Syria is a country located in the region of Western Asia. For decades, Syria has been ruled as a dictatorship by the Assad family, which belongs to the country’s Alawite minority. Hopes that the relatively young Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father as president in 2000, would lead the country in a democratic direction were never met. Inspired by the democracy uprising in North Africa in the spring of 2011, many Syrians also began to demonstrate reforms. The regime responded with force and the situation developed into a bloody civil war that is still ongoing.
In connection with the war entered its tenth year (in March 2020), calculated SOHR to total more than 384 000 people lost their lives, of which 116,000 civilians. Many millions of Syrians are on the run both inside and outside the country. Foreign states and groups have interfered in the fighting. So far, the peace attempts have been nothing.
- Countryaah: Country facts and history of Syria, including state flag, location map, demographics, GDP data, currency code, and business statistics.
When the uprising broke out in the spring of 2011 (see Modern History), the regime was challenged by democracy activists who demanded reforms and an end to the family’s Assad’s authoritarian rule, but eventually the conflict gained religious dimensions. President Assad has his strongest support within his own minority, the Alawites (see Population and Languages), but is also supported by some other minorities while the opposition is dominated by the Sunni Muslim majority.
As the conflict went on and became more violent, religious fundamentalists were able to strengthen their position, especially among armed groups inside Syria. Minorities and secular Sunni politicians have existed primarily in the exile opposition and peaceful groups, while armed rebel groups are often led by extreme Sunni Islamists (jihadists) who want to turn Syria into an Islamic state (read more about the opposition in the Political System).
A divided country
Syria is today a divided country, albeit less geographically divided than it was a few years ago. The government supported by Russia, Iran and the Shiite Hezbollah militia from Lebanon has ruled the western third of the country – the coast and areas near the capital Damascus – throughout the civil war – but with military support from Russia, the government has taken back several other areas. Russian forces began to leave the country since President Putin declared in December 2017 that tracts along the Euphrates River have been cleared from IS moorings, but Russia has continued to provide government support with air support, and has expanded its attacks.
In the Idlib province in the northwest, there were rebel-held areas at the beginning of 2020. The rebels there had then increased and the population had grown as government forces returned to other parts of the country in 2018. Rebels forced away from enclaves elsewhere had been bused to Idlib with their relatives. Increased cooperation between rebel groups in Idlib was reported as a result and the group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (with previous links to al-Qaeda) has devoted itself to trying to build its own empire. But by 2020, the rebels were hard-pressed by the Assad regime, whose attacks at the same time caused another massive wave of civilian refugees, this time from Idlib north to the Turkish border.
Kurdish parties and militia movements have since 2012 taken control of Kurdish cities in the north. In early 2014, these groups declared three autonomous Kurdish areas along most of Syria’s border with Turkey. In several steps, they have carried out elections to local and regional assemblies, despite the Assad regime’s goal of eventually regaining the tracts. As a result of Turkey’s military actions (three offensive between 2016 and 2019), the Kurdish-dominated forces have seen to accept the return of the Syrian government army. The fact that the United States under Donald Trump has chosen to reduce its military presence has weakened the Kurds.
Other parts of northern and most of eastern Syria were conquered from 2013 and held for several years by the Islamic State (IS) extremist movement. IS has since been pushed back so much in both Syria and Iraq that questions about how to handle IS fighters and their families should be taken over (see Calendar). If the Kurdish administration that legalized and imprisoned IS supporters in Syria is forced to surrender under military pressure from both Turkey and the Syrian regime, the question of what returning jihadists can cause to damage is even more fierce in the outside world.
In areas controlled by the government, life has often worked almost as usual during the civil war and the government has managed to maintain some legitimacy by keeping social functions running. Wages and pensions are paid out and there are goods in the shops, but this strategy has been difficult to implement when the economy deteriorates (see Finance). Since the uprising began, the government has implemented some reforms, for example, the constitution has been changed and opened for multi-party but basically nothing has changed and the power of the Assad family has not been reduced. The elections held were conducted under the conditions of the government, without free debate or credible democratic procedures.
Tens of thousands of civilians have lost their lives when they get in the way of firearms, air strikes or grenades. Well-known are the government-side thin bombs, petrol bombs filled with sharp objects, against civilian areas in rebel-controlled parts of the country. The city of Aleppo in the north has been particularly hard hit. From 2012 to the end of 2016, the city was divided: in the west the government ruled while the eastern part was controlled by rebels. In December 2016, Assad won an important victory as the government side regained control of eastern Aleppo. It happened after a multi-month bombing offensive. The air raids, often carried out by Russian planes, continued throughout the fall with devastating consequences for the population.
East of Damascus, in Eastern Ghuta, rebel-controlled cities were surrounded and occupied by the government for five years, 2013–2018. The government only allowed exceptional broadcasts and people died of starvation. In February 2018, the government side launched an offensive against rebel groups in the enclaves, which were expelled one by one and forced to head to Idlib in the northwest, where rebels had continued control. In April 2018, the government army declared that it had completely taken control of the rebel piano east of the capital. During the summer, the regime also resumed the tracts around symbolically important Daraa in the south, where the revolt began during the Arab Spring of 2011.
The government has been accused of using chemical weapons against civilians, including in the final phase of the offensive against the rebels outside Damascus. In 2013, Syria agreed to abandon all chemical weapons and a surrender took place under international control. However, the agreement did not include chlorine gas and since then several attacks with suspected chlorine gas have been reported. In 2017, the issue also reiterated whether the government side used sarin, with deadly consequences, in the UN, where the Security Council has remained divided in the view of what the reports should lead to action. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has concluded that both sarin and chlorine gas have been used on several occasions, including attacks against communities in the Idlib province in the spring of 2017. OPCW has since gained increased powers to also comment on who carried out the attacks..Calendar). These kinds of conclusions are expected to sharpen the contradictions between major powers that support different camps in the conflict.
Collection, but only against IS
IS applied a brutal rule in the areas controlled by the movement, with public mutilations and executions. Other rebels have also committed extensive crimes against civilians. When IS influence began to grow, the Assad regime’s aggression turned into a second-hand problem for the western countries: the fight against IS came to the fore. After IS declared an Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq in July 2014, the United States began to bomb the positions of the movement. The attacks were carried out together with a number of Arab states and western nations (read more in the Calendar). In 2015, Russia joined the bombing campaign but was accused of primarily attacking rebel groups other than IS in order to clear the battlefield for government forces. In 2016, Turkey also actively entered the war and sent troops across the border. The aim was to attack both IS and Kurdish forces in northern Syria, which have close ties to the PKK guerrillas in Turkey. In 2018 and 2019, Turkey carried out new offenses against the Kurdish-controlled areas (see Calendar).
The government side has been able to regain ground since Russia’s entry into the war. In 2016, the Assad regime also won a symbolically important victory over IS as its forces recaptured the culturally marked city of Palmyra (although the battle became difficult, IS managed to recapture the ruin city for a time). In the fall of 2016, IS only had about one-fifth of the area that has the most control. IS leader layers were also eroded by the fact that many leaders were killed in air strikes. Since IS was also fought in Iraq, the movement was pushed back. In November 2017, according to the Syrian government army, IS had been removed from all major cities. The final fight against IS took place in the border area against Iraq in 2019.
The opposition and Western countries demanded Assad’s departure for several years, but attempts by the UN Security Council to act against the Syrian government have been blocked by China and Russia, which have asserted the principle that the outside world is not allowed to interfere in or decide on Syria’s internal affairs.
In 2015, the situation changed. The accusations from the West against the Syrian government were faded. In the motion for a resolution, the Assad regime was not mentioned or not. Countries involved in the conflict focused on allowing the regime and the opposition to negotiate a compromise. After several turns, the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2254, drawing up guidelines for a ceasefire and formal peace talks with the government and the opposition / rebels, but without the most extreme groups, the IS and the Nusra Front. The goal was to establish a transitional government within six months that would draft a new constitution and then hold elections within 18 months.
Two previous attempts to launch a peace process, in 2012 (Geneva I) and 2014 (Geneva II), had been cast. Despite this, the outside world lived up to expectations for peace talks in 2016. After internal wear and tear, the opposition also appeared. It all happened a few days before the government backed by Russian fighter aircraft launched an offensive against the city of Aleppo and the UN probes had to be put on ice. A newly formed international support group for Syria, the ISSG, tried to push for a ceasefire and a short-term one came to fruition, but continued attempts at peace talks have not resulted.
Russia and Turkey then negotiated a nationwide ceasefire that the government side and several rebel groups joined. Russia, Turkey and Iran arranged talks between the government and the rebels in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana in 2017. It was decided to set up four “escalation zones” in Syria. The meetings have as little as the negotiations under the auspices of the UN brought an end to the war, however, the process has demonstrated that the Assad government has strengthened its position in line with successes in the fighting on the ground. The stairwell zones have been taken over by the regime, one by one.
The regime regains ground
2018 was marked by decisive offensive in several places, especially east of Damascus where the Assad regime’s forces occupied the Eastern Ghuta, and a major Turkish military operation on the Syrian side of the border. Turkish military, supported by Syrian rebels, attacked Kurdish forces and took the city of Afrin with its surroundings. The offensive was bordered by reports of hardships for civilians and UN calls for a ceasefire.
The Assad regime went after successes against rebels east of Damascus and in Homs further with military efforts south, toward the areas where the revolt against the regime broke out in 2011. In July 2018, the regime, with Russian and Iranian support, had recaptured virtually all of southern Syria from the rebel groups and jihadists, including IS, who had strongholds there. The war thus entered a new phase, and it has since proven that the government side is moving forward to also take back Idlib and perhaps Kurdish-dominated areas. Representatives of the Kurdish-Caribbean Alliance controlling areas in the north and east, just over a quarter of Syria’s surface, have expressed their desire for peace talks with the Damascus government. In October 2019, when Turkey re-entered Syria in search of Kurdish guerrillas and the Kurds’ former ally US withdrew from the area,
Another question is whether life returns to normal in areas the regime recovers, neighborhoods like Daraya and Qabun. The human rights organization HRW has stated that the regime refers to new real estate legislation to prevent people from returning. Satellite images show that the destruction of property continued even where the fighting ended. Following the government’s intense and Russian-backed attacks on Idlib 2020, the picture is similar: great devastation on buildings and infrastructure, which will hamper the return of refugees and take a long time to repair.
Follow the ongoing development of the Calendar.
READING TIPS – read more about Syria in the UI’s web magazine Foreign magazine :
Kurdish autonomy’s turn to be pushed out of the playing field (2019-10-14)
Dependence on foreign powers destabilizes Syria (2018-04-19)
Five issues that determine Syria’s future (2018- 01-31)
Most people in the Middle East are Living on the Edge (2017-12-08)
Russia buries UN nuclear weapons investigation in Syria (2017-11-23)
More difficult for Syrian refugees in Lebanon (05/05/2017)
Assad regime responsible for tens of thousands lost (2017-09-09)
Middle East minorities now in Sweden (2018-08-30)
FACTS – POLITICS
al-Jumhuriyya al-Arabiyya al-Suriyya / Syrian Arab Republic
republic, unitary state
Head of State
President Bashar al-Assad (2000–)
Head of government
acting Prime Minister Hussein Arnous (2020–)
Most important parties with mandates in the last election
Coalition for National Unity (Baath Party with Support Parties) 200, Other Parties and Independent Candidates 50 (2016) 1
Main parties with mandates in the second most recent elections
National Progressive Front won a majority of seats in Parliament (2012)
73% in the 2014 presidential election; Missing information for the 2016 parliamentary elections
by constitution, parliamentary elections will be held in 2020 and presidential elections in 2021
- The election results could only be implemented in the government-controlled parts of the country