December 24, 2018

Syria’s Civil War: The Descent into Horror

Syria likely faces years of instability to come.

By Zachary Laub
Senior Copy Editor/Writer
Council on Foreign Relations


In the seven years since protesters in Syria first demonstrated against the four-decade rule of the Assad family, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed and some twelve million people—more than half the country’s pre-war population—have been displaced. The country has descended into an ever-more-complex civil war: Jihadis promoting a Sunni theocracy eclipsed many opposition forces fighting for a democratic and pluralistic Syria. Regional powers backed various local forces to advance their geopolitical interests on Syrian battlefields. The United States has been at the fore of a coalition conducting air strikes on the self-proclaimed Islamic State, while Turkey, a U.S. ally, has invaded in part to prevent Kurdish forces, the United States’ main local partner in the fight against the Islamic State, from linking up their autonomous cantons. Russia too has carried out air strikes in Syria, coming to the Assad regime’s defense, while Iranian forces and their Hezbollah allies have done the same on the ground.

After a long stalemate, regime forces and their foreign backers have turned the tide in Assad’s favor, capturing two of the last major rebel enclaves, in east Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs. But Syria likely faces years of instability to come. Assad has never been willing to negotiate his way out of power, but his continued rule is unacceptable to millions of Syrians, particularly given the barbarity civilians have faced. Meanwhile, the foreign forces on which he relies will continue to wield power. In the north, Kurds will be unlikely to cede their hard-won autonomy, and the near defeat of the Islamic State has led to a scramble for territory liberated in the country’s east.

Assads’ Rule Breeds Discontent

Hafez al-Assad is welcomed in Moscow by Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin in 1971. Bettmann/Corbis

Hafez al-Assad seized power from a Ba’athist military junta in 1970, centralizing power in the presidency. Assad, who came from the Alawi minority, a heterodox Shia sect that had long been persecuted in Syria and was elevated to privileged positions under the post–World War I French mandate, promoted pan-Arab nationalism.

In February 1982, Hafez ordered the military to put down a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the city of Hama with brute force. Syrian forces killed more than twenty-five thousand there. For the regime’s opponents, Hama would become a rallying cry in 2011. For the regime, it provided Hafez’s son and successor, Bashar, with a template for responding to dissent.

The Assads presided over a system that was not just autocratic but kleptocratic, doling out patronage to bind Syrians to the regime. As the 2011 uprising turned to civil war, many members of minority groups remained loyal to the regime, but so too did some Sunnis, fearing revenge if opposition forces were to take Damascus.

Economic Reforms Upend Syrian Society

President Bashar al-Assad tours the industrial city of Hessya in 2007. (SANA/AP Photo)

Bashar succeeded his father in 2000 pledging reforms. He promised to let markets take the place of the “Arab socialism” touted by the Ba’athist state, upending old patronage networks. He broke up and privatized state monopolies, but the benefits were concentrated among those well-connected with the regime, while the end of subsidies and price ceilings harmed rural peasants and urban laborers. A record-setting drought from 2006 to 2010 exacerbated socioeconomic problems. Mismanaged farmland was rendered fallow and farmers migrated to cities in ever-larger numbers, causing the unemployment rate to surge. 

Arab Uprisings Echo Across Repressed Region

Syrians gather outside Deraa’s main courthouse, which was set on fire by demonstrators demanding freedom and an end to corruption, in March 2011. Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters

The Arab Spring began in December 2010 with the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor decrying corruption. His desperate act inspired protests in Tunisia, and then across the Middle East and North Africa, which forced longtime strongmen in Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt to step down. Inspired by these previously unthinkable events, fifteen boys in the southwestern city of Deraa spray painted on a school wall: “The people want the fall of the regime.” They were arrested and tortured. Demonstrators who rallied behind them clashed with police, and protests spread. Many were calling for something more modest than regime change: the release of political prisoners, an end to the half-century-old state of emergency, greater freedoms, and an end to corruption. Unlike Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Assad responded to protestors immediately, offering just token reforms while directing security services to put down the protests with force.

From Protest Movement to Civil War

People demonstrate against the Assad regime in the besieged town of Al Qsair, near Homs, in January 2012. Alessio Romenzi/Corbis

Anti-regime protests soon spread from Deraa to major cities like Damascus, Homs, and Hama. Events in Deraa offered a preview of what was to come elsewhere: The Syrian army fired on unarmed protestors and carried out mass arrests, both targeting dissidents and indiscriminately sweeping up men and boys, rights monitors reported. Torture and extrajudicial executions were frequently reported at detention centers. Then, in late April, the Syrian army brought in tanks, laying siege to Deraa. The civilian death toll mounted and residents were cut off from food, water, medicine, telephones, and electricity for eleven days. Amid international condemnation, the regime offered some concessions, but also repeated the Deraa method elsewhere where there were protests, at far greater length and cost, leading some regime opponents to take up arms. Local coordinating committees sprang up in villages and urban neighborhoods. Originally established to organize resistance to the regime, many of these committees would take on the role of public administration and service provision.

A Disorganized Opposition Splinters

Members of the Free Syrian Army in January 2012. Alessio Romenzi/Corbis

In July 2011, defectors from Assad’s army announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army, and soon after they began to receive shelter in Turkey. Yet the FSA, outgunned by the regime, struggled to bring its loose coalition under centralized command and control. FSA militias often didn’t coordinate their operations and sometimes had competing interests, reflecting their varied regional backers. With resources scarce, they preyed at times on the very populations they were charged with protecting. Its civilian counterpart was also established in summer 2011, in Istanbul. The Syrian National Coalition claimed to be the government-in-exile of Syria, and the United States, Turkey, and Gulf Cooperation Council countries, among others, soon recognized it as “the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” But the SNC and its successor, the National Coalition, were unable to deliver significant diplomatic or material support to the opposition, and many of the regime’s opponents within Syria accorded it little legitimacy. Rival coalitions began to proliferate, and FSA fighters drifted to Islamist brigades which, with funding and arms from Gulf donors, scored greater battlefield successes against the regime. 

Al-Qaeda and Islamic State Emerge

Islamic State militants pose for a photo posted online in the Yarmouk refugee camp, in the Damascus suburbs. Balkis Press/Sipa via AP Images

The regime’s torture and killing was exploited by al-Qaeda militants eager to capitalize on Syria’s chaos. In January 2012, a group called Jabhat al-Nusra announced itself as al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, and the following month al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri called for Sunnis from around the region to join a jihad against the regime. Jabhat al-Nusra gained Syrian and foreign recruits as it scored greater battlefield successes than rival opposition groups.

In April 2013, a group formed from the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq that called itself the Islamic State of Iraq emerged and exceeded even Jabhat al-Nusra in its brutality. In several months, its forces established control over territory spanning western Syria and eastern Iraq. The ascendance of the Islamic State and other extremists groups fed an increasingly sectarian, zero-sum conflict, and civilians living in the fiefs—as with those of the FSA and pro-regime militias—suffered abuse.

The rise of extremist groups in Syria was, in part, the regime’s own doing, as Assad wanted to present to the world a stark choice between his secular rule and a jihadi alternative. In mid-2011, the regime released hundreds of Islamist militants from prisons to discredit the rebellion. They would form extremist groups like Ahrar al-Sham, which espoused a sectarian agenda.

Civilians as Targets

A father holds his dead child in Aleppo in October 2012. MAYSUN/epa/Corbis

Both Assad’s forces and rebel groups have regularly targeted civilians in areas beyond their control. The deaths of some 1,400 civilians from chemical weapons deployed by the Assad regime in the summer of 2013 mobilized world powers to dismantle the regime’s chemical arsenal. However, in the years since, the Syrian government has employed devastating conventional arms that have also caused massive civilian casualties.

The regime has made regular use of sieges and aerial bombardment. These collective-punishment tactics serve dual purposes, analysts say: They raise the costs of resistance to civilians so that they will pressure rebels to acquiesce, and they also prevent local committees from offering a viable alternative to the regime’s governance. In 2016 the UN humanitarian agency said five million people lived in areas that were besieged or otherwise beyond the reach of aid.

The toll has mounted despite a UN Security Council resolution in 2014 aimed at securing humanitarian aid routes. Humanitarian aid became politicized as Assad would grant UN convoys permission to distribute food and medicine in government-held areas while denying them access to rebel-held areas, and rights advocates charged the regime with targeting medical facilities and personnel.

From Domestic Rebellion to Internationalized Civil War

At a Hezbollah rally in the Beirut suburbs, the militant group’s supporters wave flags featuring the faces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Bilal Hussein/AP Photo

The deepening of Syria’s civil war made both pro- and anti-regime forces dependent on external sponsors. As major powers deepened their involvement, Syria has become a battlefield on which the region’s geopolitical rivalries have been fought.

As mounting casualties and desertions weakened Assad’s army, the regime came to rely increasingly on Iran and Russia. Iran, a longtime ally interested in protecting a vital land route to its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, has invested billions in propping up the regime. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps advises Assad’s army and has sustained thousands of casualties. Its volunteer Basij paramilitary force and the foreign Shia militias it has rallied have sustained even more casualties.

Russia, traditionally averse to regime change, has provided Assad with critical diplomatic support. Moscow has cited what it calls an illegal intervention in Libya and the ensuing chaos there as justification for vetoing measures in the UN Security Council that would have punished the regime. Russia then entered the conflict directly in September 2015 with the deployment of its air force. Though Moscow claimed its air strikes would primarily target the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, analysts said it more often targeted other rebel groups, some backed by the United States and many intermingled with al-Qaeda’s affiliate near the front lines with the regime.  This helped Assad strengthen his control of population centers along the country’s western spine. Opposition forces, too, depend on foreign support. A rapprochement between Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar enabled the formation in March 2015 of the Army of Conquest, which was designed to overcome the lack of coordination among rebel groups in the north and comprises an array of opposition and extremist groups. The United States, too, has provided covert training and arms to opposition forces. But official foreign support for opposition forces has been unsteady and uncoordinated. 

The Kurdish Bid for Autonomy

A YPG base in northern Syria bears signs of rocket fire from a Turkish attack. Soran Qurbani/Demotix/Corbis

Kurds have fought to consolidate a de facto autonomous territory in northern Syria, which has made them alternately friends and foes of Arab opposition groups. The Islamic State’s siege of Kobani in the fall of 2014 was a turning point; the battle to oust the militant group highlighted the effectiveness of the Kurds’ People’s Protection Units (YPG) against the Islamic State. U.S. forces aided in ousting Islamic State fighters from Kobani and continue to provide arms and air support to the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces. But the YPG’s priority has turned to consolidating autonomous Kurdish cantons in the country’s north, a region the Kurds refer to as Western Kurdistan. YPG fighters, interested in protecting fellow Kurds, have been accused of ethnic cleansing in mixed Arab-Kurd areas. The YPG is tied to the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Washington has designated a terrorist organization. In August 2016, Turkey deployed its military along the Syrian border to both roll back Islamic State forces and, in tandem with Syrian Arab and Turkmen fighters, block Kurds from linking up their two cantons in a contiguous territory. The United States considers Turkey, a NATO ally, a vital partner in the war against the Islamic State, and it faces the dilemma of trying not to alienate either partner.

The Diplomatic Thicket

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hold a news conference in Vienna in October 2015 amid frustrated efforts to find a political solution to Syria’s civil war. Brendan Smialowski/Pool/Reuters

UN-backed attempts to mediate a conflict-ending political transition in Syria have been stymied by differences among veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council and other powers. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey aligned with the United States against the Assad regime, while Iran joined Russia in backing it. Russia and China have cast multiple vetoes on Syria-related Security Council resolutions, and the threat of veto has deterred or watered down humanitarian and human rights measures, reinforcing a view of the body as toothless. A June 2012 multilateral document known as the Geneva Communiqué has become the basis for negotiations. It calls for “a Syrian-led political process” beginning with the establishment of a transitional governing body “formed on the basis of mutual consent.” But multiple rounds of peace talks to implement these principles have yielded little. A core issue is Assad himself: He has no interest in negotiating his own political demise and retains Russia’s and Iran’s backing, while the possibility of Assad staying on in a transition is anathema to the opposition.  

With dim prospects for a negotiated settlement, the United States has instead focused on counterterrorism activities while calling for de-escalation. Some analysts say a number of rebels came to question U.S. commitments and even joined extremist groups due to factors such as the apparent U.S. resignation to Assad remaining in power, its halting support for vetted armed groups, and air strikes in Idlib and Aleppo Provinces that at times have been indistinguishable from those by Syrian and Russian forces.

Meanwhile, Iran, Russia, and Turkey have taken the diplomatic initiative, sidelining the UN-led process and excluding the United States. But though they agree in principle on maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity and achieving a “lasting cease-fire,” their agreements to work through their respective local allies to de-escalate the conflict have come to naught.

Refugee Crisis Brings EU to a Breaking Point

Volunteers help a Syrian refugee on the southeastern Greek island of Lesbos. Manu Brabo/AP Photo

More than half of Syria’s pre-war population of twenty-two million has been displaced by the violence, with more than six million displaced internally and another six million fleeing abroad. Neighboring countries have borne the heaviest burden: Lebanon, a country of only 4.5 million people, is hosting more than one million Syrians, and Jordan, with more than half a million, has begun blocking would-be refugees from crossing the border. Turkey is host to nearly three million Syrians, straining government resources. With limited work and educational opportunities, and little hope that they will soon be able to return safely home, more than one million refugees have journeyed to Europe, contributing to what the UN has called the largest migrant and refugee crisis since World War II. Disputes over how to settle refugees across the EU have thrown the bloc into disarray, threatening to bring an end to the Schengen system of open borders on the continent and contributing to the rise of anti-immigrant, far-right parties. The EU struck an agreement with Turkey to block their northward migration, but it is jeopardized after an attempted coup attempt. As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan purged his political opponents and sought to curry nationalists’ support for consolidating executive power in the presidency, the EU suspended accession talks, leading Erdogan to threaten to once again “open the gates.”

East Aleppo Falls to Pro-Regime Forces

Residents flee the al-Salihin nieghborhood in east Aleppo after regime troops retook the area in December 2016. (George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images)

The regime captured the last rebel-held enclave of east Aleppo in December 2016 after a prolonged siege and bombardment. The city, Syria’s economic powerhouse, had been contested since 2012, and its capture marked a stark reversal of fortune for the opposition; in 2013, rebels had nearly encircled the regime-controlled western part of the city. But the campaign also demonstrates how dependent Assad has become on his foreign backers, both the Russian air force and Shiite militias, as his own forces have weakened.

Scores of civilians were massacred in the battle’s last days in what a UN spokesman called “a complete meltdown of humanity.” With their defeat in Aleppo, rebels were isolated to northern Idlib province, parts of the south, and small enclaves around Damascus and Homs. But even with control of major population centers, Assad will have trouble re-establishing authority over a country that has been fragmented by warlords and overrun by foreign forces, and is likely to face a persistent insurgency, analysts say.

Islamic State Decimated, Stoking New Conflicts

Turkish and Free Syrian Army soldiers took control of Afrin in March 2018. Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The U.S.-led coalition, along with the mixed Kurdish-Arab Syria Defense Forces (SDF), has rolled back the Islamic State to a handful of small pockets. The Pentagon says the group’s territory has been reduced to about 2 percent of what it once held in an area between Iraq and Syria. By some estimates, the Islamic State in Syria has shrunk to a few thousand militants on the run, but with that came high civilian casualties, the destruction of population centers, and mass displacement.

As the common threat is diminished, simmering rivalries have taken on new intensity in early 2018. Turkish forces have occupied Afrin, a predominantly Kurdish enclave, and threatened to take Manbij, which is held by local forces allied with the Kurdish YPG. Amid the Turkish escalation, SDF fighters have been diverted from the fight against the Islamic State, redeploying to Afrin. Risks of military confrontation between Russia and the United States heighten as their warplanes report close calls and their local partners clash on the ground.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald J. Trump, who campaigned against military occupations and nation-building, consented to keeping in eastern Syria some two thousand troops to help stabilize territory taken back from the Islamic State and obstruct an Iranian land bridge to Lebanon. That figure does not include all U.S. special operations forces in Syria nor troops and contractors based outside Syria’s borders.

Assad’s Brutal Endgame

Syrian children receive medical attention after a chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus, in April 2018. White Helmets/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Assad’s forces, with the assistance of his foreign backers, have besieged and bombarded the rebels’ final redoubts, imperiling hundreds of thousands of civilians. Government authorities regularly offer rebel fighters and civilians the choice of surrendering—risking conscription or arrest—or being bused to northern Idlib Province. Idlib’s population has ballooned, even as the province, largely controlled by the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, came under attack from government troops and Russian warplanes.

After regime forces attacked the Idlib town of Khan Sheikhoun with the nerve agent sarin in the spring of 2017, President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on a regime air base. Despite this, a series of chemical attacks were reported in the enclave of Eastern Ghouta, just outside Damascus, in early 2018, culminating in an apparent sarin attack in early April. In all, eighty-five chemical attacks have been reported since 2013, the majority attributed to the government.

For all of the regime’s latest successes, Assad is hardly the master of his country’s fate. Iran, Russia, Turkey, and the United States all have troops based in Syria, and Israel regularly strikes Syrian territory, targeting Iranian military infrastructure and weapons destined for Hezbollah.

Originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations under the terms a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.