EXPLAINER: Syria Marks 10 Years of Civil War
Turkey-backed Syrian fighters pose for a group photo with flags of the Syrian opposition in the town of Tal Abyad, March 15, 2021, as they mark 10 years since the anti-government protests that sparked the country's devastating civil war. (Bakr Alkasem/AFP via Getty Images)

EXPLAINER: Syria Marks 10 Years of Civil War

Long described as the biggest humanitarian crisis of our era, the war, in the words of the UN secretary-general, 'remains a living nightmare'

As the Syrian civil war marks a decade, nearly 600,000 people have been killed, some 117,000 of them civilians, and over 2 million injured; about 13 million civilians have been displaced by the fighting; and necessary infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and homes have been destroyed, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which says it has documented more than 387,000 of those killed. Other organizations and webpages of reference put these numbers somewhat higher and lower but one thing is clear – the 10-year conflict has caused suffering and death for millions of people.

Of those displaced by the fighting, more than 5.6 million are refugees who have fled the country and remain in camps mostly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The rest are displaced within Syria. They are in need of humanitarian assistance, most importantly food and medicine. It is no wonder that the United Nations has for many years called the Syrian civil war the biggest humanitarian crisis of our era.

Syrian President Bashar Assad became president of Syria in July 2000, succeeding his father one month after his death in office. Bashar Asaad won uncontested, and clearly undemocratic, elections for president in 2000 and 2007 with over 97% support. Still, there were high hopes when he assumed the presidency that he would modernize and reform the country, but these hopes were not borne out. Government corruption did not stop and political opposition was banned.

Most experts point to the 2011 Arab Spring protests as the impetus for the start of the decadelong civil war in Syria. But things were not picture perfect before that. Even before unrest began sweeping the Arab world, Syrians faced high unemployment and poverty, and social unrest. In the five years leading up to the civil war, Syria suffered from the worst drought in the country’s history, leading to even more economic hardship and disparity.

In 2011, pro-democracy activists in Syria became inspired by the successful political and economic protests in Egypt and Tunisia. In March of that year, 15 Syrian schoolboys were arrested and tortured after writing graffiti in support of the Arab Spring. One of the boys, age 13, was killed after being horribly tortured.

Peaceful protests erupted over the boys’ detention and killing. The government responded by cracking down on the protests – arresting and jailing, and in some cases killing, hundreds and thousands of demonstrators. The crackdown led to calls for Assad’s resignation.

Some four months later, in July 2011, Syrian military rebels formed the Free Syrian Army with the goal of overthrowing the government, plunging the country into civil war.

In June 2012, the United Nations first declared the conflict in Syria to be a civil war. That same year, the UN attempted to negotiate a cease-fire and peace treaty, an effort that failed. And as the conflict continued to escalate, foreign powers also joined the fray.

Iran, Iraq and Hizbullah in Lebanon have materially supported Assad and his regime since early in the conflict. In 2015, Russia joined the conflict on Assad’s side and has remained involved ever since. Meanwhile, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have continued to support the rebels. Turkey and the United States began fighting against the Islamic State group, which joined the anti-Assad forces, in Syrian territory. At the same time, the US began arming the anti-Assad rebel groups and since 2014 has led an international coalition in bombing Islamic State targets in Syria.

In August 2013, the Syrian opposition accuses forces loyal to Assad of killing hundreds of rebels and civilians, many of them children, in a chemical attack. Assad denied that he used chemical weapons and even tried to blame the rebels. UN inspectors were granted access to the site of the attack and later concluded that sarin gas was used, though they do not assign blame for the attack to either side. But the attack brought together the US and Russia, who support opposite sides of the civil war, to attempt to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. At the time of the attack, then-US President Barack Obama called the use of chemical weapons a “red line,” but did not receive backing from Congress on a resolution authorizing military force in response to the chemical attack.

Islamic State began in 2014 to gain traction again in northern and eastern Syria but appeared to be pushed out by US backed-Kurdish forces, the pro-Assad Syrian military supported by Iran and Russia, and a Turkish-backed coalition of rebel groups.

Meanwhile, using the civil war as cover, Turkey has in recent years launched offensives against Kurdish forces in Syria also fighting on behalf of the rebels, which Ankara considers a terrorist organization.

Not to be left out, Israel has reportedly for years been carrying out bombing attacks on Iranian and Hizbullah targets in Syria. Israel has only claimed responsibility for a handful of these attacks, but it is believed to have carried out hundreds of them.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is.

Last week, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that despite the fact that the conflict “has fallen off the front page,” the Syrian civil war “remains a living nightmare.”

He said that the UN would continue to pursue a negotiated political settlement to the crisis in line with Security Council Resolution 2254, which endorses a road map towards a Syrian-led political transition.

The Assad regime currently controls about 70% of the country, making it unlikely that he will be willing to negotiate.

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