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Syrian Civil War

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Syrian Civil War
Part of the Arab Spring, the Arab Winter and the spillover of the Iraq conflict
Syrian Civil War map.svg
Military situation in January 2019:
     Syrian Arab Republic      Syrian opposition and Turkish occupation      North Syria Federation
     Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant      Tahrir al-Sham[26]
(For a full list of combatants see order of battle)
(For a more detailed version of this map, see Detailed map. For live interactive map, see Syrian Civil War Map.
Date15 March 2011 (2011-03-15) – present
(7 years, 11 months and 4 days)
Syria (with spillovers in neighboring countries)
Status Ongoing
As of 9th January 2019: the Syrian Armed Forces held 62.0% of Syrian territories; SDF-held territory constituted 27.9%; 2.8% was controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, 7.2 % was controlled by rebel groups (including Al-Tanf rebels) and Turkey; and 0.1% was held by ISIL[27][28]
Main belligerents
InfoboxHez.PNG Hezbollah
 Russia (from 2015)

 Turkey[b] (from 2016)

Jaysh al-Islam

Tahrir al-Sham[d][e]

Commanders and leaders

Units involved
See order See order See order See order

Syrian Armed Forces: 180,000[68]
General Security Directorate: 8,000[69]
National Defense Force: 80,000[70]
Ba'ath Brigades: 7,000 Hezbollah: 6,000–8,000[71]
Liwa Al-Quds: 4,000–8,000 Russia: 4,000 troops[72] and 1,000 contractors[73]
Iran: 3,000–5,000[71][74]

Other allied groups: 20,000+

Free Syrian Army: 20,000–32,000[75] (2013)
Islamic Front: 40,000–70,000[76][77] (2014)
Other groups: 12,500[78] (2015)
Turkish Armed Forces: 4,000–8,000[79][80]

Ahrar al-Sham: 18,000–20,000+[81][82] (March 2017)

Tahrir al-Sham: 31,000[83]
15,000–20,000 (U.S. claim, late 2016)[84] 1,000 (U.S. claim, late 2017)[85]

SDF: 60,000–75,000 (2017 estimate)[86]

  • YPG and YPJ: 20,000–30,000 (2017 estimate)[87]
  • Syriac Military Council (MFS): 1,000 (2017 estimate)[88]
  • Al-Sanadid Forces: 2,000–4,000 (2017 estimate)[88]
  • SDF Military Councils: 10,000+[89][90][91]
Casualties and losses

Syrian Arab Republic:
65,048–100,048 soldiers killed[92][93]
50,296–64,296 militiamen killed[92][93]
4,700 soldiers and militiamen and 2,000 supporters captured[92]
InfoboxHez.PNG Hezbollah:
1,675–2,000 killed[92][94]
Russia Russia:
114 soldiers[95] and 175–235 PMCs killed[96]

Other non-Syrian fighters:
8,049 killed[92] (Iran 561 Iranians)[97]

Syrian opposition 131,288–172,288 killed[f][92][93]

Turkey Turkey:
157 soldiers killed (2016–18 ground incursions)[98][99][100]
26,022+ killed (per SOHR)[101]
20,711+ killed (per YPG and SAA)[102][103]

Flag of Rojava.svg DFNS:
6,112 killed

10 killed[108]

111,330[92]–117,049[109] civilian deaths documented by opposition
100 other foreign soldiers killed
(Lebanon 60, Turkey 17 (pre-'16), Iraq 16, Jordan 7)

Total killed:
367,965–560,000 (December 2018 SOHR estimate)[92]
470,000 (February 2016 SCPR estimate)[110]

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

Over 5,116,097 refugees (July 2017 registered by UNHCR)[111]

a Since early 2013, the FSA has been decentralized with their name being arbitrarily used by various rebels.
b Turkey has provided arms support to the rebels since 2011. Since Aug. 2016, Turkey has fought alongside the TFSA in Aleppo governorate against the SDF, ISIL and later the Syrian government.
c Sep.–Nov. 2016, the U.S. fought alongside the TFSA in Aleppo governorate solely against ISIL.[112][113] In 2017–18, the U.S. intentionally attacked the Syrian government 10 times, while in Sep. 2016 it accidentally hit a Syrian base, killing over 100 SAA soldiers. Syria maintains that this was an intentional attack.[114]
d HTS's predecessor (the al-Nusra Front) and ISIL's predecessor (ISI) were allied al-Qaeda branches until April 2013. An ISI-proposed merger of the two into ISIL was rejected by the Al-Nusra Front and al-Qaeda cut all affiliation with ISIL in February 2014.
e Syrian Liberation Front and Tahrir al-Sham's predecessor, al-Nusra Front, were allied under the Army of Conquest from March 2015 to January 2017, while later the SLF joined the National Front for Liberation.
f Number includes Kurdish and ISIL fighters, whose deaths are also listed in their separate columns.[115][92]

g Iraq's military involvement in Syria is limited to airstrikes against ISIL on Syrian territory, which it has carried out in coordination with the Syrian government. It has not clashed with other belligerents in the war, including the Syrian opposition.[1]

The Syrian Civil War (Arabic: الحرب الأهلية السورية‎, al-ḥarb al-ʾahlīyah as-sūrīyah) is an ongoing multi-sided armed conflict in Syria fought between the Ba'athist Syrian Arab Republic led by President Bashar al-Assad, along with domestic and foreign allies, and various domestic and foreign forces opposing both the Syrian government and each other in varying combinations.[116]

The unrest in Syria, part of a wider wave of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, grew out of discontent with the Syrian government and escalated to an armed conflict after protests calling for Assad's removal were suppressed.[117][118] The war is being fought by several factions: The Syrian government and Syrian Armed Forces and its international allies, a loose alliance of majorly Sunni opposition rebel groups (including the Free Syrian Army), the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Salafi jihadist groups (including al-Nusra Front), and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), with a number of countries in the region and beyond being either directly involved or providing support to one or another faction (Iran, Russia, Turkey, the United States, as well as others).

Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah support the Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian Armed Forces militarily, with Russia conducting military operations since September 2015. The U.S.-led international coalition, established in 2014 with the declared purpose of countering ISIL, has conducted airstrikes primarily against ISIL as well as some against government and pro-government targets. Since 2015, the US has also supported the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria and its armed wing, the SDF. Turkey, on the other hand, has become deeply involved against the Syrian government since 2016, actively supporting the Syrian opposition and occupying large swaths of northwestern Syria. Between 2011 and 2017, fighting from the Syrian Civil War spilled over into Lebanon as opponents and supporters of the Syrian Arab Republic travelled to Lebanon to fight and attack each other on Lebanese soil. Furthermore, while officially neutral, Israel has conducted airstrikes against Hezbollah and Iranian forces, whose presence in southwestern Syria it views as a threat.[119]

International organizations have accused virtually all sides involved, including the Ba'athist Syrian government, ISIL, opposition rebel groups, and the U.S.-led coalition[120] of severe human rights violations and of massacres.[121] The conflict has caused a major refugee crisis. Over the course of the war, a number of peace initiatives have been launched, including the March 2017 Geneva peace talks on Syria led by the United Nations, but fighting continues.[122]


Assad government

The secular Ba'ath Syrian Regional Branch government came to power through a successful coup d'état in 1963. For several years Syria went through additional coups and changes in leadership,[123] until in March 1971, Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, declared himself President. The secular Syrian Regional Branch remained the dominant political authority in what had been a one-party state until the first multi-party election to the People's Council of Syria was held in 2012.[124] On 31 January 1973, Hafez al-Assad implemented a new constitution, which led to a national crisis. Unlike previous constitutions, this one did not require that the president of Syria be a Muslim, leading to fierce demonstrations in Hama, Homs and Aleppo organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and the ulama. The government survived a series of armed revolts by Islamists, mainly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, from 1976 until 1982.

Upon Hafez al-Assad's death in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad was elected as President of Syria. Bashar and his wife Asma, a Sunni Muslim born and educated in Britain,[125] initially inspired hopes for democratic reforms; however, according to his critics, Bashar failed to deliver on promised reforms.[126] President Al-Assad maintained in 2017 that no 'moderate opposition' to his rule exists, and that all opposition forces are jihadists intent on destroying his secular leadership; his view was that terrorist groups operating in Syria are 'linked to the agendas of foreign countries'.[127]


The total population in July 2018 was estimated at 19,454,263 people; ethnic groups - approximately Arab 50%, Alawite 15%, Kurd 10%, Levantine 10%, other 15% (includes Druze, Ismaili, Imami, Nusairi, Assyrian, Turkmen, Armenian); religions - Muslim 87% (official; includes Sunni 74% and Alawi, Ismaili, and Shia 13%), Christian 10% (mainly of Eastern Christian churches[128] - may be smaller as a result of Christians fleeing the country), Druze 3%, Jewish (few remaining in Damascus and Aleppo).[129]

Socioeconomic background

Socioeconomic inequality increased significantly after free market policies were initiated by Hafez al-Assad in his later years, and it accelerated after Bashar al-Assad came to power. With an emphasis on the service sector, these policies benefited a minority of the nation's population, mostly people who had connections with the government, and members of the Sunni merchant class of Damascus and Aleppo.[130] In 2010, Syria's nominal GDP per capita was only $2,834, comparable to Sub-Saharan African countries such as Nigeria and far lower than its neighbors such as Lebanon, with an annual growth rate of 3.39%, below most other developing countries.[131]

The country also faced particularly high youth unemployment rates.[132] At the start of the war, discontent against the government was strongest in Syria's poor areas, predominantly among conservative Sunnis.[130] These included cities with high poverty rates, such as Daraa and Homs, and the poorer districts of large cities.


This coincided with the most intense drought ever recorded in Syria, which lasted from 2006 to 2011 and resulted in widespread crop failure, an increase in food prices and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers.[133] This migration strained infrastructure already burdened by the influx of some 1.5 million refugees from the Iraq War.[134] The drought has been linked to anthropogenic global warming.[135][136][137] Adequate water supply continues to be an issue in the ongoing civil war and it is frequently the target of military action.[138]

Human rights

The human rights situation in Syria has long been the subject of harsh critique from global organizations.[139] The rights of free expression, association and assembly were strictly controlled in Syria even before the uprising.[140] The country was under emergency rule from 1963 until 2011 and public gatherings of more than five people were banned.[141] Security forces had sweeping powers of arrest and detention.[142] Despite hopes for democratic change with the 2000 Damascus Spring, Bashar al-Assad was widely regarded as having failed to implement any improvements. A Human Rights Watch report issued just before the beginning of the 2011 uprising stated that he had failed to substantially improve the state of human rights since taking power.[143]


Protests, civil uprising, and defections (March–July 2011)

Initial armed insurgency (July 2011–April 2012)

Kofi Annan ceasefire attempt (April–May 2012)

Third phase of the war starts: escalation (2012-2013))

Rise of the Islamist groups (January–September 2014)

US intervention (September 2014–September 2015)

Russian intervention (September 2015–March 2016), including first partial ceasefire

Aleppo recaptured; Russian/Iranian/Turkish-backed ceasefire (December 2016 – April 2017)

Syrian-American conflict; de-escalation Zones (April 2017–June 2017)

ISIL siege of Deir ez-Zor broken; CIA program halted; Russian forces permanent (July 2017–Dec. 2017)

Army advance in Hama province and Ghouta; Turkish intervention in Afrin (January–March 2018)

Douma chemical attack; U.S.-led missile strikes; Southern Syria offensive (April 2018–August 2018)

Idlib demilitarisation; Trump announces US withdrawal; Iraq strikes ISIL targets (September–December 2018)

ISIL attacks continue; US states conditions of withdrawal (January 2019–present)

Advanced weaponry and tactics

Chemical weapons

Sarin, mustard agent and chlorine gas have been used during the conflict. Numerous casualties led to an international reaction, especially the 2013 Ghouta attacks. A UN fact-finding mission was requested to investigate alleged chemical weapons attacks. In four cases the UN inspectors confirmed use of sarin gas.[144] In August 2016, a confidential report by the United Nations and the OPCW explicitly blamed the Syrian military of Bashar al-Assad for dropping chemical weapons (chlorine bombs) on the towns of Talmenes in April 2014 and Sarmin in March 2015 and ISIS for using sulfur mustard on the town of Marea in August 2015.[145]

The United States and the European Union have accused the Syrian government of conducting several chemical attacks. Following the 2013 Ghouta attacks and international pressure, the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons began. In 2015 the UN mission disclosed previously undeclared traces of sarin compounds in a "military research site".[146] After the April 2017 Khan Shaykhun chemical attack, the United States launched its first attack against Syrian government forces.

Cluster bombs

Syria is not parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions and does not recognize the ban on the use of cluster bombs. The Syrian Army is alleged to have begun using cluster bombs in September 2012. Steve Goose, director of the Arms Division at Human Rights Watch said "Syria is expanding its relentless use of cluster munitions, a banned weapon, and civilians are paying the price with their lives and limbs", "The initial toll is only the beginning because cluster munitions often leave unexploded bomblets that kill and maim long afterward."[147]

Thermobaric weapons

Russian thermobaric weapons, also known as "fuel-air bombs", have been used by the government side during the war. On 2 December 2015, The National Interest reported that Russia was deploying the TOS-1 Buratino multiple rocket launch system to Syria, which is "designed to launch massive thermobaric charges against infantry in confined spaces such as urban areas."[148] One Buratino thermobaric rocket launcher "can obliterate a roughly 200 by 400 metres (660 by 1,310 feet) area with a single salvo".[149] 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.[150] 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.[151] In August 2013, the BBC reported on the use of napalm-like incendiary bombs on a school in northern Syria.[152]

Anti-tank missiles

Several types of anti-tank missiles are in use in Syria. Russia has sent 9M133 Kornet, third-generation anti-tank guided missiles to the Syrian Government whose forces have used them extensively against armour and other ground targets to fight Jihadists and rebels.[153] U.S.-made BGM-71 TOW missiles are one of the primary weapons of rebel groups and have been primarily provided by the United States and Saudi Arabia.[154] The U.S. has also supplied many Eastern European sourced 9K111 Fagot launchers and warheads to Syrian rebel groups under its Timber Sycamore program.[155]

Ballistic missiles

In June 2017, Iran attacked ISIL targets in the Deir ez-Zor area in eastern Syria with Zolfaghar ballistic missiles fired from western Iran,[156] in the first use of mid-range missiles by Iran in 30 years.[157] According to Jane's Defence Weekly, the missiles travelled 650–700 kilometres.[156]


Syrian Arab Republic and allies

A number of sources have emphasized that as of at least late 2015/early 2016 the Syrian government was dependent on a mix of volunteers and militias rather than the Syrian Armed Forces.[158][159]

Syrian Armed Forces

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

Before the uprising and war broke out, the Syrian Armed Forces were estimated at 325,000 regular troops and 280,000–300,000 reservists.[citation needed] Of the regular troops, 220,000 were 'army troops' and the rest in the navy, air force and air defense force. Following defections as early as June 2011, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that by July 2012, tens of thousands of soldiers had defected, and a Turkish official estimated 60,000.[citation needed]

National Defense Force

The Syrian NDF was formed out of pro-government militias. They receive their salaries and military equipment from the government,[160] and number around 100,000 troops.[161] The force acts in an infantry role, directly fighting against rebels on the ground and running counter-insurgency operations in coordination with the army, who provides them with logistical and artillery support. The force has a 500-strong women's wing called "Lionesses of National Defense" which operates checkpoints.[162] NDF members, like regular army soldiers, are allowed to loot the battlefields (but only if they participate in raids with the army), and can sell the loot for extra money.[160] Sensing that they depend on the largely secular government,[163] many of the militias of Syrian Christians (like Sootoro in Al-Hasakah) fight on the Syrian government's side[164] and seek to defend their ancient towns, villages and farmsteads from ISIL (see also Christian Militias in Syria).


The Shabiha are unofficial pro-government militias drawn largely from Syria's Alawite minority group. Since the uprising, the Syrian government has been accused of using shabiha to break up protests and enforce laws in restive neighborhoods.[165] As the protests escalated into an armed conflict, the opposition started using the term shabiha to describe civilians they suspected of supporting Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government and clashing with pro-opposition demonstrators.[166] The opposition blames the shabiha for the many violent excesses committed against anti-government protesters and opposition sympathizers,[166] as well as looting and destruction.[167] In December 2012, the shabiha were designated a terrorist organization by the United States.[168]

Bassel al-Assad is reported to have created the shabiha in the 1980s for government use in times of crisis.[169] Shabiha have been described as "a notorious Alawite paramilitary, who are accused of acting as unofficial enforcers for Assad's government";[170] "gunmen loyal to Assad",[171] and, according to the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, "semi-criminal gangs comprised of thugs close to the government".[171] Despite the group's image as an Alawite militia, some shabiha operating in Aleppo have been reported to be Sunnis.[172] 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.[173]


In February 2013, former secretary general of Hezbollah, Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli, confirmed that Hezbollah was fighting for the Syrian Army,[174] which in October 2012, General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah had still denied was happening on a large scale,[175] except to admit that Hezbollah fighters helped the Syrian government "retain control of some 23 strategically located villages [in Syria] inhabited by Shiites of Lebanese citizenship".[176] Nasrallah said that Hezbollah fighters have died in Syria doing their "jihadist duties".[176]

In 2012 and 2013, Hezbollah was active in gaining control of territory in the Al-Qusayr District of Syria,[177] by May 2013 publicly collaborating with the Syrian Army[178][179] and taking 60 percent of Qusayr by the end of 14 May.[178] In Lebanon, there have been "a recent increase in the funerals of Hezbollah fighters" and "Syrian rebels have shelled Hezbollah-controlled areas."[178] As of 14 May 2013, Hezbollah fighters were reported to be fighting alongside the Syrian Army, particularly in the Homs Governorate.[180] Hassan Nasrallah has called on Shiites and Hezbollah to protect the shrine of Sayida Zeinab.[180] President Bashar al-Assad denied in May 2013 that there were foreign fighters, Arab or otherwise, fighting for the government in Syria.[181]

On 25 May 2013, Nasrallah announced that Hezbollah was fighting in Syria against Islamic extremists and "pledged that his group will not allow Syrian militants to control areas that border Lebanon".[182] 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."[179] According to independent analysts, by the beginning of 2014, approximately 500 Hezbollah fighters had died in the Syrian conflict.[183] On 7 February 2016, 50 Hezbollah fighters were killed in a clash by the Jaysh al-Islam near Damascus. These fighters were embedded in the SAA formation called Army Division 39.[184]


Bodies of Iranian casualties return to Kermanshah, August 2016

Iran continues to officially deny the presence of its combat troops in Syria, maintaining that it provides military advice to Assad's forces in their fight against terrorist groups.[185] Since the civil uprising phase of the Syrian civil war, Iran has provided the Syrian government with financial, technical, and military support, including training and some combat troops.[186][187][188] Iran and Syria are close strategic allies. Iran sees the survival of the Syrian government as being crucial to its regional interests.[188][189] Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, was reported to be vocally in favor of the Syrian government.[187]

By December 2013 Iran was thought to have approximately 10,000 operatives in Syria.[189] But according to Jubin Goodarzi, assistant professor and researcher at Webster University, Iran aided the Syrian government with a limited number of deployed units and personnel, "at most in the hundreds ... and not in the thousands as opposition sources claimed".[190] Lebanese Hezbollah fighters backed by Tehran have taken direct combat roles since 2012.[189][191] In the summer of 2013, Iran and Hezbollah provided important battlefield support for Syrian forces, allowing them to make advances on the opposition.[191] In 2014, coinciding with the peace talks at Geneva II, Iran has stepped up support for Syrian President Assad.[189][191] The Syrian Minister of Finance and Economy stated more than 15 billion dollars had come from the Iranian government.[192] Islamic Revolutionary Guard 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.[193]

328 IRGC troops, including several commanders, have reportedly been killed in the Syrian civil war since it began.[194]

Foreign Shia militias

Liwa Fatemiyoun fighters during the Palmyra offensive in December 2016

Shia fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan are "far more numerous" than Sunni non-Syrian fighters, though they have received "noticeably less attention" from the media.[195] The number of Afghans fighting in Syria on behalf of the Syrian government has been estimated at "between 10,000 and 12,000", the number of Pakistanis is not known[195] (approximately 15% of Pakistan's population is Shia). The main forces are the liwa' fatimiyun (Fatimiyun Brigade) – which is composed exclusively of Afghans and fights "under the auspices" of Hezbollah Afghanistan[195]—and the Pakistani liwa' zaynabiyun (Zaynabiyun Brigade) formed in November 2015.[195] Many or most of the fighters are refugees, and Iran has been accused of taking advantage of their inability to "obtain work permits or establish legal residency in Iran", and using threats of deportation for those who hesitate to volunteer.[195] The fighters are also paid a relatively high salary, and some have told journalists, that "the Islamic State is a common enemy of Iran and Afghanistan ... this is a holy war," and that they wish to protect the Shia pilgrimage site of Sayyida Zaynab, from Sunni jihadis.[195]


On 30 September 2015, Russia's Federation Council unanimously granted the request by President of Russia Vladimir Putin to permit the use of the Russian Armed Forces in Syria.[196] On the same day, the Russian general Sergey Kuralenko,[197] who represents Russia at the joint information center in Baghdad set up by Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria to coordinate their operations "primarily for fighting IS(Islamic State)",[198][199] arrived at the US Embassy in Baghdad and requested that any U.S. forces in the targeted area leave immediately.[200] An hour later, the Russian aircraft based in the government-held territory began conducting airstrikes against the rebel forces.[201]

In response to the downing of a Syrian government Su-22 plane by a U.S. fighter jet near the town of Tabqah in Raqqa province on 18 June 2017, Russia announced that U.S.-led coalition warplanes flying west of the Euphrates would be tracked by Russian anti-aircraft forces in the sky and on the ground and treated as targets; furthermore, the Russian military said they suspended the hotline (the "deconfliction" line) with their U.S. counterparts based in Al Udeid.[202] Nevertheless, a few days later, the U.S. military stated that the deconfliction line remained open and that Russia had given the U.S. a prior notification of its massive cruise missile strike from warships in the Mediterranean that was conducted on 23 June 2017, despite the fact that the U.S. was not among those countries mentioned as being forewarned in Russia's official report on the strike.[203] On 27 June 2017, U.S. defence minister Jim Mattis told the press: "We deconflict with the Russians; it's a very active deconfliction line. It's on several levels, from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the secretary of state with their counterparts in Moscow, General Gerasimov and Minister Lavrov. Then we've got a three-star deconfliction line that is out of the Joints Chiefs of Staff out of the J5 there. Then we have battlefield deconfliction lines. One of them is three-star again, from our field commander in Baghdad, and one of them is from our CAOC, our Combined Air Operations Center, for real-time deconfliction."[204]

Syrian opposition and allies

Syrian National Coalition and Interim Government

Interim Government

The armed opposition consists of various groups that were either formed during the course of the conflict or joined from abroad. In 2013, the Syrian National Coalition formed the Syrian Interim Government.[205] The minister of defense was to be chosen by the Free Syrian Army.[206] Other Islamist factions are independent from the mainstream Syrian opposition.[citation needed]

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

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. On 11 November 2012 in Doha, the National Council and other opposition groups united as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.[207] The SNC has 22 out of 60 seats of the Syrian National Coalition.[208] 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.[209] 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]".[210]

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

The formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was announced on 29 July 2011 by a group of defecting Syrian Army officers, encouraging others to defect in order to defend civilian protesters from violence by the state and effect government change.[211] By December 2011, estimates of the number of defectors to the FSA ranged from 1,000 to over 25,000.[212] The FSA, initially "headquartered" in Turkey, moved its headquarters to northern Syria in September 2012, and functions more as an umbrella organization than a traditional military chain of command.

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

In March 2012, two reporters of The New York Times witnessed an FSA attack and learned that the FSA had a stock of able, trained soldiers and ex-officers, organized to some extent, but without the weapons to put up a realistic fight.[213]

In April 2013, the US announced it would transfer $123 million in nonlethal aid to Syrian rebels through defected general Salim Idriss, leader of the FSA,[214] who later acknowledged "the rebels" were badly fragmented and lacked military skill. Idriss said he was working on a countrywide command structure, but that a lack of material support was hurting that effort. "Now it is very important for them to be unified. But unifying them in a manner to work like a regular army is still difficult", Idriss said. He acknowledged common operations with Islamist group Ahrar ash-Sham but denied any cooperation with Islamist group al-Nusra Front.[214]

Syrian opposition campaign in support of Syria in 2012

Abu Yusaf, a commander of the Islamic State (IS), said in August 2014 that many of the FSA members who had been trained by United States' and Turkish and Arab military officers were actually joining IS,[215] but by September 2014 the Free Syrian Army was joining an alliance and common front with Kurdish militias including the YPG to fight ISIS.[216]

In October 2015, shortly after the start of Russia's military intervention in Syria, a senior ex-US official was paraphrased as saying "the 'moderates' had collapsed long ago" in a piece by Robert Fisk, who added that many fighters had defected to other rebel groups,[217] while Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov called the FSA "an already phantom structure",[218] but later proclaimed that Russia was ready to aid the FSA with airstrikes against ISIS.[219] On the other hand, in December 2015, according to the American Institute for the Study of War, groups that identify as FSA were still present around Aleppo and Hama and in southern Syria, and the FSA was still "the biggest and most secular of the rebel groups."[220]

By March 2017, the FSA backed by Turkey finished clearing the Islamic State from the north of Syria.[221] After this, they turned to attempting to take over Afrin canton from the YPG.

Syrian Salvation Government

Flag of the Syrian Salvation Government, based in Syrian opposition areas in Idlib

The Syrian Salvation Government is an alternative government of the Syrian Opposition seated within Idlib Governorate. The General Conference, concluded on 11 September 2017, formed a constituent assembly and named a new prime minister. It is seen as illegitimate by the opposition's main Syrian Interim Government.[222]

National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change

Formed in 2011 and based in Damascus, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change is an opposition bloc consisting of 13 left-wing political parties and "independent political and youth activists".[223] It has been defined by Reuters as the internal opposition's main umbrella group.[224] The NCC initially had several Kurdish political parties as members, but all except for the Democratic Union Party left in October 2011 to join the Kurdish National Council.[225] Some have accused the NCC of being a "front organization" for Bashar al-Assad's government and some of its members of being ex-government insiders.[226]

Relations with other Syrian political opposition groups are generally poor. The Syrian Revolution General Commission, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria or the Supreme Council of the Syrian Revolution oppose the NCC calls to dialogue with the Syrian government.[227] In September 2012, the Syrian National Council (SNC) reaffirmed that despite broadening its membership, it would not join with "currents close to [the] NCC".[228] Despite recognizing the Free Syrian Army on 23 September 2012,[229] the FSA has dismissed the NCC as an extension of the government, stating that "this opposition is just the other face of the same coin".[224]

Islamist factions

The Islamic Front (Arabic: الجبهة الإسلامية‎, al-Jabhat al-Islāmiyyah) was a merger of seven rebel groups involved in the Syrian Civil War[43] that was announced on 22 November 2013.[230] The group had about 40,000 fighters.[231] An anonymous spokesman for the group had stated that it will not have ties with the Syrian National Coalition,[232] 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."[233] The group is widely seen as backed and armed by Saudi Arabia.[234]

Salafist factions

In September 2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that extremist Salafi jihadist groups make up 15–25% of rebel forces.[235] 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.[236] These numbers contrast with a report by Jane's Information Group, a defense outlet, claiming almost half of all rebels being affiliated to Islamist groups.[237] British think-tank Centre on Religion and Geopolitics, linked to former British PM Tony Blair, says that 60% of the rebels could be classified as Islamist extremists.[238]

In September 2013, leaders of 13 powerful salafist brigades rejected the Syrian National Coalition and called Sharia law "the sole source of legislation". In a statement they declared that "the coalition and the putative government headed by Ahmad Tomeh does not represent or recognize us". Among the signatory rebel groups were al-Nusra Front, Ahrar ash-Sham and Al-Tawheed.[239]

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

The scene of the October 2012 Aleppo bombings, for which al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility[240]

The al-Qaeda-linked[241] al-Nusra Front, being the biggest jihadist group in Syria, is often considered to be the most aggressive and violent part of the opposition.[242] Being responsible for over 50 suicide bombings, including several deadly explosions in Damascus in 2011 and 2012, it is recognized as a terrorist organization by the Syrian government and was designated as such by United States in December 2012.[243] It has been supported by the Turkish government for years, according to a US intelligence adviser quoted by Seymour Hersh.[244] 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.[245] The leader of al-Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, said that the group would not merge with the Islamic State of Iraq but would still maintain allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda.[246] The estimated manpower of al-Nusra Front is approximately 6,000–10,000 people, including many foreign fighters.[247]

The relationship between the al-Nusra Front and the indigenous Syrian opposition is tense, even though al-Nusra has fought alongside the FSA in several battles and some FSA fighters defected to the al-Nusra Front.[248] The Mujahideen's strict religious views and willingness to impose sharia law disturbed many Syrians.[249] Some rebel commanders have accused foreign jihadists of "stealing the revolution", robbing Syrian factories and displaying religious intolerance.[250] Al-Nusra Front has been accused of mistreating religious and ethnic minorities since their formation.[251] On 10 March 2014, al-Nusra released 13 Christian nuns captured from Ma'loula, Damascus, in exchange for the release of 150 women from the Syrian government's prisons. The nuns reported that they were treated well by al-Nusra during their captivity, adding that they "were giving us everything we asked for" and that "no one bothered us".[252]

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

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)

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

Called Dā'ash or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (abbrv. ISIL or ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria]) made rapid military gains in Northern Syria starting in April 2013 and as of mid-2014 controls large parts of that region, where the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights describes it as "the strongest group".[253] 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[254] and for not tolerating non-Islamist militia groups, foreign journalists or aid workers, whose members it has expelled, imprisoned,[255] or executed. According to Michael Weiss, ISIL has not been targeted by the Syrian government "with quite the same gusto" as other rebel factions.[193]

By summer 2014, ISIL controlled a third of Syria. It established itself as the dominant force of Syrian opposition, defeating Jabhat al-Nusra in Deir Ezzor Governorate and claiming control over most of Syria's oil and gas production.[256]

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.[257] According to IHS Markit, between April 2016 and April 2017, ISIL offensively fought the Syrian government 43% of times, Turkish-backed rebel groups 40% of times, and the Syrian Democratic Forces 17% of times.[258]

ISIL was able to recruit more than 6,300 fighters in July 2014 alone.[259] In September 2014, reportedly some Syrian rebels signed a "non-aggression" agreement with ISIL in a suburb of Damascus, citing inability to deal with both ISIL and the Syrian Army's attacks at once.[260] 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.[261] Having lost nearly half of their territory in Iraq since 2014, many more Islamic State leaders have begun to sell their property and sneak into Syria, further destabilizing the region.[262]

As of December 2017, Russia declared ISIL to be totally defeated within Syria (see Syrian Civil War#Halt to CIA program, ISIL declared defeated, Russian forces in Syria permanent (July 2017–December 2017)).

North Syria Federation (Rojava)

Syrian Democratic Council

The Syrian Democratic Council was established on 10 December 2015 in al-Malikiyah. It was co-founded by prominent human rights activist Haytham Manna and was intended as the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The council includes more than a dozen blocs and coalitions that support federalism in Syria, including the Movement for a Democratic Society, the Kurdish National Alliance in Syria, the Law–Citizenship–Rights Movement, and since September 2016 the Syria's Tomorrow Movement. The last group is led by former National Coalition president and Syrian National Council Ahmad Jarba. In August 2016 the SDC opened a public office in al-Hasakah.[263]

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

Syrian Democratic Forces

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

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are an alliance of mainly Kurdish but also Arab, Syriac-Assyrian, and Turkmen militias with mainly left-wing and democratic confederalist political leanings. They are opposed to the Assad government, but have directed most of their efforts against Al-Nusra Front and ISIL.

The group formed in December 2015, led primarily by the predominantly Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). Estimates of its size range from 55,000[264] to 80,000 fighters.[265] While largely Kurdish, it is estimated that about 40% of the fighters are non-Kurdish.[266] 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.[267]: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.[268] Despite this concession, most Kurds remain opposed to the government, hoping instead for a more decentralized Syria based on federalism.[269] The Syriac Military Council, like many Christian militias (such as Khabour Guards, Nattoreh, and Sutoro), originally formed to defend Christian villages, but joined the Kurdish forces to retake Hasakah from ISIS in late 2015[270] The Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers is an all-female force of Assyrian fighters in north east Syria fighting ISIS alongside other Assyrian and Kurdish units.[271] Before the formation of the SDF, the YPG was the primary fighting force in the DFNS, and first entered this Syrian civil war as belligerent in July 2012 by capturing a town, Kobanî, that until then was under control of the Syrian Assad-government (see Syrian Kurdistan campaign).

On 17 March 2016 the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the SDF,[272] declared the creation of an autonomous federation in northern Syria.[273]

U.S.-led coalition against ISIL

A number of countries, including some individual NATO members, have since September 2014 participated in air operations in Syria that came to be overseen by the Combined Joint Task Force, set up by the US Central Command to coordinate military efforts against ISIL pursuant to their collectively undertaken commitments, including those of 3 December 2014.[274] Those who have conducted airstrikes in Syria include the United States, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France, Jordan, The Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom.[275] Some members are involved in the conflict beyond combating ISIL; Turkey has been accused of fighting against Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq, including intelligence collaborations with ISIL in some cases.[276] According to one intelligence adviser quoted by controversial journalist Seymour Hersh, the conclusion of a "highly classified assessment" carried out by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2013 was that Turkey had effectively transformed the secret US arms program in support of moderate rebels, who no longer existed, into an indiscriminate program to provide technical and logistical support for all elements of the opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.[244]

President Trump, declaring "we have won against ISIS," abruptly announced on December 19, 2018 that the remaining 2,000 American troops in Syria would be withdrawn. Trump made the announcement on Twitter, overruling the recommendations of his military commanders and civilian advisors, with apparently no prior consultation with Congress. Although no timetable was provided, press secretary Sarah Sanders indicated that the withdrawal had begun. After Trump's announcement, the Pentagon and State Department tried to change his mind, with several of his congressional and political allies expressing serious concerns about the sudden move, specifically that it would hand control of the region to Russia and Iran, and abandon America's Kurdish allies.[277][278] The following day, the SDF said that a US pullout would allow ISIL to recover and warned of a military vacuum that would leave the alliance trapped between "hostile parties". The UK, France, Germany all considered the fight against ISIL ongoing.[279]

Foreign involvement

Map of countries surrounding Syria (red) with military involvement
  Countries that support the Syrian government
  Countries that support the Syrian rebels
  Countries that are divided in their support

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.[280] The major parties supporting the Syrian Government are Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. The main Syrian opposition body – the Syrian coalition – receives political, logistic and military support from the United States, Britain and France.[281] Some Syrian rebel groups were supported by Israel and the Netherlands.[282][283]

The pro-government countries 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,[284] in addition to significant political support from Russia.[285]

Some Syrian rebels get training from the CIA at bases in Qatar, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.[286] Under the aegis of operation Timber Sycamore and other clandestine activities, CIA operatives and U.S. special operations troops have trained and armed nearly 10,000 rebel fighters at a cost of $1 billion a year since 2012.[287] 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.[288] It reported that Qatar was offering refugee packages of about $50,000 a year to defectors and family.[288] Saudi Arabia has emerged as the main group to finance and arm the rebels.[289] According to Seymour Hersh, US intelligence estimates that the opposition is financed by Saudi Arabia to the tune of $700 million a year (2014).[244] The designation of the FSA by the West as a moderate opposition faction has allowed it, under the CIA-run programmes,[290][291] to receive sophisticated weaponry and other military support from the U.S., Turkey and some Gulf countries that effectively increases the total fighting capacity of the Islamist rebels.[292][293]

French television France 24 reported that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, with perhaps 3,000 foreign jihadists among its ranks,[294] "receives private donations from the Gulf states."[295] It is estimated ISIL has sold oil for $1M–4M per day principally to Turkish buyers, during at least six months in 2013, greatly helping its growth.[296] The Turkish government has been also accused of helping ISIL by turning a blind eye to illegal transfers of weapons, fighters, oil and pillaged antiquities across the southern border.[297] As of 2015, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are openly backing the Army of Conquest, an umbrella rebel group that reportedly includes an al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front and another Salafi coalition known as Ahrar ash-Sham, and Faylaq Al-Sham, a coalition of Muslim Brotherhood-linked rebel groups.[298][299]

On 21 August 2014, two days after US photojournalist James Foley was beheaded, the U.S. military admitted a covert rescue attempt involving dozens of US Special Operations forces had been made to rescue Americans and other foreigners held captive in Syria by ISIL militants. The rescue attempt is the first known US military ground action inside Syria. The resultant gunfight resulted in one US soldier being injured. The rescue was unsuccessful as the captives were not in the location targeted. On 11 September 2014 the US Congress expressed support to give President Obama the $500 million he wanted to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels. The question of whether the president has authority to continue airstrikes beyond the 60-day window granted by the War Powers Resolution remained unresolved.[300][needs update] On 12 September, US Secretary of State John Kerry met Turkish leaders to secure backing for US-led action against ISIL, but Ankara showed reluctance to play a frontline role. Kerry stated that it was "not appropriate" for Iran to join talks on confronting ISIL.[301]

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.[302] On the other hand, according to Fanack, initial refusal from the West to support the Syrian liberal opposition has contributed to the emergence of extremist Sunni groups. These include ISIL and the Nusra Front, linked to al-Qaeda.[303] American and Turkish militaries announced a joint plan to remove Islamic State militants from a 100-kilometre (60 mi) strip along the Turkish border.[304]

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.[305]

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.[306] Another estimate puts the number of foreign jihadis at 15,000 by early 2014.[307]

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.[308] In December 2015, the Soufan Group estimated a total of 27,000–31,000 foreign fighters from 86 countries had travelled to Syria and Iraq to join extremist groups.[309]

Media coverage

The Syrian Civil War is one of the most heavily documented wars in history, despite the extreme dangers that journalists face while in Syria.[310]

International reactions

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

During the early period of the civil war, The Arab League, European Union, the United Nations,[311] 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.[312] Initially, many Middle Eastern governments expressed support for Assad, but as the death toll mounted, they switched to a more balanced approach by criticizing violence from both government and protesters. Both the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation suspended Syria's membership. Russia and China vetoed Western-drafted United Nations Security Council resolutions in 2011 and 2012, which would have threatened the Syrian government with targeted sanctions if it continued military actions against protestors.[313]

Humanitarian aid

The conflict holds the record for the largest sum ever requested by UN agencies for a single humanitarian emergency, $6.5 billon worth of requests of December 2013.[314] 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.[315]

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.[316] The primary framework for this coordination is the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP) which appealed for US$1.41 billion to meet the humanitarian needs of Syrians affected by the conflict.[317] Official United Nations data on the humanitarian situation and response is available at an official website managed by UNOCHA Syria (Amman).[318] UNICEF is also working alongside these organizations to provide vaccinations and care packages to those in need.

US aid to Syrian opposition forces, May 2013

USAID and other government agencies in US delivered nearly $385 million of aid items to Syria in 2012 and 2013. The United States has provided food aid, medical supplies, emergency and basic health care, shelter materials, clean water, hygiene education and supplies, and other relief supplies.[319] Islamic Relief has stocked 30 hospitals and sent hundreds of thousands of medical and food parcels.[320]

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.[321] 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.[322] Syrian refugees make up one quarter of Lebanon's population, mostly consisting of women and children.[323] In addition, Russia has said it created six humanitarian aid centers within Syria to support 3000 refugees in 2016.[324]

The World Health Organization has reported that 35% of the country's hospitals are out of service. Fighting makes it impossible to undertake the normal vaccination programs. The displaced refugees may also pose a risk to countries to which they have fled.[325] 400,000 civilians are isolated by the fighting in eastern Ghouta, resulting in acutely malnourished children according to the United Nations Special Advisor, Jan Egeland, who urges the parties for medical evacuations. 55,000 civilians are also isolated in Berm where they have last seen humanitarian relief in the early summer.[326] 494 individuals are awaiting medical evacuations.[327]

Financial information on the response to the SHARP and assistance to refugees and for cross-border operations can be found on UNOCHA's Financial Tracking Service. As of 19 September 2015, the top ten donors to Syria were United States, European Commission, United Kingdom, Kuwait, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Japan, UAE, and Norway.[328]



Total deaths over the course of the conflict in Syria (18 March 2011 – 18 October 2013) based on data from the Syrian National Council[329]

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."[330] Four months later, the UN's updated figure for the death toll had reached 80,000.[331] On 13 June 2013, 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.[332][333] 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.[334]

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.[335] 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.[92] In addition, UNICEF reported that over 500 children had been killed by early February 2012,[336] and another 400 children have been reportedly arrested and tortured in Syrian prisons;[337] 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.[338] In mid-October 2012, the opposition activist group SOHR reported the number of children killed in the conflict had risen to 2,300,[339] and in March 2013, opposition sources stated that over 5,000 children had been killed.[340] In January 2014, a report was released detailing the systematic killing of more than 11,000 detainees of the Syrian government.[341]

Wounded civilians arrive at a hospital in Aleppo, October 2012

On 20 August 2014, a new U.N. study concluded that at least 191,369 people have died in the Syrian conflict.[342] The UN thereafter stopped collecting statistics, but a study by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research released in February 2016 estimated the death toll to be 470,000, with 1.9m wounded (reaching a total of 11.5% of the entire population either wounded or killed).[343]


Formerly rare infectious diseases have spread in rebel-held areas brought on by poor sanitation and deteriorating living conditions. The diseases have primarily affected children. These include measles, typhoid, hepatitis, dysentery, tuberculosis, diphtheria, whooping cough and the disfiguring skin disease leishmaniasis. Of particular concern is the contagious and crippling Poliomyelitis. As of late 2013 doctors and international public health agencies have reported more than 90 cases. Critics of the government complain that, even before the uprising, it contributed to the spread of disease by purposefully restricting access to vaccination, sanitation and access to hygienic water in "areas considered politically unsympathetic".[344]

Displacement and refugee migration

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

The violence in Syria caused millions to flee their homes. As of March 2015, Al-Jazeera estimate 10.9 million Syrians, or almost half the population, have been displaced.[345] 3.8 million have been made refugees.[345] As of 2013, 1 in 3 of Syrian refugees (about 667,000 people) sought safety in Lebanon (normally 4.8 million population).[346] Others have fled to Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq. Turkey has accepted 1,700,000 (2015) Syrian refugees, half of whom are spread around cities and a dozen camps placed under the direct authority of the Turkish Government. Satellite images confirmed that the first Syrian camps appeared in Turkey in July 2011, shortly after the towns of Deraa, Homs, and Hama were besieged.[347] In September 2014, the UN stated that the number of Syrian refugees had exceeded 3 million.[348] According to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Sunnis are leaving for Lebanon and undermining Hezbollah's status. The Syrian refugee crisis has caused the "Jordan is Palestine" threat to be diminished due to the onslaught of new refugees in Jordan. Additionally, "the West Bank is undergoing emigration pressures which will certainly be copied in Gaza if emigration is allowed".[349] Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III Laham claims more than 450,000 Syrian Christians have been displaced by the conflict.[350] As of September 2016, the European Union has reported that there are 13.5 million refugees in need of assistance in the country.[351]

Human rights violations

Victims of the Ghouta chemical attack

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".[352]

According to three international lawyers,[353] 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.[354] Experts said this evidence was more detailed and on a far larger scale than anything else that had emerged from the then 34-month crisis.[355]

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.[356][357] 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.[356][358] 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.[359]

ISIS forces have been accused by the UN of using public executions, amputations, and lashings in a campaign to instill fear. "Forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham have committed torture, murder, acts tantamount to enforced disappearance and forced displacement as part of attacks on the civilian population in Aleppo and Raqqa governorates, amounting to crimes against humanity", said the report from 27 August 2014.[360]

Enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions have also been a feature since the Syrian uprising began.[361] An Amnesty International report, published in November 2015, accused the Syrian government of forcibly disappearing more than 65,000 people since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War.[362] According to a report in May 2016 by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 60,000 people have been killed since March 2011 through torture or from poor humanitarian conditions in Syrian government prisons.[363]

In February 2017, Amnesty International published a report which accused the Syrian government of murdering an estimated 13,000 persons, mostly civilians, at the Saydnaya military prison. They said the killings began in 2011 and were still ongoing. Amnesty International described this as a "policy of deliberate extermination" and also stated that "These practices, which amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, are authorised at the highest levels of the Syrian government."[364] Three months later, the United States State Department stated a crematorium had been identified near the prison. According to the U.S., it was being used to burn thousands of bodies of those killed by the government's forces and to cover up evidence of atrocities and war crimes.[365] Amnesty International expressed surprise at the claims about the crematorium, as the photographs used by the US are from 2013 and they did not see them as conclusive, and fugitive government officials have stated that the government buries those its executes in cemeteries on military grounds in Damascus.[366] The Syrian government denied the allegations.

ISIL and al-Qaeda executions

On 19 August, American journalist James Foley was executed by ISIL, who claimed it was in retaliation for the United States operations in Iraq. Foley was kidnapped in Syria in November 2012 by Shabiha militia.[367] ISIL also threatened to execute Steven Sotloff, who was kidnapped at the Syrian-Turkish border in August 2013.[368] There were reports ISIS captured a Japanese national, two Italian nationals, and a Danish national as well.[369] Sotloff was later executed in September 2014. At least 70 journalists have been killed covering the Syrian war, and more than 80 kidnapped, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.[370] On 22 August 2014, the al-Nusra Front released a video of captured Lebanese soldiers and demanded Hezbollah withdraw from Syria under threat of their execution.[371]

Sectarian threats

Map of Syria's ethno-religious composition in 1976

The successive governments of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad have been closely associated with the country's minority Alawite religious group,[372] an offshoot of Shia, whereas the majority of the population, and most of the opposition, is Sunni. Alawites started to be threatened and attacked by dominantly Sunni rebel fighting groups like al-Nusra Front and the FSA since December 2012 (see Sectarianism and minorities in the Syrian Civil War#Alawites).

A third of 250,000 Alawite men of military age have been killed fighting in the Syrian civil war.[373] In May 2013, SOHR stated that out of 94,000 killed during the war, at least 41,000 were Alawites.[374]

Many Syrian Christians reported that they had fled after they were targeted by the anti-government rebels.[375] (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."[376]

As militias and non-Syrian Shia—motivated by pro-Shia sentiment rather than loyalty to the Assad government—have taken over fighting the opposition from the weakened Syrian Army, fighting has taken on a more sectarian nature. One opposition leader has alleged that the Shia militias often "try to occupy and control the religious symbols in the Sunni community to achieve not just a territorial victory but a sectarian one as well"[377]—allegedly occupying mosques and replacing Sunni icons with pictures of Shia leaders.[377]

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights human rights abuses have been committed by the militias including "a series of sectarian massacres between March 2011 and January 2014 that left 962 civilians dead".[377]

Crime wave

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

As the conflict has expanded across Syria, many cities have been engulfed in a wave of crime as fighting caused the disintegration of much of the civilian state, and many police stations stopped functioning. Rates of theft increased, with criminals looting houses and stores. Rates of kidnappings increased as well. Rebel fighters were seen stealing cars and, in one instance, destroying a restaurant in Aleppo where Syrian soldiers had been seen eating.[378] 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.[379]

Local National Defense Forces commanders often engaged "in war profiteering through protection rackets, looting, and organized crime". NDF members were also implicated in "waves of murders, robberies, thefts, kidnappings, and extortions throughout government-held parts of Syria since the formation of the organization in 2013", as reported by the Institute for the Study of War.[380]

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.[165] 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.[165]

Cultural heritage

In January 2018 Turkish air strikes have seriously damaged an ancient Neo-Hittite temple in Syria's Kurdish-held Afrin region. It was built by the Arameans in the first millennium BC.[381]

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

As of March 2015, the war has affected 290 heritage sites, severely damaged 104, and completely destroyed 24. Five of the six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Syria have been damaged.[345] Destruction of antiquities has been caused by shelling, army entrenchment, and looting at various tells, museums, and monuments.[382] 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.[383]

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.[384]

In 2014 and 2015, following the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, several sites in Syria were destroyed by the group as part of a deliberate destruction of cultural heritage sites. In Palmyra, the group destroyed many ancient statues, the Temples of Baalshamin and Bel, many tombs including the Tower of Elahbel, and part of the Monumental Arch.[385] The 13th-century Palmyra Castle was extensively damaged by retreating militants during the Palmyra offensive in March 2016.[386] ISIL also destroyed ancient statues in Raqqa,[387] and a number of churches, including the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Deir ez-Zor.[388]

The war has inspired its own particular artwork, done by Syrians. A late summer 2013 exhibition in London at the P21 Gallery showed some of this work, which had to be smuggled out of Syria.[389]


In June 2014, members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) crossed the border from Syria into northern Iraq, and took control of large swaths of Iraqi territory as the Iraqi Army abandoned its positions. Fighting between rebels and government forces also spilled over into Lebanon on several occasions. There were repeated incidents of sectarian violence in the North Governorate of Lebanon between supporters and opponents of the Syrian government, as well as armed clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli.[390]

Starting on 5 June 2014, ISIL seized swathes of territory in Iraq. As of 2014, the Syrian Arab Air Force used airstrikes targeted against ISIL in Raqqa and al-Hasakah in coordination with the Iraqi government.[391]

Peace efforts

Syria peace talks in Vienna, 30 October 2015

During the course of the war, there have been several international peace initiatives, undertaken by the Arab League, the United Nations, and other actors.[392] The Syrian government has refused efforts to negotiate with what it describes as armed terrorist groups.[393] On 1 February 2016, the UN announced the formal start of the UN-mediated Geneva Syria peace talks[394] that had been agreed on by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Vienna. On 3 February 2016, the UN Syria peace mediator suspended the talks.[395] On 14 March 2016, Geneva peace talks resumed. The Syrian government insisted that discussion of Bashar-al-Assad's presidency "is a red line", however Syria's President Bashar al-Assad said he hoped peace talks in Geneva would lead to concrete results, and stressed the need for a political process in Syria.[396]

A new round of talks between the Syrian government and some groups of Syrian rebels concluded on 24 January 24, 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan, with Russia, Iran and Turkey supporting the ceasefire agreement brokered in late December 2016.[397] The Astana Process talks was billed by a Russian official as a complement to, rather than replacement, of the United Nations-led Geneva Process talks.[397] On 4 May 2017, at the fourth round of the Astana talks, representatives of Russia, Iran, and Turkey signed a memorandum whereby four "de-escalation zones" in Syria would be established, effective of 6 May 2017.[398][399]


While the war still ongoing, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad claimed that Syria will be able to rebuild the war-torn country on its own. As of July 2018, the reconstruction is estimated to cost a minimum of US$400 billion. Assad claims to be able to loan this money from friendly countries, Syrian diaspora and the state treasury.[400] Iran has expressed interest in helping rebuild Syria.[401] International donors have been suggested as one financier of the reconstruction.[402] As of November 2018, reports emerged that rebuilding efforts had already started. It was reported that the biggest issue facing the rebuilding process is the lack of building material and a need to make sure the resources that do exist are managed efficiently. The rebuilding effort have so far remained at a limited capacity and has often been focused on certain areas of a city, thus ignoring other areas inhabited by disadvantaged people.[403]

Another aspect of the post war years will be how to repatriate the millions of refugees. The Syrian government has put forward a law commonly known as "law 10", which could strip refugees of property, such as damaged real estate. There are also fears among some refugees that if they return to claim this property they will face negative consequences, such as forced conscription or prison. The Syrian government has been criticized for using this law to reward those who have supported the government. However, the government denies this and has expressed that it wants the return of refugees from Lebanon.[404][405] In December 2018, it was also reported that the Syrian government has started to seize property under an anti-terrorism law, which is affecting government opponents negatively, with many losing their property. Some people's pensions have also been cancelled.[406]




Video games

See also


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Further reading

External links


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