The Syrian civil war, also commonly known as the Syrian uprising, is an ongoing armed conflict in Syria between forces loyal to the Syrian Ba’ath Partygovernment and those seeking to oust it. The conflict began on 15 March 2011 with nationwide demonstrations, as part of the wider protest movement known as the Arab Spring. Protesters demanded the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has held the presidency in Syria since 1971, as well as the end to nearly five decades of Ba’ath Party rule.
In April 2011, the Syrian Army was deployed to quell the uprising, and soldiers were ordered to open fire on demonstrators. After months of military sieges, the protests evolved into an armed rebellion. Opposition forces, mainly composed of defected soldiers and civilian volunteers, became increasingly armed and organized as they unified into larger groups. However, the rebels remained fractured, without organized leadership. The Syrian government characterizes the insurgency as an uprising of “armed terrorist groups and foreign mercenaries”. The conflict has no clear fronts, with clashes taking place in many towns and cities across the country.
The Arab League, United States, European Union, Arab States of the Persian Gulf, and other countries condemned the use of violence against the protesters. The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership because of the government’s response to the crisis, but it sent an observer mission in December 2011, as part of its proposal for peaceful resolution of the crisis. A further attempt to resolve the crisis was made through the appointment of Kofi Annan as aspecial envoy. On 15 July 2012, theInternational Committee of the Red Crossassessed the Syrian conflict as a “non-international armed conflict” (the ICRC’s legal term for civil war), thus applying international humanitarian law under the Geneva Conventions to Syria.
On 2 January 2013, the United Nationsstated that the war’s death toll had exceeded 60,000; on 12 February, this figure was updated to 70,000. According to various opposition activist groups, between 50,000 and 63,735 people have been killed,of which about half were civilians, but also including 26,110–27,900 armed combatants consisting of both the Syrian Army and rebel forces, up to 2,505 opposition protesters and 1,000 government officials. By October 2012, up to 28,000 people had been reported missing, including civilians forcibly abducted by government troops or security forces. According to the UN, about 1.2 million Syrians have been displaced within the country. To escape the violence, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring countries. In addition, tens of thousands of protesters have been imprisoned and there were reports of widespread torture and psychological terror in state prisons. International organizations have accused both government and opposition forces of severe human rights violations. However, human rights groups report that the majority of abuses have been committed by the Syrian government’s forces, and UN investigations have concluded that the government’s abuses are the greatest in both gravity and scale.
The Ba’ath Party government came to power in 1964 after a successful coup d’état. In 1966, another coup overthrew the traditional leaders of the party, Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar. In 1970, the Defense Minister Hafez al-Assad seized power and declared himself President, a position he would hold until his death in 2000. Since then, the secular Ba’ath Party has remained the dominant political authority in a virtual single-party state in Syria, and Syrian citizens may only approve the President by referendum and – until the government-controlled multi-party 2012 parliamentary election– could not vote in multi-party elections for the legislature.
In 1982, at the height of a six-year Islamist armed insurgency throughout the country, Hafez al-Assad conducted a scorched earth policy against Islamist-held quarters inside the town of Hama to quell an uprising by the Sunni Islamist community, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and others.This ruthless crackdown became known as the Hama massacre, which left tens of thousands – both armed insurgents and civilians – dead, although estimates of the death toll still vary.
The issue of President Hafez al-Assad’s succession prompted the 1999 Latakia protests, when violent protests and armed clashes erupted following the 1998 Syrian People’s Assembly elections. The violent events were an explosion of a long-running feud between Hafez al-Assad and his influential younger brother Rifaat. Two people were killed in fire exchanges between Syrian police and Rifaat’s supporters during a police crackdown on Rifaat’s port compound in Latakia. According to opposition sources, denied by the government, the protests resulted in hundreds dead and injured. Hafez al-Assad died one year later, from pulmonary fibrosis. He was succeeded by his son Bashar al-Assad, who was appointed after a constitutional amendment lowered the age requirement for President from 40 to his then age of 34.
Bashar al-Assad, who speaks English fluently and whose wife is a British-born and British-educatedSunni Muslim, initially inspired hopes for democratic and state reforms; a “Damascus Spring” of intense social and political debate took place from July 2000 to August 2001. The period was characterized by the emergence of numerous political forums or salons, where groups of like-minded people met in private houses to debate political and social issues. Political activists such as Riad Seif, Haitham al-Maleh, Kamal al-Labwani, Riyad al-Turk and Aref Dalila were important in mobilizing the movement. The most famous of the forums were the Riad Seif Forum and the Jamal al-AtassiForum. The Damascus Spring ended in August 2001 with the arrest and imprisonment of ten leading activists who had called for democratic elections and for a campaign of civil disobedience.Opposition renewed in October 2005 when Syrian Christian activist Michel Kilo collaborated with other leading opposition figures to deliver the Damascus Declaration, which criticized the Syrian government as “authoritarian, totalitarian and cliquish” and called for democratic reforms.
The Assad family comes from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam that comprises an estimated 12 percent of the total Syrian population. It has maintained tight control on Syria’s security services, generating resentment among some Sunni Muslims, a sect that makes up about three quarters of Syria’s population. Ethnic minority Syrian Kurds have also protested and complained over ethnic discrimination and denial of their cultural and language rights. When the uprising began,Bouthaina Shaaban, a presidential adviser, blamed individual “radical extremist” Sunni clerics and“takfiri“ preachers for inciting Sunnis to revolt, such as Qatar-based Yusuf al-Qaradawi called for in his heated sermon in Doha on 25 March. The Syrian government allegedly has relied mostly on Alawite-dominated units of the security services to fight the uprising. Assad’s younger brother Maher al-Assad commands the army‘s elite Fourth Armored Division, and his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, was the deputy minister of defense until the latter’s assassination in the 18 July 2012 Damascus bombing. Because the government is dominated by the Alawite sect, it has had to make some gestures toward the majority Sunni sects and other minority populations in order to retain power.
Discontent against the government was strongest in Syria’s poorer and more radical Sunni areas.These included cities with high poverty rates, such as Daraa and Homs, rural areas hit hard by a drought in early 2011, and the poorer districts of large cities. Socioeconomic inequality increased significantly after free market policies were initiated by Hafez al-Assad in his later years, and accelerated after Bashar al-Assad came to power. With an emphasis on the service sector, these policies benefited a minority of the nation’s population, mostly people who had connections with the government, and members of the Sunni merchant class of Damascus and Aleppo. By 2011, Syria was facing a deterioration in the national standard of living and steep rises in the prices of commodities. The country also faced particularly high youth unemployment rates.
he state of human rights in Syria has long been the subject of harsh criticism from global organizations. The country was under emergency rule from 1963 until 2011, effectively granting security forces sweeping powers of arrest and detention.The Syrian government justified this by pointing to the fact that the country has been in a continuous state of war with Israel. After taking power in 1970, Hafez al-Assad quickly purged the government of any political adversaries and asserted his control over all aspects of Syrian society. He developed an elaborate cult of personality and violently repressed any opposition, most notoriously in the 1982 Hama massacre. After his death in 2000 and the succession of his son Bashar al-Assad to the Presidency, it was hoped that the Syrian government would make concessions toward the development of a more liberal society; this period became known as theDamascus Spring. However, Bashar al-Assad is widely regarded to have been unsuccessful in implementing democratic change, with a 2010 report from Human Rights Watch stating that he had failed to substantially improve the state of human rights since taking power, although some minor aspects had seen improvement. All political parties other than the Ba’ath Party have remained banned, thereby leaving Syria a one-party state without free elections.
Rights of free expression, association and assembly were strictly controlled in Syria even before the uprising. The authorities harass and imprison human rights activists and other critics of the government, who are oftentimes indefinitely detained and tortured in poor prison conditions. While al-Assad permitted radio stations to play Western pop music, websites such as Amazon.com,Facebook, Wikipedia and YouTube were blocked until 1 January 2011, when all citizens were permitted to sign up for high speed internet and those sites were allowed. However, a 2007 law requires Internet cafes to record all comments that users post on online chat forums.
Women and ethnic minorities have faced discrimination in the public sector. Thousands of Syrian Kurds were denied citizenship in 1962 and their descendants continued to be labeled as “foreigners” until 2011, when 120,000 out of roughly 200,000 stateless Kurds were granted citizenship on 6 April by a decree of president Bashar al-Assad. Several riots prompted increased tension in Syria’s Kurdish areas since 2004. That year, riots broke out against the government in the northeastern Kurdish-Assyrian town of Qamishli. During a chaotic soccer match, some people raised Kurdish flags and the match turned into a political conflict. In a brutal reaction by Syrian police and clashes between Kurdish and Arab groups, at least 30 people were killed, with some claims indicating a casualty count of about 100 people. Occasional clashes between Kurdish protesters and security forces have since continued.
In December 2010, mass anti-government protests began in Tunisia and later spread across the Arab world, including Syria. By February 2011, revolutions occurred in Tunisia and Egypt, while Libya began to experience a civil war. Numerous other Arab countries also faced protests, with some attempting to calm the masses by making concessions and governmental changes.
Before the uprising in Syria began in mid-March 2011, protests were relatively modest, considering the wave of unrest that was spreading across the Arab world. Syria remained what Al Jazeera described as a “kingdom of silence”, due to strict security measures, a relatively popular president, religious diversity, and concerns over the prospects of insurgency like that seen in neighboring Iraq.
Minor protests calling for government reforms began in January, and continued into March. A “Day of Rage” was called for by activists in Syria to occur on 4 February via social media websites Facebook and Twitter. However, protests failed to materialize within the country itself.
The unrest began on 15 March in the southern city of Daraa, sometimes called the “Cradle of the Revolution”. The city has been straining under the influx of internal refugees who were forced to leave their northeastern lands due to a drought which was exacerbated by the government’s lack of provision. The protests were triggered by the incarceration and torture of several young students, who were arrested for writing anti-government graffiti in the city. Demonstrators clashed with local police, and confrontations escalated on 18 March after Friday prayers. With thousands protesting, the clashes resulted in several civilian deaths. On 20 March, a mob burned down the Ba’ath Party headquarters and other public buildings. Security forces quickly responded, firing live ammunition at crowds, and attacking the focal points of the demonstrations. The two-day assault resulted in the deaths of fifteen protestors.
Meanwhile, minor protests occurred elsewhere in the country. Protesters demanded the release of political prisoners, the abolition of Syria’s 48-year emergency law, more freedoms, and an end to pervasive government corruption. On 16 March, some 200 people gathered in front of the Interior Ministry in Damascus, calling for the release of political prisoners. These events lead to a “Friday of Dignity” on 18 March, when large-scale protests broke out in several cities, including Banias, Damascus, al-Hasakah, Daraa, Deir az-Zor and Hama. Police responded to the protests with tear gas, water cannons, beatings. At least 6 people were killed and many others injured. Over the course of the uprising, protests often gathered after Friday communal prayers at central mosques.
On 25 March, mass protests spread nation-wide, as demonstrators emerged after Friday prayers.Over 100,000 people reportedly marched in Daraa, but at least 20 protesters were reportedly killed. Protests also spread to other Syrian cities, including Homs, Hama, Baniyas, Jasim, Aleppo, Damascus and Latakia. Over 70 protesters in total were reported dead.
As the protests and unrest continued, the Syrian government began launching major military operations to suppress resistance, signaling a new phase in the uprising. On 25 April, Daraa, which had become a focal point of the uprising, was one of the first cities to be besieged by the Syrian Army. An estimated hundreds to 6,000 soldiers were deployed, firing live ammunition at demonstrators and searching house to house for protestors, arresting hundreds. Tanks were used for the first time against demonstrators, and snipers took positions on rooftops. Mosques used as headquarters for demonstrators and organizers were especially targeted. Security forces began shutting off water, power and phone lines, and confiscating flour and food. Clashes between the army and opposition forces, which included armed protestors and defected soldiers, led to the death of hundreds. By 5 May, most of the protests had been suppressed, and the military began pulling out of Daraa, with some troops remaining to keep the situation under control.
During the crackdown in Daraa, the Syrian Army also besieged and blockaded several towns around Damascus. Throughout May, situations similar to those that occurred in Daraa were reported in other besieged towns and cities, such as Baniyas, Homs, Talkalakh, Latakia, and several other towns.After the end of each siege, the violent suppression of sporadic protests in the area continued throughout the following months.
The military crackdown, led by an Alawite government, worsened tensions between Sunnis and Alawites in the country. A 17 May report of claims by refugees coming from Telkalakh on the Lebanese border indicated that sectarian attacks may have been occurring. Sunni refugees said that uniformed Alawite Shabiha militiamen were killing Sunnis in the town of Telkalakh. As the uprising progressed, sectarian elements increasingly emerged from the conflict.
Defections and resistance
When the uprising began in mid-March, many analysts believed that the Syrian government would remain intact, partly due to strict loyalty tests and the fact that most top-position officials belonged to the same sect as Assad, the Alawites. However, in response to the use of lethal force against unarmed protesters, many soldiers and low-level officers began to desert from the Syrian Army. Many soldiers who refused to open fire against civilians were summarily executed by the army. The first defections occurred during the April Daraa operation. The number of defections increased during the following months, as army deserters began to group together to form fighting units. As the uprising progressed, opposition fighters became more well-equipped and organized, and senior military officers and government officials began to defect as well to the opposition. Some analysts stated that these defections were signs of Assad’s weakening inner circle.
The first instance of armed insurrection occurred on 4 June in Jisr ash-Shugur, a city near the Turkishborder in Idlib province. Angry protestors set fire to a building where security forces had fired on a funeral demonstration. Eight security officers died in the fire as demonstrators took control of a police station, seizing weapons. Clashes between protestors and security forces continued in the following days. Some security officers defected after secret police and intelligence agents executed soldiers who refused to shoot civilians. On 6 June, Sunni militiamen and army defectors ambushed an group of security forces heading to the city. More security officers were killed when the city’s security headquarters was overrun; 120 security forces were reportedly killed on that day. In response, the government sent troops supported by 200 military vehicles and helicopter gunships to the city. Fearing a massacre, insurgents and defectors, along with 10,000 residents, fled across the Turkish border.
In June and July, protests continued as government forces expanded operations, repeatedly firing at protesters, employing tanks against demonstrations, and conducting arrests. The towns of Rastan and Talbiseh, and Maarat al-Numaan were besieged in early June. On 30 June, large protests erupted against the Assad government in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. On 3 July, Syrian tanks were deployed to Hama, two days after the city witnessed the largest demonstration against Bashar al-Assad. On 31 July, a nationwide crackdown nicknamed the “Ramadan Massacre” resulted in the death of at least 142 people and hundreds of injuries. Some besieged cities and towns were described as having famine-like conditions.
On 29 July, a group of defected officers announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which would become the main opposition army. Composed of defected Syrian Armed Forces personnel and civilian volunteers, the rebel army seeks to remove Bashar al-Assad and his government from power. This began a new phase in the conflict, with more armed resistance against the government crackdown. The FSA would grow in size, to about 20,000 by December, and to an estimated 40,000 by June 2012.
On 23 August, a coalition of anti-government groups was formed, the Syrian National Council. The group, based in Turkey, attempted to organize the opposition. However, the opposition, including the FSA, remained a fractious collection of political groups, longtime exiles, grass-roots organizers and armed militants, divided along ideological, ethnic or sectarian lines.
Throughout August, Syrian forces stormed major urban centers and outlying regions, and continued to attack protests. On 14 August, the Siege of Latakia continued as the Syrian Navy became involved in the military crackdown for the first time. Gunboats fired heavy machine guns at waterfront districts in Latakia, as ground troops and security agents backed by armor stormed several neighborhoods, causing up to 28 deaths. Throughout the next few days the siege dragged on, with government forces and shabiha militia continuing to fire on civilians in the city, as well as throughout the country. The Eid ul-Fitr celebrations, started in near the end of August, were muted after security forces fired on large demonstrations in Homs, Daraa, and the suburbs of Damascus.
During the first six months of the uprising, the inhabitants of Syria’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, remained largely uninvolved in the anti-government protests. The two cities’ central squares have seen organized rallies of hundreds of thousands in support of president Assad and his government.