The Syrian Conflict, 10 Years On

A large crowd of displaced Syrian residents wait for food aid in al-Yarmouk camp
Displaced Syrian residents wait to receive food aid distributed by the UN Relief and Works Agency at the besieged al-Yarmouk camp, south of Damascus, Syria, on January 31, 2014. UNRWA/Reuters/Landov

This year marks the tenth anniversary since the outbreak of civil war across Syria. This multifaceted conflict has touched millions of lives, and has stoked fires well beyond the realm of the Middle East. This article will take a look back and explore how this conflict began, the involvement of outside parties and different actors, the human impact, and finally what the future might hold for Syria.

Origins of the conflict

It was 1970 when Hafez al-Assad seized control of Syria, creating an autocratic, kleptocratic system that he would pass on to his son Bashar. In 1982, he brutally put down a Muslim brotherhood uprising in Hama, killing over 25,000 people — this would become the template for the Assads’ rules. When Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father in 2000, he pledged reforms that ended up creating a multitude of socioeconomic problems that sowed the seeds of discontent even before the outbreak of conflict.

The Arab Spring began in December 2010, with the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor in protest of governmental corruption. This act provoked protests across the Middle East and North Africa — leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen were forced to step down. Such previously unimaginable events encouraged demonstrations in the city of Deraa in March 2011, where protestors called for the release of political prisoners, greater freedoms and an end to corruption. Following in his father’s footsteps, Assad’s response was quick and brutal: crowds of unarmed demonstrators were fired upon, mass arrests targeted dissidents and young men, and torture in detention centres was frequently reported. The response was the same as anti-regime protests spread across the major cities of Syria. It did not take long for the country to degenerate into civil war.

Parties involved

The chaos in Syria precipitated the rise of extremist groups. In early 2012, a group called Jabhat al-Nusra announced itself as al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise. Just over a year later, a group comprised of the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq emerged, called the Islamic State. It quickly managed to establish control over territory across eastern Syria and western Iraq, employing extremely brutal methods to inflict abuse. The rise of extremist groups was in part down to Assad himself — he wanted to present the world with a stark choice between his secular rule and the jihadi alternative, even releasing hundreds of Islamist militants from prisons in mid-2011 in an effort to discredit the rebellion.

Meanwhile, the Kurds in the north had been fighting to consolidate an autonomous territory. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units’ (YPG) defence of the town of Kobani from the Islamic State’s siege in 2014, highlighted their effectiveness — hence, they received aid from US forces in ousting Islamic State fighters, and also in continued supply of arms and air support for the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey’s opposition to the Kurdish agenda, and the successful rollback of the Islamic State by the end of the decade meant that Washington eventually agreed to remove its troops in Syria near the Turkish border in 2019, resulting in Turkey launching a military offensive against the Kurds, which faced substantial international condemnation.

The Syrian conflict also drew in actors from well beyond the Middle Eastern realm. Russia’s staunch support for Assad has been fundamental in shaping the conflict. In Security Council resolutions, their threat of veto has continually deterred or watered down humanitarian measures or punishments for the Syrian regime. Russia’s deployment of its air force in 2015 marked its direct entrance into the conflict — Moscow’s air strikes, although supposed to target the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, ended up targeting many rebel groups, in an attempt to strengthen Assad’s control. Assad’s other key ally has been Iran. The Iranian regime has spent billions in propping up the regime, and their Revolutionary Guard Corps had advised Assad’s army and fought alongside the Syrians. On the other side, opposition forces have had foreign backers too. The United States covertly trained and armed rebel fighters for many years; France and the UK provided logistical and military support; and the US-led coalition, along with the Kurdish-led SDF, fought to push back the Islamic state, with the group’s territory now reduced to about 2% of what it once held in the area between Iraq and Syria.

Human impact

The human impact of this ten-year war has been devasting. By December 2020, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented the deaths of 387,000 people, including 117,000 civilians, but not including over 200,000 people missing and presumed dead (nearly half of whom are believed to have died of torture in government-run prisons). It is the Syrian government that has been responsible for the most deaths in the country. On top of such horrific numbers, over 2 million civilians have suffered injuries or permanent disabilities due to the conflict.

From Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million, over half have fled their homes, with 6.7 million internally displaced, many living in camps, and another 5.6 million registered as refugees abroad. As of February 2021, Turkey has taken the most refugees (3.7 million), with Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq and Egypt also taking in significant refugee populations; meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled to Europe, with Germany taking in the most refugees.

As of this year, 13.4 million people inside Syria were said to be in need of some form of humanitarian assistance, with some 12 million struggling to find sufficient food each day, and 500,000 children chronically malnourished. Furthermore, despite their protected status, nearly 600 attacks on medical facilities have been reported, leaving only half of the country’s hospitals fully functional.

The Syrian people have faced unimaginable horrors, from chemical weapons attacks and aerial bombardments to displacement and severe malnourishment. And yet, there seems to be little hope on the horizon.

What does the future hold?

At this point, Assad’s government has regained control of Syria’s biggest cities, and although large parts of the country are still held by rebels, jihadists and the Kurdish-led SDF, Assad’s grip over the country seems relatively stable now. There is little indication that the war will end anytime soon. Peace talks over the last ten years have failed to amount to anything concrete. Nine rounds of UN-mediated peace talks — the Geneva II process — made no progress as Assad proved unwilling to negotiate with political opposition groups that insist he must step down as part of a settlement. Rival talks led by Iran, Russia and Turkey have gotten no closer to resolving the crisis either. Despite an agreement reached in 2018 to form a 150-member committee to write a new constitution, leading to free and fair elections supervised by the UN, reforms have not even begun to be drafted three years later.

Although the violence has waned, Syria remains mired in low-level conflict, political instability and economic turmoil: more than 80% of the population are living in poverty, and diplomacy has done nothing to sway Assad’s government. Syria might not be all over the news anymore, but the conflict remains far from being resolved.

By Emily Oldham