Syrian men carrying babies make their way through the rubble of destroyed buildings in Aleppo, Syria in September, 2016. Ameer Alhalbi/AFP 

Key Facts


18.8 million
estimated current population

13.5 million
need humanitarian assistance

6.3 million
internally displaced

5 million
have fled the country

1.3 million
under threat of complete siege

900,000
trapped in besieged communities

Key Issues

  • Since early 2011, the Assad regime has committed countless war crimes, including torture and murder of political detainees, use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons on civilian targets, and “double-tap” airstrikes against first responders to maximize civilian casualties.
  • Starvation by siege has been an egregious reality for hundreds of thousands of civilians, as forces surround areas to keep humanitarian and food aid from entering, and civilians, including sick and wounded people, from leaving.
  • In 2012, President Obama famously declared that use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” for US interference. Since then, chemical weapons attacks have increased.
  • The war in Syria has caused a power vacuum which the Islamic State has exploited in order to gain land and supporters. The US government has notoriously focused primarily on fighting ISIS rather than focusing on the Assad regime as the main driver, and root cause, of the conflict.
  • The refugee crisis caused by the Syrian civil war has grabbed headlines around the world, as refugees have fled into the region and across Europe seeking safe haven. Without a final resolution to the conflict, Syrians will continue to flee in droves, seeking safety inside and outside of the Middle East.

Background

Brief History

In early 2011, Syrians began a peaceful uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Assad regime cracked down with extreme violence, which escalated into civil war. Initially, the main parties in the conflict were the Assad regime versus the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the democratic opposition. However, Islamist extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State soon entered the war, and the FSA struggled to preserve its influence. Hezbollah, a militant Islamist party based in Lebanon, began fighting on behalf of the Assad regime, and Kurdish militias took a more active role in the conflict in an attempt to establish and protect their own territory.

In December 2016, the historic city of Aleppo made headlines around the world as Assad’s forces retook the city amongst much bloodshed and atrocities against civilians. Today, over 900,000 people are trapped in at least 37 besieged communities across the country, with an additional 1.3 million Syrians under threat of complete siege. The Syrian government and its allies are responsible for the vast majority, though in a few cases ISIS and armed opposition groups have used siege as a tactic.

The war has splintered Syria into many fragments, with no side strong enough to take power over the entire territory. The Assad regime remains the main perpetrator of atrocities, responsible for barrel bomb and chemical weapons attacks, and an extensive system of torture.

International Action

Many international actors with differing interests have helped shape the conflict. President Assad’s supporters include Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, all of whom have provided arms and funds to the regime. Russia has worked to stall international action against Assad, using its UN Security Council veto seven times since the beginning of the conflict. In 2015, Russia led the formation of an anti-ISIS coalition consisting of Russia, Iran, Iraq, and the Assad regime. It has since launched a rigorous airstrike campaign, which was created on the basis of attacking ISIS, but has also targeted civilian areas, including schools and hospitals, and moderate rebels who oppose the Assad regime.

The US opposes Assad and has sent aid and support to more moderate rebel groups, though its actions in the region have been limited by both the complex nature of the conflict and its reluctance to conduct military operations beyond anti-ISIS airstrikes. Turkey and Saudi Arabia also oppose ISIS and have escalated their engagement in the conflict, but unlike the US, Turkey strongly opposes the Kurds. Turkey, along with Lebanon and Jordan, have collectively taken in approximately four million Syrian refugees.

Humanitarian and Refugee Crisis

The conflict has prompted the world’s largest displacement crisis, with millions displaced within Syria and the larger region, and millions more in dire need of humanitarian aid.

In 2017, US President Donald Trump moved to halt the entry of Syrian refugees into the United States through two consecutive Executive Orders. The Orders lower total US refugee resettlement numbers from 110,000 to 50,000 – the lowest in the history of the US refugee resettlement program. Both Executive Orders have been challenged in court, with advocacy organizations seeking Congressional nullification.