics of the government complain that, even before the uprising, it contributed the spread of disease by purposefully restricting access to vaccination, sanitation and access to hygienic water in "areas considered politically unsympathetic".
The violence in Syria has caused millions to flee their homes. As of March 2015, Al-Jazeera estimates 10.9 million Syrians, or almost half the population, have been displaced. 3.8 million have been made refugees. As of 2013, 1 in 3 of Syrian refugees (about 667,000 people) sought safety in Lebanon (normally 4.8 million population). Others have fled to Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq. Turkey has accepted 1,700,000 (2015) Syrian refugees, half of whom are spread around cities and a dozen camps placed under the direct authority of the Turkish Government. Satellite images confirmed that the first Syrian camps appeared in Turkey in July 2011, shortly after the towns of Deraa, Homs, and Hama were besieged. In September 2014, the UN stated that the number of Syrian refugees had exceeded 3 million. According to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Sunnis are leaving for Lebanon and undermining Hezbollah's status. The Syrian refugee crisis has caused the "Jordan is Palestine" threat to be diminished due to the onslaught of new refugees in Jordan. Additionally, "the West Bank is undergoing emigration pressures which will certainly be copied in Gaza if emigration is allowed". Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III Laham claims more than 450,000 Syrian Christians have been displaced by the conflict.
Human rights violations
According to various human rights organizations and United Nations, human rights violations have been committed by both the government and the rebels, with the "vast majority of the abuses having been committed by the Syrian government". The U.N. commission investigating human rights abuses in Syria confirms at least 9 intentional mass killings in the period 2012 to mid-July 2013, identifying the perpetrator as Syrian government and its supporters in eight cases, and the opposition in one.
By late November 2013, according to the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) report entitled "Violence against Women, Bleeding Wound in the Syrian Conflict", approximately 6,000 women have been raped (including gang-rape) since the start of the conflict – with figures likely to be much higher given that most cases go unreported.
According to three international lawyers, Syrian government officials could face war crimes charges in the light of a huge cache of evidence smuggled out of the country showing the "systematic killing" of about 11,000 detainees. Most of the victims were young men and many corpses were emaciated, bloodstained and bore signs of torture. Some had no eyes; others showed signs of strangulation or electrocution. Experts say this evidence is more detailed and on a far larger scale than anything else that has yet emerged from the 34-month crisis. On 30 January 2014, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing, between June 2012 and July 2013, government forces razing to the ground seven anti-government districts in the cities of Damascus and Hama, equating to an area the size of 200 football fields. Witnesses spoke of explosives and bulldozers being used to knock down buildings. Satellite imagery was provided as part of the report and the destruction was characterized as collective punishment against residents of rebel-held areas.
UN reported also that "siege warfare is employed in a context of egregious human rights and international humanitarian law violations. The warring parties do not fear being held accountable for their acts." Armed forces of both sides of the conflict blocked access of humanitarian convoys, confiscated food, cut off water supplies and targeted farmers working their fields. The report pointed to four places besieged by the government forces: Muadamiyah, Daraya, Yarmouk camp and Old City of Homs, as well as two areas under siege of rebel groups: Aleppo and Hama. In Yarmouk Camp 20,000 residents are facing death by starvation due to blockade by the Syrian government forces and fighting between the army and Jabhat al-Nusra, which prevents food distribution by UNRWA. In July 2015, the UN quietly removed Yarmouk from its list of besieged areas in Syria, despite not having been able deliver aid there for four months, and declined to explain why it had done so.
In 2013, the UN estimated that sieges by government and opposition forces had left more than 250,000 subjected to relentless shelling and bombardment. The OCHA's figure for February 2015 was 212,000, though a study published the following month by American doctors said this was a drastic underestimate, putting the number of people besieged by the Syrian military alone at some 640,000. "They are denied humanitarian aid, food and such basic necessities as medical care, and must choose between surrender and starvation," the members of the UN Commission of Inquiry said. At least 18,866 civilians have been killed in Syrian government air attacks on rebel-held areas.
ISIS forces have been accused by UN of using public executions, amputations and lashings in a campaign to instill fear. "Forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham have committed torture, murder, acts tantamount to enforced disappearance and forced displacement as part of attacks on the civilian population in Aleppo and Raqqah governorates, amounting to crimes against humanity", said the report from 27 August 2014.
The successive governments of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad have been closely associated with the country's minority Alawite religious group, an offshoot of Shia, whereas the majority of the population, and most of the opposition, is Sunni. Alawites started to be threatened and attacked by dominantly Sunni rebel fighting groups like al-Nusra Front and the FSA since December 2012 (see Sectarianism and minorities in the Syrian Civil War#Alawites).
A third of 250,000 Alawite men of military age have been killed fighting in the Syrian civil war. In May 2013, SOHR stated that out of 94,000 killed during the war, at least 41,000 were Alawites.
Many Syrian Christians reported that they had fled after they were targeted by the anti-government rebels. (See: Sectarianism and minorities in the Syrian Civil War#Christians.)
Al Jazeera reported that "The Druze accuse rebels of committing atrocities against their community in Syria ... Syria's Druze minority has largely remained loyal to President Bashar al-Assad since the war began in 2011."
As militias and non-Syrian Shia—motivated by pro-Shia sentiment rather than loyalty to the Assad government—have taken over fighting the opposition from the weakened Syrian Army, fighting has taken on a more sectarian nature. One opposition leader has alleged that the Shia militias often “try to occupy and control the religious symbols in the Sunni community to achieve not just a territorial victory but a sectarian one as well”—allegedly occupying mosques and replacing Sunni icons with pictures of Shia leaders.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights human rights abuses have been committed by the militias including "a series of sectarian massacres between March 2011 and January 2014 that left 962 civilians dead".
As the conflict has expanded across Syria, many cities have been engulfed in a wave of crime as fighting caused the disintegration of much of the civilian state, and many police stations stopped functioning. Rates of theft increased, with criminals looting houses and stores. Rates of kidnappings increased as well. Rebel fighters were seen stealing cars and, in one instance, destroying a restaurant in Aleppo where Syrian soldiers had been seen eating.
By July 2012, the human rights group Women Under Siege had documented over 100 cases of rape and sexual assault during the conflict, with many of these crimes believed to have been perpetrated by the Shabiha and other pro-government militias. Victims included men, women, and children, with about 80% of the known victims being women and girls.
Local National Defence Forces commanders often engaged "in war profiteering through protection rackets, looting, and organized crime". NDF members were also implicated in "waves of murders, robberies, thefts, kidnappings, and extortions throughout regime-held parts of Syria since the formation of the organization in 2013", as reported by the Institute for the Study of War.
Criminal networks have been used by both the government and the opposition during the conflict. Facing international sanctions, the Syrian government relied on criminal organizations to smuggle goods and money in and out of the country. The economic downturn caused by the conflict and sanctions also led to lower wages for Shabiha members. In response, some Shabiha members began stealing civilian properties and engaging in kidnappings.
Rebel forces sometimes rely on criminal networks to obtain weapons and supplies. Black market weapon prices in Syria's neighboring countries have significantly increased since the start of the conflict. To generate funds to purchase arms, some rebel groups have turned towards extortion, theft, and kidnapping.
As of March 2015, the war has affected 290 heritage sites, severely damaged 104, and completely destroyed 24. Five of the six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Syria have been damaged. Destruction of antiquities has been caused by shelling, army entrenchment, and looting at various tells, museums, and monuments. A group called Syrian Archaeological Heritage Under Threat is monitoring and recording the destruction in an attempt to create a list of heritage sites damaged during the war and to gain global support for the protection and preservation of Syrian archaeology and architecture.
UNESCO listed all six Syria's World Heritage sites as endangered but direct assessment of damage is not possible. It is known that the Old City of Aleppo was heavily damaged during battles being fought within the district, while Palmyra and Krak des Chevaliers suffered minor damage. Illegal digging is considered a grave danger, and hundreds of Syrian antiquities, including some from Palmyra, appeared in Lebanon. Three archeological museums are known to have been looted; in Raqqah some artifacts seem to have been destroyed by foreign Islamists due to religious objections.
In 2014 and 2015, following the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, several sites in Syria were destroyed by the group as part of a deliberate destruction of cultural heritage sites. In Palmyra, the group destroyed many ancient statues, the Temples of Baalshamin and Bel, many tombs including the Tower of Elahbel, and part of the Monumental Arch. The 13th-century Palmyra Castle was extensively damaged by retreating militants during the Palmyra offensive in March 2016. ISIL also destroyed ancient statues in Ar-Raqqah, and a number of churches, including the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Deir ez-Zor.
With porous borders with most of its neighbors, the fighting has spilled across them, sparking fears of a regional war. In June 2014, members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) crossed the border from Syria into northern Iraq, and have taken control of large swaths of Iraqi territory as the Iraqi Army abandoned its positions. The war has led to 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. Fighting between rebels and government forces has spilled into Lebanon on several occasions.
On 1 February 2016, the UN announced the formal start of the UN-mediated Geneva Syria peace talks that had been agreed on by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Vienna. On 3 February 2016, the UN Syria peace mediator suspended the talks. On 14 March 2016, Geneva peace talks resumed. The Syrian government insisted that discussion of Bashar-al-Assad's presidency "is a red line", however Syria's President Bashar al-Assad said he hoped peace talks in Geneva would lead to concrete results, and stressed the need for a political process in Syria.
- The battle for Syria. Sources: TV air footage (video documentary + English subtitles The battle for Syria on YouTube, official video documentary and the official text of the ).VGTRK
- Syrian diary. Sources: TV air footage (video documentary + English subtitles Syrian diary on YouTube), official video documentary of the .VGTRK
- Terrorism in Syria
- Islamist uprising in Syria 1976 until 1982
- Iraqi Civil War 2014 till now
- List of modern conflicts in the Middle East
- List of ongoing armed conflicts
- List of proxy wars
- List of wars and battles involving al-Qaeda
- List of wars by death toll
- List of wars involving Iran
- List of wars involving Syria
a Fatah Halab (English: Aleppo Conquest) also includes groups from the FSA.
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