The Syrian Civil War, also known as the Syrian Uprising or the Syrian Crisis (Arabic language: الأزمة السورية), is an ongoing armed conflict in Syria between forces loyal to the Ba'ath government and those seeking to oust it. The unrest began on 15 March 2011, with popular protests that grew nationwide by April 2011. These protests were part of the wider Middle Eastern protest movement known as the Arab Spring. Protesters demanded the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has held the presidency in Syria since 1971, as well as the end of Ba'ath Party rule, which began in 1963.
In April 2011, the Syrian Army was deployed to quell the uprising and soldiers fired on demonstrators across the country. After months of military sieges, the protests evolved into an armed rebellion. Opposition forces, mainly composed of defected soldiers and civilian volunteers, resisted without central leadership. The conflict is asymmetrical, with clashes taking place in many towns and cities across the country. In 2013, Hezbollah entered the war in support of the Syrian army. The Syrian government is further upheld by military support from Russia and Iran, while Qatar and Saudi Arabia transfer weapons to the rebels. By July 2013, the Syrian government controls approximately 30–40 percent of the country's territory and 60 percent of the Syrian population. A late 2012 UN report described the conflict as "overtly sectarian in nature" between Alawite shabiha militias and other Shia groups fighting largely against Sunni-dominated rebel groups, though both opposition and government forces denied that.
According to the United Nations, the death toll surpassed 100,000 in June 2013, and reached 120,000 by September 2013. In addition, tens of thousands of protesters have been imprisoned and there are reports of widespread torture and terror in state prisons. International organizations have accused both government and opposition forces of severe human rights violations. The UN and Amnesty International's inspections and probes in Syria determined both in 2012 and 2013 that the vast majority of abuses are done by the Syrian government, whose are also largest in scale. The severity of the humanitarian disaster in Syria has been outlined by UN and many international organizations. More than four million Syrians have been displaced, more than two million Syrians fled the country and became refugees, and millions more were left in poor living conditions with shortage of food and drinking water. The situation is especially bad in the town of Muadamiyat al-Sham, where 12,000 residents are predicted to die of starvation by the winter of 2013 from a Syrian army enforced blockade.
Chemical weapons have also been used in Syria on more than one occasion, triggering strong international reactions.
Syria became an independent republic in 1946, though Democratic rule was ended by a CIA-supported coup in March 1949, followed by two more coups that year. A popular uprising against military rule in 1954 saw the army transfer power to civilians; from 1958 to 1961 a brief union with Egypt replaced Syria's parliamentary system with a highly centralized presidential regime. The Ba'ath Syrian Regional Branch government came to power in 1964 after a successful coup d'état. In 1966, another coup overthrew the traditional leaders of the party, Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar. General Hafez al-Assad, the Minister of Defense, seized power in a "corrective revolution" in November 1970, becoming prime minister. In March 1971, Assad declared himself President, a position he would hold until his death in 2000. Since then, the secular Syrian Regional Branch has remained the dominant political authority in a virtual single-party state in Syria, and Syrian citizens may only approve the President by referendum and – until the government-controlled multi-party 2012 parliamentary election – could not vote in multi-party elections for the legislature.
Bashar al-Assad, the President of Syria and Asma al-Assad, his wife – who is a British-born and British-educated Sunni Muslim, initially inspired hopes for democratic and state reforms; a "Damascus Spring" of intense social and political debate took place from July 2000 to August 2001. The period was characterized by the emergence of numerous political forums or salons, where groups of like-minded people met in private houses to debate political and social issues. Political activists such as Riad Seif, Haitham al-Maleh, Kamal al-Labwani, Riyad al-Turk and Aref Dalila were important in mobilizing the movement. The most famous of the forums were the Riad Seif Forum and the Jamal al-Atassi Forum. The Damascus Spring ended in August 2001 with the arrest and imprisonment of ten leading activists who had called for democratic elections and for a campaign of civil disobedience.
The Assad family comes from the minority Alawite religious group, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that comprises an estimated 12 percent of the total Syrian population. It has maintained tight control on Syria's security services, generating resentment among some Sunni Muslims, a religious group that makes up about three-quarters of Syria's population. Ethnic minority Syrian Kurds have also protested and complained over ethnic discrimination and denial of their cultural and language rights. The Syrian government allegedly has relied mostly on Alawite-dominated units of the security services to fight the uprising. Assad's younger brother Maher al-Assad commands the army's elite Fourth Armored Division, and his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, was the deputy minister of defense until the latter's assassination in the 18 July 2012 Damascus bombing.
Discontent against the government was strongest in Syria's poorer areas, predominantly among conservative Sunnis. These included cities with high poverty rates, such as Daraa and Homs, rural areas hit hard by a drought in early 2011, and the poorer districts of large cities. Socioeconomic inequality increased significantly after free market policies were initiated by Hafez al-Assad in his later years, and accelerated after Bashar al-Assad came to power. With an emphasis on the service sector, these policies benefited a minority of the nation's population, mostly people who had connections with the government, and members of the Sunni merchant class of Damascus and Aleppo. By 2011, Syria was facing a deterioration in the national standard of living and steep rises in the prices of commodities. The country also faced particularly high youth unemployment rates.
The state of human rights in Syria has long been the subject of harsh criticism from global organizations. The country was under emergency rule from 1963 until 2011, effectively granting security forces sweeping powers of arrest and detention. Bashar al-Assad is widely regarded to have been unsuccessful in implementing democratic change, with a 2010 report from Human Rights Watch stating that he had failed to substantially improve the state of human rights since taking power, although some minor aspects had seen improvement. All political parties other than the Ba'ath Syrian Regional Branch have remained banned, thereby leaving Syria a one-party state without free elections.
Rights of free expression, association and assembly were strictly controlled in Syria even before the uprising. The authorities harass and imprison human rights activists and other critics of the government, who are oftentimes indefinitely detained and tortured in poor prison conditions.
Women and ethnic minorities have faced discrimination in the public sector. Thousands of Syrian Kurds were denied citizenship in 1962 and their descendants continued to be labeled as "foreigners". Several riots prompted increased tension in Syria's Kurdish areas since 2004. Occasional clashes between Kurdish protesters and security forces have since continued.
In December 2010, mass anti-government protests began in Tunisia and later spread across the Arab world, including Syria. By February 2011, revolutions occurred in Tunisia and Egypt, while Libya began to experience its own civil war. Numerous other Arab countries also faced protests, with some attempting to calm the masses by making concessions and governmental changes.
Uprising and civil war
Protests, civil uprising, and defections (March–28 July 2011)
The conflict initially began as a civil uprising, evolved from initially minor protests, beginning as early as January 2011, as a response to the regional Arab Spring, government corruption, and human rights abuses. Large-scale unrest began on 15 March in the southern city of Daraa, sometimes called the "Cradle of the Revolution", and later spread nation-wide. The government responded to the protests with large arrests, torture of prisoners, police brutality, censorship of events, and some concessions. However, the protests continued to grow. In late-April, Assad began launching large-scale military operations against restive towns and cities. The operations involved the use of tanks, infantry carriers, and artillery, leading to a large number of civilian deaths.
Following military crackdowns, many soldiers defected to protect protesters. Many protesters also began to take up arms. The first instance of armed insurrection occurred on 4 June 2011 in Jisr ash-Shugur, a city near the Turkish border in Idlib Governorate. Angry protesters set fire to a building where security forces had fired on a funeral demonstration. Eight security officers died in the fire as demonstrators took control of a police station, seizing weapons. Clashes between protesters and security forces continued in the following days. Some security officers defected after secret police and intelligence agents executed soldiers who refused to shoot civilians.
Protests and armed insurgency (29 July–October 2011)
On 29 July, a group of defected officers announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella group which would later represent the main opposition army. Composed of defected Syrian Armed Forces personnel and civilian volunteers, the rebel army seeks to remove Bashar al-Assad and his government from power. The establishment of the group formally marked the beginning of armed resistance to the Assad government. The FSA would grow in size, to about 20,000 by December, and to an estimated 40,000 by June 2012. Nevertheless, the group remained without centralized leadership until December 2012. The FSA, along with other insurgent groups, rely mostly on light weapons, including assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
On 31 July, a nationwide crackdown nicknamed the "Ramadan Massacre" resulted in the death of at least 142 people and hundreds of injuries. Some besieged cities and towns were described as having famine-like conditions.
On 23 August, a coalition of anti-government groups was formed, the Syrian National Council. The group, based in Turkey, attempted to organize the opposition. However, the opposition, including the FSA, remained a fractious collection of political groups, longtime exiles, grass-roots organizers and armed militants, divided along ideological, ethnic or sectarian lines.
Throughout August, Syrian forces stormed major urban centers and outlying regions, and continued to attack protests. On 14 August, the Siege of Latakia continued as the Syrian Navy became involved in the military crackdown for the first time. Gunboats fired heavy machine guns at waterfront districts in Latakia, as ground troops and security agents backed by armor stormed several neighborhoods. The Eid ul-Fitr celebrations, started in near the end of August, were muted after security forces fired on protesters gathered in Homs, Daraa, and the suburbs of Damascus.
By September 2011, organized units of Syrian rebels were engaged in an active insurgency campaign in multiple areas of Syria. A major confrontation between the FSA and the Syrian armed forces occurred in Rastan. From 27 September to 1 October, Syrian government forces, backed by tanks and helicopters, led a major offensive on the town of Al-Rastan in Homs Governorate, in order to drive out army defectors. The 2011 battle of Rastan between the government forces and the FSA was the longest and most intense action up until that time. After a week of fighting, the FSA was forced to retreat from Rastan. To avoid government forces, the leader of the FSA, Col. Riad Asaad, retreated to the Turkish side of Syrian-Turkish border. Many of the rebels fled to the nearby city of Homs.
By October, the FSA started to receive support from Turkey, who allowed the rebel army to operate its command and headquarters from the country's southern Hatay Governorate close to the Syrian border, and its field command from inside Syria. The FSA would often launch attacks into Syria's northern towns and cities, while using the Turkish side of the border as a safe zone and supply route. A year after its formation, the FSA would gain control over many towns close to the Turkish border.
In October 2011, clashes between government and defected army units were being reported fairly regularly. During the first week of the month, sustained clashes were reported in Jabal al-Zawiya in the mountainous regions of Idlib Governorate. Syrian rebels captured most of Idlib city as well. In mid-October, other clashes in Idlib Governorate include the city of Binnish and the town of Hass in the governorate near the mountain range of Jabal al-Zawiya. In late October, other clashes occurred in the northwestern town of Maarrat al-Nu'man in the governorate between government forces and defected soldiers at a roadblock on the edge of the town, and near the Turkish border, where 10 security agents and a deserter were killed in a bus ambush. It was not clear if the defectors linked to these incidents were connected to the FSA.
Escalation (November 2011 – March 2012)
In early November, clashes between the FSA and security forces in Homs escalated as the siege continued. After six days of bombardment, the Syrian Army stormed the city on 8 November, leading to heavy street fighting in several neighborhoods. Resistance in Homs was significantly greater than that seen in other towns and cities, and some in opposition have referred to the city as the "Capital of the Revolution". Unlike events in Deraa and Hama, operations in Homs have thus far failed to quell the unrest.
November and December 2011 saw increasing rebel attacks, as opposition forces grew in number. In the two months, the FSA launched deadly attacks on an air force intelligence complex in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, the Ba'ath Syrian Regional Branch youth headquarters in Idlib Governorate, Syrian Regional Branch offices in Damascus, an airbase in Homs Governorate, and an intelligence building in Idlib. On 15 December, opposition fighters ambushed checkpoints and military bases around Daraa, killing 27 soldiers, in one of the largest attacks yet on security forces. The opposition suffered a major setback on 19 December, when a failed defection in Idlib governorate lead to 72 defectors killed.
In January 2012, Assad began using large-scale artillery operations against the insurgency, which led to the destruction of many civilian homes due to indiscriminate shelling. By this time, daily protests had dwindled, eclipsed by the spread of armed conflict. January saw intensified clashes around the suburbs of Damascus, with the Syrian Army use of tanks and artillery becoming common. Fighting in Zabadani began on 7 January when the Syrian Army stormed the town in an attempt to rout out FSA presence. After the first phase of the battle ended with a ceasefire on 18 January, leaving the FSA in control of the town, the FSA launched an offensive into nearby Douma. Fighting in the town lasted from 21 to 30 January, before the rebels were forced to retreat as result of a government counteroffensive. Although, the Syrian Army managed to retake most of the suburbs, sporadic fighting continued. Fighting erupted in Rastan again on 29 January, when dozens of soldiers manning the town's checkpoints defected and began opening fire on troops loyal to the government. Opposition forces gained complete control of the town and surrounding suburbs on 5 February.
On 3 February, the Syrian army launched a major offensive to retake rebel-held neighborhoods. In early March, after weeks of artillery bombardments and heavy street fighting, the Syrian army eventually captured the district of Baba Amr, a major rebel stronghold. The Syrian Army also captured the district of Karm al-Zeitoun by 9 March, where activists claimed that government forces killed 47 women and children. By the end of March, the Syrian army retook control of half a dozen districts, leaving them in control of 70 percent of the city.
By 14 March, Syrian troops successfully ousted insurgents from the city of Idlib, after days of fighting. By early April, the estimated death toll of the conflict, according to activists, reached 10,000.
Ceasefire attempt (April–May 2012)
Kofi Annan was acting as UN–Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria. His peace plan provided for a ceasefire, but even as the negotiations for it were being conducted, Syrian armed forces attacked a number of towns and villages, and summarily executed scores of people.:11 Incommunicado detention, including of children, also continued. In April, Assad began employing attack helicopters against rebel forces.
On 12 April, both sides, the Syrian Government and rebels of the FSA entered a UN mediated ceasefire period. It was a failure, with infractions of the ceasefire by both sides resulting in several dozen casualties. Acknowledging its failure, Annan called for Iran to be "part of the solution", though the country has been excluded from the Friends of Syria initiative. The peace plan practically collapsed by early June and the UN mission was withdrawn from Syria. Annan officially resigned in frustration on 2 August 2012.
Renewed fighting (June–July 2012)
Following the Houla massacre of 25 May 2012 and the consequent FSA ultimatum to the Syrian government, the ceasefire practically collapsed, as the FSA began nationwide offensives against government troops. On 1 June, President Assad vowed to crush the anti-government uprising, after the FSA announced that it was resuming "defensive operations".
On 5 June, fighting broke out in Haffa and nearby villages in the coastal governorate of Latakia Governorate. Rebels fought with government forces backed by helicopter gunships in the heaviest clashes in the governorate since the revolt began. Syrian forces seized the territory from rebels following eight days of fighting and shelling. On 6 June 78 civilians were killed in the Al-Qubeir massacre. According to activist sources, government forces started by shelling the village before the Shabiha militia moved in. The UN observers headed to Al-Qubeir in the hope of investigating the alleged massacre, but they were met with a roadblock and small arms fire before reaching the village and were forced to retreat.
At the same time, the conflict began moving into the two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, which the government claimed were dominated by a pro-Assad silent majority. In both cities, peaceful protests – including a general strike by Damascus shopkeepers a small strike in Aleppo were interpreted by some as indicating that the historical alliance between the government and the business establishment in the large cities had become weak.
On 22 June, a Turkish F-4 fighter jet was shot down by Syrian government forces, killing both pilots. Tensions between Syria and Turkey dramatically escalated following this incident, as both sides disputed whether the jet had been flying in Syrian or international airspace when it was shot down. Despite Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's vows to retaliate harshly against Assad's government, no such intervention materialised. Bashar al-Assad publicly apologised for the incident, and relations between the two countries cooled.
By 10 July, rebel forces had captured most of the city of Al-Qusayr, in Homs Governorate, after weeks of fighting. And by mid-July, rebels had captured the town of Saraqeb, in Idlib Governorate.
Battles of Damascus and Aleppo (July–October 2012)
By mid-July 2012, fighting had spread across the country. Acknowledging this, the International Committee of the Red Cross declared the conflict a civil war. Fighting in Damascus intensified, with a major rebel push to take the city. On 18 July, Syrian Defense Minister Dawoud Rajiha, former defense minister Hasan Turkmani, and the president's brother-in-law General Assef Shawkat were killed by a bomb attack in Damascus. The Syrian intelligence chief Hisham Ikhtiyar, who was injured in the same explosion, later succumbed to his wounds. Both the FSA and Liwa al-Islam claimed responsibility for the assassination.
In late July, government forces managed to break the rebel offensive on Damascus by pushing out most of the opposition fighters, although fighting still continued in the outskirts. After this, the focus shifted to the battle for control of Aleppo. On 25 July, multiple sources reported that the Assad government was using fighter jets to attack rebel positions in Aleppo and Damascus, and on 1 August, UN observers in Syria witnessed government fighter jets firing on rebels in Aleppo. In early August, the FSA offensive to capture Aleppo was repelled, and the Syrian Army recaptured Salaheddin district, an important rebel stronghold in Aleppo. In August, the government began using fixed-wing warplanes against the rebels.
On 19 July, On the same day, Iraqi officials reported that the FSA had gained control of all four border checkpoints between Syria and Iraq, increasing concerns for the safety of Iraqis trying to escape the violence in Syria. On 19 September, rebel forces seized a border crossing between Syria and Turkey in Ar-Raqqah Governorate. It was speculated that this crossing, along with several other border crossings into Turkey and one into Iraq, could provide opposition forces with strategic and logistical advantages, allowing them greater ease in transporting supplies into the country.
In late September, the FSA moved its command headquarters from southern Turkey into rebel-controlled areas of northern Syria. On 9 October, rebel forces seized control of Maarat al-Numan, a strategic town in Idlib governorate on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo. By 18 October, the FSA had captured Douma, the biggest suburb of Damascus. Lakhdar Brahimi arranged for a ceasefire during Eid al-Adha in late October, but it quickly collapsed as both rebels and the Syrian Army resumed large-scale operations.
Rebel offensives (November 2012 – April 2013)
After Brahimi's ceasefire agreement officially ended on 30 October, the Syrian military expanded its aerial bombing campaign in Damascus. A bombing of the Damascus district of Jobar was the first instance of a fighter jet being used in Damascus airspace to attack targets in the city. The following day, Gen. Abdullah Mahmud al-Khalidi, a Syrian Air Force commander who was described by the state media as one of the country's top aviation experts, was assassinated by opposition gunmen in the Damascus district of Rukn al-Din.
In early November 2012, rebels made significant gains in northern Syria. The rebel capture of Saraqib in Idlib governorate, which lies on the strategic M5 highway, further isolated Aleppo from government-controlled areas of the country. Due to insufficient anti-aircraft weapons, rebel units attempted to nullify the government's air power by destroying landed helicopters and aircraft on air bases. On 3 November, rebels launched an attack on the Taftanaz air base, a core base for the Syrian military's helicopter and bombing operations.
On 18 November, rebels took control of Base 46 in the Aleppo Governorate, one of the Syrian Army's largest bases in northern Syria, after weeks of intense fighting with government forces. Defected General Mohammed Ahmed al-Faj, who commanded the assault, hailed the capture of Base 46 as "one of our biggest victories since the start of the revolution", claiming nearly 300 Syrian troops had been killed and 60 had been captured, with rebels seizing large amounts of heavy weapons, including tanks.
On 22 November, rebels captured the Mayadeen military base in the country's eastern Deir ez-Zor Governorate. Activists said this gave the rebels control of a large amount of territory east of the base, stretching to the Iraqi border. On 29 November, at approximately 10:26 UTC, the Syrian Internet and phone service was shut off for a two-day period. There was much speculation that the Syrian government was responsible for the outage; however, state sources denied responsibility and blamed the blackout on fiber optic lines near Damascus becoming exposed and damaged.
In mid-December 2012, American officials said that the Syrian military had resorted to firing Scud ballistic missiles at rebel fighters inside Syria. Reportedly, six Scud missiles were fired at the Sheikh Suleiman base north of Aleppo, which rebel forces had occupied. It is unclear whether the Scuds hit the intended target. The government denied this claim. Later that month, a further Scud attack took place near Marea, a town in a rebel-held area north of Aleppo near the Turkish border. The missile appeared to have missed its target. That same month, the British Daily Telegraph reported that the FSA had now penetrated into Latakia Governorate's Mediterranean coast through Turkey, and that the Syrian government's forces were unable to repel the FSA invasion thus far.
In late December, rebel forces pushed further into Damascus, taking control of the adjoining Yarmouk and Palestine refugee camps, pushing out fighters from the pro-government Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command with the help of other factions. Rebel forces launched an offensive against army positions in Hama governorate, later claiming to have forced army regulars to evacuate several towns and bases, and stating that "three-quarters of western rural Hama is under our control." Rebels also captured the northern town of Harem near the Turkish border in Idlib governorate, after weeks of heavy fighting.
On 11 January, Islamist groups, including al-Nusra Front, took full control of the strategic Taftanaz air base in the northern Idlib governorate, after weeks of fighting. The air base, one of the largest in northern Syria, was often used by the military to carry out helicopter raids and deliver supplies. The rebels claimed to have seized helicopters, tanks and multiple rocket launchers, and other military equipment, before being forced to withdraw by a government counter-attack. The leader of the al-Nusra Front said the amount of weapons they took was a "game changer".
On 11 February, Islamist rebels captured the town of Al-Thawrah in Ar-Raqqah Governorate and the nearby Tabqa Dam, Syria's largest dam and a key source of hydroelectricity. The next day, rebel forces took control of Jarrah air base, located 60 kilometres (37 mi) east of Aleppo. The base had been used to launch bombing raids in Aleppo governorate, and had served as an important supply line for the Assad government. On 14 February, fighters from al-Nusra Front took control of Shadadeh, a town located in Al-Hasakah Governorate near the Iraqi border.
On 20 February, a car bomb exploded in the Mazraa neighborhood of Damascus near the Ba'ath Syrian Regional Branch headquarters, killing at least 53 people and injuring more than 235. None of the organized groups on either side in the conflict claimed responsibility.
On 21 February, the FSA in Quasar began shelling Hezbollah positions in Lebanon. Prior to this, Hezbollah militants had been shelling villages near Quasar from within Lebanon. A 48-hour ultimatum was issued by a FSA commander on 20 February, warning the militant group to stop the attacks or face retaliation.
On 2 March, intense clashes between rebels and the Syrian Army erupted in the north-central city of Raqqa, with many reportedly killed on both sides. On the same day, Syrian troops regained several villages along the highway near Aleppo. By 3 March, rebels had overrun Raqqa's central prison, allowing them to free hundreds of prisoners, according to the SOHR. The SOHR also claimed that rebel fighters were now in control of most of an Aleppo police academy in Khan al-Asal, and that over 200 rebels and government troops had been killed fighting for control of it.
On 4 March, rebel forces launched an offensive to capture Raqqa outright. By 6 March, the rebels had captured the entire city, effectively making Raqqa the first provincial capital to be lost by the Assad government. Residents of Raqqa celebrated by reportedly tearing down a huge poster of Assad, and toppling a bronze statue of his late father Hafez Assad in the centre of the city. The rebels also seized two top government officials.
On 18 March, the Syrian Air Force attacked rebel positions in Lebanon for the first time. The attack occurred at the Wadi al-Khayl Valley area, near the border town of Arsal.
On 21 March, a suspected suicide bombing in the Iman Mosque in Mazraa district killed as many as 41 people, including the high profile Pro Assad Sunni cleric, Sheikh Mohammed al-Buti.
On 23 March, several rebel groups seized the 38th division air defense base in southern Daraa governorate near a strategic highway linking Damascus to Jordan. On the next day, rebels captured a 25 km strip of land near the Jordanian border, which included the towns of Muzrib, Abdin, and the al-Rai military checkpoint.
On 25 March, rebels launched one of their heaviest bombardments of Central Damascus since the revolt began, with mortars reportedly hitting Umayyad Square, where Ba'ath Party headquarters, Air Force Intelligence and state television are also located. The attack was launched when rebel forces advanced into the Kafr Souseh district of Damascus.
On 26 March, near the Syrian town of al-Qusayr, rebel commander Khaled al Hamad, who commands the Al Farooq al-Mustakilla Brigade and is also known by his nom de guerre Abu Sakkar, ate the heart and liver of a dead soldier and said "I swear to God, you soldiers of Bashar, you dogs, we will eat from your hearts and livers! O heroes of Bab Amr, you slaughter the Alawites and take out their hearts to eat them!" in an apparent attempt to increase sectarianism. Video of the event emerged two months later and resulted in considerable outrage, especially from Human Rights Watch which classified the incident as a war crime. According to the BBC, it was one of the most gruesome videos to emerge from the conflict to-date.
On 29 March, rebels captured the strategic town of Da'el after days of fierce fighting. The town is located in Daraa Governorate, along the strategic highway connecting Damascus to Jordan.
On 3 April, rebels captured a military base near the city of Daraa.
Government and Hezbollah Offensives (April–June 2013)
On 17 April, government forces breached a six-month rebel blockade in Wadi al-Deif, near Idlib. Heavy fighting has been reported around the town of Babuleen after government troops outflanked weakened rebel positions with troops now attempting to secure control of a main highway leading to Aleppo. The break in the siege also allowed government forces to resupply two major military bases in the region which had been relying on sporadic airdrops.
On 18 April, the FSA took control of Al-Dab'a Air Base near the city of al-Qusayr. The base had no aircraft and was being used primarily to garrison ground troops. Meanwhile, the Syrian Army took control over the town of Abel. The SOHR director described the Army takeover of the town by saying that it will hamper rebel movements between al-Qusayr and Homs city. According to him, the capture of the airport would have relieved the pressure on the rebels in the area, but their loss of Abel made the situation more complicated. The same day, rebels also reportedly assassinated Ali Ballan, who was head of public relations at the Ministry of Social Affairs and a member of Syria's relief agency, in a restaurant at Mazzeh district in Damascus. On 21 April, government forces captured the town of Jdaidet al-Fadl, near Damascus.
In April, government and Hezbollah forces launched an offensive to capture rebel-held areas near al-Qusayr. On 21 April, pro-Assad forces captured the towns of Burhaniya, Saqraja and al-Radwaniya near the Lebanese border. By this point, eight villages had fallen to the government offensive in the area.
On 24 April, after five weeks of fighting, government troops seized control of the town of Otaiba, east of Damascus. The town had been under rebel control for the previous eight months, serving as the main arms supply route from Jordan. Meanwhile in the north of the country, rebels took control of a key position on the edge of the strategic Mennagh Military airbase, on the outskirts of Aleppo. This allowed them to enter the airbase after months of besieging it.
On 2 May, government forces captured the town of Qaysa, which lies to the east of Damascus in a steady push north from the city's airport. Troops also retook the Wadi al-Sayeh central district of Homs, driving a wedge between two rebel strongholds. SOHR reported a massacre of over 100 people in the coastal town of Al Bayda, Baniyas, when the Syrian army stormed the town. However, this could not be independently verified due to movement restrictions on the ground. Yet the multiple video images that residents said they had recorded in Bayda and Ras al-Nabeh – particularly of small children, were so shocking that even some government supporters rejected Syrian television's official version of events, that the army had simply "crushed a number of terrorists."
On 3 May, the Syrian army backed by the Shabiha reportedly committed a massacre of civilians near the city of Baniyas. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that at least 50 people – and possibly as many as 100 – were killed. Witnesses said the dead were killed with knives or blunt objects and that dozens of villagers were still missing.
On 8 May, government forces captured the strategic town of Khirbet Ghazaleh, situated along the highway to the Jordanian border. Over 1,000 rebel fighters withdrew from the town due to the lack of reinforcements and ammunition. The loss of the town also resulted in the reopening of the government supply-route to the contested city of Daraa. The rebels continued to withdraw from other towns and decided not to face the Army's advance along the highway. On 11 May, the rebels managed to cut a newly build desert road used as an Army supply route between central Syria and Aleppo's airport. On 12 May, government forces took complete control of Khirbet Ghazaleh and secured the highway near the town.
By mid-May, due to the recent Army gains in retaking modest, but strategically important, locations, military analysts pointed out that the government will have a major advantage in any future peace talks with the opposition and the West. Pro-government, rebel, and independent analysts credited the government advances to the major restructuring of their forces, which they filled with thousands of militia irregulars trained at least in part by Hezbollah and Iranian advisers in counter-insurgency operations. The government's success was also credited to the shift by the Army from conducting counter-insurgency operations to holding on to strategic areas and not trying to recapture the whole country and crush the rebellion.
On 16 May, rebels also claimed they recaptured the town of Qaysa, Rif Damascus, after launching a unified counter-offensive. On 17 May, rebels captured four villages in Eastern Hama, including the Alawite town of Tulaysiah. The villages were abandoned by its residents days before the rebels arrived.
On 19 May, government forces captured the rebel-held town of Halfaya in Hama governorate. The Syrian army also launched its offensive against the rebel-held town of Qusayr after taking control of surrounding villages and countryside. A military source reported the Army entered Qusayr, capturing the city center and the municipality building. One opposition activist denied this, but another confirmed it and stated the Army was in control of 60 percent of the city. During the day's fighting, Hezbollah commander Fadi al-Jazar was killed.
An anonymous opposition source told the Associated Press that the attack was launched from the east and the south and that Hezbollah fighters took control of the town hall in a few hours and that by the end of the day, rebels units were pushed out of most of Qusayr. He added that the fighting was now concentred in the northern part of the city. The attack appeared to surprise the rebels, who expected the army to push by the north on several rebels controlled villages before attacking the city. The turning point of the offensive was reached when Hezbollah fighters took control of the Al Tal area overlooking Qusayr. Several rebels fighters accused some commanders from fleeing the Al tal area at the last minute. Meanwhile SOHR reported that the Syrian army was at the area by the western neighborhood of al-Quseir in order to lay siege on the city itself.
On 23 May, rebels captured a military base near the town of Nairab.
By 29 May, government forces captured the al-Dabaa air base, north of al-Qusayr.
On 1 and 2 June, after heavy fighting, the Syrian Army recaptured three of the Alawite villages that had been previously captured by the rebels in Eastern Hama governorate, after rebel forces retreated from the area.
On 5 June, rebel forces withdrew from al-Qusayr, and the Syrian military and its allies took full control of the town. The following day, government forces captured the nearby village of Dabaa.
On 6 June, rebels attacked and temporarily captured the Quneitra border crossing which links the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights with the rest of Syria. However, the same day, government forces counter-attacked with tanks and armoured personnel carriers, recapturing the crossing.
On 7 June, Syrian troops backed by Hezbollah captured two villages north of al-Qusayr: Salhiyeh and Masoudiyeh. The next day, they captured the village of Buwaydah, the last rebel-held village in the al-Qusayr region.
Between 7 and 14 June, Army troops, government militiamen, and reportedly Hezbollah fighters, launched operations in Aleppo Governorate. Over a one-week period, government forces had advanced both in Aleppo city and the countryside around the city, pushing back the rebels. However, on 14 June, according to an opposition activist, the tide had started reversing, after rebels managed to halt an armoured reinforcement column from Aleppo city for two government-held Shiite villages northwest of the city. As of 16 June, the rebels had been holding back the column for two days. Rebels claimed of being able to destroy one tank and kill 20 government soldiers northwest of the town of Maaret al-Arteek. Before the column was stopped, government forces had captured the high ground at Maaret al-Arteek, threatening rebel positions. Government forces did also manage to make some advances in the southern part of Aleppo governorate, capturing the village of Ain-Assan village. During the fighting in Aleppo city itself, on 13 June, government forces managed to temporarily advance into the rebel-held Sakhour district from two directions, but were soon repelled. Some described it as just simply another skirmish or possibly a probing attack and not a full assault.
On 10 June, Shia pro-government fighters from the village of Hatla, east of Deir al-Zour, attacked a nearby rebel position, killing four rebels. The next day, in retaliation for the attack, thousands of rebels attacked and captured the village, killing 60 residents, fighters and civilians, according to SOHR. 10 rebel fighters were killed during the attack.
At dawn on 13 June, rebels seized an Army position on the northern edge of the town of Morek, which is located on the strategic north-south highway, in fighting that killed six soldiers and two rebels. Later in the day, the Army shelled the base and sent reinforcements in an attempt to recapture the post.
On 14 June, the Al Nusra front captured a military barracks near Idlib city, after three days of fighting.
On 15 June, the Syrian Army captured the Damascus suburb of Ahmadiyeh near the city's airport. Rebels said fighting began after rebels entered the town to use it as a position to launch mortars on the Damascus airport. They added that fighting was ongoing.
Continued fighting (July – October 2013)
On 28 June, rebel forces captured a major military checkpoint in the city of Daraa.
On 12 July FSA reported that one of its commanders, Kamal Hamami, had been killed at the hands of Islamists a day before. The rebels declared that the assassination, perpetrated by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, was tantamount to a declaration of war.
On 17 July, FSA forces had reportedly taken control of most of the southern city of Nawa after seizing up to 40 army posts stationed in the city.
On 18 July, Kurdish PYD forces secured control of the northern town of Ras al-Ain, after days of fighting with the al-Nusra Front. In the following three months, continues fighting between Kurdish and mainly jihadist rebel forces, led to the capture of two dozen towns and villages in Hasakah Governorate by Kurdish fighters, while the Jihadists made limited gains against the Kurds in Aleppo and Raqqah governorates. In Aleppo, Islamists were reportedly ethnically cleansing Kurds from towns in the countryside and massacring them; leading to a mass migration of civilians to the town of Afrin.
On 22 July, FSA fighters had seized control of the western Aleppo suburb of Khan Al-Assal. The town was the last government stronghold in the western portion of Aleppo governorate, and it was also located on a route linking Aleppo with the rest of the governorate.
On 25 July, the Syrian army secured the town of al-Sukhnah, after expelling the al-Nusra Front fighters. On 27 July, after weeks of fighting and bombardment in Homs, the Syrian Army captured the historic Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque, and two days later, captured the district of Khaldiyeh.
On 4 August, around 10 rebel brigades, backed by heavy weaponry, launched a large-scale offensive on the government stronghold of Latakia Governorate. Initial attacks by some 2,000 opposition members reportedly seized as many as 12 villages in the mountainous area, taking advantage of the rugged terrain. Between 4 August and 5, 20 August rebels and 32 government soldiers and militiamen had been killed in the clashes. Hundreds of Alawite villagers fled rebel held-villages to Latakia. By 5 August, rebel fighters advanced to 20 kilometers from the town of Qardaha, the home town of the Assad family. However, in mid-August, the military counter-attacked and recaptured all of the territory previously lost to the rebels in the coastal region during the offensive. A Syrian security force source "told AFP the army still had to recapture the Salma region, a strategic area along the border with Turkey that has been in rebel hands since the end of last year." According to a Human Rights Watch report 190 civilians were killed by rebel forces during the offensive, including at least 67 being executed. Another 200 civilians, primarily women and children, were taken hostage.
On 6 August, rebels captured all of Menagh Military Airbase in northern Syria after a 10-month siege. The strategic airbase is located on the road between Aleppo city and the Turkish border.
On 21 August a chemical attack took place in the Ghouta region, Damascus countryside, leading to thousands of casualties and several hundred dead in the opposition held stronghold. The attack was followed by a military offensive by government forces into the area, which have been hotbeds of opposition since the start of the uprising.
On 26 August, rebel forces took over the strategic town of Khanasir in Aleppo governorate which was the government's last supply route for the contested city of Aleppo.
On 8 September, rebels led by the al-Nusra Front captured the Christian town of Maaloula, 43 km north of Damascus, The Syrian Army launched a counterattack a few days later, recapturing the town.
On 18 September, members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) overran the FSA-held town of Azaz in the north of the country. The fighting was the most severe since tensions rose between militant factions in Syria earlier in the year. Soon after ISIS captured Azaz, a ceasefire was announced between the rival rebel groups. However, in early October, more fighting between rebels erupted in the town.
On 20 September, Alawite militias including the NDF reportedly killed 15 civilians in the Sunni village of Sheik Hadid in Hama Governorate. The massacre reportedly occurred in retaliation to a rebel capture of the village of Jalma, in Hama, which killed five soldiers, along with the seizure of a military checkpoint which killed 16 soldiers and 10 NDF militiamen.
In mid-September, the military captured the towns of Deir Salman and Shebaa on the outskirts of Damascus. The Army also captured six villages from opposition forces in eastern Homs. This would prove to be only temporary as fighting broke out in those towns again in October.
On 28 September, rebels seized the Ramtha border post in Daraa Governorate on the Syria Jordan crossing after days of fighting which left 26 soldiers dead along with 7 foreign rebel fighters.
On 3 October, AFP has reported that "Syria's army took back control of a strategic town [of Khanasser] in the northern governorate of Aleppo on Thursday after a weeks-long battle". "Khanasser [is] a town located on a key supply route linking central Syria to second city Aleppo. Opposition factions had cut off the army's supply route to Aleppo in August, when they had seized Khanasser and some nearby villages." On 7 October, the Syrian Army managed to reopen the supply route between Aleppo and Khanasser, days after recapturing Khanasser itself.
On 9 October, rebels seized the Hajanar guard post on the Jordanian border near Daraa after a month of fierce fighting. Its fall meant rebels were now in control of a swath of territory along the border from outside of Daraa to the edge of Golan Heights. The same day, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite fighters, backed up by artillery, air-strikes and tanks, attacked and captured the town of Sheikh Omar, on the southern outskirts of Damascus. Two days later, the Lebanese and Iraqis also captured the towns of al-Thiabiya and Husseiniya on the southern approaches to Damascus. The capture of the three towns, located between the two main highways leading to Jordan, strengthened the government hold on major supply lines and put more pressure on rebels under siege in the Eastern Ghouta area.
On 14 October, SOHR reported that rebels captured the Resefa and Sinaa districts of Deir ez-Zor city, as well as Deir ez-Zor's military hospital.
Government and Hezbollah Offensives (October 2013 – present)
On 16 October, AFP reported that Syrian troops recaptured the strategic town of Bweida, south of Damascus. According to SOHR, government troops had been supported by Hezbollah and al-Abbas brigade fighters.
On 17 October, the Syrian government's head of Military Intelligence in Deir ez-Zor Governorate, Major General Jameh Jameh, was assassinated by rebels in Deir ez-Zor city. SOHR reported that he had been shot by a rebel sniper in the Rashdiya district of the city during a battle with rebel brigades.
On 24 October, the Syrian army retook control of the town of Hatetat al-Turkman, located southeast of Damascus, along the Damascus International Airport road.
On 26 October, Kurdish rebel fighters seized control of the strategic Yarubiya border crossing between Syria and Iraq from Al Nusra after three days of clashes in Al Hasakah Governorate. Elsewhere, in Daraa Governorate, rebel fighters captured the town of Tafas from government forces after weeks of clashes which reportedly left scores dead.
On 1 November, the Syrian army retook control of the key city of Al-Safira and the next day, the Syrian Army and its allies recaptured the village of Aziziyeh on the northern outskirts of Al-Safira. From early to mid-November, Syrian Army forces captured several towns south of Damascus, including Hejeira and Sbeineh. Government forces have also recaptured the town of Tel Aran, southeast of Aleppo, and a military base near Aleppo's international airport.
On 10 November, the Syrian army had taken full control of "Base 80", which is near Aleppo's airport. According to the SOHR, 63 rebels, including at least 11 foreign fighters, and 32 soldiers were killed during the battle. One other report put the number of rebels killed between 60 and 80. Army units were backed-up by Hezbollah fighters and pro-government militias during the assault. The following day, government forces recaptured several nearby positions, securing most of the area around the airport.
On 13 November, government forces captured most of Hejeira, with some pockets of resistance still remaining. Rebels retreated from Hejeira to Al-Hajar al-Aswad. However, their defenses in besieged districts closer to the heart of Damascus were still reportedly solid.
On 23 November, al-Nusra Front and other Islamist rebels captured the al-Omar oil field, Syria's largest oil field, in Deir al-Zor governorate causing the government to rely almost entirely on imported oil.
On 24 November, rebels captured the towns of Bahariya, Qasimiya, Abbadah, and Deir Salman in Damascus's countryside.
On 25 November, rebels reentered Khanasser after having previously lost it a month prior.
On 28 November, the Army recaptured Deir Attiyeh.
On 2 December, rebels led by the Free Syrian Army recaptured the historic Christian town of Ma'loula after 3 days of fighting. After the fighting, reports emerged that 12 nuns had been abducted by the rebels. However, the FSA disputes this and claimed that the nuns had been evacuated due to Syrian Army shelling and had moved them to the nearby rebel held town of Yabrud.
Advanced weaponry and tactics
The Syrian government has been accused of conducting several chemical attacks, the most serious of them being the 2013 Ghouta attacks.
The rebels have also been accused of conducting several chemical attacks, the most serious of which was the Khan al-Assal chemical attack. The Khan al-Assal attack took place on 19 March 2013, and was initially reported on Syrian state news agency, SANA. That missiles containing "chemical materials" may have been fired into the Khan al-Assal district in Aleppo and the Al Atebeh suburbs of Damascus, resulting in 25 dead. Both sides immediately accused each other of carrying out the attack, but neither side presented clear documentation. Russian experts later visited the site, found samples of sarin, and assigned responsibility for the attack to the rebels. UN weapons inspectors are also scheduled to visit the site in 2013.
On 29 April, another chemical attack was reported, this time in Saraqib, in which 2 died and 13 were injured. On 5 May, Turkish doctors said initial test show no traces of sarin had been found in the blood samples of victims. French intelligence acquired blood, urine, earth and munitions samples from victims or sites of attacks on Saraqeb, on 29 April 2013, and Jobar, in mid April 2013. The analysis carried out confirms the use of sarin.
On 13 June, the United States announced that there is definitive proof that the Assad government has used limited amounts of chemical weapons on multiple occasions on rebel forces, killing 100 to 150 people. Internal US intelligence assessments by the CIA and DIA concluded that rebel forces also possessed chemical weapons capability, and that US forces would risk rebel sarin attack if deployed to Syria.
On 5 August, another chemical attack by the Syrian army was reported by the opposition, who documented the injured with video footage. The activists claim up to 400 people were effected by the attack in Adra and Houma of the Damascus suburbs. The content of the chemicals used has not been identified yet.
On 21 August Jobar, Zamalka, 'Ain Tirma, and Hazzah in the Eastern Ghouta region were struck with chemical weapons. At least 635 people were killed in the nerve gas attacks. The Ghouta chemical attacks were confirmed after a three-week investigation conducted by the UN, who also confirmed the main agent used in the chemical attacks was sarin gas. The Mission "collected clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used in the Ein Tarma, Moadamiyah and Zalmalka in the Ghouta area of Damascus." Third party analyses of the evidence reported by the UN showed that the sarin gas was military grade, and the rockets that delivered the sarin may have been launched from Syrian army or rebel controlled territory.
On 9 September Russia urged Syria to put its' chemical weapons stockpile under international control. The initiative was expressed in the wake of American threat of attacking Syria after the chemical attack of 21 August. On 14 September, US and Russia announced in Geneva that they reached a deal on how Assad should give up his chemical weapons.
The Syrian army began using cluster bombs in September 2012. Steve Goose, director of the Arms division at Human Rights Watch said "Syria is expanding its relentless use of cluster munitions, a banned weapon, and civilians are paying the price with their lives and limbs,” "The initial toll is only the beginning because cluster munitions often leave unexploded bomblets that kill and maim long afterward."
Scud missile attacks
In December 2012, the Syrian government began using Scud missiles on rebel-held towns, primarily targeting Aleppo. On 19 February, four Scud missiles were fired, three landed in Aleppo city and one on Tell Rifaat town, Aleppo governorate. Between December and February, at least 40 Scud missile landings were reported. Altogether, Scud missiles killed 141 people in the month of February. The United States condemned the Scud missile attacks. On 1 March, a Scud missile landed in Iraq. It is believed that the intention was to hit the Deir Ezzor governate. On 29 March, a Scud missile landed on Hretan, Aleppo, killing 20 and injuring 50. On 28 April, a Scud missile landed on Tell Rifaat, killing four, two of them women and two of them children, SOHR reported. On 3 June a surface to surface missile, not confirmed as a Scud, hit the village of Kafr Hamrah around midnight killing 26 people including six women and eight children according to SOHR.
Rebel suicide bombings began in December 2011; Al-Nusra Front has claimed responsibility for 57 out of 70 similar attacks through April 2013. Targeting government officials, the bombings have claimed numerous civilian casualties.
Thermobaric weapons, also known as "fuel-air bombs," have been used by the government side during the Syrian civil war. Since 2012, rebels have claimed that the Syrian Air Force (government forces) is using thermobaric weapons against residential areas occupied by the rebel fighters, such as during the Battle of Aleppo and also in Kafr Batna. A panel of United Nations human rights investigators reported that the Syrian government used thermobaric bombs against the rebellious town of Qusayr in March 2013. In August 2013 the BBC reported on the use of napalm-like incendiary bombs on a school in northern Syria.
Syrian government affiliated parties
In November 2011, the Syrian armed forces is estimated to have 200,000 troops. By August 2013, that figure has dropped to 178,000, likely due to defections, desertions, and casualties. As of February 2013, about 80 percent of Syrian soldiers are conscripts from the Sunni Muslim majority population. However, about 60 percent of the officer corps are Alawite.
The Shabiha are unofficial pro-government militias drawn largely from Assad's Alawite minority group. Since the uprising, the Syrian government has frequently used shabiha to break up protests and enforce laws in restive neighborhoods. As the protests escalated into an armed conflict, the opposition started using the term shabiha to describe any civilian Assad supporter taking part in the government's crackdown on the uprising. The opposition blames the shabiha for the many violent excesses committed against anti-government protesters and opposition sympathizers, as well as looting and destruction. In December 2012, the shabiha were designated a terrorist organization by the United States.
Bassel al-Assad is reported to have created the shabiha in the 1980s for government use in times of crisis. Shabiha have been described as "a notorious Alawite paramilitary, who are accused of acting as unofficial enforcers for Assad's regime"; "gunmen loyal to Assad", and, according to the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, "semi-criminal gangs comprised of thugs close to the regime". Despite the group's image as an Alawite militia, some shabiha operating in Aleppo have been reported to be Sunnis.
In 2012, the Assad government created a more organized official militia known as the Jaysh al-Sha'bi, allegedly with help from Iran and Hezbollah. As with the shabiha, the vast majority of Jaysh al-Sha'bi members are Alawite and Shi'ite volunteers.
General Secretary Nasrallah denied Hezbollah had been fighting on behalf of the Syrian government, stating in a 12 October 2012 speech that "right from the start the Syrian opposition has been telling the media that Hezbollah sent 3,000 fighters to Syria, which we have denied".
However, according to the Lebanese Daily Star newspaper, Nasrallah said in the same speech that Hezbollah fighters helped the Syrian government "retain control of some 23 strategically located villages [in Syria] inhabited by Shiites of Lebanese citizenship". Nasrallah said that Hezbollah fighters have died in Syria doing their "jihadist duties".
In 2012, Hezbollah fighters crossed the border from Lebanon and took over eight villages in the Al-Qusayr District of Syria.
On 12 May, Hezbollah, with the Syrian army, attempted to retake part of Qusayr. By the end of the day, 60 percent of the city, including the municipal office building, were under pro-Assad forces. In Lebanon, there have been "a recent increase in the funerals of Hezbollah fighters" and "Syrian rebels have shelled Hezbollah-controlled areas."
As of 14 May, Hezbollah fighters were reported to be fighting alongside the Syrian army, particularly in the Homs Governorate. And Hassan Nasrallah has called on Shiites and Hezbollah to protect the shrine of Sayida Zeinab. President Bashar al-Assad denied in May 2013 that there were foreign fighters, Arab or otherwise, fighting for the government in Syria.
On 25 May, Nasrallah announced that Hezbollah was fighting in the Syria against Islamic extremists and "pledged that his group will not allow Syrian militants to control areas that border Lebanon". He confirmed that Hezbollah was fighting in the strategic Syrian town of Qusayr on the same side as Assad's forces. In the televised address, he said, "If Syria falls in the hands of America, Israel and the takfiris, the people of our region will go into a dark period."
Since the start of the civil war Iran has expressed its support for the Syrian government and provided it with support in several ways: financial, technical, and military.
Syrian National Council
Formed on 23 August 2011, the National Council is a coalition of anti-government groups, based in Turkey. The National Council seeks the end of Bashar al-Assad's rule and the establishment of a modern, civil, democratic state. SNC has links with the Free Syrian Army.
Syrian National Coalition
On 11 November 2012 in Doha, the National Council and other opposition forces united as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The following day, it was recognized as the legitimate government of Syria by numerous Persian Gulf states. Delegates to the Coalition's leadership council are to include women and representatives of religious and ethnic minorities, including Alawites. The military council will reportedly include the Free Syrian Army.
The main aims of the National Coalition are replacing the Bashar al-Assad government and "its symbols and pillars of support", "dismantling the security services", unifying and supporting the Free Syrian Army, refusing dialogue and negotiation with the al-Assad government, and "holding accountable those responsible for killing Syrians, destroying [Syria], and displacing [Syrians]".
Free Syrian Army
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is the main armed opposition in Syria. Its formation was announced in late July 2011 by a group of defecting Syrian Army officers. In a video, the men called upon Syrian soldiers and officers to defect to their ranks, and said the purpose of the Free Syrian Army was to defend civilian protesters from violence by the state. Many Syrian soldiers subsequently deserted to join the FSA. The actual number of soldiers who defected to the FSA is uncertain, with estimates ranging from 1,000 to over 25,000 by December 2011. The FSA functions more as an umbrella organization than a traditional military chain of command, and is "headquartered" in Turkey. As such, it cannot issue direct orders to its various bands of fighters, but many of the most effective armed groups are fighting under the FSA's banner.
As deserting soldiers abandoned their armored vehicles and brought only light weaponry and munitions, FSA adopted guerilla-style tactics against government security forces in urban areas. Initially, its primary target has been the Shabiha militias; most FSA attacks are directed against trucks and buses that are believed to carry security reinforcements. Sometimes, the occupants of government vehicles are taken as hostages, while in other cases the vehicles are attacked either with roadside bombs or with hit-and-run attacks. To encourage defection, the FSA began attacking army patrols, shooting the commanders and trying to convince the soldiers to switch sides. FSA units have also acted as defense forces by guarding neighborhoods with strong opposition presences, patrolling streets while protests take place, and attacking Shabiha members. As the insurgency grew, the FSA began engaging in urban battles against the Syrian Army.
In May 2013, Salim Idriss, one of the FSA leaders, acknowledged that rebels were badly fragmented and lacked the military skill needed to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad. He said it was difficult to unify rebels because many of them were civilians and only a few of them had military service. Idriss said he was working on a countrywide command structure, but that a lack of material support was hurting that effort. He pointed out shortage of ammunition and weapons, fuel for the cars and money for logistics and salaries. "The battles are not so simple now,” Idriss said. "At the beginning of the revolution, they had to fight against a checkpoint. They had to fight against a small group of the army. Now they have to liberate an air base. Now they have to liberate a military school. Small units can't do that alone, and now it is very important for them to be unified. But unifying them in a manner to work like a regular army is still difficult." He denied any cooperation with Al-Nusra Front but acknowledged common operations with another Islamist group Ahrar ash-Sham. In April the US announced it would transfer $123 million of aid through his group. In late September it was reported that the Army and rebels in some areas have ceased hostilities, and individual FSA-linked parties have begun attempts to start dialogue.
In September 2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that extremist groups make up 15–25% of rebel forces. According to Charles Lister, about 12% of rebels are part of groups linked to Al-Qaeda, 18% belong to Ahrar ash-Sham, and 9% belong to Suqour al-Sham Brigade. Foreign fighters have joined the conflict in opposition to Assad. While most of them are jihadists, some individuals, such as Mahdi al-Harati, have joined to support the Syrian opposition.
The ICSR estimates that 2,000–5,500 foreign fighters have gone to Syria since the beginning of the protests, about 7–11 percent of whom came from Europe. It is also estimated that the number of foreign fighters does not exceed 10 percent of the opposition armed forces. The European Commission expressed concerns that some of the fighters might use their skills obtained in Syria to commit acts of terrorism back in Europe in the future.
The most significant group is Al-Nusra Front, headed by Abu Mohammed al-Golani, which probably accounts for up to a quarter of opposition fighters in Syria. It includes some of the rebellion's most battle-hardened and effective fighters, coming from Bosnia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Palestine, Lebanon, Australia, Chechnya, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan, France, Iraq, Spain, Denmark and Tajikistan.
After the civil war in Libya had finished, fighters from there began moving to Syria through Turkey. It was reported by Syrian opposition that foreigners brought heavy weapons with them, including surface-to-air missiles. However, Libyans denied that claim. Abdulhakim Belhadj, head of the Tripoli Military Council, met with FSA leaders near the border with Turkey. The meetings were a sign of growing ties between new Libyan government and Syrian opposition. The arrangements included transfers of money and weapons, as well as training of the rebels by skilled fighters from Libya. One of the Libya's most known rebel commanders, Mahdi al-Harati, traveled to Syria in a group of 30 fighters, to form Liwaa al-Umma there.
In October 2012, various Iraqi religious groups join the conflict in Syria on both sides. Radical Sunnis from Iraq, have traveled to Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government. Also, Shiites from Iraq, in Babil Province and Diyala Province, have traveled to Damascus from Tehran, or from the Shiite Islamic holy city of Najaf, Iraq to protect Sayyida Zeinab, an important mosque and shrine of Shia Islam in Damascus.
Hundreds of young Saudis were reported to travel through Turkey or Jordan in order to fight against Assad in Syria. In one documented case a judge encouraged a group of convicted young men to "fight against the real enemy, the Shia". Most of them joined Syrian rebels. Since convicted criminals cannot leave Saudi Arabia without Interior Ministry permission, it is suspected that officials silently allow them to travel to fight.
Government of Tunisia estimated that about 800 of its citizens were fighting alongside Islamist forces in Syria. However, unofficial sources at Interior Ministry put the number as high as 2,000.
Hundreds of Egyptian fighters are suspected to be involved in Syrian conflict. Some of them traveled there and back several times. The government officially confirmed 10 "martyrs".
8 Spanish citizens have been arrested in Ceuta. These individuals have been accused of training and organising the movement of Spaniards to fight in Syria, with the group having links to Al-Qaeda. Some 500 European citizens, according to EU counter-terrorism head Gilles de Kerchove, are fighting in Syria, two British citizens and an American woman have been killed in Syria so far.
In September 2013 leaders of 13 powerful rebel brigades rejected Syrian National Coalition and called Sharia law "the sole source of legislation". In a statement they declared that "the coalition and the putative government headed by Ahmad Tomeh does not represent or recognize us". Among the signatory rebel groups were Al-Nusra Front, Ahrar ash-Sham and Al-Tawheed. In November 2013, seven Islamist groups combined to form the Islamic Front.
The al-Nusra Front, being the biggest jihadist group in Syria, is often considered to be the most aggressive and violent part of the opposition. Being responsible for over 50 suicide bombings, including several deadly explosions in Damascus in 2011 and 2012, it is recognized as a terrorist organization by Syrian government and was designated as such by United States in December 2012.
In April 2013, the leader of the Islamic state of Iraq released an audio statement announcing that al-Nusra Front is its branch in Syria. The leader of Al Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, said that the group will not merge with the Islamic state of Iraq, but still maintain allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda.
The relationship between the Al-Nusra Front and the indigenous Syrian opposition is tense, even though al-Nusra Front has fought alongside the FSA in several battles. The Mujahideen's strict religious views and willingness to impose sharia law disturbed many Syrians. Some rebel commanders have accused foreign jihadists of "stealing the revolution", robbing Syrian factories and displaying religious intolerance.
Al-Nusra Front has been accused of mistreating religious and ethnic minorities since their formation. The estimated manpower of al-Nusra Front is approximately 6,000–10,000 people, including many foreign fighters.
Sectarianism and minorities
Both the opposition and government have accused each other of employing sectarian agitation. The successive governments of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad have been closely associated with the country's minority Alawite religious group, an offshoot of Shia, whereas the majority of the population, and thus most of the opposition, is Sunni, lending plausibility to such charges, even though both leaderships claim to be secular.
Kurds – mostly Sunni Muslims, with a small minority of Yezidis – represented 10% of Syria's population at the start of the uprising in 2011. They had suffered from decades of discrimination and neglect, being deprived of basic civil, cultural, economic, and social rights.:7 When protests began, Assad's government finally granted citizenship to an estimated 200,000 stateless Kurds, in an effort to try and neutralize potential Kurdish opposition. This concession, combined with Turkish endorsement of the opposition and Kurdish under-representation in the Syrian National Council, has resulted in Kurds participating in the civil war in smaller numbers than their Syrian Arab Sunni counterparts. Consequently, violence and state repression in Kurdish areas has been less severe. In terms of a post-Assad Syria, Kurds reportedly desire a degree of autonomy within a decentralized state.
Since the outset of the civil war, numerous Kurdish political parties have organised themselves into an umbrella organisation, the Kurdish National Council. Until October 2011, most of these parties were members of the NCC. After October 2011, only the PYD remained in the NCC, holding a more moderate stance regarding the Assad government.
The conflict between the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and Islamists groups such as al-Nusra Front have escalated since a group of Kurds expelled Islamists from the border town of Ras al-Ain.
The reaction of the approximately 500,000 Palestinians living in Syria to the conflict has been mixed. Syria's Palestinian community largely remained neutral in the early days of the uprising. Ongoing government attacks and shelling have caused any pro-government sympathies among the Palestinians in Syria to dwindle severely. According to the UN, 75% of the Palestinians in Syria have been affected by the uprising, and more than 600 of them have been killed. Although many Palestinians are appreciative of the civil rights given to them by the Syrian government, in comparison to other Arab states, these same rights have allowed the younger generation of Palestinians to be "raised essentially as Syrians" who "find it hard not to be swept up in the fervor on the streets", according to the New York Times.
While major Palestinian factions such as Hamas have turned against the Syrian government, other groups, particularly the PFLP-General Command (PFLP-GC), have remained supportive. The PFLP-GC has been accused by pro-rebel Palestinians of actively participating in the conflict as secret police in the refugee camps. In late October 2012, pro-rebel Palestinians formed the so-called Storm Brigade with the task of wresting control of the Yarmouk Camp in Damascus from pro-government groups.
Christians are generally considered to have a favorable situation under the Syrian government, considered to be "protector" of minorities. Numerous abuses were recorded by the opposition forces against Christians as a result, most notably by Mujahedeen units. Unknown, but significant numbers of Christians, have fled the country since 2011, relocating to Lebanon and Europe. A number of Oriental Orthodox (Syriac) Christians have also returned to Turkey, which was their historic homeland before many of them had fled to Syria during World War I. The Syriac community in Tur Abedin has been swelling from an influx of both Syrian refugees and returned diaspora Syriacs from the West. Notably, during the civil war, Islamist rebels invaded the historic Christian town of Maloula.
The Arab League, European Union, the United Nations and many Western governments quickly condemned the Syrian government's violent response to the protests, and expressed support for the protesters' right to exercise free speech. Initially, many Middle Eastern governments expressed support for Assad, but as the death toll mounted they switched to a more balanced approach, criticizing violence from both government and protesters. Both the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation suspended Syria's membership. Russia and China vetoed Western-drafted United Nations Security Council resolutions in 2011 and 2012 which would have threatened the Syrian government with targeted sanctions if it continued military actions against protestors. Recently, the United Nations prepared an 22 January 2014 international peace conference in Geneva, in which both the Syrian government and opposition have promised to participate.
The international humanitarian response to the conflict in Syria is coordinated by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in accordance with General Assembly Resolution 46/182. The primary framework for this coordination is the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP) which appealed for USD 1.41 billion to meet the humanitarian needs of Syrians affected by the conflict. Official United Nations data on the humanitarian situation and response is available at http://syria.unocha.org/; an official website managed by UNOCHA Syria (Amman).
Financial information on the response to the SHARP, as well as assistance to refugees and for cross-border operations, can be found on UNOCHA's Financial Tracking Service. As at 18 September 2013 the top ten donors to Syria were: United States, European Commission, Kuwait, United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, Japan, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Denmark. USAID and other government agencies in US delivered nearly $385 million of aid items to Syria in 2012 and 2013. The United States is providing food aid, medical supplies, emergency and basic health care, shelter materials, clean water, hygiene education and supplies, and other relief supplies. Islamic Relief has stocked 30 hospitals and sent hundreds of thousands of medical and food parcels.
Other countries in the region have also contributed various levels of aid. Iran has been exporting between 500 and 800 tonnes of flour daily to Syria. Israel has granted special entry permits for over 100 wounded Syrians to be treated at Israeli medical facilities, and has set up a field hospital on the Syrian border. On 26 April 2013 a humanitarian convoy, inspired by Gaza Flotilla, departed from Turkey to Syria. Called Hayat ("Life"), it is set to deliver aid items to IDPs inside Syria and refugees in neighboring countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
The World Health Organization has reported that 35% of the country's hospitals are out of service and, depending upon the region, up to 70% of health care professionals have fled. Cases of diarrhoea and hepatitis A have increased by more than twofold since the beginning of 2013. Due to fighting, the normal vaccination programs cannot be undertaken. The displaced refugees may also pose a risk to countries to which they have fled.
The Syrian civil war has received significant international attention, and both the Syrian government and the opposition have received support, militarily and diplomatically, from foreign countries.
The main Syrian opposition body – the Syrian coalition - receives political, logistic and military support from the US, Britain and France. The Syrian coalition also receives logistic and political support from major Sunni states in the Middle East, most notably Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia; all the three major supporting states however have not contributed any troops for direct involvement in the war, though Turkey was involved in a number of border incidents with Syrian Army. The major Syrian Kurdish opposition group, the PYD, was reported to get logistic and training support from Iraqi Kurdistan. Islamist militants in Syria were reported to receive support from private funders, mainly in the Persian Gulf area, as well as from Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The major parties supporting the Syrian Government are Iran and Hezbollah. Both of these are involved in the war politically and logistically by providing military equipment, training and battle troops. The Syrian government has also received arms and political support from Russia and reports have said North Korea, which has 'longstanding ties' to the Assad government, has sent artillery officers, advisors and helicopter pilots.
Between January 2012 and September 2013, over a million videos documenting the war have been uploaded, and they have received hundreds of millions of views. The Wall Street Journal states that the "unprecedented confluence of two technologies—cellphone cams and social media—has produced, via the instant upload, a new phenomenon: the YouTube war." The New York Times states that online videos have "allowed a widening war to be documented like no other."
Estimates of deaths in the conflict vary widely, with figures, per opposition activist groups, ranging from 89,120 and 120,300. On 2 January 2013, the United Nations stated that 60,000 had been killed since the civil war began, with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay saying "The number of casualties is much higher than we expected, and is truly shocking." Four months later, the UN's updated figure for the death toll had reached 80,000. On 13 June the UN released an updated figure of people killed since fighting began, the figure being exactly 92,901, for up to the end of April 2013. Navi Pillay, UN high commissioner for human rights, stated that: "This is most likely a minimum casualty figure." The real toll was guessed to be over 100,000. Some areas of the country have been affected disproportionately by the war; by some estimates, as many as a third of all deaths have occurred in the city of Homs.
One problem has been determining the number of "armed combatants" who have died, due to some sources counting rebel fighters who were not government defectors as civilians. At least half of those confirmed killed have been estimated to be combatants from both sides, including 48,880 government fighters and 25,700 rebels, with an additional 40,000 unconfirmed combatant deaths. In addition, UNICEF reported that over 500 children had been killed by early February 2012, and another 400 children have been reportedly arrested and tortured in Syrian prisons; both of these claims have been contested by the Syrian government. Additionally, over 600 detainees and political prisoners are known to have died under torture. In mid-October 2012, the opposition activist group SOHR reported the number of children killed in the conflict had risen to 2,300, and in March 2013, opposition sources stated that over 5,000 children had been killed. SOHR's methodology for counting civilian victims has been questioned, as the organisation includes opposition combatants among the number of civilian casualties, as long as these are not former members of the military.
The violence in Syria has caused millions to flee their homes. In August 2012, the United Nations said more than one million people were internally displaced, and in September 2013, the UN reported that more than 6.5 million Syrians had been displaced, of whom 2 million fleeing to neighboring countries, 1 in 3 of those refugees (= 667,000 people) seeking safety in tiny Lebanon (normally 4,8 million population). Others have fled to Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq. Turkey has accepted 400,000 Syrian refugees, half of whom are spread around a dozen camps placed under the direct authority of the Turkish Government. Satellite images confirmed that the first Syrian camps appeared in Turkey in July 2011, shortly after the towns of Deraa, Homs and Hama were besieged. On 9 October 2012, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that the number of external Syrian refugees stood at between 355,000 to 500,000. In September 2013, the UN stated that the number of Syrian refugees had exceeded 2 million.
Human rights violations
Human rights violations have been committed by both the government and the rebels. UN investigations have concluded that the government's abuses are the greatest in both gravity and scale. U.N. commission investigating human rights abuses in Syria. Confirms at least 9 intentional mass killing, 2012 to mid-July 2013, identifying the perpetrator as Syrian government and its supporters in eight cases, and the opposition in one.
By July 2013, the Syrian economy has shrunk 45 percent since the start of the conflict. Unemployment increased fivefold, the value of the Syrian currency decreased to one-sixth its pre-war value, and the public sector lost 15 billion US dollars.
As the conflict has expanded across Syria, many cities have been engulfed in a wave of crime as fighting caused the disintegration of much of the civilian state, and many police stations stopped functioning. Rates of thievery increased, with criminals looting houses and stores. Rates of kidnappings increased as well. Rebel fighters were sighted stealing cars and destroying an Aleppo restaurant in which Syrian soldiers had eaten.
By July 2012, the human rights group Women Under Siege had documented over 100 cases of rape and sexual assault during the conflict, with many of these crimes believed to be perpetrated by the Shabiha and other pro-government militias. Victims included men, women, and children, with about 80% of the known victims being women and girls.
Criminal networks have been used by both the government and the opposition during the conflict. Facing international sanctions, the Syrian government relied on criminal organizations to smuggle goods and money in and out of the country. The economic downturn caused by the conflict and sanctions also led to lower wages for Shabiha members. In response, some Shabiha members began stealing civilian properties, and engaging in kidnappings.
Rebel forces sometimes relied on criminal networks to obtain weapons and supplies. Black market weapon prices in Syria's neighboring countries have significantly increased since the start of the conflict. To generate funds to purchase arms, some rebel groups have turned towards extortion, stealing, and kidnapping.
The civil war has caused significant damage to Syria's cultural heritage, including World Heritage Sites. Destruction of antiquities has been caused by shelling, army entrenchment and looting at various tells, museums, and monuments. A group called Syrian archaeological heritage under threat is monitoring and recording the destruction in an attempt to create a list of heritage sites damaged during the war and gain global support for the protection and preservation of Syrian archaeology and architecture. An air raid on Syria's famed Krak des Chevaliers castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has damaged one of the fortress's towers. The footage shows a huge blast as a tower of the Crusader castle appears to take a direct hit, throwing up large clouds of smoke and scattering debris in the air. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights could not confirm direct hits on the castle, but said there were reports of three air strikes in the area on Friday, 11 July 2013.
The war has produced its own particular artwork. A late-Summer 2013 exhibition in London at the P21 Gallery was able to show some of this work.
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<ref>tag; name "HRW" defined multiple times with different content
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<ref>tag; name "seize" defined multiple times with different content
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- Syrian army captures key town
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- Syria Conflict at BBC News
- Syrian uprising at Facebook
- Syrian uprising: A year in turmoil at The Washington Post
- Latest Syria developments at NOW Lebanon
- Syria collected news and commentary at The Guardian
- Syria collected news and commentary at The New York Times
- The ICRC in Syria, International Committee of the Red Cross
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- Syria collected coverage at Al Jazeera English
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