Syria's Civil War Started A Decade Ago. Here's Where It Stands

Mar 15, 2021
Originally published on March 15, 2021 2:17 pm

On March 15, 2011, protesters inspired by successful "Arab Spring" uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, rallied in Syria to call for an end to their own repressive regime.

But unlike the governments that had earlier more or less collapsed in the face of popular uprisings and armed insurrections, Syria's President Bashar Assad was not about to go quietly. Days after the initial protests, Syrian soldiers fired on demonstrators, killing dozens in what would become the opening shots in a seemingly endless civil war that has reverberated far beyond the Middle Eastern country's borders.

The conflict has not only pitted Assad against a band of rebels, but drawn the U.S., Iran, Russia and Turkey, among others, into a complex proxy war. Along the way, it has brought out ethnic and sectarian divides, helped foster a revival of the extremist Islamic State militia, displaced millions of people and left hundreds of thousands — mostly civilians — dead.

While "much of the hot fighting in Syria has subsided, you still have massive displacement of people," Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tells NPR.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, speaking to journalists recently, said that while Syria "has fallen off the front page," it "remains a living nightmare."

"It is impossible to fully fathom the extent of the devastation in Syria, but its people have endured some of the greatest crimes the world has witnessed this century," he said.

Ordinary Syrians have borne the brunt. The Damascus government and its allies have hit hospitals and bakeries with airstrikes – measures designed to terrorize the local population, in an apparent attempt to weaken the opposition's grip on the area.

The regime has also dropped "barrel bombs" from helicopters directly onto civilian homes.

Fared al-Hor, a Syrian journalist living in Idlib, a city held by the rebel opposition, calls it a "scorched earth" strategy by which Assad's forces try to retake an area by forcing everyone to leave – rebels and civilians, alike.

"In 2016 my home was destroyed by shelling. [The regime] kept shelling and shelling until everyone left and the area was empty," he tells NPR. "I believe we were hit by more than 400 rockets in a single night."

Syrians stand next to a painted mural on the remains of a building depicting Iran as an octopus dropping bombs, in the rebel-held town of Binnish in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib, on March 11.
Rami Al Sayed / AFP via Getty Images

A web of interests

Although narrow in scope, last month's U.S. airstrikes against an obscure militia group in eastern Syria illustrates just a portion of the web of competing interests in the region that have made the civil war so intractable.

The U.S. strikes were a response to an earlier rocket attack on an airfield in Erbil, Iraq, that killed a Filipino contractor and wounded six others – including a Louisiana National Guard soldier. That attack was claimed by Awliya al Dam, or Guardian of the Blood Brigades – a Shiite group believed to be based in neighboring Iraq and backed by Tehran.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement that the airstrikes destroyed facilities inside Syria "used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kait'ib Hezbollah and Kait'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada."

The Kremlin — a staunch ally of Syria since the early days of the Cold War – called the U.S. attack "outrageous."

President Biden, asked by a reporter what message he was trying to send to Iran with the U.S. strikes, said they should be a warning not to support militia groups that threaten U.S. interests or personnel.

The choice by the Biden administration to strike at the group in Syria rather than in Iraq — to spare blowback on the U.S.-backed government there — is just the latest example of how outside powers have used Syria as a convenient venue to settle scores.

A fighter from Turkish-backed forces of the Free Syrian Army is shown in October 2019 firing a heavy machine gun during military training maneuvers in preparation for an anticipated Turkish incursion targeting Syrian Kurdish fighters, near Azaz, in north Syria.
AP

The belligerents

For the Syrian president, it's been a decade-long fight for survival. The 2011 "Arab Spring" uprising that inspired the rebellion against the Syrian regime had already taken down leaders elsewhere. Many predicted that Assad would be next. Instead, by brutally crushing dissent, he has confounded his critics and clung to power.

"Right now, the regime has the upper hand, controlling most of the country," Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy tells NPR. At this point, he says, "Assad thinks he's won. So, to him, there's really no need to negotiate."

As peaceful protests became armed insurrection, rebel opposition militias formed under the banner of the "Free Syrian Army." They fought with the stated purpose of ousting the Syrian regime.

But the militias were plagued by factional infighting and disputes over a limited supply of weapons provided by Western countries and Gulf states. As the years progressed, these militias increasingly became proxy armies for their international backers, turning away from the fight against Assad to focus on ISIS.

As Turkey took greater control of northern Syria and these militias, they turned their focus to fighting Kurdish fighters, whom Turkey considers terrorists. In recent years, Turkey on the opposition side, and Russia on the regime side, have both hired thousands of Syrians as mercenaries to fight in other conflicts in which these countries are invested including Libya and Azerbaijan.

Syria is one of Iran's few allies in the region. Their "mutual contempt" for Saddam Hussein's Iraq helped bring them together in the 1980s and their "mutual fear and loathing of the United States and Israel has helped sustain their alliance," Karim Sadjadpour wrote in 2013 for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

"Iran initially supported the popular uprisings in the Middle East—calling them 'Islamic awakenings' —when it appeared that only Western-allied Arab autocracies in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen were vulnerable to collapse," Sadjadpour, who is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, wrote. "In Syria, however, Tehran has offered unwavering support to the embattled al-Assad regime and denounced the Syrian opposition as 'terrorists' supported by a motley alliance of Gulf Arab states, Israel, and the United States."

Iran-backed Hezbollah, meanwhile, has been a key player in the fight on the ground among the pro-Assad forces.

"Since the beginning of 2013, Hezbollah fighters have operated openly and in significant numbers across the border alongside their Syrian and Iraqi counterparts," according to Marisa Sullivan, writing for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Institute for the Study of War. "They have enabled the regime to regain control of rebel-held areas in central Syria and have improved the effectiveness of pro-regime forces."

"The impact of Hezbollah's involvement in Syria has been felt not just on the battlefield, where the regime now has momentum in many areas, but also in Lebanon where growing sectarian tensions have undermined security and stability," Sullivan writes.

From the beginning, Washington's interests have been somewhat varied and seemingly at cross-purposes — at once opposed to Assad and wanting to stabilize the region, but at the same time wanting to annihilate the Islamic State, which was a key force arrayed against the regime.

In 2012, reports emerged that Syria was preparing to use chemical weapons against combatants and civilians. Alarmed, then-President Barack Obama and his advisors warned Assad's regime that their use constituted a "red line" for the administration. But the Obama administration quickly backed off the threat. Some reporting has suggested that the administration relented on Syria to keep alive secret talks with Iran to contain its nuclear ambitions.

Under Obama, the CIA began funneling an estimated $1 billion worth of arms annually to anti-Assad forces.

By 2014, however, Washington's focus was instead on eliminating a resurgent Islamic State, which had joined the fight against Assad but by then was carrying out attacks on the U.S. and other Western nations.

Within a year, the U.S. had boots on the ground in Syria.

The United Kingdom, France and other countries entered the fray along with the U.S. in a campaign against the ISIS Caliphate in Syria. The extremist group — also known as ISIL, or Daesh — held about a third of Syria at its zenith there, according to the Wilson Center.

By the end of 2017, the Caliphate had suffered a devastating reversal, losing all but a fraction of the territory it had acquired.

"The U.S. and its international allies were in it to kill ISIS, not to bring down Assad," Byman says.

"The U.S. could have intervened more forcefully from the beginning," he adds. "However, the Obama administration was concerned about 'winning' and then owning a shattered country: Iraq 2.0."

The Trump administration mostly aimed to reduce U.S. involvement in Syria, not only cutting support for the Kurds, but promising to withdraw U.S. troops — a move that prompted a backtrack amid an outcry from fellow Republicans.

Moscow entered the conflict in support of the Syrian regime, using airstrikes to target ISIS and other extremist groups, as well as the Free Syrian Army.

Since the 1950s, the Soviet Union and later Russia has been a staunch ally of Syria, supplying its army with the latest "Made in Russia" weapons. By the mid-2000s, the ties between Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had only recently come to power, and Assad — who himself had not long before assumed the leadership mantle from his father, Hafez Assad — were growing stronger.

"Putin began to think about developing Russia as a great power again," Richard Reeve, director of the Sustainable Security Programme at the Oxford Research Group, a security think-tank, told the BBC in 2017.

In the great power game that continued well after the end of the Cold War, Putin saw the U.S. as a perennial rival.

Turkey has been engaged in an ongoing war of its own against an insurgency in the south, where ethnic Kurds — who occupy lands across the region that straddle national borders — are fighting for an independent state.

In 2012, Kurds in northern and northeastern Syria seized on the disarray caused by the civil war to unilaterally establish an autonomous region that borders Turkey. In the past, they have benefited from U.S. support in exchange for their fighters being a key element in the fight against ISIS. However, in 2017, the Trump administration, apparently bowing to pressure from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced that it was ending that cooperation.

Turkey sees the seeming success of the Syrian Kurds as a threat, fearing that they could lend support to Kurdish insurgents, known as the PKK, in Turkey. Relations between Syria and Turkey are further complicated by a history predating the civil war in which Damascus backed the PKK against Turkey.

To neutralize the threat posed by the Kurds, Turkey has backed Islamist extremist groups fighting them, including some formerly affiliated with al-Qaida.

"Various opposition factions, some of which enjoy Turkey's support, remain active in north and northeastern Syria," Byman says. "Part of the area is controlled by Kurdish-dominated forces, which work with the United States, fear Turkey, and have an uneasy modus vivendi with the Syrian regime."

For the Gulf states, by contrast, "it was mostly about containing Iran, though many resented Assad for other reasons and saw most of the opposition as deserving of support," he says.

The war "quickly became a sectarian conflict, and this colored the lens for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states," Byman says, noting that Syria had been a "cable news" war that was watched closely by ordinary citizens throughout the Arab world, who were able to bring pressure on their governments.

Syrians wait to leave the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp, which holds relatives of alleged Islamic State group fighters, in the Syrian northeastern al-Hasakeh governorate, in December.
Delil Souleiman / AFP via Getty Images

Humanitarian crisis

After a decade of conflict, Syria remains the world's largest refugee crisis, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. More than half of the country's people are displaced — including 5.5 million refugees living primarily in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, and another 6.7 million internally displaced inside Syria. Two-thirds of those displaced are women and children, the U.N. says.

"The situation is beyond horrible," Byman says.

In the last few months alone, heavy rain and flooding in Syria's northwest have destroyed tents, disrupted food supplies and left tens of thousands homeless, according to the UNHCR.

"Healthcare centers and hospitals, schools, utilities, and water and sanitation systems are damaged or destroyed," World Vision writes in a report. Historic landmarks and once-busy marketplaces have been reduced to rubble. War broke the social and business ties that bound neighbors to their community.

"It was a hard ten years," Ahlam Rachid, a 52-year-old aid worker at World Vision in Syria's Idlib province, tells NPR.

"We're all tired. People here all say they're tired, but despite this they're living and fighting. Despite all the difficulties here, it's still better than living under regime-controlled areas," she says.

The refugee crisis has had a huge impact on Syria's neighbors, where many of the displaced have arrived. But it also goes beyond the region, Dunne, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says.

"I don't think it's an exaggeration to say the spillover of the Syrian conflict essentially destabilized Europe," she says.

"Initially, Syrian refugees went to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. But, from there, many of them went on to settle in Europe," she says. "The political effects of that were significant. You saw the rise of right-wing governments, Islamophobia, nationalism, and a lot of tensions inside the European Union."

What's next?

Volunteers clear the Old Market district of debris in Aleppo, Syria, in 2019. Years of fighting have left many sections of Aleppo destroyed.
Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

Today Syria is a devastated country. While the regime may have won back much of the country, it is itself much weakened. Many of those who fought for Assad have become war lords who now control their own fiefdoms, semi-independently of Damascus.

After so many years of war and tightening Western sanctions, the economy has collapsed. Syrians in regime-held areas struggle to procure even the basics. There are shortages of fuel and electricity. And even in the capital, Damascus, many spend hours a day waiting in line to buy the basic staple, bread.

"The Syrian people are being crushed from both sides; from the Assad regime and by Western sanctions," says Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and whose wife is from Syria.

Proponents of sanctions say these are a necessary tool to force Assad to the negotiating table and weaken his ally Iran. Landis says they are harming Syria's people while only driving the country into greater reliance on Iran.

"These ensconce Iran further into Syria," he says. "It makes Syrians so poor that they become more dependent on the government and its allies."

The United Nations continues to push for peace. "The message is clear: There is no military solution for the Syrian crisis," Secretary-General Guterres said in remarks to the press recently. "The only possible solution remains political. This man-made humanitarian nightmare for the long-suffering Syrian people must stop."

But for now, the Syrian regime shows no real signs of coming to the table. It continues to keep up the pressure on Turkish-backed opposition groups who control northern parts of the country. These areas are also home to millions of civilians, many of them internally displaced and living in camps. And in Syria's northeast, attacks by ISIS are on the rise again.

"As long as the various players can get resources, the fighting will be hard to stop," Byman says.

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