Syria’s Civil War

Syria lede

It’s the land where the Arab Spring collided with a dictatorship determined to stay in power. For most of the last four decades, Syria had stability imposed on a mix of religious and ethnic groups living among ancient Roman cities, hilltop Crusader castles and ornate mosques. Then the country erupted into a civil war fought by an array of participants. Secular Syrians, Islamist radicals and foreign Sunni jihadists battle forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah militia, and — at times — each other.

The Situation

After almost four years of sectarian violence that has killed 200,000 people and led to the rise of Islamic State, the conflict shows no sign of ending. In September 2014, the U.S. and its allies began airstrikes in Syria as part of a military campaign to destroy the extremist group. The U.S. military also plans to begin training and equipping moderate Syrian opposition forces, bolstering a covert CIA program and the backing of allies such as Saudi Arabia. The U.S. overcame a reluctance to intervene openly inside Syria after Islamic State seized a swath of territory in Syria and northern Iraq with a rampage of terror that included the beheading of two American journalists and a British aid worker. The violence has leveled cities and included massacres of women and children, creating more than 3.2 million refugees and displacing about 8 million people within Syria. The rebels hold some cities and large swaths of the countryside, though neither side appears close to a decisive military victory. Another round of peace talks began in Moscow Jan. 26, though there was little prospect of progress.

Source: CIA; Dr. M. Izady, Columbia University, Gulf/2000
Source: CIA; Dr. M. Izady, Columbia University, Gulf/2000

The Background

Once a French-run mandate, Syria became independent after World War II. By 1963, the Arab nationalist Baath party was ruling the country and a party member, Hafez al-Assad, seized power in 1970. (His son Bashar took over after his death in 2000.) That placed the Alawite minority, whose faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, in power in a country where more than 70 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. Syria’s 22 million people include sizable Christian, Druze and Kurdish communities. In 1982, Hafez used tanks and artillery against residential neighborhoods to crush a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama, killing an estimated 25,000 people. Using his father’s playbook, Bashar crushed peaceful protests in March 2011 and unleashed attack aircraft, helicopter gunships, artillery and tanks against lightly armed rebels. The U.S. and Russia worked together to get UN inspectors to tally and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons after the U.S. threatened to bomb Syria following a poison gas attack in August 2013. Assad is being armed by Iran and Russia, which has used its UN Security Council veto four times to protect the regime. Russia maintains its only military base outside the former Soviet Union at Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus.

The Argument

With no sign that Assad is willing to give up the fight and Islamic State holding territory, there’s not a lot of optimism that peace will return anytime soon to Syria. Rebel groups are vying for power and there’s concern the U.S.-led airstrikes might ultimately help Assad, who may now be considered less of a threat to regional stability than Islamic State. The UN’s deployment of unarmed observers to the country in 2012 didn’t halt the violence, and Lebanon and Somalia serve as reminders of states where peacekeepers weren’t able to stabilize a country in a civil war. There’s also concern that if foreign governments supply more-advanced weapons to the rebels, they might fall into the hands of the Islamic State or other al-Qaeda-inspired groups, which could turn them against the U.S. and its allies. Russia, for its part, says its goal isn’t to keep Assad in power, but rather to keep Syria secular, independent and, most importantly, intact.

The Reference Shelf

  • Syrian Accountability Project website and interactive battle maps of positions in Syria.
  • The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad group, reports casualties on both sides of the conflict.
  • Facts & Figures from Bloomberg News on the combatants and politicians in the Syrian civil war.
  • The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work to dismantle Syria’s stockpile, has a special section on the country on its website.
  • Patrick Seale’s 1989 book “Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East,” provides insight into the regime and its role in the region.

First Published Oct. 24, 2013

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Glen Carey in Riyadh at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

Leah Harrison Singer at