Syrian Civil War
|Syrian Civil War|
|Part of the Arab Spring, Arab Winter, and
the 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
(for a more detailed map, see Cities and towns during the Syrian Civil War).
|Commanders and leaders|
National Defense Force: 80,000
Hezbollah: 3,000–5,000Syrian Resistance: 2,000
Islamic Front: 40,000–70,000
Ajnad al-Sham Union: up to 15,000
Muhajirin wa-Ansar: 7,000Jabhat Ansar al-Din 1,500+
People's Protection Units (YPG): 65,000
|Casualties and losses|
Syrian Government: 49,106–84,106 soldiers killed
|||8,143 fighters killed||1,276–1,445 fighters killed|
130,000 captured or missing overall
refugees (accuarding to UNHCR by July 2015)
‡ 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), also known as the Syrian Revolution (Arabic: الثورة السورية), 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 morphed from prominent 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, primarily 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 rapid military gains in both Syria and Iraq, eventually conflicting with the other rebels. By 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 it. Due to foreign involvement, this conflict has been called a proxy war.
As of January 2015, the death toll had risen above 220,000, with estimates in April 2015 as high as 310,000. International organizations have accused the Syrian government, ISIL and other opposition forces of severe human rights violations, with many massacres occurring. Chemical weapons have been used many times during the conflict as well. The Syrian government is reportedly responsible for the majority of civilian casualties and war crimes, often through bombings. 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 7.6 million Syrians have been displaced, and more than 4 million have fled the country to countries such as Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt and have become refugees. Millions more have been left in poor living conditions with shortages of food and drinking water.
- 1 Background
- 2 Course of events
- 2.1 Protests, civil uprising, and defections (January – July 2011)
- 2.2 Protests and armed insurgency (July – October 2011)
- 2.3 Escalation (November 2011 – March 2012)
- 2.4 Ceasefire attempt (April – May 2012)
- 2.5 Renewed fighting (June – July 2012)
- 2.6 Battles of Damascus and Aleppo (July – October 2012)
- 2.7 Clashes with Kurds (September 2012)
- 2.8 Rebel offensives (November 2012 – April 2013)
- 2.9 Renewed Clashes with Kurds (January - April 2013)
- 2.10 Government and Hezbollah offensives (April – June 2013)
- 2.11 Continued fighting (July – October 2013)
- 2.12 Government and Hezbollah offensives (October – December 2013)
- 2.13 Fighting between ISIS and other rebel groups (January – March 2014)
- 2.14 Continued government and Hezbollah offensive (March 2014)
- 2.15 Continued fighting (March – May 2014)
- 2.16 Presidential election (June 2014)
- 2.17 ISIL offensives and U.S. airstrikes (June 2014 – January 2015)
- 2.18 The Southern Front (October 2014 – February 2015)
- 2.19 Northern Al-Nusra Front and Islamist takeover (October 2014 – March 2015)
- 2.20 Army of Conquest advances in Idlib (April 2014 – June 2015)
- 2.21 Resurgent ISIL advance (May 2015)
- 3 Advanced weaponry and tactics
- 4 Belligerents
- 4.1 Syrian government and affiliated parties
- 4.2 Syrian Opposition
- 4.3 Salafist factions
- 4.4 Syrian Kurds
- 4.5 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, Hafez 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 was virtually a single-party state in Syria; Syrian citizens could 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, who took over as President of Syria from his father Hafez, and Asma al-Assad, his wife – a British-born and -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 three-quarters of Syria's population. 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 – July 2011)
The protests started in 15 March 2011, when protesters marched in the capital of Damascus, demanding democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners. The security forces retaliated by opening fire on the protesters, and according to witnesses who spoke to the BBC, the government forces detained six of them.The protest was triggered by the arrest of a boy and his friends by the government for writing the graffiti, "The people want the fall of the regime", in the city of Daraa. Louai al-Hussein, an analyst and writer wrote that "Syria is now on the map of countries in the region with an uprising". On 20th, the protesters burned down a Ba'ath Party headquarters and "other buildings". The ensuing clashes claimed the lives of seven police officers  and 15 protesters. Ten days later in a speech, President Bashar al-Assad blamed "foreign conspirators" pushing Israeli propaganda for the protests.
The protesters' demands until 7 April were predominantly democratic reforms, release of political prisoners, more freedom, abolition of the emergency law and an end to corruption. After 8 April, the emphasis in demonstration slogans gradually shifted towards the call for overthrowing the Assad government. Protests spread: on Friday 8 April, they occurred simultaneously in ten cities. By Friday 22 April protests occurred in twenty cities. On 25 April, the Syrian Army started a series of large-scale deadly military attacks on towns, using tanks, infantry carriers, and artillery, leading to hundreds of civilian deaths. By the end of May 2011, 1,000 civilians and 150 soldiers and policemen had been killed and thousands detained; among the arrested were many students, liberal activists and human rights advocates.
Significant armed rebellion against the state began on 4 June in Jisr al-Shugur, a city in Idlib Governorate near the Turkish border, after security forces on a post office roof had fired at a funeral demonstration. Protesting mourners set fire to the building, killing eight security officers, and then overran a police station, seizing weapons from it. Violence continued and escalated over the following days. Unverified reports claim that a portion of the security forces in Jisr defected after secret police and intelligence officers executed soldiers who had refused to fire on civilians. Later, more protesters in Syria took up arms, and more soldiers defected to protect protesters.
Both sides in the conflict use propaganda to promote their side and denigrate their opponents (see Reporting, censoring and propaganda in the Syrian Civil War). By the end of July 2011, around 1,600 civilians and 500 security forces had been killed and 13,000 arrested.
Protests and armed insurgency (July – October 2011)
On 29 July 2011, seven defecting Syrian officers formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA), composed of defected Syrian Armed Forces officers and soldiers, aiming "to bring this regime (the Assad government) down" with united opposition forces. On 31 July, a nationwide crackdown nicknamed the "Ramadan Massacre" resulted in the death of at least 142 people and hundreds of injuries.
On 23 August, a coalition of anti-government groups was formed, the Syrian National Council. The group, based in Turkey, attempted to organize the opposition. However, the opposition, including the FSA, remained a fractious collection of political groups, longtime exiles, grass-roots organizers and armed militants, divided along ideological, ethnic and/or sectarian lines.
Throughout August, Syrian forces stormed major urban centres and outlying regions, and continued to attack protests. On 14 August, the Siege of Latakia continued as the Syrian Navy became involved in the military crackdown for the first time. Gunboats fired heavy machine guns at waterfront districts in Latakia, as ground troops and security agents backed by armour stormed several neighbourhoods. The Eid ul-Fitr celebrations, started in near the end of August, were muted after security forces fired on protesters gathered in Homs, Daraa, and the suburbs of Damascus.
By September 2011, organized units of Syrian rebels were engaged in an active insurgency campaign in many different parts of Syria. A major confrontation between the FSA and the Syrian armed forces occurred in Rastan. From 27 September to 1 October, Syrian government forces, backed by tanks and helicopters, led a major offensive on the town of Al-Rastan in Homs Governorate, in order to drive out army defectors. The 2011 battle of Rastan between the government forces and the FSA was the longest and most intense action up until that time. After a week of fighting, the FSA was forced to retreat from Rastan. To avoid government forces, the leader of the FSA, Colonel Riad Asaad, retreated to Turkey. Many of the rebels fled to the nearby city of Homs.
By October, the FSA started to receive active support from Turkey, who allowed the rebel army to operate its command and headquarters from the country's southern Hatay Province close to the Syrian border, and its field command from inside Syria. The FSA would often launch attacks into Syria's northern towns and cities, while using the Turkish side of the border as a safe zone and supply route. A year after its formation, the FSA gained control over many towns close to the Turkish border.
In October 2011, clashes between government and defected army units were being reported fairly regularly. During the first week of the month, sustained clashes were reported in Jabal al-Zawiya in the mountainous regions of Idlib Governorate. Syrian rebels captured most of Idlib city as well. In mid-October, clashes in Idlib Governorate included the city of Binnish and the town of Hass in the governorate near the mountain range of Jabal al-Zawiya. In late October, clashes occurred in the northwestern town of Maarrat al-Nu'man between government forces and defected soldiers at a roadblock on the edge of the town, and near the Turkish border, where 10 security agents and a deserter were killed in a bus ambush. It was not clear if the defectors linked to these incidents were connected to the FSA.
According to defectors, in 2011 the Syrian government intentionally released imprisoned Islamist militants and provided them with arms "in order to make itself the least bad choice for the international community."
Escalation (November 2011 – March 2012)
In early November, clashes between the FSA and security forces in Homs escalated as the siege continued. After six days of bombardment, the Syrian Army stormed the city on 8 November, leading to heavy street fighting in several neighborhoods. Resistance in Homs was significantly greater than that seen in other towns and cities, and some in opposition have referred to the city as the "Capital of the Revolution". Unlike events in Deraa and Hama, operations in Homs have thus far failed to quell the unrest.
November and December 2011 saw increasing rebel attacks, as opposition forces grew in number. In the two months, the FSA launched deadly attacks on an air force intelligence complex in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, the Ba'ath Syrian Regional Branch youth headquarters in Idlib Governorate, Syrian Regional Branch offices in Damascus, an airbase in Homs Governorate, and an intelligence building in Idlib. On 15 December, opposition fighters ambushed checkpoints and military bases around Daraa, killing 27 soldiers, in one of the largest attacks yet on security forces. The opposition suffered a major setback on 19 December, when a failed defection in Idlib governorate lead to 72 defectors killed.
In January 2012, Assad began using large-scale artillery operations against the insurgency, which led to the destruction of many civilian homes due to indiscriminate shelling. By this time, daily protests had dwindled, eclipsed by the spread of armed conflict. January saw intensified clashes around the suburbs of Damascus, with the Syrian Army use of tanks and artillery becoming common. Fighting in Zabadani began on 7 January when the Syrian Army stormed the town in an attempt to rout out FSA presence. After the first phase of the battle ended with a ceasefire on 18 January, leaving the FSA in control of the town, the FSA launched an offensive into nearby Douma. Fighting in the town lasted from 21 to 30 January, before the rebels were forced to retreat as result of a government counteroffensive. Although, the Syrian Army managed to retake most of the suburbs, sporadic fighting continued. Fighting erupted in Rastan again on 29 January, when dozens of soldiers manning the town's checkpoints defected and began opening fire on troops loyal to the government. Opposition forces gained complete control of the town and surrounding suburbs on 5 February.
On 3 February, the Syrian army launched a major offensive to retake rebel-held neighborhoods. In early March, after weeks of artillery bombardments and heavy street fighting, the Syrian army eventually captured the district of Baba Amr, a major rebel stronghold. The Syrian Army also captured the district of Karm al-Zeitoun by 9 March, where activists said that government forces killed 47 women and children. By the end of March, the Syrian army retook control of half a dozen districts, leaving them in control of 70 percent of the city. By 14 March, Syrian troops successfully ousted insurgents from the city of Idlib after days of fighting. By early April, the estimated death toll of the conflict, according to activists, reached 10,000.
Ceasefire attempt (April – May 2012)
Kofi Annan was acting as UN–Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria. His peace plan provided for a ceasefire, but even as the negotiations for it were being conducted, Syrian armed forces attacked a number of towns and villages, and summarily executed scores of people.:11 Incommunicado detention, including of children, also continued. In April, Assad began employing attack helicopters against rebel forces.
On 12 April, both sides, the Syrian Government and rebels of the FSA entered a UN mediated ceasefire period. It was a failure, with infractions of the ceasefire by both sides resulting in several dozen casualties. Acknowledging its failure, Annan called for Iran to be "part of the solution", though the country has been excluded from the Friends of Syria initiative. The peace plan practically collapsed by early June and the UN mission was withdrawn from Syria. Annan officially resigned in frustration on 2 August 2012.
Renewed fighting (June – July 2012)
Following the Houla massacre of 25 May 2012, in which 108 people were summarily executed and the consequent FSA ultimatum to the Syrian government, the ceasefire practically collapsed, as the FSA began nationwide offensives against government troops. On 1 June, President Assad vowed to crush the anti-government uprising.
On 5 June, fighting broke out in Haffa and nearby villages in the coastal governorate of Latakia Governorate. Government forces were backed by helicopter gunships in the heaviest clashes in the governorate since the revolt began. Syrian forces seized the territory following days of fighting and shelling. On 6 June 78 civilians were killed in the Al-Qubeir massacre. According to activist sources, government forces started by shelling the village before the Shabiha militia moved in. The UN observers headed to Al-Qubeir in the hope of investigating the alleged massacre, but they were met with a roadblock and small arms fire and were forced to retreat.
On 12 June 2012, the UN for the first time officially proclaimed Syria to be in a state of civil war. The conflict began moving into the two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. In both cities, peaceful protests – including a general strike by Damascus shopkeepers and a small strike in Aleppo were interpreted as indicating that the historical alliance between the government and the business establishment in the large cities had become weak.
On 22 June, a Turkish F-4 fighter jet was shot down by Syrian government forces, killing both pilots. Syria and Turkey disputed whether the jet had been flying in Syrian or international airspace when it was shot down. Despite Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's vows to retaliate harshly against Assad's government, no such intervention materialised. Bashar al-Assad publicly apologised for the incident. By 10 July, rebel forces had captured most of the city of Al-Qusayr, in Homs Governorate, after weeks of fighting. By mid-July, rebels had captured the town of Saraqeb, in Idlib Governorate.
Battles of Damascus and Aleppo (July – October 2012)
By mid-July 2012, with fighting spread across the country and 16,000 people killed, the International Committee of the Red Cross declared the conflict a civil war. Fighting in Damascus intensified, with a major rebel push to take the city. On 18 July, Syrian Defense Minister Dawoud Rajiha, former defense minister Hasan Turkmani, and the president's brother-in-law General Assef Shawkat were killed by a suicide bomb attack in Damascus. The Syrian intelligence chief Hisham Ikhtiyar, who was injured in the same explosion, later succumbed to his wounds. Both the FSA and Liwa al-Islam claimed responsibility for the assassination.
In late July, government forces managed to break the rebel offensive on Damascus, although fighting still continued in the outskirts. After this, the focus shifted to the battle for control of Aleppo. On 25 July, multiple sources reported that the Assad government was using fighter jets to attack rebel positions in Aleppo and Damascus, and on 1 August, UN observers in Syria witnessed government fighter jets firing on rebels in Aleppo. In early August, the Syrian Army recaptured Salaheddin district, an important rebel stronghold in Aleppo. In August, the government began using fixed-wing warplanes against the rebels.
On 19 July, Iraqi officials reported that the FSA had gained control of all four border checkpoints between Syria and Iraq, increasing concerns for the safety of Iraqis trying to escape the violence in Syria. On 19 September, rebel forces seized a border crossing between Syria and Turkey in Ar-Raqqah Governorate. It was speculated that this crossing could provide opposition forces with strategic and logistical advantages.
In late September, the FSA moved its command headquarters from southern Turkey into northern Syria. On 9 October, rebel forces seized control of Maarat al-Numan, a town in Idlib governorate on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo. By 18 October, the FSA had captured Douma, the biggest suburb of Damascus. Lakhdar Brahimi arranged for a ceasefire during Eid al-Adha in late October, but it quickly collapsed.
Clashes with Kurds (September 2012)
On September 6, 2012 Kurdish activists reported that 21 civilians were killed in the Kurdish neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsud in Aleppo, when the Syrian army shelled the local mosque and its surroundings. Despite the district being neutral during the Battle of Aleppo and free of government and FSA clashes, local residents believed that the district was shelled as retaliation for sheltering anti-government civilians from other parts of the city. In a statement released shortly after the deaths, the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) vowed to retaliate. A few days later, Kurdish forces killed 3 soldiers in Afrin (Kurdish: Efrîn) and captured a number of other government soldiers in Ayn al-Arab (Kurdish: Kobanê) and Al-Malikiyah (Kurdish: Dêrika Hemko) from where they drove the remaining government security forces. It was also reported that the government had begun to arm Arab tribes around Qamishli in preparation for a possible confrontation with Kurdish forces, who still did not completely control the city.
Rebel offensives (November 2012 – April 2013)
After Brahimi's ceasefire agreement ended on 30 October, the Syrian military expanded its aerial bombing campaign in Damascus. A bombing of the Damascus district of Jobar was the first instance of a fighter jet being used to bomb Damascus. The following day, Gen. Abdullah Mahmud al-Khalidi, a Syrian Air Force commander, was assassinated by opposition gunmen in the Damascus district of Rukn al-Din. In early November 2012, rebels made significant gains in northern Syria. The rebel capture of Saraqib in Idlib governorate, which lies on the M5 highway, further isolated Aleppo. Due to insufficient anti-aircraft weapons, rebel units attempted to nullify the government's air power by destroying landed helicopters and aircraft on air bases. On 3 November, rebels launched an attack on the Taftanaz air base.
On 18 November, rebels took control of Base 46 in the Aleppo Governorate, one of the Syrian Army's largest bases in northern Syria, after weeks of intense fighting. Defected General Mohammed Ahmed al-Faj, who commanded the assault, stated that nearly 300 Syrian troops had been killed and 60 had been captured, with rebels seizing large amounts of heavy weapons, including tanks. On 22 November, rebels captured the Mayadeen military base in the country's eastern Deir ez-Zor Governorate. Activists said this gave the rebels control of a large amount of territory east of the base, stretching to the Iraqi border. On 29 November, at approximately 10:26 UTC, the Syrian Internet and phone service was shut off for a two-day period. Syrian government sources denied responsibility and blamed the blackout on fiber optic lines near Damascus becoming exposed and damaged; Edward Snowden in August 2014 claimed that this Internet breakdown had been caused, though unintendedly, by hackers of the NSA during an operation to intercept Internet communication in Syria.
In mid-December 2012, American officials said that the Syrian military had fired Scud ballistic missiles at rebel fighters inside Syria. Reportedly, six Scud missiles were fired at the Sheikh Suleiman base north of Aleppo, which rebel forces had occupied. It is unclear whether the Scuds hit the intended target. The government denied this claim. Later that month, a further Scud attack took place near Marea, a town north of Aleppo near the Turkish border. The missile appeared to have missed its target. That same month, the British Daily Telegraph reported that the FSA had now penetrated into Latakia Governorate's coast through Turkey. In late December, rebel forces pushed further into Damascus, taking control of the adjoining Yarmouk and Palestine refugee camps, pushing out pro-government Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command fighters with the help of other factions. Rebel forces launched an offensive in Hama governorate, later claiming to have forced army regulars to evacuate several towns and bases, and stating that "three-quarters of western rural Hama is under our control." Rebels also captured the town of Harem near the Turkish border in Idlib governorate, after weeks of heavy fighting.
On 11 January 2013, Islamist groups, including al-Nusra Front, took full control of the Taftanaz air base in the Idlib governorate, after weeks of fighting. The air base was often used by the Syrian military to carry out helicopter raids and deliver supplies. The rebels claimed to have seized helicopters, tanks and multiple rocket launchers, before being forced to withdraw by a government counter-attack. The leader of the al-Nusra Front said the amount of weapons they took was a "game changer". On 11 February, Islamist rebels captured the town of Al-Thawrah in Ar-Raqqah Governorate and the nearby Tabqa Dam, Syria's largest dam and a key source of hydroelectricity. The next day, rebel forces took control of Jarrah air base, located 60 kilometres (37 mi) east of Aleppo. On 14 February, fighters from al-Nusra Front took control of Shadadeh, a town in Al-Hasakah Governorate near the Iraqi border.
On 20 February, a car bomb exploded in Damascus near the Ba'ath Syrian Regional Branch headquarters, killing at least 53 people and injuring more than 235. None of the groups claimed responsibility. On 21 February, the FSA in Quasar began shelling Hezbollah positions in Lebanon. Prior to this, Hezbollah had been shelling villages near Quasar from within Lebanon. A 48-hour ultimatum was issued by a FSA commander on 20 February, warning the militant group to stop the attacks.
On 2 March, intense clashes between rebels and the Syrian Army erupted in the city of Raqqa, with many reportedly killed on both sides. On the same day, Syrian troops regained several villages near Aleppo. By 3 March, rebels had overrun Raqqa's central prison, allowing them to free hundreds of prisoners, according to the SOHR. The SOHR also stated that rebel fighters were now in control of most of an Aleppo police academy in Khan al-Asal, and that over 200 rebels and government troops had been killed fighting for control of it.
By 6 March, the rebels had captured the city of Raqqa, effectively making it the first provincial capital to be lost by the Assad government. Residents of Raqqa toppled a bronze statue of his late father Hafez Assad in the centre of the city. The rebels also seized two top government officials. On 18 March, the Syrian Air Force attacked rebel positions in Lebanon for the first time. The attack occurred at the Wadi al-Khayl Valley area, near the town of Arsal. On 21 March, a suspected suicide bombing in the Iman Mosque in Mazraa district killed as many as 41 people, including the pro-Assad Sunni cleric, Sheikh Mohammed al-Buti. On 23 March, several rebel groups seized the 38th division air defense base in southern Daraa governorate near a highway linking Damascus to Jordan. On the next day, rebels captured a 25 km strip of land near the Jordanian border, which included the towns of Muzrib, Abdin, and the al-Rai military checkpoint.
On 25 March, rebels launched one of their heaviest bombardments of Central Damascus since the revolt began. Mortars reached Umayyad Square, where the Ba'ath Party headquarters, Air Force Intelligence and state television are located. On 26 March, near the Syrian town of al-Qusayr, rebel commander Khaled al Hamad, who commands the Al Farooq al-Mustakilla Brigade and is also known by his nom de guerre Abu Sakkar, ate the heart and liver of a dead soldier and said "I swear to God, you soldiers of Bashar, you dogs, we will eat from your hearts and livers! O heroes of Bab Amr, you slaughter the Alawites and take out their hearts to eat them!" in an apparent attempt to increase sectarianism. Video of the event emerged two months later and resulted in considerable outrage, especially from Human Rights Watch which classified the incident as a war crime. According to the BBC, it was one of the most gruesome videos to emerge from the conflict to-date. On 29 March, rebels captured the town of Da'el after fierce fighting. The town is located in Daraa Governorate, along the highway connecting Damascus to Jordan. On 3 April, rebels captured a military base near the city of Daraa.
Renewed Clashes with Kurds (January - April 2013)
On 2 January 2013, a bomb was detonated by unknown assailants in front of a Syrian government security office in Qamishli, wounding four members of the local security forces.
In mid-January, as clashes re-erupted between rebels and Kurdish separatists in Ras al-Ayn, YPG forces moved to expel government forces from oil-rich areas in Hassakeh Province. Clashes broke out from 14 to 19 January between the army and YPG fighters in the Kurdish village of Gir Zîro (Tall Adas), near al-Maabadah (Kurdish: Girkê Legê), where an army battalion of around 200 soldiers had been blockaded since 9 January. YPG forces claimed to have expelled government after the clashes. One soldier was reportedly killed and another eight injured, while seven were captured (later released) and 27 defected. Fighting at the oil field near Gir Zîro ended on 21 January, when government forces withdrew after receiving no assistance from Damascus. In Rumeilan, directly west of al-Maabadah, another 200 soldiers had been surrounded by YPG forces, and 10 soldiers were reported to have defected.
From 8 to 11 February, heavy clashes broke out between the YPG and government troops in the PYD/YPG-held district Ashrafiyah where, according to SOHR, at least 3 soldiers and 5 pro-government militiamen were killed. The fighting followed deadly shelling on 31 January on Ashrafiyah, in which 23 civilians were killed after FSA units moved into the Kurdish sector of Aleppo. According to its own reports, the YPG lost 7 of its members the fighting, while also claiming that 48 soldiers were killed and 22 captured, and a further 70 injured.
On 26 February, the Syrian army once again shelled the PYD-held Kurdish sector of Aleppo, causing extensive damage to civilian areas. Five people were killed in the bombardment, and eleven more—including four children—were injured.
In the beginning of March, YPG forces took complete control of oil fields and installations in north-east Syria after government forces in it surrendered. During the same time YPG assaulted government forces and took control of town Tall ʿAdas, which is adjacent to Rumeilan oil fields, and also took control of Al-Qahtaniya (Kurdish: Tirbespî).
On 14 April 2013, government warplanes bombed the predominantly Kurdish village of Hadad, in Hasakah Governorate. 16 people were reported killed.
Government and Hezbollah offensives (April – June 2013)
On 17 April, government forces breached a six-month rebel blockade in Wadi al-Deif, near Idlib. Heavy fighting was reported around the town of Babuleen after government troops attempt to secure control of a main highway leading to Aleppo. The break in the siege also allowed government forces to resupply two major military bases in the region which had been relying on sporadic airdrops. On 18 April, the FSA took control of Al-Dab'a Air Base near the city of al-Qusayr. The base was being used primarily to garrison ground troops. Meanwhile, the Syrian Army re-captured the town of Abel. The SOHR said the loss of the town will hamper rebel movements between al-Qusayr and Homs city. The capture of the airport would have relieved the pressure on the rebels in the area, but their loss of Abel made the situation more complicated. The same day, rebels reportedly assassinated Ali Ballan, who was a government employee, in the Mazzeh district of Damascus. On 21 April, government forces captured the town of Jdaidet al-Fadl, near Damascus.
In April, government and Hezbollah forces launched an offensive to capture areas near al-Qusayr. On 21 April, pro-Assad forces captured the towns of Burhaniya, Saqraja and al-Radwaniya near the Lebanese border. By this point, eight villages had fallen to the government offensive in the area. On 24 April, after five weeks of fighting, government troops re-took control of the town of Otaiba, east of Damascus, which had been serving as the main arms supply route from Jordan. Meanwhile, in the north of the country, rebels took control of a position on the edge of the strategic Mennagh Military airbase, on the outskirts of Aleppo. This allowed them to enter the airbase after months of besieging it.
On 2 May, government forces captured the town of Qaysa in a push north from the city's airport. Troops also retook the Wadi al-Sayeh central district of Homs, driving a wedge between two rebel strongholds. SOHR reported a massacre of over 100 people by the Syrian army in the coastal town of Al Bayda, Baniyas. However, this could not be independently verified due to movement restrictions on the ground. Yet the multiple video images that residents said they had recorded – particularly of small children, were so shocking that even some government supporters rejected Syrian television's official version of events, that the army had simply "crushed a number of terrorists." On 3 May, the Syrian army backed by the Shabiha reportedly committed a massacre of civilians near the city of Baniyas. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that at least 50 people – and possibly as many as 100 – were killed and that dozens of villagers were still missing.
On 8 May, government forces captured the town of Khirbet Ghazaleh, situated along the highway to the Jordanian border. Over 1,000 rebel fighters withdrew from the town due to the lack of reinforcements and ammunition. The loss of the town also resulted in the reopening of the government supply-route to the city of Daraa. The rebels continued to withdraw from other towns so as to not face the Army's advance along the highway. On 11 May, the rebels managed to cut a newly build desert road used as an Army supply route between central Syria and Aleppo's airport. On 12 May, government forces took control of Khirbet Ghazaleh and secured the highway near the town. By mid-May, due to the recent Army gains in retaking strategically important locations, military analysts pointed out that the government would have a major advantage in any future peace talks. Analysts on both sides credited the government advances to the restructuring of their forces, which they filled with thousands of militia irregulars trained partly by Hezbollah and Iranian advisers in counter-insurgency operations. The government's success was also credited to the shift by the Army from trying to recapture the whole country to holding on to strategic areas.
On 13 May, government forces captured the towns of Western Dumayna, Haidariyeh, and Esh al-Warwar allowing them to block supplies to the rebels in al-Qusayr. On 16 May, rebels stated that they recaptured the town of Al-Qisa. On 17 May, rebels captured four villages in Eastern Hama, including the Alawite town of Tulaysiah. The villages were abandoned by its residents before the rebels arrived. On 19 May, government forces captured the town of Halfaya in Hama governorate. The Syrian army also launched its offensive against the town of Qusayr. A military source reported that the Army entered Qusayr, capturing the city center and the municipality building. One opposition activist denied this, but another confirmed the Army was in control of 60 percent of the city. During the day's fighting, Hezbollah commander Fadi al-Jazar was killed.
An opposition source said the attack was launched from the east and the south and that Hezbollah fighters took control of the town hall within a few hours. He added that the fighting was then concentrated in the northern part of the city. The attack appeared to surprise the rebels, who expected the army to push by the north on several rebel-controlled villages before attacking the city. The turning point of the offensive was reached when Hezbollah fighters took control of the Al Tal area overlooking Qusayr. Several rebels fighters accused some commanders from fleeing the Al tal area at the last minute. Meanwhile, SOHR reported that the Syrian army was at the area by the western neighborhood of al-Quseir in order to lay siege on the city itself. On 23 May, rebels captured a military base near the town of Nairab. By 29 May, government forces captured the al-Dabaa air base, north of al-Qusayr. On 1 and 2 June, after heavy fighting, the Syrian Army recaptured three of the Alawite villages that had been previously captured by the rebels in Eastern Hama governorate. On 5 June, rebel forces withdrew fully from al-Qusayr. The following day, government forces captured the nearby village of Dabaa.
On 6 June, rebels temporarily captured the Quneitra border crossing which links the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights with Syria. However, the same day, government forces counter-attacked with tanks and armoured personnel carriers, recapturing the crossing. On 7 June, Syrian troops backed by Hezbollah captured two villages north of al-Qusayr: Salhiyeh and Masoudiyeh. The next day, they captured the village of Buwaydah, the last rebel-held village in the al-Qusayr region. Between 7 and 14 June, Army troops, government militiamen, and Hezbollah fighters launched operations in Aleppo Governorate. Over a one-week period, government forces had advanced both in Aleppo city and the countryside around the city. However, on 14 June, according to an opposition activist, the tide had started reversing, after rebels managed to halt an armoured reinforcement column from Aleppo city for two government-held Shiite villages northwest of the city. Rebels claimed they destroyed one tank and killed 20 government soldiers northwest of the town of Maaret al-Arteek. Before the column was stopped, government forces had captured the high ground at Maaret al-Arteek, threatening rebel positions. Government forces also made some advances in the southern part of Aleppo governorate, capturing the village of Ain-Assan. During the fighting in Aleppo city itself, on 13 June, government forces managed to temporarily advance into the rebel-held Sakhour district from two directions, but were soon repelled. Some described it as possibly a probing attack and not a full assault.
On 10 June, Shia pro-government fighters from the village of Hatla, east of Deir al-Zour, attacked a nearby rebel position, killing four rebels. The next day, in retaliation for the attack, thousands of rebels attacked and captured the village, killing 60 residents, fighters and civilians, according to SOHR. 10 rebel fighters were killed during the attack. At dawn on 13 June, rebels seized an Army position on the northern edge of the town of Morek, which is located on the north-south highway, in fighting that killed six soldiers and two rebels. Later in the day, the Army shelled the base and sent reinforcements. On 14 June, the Al Nusra front captured a military barracks near Idlib city. On 15 June, the Syrian Army captured the Damascus suburb of Ahmadiyeh near the city's airport. Rebels said fighting began after rebels entered the town to use it as a position to launch mortars on the Damascus airport. They added that fighting was ongoing. On 22 June, the Syrian Army captured the rebel stronghold town of Talkalakh. Four days later, the Army captured the town of Al-Qariatayn, also in Homs governorate.
Continued fighting (July – October 2013)
On 28 June, rebel forces captured a major military checkpoint in the city of Daraa. On 12 July FSA reported that one of its commanders, Kamal Hamami, had been killed by Islamists a day before. The rebels declared that the assassination by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, was tantamount to a declaration of war. On 17 July, FSA forces took control of most of the southern city of Nawa after seizing up to 40 army posts stationed in the city. On 18 July, Kurdish YPG forces secured control of the northern town of Ras al-Ain, after days of fighting with the al-Nusra Front. In the following three months, continued fighting between Kurdish and mainly jihadist rebel forces led to the capture of two dozen towns and villages in Hasakah Governorate by Kurdish fighters, while the Jihadists made limited gains in Aleppo and Raqqah governorates after they turned on the Kurdish rebel group Jabhat al-Akrad over its relationship with the YPG. In Aleppo governorate, Islamists massacred the Kurds leading to a mass migration of civilians to the town of Afrin.
On 22 July, FSA fighters seized control of the western Aleppo suburb of Khan al-Asal. The town was the last government stronghold in the western portion of Aleppo governorate. On 25 July, the Syrian army secured the town of al-Sukhnah, after expelling the al-Nusra Front. On 27 July, after weeks of fighting and bombardment in Homs, the Syrian Army captured the historic Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque, and two days later, captured the district of Khaldiyeh.
On 4 August, around 10 rebel brigades, launched a large-scale offensive on the government stronghold of Latakia Governorate. Initial attacks by 2,000 opposition members seized as many as 12 villages in the mountainous area. Between 4 and 5 August, 20 rebels and 32 government soldiers and militiamen had been killed in the clashes. Hundreds of Alawite villagers fled to Latakia. By 5 August, rebel fighters advanced to 20 kilometers from Qardaha, the home town of the Assad family. However, in mid-August, the military counter-attacked and recaptured all of the territory previously lost to the rebels in the coastal region during the offensive. A Syrian security force source "told AFP the army still had to recapture the Salma region, a strategic area along the border with Turkey." According to a Human Rights Watch report 190 civilians were killed by rebel forces during the offensive, including at least 67 being executed. Another 200 civilians, primarily women and children, were taken hostage.
On 6 August, rebels captured Menagh Military Airbase after a 10-month siege. The strategic airbase is located on the road between Aleppo city and the Turkish border. On 21 August a chemical attack took place in the Ghouta region of the Damascus countryside, leading to thousands of casualties and several hundred dead in the opposition-held stronghold. The attack was followed by a military offensive by government forces into the area, which had been hotbeds of the opposition. On 24 August, rebels captured the town of Ariha. However, government forces recaptured Ariha on 3 September. On 26 August, rebel forces took over the town of Khanasir in Aleppo governorate which was the government's last supply route for the city of Aleppo. On 8 September, rebels led by the al-Nusra Front captured the Christian town of Maaloula, 43 km north of Damascus, The Syrian Army launched a counterattack a few days later, recapturing the town.
On 18 September, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) overran the FSA-held town of Azaz in the north. The fighting was the most severe since tensions rose between militant factions in Syria earlier in the year. Soon after ISIS captured Azaz, a ceasefire was announced between the rival rebel groups. However, in early October, more fighting erupted in the town. On 20 September, Alawite militias including the NDF killed 15 civilians in the Sunni village of Sheik Hadid in Hama Governorate. The massacre occurred in retaliation for a rebel capture of the village of Jalma, in Hama, which killed five soldiers, along with the seizure of a military checkpoint which killed 16 soldiers and 10 NDF militiamen. In mid-September, the military captured the towns of Deir Salman and Shebaa on the outskirts of Damascus. The Army also captured six villages in eastern Homs. Fighting broke out in those towns again in October.
On 28 September, rebels seized the Ramtha border post in Daraa Governorate on the Syria Jordan crossing after fighting which left 26 soldiers dead along with 7 foreign rebel fighters. On 3 October, AFP reported that Syria's army re-took the town of Khanasir, which is located on a supply route linking central Syria to the city of Aleppo. On 7 October, the Syrian Army managed to reopen the supply route between Aleppo and Khanasir.
On 9 October, rebels seized the Hajanar guard post on the Jordanian border after a month of fierce fighting. Rebels were now in control of a swath of territory along the border from outside of Daraa to the edge of Golan Heights. The same day, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite fighters, backed up by artillery, air-strikes and tanks, captured the town of Sheikh Omar, on the southern outskirts of Damascus. Two days later, they also captured the towns of al-Thiabiya and Husseiniya on the southern approaches to Damascus. The capture of the three towns strengthened the government hold on major supply lines and put more pressure on rebels under siege in the Eastern Ghouta area. On 14 October, SOHR reported that rebels captured the Resefa and Sinaa districts of Deir ez-Zor city, as well as Deir ez-Zor's military hospital.
Government and Hezbollah offensives (October – December 2013)
The Syrian Army along with its allies, Hezbollah and the al-Abas brigade, launched an offensive on Damascus and Aleppo. On 16 October, AFP reported that Syrian troops recaptured the town of Bweida, south of Damascus. On 17 October, the Syrian government's head of Military Intelligence in Deir ez-Zor Governorate, Jameh Jameh, was assassinated by rebels in Deir ez-Zor city. SOHR reported that he had been shot by a rebel sniper during a battle with rebel brigades. On 24 October, the Syrian army retook control of the town of Hatetat al-Turkman, located southeast of Damascus, along the Damascus International Airport road.
On 26 October, Kurdish rebel fighters seized control of the strategic Yarubiya border crossing between Syria and Iraq from Al Nusra in Al Hasakah Governorate. Elsewhere, in Daraa Governorate, rebel fighters captured the town of Tafas from government forces after weeks of clashes which left scores dead. On 1 November, the Syrian army retook control of the key city of Al-Safira and the next day, the Syrian Army and its allies recaptured the village of Aziziyeh on the northern outskirts of Al-Safira. From early to mid-November, Syrian Army forces captured several towns south of Damascus, including Hejeira and Sbeineh. Government forces also recaptured the town of Tel Aran, southeast of Aleppo, and a military base near Aleppo's international airport.
On 10 November, the Syrian army had taken full control of "Base 80", near Aleppo's airport. According to the SOHR, 63 rebels, and 32 soldiers were killed during the battle. One other report put the number of rebels killed between 60 and 80. Army units were backed-up by Hezbollah fighters and pro-government militias during the assault. The following day, government forces secured most of the area around the airport. On 13 November, government forces captured most of Hejeira. Rebels retreated from Hejeira to Al-Hajar al-Aswad. However, their defenses in besieged districts closer to the heart of Damascus were still reportedly solid. On 15 November, the Syrian Army retook control of the city of Tell Hassel near Aleppo. On 18 November, the Syrian troops stormed the town of Babbila. On 19 November, government forces took full control of Qara. The same day, the Syrian army captured al-Duwayrinah. On 23 November, al-Nusra Front and other Islamist rebels captured the al-Omar oil field, Syria's largest oil field, in Deir al-Zor governorate causing the government to rely almost entirely on imported oil. On 24 November, rebels captured the towns of Bahariya, Qasimiya, Abbadah, and Deir Salman in Damascus's countryside. On 28 November, the Syrian army recaptured Deir Attiyeh.
On 2 December, rebels led by the Free Syrian army recaptured the historic Christian town of Ma'loula. After the fighting, reports emerged that 12 nuns had been abducted by the rebels. However, the FSA disputes this and said that the nuns had been evacuated to the nearby rebel held town of Yabrud due to the Army shelling. In early December, the Islamic Front seized control of Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, which had been in hands of FSA. The groups also captured warehouses containing equipment delivered by the U.S. In response, the U.S. and Britain said they halted all non-lethal aid to the FSA, fearing that further supplies could fall in hands of al-Qaeda militants. On 10 December, the Army took full control of Nabek, with fighting continuing in its outskirts.
Fighting between ISIS and other rebel groups (January – March 2014)
Tension between moderate rebel forces and ISIS had been high since ISIS captured the border town of Azaz from FSA forces on 18 September 2013. Conflict was renewed over Azaz in early October and in late November ISIS captured the border town of Atme from an FSA brigade. On 3 January 2014, the Army of the Mujahideen, the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front launched an offensive against ISIS in Aleppo and Idlib governorates. A spokesman for the rebels said that rebels attacked ISIS in up to 80% of all ISIS held villages in Idlib and 65% of those in Aleppo.
By 6 January, opposition rebels managed to expel ISIS forces from the city of Raqqa, ISIS's largest stronghold and capital of the Raqqa Governorate. On 8 January, opposition rebels expelled most ISIS forces from the city of Aleppo, however ISIS reinforcements from the Deir ez-Zor Governorate managed to retake several neighborhoods of the city of Raqqa. 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 Provence of Syria, killing 11 ISIS fighters and 1 ISIS emir. In late January it was confirmed that rebels had assassinated ISIS's second in command, Haji Bakr, who was al-Qaeda's military council head and a former military officer in Saddam Hussein's army. By mid-February, the Al-Nusra Front joined the battle in support of rebel forces, and expelled ISIS from the Deir Ezzor Governorate. By March, the ISIS forces fully retreated from the Idlib Governorate. On 4 March, ISIS retreated from the border town of Azaz and other nearby villages, choosing instead to consolidate around Raqqa in an anticipation of an escalation of fighting with Al Nusra.
Continued government and Hezbollah offensive (March 2014)
On 4 March, the Syrian army took control of Sahel in the Qalamoun region. On 8 March, government forces took over Zara, in Homs Governorate, further blocking rebel supply routes from Lebanon. On 11 March, Government forces and Hezbollah took control of the Rima Farms region, directly facing Yabrud. On 16 March, Hezbollah and government forces captured Yabrud, after Free Syrian Army fighters made an unexpected withdrawal, leaving the Al Nusra Front to fight in the city on its own. On 18 March, Israel used artillery against a Syrian Army base, after four of its soldiers had been wounded by a roadside bomb while patrolling Golan Heights.
On 19 March, the Syrian army captured Ras al-Ain near Yabrud, after two days of fighting and al-Husn in Homs Governorate, while rebels in the Daraa Governorate captured Daraa prison, and freed hundreds of detainees. On 20 March, the Syrian army took control of the Krak des Chevaliers in al-Husn. On 29 March, Syrian army took control of the villages of Flitah and Ras Maara near the border with Lebanon.
Continued fighting (March – May 2014)
On 22 March, rebels took control of the Kesab border post in the Latakia Governorate. By 23 March, rebels had taken most of Khan Sheikhoun in Hama. During clashes near the rebel-controlled Kesab border post in Latakia, Hilal Al Assad, NDF leader in Latakia and one of Bashar Al Assad's cousins was killed by rebel fighters. On 4 April, rebels captured the town of Babulin, Idlib. On 9 April, the Syrian army took control of Rankous in the Qalamoun region. On 12 April, rebels in Aleppo stormed the government-held Ramouseh industrial district in an attempt to cut the Army supply route between the airport and a large Army base. The rebels also took the Rashidin neighbourhood and parts of the Jamiat al-Zahra district. On 26 April, the Syrian army took control of Al-Zabadani. According to SOHR, rebels took control of Tell Ahrmar, Quneitra. Rebels in Daraa also took over Brigade 61 Base and the 74th battalion.
On 26 April, the FSA announced they had begun an offensive against ISIS in the Raqqa Governorate, and had seized five towns west of Raqqa city. On 29 April, activists said that the Syrian army captured Tal Buraq near the town of Mashara in Quneitra without any clashes. On 7 May, a truce went into effect in the city of Homs, SOHR reported. The terms of the agreement include safe evacuation of Islamist fighters from the city, which would then fall under government control, in exchange for release of prisoners and safe passage of humanitarian aid for Nubul and Zahraa, two Shiite enclaves besieged by the rebels. On 18 May, the head of Syria's Air Defense, General Hussein Ishaq, died of wounds sustained during a rebel attack on an air defense base near Mleiha the previous day. In Hama governorate, rebel forces took control of the town of Tel Malah, killing 34 pro-Assad fighters at an army post near the town. Its seizure marked the third time rebels have taken control of the town.
Presidential election (June 2014)
Syria held a presidential election in government-held areas on 3 June 2014. For the first time in the history of Syria more than one person was allowed to stand as a presidential candidate. More than 9,000 polling stations were set up in government-held areas. According to the Supreme Constitutional Court of Syria, 11.63 million Syrians voted (the turnout was 73.42%). President Bashar al-Assad won the election with 88.7% of the votes. As for Assad's challengers, Hassan al-Nouri received 4.3% of the votes and Maher Hajjar received 3.2%. Allies of Assad from more than 30 countries were invited by the Syrian government to follow the presidential election, including Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, India, Iran, Iraq, Nicaragua, Russia, South Africa and Venezuela. The Iranian official Alaeddin Boroujerdi read a statement by the group saying the election were "free, fair and transparent". The Gulf Cooperation Council, the European Union and the United States all dismissed the election as illegitimate and a farce.
It is claimed in an opinion piece that as few as 6 million eligible voters remained in Syria. Due to rebel, Kurdish and ISIS control of Syrian territories there was no voting in roughly 60% of the country.
ISIL offensives and U.S. airstrikes (June 2014 – January 2015)
Starting on 5 June, ISIL seized swathes of territory in Iraq in addition to heavy weapons and equipment from the Iraqi Army, some of which they brought into Syria. Government airstrikes targeted ISIL bases in Ar-Raqqah and Al-Hasakah in coordination with an Iraqi Army counteroffensive. On 14 June, government forces retook the town of Kessab in northern Latakia Governorate, while rebels took over Tall al-Gomo near the town of Nawa in the Daraa Governorate, as well as reentering the Qalamoun area.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, on 17 July ISIL took control of the Shaar oil field, killing 90 pro-government forces while losing 21 fighters. In addition, 270 guards and government-aligned fighters were missing. About 30 government persons managed to escape to the nearby Hajjar field. On 20 July, the Syrian Army secured the field, although fighting continued in its outskirts. On 25 July, the Islamic State took control of the Division 17 base near Raqqah.
On 7 August, ISIL took the Brigade 93 base in Raqqah using weapons captured from their offensive in Iraq. Multiple suicide bombs also went off before the base was stormed. On 13 August, ISIL forces took the towns of Akhtarin and Turkmanbareh from rebels in Aleppo. ISIL forces also took a handful of nearby villages. The other towns seized include Masoudiyeh, Dabiq and Ghouz.
On 14 August, the Free Syrian Army commander Sharif As-Safouri admitted working with Israel and receiving anti-tank weapons from Israel and FSA soldiers also received medical treatment inside Israel. On 14 August, the Syrian Army as well as Hezbollah militias retook the town of Mleiha in Rif Dimashq Governorate. The Supreme Military Council of the FSA denied claims of Mleiha's seizure, rather the rebels have redeployed from recent advances to other defensive lines. Mleiha has been held by the Islamic Front. Rebels had used the town to fire mortars on government held areas inside Damascus.
Meanwhile, ISIL forces in Raqqah were launching a siege on Tabqa airbase, the Syrian government's last military base in Raqqah. Kuwaires airbase in Aleppo also came under fierce attack by ISIL. On 16 August, there were reports that 22 people were killed in the village of Daraa by a car bomb outside a mosque. The bomb was thought to be detonated by ISIS. Also on 16 August, the Islamic State seized the village of Beden in the Aleppo Governorate from rebels.
On 19 August, a senior figure in ISIL who had helped prepare and plan car and suicide bombs across Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq was killed. Some reports said that he was killed by Hezbollah fighters. There were also several reports that he was killed by the Syrian Army in the Qalamoun region, near the border with Lebanon.
On 19 August, American journalist James Foley was executed by ISIL, who claimed it was in retaliation for the United States operations in Iraq. Foley was kidnapped in Syria in November 2012 by Shabiha militia. ISIL also threatened to execute Steven Sotloff, who was kidnapped at the Syrian-Turkish border in August 2013. There are reports ISIS captured a Japanese national, two Italian nationals, and a Danish national as well. At least 70 journalists have been killed covering the Syrian war, and more than 80 kidnapped, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
On 23 August, the Tabqa airbase was no longer encircled by ISIL fighters and the Syrian Army had taken back the M-42 Highway from ISIL fighters, which leads to the city of Salamiyah in the Hama Governorate. Also in Raqqah, the Syrian Army took control of the town of Al-Ejeil. ISIL reportedly sent reinforcements from Iraq to the governorate of Raqqah. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 400 ISIL fighters had also been wounded in the previous five days in clashes with the Syrian Army and National Defence Force in Raqqah alone. At the same time, Several senior UK and US figures urged Turkey to stop allowing ISIL to cross the border to Syria and Iraq.
On the following day, the Islamic State seized Tabqa airbase from government forces. The battle for the base left 346 ISIL fighters and 195 soldiers dead. Prisoners taken by ISIL forces were executed and a video from the mass killing was posted on YouTube. The death toll varied from 120 to 250.
On 26 August, the Syrian Air Force carried out airstrikes against ISIL targets in the Governorate of Deir ez-Zor. This was the first time the Syrian army attacked them in Deir ez-Zor as the Syrian Army pulled out of Raqqah and shifted to Deir ez-Zor in a bid to seize its oil and natural gas resources as well as strategically splitting ISIL territories.
American jets began bombing ISIL in Syria on 23 September 2014, raising U.S. involvement in the war-torn country. At least 20 targets in and around 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 US and "partner nation forces" began striking ISIL targets using fighters, bombers and Tomahawk missiles, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
US 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 US informed Syria's envoy to the U.N. that "strikes will be launched against the terrorist group in Raqqa". The United States informed the Free Syrian Army beforehand of the impending airstrikes, and the rebels said that weapons transfers to the Free Syrian Army had begun.
The United States also attacked a specific faction of Al-Nusra called the Khorasan Group, who according to the United States had training camps and plans for attacking the United States in the future.
For its part, Turkey launched an official request to the UN for a no-fly zone over Syria.
The same day, Israel shot down a Syrian warplane after it entered the Golan area from Quneitra.
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 Kobane. Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said the YPG forces in Kobane had been provided with military and logistical support. Syria reported that its air force had destroyed two fighter jets being operated by IS.
By 26 January, the Kurdish YPG forced ISIL forces in Kobanî to retreat, thus fully recapturing the city. The U.S. confirmed that the city had been cleared of ISIL forces on 27 January, and ISIL admitted defeat in Kobanî city three days later, although they vowed to return.
The Southern Front (October 2014 – February 2015)
In February 2014, the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army formed in southern Syria. Six months later, they started a string of victories in Daraa and Quneitra during the 2014 Quneitra offensive, the Daraa offensive (October 2014), the Battle of Al-Shaykh Maskin, the Battle of Bosra (2015) and the Battle of Nasib Border Crossing. A government counter-offensive (the 2015 Southern Syria offensive) during this period, that included the IRGC and Hezbollah, recaptured 15 towns, villages and hills, but the operation slowed soon after and stalled.
Since early 2015, opposition military operations rooms based in Jordan and Turkey began increasing cooperation, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar also reportedly agreeing upon the necessity to unite opposition factions against the Syrian government.
Northern Al-Nusra Front and Islamist takeover (October 2014 – March 2015)
In late October 2014, a conflict erupted between the Al-Nusra Front on one side and the western-backed SRF and Hazzm Movement on the other (Al-Nusra Front–SRF/Hazzm Movement conflict). ISIL reportedly reinforced Al-Nusra. By the end of February 2015 Al-Nusra had defeated both groups, captured the entire Zawiya Mountain region in Idlib province and several towns and military bases in other governorates, and seized weapons supplied by the CIA to the two moderate groups. The significant amount of weapons seized included a small number of BGM-71 anti-tank missiles similar to weapons systems al-Nusra Front had previously captured from government stockpiles such as French MILANs, Chinese HJ-8s and Russian 9K111 Fagots. Reuters reported that this represented al-Nusra crushing pro-Western rebels in the north of the country. According to FSA commanders in northern Syria, however, the elimination of Harakat Hazm and the SRF was a welcome development due to the leaders of those factions allegedly involved in corruption. The Western-backed 30th Division of the FSA remained active elsewhere in Idlib.
By 24 March 2015 the Al-Nusra Front dominated most of Idlib province, except for the government-held provincial capital, Idlib, which they had encircled on three sides along with its Islamist allies. On 28 March a joint coalition of Islamist forces, the Army of Conquest, captured Idlib. This left the north largely taken over by Ahrar ash-Sham, Al-Nusra Front and other Islamist rebels, with the south of the country becoming the last significant foothold for the mainstream, non-jihadist opposition fighters.
Army of Conquest advances in Idlib (April 2014 – June 2015)
On 22 April, a new rebel offensive was launched in the north-west of Syria and by 25 April, the rebel coalition Army of Conquest had captured the city of Jisr al-Shughur. At the end of the following month, the rebels also seized the Al-Mastumah military base, and Ariha, leaving government forces in control of tiny pockets of Idlib, including the Abu Dhuhur military airport. In addition, according to Charles Lister (Brookings Doha Center), the Army of Conquest coalition was a broad opposition effort to ensure that the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front was contained, with the rearguard involvement of Western-backed factions being regarded as crucial. Still, according to some, the FSA in northern Syria had by this point all but dissipated. Many of the moderate fighters joined more extremist organizations, such as Ahrar ash-Sham, the largest faction in the Army of Conquest, which led to the subsequent rise of the Islamist Army of Conquest coalition.
Rebel advances led to government and Hezbollah morale plunging dramatically. In north-west Syria these losses were countered by a Hezbollah-led offensive in the Qalamoun mountains north of Damascus, on the border with Lebanon, that gave Hezbollah effective control of the entire area.
Resurgent ISIL advance (May 2015)
On 21 May, ISIL took control of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, after eight days of fighting. The jihadists also captured the nearby towns of Al-Sukhnah and Amiriya, as well as several oil fields. Following the capture of Palmyra, ISIL conducted mass executions in the area, killing an estimated 217–329 government civilian supporters and soldiers, according to opposition activists. Government sources put the number of killed at 400–450.
By early June, ISIL reached the town of Hassia, which lays on the main road from Damascus to Homs and Latakia, and reportedly took up positions to the west of it, creating a potential disaster for the government and raising the threat of Lebanon being sucked further into the war.
On 25 June, ISIL launched two offensives. One was a surprise diversionary attack on Kobanê, while the second targeted government-held parts of Al-Hasakah city. The ISIL offensive on Al-Hasakah displaced 60,000 people, with the UN estimating a total of 200,000 would be displaced.
In July 2015, a raid by U.S. special forces on a compound housing the Islamic State's "chief financial officer", Abu Sayyaf, produced evidence that Turkish officials directly dealt with ranking ISIS members.
Advanced weaponry and tactics
A UN fact-finding mission was requested by member states to investigate 16 alleged chemical weapons attacks. Seven of them have been investigated (nine were dropped for lack of "sufficient or credible information") and in four cases the UN inspectors confirmed use of sarin gas. The reports, however, did not blame any party 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. In 2015 the UN mission disclosed previously undeclared traces of sarin compounds[disputed ] in a "military research site".
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, including 47 mainly Alawite children killed in Homs 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.
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
Syrian Armed Forces
Before the uprising and war broke out, the force of the Syrian Armed Forces 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.
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 in locations dubbed the "Sunni markets".
The Shabiha are unofficial pro-government militias drawn largely from Assad's Alawite minority group. 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.
A CBS report reported that Christians in Syria are largely in favour of the government because it claimed that they believe their survival is linked to his largely secular government. Christian militias are fighting on the Syrian government's side. According to the World Tribune.com, "The sources said thousands of Christians were joining the Syrian Army as well as such regime militias as National Defense Forces and the Popular Committees. They said NDF helped organize Christian units to protect communities, particularly in eastern Syria. A major unit has been called the Christian Resistance, said to operate in the Homs province."
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. By December 2013 Iran was thought to have approximately 10,000 operatives in Syria. But according to Jubin Goodarzi, assistant professor and researcher of Webster University, Iran aided the Assad regime with a limited number of deployed units and personnel, "at most in the hundreds ... and not in the thousands as opposition sources claimed". Lebanese Hezbollah fighters backed by Tehran 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.
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 (IS), said in August 2014 that many of the FSA members who had been trained by United States’ and Turkish and Arab military officers were now actually joining IS. On the contrary to the ISIS commander's claims, by September 2014 the Free Syrian Army was joining an alliance and a common front with Kurdish militias including the YPG to fight ISIS.
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.
The Islamic Front (Arabic: الجبهة الإسلامية, al-Jabhat al-Islāmiyyah) is a merger of seven rebel groups involved in the Syrian civil war that was announced on 22 November 2013. The group has between 40,000 and 60,000 fighters. An anonymous spokesman for the group has stated that it will not have ties with the Syrian National Coalition, though a member of the political bureau of the group, Ahmad Musa, has stated that he hopes for recognition from the Syrian National Council in cooperation for what he suggested "the Syrian people want. They want a revolution and not politics and foreign agendas." The group is widely seen as backed and armed by Saudi Arabia.
In September 2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that extremist 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 the biggest jihadist group in Syria, is often considered to be the most aggressive and violent part of the opposition. Being responsible for over 50 suicide bombings, including several deadly explosions in Damascus in 2011 and 2012, it is recognized as a terrorist organization by Syrian government and was designated as such by United States in December 2012. 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 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 Front has been accused of mistreating religious and ethnic minorities since their formation. The estimated manpower of al-Nusra Front is approximately 6,000–10,000 people, including many foreign fighters. 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 organised 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 this Syrian Civil War as belligerent in July 2012, by capturing a town, Kobanê, that until then was under control of the Syrian Assad-government (see Syrian Kurdistan campaign (2012–present)).
The conflict between the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and Islamists 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)
Called Dā'ash or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (abbrv. ISIL or ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] or Islamic State) 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 governorate 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. 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.
Reporting, censoring and propaganda
Reporting on this war is difficult and dangerous: journalists are being attacked, detained, reportedly tortured, over 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", "foreign conspiracy"), or by presenting false 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 to a more balanced 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 prepared an international peace conference in Geneva on 22 January 2014, in which both the Syrian government and opposition have promised to participate.
The conflict holds the record for the largest sum ever requested by UN agencies for a single humanitarian emergency—the stunning $6.5bn request of December 2013. The difficulty of delivering humanitarian aid to people is indicated by the statistics for January 2015: of the estimated 212,000 people during that month who were besieged by government or opposition forces, 304 were reached with food.
The international humanitarian response to the conflict in Syria is coordinated by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in accordance with General Assembly Resolution 46/182. The primary framework for this coordination is the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP) which appealed for USD $1.41 billion to meet the humanitarian needs of Syrians affected by the conflict. Official United Nations data on the humanitarian situation and response is available at 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 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. However, recent developments have led Russia to realize that there has been a "turning point" against Assad.
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." As of 2015[update], Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are openly backing the Army of Conquest, an umbrella rebel group that reportedly includes an al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front and another Salafi coalition known as Ahrar ash-Sham, and Faylaq Al-Sham, a coalition of Muslim Brotherhood-linked rebel groups. The major Syrian Kurdish opposition group, the PYD, was reported to get logistic and training support from Iraqi Kurdistan.
On 21 August 2014, two days after US photojournalist James Foley was beheaded, the U.S. military admitted a covert rescue attempt involving dozens of US Special Operations forces had been made to rescue Americans and other foreigners held captive in Syria by ISIL militants. The rescue attempt is the first known US military ground action inside Syria. The resultant gunfight resulted in one US soldier being injured. The rescue was unsuccessful as the captives were not in the location targeted.
On 11 September 2014 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 US-led action against ISIL, but Ankara showed reluctance to play a frontline role. Kerry stated that it was "not appropriate" for Iran to join talks on confronting ISIL.
The plans revealed in September also involve Iraq in targeting ISIL. US warplanes have launched 158 strikes in Iraq over the past five weeks while emphasizing a relatively narrow set of targets. The Pentagon's press secretary, John Kirby, said the air campaign in Iraq, which began 8 Aug., will enter a more aggressive phase.
On the other hand, 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. Moreover, American support of Iranian-backed Shia militias to combat IS on the ground, has angered the Sunni population, increasing the probability of a later sectarian divide.
Estimates of deaths in the conflict vary widely, with figures, per opposition activist groups, ranging from 140,200 and 330,380. 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.
The violence in Syria has caused millions to flee their homes. As of March 2015, Al-Jazeera estimates 10.9 million Syrians, or almost half the population, have been displaced. 3.8 million have been made refugees. As of 2013, 1 in 3 of Syrian refugees (about 667,000 people) sought safety in Lebanon (normally 4.8 million population). Others have fled to Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq. Turkey has accepted +1.700.000 (2015) Syrian refugees, half of whom are spread around 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 Hezbollah'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'. The U.N. commission investigating human rights abuses in Syria confirms at least 9 intentional mass killings in the period 2012 to mid-July 2013, identifying the perpetrator as Syrian government and its supporters in eight cases, and the opposition in one.
By late November 2013, according to the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) report entitled "Violence against Women, Bleeding Wound in the Syrian Conflict", approximately 6,000 women have been raped (including gang-rape) since the start of the conflict – with figures likely to be much higher given that most cases go unreported.
According to three international lawyers, Syrian government officials could face war crimes charges in the light of a huge cache of evidence smuggled out of the country showing the "systematic killing" of about 11,000 detainees. Most of the victims were young men and many corpses were emaciated, bloodstained and bore signs of torture. Some had no eyes; others showed signs of strangulation or electrocution. Experts say this evidence is more detailed and on a far larger scale than anything else that has yet emerged from the 34-month crisis. On 30 January 2014, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing, between June 2012 and July 2013, government forces razing to the ground seven anti-government districts in the cities of Damascus and Hama, equating to an area the size of 200 football fields. Witnesses spoke of explosives and bulldozers being used to knock down buildings. Satellite imagery was provided as part of the report and the destruction was characterized as collective punishment against residents of rebel-held areas.
UN reported also that "siege warfare is employed in a context of egregious human rights and international humanitarian law violations. The warring parties do not fear being held accountable for their acts." Armed forces of both sides of the conflict blocked access of humanitarian convoys, confiscated food, cut off water supplies and targeted farmers working their fields. The report pointed to four places besieged by the government forces: Muadamiyah, Daraya, Yarmouk camp and Old City of Homs, as well as two areas under siege of rebel groups: Aleppo and Hama. In Yarmouk Camp 20,000 residents are facing death by starvation due to blockade by the Syrian government forces and fighting between the army and Jabhat al-Nusra, which prevents food distribution by UNRWA. In July 2015, the UN quietly removed Yarmouk from its list of besieged areas in Syria, despite not having been able deliver aid there for four months, and declined to explain why it had done so.
In 2013, the UN estimated that sieges by government and opposition forces had left more than 250,000 subjected to relentless shelling and bombardment. The OCHA's figure for February 2015 was 212,000, though a study published the following month by American doctors said this was a drastic underestimate, putting the number of people besieged by the Syrian military alone at some 640,000. "They are denied humanitarian aid, food and such basic necessities as medical care, and must choose between surrender and starvation," the members of the UN Commission of Inquiry said.
ISIS forces have been accused by UN of using public executions, amputations and lashings in a campaign to instill fear. "Forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham have committed torture, murder, acts tantamount to enforced disappearance and forced displacement as part of attacks on the civilian population in Aleppo and Raqqa governorates, 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 and minorities
The successive governments of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad have been closely associated with the country's minority Alawite religious group, an offshoot of Shia, whereas the majority of the population, and most of the opposition, is Sunni. Alawites started to be threatened and attacked by dominantly Sunni rebel fighting groups like the Al-Nusra Front and the FSA since December 2012 (see Sectarianism and minorities in the Syrian Civil War#Alawites).
A third of 250,000 Alawite men of military age have been killed fighting in the Syrian Civil War. In May 2013, SOHR stated that out of 94,000 killed during the war, at least 41,000 were Alawites.
Many Syrian Christians reported to have fled after they were targeted by the anti-government rebels. (See: Sectarianism and minorities in the Syrian Civil War#Christians.)
Al Jazeera reported that "The Druze accuse rebels of committing atrocities against their community in Syria ... Syria's Druze minority has largely remained loyal to President Bashar al-Assad since the war began in 2011."
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. The total economic loss from the Syrian Civil War will reach $237 billion by the end of 2015, according to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, with the Syrian opposition's capture of Nasib border crossing costing the government a further $500–$700 million a year on top of this.
As the conflict has expanded across Syria, many cities have been engulfed in a wave of crime as fighting caused the disintegration of much of the civilian state, and many police stations stopped functioning. Rates of theft increased, with criminals looting houses and stores. Rates of kidnappings increased as well. Rebel fighters were seen stealing cars and, in one instance, destroying a restaurant in Aleppo where Syrian soldiers had been seen eating.
By July 2012, the human rights group Women Under Siege had documented over 100 cases of rape and sexual assault during the conflict, with many of these crimes believed to have been perpetrated by the Shabiha and other pro-government militias. Victims included men, women, and children, with about 80% of the known victims being women and girls.
Local National Defence Forces commanders often engaged "in war profiteering through protection rackets, looting, and organized crime". NDF members were also implicated in "waves of murders, robberies, thefts, kidnappings, and extortions throughout regime-held parts of Syria since the formation of the organization in 2013", as reported by the Institute for the Study of War.
Criminal networks have been used by both the government and the opposition during the conflict. Facing international sanctions, the Syrian government relied on criminal organizations to smuggle goods and money in and out of the country. The economic downturn caused by the conflict and sanctions also led to lower wages for Shabiha members. In response, some Shabiha members began stealing civilian properties and engaging in kidnappings.
Rebel forces sometimes rely on criminal networks to obtain weapons and supplies. Black market weapon prices in Syria's neighboring countries have significantly increased since the start of the conflict. To generate funds to purchase arms, some rebel groups have turned towards extortion, theft, and kidnapping.
As of March 2015, the war has affected 290 heritage sites, severely damaged 104, and completely destroyed 24. Five of the six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Syria have been damaged. Destruction of antiquities has been caused by shelling, army entrenchment, and looting at various tells, museums, and monuments. A group called Syrian Archaeological Heritage Under Threat is monitoring and recording the destruction in an attempt to create a list of heritage sites damaged during the war and to gain global support for the protection and preservation of Syrian archaeology and architecture.
UNESCO listed all six Syria's World Heritage sites as endangered but direct assessment of damage is not possible. It is known that the Old City of Aleppo was heavily damaged during battles being fought within the district, while Palmyra and Krak des Chevaliers suffered minor damage. Illegal digging is considered a grave danger, and hundreds of Syrian antiquities, including some from Palmyra, appeared in Lebanon. Three archeological museums are known to have been looted; in Raqqa some artifacts seem to have been destroyed by foreign Islamists due to religious objections.
In 2014 and 2015, following the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, several sites in Syria were destroyed by the group as part of a deliberate destruction of cultural heritage sites. The ancient Temple of Baalshamin and Temple of Bel in Palmyra are among the sites which were blown up by the terrorist group. The group also destroyed ancient statues in Palmyra and Ar-Raqqah, and a number of churches, including the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Deir ez-Zor.
With porous borders with most of its neighbors, the fighting has spilled 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.
- Barrel bomb
- Iraq/ISIL war
- List of civil wars
- List of modern conflicts in the Middle East
- List of ongoing military conflicts
- List of wars by death toll
- List of wars involving Iran
- List of wars involving Syria
- Military intervention against ISIL
- Second Libyan Civil War
- Spillover of the Syrian Civil War
- Yemeni Civil War
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