Syria’s civil war explained from the beginning

The Syrian civil war is the deadliest conflict the 21st century has witnessed thus far.

As the Syrian conflict enters its seventh year, more than 465,000 Syrians have been killed in the fighting, more than a million injured and over 12 million Syrians – half the country’s prewar population – have been displaced from their homes.

In 2011, what became known as the Arab Spring revolts toppled Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

That March, peaceful protests erupted in Syria as well, after 15 boys were detained and tortured for having written graffiti in support of the Arab Spring. One of the boys, 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb, was killed after having been brutally tortured.

The Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, responded to the protests by killing hundreds of demonstrators and imprisoning many more. In July 2011, defectors from the military announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group aiming to overthrow the government, and Syria began to slide into civil war.

What caused the uprising?

Initially, lack of freedoms and economic woes fuelled resentment of the Syrian government, and public anger was inflamed by the harsh crackdown on protesters. Successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt energised and gave hope to Syrian pro-democracy activists. Many Islamist movements were also strongly opposed to the Assads’ rule.

Although the initial protests were mostly non-sectarian, armed conflict led to the emergence of starker sectarian divisions. Minority religious groups tend to support the Assad government, while the overwhelming majority of opposition fighters are Sunni Muslims.

Although most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, Syria’s security establishment has long been dominated by members of the Alawite sect, of which Assad is a member.

The sectarian split is reflected among regional actors’ stances as well.

In 1982, Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, ordered a military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, which killed between 10,000-40,000 people and flattened much of the city.

Even global warming has been claimed to have played a role in sparking the 2011 uprising. A severe drought plagued Syria from 2007-10, spurring as many as 1.5 million people to migrate from the countryside into cities, which exacerbated poverty and social unrest.

Rebel groups

Since the Free Syrian Army formed in 2011, many new rebel groups have joined the fighting in Syria, including ISIL, Jabhat Fateh al Sham, Iran-backed Hezbollah, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

The FSA has weakened as the war has progressed, while explicitly Islamist groups such as the al-Nusra Front became empowered. Al-Nusra Front leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, announced in 2016 his group’s name changed to Jabhat Fateh al Sham, or The Front for liberation of al Sham, and severed ties with al-Qaeda.

ISIL emerged in northern and eastern Syria in 2013 after overrunning large portions of Iraq. The group quickly gained international notoriety for its brutal executions and its energetic use of social media. The ranks of ISIL include a sizeable number of fighters from around the world.

Kurdish groups in northern Syria are also seeking self-rule in areas under their control.

Lebanese members of Hezbollah are fighting on the side of Assad, as are Iranian and Afghan fighters.

Rebel groups have jockeyed against one another for power, and frequently fight each other.

Since the Assad forces recaptured Aleppo from rebel fighters, a new military alliance of rebel groups in northern Syria was formed with the aim to consolidate military control over Idlib province, the western part of Aleppo province and parts of Latakia province, according to an FSA commander.

Fighting has occasionally spilled over from Syria into Lebanon, contributing to the country’s political polarisation. Several rounds of peace talks have failed to stop the fighting.

The situation today

Chemical weapons have been a recurring footnote in the bloody narrative of Syria’s civil war. On Tuesday, a suspected chemical attack, that killed at least 80 civilians in the Idlib opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, is being investigated by the United Nations as a potential war crime.

Despite the fact that 1,300 tonnes of sarin nerve gas and its precursors were removed from Syria, chemical attacks persist there nearly four years later.

In March, an alliance of US-backed fighters said it has begun a new phase of its campaign on the ISIL-held city of Raqqa in northern Syria, aiming to complete its encirclement and sever the road to the group’s strongholds in Deir Az Zor province.

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