Syria’s Civil War


It’s the land where the Arab Spring collided with a dictatorship determined to stay in power. Now Syria has become the Middle East’s biggest humanitarian disaster in decades. For most of the last 40 years, Syria’s leaders imposed stability on the country’s mix of religious and ethnic groups. Then civil war erupted, drawing in an array of outsiders. Secular Syrians, homegrown 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 more than four years of violence that has killed an estimated 250,000 people and led to the rise of Islamic State, the conflict shows no sign of ending. Assad’s forces have lost control of more than half of Syria’s territory. Russia, which has been sending troops and weapons to bolster Assad, began airstrikes inside Syria on Sept. 30. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has proposed an international coalition to fight Islamic State that would include the U.S., the Syrian government and the country’s opposition groups. His insistence on including Assad, who is also receiving arms from Iran, has divided other nations. Syrian opposition forces fighting Assad have been armed by countries such as Saudi Arabia. In October, the U.S. abandoned its overt attempt to build and train a moderate rebel force in Syria to take on Islamic State. Instead, it will equip selected leaders and provide air support to their units. The U.S. and its allies began airstrikes in Syria in September 2014 as part of a campaign to destroy Islamic State. The U.S. overcame a reluctance to intervene openly after the terrorist group seized a swath of territory in Syria and northern Iraq and embarked on a rampage of terror that included the beheading of two American journalists and a British aid worker. The war has leveled cities and uprooted about half of the country’s prewar population, creating more than 4 million refugees. They are straining the resources of neighboring countries and testing the welcome of many European governments as they flood into the continent.

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 a poison gas attack in August 2013, though the inspectors are still finding evidence of chlorine gas attacks.

The Argument

There is wide agreement on the need to end Syria’s civil war, but not on how. There’s concern that Assad’s defeat could leave a vacuum that radical Islamic groups will rush to fill. Assad has ruled out any negotiations with the rebels, who he characterizes as foreign-backed terrorists. The war-weary U.S. is taking a cautious approach that keeps its forces from harm, though it is getting drawn more deeply into the conflict. There are worries that if foreign governments supply more-advanced weapons to the opposition, 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 is to keep Syria secular, independent and, most important, intact. Russia has used its UN Security Council veto four times to protect the regime and maintains its only military base outside the former Soviet Union at Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus.

The Reference Shelf

  • The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad group, reports casualties on both sides of the conflict.
  • The Syrian Accountability Project’s website has interactive battle maps.
  • A blog on Syria from the Institute for the Study of War.
  • 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.

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First Published Oct. 24, 2013

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Glen Carey in Riyadh at

To contact the editors responsible for this QuickTake:

Leah Harrison Singer at

Lisa Beyer at