History of the Syrian Civil War

A poster of Syria's president Bashar al-Assad at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus, Jan. 14 2012. Photo by Voice of America Middle East correspondent Elizabeth Arrot.

By Jullian Aiden Bravo

The conflict in Syria is no doubt a complete mess. Thousands of civilians have been killed and millions have fled the country since the start of its civil war. But to understand how the country reached a crumbling state, one must understand the history leading up to the war.

Chart courtesy of Futuretrillionaire

The war-ravaged country of Syria has seen an estimated 450,000 people killed since the start of its civil war in 2011. The country lay in ruin from attacks by rebel forces backed by U.S. airstrikes, pro-Assad forces supported by the Russian military and terror groups such as the Islamic State, which took advantage of the country’s instability and declared an Islamic caliphate in 2014. Other countries such as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia also are involved in the war. According to the European Union, an estimated 11 million Syrians fled the ongoing violence, and 13.5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance within the country. In total, the U.S. has conducted 4,901 airstrikes in Syria, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. A ceasefire deal was arranged by the U.S. and Russia, but like preceding ceasefires, this one came to an inevitable end.

- Sources: The European Union, iamsyria.org

PART I: A Powder Keg And a Match:
Since the 1940s, there has been tension between two groups: 1) The Ba’ath Party—a secular and nationalist group—and 2) The Muslim Brotherhood—a religious and conservative group. The Ba'ath Party, led by Alawites, is currently the ruling party in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood regards the Alawite group as heretical and animosity between the two often ensued in violence.

An example of the worst clash is the 1982 conflict in the Syrian city of Hama, a focal point for pro-Muslim Brotherhood support. Prior to the conflict, former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad destabilized the country by intervening in the Lebanese civil war. Following the intervention, secular and liberal protestors called for democratic reforms while the Muslim Brotherhood began its terror operations against Ba’ath authorities. Hafez fought violence with violence, and in 1980, it became a crime to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. However violence continued despite government repression.

In 1982, an army unit was ambushed while conducting a city search in Hama and an Islamist insurgency began. In response to the uprising, Hafez ordered a city invasion lasting three weeks. The siege included airstrikes, relentless bombardment, and—though contested—torture and use of poison gas. The violence in 1982 put a temporary end to resistance.

When Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, his son, Bashar al-Assad, took office. When resistance surfaced again, Hama was once more a center of protest. The city came under opposition control for six weeks in 2011 until government forces retook the city. The violence under Hafez was inherited by his son Bashar. If Syria was a powder keg, the Ba'ath and Muslim Brotherhood was the match.

- Source: Opposing Viewpoints: Syria


Secretary Kerry meets with Turkish Foreign Minister Sinirlioglu, Saudi Foreign Minister al-Jubeir, and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov before their meeting on Syria

PART II: Superpowers at Play:
In 2013, U.S. intelligence reveled that Bashar used chemical weapons against his own people. Many civilians­—men, women and children—were injured or killed. President Obama condemned the attack, calling it “the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century.” The 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibits the use of chemical or biological weapons. In response to the violation of international protocol, Obama said military action should be taken against Bashar.

“This attack is an assault on human dignity,” Obama said in 2013. “It also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Photo courtesy of Fabio Rodriques Pozzebom.

To the U.S., the idea of a transitional government in Syria is supported, but at the moment, it sees Assad as a war criminal who needs to go. The U.S. believes Bashar must never have a role in the forming of a transitional government.

And while the U.S. is against Bashar, another government—miles away in Moscow—is supporting it. The Kremlin has been Syria's ally for years. Russia also has commercial interests with the country and a critical naval port serving as Russia's sole Mediterranean naval base. And while the U.S. and Russia have their differences, the countries do share a common goal of eliminating the terrorist threat.

- Sources: Whitehouse.gov, U.S. Department of Defense, United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs


PART III: Ceasefire?
The U.S. and Russia arranged a seven-day ceasefire deal that began Sep. 12 and ended Sep. 19. The deal was to allow humanitarian convoys to provide aid to civilians. During the ceasefire, however, both sides accused one another of violating the deal.

In one instance, a U.S. airstrike bombed a Syrian base, killing 62 Syrian forces, wounding 100 and granting the Islamic State an opportunity to overrun the base. U.S. officials claim that the pilots believed they were targeting the Islamic State. Russia denounced the attack, accusing the U.S. of supporting terrorism. In a another instance, the Syrian government was accused by the U.S of violating the ceasefire deal by preventing humanitarian aid from reaching the city of Aleppo.

Violations from both sides of the war led up to the inevitable end of the weeklong ceasefire. The Syrian government announced Sep. 19 that the deal had ended. That same day, a United Nations humanitarian convoy was hit with an airstrike in the Aleppo province, 32 people—including 12 aid workers. Russia and Syria deny striking the convoy though U.S. officials believe Russia carried out the attack.

- Sources: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today

Map of the Syrian conflict as of May 2016.