In March 2011, anti-government demonstrations began across Syria (population of approximately 20 million) against the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad, as part of the broader regional Arab Spring protests. Sunni Muslims, who make up approximately 70 percent of the Syrian population, have long been disenchanted with President Assad, an Alawite Muslim. Alawites, who represent 12 percent of the Syrian population, have dominated the country’s political leadership for the past fifty years since Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, took power.
The Syrian regime responded to the demonstrations in brutal fashion, and began an indiscriminate violent campaign of targeting citizens opposed to Assad’s rule. The violence eventually disintegrated into a civil war between the government and rebel forces which included secular pro-democracy fighters, and Islamists – including ISIS and the Nusra Front. Throughout this conflict, the Assad regime has been supported by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
The humanitarian crisis
The Syrian civil war has created a severe humanitarian crisis. As of September 2015, it is estimated that over 200,000 Syrians have been killed, 7.6 million people are internally displaced, four million are dispersed across the Middle East, including in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Hundreds of thousands have also made their way to Europe, often through a dangerous boat trip on Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece which has resulted in thousands of deaths.
A number of non-Middle Eastern countries have accepted or agreed to take in smaller numbers of Syrian refugees, including, to date: Germany (100,000), Sweden (50,000), the UK (20,000), Australia (12,000), Canada (11,000) and the US (10,000).
International response to the conflict
There has been a lot of discussion within the international community as to how to best handle the Syrian conflict. The United Nations General Assembly, the European Union, the Arab League and many countries have condemned the brutality of the Syrian government, and some have called for Assad to leave Syria. Yet at this juncture, international involvement has been limited to imposing sanctions, providing extensive humanitarian aid (food and medicine), supplying FSA forces with munitions and monetary funding and pursuing diplomatic efforts to resolving the conflict.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that the U.S. goal for Syria is to reach a political solution to the conflict, eradicate ISIS and other extremist forces. The U.S. has long maintained that any long-term solution in Syria will require Assad to leave power.
While direct international military involvement may assist the rebels in pushing Assad out, there is a lot of uncertainty regarding the impact of his departure on Syria's future. Due to the ambiguous make-up of the rebel forces, there is great concern that Assad's overthrow could enable Islamist extremist groups to gain some measure of power in Syria. This would undoubtedly pose serious security challenges to Israel and a number of moderate Arab states, and greatly challenge American and European regional interests.
There have been a few significant international efforts to end the violence between the Syrian government and rebel forces. During 2012, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan attempted to broker a number of agreements between President Assad and the rebels. The most promising was a July 2012 peace proposal that had been accepted by Assad, but was defeated at the UN Security Council by Russian and Chinese vetoes, who claimed it placed “uneven…pressure on only one party.” Russia and China are wary of US and other Western nations’ intentions vis-à-vis Syria, and have thus far been unwilling to support direct international involvement in the civil war. Russia has even refused to halt the supply of sophisticated long-range missiles to the Assad regime, weapons that could be used by the Syrian government to deter international intervention and as of mid-2015 had increased its military presence in the country.
In January and February 2014, UN-backed talks were held in Geneva between the Syrian government and Syrian rebels with the aim of ending the civil war. The meetings produced no tangible results, though another round of talks is reportedly being planned.
The regional impact
Countries neighboring Syria have experienced incidents of cross-border violence. Turkey has been the target of multiple bombing attacks, as well as Syrian army activity inside Turkish territory. Syrian shells and mortars have also landed in the Israeli Golan Heights region, causing small amounts of damage.
There is also concern that Syria’s weapons could end up in terrorist hands. The multiple reports of Israeli air strikes against weapons storage facilities in Syria indicate that the Syrian regime has transferred sophisticated missiles to Hezbollah, a US designated terrorist organization based in Lebanon and backed by Iran.
Both Iran and Hezbollah have declared their support for the Syrian government, and Hezbollah militants are now fighting the rebel forces. Their decision to support Assad stems from an understanding that as long as Assad retains power, Syria will remain a conduit for Iran to transfer weapons to Hezbollah. This arrangement allows Tehran to continue threatening Israel’s security, and bolsters Iranian second-strike capabilities against Israel in the event of an attack on its nuclear facilities.
UN investigations have concluded that while both the Syrian government and the rebels have committed war crimes, the government's abuses are greater and more serious. They include the torture and killing of children, mass executions of entire families, the rape of men, women and children, the deliberate shelling of densely populated civilian populations and the systematic denial of food, water and medicine to certain regions in Syria. The UN has also accused the rebels of carrying out torture and unlawful killings, kidnapping and hostage taking and using children in dangerous non-combat roles.
On August 21, 2013, rockets containing chemical weapons (likely the sarin gas nerve agent) were fired into residential areas in the suburbs of Damascus. On August 30, 2013, Secretary of State Kerry presented a catalog of horrors unleashed through the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people by the Assad regime. The US government determined that 1,429 people were killed (including 426 children), and assessed with high confidence that the attack was carried out by the Syrian government targeting opposition elements. The US also confirmed that the Assad regime had previously used chemical weapons on multiple occasions against the Syrian people. The use of chemical weapons was strongly condemned by bodies and governments around the world, including the US, Arab League, EU, Turkey, Israel and many others.
Previously in June 2013, the US confirmed that the Assad regime had, on multiple occasions, used chemical weapons against the opposition, killing at least 100 to 150 people. In the same month, a UN panel revealed that the Syrian government has started using thermobaric bombs, a deadly weapon that creates a blast wave of a significantly longer duration than that produced by condensed explosives, increasing the numbers of casualties and causing more damage to structures. There is also a fear that if these deadly weapons are not properly secure, they could potentially be smuggled out of Syria and used by terrorist groups against regional and international targets.
On September 15, 2013, US and Russian negotiators reached a framework agreement whereby the Syrian government agreed to surrender and destroy its chemical weapons stockpile by the beginning of 2014, and accede to the international Chemical Weapons Convention. As of May 1, 2014, Syria had surrendered approximately 90 percent of its declared chemical weapons.
In August 2015, a US official stated that ISIS had used chemical weapons in Syria.