Syrian Civil War
“”Syria isn’t so much a country as it is an exhibit for Dictatorship Inc., the main purpose of which is to show that resistance really is futile. That’s why Russia doesn’t shrink from bombing civilian hospitals, or Hezbollah from starving entire cities into submission, or Assad from using chemical weapons. They are showing their respective publics the lengths to which they are prepared to go to maintain their own grip on power.
|—Bret Stephens, New York Times.|
|It never changes|
|A view to kill|
The Syrian Civil War refers to the ongoing armed civil war in Syria. It began in 2011 (you read that right, this has been going on for a decade) during the Arab Spring. Unrest and protests provoked a violent crackdown by the Bashar al-Assad regime, and this action led to an all-out uprising. Unfortunately, things got even worse when other factions joined the fight, including a variety of competing Islamist terrorist groups. The civil war has also become internationalized, with Russia and Iran lending material and military support to the regime while Turkey and the United States-led international coalition oppose both the regime and the terrorist groups.
All sides of the conflict have been accused of war crimes. The UK accused Russia of deploying incendiary and bunker-busting bombs against civilian residences. Amnesty International has gathered evidence that Turkey has committed various atrocities against civilians, including summary executions. Amnesty also accuses the US coalition of conducting indiscriminate and disproportionate bombings against civilian targets which caused many unnecessary casualties. The Assad regime, meanwhile, has been found to be responsible for a long list of atrocities, including torture, chemical weapons attacks, and abuse of prisoners.
The war is responsible for an ongoing refugee crisis. The estimated death toll of the war as of February 2022 is 586,100 (out of a prewar population of 22 million), among whom are 159,774 Syrian civilians, including 22,075 children under the age of eighteen.
The Assad regime
Sometimes referred to as the Baathist or Alawite regime. The original Arab nationalist government installed in 1973, now led by President Bashar al-Assad. It controls portions of the west, north, south, and center. Supporters of the government include most of the minority groups: the Alawites, Christians, Druze, and secularists, who fear retaliation from Sunnis and extremists. It's also supported by a significant portion of Sunnis who just want peace in the country, as Sunnis comprise the majority of those serving in the Syrian Army. The National Defense Force is a pro-government militia made up of volunteers trained by the government, basically reservists tasked with holding unimportant towns. Hezbollah, being mostly Shia, has also thrown itself behind the government, participating in many major battles, but acting mostly as a backup force.
Various rebel groups
There are many different rebel factions involved in this conflict, many of whom have fought with one another at some point. The most powerful faction is the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, it controls large sections of land in the northwest, totaling over 2,700 km2, and it maintains a presence in the south and center. It is able to dictate terms to other factions and eliminate most rebel dissent. Throughout the war, it has learned new tactics, mastering suicide bombing, tank warfare, and siege. In July 2016 Jabhat al-Nusra severed ties with al-Qaeda and renamed itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, or Levant Conquest Front. The break with al-Qaeda is seen as the group positioning itself as the dominant force among the "Syrian opposition", and as an attempt to rebrand as a moderate alternative to Daesh in a possible negotiated settlement (although no one is falling for it).
Various other Islamist groups exist, including Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (Movement of Free Islamic Men of the Levant), Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam), and Liwa al-Tawhid (Brigade of Monotheism). These groups coordinate and mediate with both al-Nusra and more moderate rebels.
Then there's the mostly now-defunct Free Syrian Army (FSA), originally created in 2011 by defectors from the Syrian armed forces. They have received extensive funding and support from the United States and its allies, most importantly TOW missiles, with which it and other rebels have destroyed hundreds of Syrian Army tanks and vehicles throughout the war. Many of its members have since abandoned the secular resistance in favor of Islamist groups. According to the Washington Post, some ex-FSA fighters switched for strategic purposes since they saw the Islamists as more effective at defeating Assad. The Guardian noted that the FSA's shortage of weapons and other resources compared to the Islamists was a recurring theme regarding defections. The FSA and allied groups have control over some swathes of land in the northwest, mainly some 2,000 km2 along the Turkish border, as well as another region in the southwest totaling 2,900 km2, but their control over these territories is considerably more tenuous than that of either the government or Daesh. For example, if al-Nusra wanted to travel through FSA turf, there was nothing the FSA could realistically do about it. The faction is often thought to be basically dead nowadays, however, they still operate out of a US base called Al-Tanf under the name "Revolutionary Commando Army", have a presence in Western Kurdistan (Rojava) through the FSA affilate "Army of Revolutionaries", in Idlib under the name Turkish Backed Syrian National Army, and they have recently risen up and taken land in Daraa, which had previously fell to the regime.
Otherwise known as the Islamic State, or ISIS. The Salafi Islamist organization, which demands everyone join them or die. It intended to first set up a regional 'state', then conquer the entire middle-east, and eventually the entire world. It took over the eastern and central part of the country, but recently was pushed out of the north and center entirely. Their notoriously violent tactics have earned them the derision of the entire international community; even al-Qaeda regards them as too extreme.
While their infrastructure was founded in 1999, as a division of Al-Qaeda in Syria and Iraq, they were known by many names and run by many different leadership classes over the years, such as when they were the Islamic State of Iraq from 2006 through 2013. By 2013, they renamed themselves to their better-known epitaph of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, when they carved out a huge swath of territory in Syria during the civil war. By November 2017, the Islamic State was finally repelled from all of its strongholds and captured cities, including their capital city of Raqqah. The governments of Syria and Iraq both declared the defeat of Daesh by the end of 2017.
Syrian Democratic Forces
Also known as Rojava, a secular democratic rebel group which doesn't align with any other faction, but have recently been accused of aligning themselves to the Assad regime. Controls two strips of land that amount to 34,000 km2, most of the northern border and about a fifth of the country. Its main armed component is the majority-Kurdish YPG (People's Protection Units), which was always the main group in the north opposing Islamist extremists as well as the Syrian government. They're secularists, so much so that Daesh and al-Qaeda consider them to be atheists. Turkey doesn't like these Kurds, as they are aligned with the terrorist organisation the Kurdistan Worker's Party. Moderate Syrian Arab rebel groups operate in some Kurdish areas as an organizational component, allying with the much stronger YPG to fight Daesh. The US has dropped over 100 tons of weapons and supplies to these groups, as well as assisting with organization and military strategy. The SDF with the help of the entire world where influential in the defeat of ISIL. The SDF have been found by Amnesty International to have committed war crimes including bombing of civilian areas and ethnic cleansing.
In what appears to be neo-Ottomanism finally taking action, the Turkish army has gotten heavily involved, attempting to defeat the Baathist regime and ethnically cleanse the Kurds. They have supported Salafi organizations throughout the war, and have received numerous criticisms for human rights abuses. On October 9th, 2019, Turkey launched an offensive into north eastern Syria, seemingly to wipe out the Kurds. They took over a large strip of Northern Syria away from the SDF control. Both the Syrian government, Turkey and the SDF are fighting in the north east. Now they are helping salafi government of Idlib fighting the regime forces, and have reorganized FSA remnants under their command.
In 2013 Amnesty International reported extensive attacks on civilian areas from shooting demonstrators to aerial bombardments, ballistic missile attacks and chemical weapons. By mid-August 2014, the international community removed and destroyed most of the Assad government's chemical weapons stocks. As part of a diplomatic solution based on a joint U.S.-Russian proposal, the Obama administration withdrew the threat of military force and the Assad government agreed to give up its chemical weapons and join the international Chemical Weapons Convention.
Both the government and rebel groups have been accused of indiscriminate attacks against civilians, although a consensus existed that the government's atrocities eclipsed those of the rebels (or at least until Daesh gained prominence). The Assad government accuses the rebels of terrorism, and often says all of these groups share the same ideological goals as Daesh, which is at best an exaggeration, and at worst propaganda.
By August 2014, the United Nations estimated nearly 191,000 have died in the civil war, with 3 million refugees in neighbouring countries and 6.5 million internally displaced. Out of a total population of 22 million, nearly half have lost their homes. Now, the death toll is above 250,000 by conservative sources and knocking on 370,000 by the most liberal sources.
In late 2014, al-Qaeda overran a small contingent of the Free Syrian Army guarding U.S. manufactured TOW missiles which were then used in the capture of two of government's major military installations. They have since used these missiles to destroy dozens of tanks and hundreds of other government vehicles.
Throughout the war, there have been various accusations of war crimes from all sides. Mainly the rebels have accused government forces of indiscriminate attacks against populated areas, using unguided bombs and chemical weapons.
When the rebels could not be stamped out by ground forces, the Syrian government decided to employ its large air force in a tactical, and later strategic campaign intended to win the war and end rebel resistance. The government essentially decided to launch a full-scale bombing campaign of rebel-held civilian areas, with the goal of destroying any civilian infrastructure that the rebels could use for support and demoralizing the rebel groups to push them to give up. This is similar to the (successful) US-UK bombing campaign over Nazi-held Europe, which made little distinction between civilian and military targets, and purposefully tried to break the will of the German people to continue the war. That doesn't excuse the war crimes committed by the Syrian government; it merely puts them in historical context with the tactics other successful nations have used during wartime. That said, both the civilian bombings in WWII and in Syria are war crimes.
Another accusation leveled at the government is that it has used brutal siege tactics against civilian areas in an effort to starve and crush the rebels there. In some cases, the people living in these towns are able to leave the towns for government-held areas to avoid being killed, but sometimes a good many of them choose not to. The government sieges have been extremely successful, causing many rebel-held towns to declare truces in exchange for humanitarian aid, or surrender and peaceful withdraw their fighters. The rebels have also laid siege to several government-held towns and fired 'hell cannons' (unguided artillery) and rockets indiscriminately at them, often killing civilians who many rebels see as guilty of supporting the government. Some rebels have used the "but they did it first" argument to justify these sieges.
Course of the war
It is pretty safe to say that the war started due to a Sunni dislike of the ruling Shia-Christian axis. This 'regime' severely limited Sunni political rights, awarding governmental positions to mostly non-Sunnis, despite Sunnis making up 68% of the population. The Sunnis were always pretty poor compared to the rich Shias and minorities, so it's understandable that they'd be angry about their economic situation. There was a major drought that caused thousands of Sunni farmers to leave their villages and move to slums in cities. When it became clear that war was coming, Christians, other Shias, and Druze allied with the government, fearing that they would lose their rights if Sunnis took power. The Sunni Kurds remained neutral, and have since sparred with the government, rebels, and Daesh.
Seeing the uprising in Egypt and Libya, thousands of people got out of their homes, protested in the streets of cities like Daraa, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, and Damascus. They called for political reforms to give more power to the Sunnis and economic reforms to reduce poverty. Some teenagers graffitied "the people want the fall of the regime" on a school in Daraa. These youths were arrested by the police, which the protesters got angry about. Within a week, this became the main chant of the protesters, who called for the government to be replaced with a less sectarian one. The police, after failing to disperse the protesters, started shooting at a couple of mobs in Daraa and other cities. After weeks of these mass mobs failing to be dispersed by the police, the Army was called in to clear out the protesters. The Army took this to mean shoot at them with tanks and machine guns. After the Army surrounded protester strongholds and dispersed most of these, some medium-level Army officers who sympathized with the protesters deserted their posts in the night and went to protester camps, joining them and plotting to militarily overthrow the government. When it became clear peaceful change wasn't going to happen, the protesters decided to take up AK-47s, dig trenches, and shoot back at the Army. The protesters started flying the old 1950s flag and calling themselves the Free Syrian Army, stating that their objective was to defend civilians and thus topple the government by violence. The government took this to mean war, and seeing a threat to its existence, decided to launch a conventional military campaign to crush the uprising.
The insurgency grew, fed by support from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United States, and al-Qaeda. The prevailing opinion among Western and Sunni powers was that the rebels would win relatively quickly and establish a democratic state where everyone is happy. Needless to say, that did not happen. As government attacks on pro-rebel civilians increased, psychological trauma led a good many rebels to become Islamists. A good example was the rebel leader, Zahran Alloush calling for a genocide of Shias. Note that he said this after years of daily bombing and shelling of a besieged rebel pocket near Damascus. Many others joined al-Qaeda and Daesh, believing that they were the better fighters. Westerners tried to clean up Alloush's reputation and image to make him "leader of the Syrian opposition" in the Geneva talks aimed at staving off Western boots on the ground in favor of a negotiated diplomatic solution.
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri ordered seasoned al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq to cross the border into Syria, join up with sympathetic rebel camps, and gain experience. A few hundred did this, and over many months, they gained clout with rebels, who realized what good anti-government fighters they were. They formed an official al-Qaeda branch called Jabhat al-Nusra, meaning the Support Front. Many Islamists joined up with this group after watching it succeed in battles with the government, and al-Nusra slowly gained strength and support from the rebel movement. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq, ordered his Iraqi fighters into Syria as well, who worked independently from al-Nusra. Zawahiri didn't want this, insisting on separate branches for Iraq and Syria. Al-Baghdadi disagreed, wanting a united jihad that he was to lead. When Zawahiri ordered his group, Islamic State of Iraq, out of Syria, Baghdadi refused. Zawahiri then disowned him, leading al-Nusra to fight Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Daesh). This was a showdown that resulted in a partition that benefited ISI the most, as it secured dozens of towns within days.
When the chasm between al-Qaeda and Daesh broke open, Daesh made power grabs to secure control. They systematically crushed multiple rebel and al-Qaeda pockets, securing a heartland along the Euphrates River. In addition, they began fighting with every group in the country. Since everyone else was too busy fighting each other, Daesh was eventually able to take over half of the country land-wise (there is a lot of desert).
Meanwhile, the rebels were slaving away fighting the government in the west and south. Large gains were unable to be fully secured, as several government counteroffensives succeeded in capturing strategically significant areas that denied total rebel control over any one province. This was described by some as an "army in all corners" strategy, that sacrificed some areas in the name of maintaining overall legitimacy. Major cities like Aleppo, Damascus, and Daraa remained contested, while the government pushed the rebels out of Homs and Hama. Due to the lack of rebel success, many rebels turned to other groups that promised them success through religious methods. Groups like Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Sham, and others formed the Islamic Front, a counterpart to the FSA that rivaled it in strength. These groups played an increasing role in both warfare and governance activity.
US and international intervention has primarily focused on bombing Daesh targets, and al-Qaeda and affiliated targets have also been hit before. The latter was an attempt by the US to eliminate extremists and strengthen the moderates, but it largely failed. The US has armed and coordinated airstrikes with the Kurdish YPG in the north, and has also attempted several times to form a large 'democratic force'. Most attempts to do this have failed, with only the most recent, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, succeeding in taking large areas from Daesh.
Russian intervention began as material support for the government, but after terrorists allied to Daesh blew up one of their passenger airplanes, they officially joined in the fight, and began bombing targets… in areas that the rebels and not Daesh were located. Instead, they mainly targeted other rebels such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic Front, and other more moderate groups. However, Russia has bombed Daesh many times in Syria since its campaign started, striking infrastructure that Daesh could use to support its occupation. Strikes have also been consistent along front lines with the Syrian Army, shoring up the Army's flank and enabling it to advance against Daesh. A lawsuit by a former Saudi intelligence official noted that Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman invited the Russians to intervene, as he considered the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey-backed rebel groups to be more dangerous to Saudi interests than the Assad regime.
A Russian bomber plane entered into Turkish airspace for a few seconds (Russia disputes the route) and was subsequently shot down by a Turkish F-16, leading to quite a bit of tension. One of the pilots was shot by
Turkey's proxies 'moderate rebels' as he was parachuting down, which is technically a war crime. Given that the Russian pilot's mission was to kill those rebels, it's slightly understandable why those rebels might be a bit pissed.
Over 6,000 Russian airstrikes against rebel forces, which averaged 60 sorties per day, resulted in large Syrian Army advances in the northwest. Dozens of towns and villages were recaptured, some of them held by rebels for many years. A major rebel supply line from Turkey was cut, which put pressure on rebels and caused major gains for both the Kurds and the Army in the north; the Army and the Kurds reached an understanding that they would avoid conflict to fight other groups instead. Major rebel strongholds that were previously viewed as secure were lost, and a complex political reorganization occurred. Hundreds of moderate Sunni Arabs decided to join the Kurds under the US-backed group Syrian Democratic Forces. This group advanced against the rebels, seizing several towns.
On February 26, 2016, a UN-brokered ceasefire took effect. The ceasefire was between the government and all rebel groups, except for Daesh and al-Qaeda, who the government was still allowed to fight. After the time of implementation (midnight), calm fell over many rebel-held areas as government bombing stopped. While sporadic clashes between the Syrian Army and al-Qaeda still occurred on a few fronts, almost all other fronts remained static. The ceasefire between rebels and the government allowed the government to shift thousands of troops to fight Daesh. The Syrian Army captured many areas from Daesh in the desert, and it conducted dozens of airstrikes against Daesh positions. The Army launched an offensive against the Daesh-held city of Palmyra, and succeeded in capturing the city and its surroundings.
In June 2016, the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces launched on offensive to take the city of Manbij. Two months later, it seized the city after a violent battle that cost Daesh thousands of fighters. The Syrian Democratic Forces continued its advance on Daesh, which largely withdrew from its positions, re-prioritizing other fronts.
In July 2016, the Army advanced against the jihadis and successfully besieged the jihadi-held portion of the city of Aleppo. The jihadis, led by al-Qaeda, launched a massive counterattack with suicide bombs and tanks to break the siege. They succeeded, and began a massive upsurge in violence in the battle for the city. This weeks-long battle was the most violent to date: it featured tank battles, house-to-house fighting, suicide bombs, tunnel bombs, heavy artillery, and constant airstrikes. The government succeeded in re-imposing the siege, and continued the violent battle with the jihadis.
In August 2016, Turkey, alongside a large force of Islamist mercenaries, invaded part of Syria, taking control of an area held by Daesh. Daesh withdrew from this area preemptively and had few casualties. The Turkish-backed Islamists subsequently attacked Kurdish fighters in a large offensive backed by Turkish tanks in which dozens of civilians were killed. Daesh then withdrew from the border, and the Turkish-backed rebels seized the border. They were only able to do this because of large foreign support from Turkey and the US.
In the fall and winter of 2016, the Syrian Army launched a massive offensive to recapture Aleppo city. The offensive was a total success, with thousands of jihadis killed or surrendered and all of the city retaken. This marked a major turning point in the war, as Syria's largest city and symbol of rebel resistance in the public perception was captured by the government through simple military might.
During 2017, the Syrian Army seized control of central Syria from ISIS and the Kurdish forces of Rojava took the Islamic State's capitol city of Raqqah. This was the major turning point in the war, and it cemented the Assad administration in Syria's future. ISIS was completely defeated during this time, both by the Russian-backed Syrian Arab Army and by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
- The Rise of Dictatorship Incorporated. New York Times. Archived.
- Russia accused of war crimes in Syria at UN security council session. The Guardian
- Syria: Damning evidence of war crimes and other violations by Turkish forces and their allies. Amnesty International.
- Amnesty International says US-led strikes on Raqqa may amount to war crimes. CNN.
- As Atrocities Mount in Syria, Justice Seems Out of Reach. New York Times. Archived.
- Syrian Revolution NINE years on: 586,100 persons killed and millions of Syrians displaced and injured. Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
- Why are fighters leaving the Free Syrian Army? The Washington Post. May 12, 2014.
- Free Syrian Army rebels defect to Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra The Guardian. May 9, 2013.
- Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response, CRS, September 17, 2014, p. 17.
- "UN Details Rampant War Crimes By ISIS And Assad's Regime". 27 August 2014. Retrieved 15 October 2014.
- "Syria and Isis committing war crimes, says UN". 27 August 2014. Retrieved 15 October 2014.
- "UN Commission: ISIS Not The Sole Agent Of Death And Destruction In Syria". The Huffington Post. 16 September 2014. Retrieved 14 October 2014.
- http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/16/world/middleeast/2-military-bases-in-syria-fall-to-rebels.html?_r=0 TOW missiles proved decisive in the outcomes of the 1980-1988 Soviet-Afghan war and the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.
- 'The hospitals were slaughterhouses': A journey into Syria’s secret torture wards by Louisa Loveluck and Zakaria Zakaria (April 2 at 7:33 PM) The Washington Post.
- Did Hillary Clinton think a military victory was possible in Syria?
- Obama reportedly says Hillary's criticism of Syria policy is horseshit.
- Was Zahran Alloush really a moderate leader?, Ali Mamouri, Al-Monitor, January 14, 2016. [English&utm_campaign=679b6993f7-Week_in_review_Feb_15_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28264b27a0-679b6993f7-102393845#]
- The Death of Zahran Alloush, Syria Comment. The death of Zahran Alloush by a Putin airstrike effectively ended the Geneva talks before they got started, leaving no Western-backed "Syrian opposition" to sit across the table to concoct a Western backed power sharing scheme, virtually assuring the survival of the Assad government in its present form without opposition and continued Russian and Iranian influence in the region.
- "Saudi strongman 'encouraged' Russia intervention in Syria, lawsuit claims".