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Syrian Civil War

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Syrian Civil War
Part of the Arab Spring, the Arab Winter, the spillover of the Iraq conflict and Iran–Saudi Arabia proxy conflict
Syrian Civil War map.svg
Military situation in November 2017: Red: Syrian Arab Republic, Green: Syrian opposition, Yellow: Rojava (SDF), Grey: Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,
White: Tahrir al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front)
For a more detailed, up-to-date, interactive map, see Template:Syrian Civil War detailed map. The map above was last updated in November 2017.
Date 15 March 2011 (2011-03-15) – present
(6 years, 8 months, 3 weeks and 5 days)
Location Syria (with spillovers in neighboring countries)
Status Ongoing
Territorial
changes
As of November 2017: the Syrian Government held 55.7% of Syrian territories; SDF-held territory constituted 27.4%; 15.6% was controlled by rebel groups (including HTS); 3.3% was held by ISIL[21]
Main belligerents
Flag of Rojava.svg Rojava (SDF)
(from 2012)

CJTF–OIR
(from 2014)
United States[c]
 France[18]
 United Kingdom
 Netherlands
 Jordan
 Germany
 Norway[19]

Commanders and leaders

Turkey Lt. Gen. Zekai Aksakallı[34]
(Operations chief commander)




United StatesUnited States Army Stephen J. Townsend[58]
(Commander of CJTF-OIR)
Strength

Syrian Armed Forces: 180,000[59]
General Security Directorate: 8,000[60]
National Defense Force: 80,000[61]
Hezbollah: 6,000–8,000[62]
Ba'ath Brigades: 7,000
Russia: 4,000 troops[63] and 1,000 contractors[64]
Iran: 3,000–5,000[62][65]

Other allied groups: 15,500+

FSA: 40,000–50,000[66] (2013)
Islamic Front: 40,000–70,000[67] (2014)
Other groups: 12,500[68] (2015)


Ahrar al-Sham: 18,000–20,000+[69][70] (March 2017)


Tahrir al-Sham: 31,000[71]


41,500 Rebels by June 2017
(Acc. Russian MOD)[72]
15,000–20,000 (U.S. claim, late 2016)[73]

SDF: 50,000+[74][75]

  • YPG and YPJ: 57,000–60,000[76][77]
    (most, not all, part of the SDF)
  • Syriac Military Council: 2,000
  • Army of Revolutionaries: 3,000
Casualties and losses

Syrian Government:
63,251–98,251 soldiers killed[78][79]
48,112–62,112 militiamen killed[78][79]
4,700 soldiers and militiamen and 2,000 supporters captured[78]
InfoboxHez.PNG Hezbollah:
1,592–1,800 killed[78][80]
Russia Russia:
41 soldiers[81] and 81–131+ contractors killed

Other non-Syrian fighters:
7,481 killed[78] (1,455 Iranian-led)[82]

122,539–163,539 fighters killed[f][78][79]
979 protesters killed[83]


Turkey Turkey:
71 soldiers killed (2016–17 ground incursion)[84]
24,232+ killed (per SOHR)[85]
20,711+ killed (per YPG and SAA)[86][87]

Flag of Rojava.svg Rojava:
3,834 killed[88][89][90]


CJTF–OIR:
5 killed[91][92][93][94]

103,490[78]–110,218[95] (3,284 foreign; mostly Palestinian) civilian deaths documented by opposition
88 other foreign soldiers killed
(Lebanon 48, Iraq 16, Turkey 17, Jordan 7)


Total killed:
346,612–481,612 (December 2017 SOHR estimate)[78]
470,000 (February 2016 SCPR estimate)[96]


Over 7,600,000 internally displaced (July 2015 UNHCR estimate)

Over 5,116,097 refugees (July 2017 registered by UNHCR)[97]

a The FSA was a centralized organization from 2011 until early 2013. Since then, the use of their name by armed groups has been arbitrary.
b Turkey has provided arms support to the Syrian opposition since 2011. From August 2016 to March 2017, Turkey fought alongside a rebel contingent in Aleppo governorate against the SDF and ISIL but not against the Syrian government.
c From Sep. to Nov. 2016, the U.S. fought alongside a rebel contingent in Aleppo governorate solely against ISIL, but not against the Syrian government or the SDF.[98][99] In 2017, the U.S. intentionally attacked the Syrian government six times, while it accidentally hit a Syrian base in Sep. 2016, killing over 100 SAA soldiers. The Syrian government maintains that this was an intentional attack.[100]
d HTS's predecessor (the Al-Nusra Front) and ISIL's predecessor (ISI) were allied al-Qaeda branches until April 2013. An ISI-proposed merger of the two into ISIL was rejected by the Al-Nusra Front and al-Qaeda cut all affiliation with ISIL in February 2014.
e Ahrar al-Sham and Tahrir al-Sham's predecessor, the Al-Nusra Front, were allied under the Army of Conquest from March 2015 to January 2017.

f Number includes Kurdish and ISIL fighters, whose deaths are also listed in their separate columns.[101][78]

The Syrian Civil War (Arabic: الحرب الأهلية السورية‎, Al-ḥarb al-ʼahliyyah as-sūriyyah) is an ongoing multi-sided armed conflict in Syria fought primarily between the government of President Bashar al-Assad, along with its allies, and various forces opposing the government.[102]

The unrest in Syria, part of a wider wave of 2011 Arab Spring protests, grew out of discontent with the Assad government and escalated to an armed conflict after protests calling for his removal were violently suppressed.[103] The war is being fought by several factions: the Syrian government and its allies, a loose alliance of Sunni Arab rebel groups (including the Free Syrian Army), the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Salafi jihadist groups (including al-Nusra Front) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), with a number of countries in the region and beyond being either directly involved, or rendering support to one or another faction.

Syrian opposition groups formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and seized control of the area surrounding Aleppo and parts of southern Syria. Over time, some factions of the Syrian opposition split from their original moderate position to pursue an Islamist vision for Syria, joining groups such as al-Nusra Front and ISIL. In 2015, the People's Protection Units (YPG) joined forces with Arab, Assyrian, Armenian and some Turkmen groups, to form the Syrian Democratic Forces, while most Turkmen groups remained with the FSA.[104]

Iran, Russia and Hezbollah support the Syrian government militarily, while beginning in 2014, a coalition of NATO countries began launching airstrikes against ISIL.[105]

International organizations have accused the Syrian government, ISIL and rebel groups of severe human rights violations and of many massacres.[106] The conflict has caused a major refugee crisis. Over the course of the war a number of peace initiatives have been launched, including the March 2017 Geneva peace talks on Syria led by the United Nations, but fighting continues.[107]

Contents

Background

Assad government

Syria became an independent republic in 1946 following years of French rule after World War II, although democratic rule ended with a coup in March 1949, followed by two more coups the same year.[108] 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 centralized presidential government.[109] 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.[110]

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.[111] On 31 January 1973, Hafez al-Assad implemented a new constitution, which led to a national crisis. Unlike previous constitutions, this one did not require that the President of Syria be a Muslim, leading to fierce demonstrations in Hama, Homs and Aleppo organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and the ulama. They labelled Assad the "enemy of Allah" and called for a jihad against his rule.[112][citation not found] The government survived a series of armed revolts by Islamists, mainly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, from 1976 until 1982.

Upon Hafez al-Assad's death in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad was elected as President of Syria. Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma, a Sunni Muslim born and educated in Britain,[113] initially inspired hopes for democratic reforms. The Damascus Spring, a period of social and political debate, took place between July 2000 and August 2001.[114] 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.[115] In the opinion of his critics, Bashar al-Assad had failed to deliver on promised reforms.[116] President Bashar Al-Assad maintains that no 'moderate opposition' to his rule exists, and that all opposition forces are jihadists intent on destroying his secular leadership. In an April 2017 interview with Croatian newspaper Vecernji List he reasserted his view that terrorist groups operating in Syria are 'linked to the agendas of foreign countries'.[117]

Demographics

Syrian Arabs, together with some 600,000 Palestinian Arabs, make up roughly 74 percent of the population (if Syriac Christians are excluded).[118] Syria's Muslims are 74 percent Sunnis (including Sufis), and 13 percent Shias (including 8–12 percent Alawites from which about 2 percent are Mershdis), 3 percent are Druze, while the remaining 10 percent are Christians. Not all of Syria's Sunnis are Arabs. The Assad family is mixed. Bashar is married to a Sunni, with whom he has several children. He is affiliated with the sect that his parents belong to: the minority Alawite sect.[119] Alawites control Syria's security apparatus.[120]

The majority of Syria's Christians belong to the Eastern Christian churches, such as the branches of the Eastern Catholic Churches, Syriac Orthodox Church, Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, Assyrian Church of the East, and Armenian Orthodox Church, which have existed in the region since the first century AD.[121]

Syrian Kurds, an ethnic minority making up approximately 9 percent of the population, have endured ethnic discrimination and the denial of their cultural and linguistic rights, as well as the frequent denial of their citizenship, for the history of the Syrian state.[122]

Assyrians, an indigenous Eastern Aramaic-speaking Christian Semitic people, numbering approximately 500,000,[123] are found mainly in northeast Syria. A larger population lives over the border in northern Iraq. Other ethnic groups include Armenians, Circassians, Turkmens, Greeks, Mhallami, Kawliya, Yezidi, Shabaks, and Mandeans.[124]

Socioeconomic background

Socioeconomic inequality increased significantly after free market policies were initiated by Hafez al-Assad in his later years, and it accelerated after Bashar al-Assad came to power. With an emphasis on the service sector, these policies benefited a minority of the nation's population, mostly people who had connections with the government, and members of the Sunni merchant class of Damascus and Aleppo.[125]

The country also faced particularly high youth unemployment rates.[126] At the start of the war, discontent against the government was strongest in Syria's poor areas, predominantly among conservative Sunnis.[125] These included cities with high poverty rates, such as Daraa and Homs and the poorer districts of large cities.

Drought

This coincided with the most intense drought ever recorded in Syria, which lasted from 2006 to 2011 and resulted in widespread crop failure, an increase in food prices and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers.[127] This migration strained infrastructure already burdened by the influx of some 1.5 million refugees from the Iraq War.[128] The drought has been linked to anthropogenic global warming.[129] Adequate water supply continues to be an issue in the ongoing civil war and it is frequently the target of military action.[130]

Human rights

The human rights situation in Syria has long been the subject of harsh critique from global organizations.[131] The rights of free expression, association and assembly were strictly controlled in Syria even before the uprising.[132] The country was under emergency rule from 1963 until 2011 and public gatherings of more than five people were banned.[133] Security forces had sweeping powers of arrest and detention.[134]

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.[132] Women and ethnic minorities faced discrimination in the public sector.[132] Thousands of Syrian Kurds were denied citizenship in 1962 and their descendants were labeled "foreigners".[135] A number of riots in 2004 prompted increased tension in Syrian Kurdistan,[136] 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.[137]

Timeline

Anti-Assad protests in Baniyas, April 2011

Civil uprising (March–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,[138] and according to witnesses who spoke to the BBC, the government forces detained six.[139] 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 government", in the city of Daraa.[138][140] A 13-year-old boy, Hamza al-Khateeb, was tortured and killed.[141] The government claims that the boys weren't attacked, and that Qatar incited the majority of the protests.[142] 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".[140] 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[143] and 15 protesters.[144] Ten days later in a speech, President Bashar al-Assad blamed "foreign conspirators" pushing Israeli propaganda for the protests.[145]

Pro-Assad demonstration in Latakia, June 2011
Protests in Douma

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. By the end of May 2011, 1,000 civilians[146] and 150 soldiers and policemen[147] had been killed and thousands detained;[148] among the arrested were many students, liberal activists and human rights advocates.[149]

Significant armed resistance against the state security took place on 4 June 2011 in Jisr al-Shugur. 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.[150] Later, more protesters in Syria took up arms, and more soldiers defected to protect protesters.

Early armed insurgency (July 2011 – April 2012)

The Early insurgency phase of the Syrian Civil War lasted from late July 2011 to April 2012, and was associated with the rise of armed oppositional militias across Syria and the beginning of armed rebellion against the authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic. The beginning of the insurgency is typically marked by formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on 29 July 2011, when a group of defected officers declared the establishment of the first organized oppositional military force. Composed of defected Syrian Armed Forces personnel, the rebel army aimed to remove Bashar al-Assad and his government from power.

This period of the war saw the initial civil uprising take on many of the characteristics of a civil war, according to several outside observers, including the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, as armed elements became better organized and began carrying out successful attacks in retaliation for the crackdown by the Syrian government on demonstrators and defectors.[151]

The Arab League monitoring mission, initiated in December 2011, ended in failure by February 2012, as Syrian Ba'athist troops and oppositional militants continued to do battle across the country and the Syrian Ba'athist government prevented foreign observers from touring active battlefields, including besieged oppositional strongholds.

In early 2012, Kofi Annan acted as the 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, the rebels and the Syrian army continued fighting even after the peace plan.[152]:11 The United Nations-backed ceasefire was brokered by special envoy Kofi Annan and declared in mid-April 2012.

Ceasefire and escalation (April 2012 – December 2013)

The 2012–13 escalation of the Syrian Civil War was the third phase of the Syrian Civil War, which gradually evolved from UN-mediated cease fire attempt during April–May 2012, deteriorating into radical violence in June, escalating the conflict level to a full-fledged civil war.

Following the Houla massacre of 25 May 2012, in which 108 people were summarily executed, and the subsequent FSA ultimatum to the Syrian Ba'athist government, the ceasefire practically collapsed, as the FSA began nationwide offensives against government troops. On 1 June 2012, President Assad vowed to crush the anti-government uprising.[153] On 12 June 2012, the UN for the first time officially proclaimed Syria to be in a state of civil war.[154] The conflict began moving into the two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.

Following October 2012 cease-fire failure, during winter of 2012–13 and early spring of 2013, the rebels continued advances on all fronts. In mid-December 2012, American officials said that the Syrian military began firing Scud ballistic missiles at rebel fighters inside Syria. 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. 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.[155] By 6 March 2013, the rebels had captured the city of Raqqa, effectively making it the first provincial capital to be lost by the Assad government.

The advances of rebels were finally arrested in April 2013, as Syrian Arab Army could reorganize and initiate offensives. On 17 April 2013, Ba'athist 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 Ba'athist forces to resupply two major military bases in the region which had been relying on sporadic airdrops.[156] In April 2013, government and Hezbollah forces, who have increasingly become involved in the fighting, 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.[157]

From July 2013, however the situation became a stalemate, with fighting continuing on all fronts between various factions with numerous casualties, but without major territorial changes. On 28 June 2013, rebel forces captured a major military checkpoint in the city of Daraa.[158] Shortly after, Syrian opposition factions declared war on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant which turned increasingly dominant throughout the war zone with indiscriminate killing of all – whether loyalist Assad or rebels. A major advance took place on 6 August 2013, as rebels captured Menagh Military Airbase after a 10-month siege. 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.[159] The attack, largely attributed to Assad forces caused the international community to seek disarmanent of the Syrian Arab Army from chemical weapons.

In late 2013, the period was marked by increased initiative of the Syrian Arab Army, which led offensives against opposition fighters on several fronts. The Syrian Arab Army along with its allies, Hezbollah and the al-Abas brigade, launched an offensive on Damascus and Aleppo in November.[160] Fighting between Kurdish forces, rebels and al-Nusra front continued in other locations.

Rise of the Islamist groups

Fighting between ISIL 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.[161] Conflict was renewed over Azaz in early October[162] and in late November ISIS captured the border town of Atme from an FSA brigade.[163] 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.[164]

By 6 January, opposition rebels managed to expel ISIS forces from the city of Raqqa, ISIS's largest stronghold and capital of the Raqqa Governorate.[165] 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 Raqqa.[166] By mid January ISIS retook the entire city of Raqqa, 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.[167] 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.[168] By mid-February, the al-Nusra Front joined the battle in support of rebel forces, and expelled ISIS from the Deir Ezzor Governorate.[169] By March, the ISIS forces fully retreated from the Idlib Governorate.[170] On 4 March, ISIS retreated from the border town of Azaz and other nearby villages, choosing instead to consolidate around Raqqa in an anticipation of an escalation of fighting with al-Nusra.[171]

Government offensives and Presidential election (March–June 2014)

On 4 March, the Syrian Army took control of Sahel in the Qalamoun region.[172] On 8 March, government forces took over Zara, in Homs Governorate, further blocking rebel supply routes from Lebanon.[173] On 11 March, Government forces and Hezbollah took control of the Rima Farms region, directly facing Yabrud.[174] 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.[175] 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.[176]

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.[177][178] On 20 March, the Syrian Army took control of the Krak des Chevaliers in al-Husn.[178] On 29 March, Syrian Army took control of the villages of Flitah and Ras Maara near the border with Lebanon.[179]

On 22 March, rebels took control of the Kesab border post in the Latakia Governorate.[180] By 23 March, rebels had taken most of Khan Sheikhoun in Hama.[181] 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.[182] On 4 April, rebels captured the town of Babulin, Idlib.[183] On 9 April, the Syrian Army took control of Rankous in the Qalamoun region.[184] 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.[185] On 26 April, the Syrian Army took control of Al-Zabadani.[186] According to SOHR, rebels took control of Tell Ahrmar, Quneitra.[187] Rebels in Daraa also took over Brigade 61 Base and the 74th battalion.[188]

On 26 April, the FSA announced they had begun an offensive against ISIS in the Raqqa Governorate, and had seized five towns west of Raqqa city.[189] On 29 April, activists said that the Syrian Army captured Tal Buraq near the town of Mashara in Quneitra without any clashes.[190] 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.[191] 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.[192]

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.[193] More than 9,000 polling stations were set up in government-held areas.[194] According to the Supreme Constitutional Court of Syria, 11.63 million Syrians voted (the turnout was 73.42%).[195] 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%.[196] Allies of Assad from more than 30 countries were invited by the Syrian government to follow the presidential election,[197] including Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, India, Iran, Iraq, Nicaragua, Russia, South Africa and Venezuela.[198] The Iranian official Alaeddin Boroujerdi read a statement by the group saying the election was "free, fair and transparent".[199] The Gulf Cooperation Council, the European Union and the United States all dismissed the election as illegitimate and a farce.[200]

State employees were told to vote or face interrogation.[201] On the ground there were no independent monitors stationed at the polling stations.[202] It is claimed in an opinion piece that as few as 6 million eligible voters remained in Syria.[203][204] Due to rebel, Kurdish and ISIS control of Syrian territories there was no voting in roughly 60% of the country.[205]

ISIS–government conflict intensifies

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, on 17 July 2014 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.[206] On 20 July, the Syrian Army secured the field, although fighting continued in its outskirts.[207] On 25 July, the Islamic State took control of the Division 17 base near Raqqa.[208]

On 7 August 2014, ISIL took the Brigade 93 base in Raqqa using weapons captured from their offensive in Iraq. Multiple suicide bombs also went off before the base was stormed.[209] 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, after being captured by the Al Nusra Front, the Free Syrian Army commander Sharif As-Safouri admitted to working with Israel and receiving anti-tank weapons from Israel and FSA soldiers also received medical treatment. It is possible this confession was obtained under duress.[210] 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.[211] Mleiha has been held by the Islamic Front. Rebels had used the town to fire mortars on government held areas inside Damascus.[212][213]

Meanwhile, ISIL forces in Raqqa were launching a siege on Tabqa airbase, the Syrian government's last military base in Raqqa. Kuwaires airbase in Aleppo also came under fierce attack by ISIL.[214] On 16 August 2014, 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.[215]

On 17 August 2014, SOHR said that in the past two weeks ISIL jihadists had killed over 700 tribal members in oil-rich Deir ez-Zor Governorate.[216] 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.[217]

In Raqqa, the Syrian Army took control of the town of Al-Ejeil.[218] ISIL reportedly sent reinforcements from Iraq to the governorate of Raqqa. 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 Defense Force in Raqqa alone.[218][219] At the same time, several senior UK and US figures urged Turkey to stop allowing ISIL to cross the border to Syria and Iraq.[220] 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.[221] 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.[222]

On 26 August 2014, the Syrian Air Force carried out airstrikes against ISIL 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 Raqqa and shifted to Deir ez-Zor for its oil and natural gas resources as well as strategically splitting ISIL territories.[223] American jets began bombing ISIL in Syria on 23 September 2014, raising U.S. involvement in the country. At least 20 targets in and around Raqqa 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 using fighters, bombers and Tomahawk missiles, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said.[224]

US intervention in Raqqa and Kobani

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 Raqqa".[225] 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.[226] 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.[227] For its part, Turkey launched an official request to the U.N. for a no-fly zone over Syria.[228] The same day, Israel shot down a Syrian warplane after it entered the Golan area from Quneitra.[229]

By 3 October 2014, ISIL forces were heavily shelling the city of Kobanî and were within a kilometer of the town.[230] 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.[231] Syria reported its air force had destroyed two fighter jets operated by IS.[232] By 26 January, the Kurdish YPG forced ISIL to retreat from Kobanî,[233] thus fully recapturing the city.[234] The U.S. later confirmed that the city had been cleared of ISIL forces,[235] and ISIL admitted defeat in Kobanî city three days later, although they vowed to return.[236]

The Southern Front and northern Army of Conquest (October 2014 – June 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,[237] but the operation slowed soon after[238] and stalled.[239] Since early 2015, opposition military operations rooms based in Jordan and Turkey began increasing cooperation,[240] with Saudi Arabia and Qatar also reportedly agreeing upon the necessity to unite opposition factions against the Syrian government.[241]

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). 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.[242] 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.[243] Reuters reported that this represented al-Nusra crushing pro-Western rebels in the north of the country.[244] 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.[245] The Western-backed 30th Division of the FSA remained active elsewhere in Idlib.[246]

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 their Islamist allies.[247] Therefore, they joined together to form the Army of Conquest on this day.[248] On 28 March, a joint coalition of Islamist forces, the Army of Conquest, captured Idlib.[249] 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.[250]

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.[251] At the end of the following month, the rebels also seized the Al-Mastumah military base,[252] and Ariha, leaving government forces in control of tiny pockets of Idlib, including the Abu Dhuhur military airport.[253] 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.[245] 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.[254]

Rebel advances led to government and Hezbollah morale plunging dramatically.[255] 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.[256]

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.[257] The jihadists also captured the nearby towns of Al-Sukhnah and Amiriya, as well as several oil fields.[258] 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.[259] Government sources put the number of killed at 400–450.[260] 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.[261]

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.[262] The ISIL offensive on Al-Hasakah displaced 60,000 people, with the UN estimating a total of 200,000 would be displaced.[263] 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.[264]

ISIS captured Qaryatayn city from the government on 5 August 2015.[265] Australia joined the bombing of ISIL in Syria in mid September, an extension of their efforts in Iraq for the last year.[266] On August 2, U.S. officials informed Reuters that the United States had decided to "allow air strikes to help defend against any attack on the U.S.-trained Syrian rebels, even if the attackers come from forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad." The following day the Pentagon announced that it would begin flying its first unmanned, armed drone missions in Syria.[267]

Russian intervention and Aleppo offensive (30 September 2015 – February 2016)

On 30 September 2015,[271] in response to an official request by the Syrian government,[272] the Russian Aerospace Forces began a sustained campaign of air strikes against both ISIL and the anti-Assad FSA.[273] 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.[274]

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.[268] That day, the Syrian government launched the northwest Syrian offensive[275] 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.[276] On 8 October 2015, the U.S. officially announced the end of the Pentagon’s half-billion dollar program to train and equip Syrian rebels and acknowledged that it had failed[277] However, other covert and significantly larger[278] CIA programs to arm anti-government fighters in Syria continued.[279]

The foreign ministers of Russia, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Turkey in Vienna, before a four-way discussion focused on Syria, 29 October 2015

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.[278] Despite multiple top-ranking casualties incurred by the Iranian forces advising fighters in Syria,[280] in mid-October the Russian-Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah offensive targeting rebels in Aleppo went ahead.[281]

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 Raqqa.[282] 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.[283] 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.[284] In mid-November 2015, in the wake of the Russian plane bombing over Sinai and the Paris attacks, both Russia[285][286] and France significantly intensified their strikes in Syria, France closely coordinating with the U.S. military.[287] 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",[286][288][289] with the French naval group led by flagship Charles De Gaulle that had been on her way to eastern Mediterranean since early November.[290] 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[291] 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.[292] 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.[293]

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.[294] 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,[295] 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".[296] The adopted resolution was drafted by France and co-sponsored by the UK[297] 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.[298][299]

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.[300] 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.[300] 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.[301][302] On 2 December 2015, the Parliament of the United Kingdom voted to expand Operation Shader into Syria with a majority of 397–223.[303] 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.[304] Defense 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.[305]

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.[306] The government condemned the strikes, the first time the government forces would be struck by the coalition,[307] as an act of "flagrant aggression"; the coalition spokesman denied it was responsible.[306] 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.[308][309] The claim was denied by the Russian military spokesman.[310] On 14 December 2015, Russia's government news media reported that the Syrian government forces retook a Marj al-Sultan military airbase east of Damascus that had been held by Jaysh al-Islam.[311]

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.[312]

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,[313] in the northwestern province of Latakia, and continued to advance north.[314] 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.[315] Counter-strikes by Russian Air Force fighter jets, in support of Syrian army forces, were reported to take back the areas.[316]

On 21 January 2016, Russia's activity presumably aimed at setting up a new base in the government-controlled Kamishly Airport was first reported;[317][318] the northeastern town of 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 kilometres (31 miles) away from the Kamishly Airport; the area is likewise controlled by the US-backed Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).[318][319] 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.[320] The capture of Rabia was said to threaten rebel supply lines from Turkey.[320][321] By 26 January 2016, the Syrian government established "full control" over the town of Al-Shaykh Maskin in the Daraa Governorate,[322] 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.[323]

Partial ceasefire (26 February–July 2016)

Defense ministers of Russia, Iran and Syria in a tripartite meeting in Tehran

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".[324] The cease-fire started on 27 February 2016 at 00:00 (Damascus time).[325] The ceasefire does not include attacks on UN-designated terrorist organizations.[326][327] At the close of February 2016, despite individual clashes, the truce was reported to hold.[328] By the end of March, the Syrian government forces with support from Russia and Iran successfully captured Palmyra from the ISIL.[329]

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.[330] 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 – October 2016)

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.[331]

A few days after, the battle of al-Hasakah began. On 22 August, the Kurdish YPG, having captured Ghwairan, the only major Arab neighborhood 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;[332] the next day the capture of the city was completed.[333] 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.[334]

On 24 August 2016, Turkey's armed forces invaded Syria in the Jarabulus area controlled by ISIL starting what the Turkish president called Operation Euphrates Shield, aimed against, according to his statement, both the IS and Kurdish "terror groups that threaten our country in northern Syria".[335] 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".[336] The PYD leader Salih Muslim said that Turkey was now in the "Syrian quagmire" and would be defeated like IS.[335][337] 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.[338]

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.[339] On 29 August, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter specified that the U.S. did not support Turkey's advance south of Jarablus.[340] 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.[341] However, combat between the Turkish forces and the SDF died down, and instead Turkish forces moved West to confront IS.[342] In the meantime the SDF, including Western volunteers, continued to reinforce Manbij.[343]

At sunset on 12 September 2016, a U.S.-Russian brokered cease-fire came into effect.[344] 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.[345] Shortly after, the ceasefire broke down, and on 19 September the Syrian Army declared to no longer observe the truce.[346] 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.[347] The offensive succeeded on 14 December, when the final Rebel stronghold in Aleppo was recaptured by the Syrian government followed by a ceasefire agreement.[348]

On 26 October 2016 US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that an offensive to retake Raqqa from IS will begin within weeks.[349] The SDF proceeded with this effort, in operation Wrath of Euphrates. This operation used up to 30,000 Arab, Christian and Kurdish troops, with support from the Western Coalition. By December 2016 it had captured many villages and land west of Raqqa, previously controlled by IS.[350] By January 2017, much of the land west of Raqqa had been seized, and the second phase of the operation was complete.

Russian/Iranian/Turkish backed ceasefire (December 2016 – April 2017)

In December 2016, Syrian government forces completely recaptured all of rebel-held parts of Aleppo, ending the 4-year battle in the city.[351] On 15 December, as it was reported government forces were on the brink of retaking all of Aleppo—a "turning point" in the civil war, Assad celebrated the "liberation" of the city, and stated, "History is being written by every Syrian citizen."[352] On December 29, 2016 Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a new ceasefire deal had been reached between the Syrian Government and opposition groups, with Russia and Turkey acting as guarantors, and Iran as a signatory to a trilateral agreement. The ceasefire came into effect at 00:00 Syrian time (02:00 UTC) on December 30. It does not include UN-designated terrorist groups, such as ISIL and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Syrian High Negotiations Committee representatives in Turkey confirmed that they were involved in the deal. Talks were scheduled to be held between the groups in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, on January 15.[353]

Early reports indicated that despite sporadic fighting incidents, the ceasefire appeared to be holding, with no civilian deaths.[354] Also late on December 29, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that four million people in Damascus and surrounding areas were without reliable access to water after major supply infrastructure was subject to deliberate targeting on December 22. They said that although the government had initiated a program of rationing, they were concerned that safe water may not be accessible to everyone and called on parties to reach peaceful agreements to guarantee basic services.[354]

On January 2, 2017, rebel groups said that they would disengage from planned talks after alleged ceasefire violations by Government forces in the Wadi Barada valley near Damascus. The government says the region is excluded from the ceasefire because of the presence of Fatah al-Sham, but some local activists deny that they have a presence there.[355] At the end of January, government forces managed to capture Wadi Barada and the water supply of Damascus was restored.[356][357]

On 14 February 2017, the cease-fire between Assad forces and rebels collapsed throughout the country, leading to fresh clashes in various locations and a fresh rebel offensive in Daraa.[358] A new peace conference in Geneva was held on 23 February.[359]

On 23 February, Turkish forces captured Al-Bab from ISIL north-east of Aleppo.[360] Syrian government forces started an offensive east of Aleppo to conquer Dayr Hafir from ISIL and prevent further Turkish advances.

On March 17, Syrian military fired S-200 missiles at Israeli jets over Golan Heights. The Israeli military claimed that the Arrow anti-ballistic system intercepted one missile, while the Syrian military claimed that they had downed an Israeli jet. The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the Israeli ambassador to clarify the situation.[361]

The Syrian Arab Army entered Dayr Hafir, the last stronghold held by the Islamic State in East Aleppo, on March 23, and secured it by March 23. This opened up an opportunity to push south into the Ar-Raqqa governate where the Islamic State's de facto capital resides; however on March 23, a Syrian Democratic Forces contingent landed on a peninsula west of Raqqa via boats and helicopters, in an effort to cut off the Syrian Arab Army from entering the Islamic State's de facto capital, Raqqa. On 28 March, an agreement was reportedly brokered by Qatar and Iran for the evacuation for four besieged towns in Syria, where around 60,000 people live. The deal involved evacuating the residents of al-Fu'ah and Kafriya, two towns in the Idlib Governorate besieged by rebel forces, in exchange for the evacuation of residents and rebels in Zabadani and Madaya, two towns under siege by government forces in the Rif Dimashq Governorate.[362]

U.S. strikes over Khan Shaykhun chemical attack; and renewed fighting (April 2017 – June 2017)

On 7 April, in what was the U.S.' first deliberate direct attack on Syrian forces in the six years of the conflict,[363] U.S. warships launched fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles on the Syrian government's Shayrat Air Base, which was said to be the source of the chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun that occurred three days prior to the airstrikes.[364] As the U.S. strike was conducted without authorization from either the United States Congress or United Nations Security Council, it raised questions about its legality under the U.S. law as well as international law.[365] An emergency meeting of the UN Security Council was held, having been requested by Bolivia and supported by Russia; the U.S. representative said that ″the moral stain of the Assad regime could no longer go unanswered.″[366] Russian president′s spokesman said Vladimir Putin viewed the U.S. attack as ″an act of aggression against a sovereign country violating the norms of international law, and under a trumped-up pretext at that″.[367]

Meanwhile, intense fighting between government forces and rebel groups that began north of Hama on 21 March, continued.[368]

On 12 April, the agreement to exchange the inhabitants of the rebel-held towns of Zabadani and Madaya with the inhabitants of the pro-government towns of Al-Fu'ah and Kafraya began to be implemented.[369] On 15 April, a convoy of buses carrying evacuees from Al-Fu'ah and Kafriya was attacked by a suicide bomber in Aleppo, killing more than 126 people.[370]

On 24 April, the Turkish Air Force conducted several airstrikes on YPG and YPJ positions near al-Malikiyah, killing at least 20 of their fighters. The attacks were condemned by the US.[371]

On 4 May 2017, Russia, Iran, and Turkey signed an agreement in Astana to create four "de-escalation zones" in Syria. The four zones include the Idlib Governorate, the northern rebel-controlled parts of the Homs Governorate, the rebel-controlled eastern Ghouta, and the Jordan–Syria border. The agreement was rejected by some rebel groups,[372] and the Democratic Union Party also denounced the deal, saying that the ceasefire zones are "dividing Syria up on a sectarian basis". The ceasefire came into effect on 6 May.[373]

On 18 May 2017, in what was said to have marked the most direct clash between the U.S.-led forces with the government of Syria, U.S.-led coalition fighter jets struck a convoy of pro-Syrian government forces advancing towards the U.S. coalition base at the border town of al-Tanf, where U.S. military operated and trained anti-government rebels.[374] Nevertheless, the Syrian government′s desert offensive continued and on 9 June government forces secured a part of Syrian-Iraqi border for the first time since 2015.[375]

CIA arms cutoff, further anti-ISIL advances (July 2017–present)

On 7 July 2017, the U.S., Russia, and Jordan agreed to a ceasefire in part of southwestern Syria. Russia gave assurances that Assad would abide by the agreement.[376]

On 19 July 2017, it was reported that the Donald Trump administration had decided to halt the CIA program to equip and train anti-government rebel groups, a move sought by Russia.[377]

On 5 September 2017, the government′s Central Syria offensive culminated in the breaking of the three-year ISIL siege of Deir ez-Zor, with active participation of Russian aviation and navy.[378][379][380] That was shortly after followed by the lifting of the siege of the city′s airport.[381]

On 17 October 2017, after over four months of fierce fighting and the U.S.-led coalition′s bombardment, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces announced they had established full control of the city of Raqqa in northern Syria, previously the de facto capital of ISIL.[382][383][384] At the end of October, the government of Syria said that it still considered Raqqa to be an occupied city that can ″only be considered liberated when the Syrian Arab Army enter[ed] it.″[385]

By mid-November 2017, the government forces and allied militia established full control over Deir ez-Zor and captured the town of Abu Kamal in eastern Syria, near the border with Iraq and Iraq′s town of al-Qaim, which was concurrently captured from ISIL by the Iraqi government.[386][387]

On 28 November, 2017, it was reported that China will deploy troops to aid Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.[388]

On 6 December, 2017, Russian government declared "complete victory" over ISIS. The president Vladimir Putin repeated the words of defense minister emphasizing "the total rout of the terrorists".[389]

Advanced weaponry and tactics

Chemical weapons

Sarin, mustard agent and chlorine gas have been used during the conflict. Numerous casualties led to an international reaction, especially the 2013 Ghouta attacks. A UN fact-finding mission was requested to investigate alleged chemical weapons attacks. In four cases the UN inspectors confirmed use of sarin gas.[390] The initial reports did not accuse any party of using chemical weapons.[391] In August 2016, a confidential report by the United Nations and the OPCW explicitly blamed the Syrian military of Bashar al-Assad for dropping chemical weapons (chlorine bombs) on the towns of Talmenes in April 2014 and Sarmin in March 2015 and ISIS for using sulfur mustard on the town of Marea in August 2015.[392]

The United States and the European Union have accused the Syrian government of conducting several chemical attacks. Following the 2013 Ghouta attacks and international pressure, the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons began. In 2015 the UN mission disclosed previously undeclared traces of sarin compounds in a "military research site".[393] After the April 2017 Khan Shaykhun chemical attack, the United States launched its first attack against Syrian government forces.

Cluster bombs

Many nations including but not limited to Syria, the United States, 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 is alleged to have begun using cluster bombs in September 2012. Steve Goose, director of the Arms Division at Human Rights Watch said "Syria is expanding its relentless use of cluster munitions, a banned weapon, and civilians are paying the price with their lives and limbs", "The initial toll is only the beginning because cluster munitions often leave unexploded bomblets that kill and maim long afterward."[394]

Thermobaric weapons

Russian thermobaric weapons, also known as "fuel-air bombs", have been used by the government side during the war. One Buratino thermobaric rocket launcher "can obliterate a roughly 200 by 400 metres (660 by 1,310 feet) area with a single salvo".[395] 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.[396] 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.[397] In August 2013, the BBC reported on the use of napalm-like incendiary bombs on a school in northern Syria.[398] 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."[399]

Anti-tank missiles

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.[400] 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.[401] The U.S. has also supplied many Eastern European sourced 9K111 Fagot launchers and warheads to Syrian rebel groups under its Timber Sycamore program.[402]

Ballistic missiles

In June 2017, Iran attacked ISIL targets in the Deir ez-Zor area in eastern Syria with Zolfaghar ballistic missiles fired from western Iran,[403] in the first use of mid-range missiles by Iran in 30 years.[404] According to Jane's Defence Weekly, the missiles travelled 650–700 kilometres.[403]

Belligerents

Illustration of the main factions involved in the Syrian Civil War and affiliations by 2016

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.[405][406]

Syrian Armed Forces

Two destroyed Syrian Army tanks in Azaz, August 2012
The funeral procession of Syrian General Mohammed al-Awwad who was assassinated in Damascus in 2012

Before the uprising and war broke out, the Syrian Armed Forces were estimated at 325,000 regular troops and 280,000–300,000 reservists. Of the regular troops, 220,000 were 'army troops' and the rest in the navy, air force and air defense force. Following defections as early as June 2011, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that by July 2012, tens of thousands of soldiers had defected, and a Turkish official estimated 60,000. According to a poll organised by British ORB International, up to 73% of the population in government-controlled areas support the government effort.[407]

National Defense Force

The Syrian NDF was formed out of pro-government militias. They receive their salaries and military equipment from the government,[408] and number around 100,000 troops.[409] 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.[410] 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.[408]

Shabiha

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.[411] 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.[412] The opposition blames the shabiha for the many violent excesses committed against anti-government protesters and opposition sympathizers,[412] as well as looting and destruction.[413] In December 2012, the shabiha were designated a terrorist organization by the United States.[414]

Bassel al-Assad is reported to have created the shabiha in the 1980s for government use in times of crisis.[415] Shabiha have been described as "a notorious Alawite paramilitary, who are accused of acting as unofficial enforcers for Assad's government";[416] "gunmen loyal to Assad",[417] and, according to the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, "semi-criminal gangs comprised of thugs close to the government".[417] Despite the group's image as an Alawite militia, some shabiha operating in Aleppo have been reported to be Sunnis.[418] 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.[419]

Christian militias

The Christian militias in Syria (and northern Iraq) are largely made up of ethnic Assyrians, Syriac-Arameans, and Armenians. Sensing that they depend on the largely secular government,[420] the militias of Syrian Christians fight both on the Syrian government's side[421] and with Kurdish forces.[422] According to the WorldTribune.com, "The sources said thousands of Christians were joining the Syrian Army as well as such government 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."[423]

The Eastern Aramaic speaking Assyrians in north eastern Syria and northern Iraq have formed various militias (including the Assyrian Defense Force, Dwekh Nawsha and Sootoro) in order to defend their ancient towns, villages and farmsteads from ISIS. They often but not always fight in conjunction with Kurdish and Armenian groups.[422] Assyrian fighters from Sootoro have also clashed militarily with the Kurdish dominated YPG, accusing them of attempting to appropriate Assyrian lands for the Kurds. The Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers is an all-female force of Assyrian fighters in north east Syria and northern Iraq fighting ISIS alongside other Assyrian and Kurdish units.[424]

In Lebanon, Maronite Christian militias fight incursions of ISIS and other Sunni Islamist groups.[425]

Hezbollah

In February 2013, former secretary general of Hezbollah, Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli, confirmed that Hezbollah was fighting for the Syrian Army,[426] which in October 2012, General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah had still denied was happening on a large scale,[427] except to admit that Hezbollah fighters helped the Syrian government "retain control of some 23 strategically located villages [in Syria] inhabited by Shiites of Lebanese citizenship".[428] Nasrallah said that Hezbollah fighters have died in Syria doing their "jihadist duties".[428]

In 2012 and 2013, Hezbollah was active in gaining control of territory in the Al-Qusayr District of Syria,[429] by May 2013 publicly collaborating with the Syrian Army[430][431] and taking 60 percent of the city[which?] by the end of 14 May.[430] In Lebanon, there have been "a recent increase in the funerals of Hezbollah fighters" and "Syrian rebels have shelled Hezbollah-controlled areas."[430] As of 14 May 2013, Hezbollah fighters were reported to be fighting alongside the Syrian Army, particularly in the Homs Governorate.[432] Hassan Nasrallah has called on Shiites and Hezbollah to protect the shrine of Sayida Zeinab.[432] President Bashar al-Assad denied in May 2013 that there were foreign fighters, Arab or otherwise, fighting for the government in Syria.[433]

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".[434] 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."[431] According to independent analysts, by the beginning of 2014, approximately 500 Hezbollah fighters had died in the Syrian conflict.[435] On 7 February 2016, 50 Hezbollah fighters were killed in a clash by the Jaysh al-Islam near Damascus. These fighters were embedded in the SAA formation called Army Division 39.[436]

Iran

Bodies of Iranian casualties return to Kermanshah, August 2016

Iran continues to officially deny the presence of its combat troops in Syria, maintaining that it provides military advice to Assad's forces in their fight against terrorist groups.[437] Since the civil uprising phase of the Syrian civil war, Iran has provided the Syrian government with financial, technical, and military support, including training and some combat troops.[438][439][440] Iran and Syria are close strategic allies. Iran sees the survival of the Syrian government as being crucial to its regional interests.[440][441] Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, was reported to be vocally in favor of the Syrian government.[439]

By December 2013 Iran was thought to have approximately 10,000 operatives in Syria.[441] But according to Jubin Goodarzi, assistant professor and researcher at 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".[442] Lebanese Hezbollah fighters backed by Tehran have taken direct combat roles since 2012.[441][443] In the summer of 2013, Iran and Hezbollah provided important battlefield support for Syrian forces, allowing them to make advances on the opposition.[443] In 2014, coinciding with the peace talks at Geneva II, Iran has stepped up support for Syrian President Assad.[441][443] The Syrian Minister of Finance and Economy stated more than 15 billion dollars had come from the Iranian government.[444] 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.[445]

328 IRGC troops, including several commanders, have reportedly been killed in the Syrian civil war since it began.[446]

Foreign Shia militias

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.[447] 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[447] (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[447]—and the Pakistani liwa’ zaynabiyun (Zaynabiyun Brigade) formed in November 2015.[447] 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.[447] 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.[447]

Russia

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.[448] On the same day, the Russian general Sergey Kuralenko,[449] 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,[450][451] arrived at the US Embassy in Baghdad and requested that any U.S. forces in the targeted area leave immediately.[452] An hour later, the Russian aircraft based in the government-held territory began conducting airstrikes against the rebel forces.[453]

In response to the downing of a Syrian government Su-22 plane by a U.S. fighter jet near the town of Tabqah in Raqqa province on 18 June 2017, Russia announced that U.S.-led coalition warplanes flying west of the Euphrates would be tracked by Russian anti-aircraft forces in the sky and on the ground and treated as targets; furthermore, the Russian military said they suspended the hotline (the "deconfliction" line) with their U.S. counterparts based in Al Udeid.[454] Nevertheless, a few days later, the U.S. military stated that the deconfliction line remained open and that Russia had given the U.S. a prior notification of its massive cruise missile strike from warships in the Mediterranean that was conducted on 23 June 2017, despite the fact that the U.S. was not among those countries mentioned as being forewarned in Russia′s official report on the strike.[455] On 27 June 2017, U.S. defence minister Jim Mattis told the press: ″We deconflict with the Russians; it's a very active deconfliction line. It's on several levels, from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the secretary of state with their counterparts in Moscow, General Gerasimov and Minister Lavrov. Then we've got a three-star deconfliction line that is out of the Joints Chiefs of Staff out of the J5 there. Then we have battlefield deconfliction lines. One of them is three-star again, from our field commander in Baghdad, and one of them is from our CAOC, our Combined Air Operations Center, for real-time deconfliction.″[456]

Syrian Opposition and allies

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).[457] 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).[458] The designation of the FSA by the West as a moderate opposition faction has allowed it, under the CIA-run programmes,[278][279] 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.[459][460]

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, whose leaders 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.[461] 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.[462] Jihadist groups became dominant within the armed opposition[463] Also, in the north-east, local Kurdish militias such as the YPG have taken up arms and have fought with both rebel Islamist factions[464] and government loyalists.[465]

Political groups

Syrian National Coalition
Syrian National Coalition members in Doha, 11 November 2012. In center, president al-Khatib, along with VPs Seif and Atassi, as well as all SNC chairmen Ghalioun, Sieda and Sabra.

On 11 November 2012 in Doha, the National Council and other opposition groups united as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.[466] 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.[467] 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]".[468]

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.[469]

National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change

Formed in 2011 and based in Damascus, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change is an opposition bloc consisting of 13 left-wing political parties and "independent political and youth activists".[470] It has been defined by Reuters as the internal opposition's main umbrella group.[471] The NCC initially had several Kurdish political parties as members, but all except for the Democratic Union Party left in October 2011 to join the Kurdish National Council.[472] Some have accused the NCC of being a "front organization" for Bashar al-Assad's government and some of its members of being ex-government insiders.[473]

Relations with other Syrian political opposition groups are generally poor. The Syrian Revolution General Commission, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria or the Supreme Council of the Syrian Revolution oppose the NCC calls to dialogue with the Syrian government.[474] In September 2012, the Syrian National Council (SNC) reaffirmed that despite broadening its membership, it would not join with "currents close to [the] NCC".[475] Despite recognizing the Free Syrian Army on 23 September 2012,[349] the FSA has dismissed the NCC as an extension of the government, stating that "this opposition is just the other face of the same coin".[471]

Military rebel groups

Free Syrian Army and affiliate groups
Free Syrian Army fighters being transported by pickup truck

The formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was announced on 29 July 2011 by a group of defecting Syrian Army officers, encouraging others to defect in order to defend civilian protesters from violence by the state and effect government change.[476] By December 2011, estimates of the number of defectors to the FSA ranged from 1,000 to over 25,000.[477] The FSA, initially "headquartered" in Turkey, moved its headquarters to northern Syria in September 2012, and functions more as an umbrella organization than a traditional military chain of command.

FSA soldiers plan during the Battle of Aleppo (October 2012).

In March 2012, two reporters of The New York Times witnessed an FSA attack and learned that the FSA had a stock of able, trained soldiers and ex-officers, organized to some extent, but without the weapons to put up a realistic fight.[478]

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,[479] who later acknowledged "the rebels" were badly fragmented and lacked military skill. 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.[479]

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 actually joining IS,[480] but by September 2014 the Free Syrian Army was joining an alliance and common front with Kurdish militias including the YPG to fight ISIS.[481]

In October 2015, shortly after the start of Russia's military intervention in Syria, a senior ex-US official was paraphrased as saying "the "moderates” had collapsed long ago" in a piece by Robert Fisk who added that many fighters had defected to other rebel groups,[482] while Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov called the FSA "an already phantom structure",[483] but later proclaimed that Russia was ready to aid the FSA with airstrikes against ISIS.[484]

Islamist factions

The Islamic Front (Arabic: الجبهة الإسلامية‎, al-Jabhat al-Islāmiyyah) was a merger of seven rebel groups involved in the Syrian civil war[36] that was announced on 22 November 2013.[485] The group had about 40,000 fighters.[486] An anonymous spokesman for the group had stated that it will not have ties with the Syrian National Coalition,[487] 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."[488] The group is widely seen as backed and armed by Saudi Arabia.[489]

The FSA and Islamic Front have largely been succeeded by the Southern Front in southern Syria and Ahrar al-Sham in northern Syria, and both have logos which are variants of the originals' logos.

Salafist factions

In September 2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that extremist Salafi jihadist groups make up 15–25% of rebel forces.[490] 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.[491] These numbers contrast with a report by Jane's Information Group, a defense outlet, claiming almost half of all rebels being affiliated to Islamist groups.[492] 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.[493] 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.[494]

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.[495] Another estimate puts the number of foreign jihadis at 15,000 by early 2014.[496]

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.[497]

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.[498]

Al-Nusra Front / Jabhat Fateh al-Sham / Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham

The scene of the October 2012 Aleppo bombings, for which al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility.[499]

The al-Qaeda-linked[500] al-Nusra Front, being the biggest jihadist group in Syria, is often considered to be the most aggressive and violent part of the opposition.[501] 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 the Syrian government and was designated as such by United States in December 2012.[502] It has been supported by the Turkish government for years, according to US intelligence.[457] 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.[503] 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.[504] The estimated manpower of al-Nusra Front is approximately 6,000–10,000 people, including many foreign fighters.[505]

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.[506] The Mujahideen's strict religious views and willingness to impose sharia law disturbed many Syrians.[507] Some rebel commanders have accused foreign jihadists of "stealing the revolution", robbing Syrian factories and displaying religious intolerance.[508] Al-Nusra Front has been accused of mistreating religious and ethnic minorities since their formation.[509] 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".[510]

The al-Nusra Front renamed itself to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) in June 2016, and later became the leading member of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in 2017.

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)

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

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".[511] 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[512] and for not tolerating non-Islamist militia groups, foreign journalists or aid workers, whose members it has expelled, imprisoned,[513] or executed. According to Michael Weiss, ISIL has not been targeted by the Syrian government "with quite the same gusto" as other rebel factions.[445]

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.[514]

The Syrian government did not begin to fight ISIL until June 2014 despite its having a presence in Syria since April 2013, according to Kurdish officials.[515] According to IHS Markit, between April 2016 and April 2017, ISIL offensively fought the Syrian government 43% of times, Turkish-backed rebel groups 40% of times, and the Syrian Democratic Forces 17% of times.[516]

ISIL was able to recruit more than 6,300 fighters in July 2014 alone.[517] 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.[518] 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.[519] 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.[520]

North Syria Federation (Rojava)

Syrian Democratic Council

The Syrian Democratic Council was established on 10 December 2015 in al-Malikiyah. It was co-founded by prominent human rights activist Haytham Manna and was intended as the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The council includes more than a dozen blocs and coalitions that support federalism in Syria, including the Movement for a Democratic Society, the Kurdish National Alliance in Syria, the Law–Citizenship–Rights Movement, and since September 2016 the Syria's Tomorrow Movement. The last group is led by former National Coalition president and Syrian National Council Ahmad Jarba. In August 2016 the SDC opened a public office in al-Hasakah.[521]

The Syrian Democratic Council was invited to participate in the international Geneva III peace talks on Syria in March 2016. However, it rejected the invitation.

Syrian Democratic Forces

Kurds showing their support for the PYD in Afrin during the conflict

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 government, 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[522] to 80,000 fighters.[523] While largely Kurdish, it's estimated that about 40% of the fighters are non-Kurdish.[524] 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.[525]: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.[526] Despite this concession, most Kurds remain opposed to the government, hoping instead for a more decentralized Syria based on federalism.[527] The Syriac Military Council, like many Christian militias, originally formed to defend Christian villages, but joined the Kurdish forces to retake Hasakah from ISIS in late 2015[528] Before the formation of the SDF, the YPG was the primary fighting force in Rojava, and 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).

On 17 March 2016 the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the SDF,[529] declared the creation of an autonomous federation in northern Syria.[530]

U.S.-led coalition against ISIL

A number of countries, including some individual NATO members, have since September 2014 participated in air operations in Syria that came to be overseen by the Combined Joint Task Force, set up by the US Central Command to coordinate military efforts against ISIL pursuant to their collectively undertaken commitments, including those of 3 December 2014.[531] 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.[532] 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.[533] 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 program in support of moderate rebels, who no longer existed, into an indiscriminate program to provide technical and logistical support for all elements of the opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.[457]

Foreign involvement

Map of countries surrounding Syria (red) with military involvement.
  Syria
  Countries that support the Syrian government
  Countries that support the Syrian rebels
  Countries that are in a similar conflict

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.[534] The major parties supporting the Syrian Government are Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. They 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,[535] in addition to significant political support from Russia.[536]

The main Syrian opposition body – the Syrian coalition – receives political, logistic and military support from the United States, Britain and France.[537] Some Syrian rebels get training from the CIA at bases in Qatar, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.[538] 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.[539] 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.[540] It reported that Qatar was offering refugee packages of about $50,000 a year to defectors and family.[540] Saudi Arabia has emerged as the main group to finance and arm the rebels.[541]

French television France 24 reported that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, with perhaps 3,000 foreign jihadists among its ranks,[542] "receives private donations from the Gulf states."[543] 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.[544] 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.[545] 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.[462][546]

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.[547][needs update] 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.[548]

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.[549] 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.[550]

American and Turkish militaries announced a joint plan to remove Islamic State militants from a 100-kilometre (60 mi) strip along the Turkish border.[551] In December 2015, the Soufan Group estimated a total of 27,000–31,000 foreign fighters from 86 countries had travelled to Syria and Iraq to join extremist groups.[552]

Reporting, censoring and propaganda

The Syrian Civil War is one of the most heavily documented wars in history, despite the extreme dangers that journalists face while in Syria.[553]

International reactions

Esther Brimmer (U.S.) speaks at a United Nations Human Rights Council urgent debate on Syria, February 2012

The Arab League, European Union, the United Nations,[554] 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.[555] 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.[556]

Humanitarian aid

The conflict holds the record for the largest sum ever requested by UN agencies for a single humanitarian emergency, $6.5 billon worth of requests of December 2013.[557] 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.[558]

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.[559] 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.[560] Official United Nations data on the humanitarian situation and response is available at an official website managed by UNOCHA Syria (Amman).[561] UNICEF is also working alongside these organizations to provide vaccinations and care packages to those in need.

US aid to Syrian opposition forces, May 2013

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.[562] Islamic Relief has stocked 30 hospitals and sent hundreds of thousands of medical and food parcels.[563]

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.[564] 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.[565] Syrian refugees make up one quarter of Lebanon's population, mostly consisting of women and children.[566] In addition, Russia has said it created six humanitarian aid centers within Syria to support 3000 refugees in 2016.[567]

The World Health Organization has reported that 35% of the country's hospitals are out of service. 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.[568] 400,000 civilians are isolated by the fighting in eastern Ghouta, resulting in acutely malnourished children according to the United Nations Special Advisor, Jan Egeland, who urges the parties for medical evacuations. 55,000 civilians are also isolated in Berm where they have last seen humanitarian relief in the early summer.[569] 494 individuals are awaiting medical evacuations.[570]

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.[571]

Impact

Deaths

Total deaths over the course of the conflict in Syria (18 March 2011 – 18 October 2013) based on data from the Syrian National Council[572]

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."[573] Four months later, the UN's updated figure for the death toll had reached 80,000.[574] 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.[575][576] 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.[577]

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.[578] 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.[78] In addition, UNICEF reported that over 500 children had been killed by early February 2012,[579] and another 400 children have been reportedly arrested and tortured in Syrian prisons;[580] 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.[581] In mid-October 2012, the opposition activist group SOHR reported the number of children killed in the conflict had risen to 2,300,[582] and in March 2013, opposition sources stated that over 5,000 children had been killed.[583] In January 2014, a report was released detailing the systematic killing of more than 11,000 detainees of the Syrian government.[584]

On 20 August 2014, a new U.N. study concluded that at least 191,369 people have died in the Syrian conflict.[585] The UN thereafter stopped collecting statistics, but a study by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research released in February 2016 estimated the death toll to be 470,000, with 1.9m wounded (reaching a total of 11.5% of the entire population either wounded or killed).[586]

Disease

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 to the spread of disease by purposefully restricting access to vaccination, sanitation and access to hygienic water in "areas considered politically unsympathetic".[587]

Refugee migration

Syrian refugees in Lebanon living in cramped quarters (6 August 2012)

The violence in Syria caused millions to flee their homes. As of March 2015, Al-Jazeera estimate 10.9 million Syrians, or almost half the population, have been displaced.[588] 3.8 million have been made refugees.[588] As of 2013, 1 in 3 of Syrian refugees (about 667,000 people) sought safety in Lebanon (normally 4.8 million population).[589] 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.[590] In September 2014, the UN stated that the number of Syrian refugees had exceeded 3 million.[591] 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".[592] Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III Laham claims more than 450,000 Syrian Christians have been displaced by the conflict.[593] As of September 2016, the European Union has reported that there are 13.5 million refugees in need of assistance in the country.[594]

Human rights violations

Victims of the Ghouta chemical attack carried out by government forces[citation needed]

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".[595]

According to three international lawyers,[596] 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.[597] 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.[598]

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.[599][600] 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.[599][601] 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.[602]

ISIS forces have been accused by the 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 Raqqa governorates, amounting to crimes against humanity", said the report from 27 August 2014.[603]

Enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions have also been a feature since the Syrian uprising began.[604] An Amnesty International report, published in November 2015, accused the Syrian government of forcibly disappearing more than 65,000 people since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War.[605] According to a report in May 2016 by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 60,000 people have been killed since March 2011 through torture or from poor humanitarian conditions in Syrian government prisons.[606]

In February 2017, Amnesty International published a report which accused the Syrian government of murdering an estimated 13,000 persons, mostly civilians, at the Saydnaya military prison. They said the killings began in 2011 and were still ongoing. Amnesty International described this as a "policy of deliberate extermination" and also stated that "These practices, which amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, are authorised at the highest levels of the Syrian government."[607] Three months later, the United States State Department stated a crematorium had been identified near the prison. According to the U.S., it was being used to burn thousands of bodies of those killed by the government's forces and to cover up evidence of atrocities and war crimes.[608] Amnesty International expressed surprise at the claims about the crematorium, as the photographs used by the US are from 2013 and they did not see them as conclusive, and fugitive government officials have stated that the government buries those its executes in cemeteries on military grounds in Damascus.[609] The Syrian government denied the allegations.

ISIL and al-Qaeda executions

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.[610] ISIL also threatened to execute Steven Sotloff, who was kidnapped at the Syrian-Turkish border in August 2013.[611] There were reports ISIS captured a Japanese national, two Italian nationals, and a Danish national as well.[612] Sotloff was later executed in September 2014. At least 70 journalists have been killed covering the Syrian war, and more than 80 kidnapped, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.[613] On 22 August 2014, the al-Nusra Front released a video of captured Lebanese soldiers and demanded Hezbollah withdraw from Syria under threat of their execution.[614]

Sectarian threats

Map of Syria's ethno-religious composition in 1976

The successive governments of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad have been closely associated with the country's minority Alawite religious group,[615] 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.[616] In May 2013, SOHR stated that out of 94,000 killed during the war, at least 41,000 were Alawites.[617]

Many Syrian Christians reported that they had fled after they were targeted by the anti-government rebels.[618] (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."[619]

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”[620]—allegedly occupying mosques and replacing Sunni icons with pictures of Shia leaders.[620]

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".[620]

Crime wave

Doctors and medical staff treating injured rebel fighters and civilians in Aleppo

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.[621] 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.[622]

Local National Defense 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 government-held parts of Syria since the formation of the organization in 2013", as reported by the Institute for the Study of War.[623]

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.[411] 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.[411]

Cultural heritage

The Temple of Bel in Palmyra, which was destroyed by ISIL in August 2015

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.[588] Destruction of antiquities has been caused by shelling, army entrenchment, and looting at various tells, museums, and monuments.[624] 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.[625]

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 Raqqa some artifacts seem to have been destroyed by foreign Islamists due to religious objections.[626]

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.[627] The 13th-century Palmyra Castle was extensively damaged by retreating militants during the Palmyra offensive in March 2016.[628] ISIL also destroyed ancient statues in Raqqa,[629] and a number of churches, including the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Deir ez-Zor.[630]

The war has inspired its own particular artwork, done by Syrians. A late summer 2013 exhibition in London at the P21 Gallery showed some of this work, which had to be smuggled out of Syria.[631]

Spillover

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. Fighting between rebels and government forces also spilled over into Lebanon on several occasions. There were repeated incidents of sectarian violence in the North Governorate of Lebanon between supporters and opponents of the Syrian government, as well as armed clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli.[632]

Starting on 5 June 2014, ISIL seized swathes of territory in Iraq. As of 2014, the Syrian Arab Air Force used airstrikes targeted against ISIL in Raqqa and al-Hasakah in coordination with the Iraqi government.[633]

Peace efforts

Syria peace talks in Vienna, 30 October 2015

During the course of the war, there have been several international peace initiatives, undertaken by the Arab League, the United Nations, and other actors.[634] The Syrian government has refused efforts to negotiate with what it describes as armed terrorist groups.[635] On 1 February 2016, the UN announced the formal start of the UN-mediated Geneva Syria peace talks[636] 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.[637] 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.[638]

A new round of talks between the Syrian government and some groups of Syrian rebels concluded on 24 January 24, 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan, with Russia, Iran and Turkey supporting the ceasefire agreement brokered in late December 2016.[639] The Astana Process talks was billed by a Russian official as a complement to, rather than replacement, of the United Nations-led Geneva Process talks.[639] On 4 May 2017, at the fourth round of the Astana talks, representatives of Russia, Iran, and Turkey signed a memorandum whereby four "de-escalation zones" in Syria would be established, effective of 6 May 2017.[640][641]

Depictions

Films

Documentaries

Video games

See also

References

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