The Syrian conflict began in 2011 as an internal uprising. It is now a proxy war between major global powers. The war has killed more than 300,000 Syrians and torn 11 million people from their homes. Forces allied to President Bashar al-Assad have fought against moderate rebels and more radical groups opposed to his rule. This conflict has led to the rise of ISIS, drawn in some of the world’s largest militaries, and changed the region forever.
Bashar al-Assad has managed to hold on to power throughout the conflict. The Assad family have led the ruling Arab Socialist Baath party since 1971. While most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, the Assads are Alawites, a sect of the Shia Muslim minority. Assad graduated from medical school in 1988 before moving to London. When his brother Bassel died in a car accident in 1994, Assad’s father, Hafez the then President called him home. Bashar al-Assad joined the Syrian military academy, rising through its ranks as he prepared for the presidency. After his father died of a heart attack, in July 2000, Bashar inherited power unchallenged. Bashar was less popular than his younger brother and father and many Syrians viewed him as weak and inept.
Once he took office, he promised political and economic reform. He suppressed the ‘Damascus Spring’, a short lived period of social debate and political activism that followed the death of his father. Over the next decade, people grew disillusioned as Assad increasingly turned Syria into an ever-more draconian police state that cracked down on dissent.
At the beginning of 2011, pro-democracy protests swept across Tunisia and Egypt, in what became known as the Arab Spring. By March the wave of protests reached Syria, sparked by the arrest of young Syrians accused of painting anti-Assad graffiti. Peaceful, anti-government protests spread to other Syrian cities, like Homs, which became known as the “capital of the revolution.” Assad blamed the protests on foreign conspirators whom he said wanted to disrupt the country’s stability. He tried to address the unrest in April by releasing political prisoners and ending 48 years of emergency rule-closing state security courts and allowing peaceful protest.
However, soon Assad turned violent. Soldiers began detaining and firing on protesters, killing thousands of people, according to the UN. The Syrian opposition began to group together and fight back, as internal leaders put pressure on Assad to step down. In January 2012, he vowed to stamp out terrorism and foreign-backed rebels with an iron fist. As civil war dragged on, UN envoy Kofi Annan devised a peace plan. It ultimately failed and he resigned in August 2012. The same month US president Barack Obama warned Assad not to cross the red line of using chemical weapons. The regime was not just carrying at barrel bomb attacks on Syrian rebels. Soon, reports of chemical warfare began to emerge. A UN commission reported three likely chemical weapons attacks by the regime in 2013, the deadliest in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in August.
Regime forced dropped sarin gas on opposition-held territory; estimates suggested more than 1000 people were killed. The attack pushed the international community to act. In September 2013 Russia and the US struck a deal to ensure Syria would destroy its chemical weapon. The UN announced the program’s completion in June 2014 but later reported that regime chemical attacks had continued. In 2016, a UN investigative team blamed Syria for at least three chemical weapons attacks in 2014 and 2015. Allegations of armed rebel groups carrying out chemical attacks have also surfaced, with right groups accusing both sides of committing war crimes.
Syria had given people reason to worry about chemical weapons for the first time in many years, it had also given rise to a threat potentially far more serious. Assad released known extremists from prison and looked the other way as those jihadis grew more influential. Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front, formed at the beginning of 2012. It gained strong support in Syria and jihadis from Iraq crossed into the country to help. In 2013, some of the Nusra Front joined with Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State in Iraq to form the militant group known as ISIS. From January 2014, ISIS captured cities across Iraq and Syria and announced the establishment of what they called a caliphate, a purported state for the world’s Muslims with its capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa.
Baghdadi declared himself leader of the caliphate. Thousands of foreign citizens flocked to join ISIS. Driven by a kind of medieval theology, ISIS became known for carrying out beheadings and lashings against citizens living in the caliphate, and for its slick propaganda videos showing execution of hostages. The rise of the militant group helped Assad to portray his regime as the lesser of two evils. Syria had seemingly reached the point of no return. The war had contributed to the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. Almost 5 million people have fled Syria, around half of them entering Turkey and more than a million entering Lebanon. Another 6.6 million Syrians are internally displaced.
Aid agencies and neighboring countries are still struggling to cope with the fallout. Smugglers receive large sums of money in return for taking desperate Syrians to Europe’s shores. Thousands of refugees have died en route. German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened her country’s borders in summer of 2015, ultimately taking in more than a million asylum seekers that year. After a three-year old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up lifeless on a Turkish beach in September 2015, his photograph was shared around the world. It pushed other European leaders to address the crisis.
Events in Syria soon dragged international powers into the conflict. In early August 2015, Obama authorized airstrikes in Iran to help the Yazidis, a minority Kurdish groups stranded on a mountain after ISIS overran the region. Later that month, ISIS militants murdered American journalist James Foley. Soon after, US led coalition launched airstrikes in Syria. Washington, who had been supporting moderate rebels, now backed the Kurds in northern Syria. They were seen as the most effective fighting force against ISIS. At the same time, the Sunni states of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey provided support to Syrian rebels battling Assad. After four years of war, Assad’s military was weakened, but the turning point came in September 2015 when Russia entered the conflict. The regime in Damascus was now supported by Moscow, as well as by Iran giving Assad the upper hand. Moscow began conducting air raids against the opponents of the regime, particularly in the northern city of Aleppo. The US criticized Russia for strikes that killed hundreds of civilians, accusing Moscow of undermining hopes of a ceasefire. The regime soon managed to recapture parts of Aleppo from rebels.
In July 2016, 250,000 people remain trapped under siege in the rebel held eastern districts of the city. Russian jets continued to pound Aleppo, claiming that they were targeting terrorists. In September 2016, Syrian troops along with Shia launched a ground offensive on Aleppo. reports surfaced of regime soldiers carrying out on the spot execution of civilian men, women and children in the city. In December, both sides agreed an evacuation deal, facilitated by Turkey and Russia, and the city fell back under the government control. The recapture of Aleppo was Assad’s most significant victory.
When Donald Trump became president in January 2017, he inherited a problem that had tormented his predecessor. Trump has described Assad as “bad” but has condemned the Obama administration for backing rebels who he says, could be ISIS. Trump has also said he is open to partnering with Moscow to fight the militants.