What Has Happened in Syria?

Explaining The Syrian Civil War

More than half a million people have been killed since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Peaceful anti-government protests in provincial areas, inspired by similar demonstrations in other Middle Eastern nations, were brutally suppressed. The government of President Bashar al-Assad responded with a bloody crackdown, followed by piecemeal concessions that stopped short of genuine political reform.

After almost a year and a half of unrest, the conflict between the regime and the opposition escalated to a ​full-scale civil war. By mid-2012 the fighting has reached capital Damascus and commercial hub Aleppo, with growing numbers of senior army officers deserting Assad. Despite peace proposals put forth by the Arab League and United Nations, the conflict only increased as additional factions joined the armed resistance and the Syrian government received support from Russia, Iran, and the Islamic group Hezbollah.

A chemical attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013, brought the U.S. on the brink of a military intervention in Syria, but Barack Obama pulled back at the last moment after Russia offered to broker a deal under which Syria would hand over its stockpile of chemical weapons. Most observers interpreted this turn-about as a major diplomatic triumph for Russia, raising questions over Moscow’s influence in the wider Middle East.

The conflict continued to escalate through 2016. The terrorist group ISIS invaded northwestern Syria in late 2013, the United States launched airstrikes in Raqqa and Kobani in 2014, and Russia intervened on behalf of the Syrian government in 2015. At the end of February 2016, a ceasefire brokered by the U.N. went into effect, providing the first pause in the conflict since it began. 

By the middle of 2016, the ceasefire had collapsed and the conflagration erupted again. Syrian government troops battled opposition troops, Kurdish rebels, and ISIS fighters, while Turkey, Russia, and the U.S. all continued to intervene. In February 2017, government troops recaptured the major city of Aleppo after four years of rebel control, despite a ceasefire being in effect at the time. As the year progressed, they would reclaim other cities in Syria. Kurdish forces, with the backing of the U.S., had largely vanquished ISIS and controlled the northern city of Raqqa.

Emboldened, Syrian troops continued to pursue rebel troops, while Turkish forces attacked Kurdish rebels in the north. Despite attempts to implement yet another ceasefire in late February, government forces launched a major air campaign against rebels in the eastern Syrian region of Ghouta.

Latest Developments: Syria Attacks Rebels in Ghouta

UNRWA Humanitarian Distributions in Yarmouk
Handout/Getty Images News/Getty Images

On Feb. 19, 2018, Syrian government troops backed by Russian aircraft launched a major offensive against rebels in the region of Ghouta, east of the capital of Damascus. The last rebel-controlled area in the east, Ghouta has been under siege by government forces since 2013. It is home to an estimated 400,000 people and had been declared a no-fly zone for Russian and Syrian aircraft since 2017.

The outcry was swift following the Feb. 19 attack. On Feb. 25, the United Nations Security Council called for a 30-day ceasefire to allow civilians to flee and aid to be delivered. But the initial five-hour evacuation planned for Feb. 27 never occurred, and the violence continued.

International Response: Failure of Diplomacy

Kofi Annan
Kofi Annan, UN-Arab League Peace Envoy for Syria. Getty Images

Diplomatic efforts at a peaceful resolution of the crisis have failed to end the violence, despite several ceasefires brokered by the United Nations. This is partly due to disagreements between Russia, Syria’s traditional ally, and the West. The U.S., long at odds with Syria over its links to Iran, has called on Assad to resign. Russia, which has substantial interests in Syria, has insisted that Syrians alone should decide the fate of their government.

In the absence of an international agreement on a common approach, Gulf Arab governments and Turkey have stepped up military and financial assistance for Syrian rebels. Meanwhile, Russia continues to back Assad’s regime with weapons and diplomatic support while Iran, Assad’s key regional ally, provides the regime with financial assistance. In 2017, China announced that it would also send military aid to the Syrian government. Meanwhile, the U.S. announced that it would stop aiding rebels

Who is in Power in Syria

Bashar al-Assad
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma al-Assad. Salah Malkawi/Getty Images

The Assad family has been in power in Syria since 1970 when army officer Hafez al-Assad (1930-1970) assumed the presidency in a military coup. In 2000, the torch was passed to Bashar al-Assad, who maintained the main characteristics of the Assad state: reliance on the ruling Baath Party, army and intelligence apparatus, and Syria’s leading business families.

Although Syria is nominally led by the Baath Party, real power rests in the hands of a narrow circle of Assad family members and a handful of security chiefs. A special place in the power structure is reserved for officers from Assad’s minority Alawite community, who dominate the security apparatus. Hence, most Alawites remain loyal to the regime and suspicious of the opposition, whose strongholds are in majority-Sunni areas

Syrian Opposition

Syrian anti-government protesters
Syrian anti-government protesters in town on Binish, Idlib province, August 2012. www.facebook.com/Syrian.Revolution

The Syrian opposition is a diverse mix of exiled political groups, grassroots activists organizing protests inside Syria, and armed groups waging a guerrilla war on the government forces.

Opposition activities in Syria have been effectively outlawed since the early 1960s, but there has been an explosion of political activity since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011. There are at least 30 opposition groups operating in and around Syria, the most notable of which include the Syrian National Council, National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, and the Syrian Democratic Council.

In addition, Russia, Iran, the U.S., Israel, and Turkey have all intervened, as have the Islamic militant group Hamas and Kurdish rebels.

Additional Resources


Hjelmgaard, Kim. "Scores of Syrian civilians killed in government airstrikes." USAToday.com. 21 February 2018.

Staff and wire reports. "Eastern Ghouta: What is Happening and Why." AlJazeera.com. Updated 28 February 2018.

Ward, Alex. "Siege, Starve, and Surrender: Inside the Next Phase of the Syrian Civil War." Vox.com. 28 February 2018.

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Manfreda, Primoz. "What Has Happened in Syria?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/current-situation-in-syria-2353567. Manfreda, Primoz. (2021, February 16). What Has Happened in Syria? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/current-situation-in-syria-2353567 Manfreda, Primoz. "What Has Happened in Syria?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/current-situation-in-syria-2353567 (accessed March 1, 2021).