Syrian Civil War
|Syrian Civil War|
|Part of the Arab Spring and Arab Winter
Spillover of the Iraqi insurgency
Current military situation: Red: government, Green: rebels, Yellow: Kurds (Rojava), Grey: Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, : al-Nusra Front; Brown: disputed areas (for a more detailed map, see Cities and towns during the Syrian Civil War).
See: Kurdish conflict
|Commanders and leaders|
National Defence Force: 80,000
Free Syrian Army: 40,000–50,000
Islamic Front: 40,000–70,000
al-Nusra Front: 5,000–6,000 (50 Khorasan)
|31,500 (CIA claim)–100,000 (Kurdish claim)||
Popular Protection Units (YPG): 65,000
|Casualties and losses|
Syrian government 45,385–80,385 soldiers killed
|||5,238–7,078 killed (per SOHR; certain events January 2014–January 2015)
4,800+ killed (per SAA; conflict with the Syrian gov. September–December 2014)
|956–1,125 fighters killed|
130,000 captured or missing overall
refugees (by September 2014)
*Number includes Kurdish and ISIL fighters, whose deaths are also listed in their separate columns
|Part of a series on|
The Syrian Civil War (Arabic: الحرب الأهلية السورية al-Ḥarb al-Ahlīyah as-Sūrīyah, Arabic pronunciation: [ʔalˈħaɾb ʔalʔahˈliːja ʔas.suːˈɾiːja]), also known as the Syrian Revolution, is an ongoing armed conflict taking place in Syria. The unrest began in the early spring of 2011 within the context of Arab Spring protests, with nationwide protests against President Bashar al-Assad's government, whose forces responded with violent crackdowns. The conflict gradually developed from popular protests to an armed rebellion after months of military sieges.
The armed opposition consists of various groups that were formed during the course of the conflict, mostly the Free Syrian Army, which was the first to take up arms in 2011, and the Islamic Front formed in 2013. In 2013, Hezbollah entered the war in support of the Syrian army. In the east, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a jihadist militant group originating from Iraq, made very rapid military gains in both Syria and Iraq, eventually conflicting with the other rebels. In July 2014, ISIL controlled a third of Syria's territory and most of its oil and gas production, thus establishing itself as the major opposition force.
By July 2013, the Syrian government was in control of approximately 30–40% of the country's territory and 60% of the Syrian population. A United Nations report in late 2012 described the conflict as being "overtly sectarian in nature", between mostly Alawite government forces, militias and other Shia groups fighting largely against Sunni-dominated rebel groups, although both opposition and government forces have denied this. Due to foreign involvement this conflict has been called a proxy war.
As of April 2014 the death toll had risen above 190,000. International organizations have accused forces on all sides of severe human rights violations, with many massacres occurring. Chemical weapons have been used many times during the conflict as well. In addition, tens of thousands of protesters and activists have been imprisoned and there are reports of torture in state prisons.
The severity of the humanitarian disaster in Syria has been outlined by the UN and many international organizations. More than 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced, more than 3 million Syrians have fled the country to countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq and become refugees, and millions more have been left in poor living conditions with shortages of food and drinking water. At the end of August 2014, 35,000 refugees were awaiting registration, while estimates of several hundred thousand more were not included in official figures as they were unregistered.
- 1 Background
- 2 Course of events
- 2.1 Protests, civil uprising, and defections (January 2011 – July 2011)
- 2.2 Protests and armed insurgency (July 2011 – October 2011)
- 2.3 Escalation (November 2011 – March 2012)
- 2.4 Ceasefire attempt (April 2012 – May 2012)
- 2.5 Renewed fighting (June 2012 – July 2012)
- 2.6 Battles of Damascus and Aleppo (July 2012 – October 2012)
- 2.7 Rebel offensives (November 2012 – April 2013)
- 2.8 Government and Hezbollah offensives (April 2013 – June 2013)
- 2.9 Continued fighting (July 2013 – October 2013)
- 2.10 Government and Hezbollah offensives (October 2013 – December 2013)
- 2.11 Fighting between ISIL and other rebel groups (January 2014 – March 2014)
- 2.12 Continued government and Hezbollah offensive (March 2014)
- 2.13 Continued fighting (March 2014 – May 2014)
- 2.14 Presidential election (June 2014)
- 2.15 ISIL offensive and continued fighting (June 2014 – August 2014)
- 2.16 ISIL offensives and U.S. airstrikes (August 2014 – present)
- 3 Weaponry and tactics
- 4 Belligerents
- 4.1 Syrian government and affiliated parties
- 4.2 Opposition parties
- 4.3 Syrian Kurds
- 4.4 Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
- 5 Reporting, censoring and propaganda
- 6 International reaction
- 7 Humanitarian help
- 8 Foreign involvement
- 9 Impact
- 10 Spillover
- 11 See also
- 12 References
- 13 Further reading
- 14 External links
Syria became an independent republic in 1946, although democratic rule was ended by a coup in March 1949, followed by two more coups that same year. A popular uprising against military rule in 1954 saw the army transfer power to civilians; from 1958 to 1961 a brief union with Egypt replaced Syria's parliamentary system with a highly centralized presidential regime. The Ba'ath Syrian Regional Branch government came to power in 1963 after a successful coup d'état. In 1966, another coup overthrew the traditional leaders of the party, Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar. General Hafez al-Assad, the Minister of Defense, seized power in a "corrective revolution" in November 1970, becoming Prime Minister. In March 1971, Assad declared himself President, a position that he held until his death in 2000. Since then, the secular Syrian Regional Branch has remained the dominant political authority in what is virtually a single-party state in Syria; Syrian citizens may only approve the President by referendum and – until the government-controlled multi-party 2012 parliamentary election – could not vote in multi-party elections for the legislature.
Bashar al-Assad, the President of Syria and Asma al-Assad, his wife – who is a British-born and British-educated Sunni Muslim, initially inspired hopes for democratic and state reforms and a "Damascus Spring" of intense social and political debate took place between July 2000 and August 2001. The period was characterized by the emergence of numerous political forums or salons, where groups of like-minded people met in private houses to debate political and social issues. Political activists such as Riad Seif, Haitham al-Maleh, Kamal al-Labwani, Riyad al-Turk and Aref Dalila were important in mobilizing the movement. The most famous of the forums were the Riad Seif Forum and the Jamal al-Atassi Forum. 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. From 2001 even reformists in Parliament had begun to criticize the legacy of stagnation since the rule of former President Hafez al-Assad; Bashar al-Assad has talked about reform but carried out very little, and he has failed to deliver on promised reforms since 2000, analysts say.
The Assad family comes from the minority Alawite religious group, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that comprises an estimated 12 percent of the total Syrian population. It has maintained tight control on Syria's security services, generating resentment among some Sunni Muslims, a religious group that makes up about 74% percent of Syria's population (inclusive of the Kurdish minority of 14% and Turkish minority of 1-3%; the remaining are Alawites 12%, Christian 10%, Druze 3%, Ismaili Shi'a 2%). Ethnic minority Syrian Kurds have also protested and complained over ethnic discrimination and denial of their cultural and language rights. Assad's younger brother Maher al-Assad commands the army's elite Fourth Armoured Division, and his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, was the deputy minister of defense until the latter's assassination in the 18 July 2012 Damascus bombing.
Discontent against the government was strongest in Syria's poorer areas, predominantly among conservative Sunnis. These included cities with high poverty rates, such as Daraa and Homs, rural areas hit hard by a drought in early 2011, and the poorer districts of large cities. Socio-economic inequality increased significantly after free market policies were initiated by Hafez al-Assad in his later years, and accelerated after Bashar al-Assad came to power. With an emphasis on the service sector, these policies benefited a minority of the nation's population, mostly people who had connections with the government, and members of the Sunni merchant class of Damascus and Aleppo. By 2011, Syria was facing a deterioration in the national standard of living and steep rises in the prices of commodities. The country also faced particularly high youth unemployment rates.
The state of human rights in Syria has long been the subject of harsh criticism from global organizations. The country was under emergency rule from 1963 until 2011, banning public gatherings of more than five people, and effectively granting security forces sweeping powers of arrest and detention. Bashar al-Assad is widely regarded as having been unsuccessful in implementing democratic change, with a 2010 report from Human Rights Watch stating that he had failed to substantially improve the state of human rights since taking power, although some minor aspects had seen improvement.
In December 2010, mass anti-government protests began in Tunisia and later spread across other parts of the Arab world, including Syria. By February 2011, revolutions occurred in Tunisia and Egypt, while Libya began to experience its own civil war. Numerous other Arab countries also faced protests, with some attempting to calm the masses by making concessions and governmental changes. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are supposed to have inspired the mid-March 2011 protests in Syria.
Rights of free expression, association and assembly were strictly controlled in Syria even before the uprising. The authorities harass and imprison human rights activists and other critics of the government, who are often indefinitely detained and tortured in poor prison conditions. Women and ethnic minorities have faced discrimination in the public sector. Thousands of Syrian Kurds were denied citizenship in 1962 and their descendants continued to be labeled as "foreigners". A number of riots in 2004 prompted increased tension in Syria's Kurdish areas, and there have been occasional clashes between Kurdish protesters and security forces ever since.
Course of events
Protests, civil uprising, and defections (January 2011 – July 2011)
Protests and armed insurgency (July 2011 – October 2011)
Escalation (November 2011 – March 2012)
Ceasefire attempt (April 2012 – May 2012)
Renewed fighting (June 2012 – July 2012)
Battles of Damascus and Aleppo (July 2012 – October 2012)
Rebel offensives (November 2012 – April 2013)
Government and Hezbollah offensives (April 2013 – June 2013)
Continued fighting (July 2013 – October 2013)
Government and Hezbollah offensives (October 2013 – December 2013)
Fighting between ISIL and other rebel groups (January 2014 – March 2014)
Continued government and Hezbollah offensive (March 2014)
Continued fighting (March 2014 – May 2014)
Presidential election (June 2014)
ISIL offensive and continued fighting (June 2014 – August 2014)
ISIL offensives and U.S. airstrikes (August 2014 – present)
Weaponry and tactics
A UN fact-finding mission was requested by member states to investigate 16 alleged chemical weapons attacks. Seven of them have been investigated (nine were dropped for lack of "sufficient or credible information") and in four cases the UN inspectors confirmed use of sarin gas. The reports, however, did not blame any party of using chemical weapons. Many countries, including the United States and the European Union have accused the Syrian government of conducting several chemical attacks, the most serious of them being the 2013 Ghouta attacks. Following this incident and international pressure, the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons began.
Chemical weapons investigators concluded “with a high degree of confidence” that chlorine gas was used as a weapon against three Syrian villages in 2014, affecting between 350 and 500 people and killing 13. The report by a fact-finding mission from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons didn’t blame either side but said bombs were probably dropped from helicopter.
The Syrian army began using cluster bombs in September 2012. Steve Goose, director of the Arms division at Human Rights Watch said "Syria is expanding its relentless use of cluster munitions, a banned weapon, and civilians are paying the price with their lives and limbs," "The initial toll is only the beginning because cluster munitions often leave unexploded bomblets that kill and maim long afterward."
Scud missile attacks
In December 2012, the Syrian government began using Scud missiles on rebel-held towns, primarily targeting Aleppo. On 19 February, four Scud missiles were fired, three landed in Aleppo city and one on Tell Rifaat town, Aleppo governorate. Between December and February, at least 40 Scud missile landings were reported. Altogether, Scud missiles killed 141 people in the month of February. The United States condemned the Scud missile attacks. On 1 March, a Scud missile landed in Iraq. It is believed that the intention was to hit the Deir Ezzor governorate. On 29 March, a Scud missile landed on Hretan, Aleppo, killing 20 and injuring 50. On 28 April, a Scud missile landed on Tell Rifaat, killing four, two of them women and two of them children, SOHR reported. On 3 June, a surface-to-surface missile, not confirmed as a Scud, hit the village of Kafr Hamrah around midnight killing 26 people including six women and eight children according to SOHR.
Rebel suicide bombings began in December 2011; the Al-Nusra Front has claimed responsibility for 57 out of 70 similar attacks through April 2013. The bombings have claimed numerous civilian casualties. It has been reported that suicide bombings have led to a drop in support for some rebel groups. One particular suicide bombing in a mainly Alawite area of Homs left 47 children killed on 1 October 2014.
A barrel bomb is a type of improvised explosive device used by the Syrian Air Force. Typically, a barrel is filled with a large amount of TNT, and possibly shrapnel (such as nails) and oil, and dropped from a helicopter. The resulting detonation can be devastating.
Improvised mortar bombs
SOHR estimated that rebel forces, using improvised mortar bombs made of cooking gas canisters, caused 311 civilian deaths by inaccurate bombing in second half of 2014.
Thermobaric and incendiary weapons
Thermobaric weapons, also known as "fuel-air bombs," have been used by the government side during the Syrian civil war. Since 2012, rebels have said that the Syrian Air Force (government forces) is using thermobaric weapons against residential areas occupied by the rebel fighters, such as during the Battle of Aleppo and also in Kafr Batna. A panel of United Nations human rights investigators reported that the Syrian government used thermobaric bombs against the strategic town of Qusayr in March 2013. In August 2013, the BBC reported on the use of napalm-like incendiary bombs on a school in northern Syria.
Syrian government and affiliated parties
Before the uprising and war broke out, the force of the Syrian Arab Army was estimated at 325,000 regular troops, of which 220,000 were 'army troops' and the rest in the navy, air force and air defenses. There were also approximately 280,000–300,000 reservists. Since June 2011, defections of soldiers have been reported. By July 2012, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that tens of thousands of soldiers have defected, and a Turkish official estimated that 60,000 soldiers have defected. According to Western experts[who?], these defections have not as yet decreased the strength of the Syrian military, since the defecting soldiers were mainly Sunnis without access to vital command and control in the army.
National Defense Force
The Syrian NDF was formed out of pro-government militias. They receive their salaries, and their military equipment from the government, and numbers around 100,000. The force acts in an infantry role, directly fighting against rebels on the ground and running counter-insurgency operations in coordination with the army, which provides them logistical and artillery support. The force has a 500-strong women's wing called "Lionesses of National Defense" which operates checkpoints. NDF soldiers are allowed to take loot from battlefields, which can then be sold for extra money.
The Shabiha are pro-government militias. Since the uprising, the Syrian government has frequently used shabiha to break up protests and enforce laws in restive neighborhoods. As the protests escalated into an armed conflict, the opposition started using the term shabiha to describe any civilian Assad supporter taking part in the government's crackdown on the uprising. The opposition blames the shabiha for the many violent excesses committed against anti-government protesters and opposition sympathizers, as well as looting and destruction. In December 2012, the shabiha were designated a terrorist organization by the United States.
Bassel al-Assad is reported to have created the shabiha in the 1980s for government use in times of crisis. Shabiha have been described as "a notorious Alawite paramilitary, who are accused of acting as unofficial enforcers for Assad's regime"; "gunmen loyal to Assad", and, according to the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, "semi-criminal gangs comprised of thugs close to the regime". Despite the group's image as an Alawite militia, some shabiha operating in Aleppo have been reported to be Sunnis. In 2012, the Assad government created a more organized official militia known as the Jaysh al-Sha'bi, allegedly with help from Iran and Hezbollah. As with the shabiha, the vast majority of Jaysh al-Sha'bi members are Alawite and Shi'ite volunteers.
General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah denied Hezbollah had been fighting on behalf of the Syrian government, stating in a 12 October 2012 speech that "right from the start the Syrian opposition has been telling the media that Hezbollah sent 3,000 fighters to Syria, which we have denied". However, according to the Lebanese Daily Star newspaper, Nasrallah said in the same speech that Hezbollah fighters helped the Syrian government "retain control of some 23 strategically located villages [in Syria] inhabited by Shiites of Lebanese citizenship". Nasrallah said that Hezbollah fighters have died in Syria doing their "jihadist duties". In 2012, Hezbollah fighters crossed the border from Lebanon and took over eight villages in the Al-Qusayr District of Syria. The former secretary general of Hezbollah, Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli, confirmed in February 2013 that Hezbollah was fighting for the Syrian army.
On 12 May, Hezbollah, with the Syrian army, attempted to retake part of Qusayr. By the end of the day, 60 percent of the city, including the municipal office building, were under pro-Assad forces. In Lebanon, there have been "a recent increase in the funerals of Hezbollah fighters" and "Syrian rebels have shelled Hezbollah-controlled areas." As of 14 May, Hezbollah fighters were reported to be fighting alongside the Syrian army, particularly in the Homs Governorate. Hassan Nasrallah has called on Shiites and Hezbollah to protect the shrine of Sayida Zeinab. President Bashar al-Assad denied in May 2013 that there were foreign fighters, Arab or otherwise, fighting for the government in Syria.
On 25 May, Nasrallah announced that Hezbollah was fighting in the Syria against Islamic extremists and "pledged that his group will not allow Syrian militants to control areas that border Lebanon". He confirmed that Hezbollah was fighting in the strategic Syrian town of Qusayr on the same side as Assad's forces. In the televised address, he said, "If Syria falls in the hands of America, Israel and the takfiris, the people of our region will go into a dark period." According to independent analysts, by the beginning of 2014, approximately 500 Hezbollah fighters had died in the Syrian conflict.
Since the start of the civil war, Iran has expressed its support for the Syrian government and has provided it with financial, technical, and military support, including training and some combat troops. Iran and Syria are close strategic allies. Iran sees the survival of the Syrian government as being crucial to its regional interests. Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, was reported in September 2011 to be vocally in favor of the Syrian government. In the civil uprising phase of the Syrian civil war, Iran provided Syria with technical support based on Iran's capabilities developed following the 2009–2010 Iranian election protests. As the uprising developed into the Syrian civil war, there were increasing reports of Iranian military support, and of Iranian training of NDF (National Defence Forces) both in Syria, and in Iran.
Iranian security and intelligence services are advising and assisting the Syrian military to preserve Bashar al-Assad's hold on power. Those efforts include training, technical support, combat troops and arms shipments. By December 2013 Iran was thought to have approximately 10,000 operatives in Syria. Lebanese Hezbollah fighters backed by Tehran has taken direct combat roles since 2012. In the summer of 2013, Iran and Hezbollah provided important battlefield support for Assad, allowing it to make advances on the opposition. In 2014, coinciding with the peace talks at Geneva II, Iran has stepped up support for Syrian President Assad. Syrian Minister of Finance and Economy announced that the "Iranian government has given more than 15 billion dollars" to Syria. Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force commander Qasem Suleimani is in charge of Syrian President Assad's security portfolio and has overseen the arming and training of thousands of pro-government Shi'ite fighters.
Formed in 1953 at Jerusalem, Hizb ut-Tahrir soon expanded its work for the reestablishment of Islamic Caliphate in Syria. Hizb ut-Tahrir members were persecuted in Syria from the 1950s and up to the Syrian Uprising of 2011 in which they played a role of igniting and supporting the revolution and guiding rebels to unite under an Islamic Umbrella and a clear Islamic political agenda and vision.
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.
Syrian National Coalition
On 11 November 2012 in Doha, the National Council and other opposition forces united as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The following day, it was recognized as the legitimate government of Syria by numerous Persian Gulf states. Delegates to the Coalition's leadership council are to include women and representatives of religious and ethnic minorities, including Alawites. The military council will reportedly include the Free Syrian Army. The main aims of the National Coalition are replacing the Bashar al-Assad government and "its symbols and pillars of support", "dismantling the security services", unifying and supporting the Free Syrian Army, refusing dialogue and negotiation with the al-Assad government, and "holding accountable those responsible for killing Syrians, destroying [Syria], and displacing [Syrians]".
Free Syrian Army
The formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was announced on 29 July 2011 by a group of defecting Syrian Army officers. In a video, the men called upon Syrian soldiers and officers to defect to their ranks, and said the purpose of the Free Syrian Army was to defend civilian protesters from violence by the state, and "to bring this [Syrian] regime down".
Many Syrian soldiers subsequently deserted to join the FSA. By December 2011, the estimated number of soldiers who had defected to the FSA was ranging from 1,000 to over 25,000. The FSA functions more as an umbrella organization than a traditional military chain of command, and was first "headquartered" in Turkey, but moved its command headquarters to northern Syria in September 2012.
In March 2012, two reporters of The New York Times witnessed an FSA attack with a roadside bomb and AK-47 rifles on a column of armored Syrian tanks in Saraqib in Idlib Governorate, and learned that FSA had a stock of able, trained soldiers and ex-officers, organized to some extent, but were without the weapons to put up a realistic fight.
In May 2013, Salim Idriss, the FSA leader, acknowledged that "the rebels" were badly fragmented and lacked the military skill needed to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Idriss said he was working on a countrywide command structure, but that a lack of material support was hurting that effort. "Now it is very important for them to be unified. But unifying them in a manner to work like a regular army is still difficult", Idriss said. He acknowledged common operations with Islamist group Ahrar ash-Sham but denied any cooperation with Islamist group al-Nusra Front.
Abu Yusaf, a commander of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), said in August 2014 that many of the FSA members who had been trained by United States’ and Turkish and Arab military officers were now actually joining IS. On the contrary to the ISIL commander's claims, by September 2014 the Free Syrian Army was joining an alliance and a common front with Kurdish militias including the YPG to fight ISIS.
The Islamic Front (Arabic: الجبهة الإسلامية, al-Jabhat al-Islāmiyyah) is a merger of seven rebel groups involved in the Syrian civil war that was announced on 22 November 2013. The group has between 40,000 and 60,000 fighters. An anonymous spokesman for the group has stated that it will not have ties with the Syrian National Coalition, though a member of the political bureau of the group, Ahmad Musa, has stated that he hopes for recognition from the Syrian National Council in cooperation for what he suggested "the Syrian people want. They want a revolution and not politics and foreign agendas." The group is widely seen as backed and armed by Saudi Arabia. The Islamic Front's charter rejects the concepts of representative democracy and secularism, instead seeking to establish an Islamic state ruled by a Majlis-ash-Shura and implementing sharia.
Foreign rebel fighters
In September 2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that extremist groups make up 15–25% of rebel forces. According to Charles Lister, about 12% of rebels are part of groups linked to al-Qaeda, 18% belong to Ahrar ash-Sham, and 9% belong to Suqour al-Sham Brigade. These numbers contrast with a report by Jane's Information Group, a defence outlet, claiming almost half of all rebels being affiliated to Islamist groups. Foreign fighters have joined the conflict in opposition to Assad. While most of them are jihadists, some individuals, such as Mahdi al-Harati, have joined to support the Syrian opposition.
The ICSR estimates that 2,000–5,500 foreign fighters have gone to Syria since the beginning of the protests, about 7–11 percent of whom came from Europe. It is also estimated that the number of foreign fighters does not exceed 10 percent of the opposition armed forces. Another estimate puts the number of foreign jihadis at 15,000 by early 2014), The European Commission expressed concerns that some of the fighters might use their skills obtained in Syria to commit acts of terrorism back in Europe in the future.
In October 2012, various Iraqi religious groups join the conflict in Syria on both sides. Radical Sunnis from Iraq, have traveled to Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government. Also, Shiites from Iraq, in Babil Province and Diyala Province, have traveled to Damascus from Tehran, or from the Shiite Islamic holy city of Najaf, Iraq to protect Sayyida Zeinab, an important mosque and shrine of Shia Islam in Damascus.
In September 2013, leaders of 13 powerful rebel brigades rejected 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. In November 2013, seven Islamist groups combined to form the Islamic Front.
The al-Nusra Front, being one of the most effective jihadist groups in Syria, is often considered to be the most aggressive and violent part of the opposition. Being responsible for over 50 suicide bombings, including several deadly explosions in Damascus in 2011 and 2012, it is recognized as a terrorist organization by Syrian government and was designated as such by United States in December 2012. In April 2013, the leader of the Islamic state of Iraq released an audio statement announcing that al-Nusra Front is its branch in Syria. The leader of al-Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, said that the group will not merge with the Islamic State of Iraq, but still maintain allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda.
The relationship between the al-Nusra Front and the indigenous Syrian opposition is tense, even though the al-Nusra Front has fought alongside the FSA in several battles, and some FSA fighters defected to the al-Nusra Front. The Mujahideen's strict religious views and willingness to impose sharia law disturbed many Syrians. Some rebel commanders have accused foreign jihadists of "stealing the revolution", robbing Syrian factories, and displaying religious intolerance. al-Nusra has been accused of mistreating religious and ethnic minorities since its formation. The estimated manpower of al-Nusra Front is approximately 6,000–10,000 people, including many foreign fighters. However, in early 2014, their estimated forces dropped to 5,000–6,000 fighters, as al-Nusra lost fighters in combat and in defections to ISIL. On 10 March 2014, al-Nusra released 13 Christian nuns captured from Malouula, 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".
Kurds – mostly Sunni Muslims, with a small minority of Yezidis – represented 10% of Syria's population at the start of the uprising in 2011. They had suffered from decades of discrimination and neglect, being deprived of basic civil, cultural, economic, and social rights.:7 When protests began, Assad's government finally granted citizenship to an estimated 200,000 stateless Kurds, in an effort to try and neutralize potential Kurdish opposition. This concession, combined with Turkish endorsement of the opposition and Kurdish under-representation in the Syrian National Council, has resulted in Kurds participating in the civil war in smaller numbers than their Syrian Arab Sunni counterparts. Consequently, violence and state repression in Kurdish areas has been less severe. In terms of a post-Assad Syria, Kurds reportedly desire a degree of autonomy within a decentralized state.
Since the outset of the civil war, most Kurdish political parties organized themselves into the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), holding a more moderate stance regarding the Assad government. However, in October 2011, all but the Democratic Union Party (PYD) left the NCC to form their own umbrella organisation, the Kurdish National Council.
The Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), first entered the Syrian Civil War as a belligerent in July 2012, by capturing a town, Kobanê, that until then was under control of the Syrian government (see Syrian Kurdistan campaign (2012–present)).
Some communist armed groups from Turkey joined war alongside with YPG. Marxist–Leninist Communist Party (Turkey) sent some armed units to Siege of Kobanî and Iraq Sinjar to fight against ISIS. Those groups do not have their own military units, they fight under YPG units. Marxist–Leninist Communist Party (Turkey) , Communist Party of Turkey/Marxist–Leninist and MLSPB sent fighters to Syria.
The conflict between the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and Islamist groups such as al-Nusra Front have escalated since a group of Kurds expelled Islamists from the border town of Ras al-Ain.
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant made rapid military gains in Northern Syria starting in April 2013 and as of mid 2014 controls large parts of that region, where the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights describes it as "the strongest group". It has imposed strict Sharia law over land that it controls. The group was, until 2014, affiliated with al-Qaeda, led by the Iraqi fighter Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and has an estimated 7,000 fighters in Syria, including many non-Syrians. It has been praised as less corrupt than other militia groups, and criticized for abusing human rights and for not tolerating non-Islamist militia groups, foreign journalists or aid workers, whose members it has expelled, imprisoned. or executed. According to Michael Weiss, ISIL has not been targeted by the Syrian government "with quite the same gusto" as other rebel factions.
In summer 2014 the ISIL controlled a third of Syria. It established itself as the dominant force of Syrian opposition, defeating Jabhat al-Nusra in Deir Ezzor province and claiming control over most of Syria's oil and gas production.
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.
ISIL has recruited more than 6,300 fighters in July 2014 alone. In September 2014, reportedly some Syrian rebels and ISIL signed a "non-aggression" agreement in a suburb of Damascus, citing inability to deal with both ISIL and the Syrian army's attacks at once. Some Syrian rebels have, however, decried the news on the "non-aggression" pact.
Reporting, censoring and propaganda
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, given the complexity of the Syrian conflict, media bias in reporting remains a key challenge, plaguing the collection of useful data and misinforming researchers and policymakers regarding the actual events taking place. SIPRI also found that the number of reported events in the Syrian conflict, both violent and political, varied enormously between news sources, with SANA lying at one extreme: it barely reported on violent actions, especially during the period before 2013. Reporting on this war is difficult and dangerous: journalists are being attacked, detained, and reportedly tortured, with over one hundred reportedly killed already by October 2012. Technical facilities (internet, telephone etc.) are being sabotaged by the Syrian government. Both sides in this war try to disqualify their opponent by framing or indicating them with negative labels and terms (‘terrorists’, ‘propaganda’, ‘biased’, ‘US conspiracy’, 'Syrian regime'), or by presenting false on-line evidence.
The Arab League, European Union, the United Nations, and many Western governments quickly condemned "the Syrian government's violent response to the protests, and expressed support for the protesters' right to exercise free speech". Initially, many Middle Eastern governments expressed support for Assad, but as the death toll mounted they switched approach, 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.
The United Nations held a peace conference in Geneva on Saturday 30 June 2012, later called the Geneva I Conference. The Geneva II Conference took place in Switzerland from 22 to 31 January 2014. A third round of negotiations began in Moscow on Monday 26 January 2015.
The international humanitarian response to the conflict in Syria is coordinated by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in accordance with General Assembly Resolution 46/182. The primary framework for this coordination is the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP) which appealed for USD $1.41 billion to meet the humanitarian needs of Syrians affected by the conflict. Official United Nations data on the humanitarian situation and response is available at http://syria.unocha.org/; an official website managed by UNOCHA Syria (Amman). UNICEF is also working alongside these organizations to provide vaccinations and care packages to those in need. It has launched a vaccination campaign to eradicate polio from the region, as 17 cases have come up since the war broke over three years ago.
Financial information on the response to the SHARP, as well as assistance to refugees and for cross-border operations, can be found on UNOCHA's Financial Tracking Service. As at 18 September 2013, the top ten donors to Syria were: United States, European Commission, Kuwait, United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, Japan, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and Denmark. USAID and other government agencies in US delivered nearly $385 million of aid items to Syria in 2012 and 2013. The United States is providing food aid, medical supplies, emergency and basic health care, shelter materials, clean water, hygiene education and supplies, and other relief supplies. Islamic Relief has stocked 30 hospitals and sent hundreds of thousands of medical and food parcels.
Other countries in the region have also contributed various levels of aid. Iran has been exporting between 500 and 800 tonnes of flour daily to Syria. Israel has provided treatment to 750 Syrians in a field hospital located in the Golan Heights. Rebels say that 250 of their fighters received medical treatment there. On 26 April 2013, a humanitarian convoy, inspired by Gaza Flotilla, departed from Turkey to Syria. Called Hayat ("Life"), it is set to deliver aid items to IDPs inside Syria and refugees in neighboring countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. Syrian refugees make up one quarter of Lebanon's population, mostly consisting of women and children.
The World Health Organization has reported that 35% of the country's hospitals are out of service and, depending upon the region, up to 70% of health care professionals have fled. Cases of diarrhoea and hepatitis A have increased by more than twofold since the beginning of 2013. Due to fighting, the normal vaccination programs cannot be undertaken. The displaced refugees may also pose a risk to countries to which they have fled.
Both the Syrian government and the opposition have received support, militarily and diplomatically, from foreign countries leading the conflict to often be described as a proxy war. The major parties supporting the Syrian Government are Iran and Hezbollah. Both of these are involved in the war politically and logistically by providing military equipment, training and battle troops. The Syrian government has also received arms from Russia and SIGINT support directly from GRU, in addition to significant political support from Russia.
The main Syrian opposition body – the Syrian coalition – receives political, logistic and military support from the United States, Britain and France. Some Syrian rebels get training from the CIA at bases in Qatar, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The Syrian coalition also receives logistic and political support from Sunni states, most notably Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia; all the three major supporting states however have not contributed any troops for direct involvement in the war, though Turkey was involved in border incidents with the Syrian Army. The Financial Times and The Independent reported that Qatar had funded the Syrian rebellion by as much as $3 billion. It reported that Qatar was offering refugee packages of about $50,000 a year to defectors and family. Saudi Arabia has emerged as the main group to finance and arm the rebels.
French television France 24 reported that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, with perhaps 3,000 foreign jihadists among its ranks, "receives private donations from the Gulf states." The major Syrian Kurdish opposition group, the PYD, was reported to get logistic and training support from Iraqi Kurdistan.
On 21 August 2014, two days after U.S. photojournalist James Foley was beheaded, the U.S. military admitted a covert rescue attempt involving dozens of U.S. 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 U.S. military ground action inside Syria. The resultant gunfight resulted in one U.S. soldier being injured. The rescue was unsuccessful as the captives were not in the location targeted.
On 11 September 2014 Congress expressed support to give President Obama the $500 million he wants to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels. The question of whether the president has authority to continue airstrikes beyond the 60-day window granted by the War Powers Resolution remained unresolved.
On 12 September, US Secretary of State John Kerry met Turkish leaders to secure backing for U.S.-led action against ISIL, but Ankara showed reluctance to play a frontline role. Kerry stated that it was "not appropriate" for Iran to join talks on confronting ISIL.
The plans revealed in September also involve Iraq in targeting ISIL. U.S. 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.
Estimates of deaths in the conflict vary widely, with figures, per opposition activist groups, ranging from 129,230 and 295,060. On 2 January 2013, the United Nations stated that 60,000 had been killed since the civil war began, with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay saying "The number of casualties is much higher than we expected, and is truly shocking." Four months later, the UN's updated figure for the death toll had reached 80,000. On 13 June, the UN released an updated figure of people killed since fighting began, the figure being exactly 92,901, for up to the end of April 2013. Navi Pillay, UN high commissioner for human rights, stated that: "This is most likely a minimum casualty figure." The real toll was guessed to be over 100,000. Some areas of the country have been affected disproportionately by the war; by some estimates, as many as a third of all deaths have occurred in the city of Homs.
One problem has been determining the number of "armed combatants" who have died, due to some sources counting rebel fighters who were not government defectors as civilians. At least half of those confirmed killed have been estimated to be combatants from both sides, including 52,290 government fighters and 29,080 rebels, with an additional 50,000 unconfirmed combatant deaths. In addition, UNICEF reported that over 500 children had been killed by early February 2012, and another 400 children have been reportedly arrested and tortured in Syrian prisons; both of these claims have been contested by the Syrian government. Additionally, over 600 detainees and political prisoners are known to have died under torture. In mid-October 2012, the opposition activist group SOHR reported the number of children killed in the conflict had risen to 2,300, and in March 2013, opposition sources stated that over 5,000 children had been killed. In January 2014, a report was released detailing the systematic killing of more than 11,000 detainees of the Syrian government.
On 20 August 2014, a new U.N. study concludes at least 191,369 people have died in Syrian conflict.
Once-rare infectious diseases have spread in rebel held areas, primarily affecting children, brought on by the collapse of sanitation and deteriorating living conditions. These include measles, typhoid, hepatitis, dysentery, tuberculosis, diphtheria, whooping cough, leishmaniasis, (a disfiguring parasitic skin disease). Of particular concern is the contagious and crippling Poliomyelitis which as of late 2013 doctors and international public health agencies report more than 90 cases of. Critics of the government complain that it has brought on the spread of disease by cutting off vaccination, sanitation and safe-water services to "areas considered politically unsympathetic" even before the uprising. Data from Physicians for Human Rights shows a map of attacks on health care in Syria, the majority are allegedly government attacks.
The violence in Syria has caused millions to flee their homes. In August 2012, the United Nations said more than one million people were internally displaced, and, in September 2013, the UN reported that more than 6.5 million Syrians had been displaced, of whom 2 million fleeing to neighboring countries, 1 in 3 of those refugees (about 667,000 people) seeking safety in tiny Lebanon (normally 4.8 million population). Others have fled to Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq. Turkey has accepted +1.000.000 (2014) Syrian refugees, half of whom are spread around a cities and dozen camps placed under the direct authority of the Turkish Government. Satellite images confirmed that the first Syrian camps appeared in Turkey in July 2011, shortly after the towns of Deraa, Homs, and Hama were besieged. In September 2014, the UN stated that the number of Syrian refugees had exceeded 3 million. According to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Sunnis are leaving for Lebanon and undermining Hizbullah's status. The fleeing Syrian refugees has caused the "Jordan is Palestine" threat to be diminished due to the onslaught of new refugees in Jordan. Additionally, "the West Bank is undergoing emigration pressures which will certainly be copied in Gaza if emigration is allowed." Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III Laham claims more than 450,000 Syrian Christians have been displaced by the conflict.
Human rights violations
According to various human rights organizations and United Nations, human rights violations have been committed by both the government and the rebels, with the "vast majority of the abuses having been committed by the Syrian government", according to the UN. The U.N. commission investigating human rights abuses in Syria confirms at least 9 intentional mass killings in the period 2012 to mid-July 2013, identifying the perpetrator as Syrian government and its supporters in eight cases, and the opposition in one.
By late November 2013, according to the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) report entitled "Violence against Women, Bleeding Wound in the Syrian Conflict", approximately 6,000 women have been raped (including gang-rape) since the start of the conflict - with figures likely to be much higher given that most cases go unreported.
According to three international lawyers, Syrian government officials could face war crimes charges in the light of a huge cache of evidence smuggled out of the country showing the "systematic killing" of about 11,000 detainees. Most of the victims were young men and many corpses were emaciated, bloodstained and bore signs of torture. Some had no eyes; others showed signs of strangulation or electrocution. Experts say this evidence is more detailed and on a far larger scale than anything else that has yet emerged from the 34-month crisis. On 30 January 2014, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing, between June 2012 and July 2013, government forces razing to the ground seven anti-government districts in the cities of Damascus and Hama, equating to an area the size of 200 football fields. Witnesses spoke of explosives and bulldozers being used to knock down buildings. Satellite imagery was provided as part of the report and the destruction was characterized as collective punishment against residents of rebel-held areas.
UN reported also that "siege warfare is employed in a context of egregious human rights and international humanitarian law violations. The warring parties do not fear being held accountable for their acts." Armed forces of both sides of the conflict blocked access of humanitarian convoys, confiscated food, cut off water supplies and targeted farmers working their fields. The report pointed to four places besieged by the government forces: Muadamiyah, Daraya, Yarmouk camp and Old City of Homs, as well as two areas under siege of rebel groups: Aleppo and Hama. In Yarmouk Camp 20,000 residents are facing death by starvation due to blockade by the Syrian government forces and fighting between the army and Jabhat al-Nusra, which prevents food distribution by UNRWA. The UN further stated that government sieges have left more than 250,000 subjected to relentless shelling and bombardment. "They are denied humanitarian aid, food and such basic necessities as medical care, and must choose between surrender and starvation," the members of the UN Commission of Inquiry said.
ISIL forces have been accused by UN of using public executions, amputations and lashings in a campaign to instill fear. "Forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have committed torture, murder, acts tantamount to enforced disappearance and forced displacement as part of attacks on the civilian population in Aleppo and Raqqa provinces, amounting to crimes against humanity", said the report from 27 August 2014.
Enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions have also been a feature since the Syrian uprising began.
Threats against Syrian sects, minorities and majority
The successive governments of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad have been closely associated with the country's minority Alawite religious group, an offshoot of Shia, whereas the majority of the population, and most of the opposition, is Sunni. Due to heavily involvement in the Syrian forces and their pro-militia, Alawites started to be threatened and attacked by dominantly Sunni rebel fighting groups like the Al-Nusra Front and the FSA since December 2012 (see Sectarianism and minorities in the Syrian Civil War#Alawites). From the other side, sunni also is threatened due to massive killing by Syrian forces and millions of them have taken refuge in Syria neighboring countries since beginning of 2012.
Many Syrian Christians reported to have fled after they were targeted by the anti-government rebels. (See: Sectarianism and minorities in the Syrian Civil War#Christians.)
By July 2013, the Syrian economy had shrunk 45 percent since the start of the conflict. Unemployment increased fivefold, the value of the Syrian currency decreased to one-sixth its pre-war value, and the public sector lost USD $15 billion. By the end of 2013, the UN estimated total economic damage of the Syrian civil war at $143 billion.
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 thievery increased, with criminals looting houses and stores. Rates of kidnappings increased as well. Rebel fighters were sighted stealing cars and destroying an Aleppo restaurant in which Syrian soldiers had eaten.
In August 2014, the UN accused ISIL of committing "mass atrocities" and war crimes. Some reports also state that ISIL participating in mass execution of civilians, religious persecutions, child recruitment for militant purposes, mass rapes and slavery, attacks on press members, beheadings, destruction of cultural/religious heritage and organ trafficking.
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 be 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.
Criminal networks have been used by both the government and the opposition during the conflict. Facing international sanctions, the Syrian government relied on criminal organizations to smuggle goods and money in and out of the country. The economic downturn caused by the conflict and sanctions also led to lower wages for Shabiha members. In response, some Shabiha members began stealing civilian properties, and engaging in kidnappings.
Rebel forces sometimes relied 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, stealing, and kidnapping.
The civil war has caused significant damage to Syria's cultural heritage, including World Heritage Sites. Destruction of antiquities has been caused by shelling, army entrenchment, and looting at various tells, museums, and monuments. A group called Syrian Archaeological Heritage Under Threat is monitoring and recording the destruction in an attempt to create a list of heritage sites damaged during the war and gain global support for the protection and preservation of Syrian archaeology and architecture.
UNESCO listed all six Syria's World Heritage sites as endangered but direct assessment of damage is not possible. It is known that the Old City of Aleppo was heavily damaged during battles being fought within the district, while Palmyra and Crac 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.
With porous borders with most of its neighbors, the fighting has spilled over them, causing fears of a regional war. In June 2014, members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) crossed the border from Syria into northern Iraq, and have taken control of large swaths of Iraqi territory as the Iraqi Army abandoned its positions. The Syrian Civil War has led to incidents of sectarian violence in northern Lebanon between supporters and opponents of the Syrian government, and armed clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli. Fighting between rebels and government forces has spilled into Lebanon on several occasions.
The fight between ISIL and the Kurds in the town of Kobani on the Turkish border has led to rioting throughout Turkey and to brief  occupations of a number of parliament buildings in Western Europe.
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- Fox News exclusive interview with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad Fox News, 18 September 2013
- Interview with Bashar Assad: 'In the End, a Lie Is a Lie' Der Spiegel, 7 October 2013
- President Bashar al-Assad’s interview with Agence France Presse AFP 20-01-2014 20 January 2014
- A discussion of the causes of the civil war at the United Nations University for Peace.
- First ever broadcast interview with Jabhat al Nusra founder Abu Mohammed al-Joulani
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