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The Syrian Civil War

Introduction to the Syrian Civil War

While the Syrian conflict began during the Arab Spring of 2011, it was fueled by decades of political oppression. On March 6, 2011, schoolchildren, inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Libya, graffitied anti-Bashir al-Assad messages on several buildings in Daraa. After Syrian police arrested the children, protests erupted in Daraa against the regime and its oppressive reign. Despite gestures towards reform, the Syrian government responded to protests with violence and lethal force. By December 2011, the protests escalated into armed conflict against the Syrian government. As of March 2013, nearly 70,000 Syrians have been killed, with allegations of war crimes committed by both government and opposition forces. France secured control over Syria as a colonial possession in the aftermath of World War I. The French captured Syria's capital, Damascus, in July 1920 and subsequently quashed a rebellion opposing their rule. When France fell to Nazi Germany in 1940 and the Vichy government came to power, the European nation's grip on Syria loosened. By April 1945, the Syrian government independently formed a national army, declared war on the Axis powers, became a charter member of the United Nations (UN) and helped establish the League of Arab Nations. Syria achieved total independence in April 1946, after the French complied with a UN resolution to leave the Middle Eastern nation. Syria assumed a more active role in the Middle East in the decades that followed its independence. In alliance with several other Arab states, Syria fought against Israel the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Syria fought against Israel twice more in 1967 and 1973, but suffered defeats and lost territory. In 1975, Syria intervened in another Middle East conflict, the Lebanese Civil War. Syria received authorization from the League of Arab Nations to deploy several thousand troops to Lebanon, which began a decades-long occupation. Syria experienced significant internal changes during this period as well. In November 1970, Baath party member Hafez al-Assad seized control of Syria in a coup. Assad became president in 1971, and in 1973 he removed the Syrian constitutional requirement that the president be Muslim. He maintained an oppressive regime that violently suppressed internal dissent. In February 1982, Assad authorized the military suppression of a rebellion launched by the Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian city of Hama. The assault resulted in an unknown number of deaths, although estimates from the Syrian Human Rights Committee and Amnesty International (AI) place the figure between 10,000 and 25,000. Assad remained president until he passed away in July 2000, and his son Bashir al-Assad took control of Syria. Assad eased political restraints during his early years in power. In November 2000, Assad approved the release of several hundred political prisoners. The Muslim Brotherhood, once violently suppressed at Hama, resumed public protests of the Syrian government. Internationally, Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon in April 2005 after pressure from both the UN and the Lebanese Cedar Revolution. The Syrian government continued to draw criticism, however, from both Israel and the US concerning Syria's alleged work towards constructing weapons of mass destruction. When the Arab Spring uprisings began in late 2010, protests against oppressive governments spread throughout the Middle East. In February 2011, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Syrian police forces had attacked protesters that had gathered in support of revolutionaries in Egypt. As protests continued through March 2011, the Syrian government expressed an interest in better protecting human rights and in lifting the country's state of emergency law, which banned protests. Although Assad lifted the state of emergency on April 21, 2011, rights groups in Syria reported that the government continued to violently suppress protesters. The UN called on Syria to stop the killings and violence directed against protesters.

Peaceful Protests and Crackdowns in Syria

Protests in Syria began as candlelight vigils in early February 2011, a sympathetic response to the escalating rebellion in Egypt. HRW released the first reports of violence against demonstrators on February 9, 2011, and stated that Syrian activists were urging civilians to request more freedoms from their government. Protests by Syrian civilians against their government in the spring of 2011 were peaceful, but were met with violent attacks from Syrian security forces, leading to the deaths of multiple protesters.

To quell the rising tide of civilian unrest, Assad announced on March 25, 2011, that the country's 48-year-old state of emergency law would be lifted, and human rights issues would be addressed by the government. The emergency law included a ban on political protest. Government officials hinted that Assad would be willing to make other concessions, such as releasing political prisoners, allowing the creation of new political parties and increasing government employee salaries. These measures were viewed as an attempt to quiet civilian unrest. Assad's announcement came days after 36 protesters were killed by police and other protesters were arrested. Civilian protests escalated into violence in late March 2011, when protesters set fire to a police station and local Baath party headquarters. The Syrian government then released 260 political detainees to appease the protesters.

Emergency rule officially ended on April 21, 2011. Although that action legalized peaceful protests, the Syrian government requested that civilians discontinue the rebellions. Students continued to openly protest against the government, and security forces responded with aggressive action. On April 22, 2011, Syrian security forces opened fire on a peaceful crowd of protesters, killing more than 75. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) estimated on April 29, 2011, that 500 protesters had been killed by security forces since March 2011. By June 2011, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, estimated that the number of protesters killed had increased to approximately 1,100 while 10,000 people had been placed in detention.

In a speech at Damascus University on June 20, 2011, Assad claimed that an unidentified group of terrorists was responsible for the vandalism, robberies and murders plaguing the country. Assad also accused the international media of manipulating civilians and instigating rebellion in the hopes of achieving better video footage. Assad urged citizens to participate in new government reforms, including the creation of a new constitution, instead of continuing to protest. However, civilian demonstrations continued, and AI reported in August 2011 that over 88 detained protesters had been tortured and then killed in custody.

On November 4, 2011, the Syrian government classified the country's protesters as "insurgents" and stated that those who had revolted against the government could possibly qualify for amnesty if they turned themselves in to authorities by November 12, 2011. The frequency and intensity of the protests did not diminish, and the UN Committee Against Torture accused Syrian security forces of detaining and torturing children. Civilian protests were divided between violent and nonviolent activism, and on December 15, 2011, the Syrian army opened fire on a group of unarmed protesters. While the army turned to increasing violence against protesters as a method of enforcement, the government continued to release detainees as a means of appeasement. Over 552 detainees were released on January, 8, 2012. However, human rights groups estimated that as of January 2012, approximately 37,000 additional detainees remained imprisoned.

On February 26, 2012, the Syrian government held a referendum on whether to adopt a new constitution. Civilian protests continued up until the vote, and 89 people were killed the day before the referendum. Although many international organizations feared that the referendum was an empty gesture, hope remained that new provisions for freedom of speech, press, assembly and association would help quiet the rebellion.

Both peaceful and violent rebellions continued into the spring of 2012, and HRW released a report stating that security forces had escalated from using violence to halt protests to summarily executing protesters. HRW estimated that over 100 civilians and Syrian opposition fighters had been executed during attacks in late March and early April 2012. Over 80 women and children were shot at close range on May 29, 2012.

Detainee releases continued as a means of placating protesters. Over 500 prisoners were released in May 2012. The government formally announced the prisoner releases on June 1, 2012, following outcry over the May 29 massacre. As pressure from citizens and the international community increased, Assad denied that the government had any involvement with the May 29 massacre. He instead blamed foreign extremists and terrorists.

Amid concerns that the Syrian army and security forces were using sexual violence against detainees, Assad agreed to a peace plan on July 9, 2012, brokered by UN Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan. The plan outlined steps for ending the violence, allowing access to humanitarian and human rights groups and encouraging political dialogue. However, security forces continued to attack protesters, with 200 civilians massacred on July 15, 2012. The UN suggested in June 2012 that over 850,000 Syrian citizens were receiving food assistance and over 100,000 had been displaced from their homes.

By fall 2012, increasing violence could be blamed on both the Syrian government and rebel forces. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon stated that, as of September 2012, over 1.2 million people had been displaced from their homes and 225,000 refugees had fled to surrounding nations.

The conflict continued to escalate, and the UN released proof in November 2012 that rebel forces had been summarily executing captured and surrendered Syrian soldiers. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights estimated in January 2013 that approximately 60,000 people had been killed since the conflict began in March 2011, although the death toll is likely to increase as better estimates are received. In March 2013, human rights organizations accused the Syrian government of using banned cluster bombs and chemical weapons against civilians.

International Response

The international response to the crisis in Syria has been mixed since the conflict began in 2011. While Assad maintains some international support, much of the world has condemned his regime's response to the protests against his regime since the early days of the conflict. The UN has attempted to issue sanctions against Assad multiple times, but Russia and China have vetoed each attempt. While Iran has not consistently supported Assad, Grand Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei spoke out in favor of Assad during a June 2011 event, saying, "Wherever a movement is Islamic, populist and anti-American, we support it."

Prior to the instigation of the current conflict in March 2011, Assad was already a controversial figure internationally. In the past, he has been accused of human rights violations for imprisoning individuals with opposing viewpoints and was called on by HRW, the Arab League, the US and the UN to release political prisoners. During the UN's probe into the assassination of former Lebanese president Rafik Hariri, Assad continually rejected requests that he submit to questioning and ignored international pressures to cooperate with the investigation. There is still international speculation that Syria was involved in the assassination. Assad was also criticized by the UN and other members of the international community for his perceived involvement in the Lebanese presidential election in 2004 and the stationing of thousands of troops in Lebanon during that time, as well as for stunting economic growth in Syria and corruption within his administration.

The Arab League

Fellow Arab League states initially stood behind Assad and supported his government as the conflict began. However, this support diminished as the conflict continued to grow and threatened stability in the region. In October 2011, the Arab League denounced the violence in Syria and called for its resolution. The next month, the League voted to suspend Syria's membership due to the Assad regime's violence against protesters. This vote came as a surprise to many in the international community given that Syria was one of the founding nations of the Arab League. The vote was 18 in favor of the sanction, with only Lebanon, Yemen and Syria voting against it and Iraq abstaining. As a result of this vote, all Arab League nations were instructed to remove their ambassadors from Damascus. This action was viewed as effectively isolating Assad in the region with many longstanding allies voting against his regime.

In December 2011, Syria agreed to allow Arab League observers to monitor protests as part of a peace plan. As a result, in January 2012, Syrian leaders released 552 prisoners. Although further pressure was put on the Arab League by HRW and other groups to push Syria for more action to resolve the conflict quickly and peacefully, all of the observers, beginning with those from Saudi Arabia, withdrew by the end of January 2012. The Arab League's General Secretary, Nabil el-Araby, cited "the critical deterioration of the situation" as the promulgating reason in a statement.

In January 2013, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the largest economies and most populous nations in the Arab League, issued a joint call for a peaceful handover of power from Assad to the opposition. "A peaceful exit is an Arab and international demand," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said to reporters in Riyadh on January 5, 2013.

The United Nations

In September 2011, the UNHRC established the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria to investigate human rights abuses during the conflict. This group released a report in February 2013 that cited war crimes on both sides of the conflict, including indiscriminate attacks in areas causing civilian casualties and destruction of civilian entities, such as hospitals. Although the Commission was not permitted to conduct interviews inside the nation by the Syrian government, they were able to conduct 445 interviews over two years:

The depth of the Syrian tragedy is poignantly reflected in the accounts of its victims. Their harrowing experiences of survival detail grave human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The destructive dynamics of the civil war not only have an impact on the civilian population but are also tearing apart the country's complex social fabric, jeopardizing future generations and undermining peace and security in the entire region.
Also in February 2013, the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Hawa Bangura expressed concern regarding sexual violence on both sides of the conflict. She stated, "The people of Syria continue to suffer greatly. Civilians already caught in a vicious cycle of violence are also the target of sexual violence by all parties to the conflict."

The US

The US first spoke out against Assad's actions against protesters early in the conflict. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed deep concerns over Assad's actions in an opinion piece that ran in Asharq Al-Awsat, an Arabic newspaper based out of London, on June 17, 2011. In the article, Clinton stated, "It is increasingly clear that President Assad has made his choice. But while continued brutality may allow him to delay the change that is underway in Syria, it will not reverse it."

In August 2011, US President Barack Obama issued a statement outlining a series of sanctions and other actions being taken against Syria by the US Departments of the Treasury and Commerce, which effectively froze all US-controlled Syrian assets and prohibited US entities from doing business with Syria. In a statement issued the same day, President Obama echoed a similar sentiment of support for the opposition against Assad as that had been offered earlier by Clinton:

The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing and slaughtering his own people. We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.
In April 2012, President Obama issued an executive order allowing for sanctions against foreign nationals who use technology to violate human rights. In the order, he specifically targeted Assad and subsequently used the order as justification to issue further sanctions against Syria. Although the US Department of State (DOS) continues to emphasize the US's commitment to humanitarian aid in Syria, no additional American actions have been taken, and many criticized President Obama for making no mention of Syria in his early 2013 public addresses.


Russia was one of Assad's strongest allies before and during the recent conflict. Most notably, Russia, as one of only five nations with permanent veto power in the UN Security Council, has vowed to veto any sanctions brought against Assad in the UN. This vow led to the veto of the first three resolutions that were brought before the UNSC to condemn the actions of Assad. Russia was joined in their opposition by China, who vetoed the same three proposed resolutions. The US and Turkey, among other nations, claim that Russia is assisting Assad by providing him weapons and other support, which Russian leaders deny. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stated in November 2012:

Our stance on Syria is well known: Russia does not support anyone in this conflict ... We only tell them that they must sit down at the negotiating table and come to an agreement, rather than shoot at each other, which is the worst possible scenario. But unfortunately, some countries have a more one-sided approach: this one must leave immediately, and we will send weapons to the other ones. We believe that this is not right, that this will never bring peace to Syria.


6/14/2013: UN rights council condemned foreign military involvement in Syria

6/13/2013: UN rights office announced that Syria death toll had reached at least 93,000

6/4/2013: UN panel reported that war crimes were escalating in Syria

6/1/2013: UN Secretary General called for protection of civilians in Syria

5/29/2013: UN rights council condemned Syria attacks, foreign fighters

5/27/2013: UN human rights chief criticized rights violations in Syria

5/17/2013: HRW found evidence of torture, arbitrary detention in Syria government centers


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