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Country Report: The Syrian Civil War

Compiled by Kelly Dobso

Background Information

In Syria, young people, inspired by the Arab Spring pro-democracy protests, began organizing in Dara’a, a city near Jordan’s border. Quickly, anti-regime protests spread to cities such as Idlib and Douma. To suppress protests, the Assad government attempted to cut communication channels in May of 2011. At the beginning of June, protests filled the streets after a video of the torture and killing of a 13-year-old boy, Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, went viral and quickly became a symbol of government oppression. Between March and June of that year, over 1,000 civilians were killed during the crackdowns. The killing of Hamza and the subsequent political unrest signified the onset of the Syrian civil war as tensions increasingly worsened with no end in sight for protests.

The Actors Involved

The human rights abuses and inflamed sectarian tensions drove various Arab opposition groups to form. In July of 2011, seven military officers defected and founded the Free Syrian Army (FSA). ISIS entered the conflict in 2013 when its leader, Aku Bakr al-Baghdadi, moved to Syria and changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or Syria. Indiscriminate killing, massive unrest, and the occupation of towns and territories by ISIS ultimately drove the exodus of millions of refugees to surrounding countries. Several groups joined the conflict to primarily fight against ISIS, including Jordan, Lebanon, Hezbollah, Iran, and Iraq.

Turkey, the neighbor of Syria to the north, began its involvement in 2011 after civilian unrest fueled by the military crackdown in Syria. Erdogan’s administration supported the movement to remove Assad. The Ankara government is also a member of NATO and an ally of the United States. Turkey has fought in the conflict with non-Kurdish groups such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) against the Assad regime and ISIS.

The United States backs the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance composed of Kurdish and Arab militias. However, the Turkish government strongly opposes the Kurds, and subsequently, the SDF, owing to the ethnic group declaring their claim to statehood partially within Turkey’s border. Within the Syrian conflict, the United States supported the Kurds as the primary opposition against ISIS until President Trump removed most U.S. forces from Syria in October of 2019, effectively abandoning them.

On the other side, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah are Assad’s closest allies. Since 2016, Government forces were able to retake land previously held by ISIS in 2017 with Russia’s assistance. Hezbollah and Iran have both deployed fighters to help Assad and launched attacks on ISIS in hopes that Syrian government forces can reclaim territory. Overall, Assad and his allies weakened ISIS’s power, and land occupation was drastically reduced while government forces and allies recaptured land that ultimately strengthened Assad’s rule.

Government-Led Repression

Syrian civilians faced forms of violent political dissent led by their leader and military to suppress their opposition against Assad and calls for democracy during the Arab Spring protests. In July 2012, the Assad government dropped barrel bombs into the urban areas of Aleppo after rebel groups captured the city. The recurring attacks on civilian-populated areas caused mass destruction of homes, hospitals, hundreds of thousands of deaths, and the displacement of millions. Women and children were indiscriminately killed in pro-government raids of small villages such as Houla.

The Assad regime carried out large-scale chemical weapon attacks on thousands of civilians. On August 21, 2013, the first documented attack in Damascus’s Ghouta suburbs was later confirmed to be sarin gas. Over 1,400 civilians died in the attack, including 426 children. The Damascus attack remains the deadliest, but subsequent sizeable attacks in Idlib and Aleppo are responsible for hundreds of injuries and deaths. Since then, the Global Public Policy Institute has counted 330 chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime, using chlorine gas bombs, sarin, and sulfur mustard gas. The Institute also found that these attacks were used mainly on population centers rather than rebel positions on the frontlines.

The Result: A Massive Refugee Crisis

The intense brutality and force that the Assad regime has demonstrated against Syrian civilians and the presence of a constant warfare environment fueled a massive refugee crisis. The civil war resulted in the mass displacement of people with two main groups needing assistance: internally displaced persons (IDP’s) and refugees. Currently, there are 6.2 million IDP’s within Syria’s borders and around 6 million refugees elsewhere. For Syrians, 3.6 million refugees have found safety in Turkey. Surrounding countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq collectively hold around two million refugees.

As a result of the refugee crisis, Turkey has faced massive domestic political challenges related to the refugee crisis. The influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey has filled their twenty-two refugee camps to maximum capacity, while the remaining refugees, around eighty-five percent or three million, moved into urban areas to find work. The political burden of hosting nearly four million refugees has drastically shifted public opinion and impacted its society, making it imperative that other NATO states alleviate this issue.

Countries near Syria disproportionately host the most refugees and experience the social burden of a rapid influx of hundreds of thousands of people that need assistance. This has created a regional collective action problem as few European states besides Germany and Sweden have offered refuge. The United States, under the Trump administration, drastically cut annual refugee acceptance to 18,000. While public opinion in many European states has shifted towards an anti-immigration stance, the European Union proposed a recent migration policy incentivizing refugee resettlement to states by offering money for each acceptance.

Recent Developments and Problems

A decade into the civil war, states and non-state actors continue to launch attacks within Syria. The United States, under the Biden administration, launched retaliatory attacks in Syria, targetting Iranian-backed militias in response to an attack on the Iraqi airport of Erbil. Reports state 22 died in the attack. Israel has conducted various airstrikes at Iranian targets in recent months also. Conflict within Syria subsided in intensity due to COVID-19; however, the ongoing disputes between Iran and the United States’ allies, such as Israel, may foster additional airstrikes.



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