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Syrian Civil War

Published: 30th Dec, 2019

Recently, United States announced its pull-out from Syria. The on-going conflict in Syria is the second deadliest of 21st century and fought between several factions. It is difficult to understand the Syrian civil war without understanding the regional and foreign players involved in it and their motives.


Recently, United States announced its pull-out from Syria. The on-going conflict in Syria is the second deadliest of 21st century and fought between several factions. It is difficult to understand the Syrian civil war without understanding the regional and foreign players involved in it and their motives.


  • Geographical location: Syria is a country in West Asia, sharing borders with Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel. In its west, it shares coastline with the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Population groups: Syria is home to diverse ethnic and religious groups, including Syrian Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens, Assyrians, Armenians, Circassians, Mandaeans and Greeks.
    • Religious groups include Sunnis, Christians, Alawis, Druze, Ismailis, Mandaeans, Shiites, Salafis, Yazidis, and Jews.
    • Arabs are the largest ethnic group, and Sunnis the largest religious group of Syria.
  • History: Syria is a historically rich country. The name ‘Syria’ historically referred to a wider region, broadly synonymous with the Levant, and known in Arabic as ‘Al-Sham’. The modern state encompasses the sites of several ancient kingdoms and empires, including the Ebla Kingdom of 3rd millennium BC.

    • Aleppo and the capital city of Damascus are among the oldest continuously inhabited cities of the world.
    • In Islamic era, Damascus was the seat of Umayyad Caliphate and the provincial capital of Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt.
    • The modern Syrian state was established in mid-20th century after centuries of Ottoman rule and a brief period of French mandate.
    • It gained de jure independence in 1945, when Republic of Syria became a founding member of the United Nations, legally ending the former French Mandate.
    • The post-independence period was tumultuous, with many military coups shaking the country.
    • In 1958, Syria entered a brief union with Egypt called the United Arab Republic, which was terminated by the 1961 Syrian coup d'état.
    • After a constitutional referendum in late 1961, the republic was renamed Syrian Arab Republic.
    • The republic was unstable until the 1963 Ba'athist coup d'état, since which time the Ba'ath Party has maintained its power.
    • Syria was under Emergency Law from 1963 to 2011, effectively suspending most constitutional protections for citizens.
  • Governance: Syria is a unitary republic consisting of 14 governorates and is the only country that politically espouses Ba'athism.
    • Bashar al-Assad is the President of Syria since 2000. His father, Hafez al-Assad, was also the President of Syria from 1971 to 2000.
    • Many political scientists have characterized Assad family's rule of Syria as a Personalist dictatorship.
    • Many have condemned and criticized the ruling Ba'ath Party for human rights abuses, frequent executions of citizens and political prisoners, and massive censorship.
  • International representation: Syria is member of one other international organization other than the United Nations, the Non-Aligned Movement.
    • The ‘Arab League’ suspended Syria in 2011.
    • ‘Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’ suspended it in 2012.
    • In 2011, Syria self-suspended itself from the ‘Union for the Mediterranean’.


Syrian civil war

  • Unrest in Syria started as part of wider wave of the Arab Spring. It began in 2011 out of discontent with the Syrian Ba'athist government, with protests demanding removal of President Bashar al Assad; protesters were violently suppressed.
  • The on-going conflict in Syria is the second deadliest of 21st century.
  • Syria was ranked last on the Global Peace Index from 2016 to 2018.
  • Syrian conflict is widely described as a series of overlapping proxy wars between the regional and world powers, primarily between US and Russia, as well as between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The war is fought between several factions. (Refer to mains article “West Asia Politics and Conflict” for background reference.)

Understanding the different factions in Syrian civil war

Understanding the different belligerents in Syrian civil war is complicated, but to start with, can be done on the basis who supports and who opposes Mr Assad and his government. There are some other factions also in the Syrian war whose motives are independent of their support or opposition to Assad Government, like the ISIS.

Supporters of Syrian government:

  • Syrian Militia:
    • Syrian Armed Forces (SDA) of which Assad is Commander-in-chief.
    • National Defence Force (NDF), who draw their salaries and equipment from the government.
    • Shabiha, an unofficial militia drawn largely from Syria's Alawite minority group, the same sect to which Assad belongs.
  • Russia: Carries air strikes against the rebels (on behest of Syrian government) and provides political support to Syria at the UN. Russia has military interests in Syria, including its only Mediterranean naval base and an airbase in Latakia province of Syria.
  • Iran: Iran sees Mr Assad, a member of the heterodox Shia Alawite sect, as its closest Arab ally. Syria is also the main transit point for Iranian weapon shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
  • Hezbollah: This Lebanese Shia movement has sent thousands of fighters to fight alongside the Russian forces.
  • Egypt: Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egyptian president, openly supports Assad in the Syrian Civil War, on grounds that national armies are best suited to fight terror, and that a victory by Syrian rebels could have negative consequence of inspiring renewed support for Muslim Brotherhood in his own country.
  • Foreign Shia-Muslim militias: Recruited by Iran from Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.

Opposers of Syrian government (also referred to as Syrian Rebels):

  • Syrian National Coalition (SNC): This is a coalition of anti-government groups, based in Turkey. It aims to establish a modern, civil, democratic state, and is recognised as the legitimate government of Syria by numerous Gulf States.
  • Free Syrian Army (FSA): FSA was formed in 2011 by a defecting group of SDA officers. It was initially headquartered in Turkey and later in northern Syria. FSA is backed by Saudi Arabia.
  • Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF): An alliance of mainly Kurdish but also Arab, Syriac-Assyrian, and Turkmen militias with mainly left-wing and democratic political leanings. It is led predominantly by Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). SDF is opposed to Assad government, but has directed most of its efforts against Al-Nusra Front and ISIS.
  • Syrian Salvation Government (SSG): SSG is an alternative opposition government, though not recognised by the main opposition group SNC. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is its military arm.
  • Turkey: Provides arms, military and political support to government opposers. Turkey sees YPG militia in Syria as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting the Turkish military for decades.
    • To prevent Syrian Kurds from establishing a contiguous autonomous region along its border, Turkey has carried out air strikes on the YPG.
    • Kurds and YPG have considerably benefitted from military support from the US, which sees them as one of most effective anti-IS forces on ground. But Turkey is against US support to YPG.
  • Gulf Arab states: Regional Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia oppose Iran's influence in Syria. They provide logistical support, training, money and weapons to rebel groups. They also backed the US-led coalition against ISIS. There is no longer a Saudi Arabian embassy in Syria.
  • United States: The US provides arms, training and military assistance to "moderate" groups. US mostly stay away from direct attack on the Syrian government, but it began backing rebel groups alleging that Mr Assad was responsible for widespread atrocities, including chemical attacks on protesters.
    • US mostly maintain an official stand of fight against ISIS as reason for its presence in Syria. Lately, it announced its exit from Syria citing that the fight against ISIS was over, and it is not US concern to topple the Assad regime.

Salafi Jihadists

  • Al-Nusra Front: The Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front has often been considered the most aggressive and violent of all opposition groups. In several battles, it also fought alongside the FSA. Al-Nusra has often been accused of being backed by Turkey. In 2016 it renamed itself to Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, and later became the leading member of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham.
  • Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL): Also called the ISIS, exploited the war in Syria to carve out a large part of the country for creation of an Islamic proto-state "caliphate". As part of an international campaign against the IS militants, both supporters and opposers of Assad have attacked ISIS to curb its growth and release areas that it had captured. Raqqa (in northern Syria), the last strong hold of ISIS, was taken back in 2017.

Who are the Kurds?

  • Kurds – mostly Sunni Muslims, with a small minority of Yazidis – represented 10% of Syria's population at the start of 2011 uprising. Kurds had suffered decades of discrimination and neglect, deprived of basic civil, cultural, economic, and social rights.
  • When protests began in 2011, Assad government granted citizenship to an estimated 200,000 stateless Kurds, in an effort to neutralize potential Kurdish opposition.
  • Despite this concession, most Kurds remain opposed to the government, hoping instead for a more decentralized Syria based on federalism.
  • In early 2014, Kurdish people living in Syria's north (Rojava region) declared creation of an autonomous government in areas under their control.
  • To further their purpose, Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) was established in 2015. It is the political wing of SDF.

Syrian Refugee Crisis

  • Refugees of Syrian Civil War are the citizens and permanent residents of Syria, who have fled their country during the course of Syrian Civil War.
  • The war has killed more than half a million people, caused 6 million internally displaced people (July 2015 UNHCR) and over 5 million refugees (July 2017 UNHCR), making population assessment difficult in recent years.
  • Seeking asylum, many Syrians have fled to other countries. Many are placed in Syrian refugee camps established in Turkey (~3.6 million), Lebanon (~0.9 million), Jordan (~0.6 million), Egypt (~0.1 million) and other countries.
  • Syrian refugees have contributed to the European migrant crisis.
  • The Turkey factor: Many neighbouring countries like Turkey and Lebanon often call for deporting refugees with them to Europe or sending them back to Syria.
    • Turkey has also used the threat of deporting its Syrian refugees to Europe as a means to garner Europe’s support in its fight against Syrian Kurds and YGP. Europe on the other hand, has threatened Turkey of Sanctions for any such move.
  • Humanitarian aid to internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Syria and Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries is planned largely through
  • In 2015, the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP) was established as a coordination platform including Syrian neighbouring countries (except Israel) and Egypt.


Syrian civil war has had devastating consequences on Syrian economy and Syrian population. The many foreign players in Syria want to bolster their influence in Middle-East, and globally, by trying to be the key player in Syria. However, need of the hour is that nations stop treating Syria as a battleground for attaining global eminence. In fact, there is urgent need to take serious actions to reverse the humanitarian crisis in Syria.


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