Middle East

Syria war explained: What's behind the conflict?


SBS News looks back at more than seven years of conflict in Syria.

How did the conflict start?

In March 2011, a teenager spray painted a message on a wall in the Syrian city of Daraa.

"It's your turn doctor," it read.

The vandal was referring to the country's president, Bashar al-Assad, a British-trained ophthalmologist, or eye doctor. It was his 'turn' to lose power in the Arab Spring in a wave of uprisings spreading across the Middle East.

In response, the Syrian government rounded up more than a dozen children - as young as 10, some say - and held and tortured them for weeks to find out who was responsible.

The act came to symbolise the repressive and often brutal rule of Assad, sparking protests from relatives, neighbours and hundreds of others in Daraa.

Pro-Syrian regime protesters carry a huge portrait of Syrian President Assad in 2011.
Pro-Syrian regime protesters carry a huge portrait of Syrian President Assad in 2011.

When Syrian security forces opened fire on the crowds protesting the government's actions, events escalated quickly. The government's crackdown only led to more unrest, radicalising citizens who formed rebel groups. It also led foreign fighters who opposed to Assad to flood into the country.

That was the start of a brutal civil war which has evolved and since killed hundreds of thousands of people, caused millions more to flee, and contributed to the rise of Islamist terror groups such as IS. 

Who's fighting who?

One of the most prominent of the early groups fighting against the government was the Free Syrian Army. They were a group led by several former army officers and formed months after the initial protests.

The main opposition group at the time, representatives said they were a secular group committed to bringing democracy to Syria.

After years of war, the "army" wing of the Free Syrian Army has all but fallen apart. It is now more of a loose group of rebel militias fighting under the same banner and sharing some resources.

Those groups aren't the only ones on the ground, there are many other rebel forces, ranging from moderate fighters to hardline Islamists.

Men carry babies through rubble in Aleppo in 2016.
Men carry babies through rubble in Aleppo in 2016.

IS at one staged controlled most of eastern Syria, but in 2016 and 2017, rival campaigns by the government and the foreign-backed forces took almost all its territory.

The group now holds a small strip along the northern bank of the Euphrates near the Iraqi border and a couple of patches of desert in central Syria. But it has shown an ability to stage sudden guerrilla attacks despite losing its so-called caliphate.

Then there's another player, the Kurdish forces.

Around 30 million Kurdish people also live in the region which straddles the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia.

For over 100 years, the group has aspired to form their own state, and in the wake of the instability, Kurdish groups have been fighting to retain control of their territory.

To complicate things further, some of these forces are not only fighting against Assad, but also against each other.

Meanwhile, Assad's goal is clear: the complete recapture of all parts of Syria and the restoration of his government's rule. 

Human rights groups have reported widespread atrocities committed by almost all parties, including the use of child soldiers.

How are other countries involved?

Because of Syria's size, location, and air and sea access routes, the country is of high strategic importance to other nations. Consequently, several foreign players have become involved in the conflict.

One of Assad's strongest allies is Russia. It turned the war in his favour by sending its air force to help him in 2015.

At its weakest point in 2015, Assad's government controlled less than a fifth of Syria. But since Russia entered the war on its side, it has reclaimed huge swathes of the country.

Assad's other main backer is Iran, along with allied militias such as Hezbollah from Lebanon. Tehran says it is fighting anti-Shi'ite Sunni militancy. But Iran's critics say it wants to cement regional power with a "land bridge" extending from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.

Syrian soldiers patrol at the Yarmouk Camp district in south Damascus in 2018.
Syrian soldiers patrol at the Yarmouk Camp district in south Damascus in 2018.

Turkey’s role is as confusing as the conflict itself. It has been one of the biggest supporters of the anti-Assad rebels, but only the non-Kurdish ones. Turkey, which has a restive Kurdish population, staged incursions into Syria in 2016 and 2018 ostensibly to stop Kurdish forces gaining a foothold on the border.

Turkey has helped the rebel groups it supports to form a local administration and police force, set up schools and hospitals and has installed branches of its own postal system and other public services.

The US helped anti-Assad rebels earlier in the war then became more focused on fighting IS. It backs the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) alliance, whose strongest element is mainly-Kurdish militia the Kurdish YPG (or People's Protection Units). But Washington has attempted to sooth the outrage this has caused its NATO ally Turkey.

Washington also wants to contain Iran as it sees the country's growing influence across the region as a threat to its closest Middle East allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Following a request from then-US president Barack Obama in 2015, the Australian government joined the US and other coalition partners in bombing raids against IS in Syria.

Israel wants to stop any expansion of power for its foes Iran and Hezbollah and keep them far from its borders.

How bad is it?

The Syrian war has escalated beyond what anyone could have imagined when the government detained that group of children in 2011 over the graffiti.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in September 2018 it had recorded the deaths of 364,792 people, nearly a third of them civilians, since protests erupted in March 2011 against Assad.

The group says the war has killed 110,687 civilians, including more than 20,000 children and nearly 13,000 women.

More than 124,000 pro-government fighters have died, around half of them regime troops and the rest an assortment of Syrian and foreign militiamen loyal to Assad.

A field hospital in Douma in 2017.
A field hospital in Douma in 2017.

According to the United Nations, the conflict has produced more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees and 6.1 million internally displaced people.

"More than 13 million people inside Syria require humanitarian assistance, including nearly six million children," UN material says.

"At the end of 2017, more than half the country's hospitals, clinics and primary health care centres were only partially functioning or had been damaged beyond repair."

Human rights abuses have been serious and widespread, according to rights groups.

Human Rights Watch says that armed groups have mounted deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, using child soldiers, and torturing prisoners.

The government is guilty of disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrest, and allowing numerous deaths in custody, they say. It stands accused of repeatedly using chlorine, sarin gas and barrel bombs on its own civilians.

In the battle for the rebel stronghold of Aleppo, the UN raised concerns of widespread war crimes on all sides - including indiscriminate targeting, government use of chemical weapons and rebel use of human shields.

The humanitarian fallout has also had a significant impact on surrounding countries, with Lebanon now home to over one million Syrian refugees – who make up as much as 20 per cent of the country's current population.

Using its control of regions of Syria and Iraq as a base, IS spread its propaganda and violence not only within the country around the world.

Residents watch smoke from an explosion rising over the Syrian city of Kobane in 2014.
Residents watch smoke from an explosion rising over the Syrian city of Kobane in 2014.

The crisis has generated hundreds of thousands of official asylum applications in the European Union, while thousands more have attempted to reach Europe by land and by sea.

The EU migrant crisis has become a major challenge for the open-border political union, with migration said to be the major driver behind the Brexit vote and the rise of right-wing parties across the continent.

How will the conflict end?

While Assad and his forces have regained a significant amount of territory, this does not mean the end of the conflict is in sight.

Lots of territory is beyond Assad's grip, including the province of Idlib. If Assad takes Idlib, rebels would still be able to find sanctuary north of Aleppo. Anti-Assad groups also have a base in an area on the Iraqi border, operating alongside the US-led coalition.

A large chunk of northern and eastern Syria remains outside his control. This territory, rich in oil, water and farmland, is held by Kurdish-dominated fighters supported by US forces. While the Kurds are not hostile to Assad, they want a large degree of autonomy, which he opposes.

As such, many see a negotiated political solution as the only realistic outcome.

But with so many divergent groups and so many external vested interests, getting everyone to the table and keeping them there is proving difficult.

Additional reporting: AFP, Reuters

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