It has been suggested that portions of this section be split out and merged into the article titled List of armed groups in the Syrian Civil War, which already exists. (March 2017)
Illustration of the main factions involved in the Syrian Civil War and affiliations by 2016
Ba’athist Syria and allies
A number of sources have emphasized that as of at least late 2015/early 2016 the Syrian government was dependent on a mix of volunteers and militias rather than the Syrian Armed Forces.
Main article: Syrian Armed Forces
The funeral procession of Syrian General Mohammed al-Awwad who was assassinated in Damascus in 2012
Before the uprising and war broke out, the Syrian Armed Forces were estimated at 325,000 regular troops and 280,000–300,000 reservists. Of the regular troops, 220,000 were ‘army troops’ and the rest in the navy, air force and air defense force. Following defections as early as June 2011, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that by July 2012, tens of thousands of soldiers had defected, and a Turkish official estimated 60,000. According to a poll organised by British ORB International, up to 73% of the population in government-controlled areas support the government effort.
National Defense Force
The Syrian NDF was formed out of pro-government militias. They receive their salaries, and their military equipment from the government, and number around 100,000 troops. The force acts in an infantry role, directly fighting against rebels on the ground and running counter-insurgency operations in coordination with the army, who provides them with logistical and artillery support. The force has a 500-strong women’s wing called “Lionesses of National Defense” which operates checkpoints. NDF members, like regular army soldiers, are allowed to loot the battlefields (but only if they participate in raids with the army), and can sell the loot for extra money.
The Shabiha are unofficial pro-government militias drawn largely from Syria’s Alawite minority group. Since the uprising, the Syrian government has been accused of using shabiha to break up protests and enforce laws in restive neighborhoods. As the protests escalated into an armed conflict, the opposition started using the term shabiha to describe civilians they suspected of supporting Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government and clashing with pro-opposition demonstrators. The opposition blames the shabiha for the many violent excesses committed against anti-government protesters and opposition sympathizers, as well as looting and destruction. In December 2012, the shabiha were designated a terrorist organization by the United States.
Bassel al-Assad is reported to have created the shabiha in the 1980s for government use in times of crisis. Shabiha have been described as “a notorious Alawite paramilitary, who are accused of acting as unofficial enforcers for Assad’s government”; “gunmen loyal to Assad”, and, according to the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, “semi-criminal gangs comprised of thugs close to the government”. Despite the group’s image as an Alawite militia, some shabiha operating in Aleppo have been reported to be Sunnis. In 2012, the Assad government created a more organized official militia known as the Jaysh al-Sha’bi, allegedly with help from Iran and Hezbollah. As with the shabiha, the vast majority of Jaysh al-Sha’bi members are Alawite and Shi’ite volunteers.
Main article: Christian Militias in Syria
The Christian militias in Syria (and northern Iraq) are largely made up of ethnic Assyrians, Syriac-Arameans, and Armenians. Sensing that they depend on the largely secular government, the militias of Syrian Christians fight both on the Syrian government’s side and with Kurdish forces. According to the WorldTribune.com, “The sources said thousands of Christians were joining the Syrian Army as well as such government militias as National Defense Forces and the Popular Committees. They said NDF helped organize Christian units to protect communities, particularly in the Assyrian regions of north eastern Syria. A major unit has been called the Christian Resistance, said to operate in the Homs province.”
The Eastern Aramaic speaking Assyrians in north eastern Syria and northern Iraq have formed various militias (including the Assyrian Defense Force, Dwekh Nawsha and Sootoro) in order to defend their ancient towns, villages and farmsteads from ISIS. They often but not always fight in conjunction with Kurdish and Armenian groups. Assyrian fighters from Sootoro have also clashed militarily with the Kurdish dominated YPG, accusing them of attempting to appropriate Assyrian lands for the Kurds. The Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers is an all-female force of Assyrian fighters in north east Syria and northern Iraq fighting ISIS alongside other Assyrian and Kurdish units.
In northern Iraq, with swathes of territory either occupied or threatened by ISIS/ISIL, Assyrian Christian militia have been highly active defending Assyrian towns and villages (particularly in the Nineveh plains, Assyrian homeland, Sinjar and around Mosul) from ISIS attacks.
In Lebanon, Maronite Christian militias fight incursions of ISIS and other Sunni Islamist groups.
In February 2013, former secretary general of Hezbollah, Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli, confirmed that Hezbollah was fighting for the Syrian Army, which in October 2012, General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah had still denied was happening on a large scale, except to admit that Hezbollah fighters helped the Syrian government “retain control of some 23 strategically located villages [in Syria] inhabited by Shiites of Lebanese citizenship”. Nasrallah said that Hezbollah fighters have died in Syria doing their “jihadist duties”.
In 2012 and 2013, Hezbollah was active in gaining control of territory in the Al-Qusayr District of Syria, by May 2013 publicly collaborating with the Syrian Army and taking 60 percent of the city[which?] by the end of 14 May. In Lebanon, there have been “a recent increase in the funerals of Hezbollah fighters” and “Syrian rebels have shelled Hezbollah-controlled areas.” As of 14 May 2013, Hezbollah fighters were reported to be fighting alongside the Syrian Army, particularly in the Homs Governorate. Hassan Nasrallah has called on Shiites and Hezbollah to protect the shrine of Sayida Zeinab. President Bashar al-Assad denied in May 2013 that there were foreign fighters, Arab or otherwise, fighting for the government in Syria.
On 25 May 2013, Nasrallah announced that Hezbollah was fighting in Syria against Islamic extremists and “pledged that his group will not allow Syrian militants to control areas that border Lebanon”. In the televised address, he said, “If Syria falls in the hands of America, Israel and the takfiris, the people of our region will go into a dark period.” According to independent analysts, by the beginning of 2014, approximately 500 Hezbollah fighters had died in the Syrian conflict. On 7 February 2016, 50 Hezbollah fighters were killed in a clash by the Jaysh al-Islam near Damascus. These fighters were embedded in the SAA formation called Army Division 39.
Iran continues to officially deny the presence of its combat troops in Syria, maintaining that it provides military advice to Assad’s forces in their fight against terrorist groups. Since the civil uprising phase of the Syrian civil war, Iran has provided the Syrian government with financial, technical, and military support, including training and some combat troops. Iran and Syria are close strategic allies. Iran sees the survival of the Syrian government as being crucial to its regional interests. Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, was reported to be vocally in favor of the Syrian government.
By December 2013 Iran was thought to have approximately 10,000 operatives in Syria. But according to Jubin Goodarzi, assistant professor and researcher at Webster University, Iran aided the Syrian government with a limited number of deployed units and personnel, “at most in the hundreds … and not in the thousands as opposition sources claimed”. Lebanese Hezbollah fighters backed by Tehran have taken direct combat roles since 2012. In the summer of 2013, Iran and Hezbollah provided important battlefield support for Syrian forces, allowing them to make advances on the opposition. In 2014, coinciding with the peace talks at Geneva II, Iran has stepped up support for Syrian President Assad. The Syrian Minister of Finance and Economy stated more than 15 billion dollars had come from the Iranian government. Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force commander Qasem Suleimani is in charge of Syrian President Assad’s security portfolio and has overseen the arming and training of thousands of pro-government Shi’ite fighters.
328 IRGC troops, including several commanders, have reportedly been killed in the Syrian civil war since it began.
Foreign Shia militias
According to Ari Heistein and James West, Shia fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan are “far more numerous” than Sunni non-Syrian fighters, though they have received “noticeably less attention” from the media. The number of Afghans fighting in Syria on behalf of the Syrian government has been estimated at “between 10,000 and 12,000”, the number of Pakistanis is not known (approximately 15% of Pakistan’s population is Shia). The main forces are the liwa’ fatimiyun (Fatimiyun Brigade) — which is composed exclusively of Afghans and fights “under the auspices” of Hezbollah Afghanistan—and the Pakistani liwa’ zaynabiyun (Zaynabiyun Brigade) formed in November 2015. Many or most of the fighters are refugees, and Iran has been accused of taking advantage of their inability to “obtain work permits or establish legal residency in Iran”, and using threats of deportation for those who hesitate to volunteer. The fighters are also paid a relatively high salary, and some have told journalists, that “the Islamic State is a common enemy of Iran and Afghanistan … this is a holy war,” and that they wish to protect the Shia pilgrimage site of Sayyida Zaynab, from Sunni jihadis.
On 30 September 2015, Russia’s Federation Council unanimously granted the request by President of Russia Vladimir Putin to permit the use of the Russian Armed Forces in Syria. On the same day, the Russian general Sergey Kuralenko, who represents Russia at the joint information center in Baghdad set up by Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria to coordinate their operations against Islamic State, arrived at the US Embassy in Baghdad and requested that any U.S. forces in the targeted area leave immediately. An hour later, the Russian aircraft based in the government-held territory began conducting airstrikes ostensibly against the Islamic State targets.
The armed opposition consists of various groups that were either formed during the course of the conflict or joined from abroad. According to Seymour Hersh, the opposition is financed by Saudi Arabia to the tune of $700 million a year (2014). In the north-west of the country, the main opposition faction is the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front allied with numerous other smaller Islamist groups, some of which operate under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The designation of the FSA by the West as a moderate opposition faction has allowed it, under the CIA-run programmes, to receive sophisticated weaponry and other military support from the U.S., Turkey and some Gulf countries that effectively increases the total fighting capacity of the Islamist rebels.
In the east, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a jihadist militant group originating from Iraq, made rapid military gains in both Syria and Iraq. ISIL eventually came into conflict with other rebels, especially with al-Nusra, leaders of which did not want to pledge allegiance to ISIL. By July 2014, ISIL controlled a third of Syria’s territory and most of its oil and gas production, thus establishing itself as the principal anti-government force. As of 2015, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are openly backing the Army of Conquest, an umbrella rebel group that reportedly includes an al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front and another Salafi coalition known as Ahrar ash-Sham, and Faylaq Al-Sham, a coalition of Muslim Brotherhood-linked rebel groups. Also, in the north-east, local Kurdish militias such as the YPG have taken up arms and have fought with both rebel Islamist factions and government loyalists.
Free Syrian Army
The formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was announced on 29 July 2011 by a group of defecting Syrian Army officers, encouraging others to defect in order to defend civilian protesters from violence by the state and effect government change. By December 2011, estimates of the number of defectors to the FSA ranged from 1,000 to over 25,000. The FSA, initially “headquartered” in Turkey, moved its headquarters to northern Syria in September 2012, and functions more as an umbrella organization than a traditional military chain of command.
In March 2012, two reporters of The New York Times witnessed an FSA attack and learned that the FSA had a stock of able, trained soldiers and ex-officers, organized to some extent, but without the weapons to put up a realistic fight.
In April 2013, the US announced it would transfer $123 million in nonlethal aid to Syrian rebels through defected general Salim Idriss, leader of the FSA, who later acknowledged “the rebels” were badly fragmented and lacked military skill. Idriss said he was working on a countrywide command structure, but that a lack of material support was hurting that effort. “Now it is very important for them to be unified. But unifying them in a manner to work like a regular army is still difficult”, Idriss said. He acknowledged common operations with Islamist group Ahrar ash-Sham but denied any cooperation with Islamist group al-Nusra Front.
Abu Yusaf, a commander of the Islamic State (IS), said in August 2014 that many of the FSA members who had been trained by United States’ and Turkish and Arab military officers were actually joining IS, but by September 2014 the Free Syrian Army was joining an alliance and common front with Kurdish militias including the YPG to fight ISIS.
In October 2015, shortly after the start of Russia’s military intervention in Syria, a senior ex-US official was paraphrased as saying “the “moderates” had collapsed long ago” in a piece by Robert Fisk who added that many fighters had defected to other rebel groups, while Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov called the FSA “an already phantom structure”, but later proclaimed that Russia was ready to aid the FSA with airstrikes against ISIS.
Islamic campaign in support of Syrian opposition
The Islamic Front (Arabic: الجبهة الإسلامية, al-Jabhat al-Islāmiyyah) is a merger of seven rebel groups involved in the Syrian civil war that was announced on 22 November 2013. The group has between 40,000 and 60,000 fighters. An anonymous spokesman for the group has stated that it will not have ties with the Syrian National Coalition, though a member of the political bureau of the group, Ahmad Musa, has stated that he hopes for recognition from the Syrian National Council in cooperation for what he suggested “the Syrian people want. They want a revolution and not politics and foreign agendas.” The group is widely seen as backed and armed by Saudi Arabia.
In September 2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that extremist Salafi jihadist groups make up 15–25% of rebel forces. According to Charles Lister, about 12% of rebels are part of groups linked to al-Qaeda, 18% belong to Ahrar ash-Sham, and 9% belong to Suqour al-Sham Brigade. These numbers contrast with a report by Jane’s Information Group, a defense outlet, claiming almost half of all rebels being affiliated to Islamist groups.
British think-tank Centre on Religion and Geopolitics, linked to former British PM Tony Blair, says that 60% of the rebels could be classified as Islamist extremists. Foreign fighters have joined the conflict in opposition to Assad. While most of them are jihadists, some individuals, such as Mahdi al-Harati, have joined to support the Syrian opposition.
The ICSR estimates that 2,000–5,500 foreign fighters have gone to Syria since the beginning of the protests, about 7–11 percent of whom came from Europe. It is also estimated that the number of foreign fighters does not exceed 10 percent of the opposition armed forces. Another estimate puts the number of foreign jihadis at 15,000 by early 2014.
The European Commission expressed concerns that some of the fighters might use their skills obtained in Syria to commit acts of terrorism back in Europe in the future.
In October 2012, various Iraqi religious groups join the conflict in Syria on both sides. Radical Sunnis from Iraq have traveled to Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government.
In September 2013, leaders of 13 powerful rebel brigades rejected the Syrian National Coalition and called Sharia law “the sole source of legislation”. In a statement they declared that “the coalition and the putative government headed by Ahmad Tomeh does not represent or recognize us”. Among the signatory rebel groups were al-Nusra Front, Ahrar ash-Sham and Al-Tawheed.
The scene of the October 2012 Aleppo bombings, for which al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility
The al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, being the biggest jihadist group in Syria, is often considered to be the most aggressive and violent part of the opposition Being responsible for over 50 suicide bombings, including several deadly explosions in Damascus in 2011 and 2012, it is recognized as a terrorist organization by the Syrian government and was designated as such by United States in December 2012. It has been supported by the Turkish government for years, according to US intelligence. In April 2013, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq released an audio statement announcing that al-Nusra Front is its branch in Syria. The leader of al-Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, said that the group would not merge with the Islamic State of Iraq but would still maintain allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda. The estimated manpower of al-Nusra Front is approximately 6,000–10,000 people, including many foreign fighters.
The relationship between the al-Nusra Front and the indigenous Syrian opposition is tense, even though al-Nusra has fought alongside the FSA in several battles and some FSA fighters defected to the al-Nusra Front. The Mujahideen’s strict religious views and willingness to impose sharia law disturbed many Syrians. Some rebel commanders have accused foreign jihadists of “stealing the revolution”, robbing Syrian factories and displaying religious intolerance. Al-Nusra Front has been accused of mistreating religious and ethnic minorities since their formation. On 10 March 2014, al-Nusra released 13 Christian nuns captured from Ma’loula, Damascus, in exchange for the release of 150 women from the Syrian government’s prisons. The nuns reported that they were treated well by al-Nusra during their captivity, adding that they “were giving us everything we asked for” and that “no one bothered us”.
Since February 2017, the affiliated group Tahrir al-Sham has turned away from straight battlefield-war to suicide bomb attacks on (Shiite) civilians, in Homs and Damascus.
Syrian Democratic Forces
Kurds showing their support for the PYD in Afrin during the conflict
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are an alliance of Arab, Assyrians, Armenian, Kurdish, and Turkmen militias fighting for a democratic and federalist Syria. They are opposed to the Assad government, but have directed most of their efforts against Al-Nusra Front and ISIL.
The group formed in December 2015, led primarily by the predominantly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Estimates of its size range from 55,000 to 80,000 fighters. While largely Kurdish, it’s estimated that about 40% of the fighters are non-Kurdish. Kurds – mostly Sunni Muslims, with a small minority of Yezidis – represented 10% of Syria’s population at the start of the uprising in 2011. They had suffered from decades of discrimination and neglect, being deprived of basic civil, cultural, economic, and social rights.:7 When protests began, Assad’s government finally granted citizenship to an estimated 200,000 stateless Kurds, in an effort to try and neutralize potential Kurdish opposition. Despite this concession, most Kurds remain opposed to the government, hoping instead for a more decentralized Syria based on federalism. The Syriac Military Council, like many Christian militias, originally formed to defend Christian villages, but joined the Kurdish forces to retake Hasakah from ISIS in late 2015 Before the formation of the SDF, the YPG was the primary fighting force in Rojava, and first entered this Syrian civil war as belligerent in July 2012 by capturing a town, Kobanî, that until then was under control of the Syrian Assad-government (see Syrian Kurdistan campaign).
On 17 March 2016 the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the SDF, declared the creation of an autonomous federation in northern Syria.
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
Called Dā’ash or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (abbrv. ISIL or ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria]) made rapid military gains in Northern Syria starting in April 2013 and as of mid-2014 controls large parts of that region, where the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights describes it as “the strongest group”. It has imposed strict Sharia law over land that it controls. The group was, until 2014, affiliated with al-Qaeda, led by the Iraqi fighter Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and has an estimated 7,000 fighters in Syria, including many non-Syrians. It has been praised as less corrupt than other militia groups and criticized for abusing human rights and for not tolerating non-Islamist militia groups, foreign journalists or aid workers, whose members it has expelled, imprisoned, or executed. According to Michael Weiss, ISIL has not been targeted by the Syrian government “with quite the same gusto” as other rebel factions.
By summer 2014, ISIL controlled a third of Syria. It established itself as the dominant force of Syrian opposition, defeating Jabhat al-Nusra in Deir Ezzor Governorate and claiming control over most of Syria’s oil and gas production.
The Syrian government did not begin to fight ISIL until June 2014 despite its having a presence in Syria since April 2013, according to Kurdish officials.
ISIL was able to recruit more than 6,300 fighters in July 2014 alone. In September 2014, reportedly some Syrian rebels signed a “non-aggression” agreement with ISIL in a suburb of Damascus, citing inability to deal with both ISIL and the Syrian Army’s attacks at once. Some Syrian rebels have, however, decried the news on the “non-aggression” pact. ISIL have also planted bombs in the ancient city area of Palmyra, a city with population of 50,000. Palmyra is counted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as it is home to some of the most extensive and best-preserved ancient Roman ruins in the world. Having lost nearly half of their territory in Iraq since 2014, many more Islamic State leaders have begun to sell their property and sneak into Syria, further destabilizing the region.
Countries participating in the Combined Joint Task Force. Not all are active in Syria.
Main articles: Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, American-led intervention in Syria, and Turkish involvement in the Syrian Civil War
A number of countries, including many NATO members, participate in the Combined Joint Task Force, chiefly to fight ISIL and support rebel groups perceived as moderate and friendly to Western nations such as the Free Syrian Army. Those who have conducted airstrikes in Syria include the United States, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France, Jordan, The Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. Some members are involved in the conflict beyond combating ISIL; Turkey has been accused of fighting against Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq, including intelligence collaborations with ISIL in some cases. The conclusion of a highly classified assessment carried out by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2013 was that Turkey had effectively transformed the secret US arms program in support of moderate rebels, who no longer existed, into an indiscriminate program to provide technical and logistical support for all elements of the opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.
Syrian National Coalition
Syrian National Coalition members in Doha, 11 November 2012. In center, president al-Khatib, along with VPs Seif and Atassi, as well as all SNC chairmen Ghalioun, Sieda and Sabra.
On 11 November 2012 in Doha, the National Council and other opposition groups united as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The following day, it was recognized as the legitimate government of Syria by numerous Persian Gulf states. Delegates to the Coalition’s leadership council are to include women and representatives of religious and ethnic minorities, including Alawites. The military council will reportedly include the Free Syrian Army. The main aims of the National Coalition are replacing the Bashar al-Assad government and “its symbols and pillars of support”, “dismantling the security services”, unifying and supporting the Free Syrian Army, refusing dialogue and negotiation with the al-Assad government, and “holding accountable those responsible for killing Syrians, destroying [Syria], and displacing [Syrians]”.
Syrian National Council
Formed on 23 August 2011, the National Council is a coalition of anti-government groups, based in Turkey. The National Council seeks the end of Bashar al-Assad’s rule and the establishment of a modern, civil, democratic state. SNC has links with the Free Syrian Army. In November 2012, the council agreed to unify with several other opposition groups to form the Syrian National Coalition. The SNC has 22 out of 60 seats of the Syrian National Coalition.
National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change
Formed in 2011 and based in Damascus, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change is an opposition bloc consisting of 13 left-wing political parties and “independent political and youth activists”. It has been defined by Reuters as the internal opposition’s main umbrella group. The NCC initially had several Kurdish political parties as members, but all except for the Democratic Union Party left in October 2011 to join the Kurdish National Council Some opposition activists have accused the NCC of being a “front organization” for Bashar al-Assad’s government and some of its members of being ex-government insiders.
Relations with other Syrian political opposition groups are generally poor. The Syrian Revolution General Commission, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria or the Supreme Council of the Syrian Revolution oppose the NCC calls to dialogue with the Syrian government. In September 2012, the Syrian National Council (SNC) reaffirmed that despite broadening its membership, it would not join with “currents close to [the] NCC”. Despite recognizing the Free Syrian Army on 23 September 2012,<"NBC statement September 23"/ > the FSA has dismissed the NCC as an extension of the government, stating that “this opposition is just the other face of the same coin”.
Syrian Democratic Council
The Syrian Democratic Council was established on 10 December 2015 in al-Malikiyah. It was co-founded by prominent human rights activist Haytham Manna and was intended as the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The council includes more than a dozen blocs and coalitions that support federalism in Syria, including the Movement for a Democratic Society, the Kurdish National Alliance in Syria, the Law–Citizenship–Rights Movement, and since September 2016 the Syria’s Tomorrow Movement. The last group is led by former National Coalition president and Syrian National Council Ahmad Jarba. In August 2016 the SDC opened a public office in al-Hasakah.
The Syrian Democratic Council was invited to participate in the international Geneva III peace talks on Syria in March 2016. However, it rejected the invitations because no representatives of the Movement for a Democratic Society, led by the Democratic Union Party, were invited.
Reporting, censoring and propaganda
The Syrian Civil War is one of the most heavily documented wars in history, despite the extreme dangers that journalists face while in Syria. Since the start of the war, all sides have used social media to try to discredit their opponents by using negative terms. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, given the complexity of the Syrian conflict, media bias in reporting remains a key challenge, plaguing the collection of useful data and misinforming researchers and policymakers regarding the actual events taking place.
Esther Brimmer (U.S.) speaks at a United Nations Human Rights Council urgent debate on Syria, February 2012
The Arab League, European Union, the United Nations, and many Western governments quickly condemned the Syrian government’s violent response to the protests, and expressed support for the protesters’ right to exercise free speech. Initially, many Middle Eastern governments expressed support for Assad, but as the death toll mounted, they switched to a more balanced approach by criticizing violence from both government and protesters. Both the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation suspended Syria’s membership. Russia and China vetoed Western-drafted United Nations Security Council resolutions in 2011 and 2012, which would have threatened the Syrian government with targeted sanctions if it continued military actions against protestors.
The conflict holds the record for the largest sum ever requested by UN agencies for a single humanitarian emergency, $6.5bn worth of requests of December 2013. The difficulty of delivering humanitarian aid to people is indicated by the statistics for January 2015: of the estimated 212,000 people during that month who were besieged by government or opposition forces, 304 were reached with food.
The international humanitarian response to the conflict in Syria is coordinated by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in accordance with General Assembly Resolution 46/182. The primary framework for this coordination is the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP) which appealed for USD $1.41 billion to meet the humanitarian needs of Syrians affected by the conflict. Official United Nations data on the humanitarian situation and response is available at an official website managed by UNOCHA Syria (Amman). UNICEF is also working alongside these organizations to provide vaccinations and care packages to those in need. It has launched a vaccination campaign to eradicate polio from the region, as 17 cases have come up since the war broke over three years ago.
US aid to Syrian opposition forces, May 2013
USAID and other government agencies in US delivered nearly $385 million of aid items to Syria in 2012 and 2013. The United States has provided food aid, medical supplies, emergency and basic health care, shelter materials, clean water, hygiene education and supplies, and other relief supplies. Islamic Relief has stocked 30 hospitals and sent hundreds of thousands of medical and food parcels.
Other countries in the region have also contributed various levels of aid. Iran has been exporting between 500 and 800 tonnes of flour daily to Syria. Israel has provided treatment to 750 Syrians in a field hospital located in Golan Heights. Rebels say that 250 of their fighters received medical treatment there. Syrian refugees make up one quarter of Lebanon’s population, mostly consisting of women and children. In addition, Russia has said it created six humanitarian aid centers within Syria to support 3000 refugees in 2016.
The World Health Organization has reported that 35% of the country’s hospitals are out of service, and depending upon the region, up to 70% of health care professionals have fled. Cases of diarrhoea and hepatitis A have increased by more than twofold since the beginning of 2013. Fighting makes it impossible to undertake the normal vaccination programs. The displaced refugees may also pose a risk to countries to which they have fled.
Financial information on the response to the SHARP and assistance to refugees and for cross-border operations can be found on UNOCHA’s Financial Tracking Service. As of 19 September 2015, the top ten donors to Syria were United States, European Commission, United Kingdom, Kuwait, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Japan, UAE, and Norway.
Both the Syrian government and the opposition have received support, militarily and diplomatically, from foreign countries leading the conflict to often be described as a proxy war. The major parties supporting the Syrian Government are Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Both of these are involved in the war politically and logistically by providing military equipment, training and battle troops. The Syrian government has also received arms from Russia and SIGINT support directly from GRU, in addition to significant political support from Russia.
The main Syrian opposition body – the Syrian coalition – receives political, logistic and military support from the United States, Britain and France. Some Syrian rebels get training from the CIA at bases in Qatar, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Under the aegis of operation Timber Sycamore and other clandestine activities, CIA operatives and U.S. special operations troops have trained and armed nearly 10,000 rebel fighters at a cost of $1 billion a year since 2012. The Syrian coalition also receives logistic and political support from Sunni states, most notably Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia; all the three major supporting states however have not contributed any troops for direct involvement in the war, though Turkey was involved in border incidents with the Syrian Army. The Financial Times and The Independent reported that Qatar had funded the Syrian rebellion by as much as $3 billion. It reported that Qatar was offering refugee packages of about $50,000 a year to defectors and family. Saudi Arabia has emerged as the main group to finance and arm the rebels.
French television France 24 reported that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, with perhaps 3,000 foreign jihadists among its ranks, “receives private donations from the Gulf states.” It is estimated ISIL has sold oil for between $1m-4m per day principally to Turkish buyers, during at least six months in 2013, greatly helping its growth. The Turkish government has been also accused of helping ISIL by turning a blind eye to illegal transfers of weapons, fighters, oil and pillaged antiquities across the southern border. As of 2015, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are openly backing the Army of Conquest, an umbrella rebel group that reportedly includes an al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front and another Salafi coalition known as Ahrar ash-Sham, and Faylaq Al-Sham, a coalition of Muslim Brotherhood-linked rebel groups. The major Syrian Kurdish opposition group, the PYD, was reported to get logistic and training support from Iraqi Kurdistan.
On 21 August 2014, two days after US photojournalist James Foley was beheaded, the U.S. military admitted a covert rescue attempt involving dozens of US Special Operations forces had been made to rescue Americans and other foreigners held captive in Syria by ISIL militants. The rescue attempt is the first known US military ground action inside Syria. The resultant gunfight resulted in one US soldier being injured. The rescue was unsuccessful as the captives were not in the location targeted. On 11 September 2014 the US Congress expressed support to give President Obama the $500 million he wanted to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels. The question of whether the president has authority to continue airstrikes beyond the 60-day window granted by the War Powers Resolution remained unresolved. On 12 September, US Secretary of State John Kerry met Turkish leaders to secure backing for US-led action against ISIL, but Ankara showed reluctance to play a frontline role. Kerry stated that it was “not appropriate” for Iran to join talks on confronting ISIL.
The plans revealed in September also involve Iraq in targeting ISIL. US warplanes have launched 158 strikes in Iraq over the past five weeks while emphasizing a relatively narrow set of targets. The Pentagon’s press secretary, John Kirby, said the air campaign in Iraq, which began 8 Aug, will enter a more aggressive phase. On the other hand, according to Fanack, initial refusal from the West to support the Syrian liberal opposition has contributed to the emergence of extremist Sunni groups. These include ISIL and the Nusra Front, linked to al-Qaeda.
American and Turkish militaries announced a joint plan to remove Islamic State militants from a 60-mile strip along the Turkish border. In December 2015, the Soufan Group estimated a total of 27,000-31,000 foreign fighters from 86 countries had travelled to Syria and Iraq to join extremist groups.
Total deaths over the course of the conflict in Syria (18 March 2011 – 18 October 2013) based on data from the Syrian National Council
On 2 January 2013, the United Nations stated that 60,000 had been killed since the civil war began, with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay saying “The number of casualties is much higher than we expected, and is truly shocking.” Four months later, the UN’s updated figure for the death toll had reached 80,000. On 13 June, the UN released an updated figure of people killed since fighting began, the figure being exactly 92,901, for up to the end of April 2013. Navi Pillay, UN high commissioner for human rights, stated that: “This is most likely a minimum casualty figure.” The real toll was guessed to be over 100,000. Some areas of the country have been affected disproportionately by the war; by some estimates, as many as a third of all deaths have occurred in the city of Homs.
One problem has been determining the number of “armed combatants” who have died, due to some sources counting rebel fighters who were not government defectors as civilians. At least half of those confirmed killed have been estimated to be combatants from both sides, including 52,290 government fighters and 29,080 rebels, with an additional 50,000 unconfirmed combatant deaths. In addition, UNICEF reported that over 500 children had been killed by early February 2012, and another 400 children have been reportedly arrested and tortured in Syrian prisons; both of these claims have been contested by the Syrian government. Additionally, over 600 detainees and political prisoners are known to have died under torture. In mid-October 2012, the opposition activist group SOHR reported the number of children killed in the conflict had risen to 2,300, and in March 2013, opposition sources stated that over 5,000 children had been killed. In January 2014, a report was released detailing the systematic killing of more than 11,000 detainees of the Syrian government.
On 20 August 2014, a new U.N. study concluded that at least 191,369 people have died in the Syrian conflict. The UN thereafter stopped collecting statistics, but a study by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research released in February 2016 estimated the death toll to be 470,000, with 1.9m wounded (reaching a total of 11.5% of the entire population either wounded or killed).
Formerly rare infectious diseases have spread in rebel-held areas brought on by poor sanitation and deteriorating living conditions. The diseases have primarily affected children. These include measles, typhoid, hepatitis, dysentery, tuberculosis, diphtheria, whooping cough and the disfiguring skin disease leishmaniasis. Of particular concern is the contagious and crippling Poliomyelitis. As of late 2013 doctors and international public health agencies have reported more than 90 cases. Critics of the government complain that, even before the uprising, it contributed the spread of disease by purposefully restricting access to vaccination, sanitation and access to hygienic water in “areas considered politically unsympathetic”.
The violence in Syria caused millions to flee their homes. As of March 2015, Al-Jazeera estimate 10.9 million Syrians, or almost half the population, have been displaced. 3.8 million have been made refugees. As of 2013, 1 in 3 of Syrian refugees (about 667,000 people) sought safety in Lebanon (normally 4.8 million population). Others have fled to Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq. Turkey has accepted 1,700,000 (2015) Syrian refugees, half of whom are spread around cities and a dozen camps placed under the direct authority of the Turkish Government. Satellite images confirmed that the first Syrian camps appeared in Turkey in July 2011, shortly after the towns of Deraa, Homs, and Hama were besieged. In September 2014, the UN stated that the number of Syrian refugees had exceeded 3 million. According to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Sunnis are leaving for Lebanon and undermining Hezbollah’s status. The Syrian refugee crisis has caused the “Jordan is Palestine” threat to be diminished due to the onslaught of new refugees in Jordan. Additionally, “the West Bank is undergoing emigration pressures which will certainly be copied in Gaza if emigration is allowed”. Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III Laham claims more than 450,000 Syrian Christians have been displaced by the conflict. As of September 2016, the European Union has reported that there are 13.5 million refugees in need of assistance in the country.
Human rights violations
According to various human rights organizations and United Nations, human rights violations have been committed by both the government and the rebels, with the “vast majority of the abuses having been committed by the Syrian government”. The U.N. commission investigating human rights abuses in Syria confirms at least 9 intentional mass killings in the period 2012 to mid-July 2013, identifying the perpetrator as Syrian government and its supporters in eight cases, and the opposition in one. By late November 2013, according to the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) report entitled “Violence against Women, Bleeding Wound in the Syrian Conflict”, approximately 6,000 women have been raped (including gang-rape) since the start of the conflict – with figures likely to be much higher given that most cases go unreported.
According to three international lawyers, Syrian government officials could face war crimes charges in the light of a huge cache of evidence smuggled out of the country showing the “systematic killing” of about 11,000 detainees. Most of the victims were young men and many corpses were emaciated, bloodstained and bore signs of torture. Some had no eyes; others showed signs of strangulation or electrocution. Experts say this evidence is more detailed and on a far larger scale than anything else that has yet emerged from the 34-month crisis. On 30 January 2014, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing, between June 2012 and July 2013, government forces razing to the ground seven anti-government districts in the cities of Damascus and Hama, equating to an area the size of 200 football fields. Witnesses spoke of explosives and bulldozers being used to knock down buildings. Satellite imagery was provided as part of the report and the destruction was characterized as collective punishment against residents of rebel-held areas.
UN reported also that “siege warfare is employed in a context of egregious human rights and international humanitarian law violations. The warring parties do not fear being held accountable for their acts.” Armed forces of both sides of the conflict blocked access of humanitarian convoys, confiscated food, cut off water supplies and targeted farmers working their fields. The report pointed to four places besieged by the government forces: Muadamiyah, Daraya, Yarmouk camp and Old City of Homs, as well as two areas under siege of rebel groups: Aleppo and Hama. In Yarmouk Camp 20,000 residents are facing death by starvation due to blockade by the Syrian government forces and fighting between the army and Jabhat al-Nusra, which prevents food distribution by UNRWA. In July 2015, the UN quietly removed Yarmouk from its list of besieged areas in Syria, despite not having been able deliver aid there for four months, and declined to explain why it had done so.
In 2013, the UN estimated that sieges by government and opposition forces had left more than 250,000 subjected to relentless shelling and bombardment. The OCHA’s figure for February 2015 was 212,000, though a study published the following month by American doctors said this was a drastic underestimate, putting the number of people besieged by the Syrian military alone at some 640,000.
“They are denied humanitarian aid, food and such basic necessities as medical care, and must choose between surrender and starvation,” the members of the UN Commission of Inquiry said. At least 18,866 civilians have been killed in Syrian government air attacks on rebel-held areas.
ISIS forces have been accused by UN of using public executions, amputations and lashings in a campaign to instill fear. “Forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham have committed torture, murder, acts tantamount to enforced disappearance and forced displacement as part of attacks on the civilian population in Aleppo and Raqqa governorates, amounting to crimes against humanity”, said the report from 27 August 2014.
Enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions have also been a feature since the Syrian uprising began. An Amnesty International report, published in November 2015, accused the Syrian government of forcibly disappearing more than 65,000 people since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. According to a report in May 2016 by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 60,000 people have been killed since March 2011 through torture or from poor humanitarian conditions in Syrian government prisons.
In February 2017, Amnesty International published a report which accused the Syrian government of the murdering an estimated 13,000 persons, mostly civilians, at the Saydnaya military prison. They said the killings began in 2011 and were still ongoing. Amnesty International described this as a “policy of deliberate extermination” and also stated that “These practices, which amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, are authorised at the highest levels of the Syrian government.”
Map of Syria’s ethno-religious composition in 1976
The successive governments of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad have been closely associated with the country’s minority Alawite religious group, an offshoot of Shia, whereas the majority of the population, and most of the opposition, is Sunni. Alawites started to be threatened and attacked by dominantly Sunni rebel fighting groups like al-Nusra Front and the FSA since December 2012 (see Sectarianism and minorities in the Syrian Civil War#Alawites).
A third of 250,000 Alawite men of military age have been killed fighting in the Syrian civil war. In May 2013, SOHR stated that out of 94,000 killed during the war, at least 41,000 were Alawites.
Many Syrian Christians reported that they had fled after they were targeted by the anti-government rebels. (See: Sectarianism and minorities in the Syrian Civil War#Christians.)
Al Jazeera reported that “The Druze accuse rebels of committing atrocities against their community in Syria … Syria’s Druze minority has largely remained loyal to President Bashar al-Assad since the war began in 2011.”
As militias and non-Syrian Shia—motivated by pro-Shia sentiment rather than loyalty to the Assad government—have taken over fighting the opposition from the weakened Syrian Army, fighting has taken on a more sectarian nature. One opposition leader has alleged that the Shia militias often “try to occupy and control the religious symbols in the Sunni community to achieve not just a territorial victory but a sectarian one as well”—allegedly occupying mosques and replacing Sunni icons with pictures of Shia leaders.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights human rights abuses have been committed by the militias including “a series of sectarian massacres between March 2011 and January 2014 that left 962 civilians dead”.
Doctors and medical staff treating injured rebel fighters and civilians in Aleppo
As the conflict has expanded across Syria, many cities have been engulfed in a wave of crime as fighting caused the disintegration of much of the civilian state, and many police stations stopped functioning. Rates of theft increased, with criminals looting houses and stores. Rates of kidnappings increased as well. Rebel fighters were seen stealing cars and, in one instance, destroying a restaurant in Aleppo where Syrian soldiers had been seen eating. By July 2012, the human rights group Women Under Siege had documented over 100 cases of rape and sexual assault during the conflict, with many of these crimes believed to have been perpetrated by the Shabiha and other pro-government militias. Victims included men, women, and children, with about 80% of the known victims being women and girls.
Local National Defense Forces commanders often engaged “in war profiteering through protection rackets, looting, and organized crime”. NDF members were also implicated in “waves of murders, robberies, thefts, kidnappings, and extortions throughout government-held parts of Syria since the formation of the organization in 2013”, as reported by the Institute for the Study of War.
Criminal networks have been used by both the government and the opposition during the conflict. Facing international sanctions, the Syrian government relied on criminal organizations to smuggle goods and money in and out of the country. The economic downturn caused by the conflict and sanctions also led to lower wages for Shabiha members. In response, some Shabiha members began stealing civilian properties and engaging in kidnappings. Rebel forces sometimes rely on criminal networks to obtain weapons and supplies. Black market weapon prices in Syria’s neighboring countries have significantly increased since the start of the conflict. To generate funds to purchase arms, some rebel groups have turned towards extortion, theft, and kidnapping.
The Temple of Bel in Palmyra, which was destroyed by ISIL in August 2015
As of March 2015, the war has affected 290 heritage sites, severely damaged 104, and completely destroyed 24. Five of the six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Syria have been damaged. Destruction of antiquities has been caused by shelling, army entrenchment, and looting at various tells, museums, and monuments. A group called Syrian Archaeological Heritage Under Threat is monitoring and recording the destruction in an attempt to create a list of heritage sites damaged during the war and to gain global support for the protection and preservation of Syrian archaeology and architecture.
UNESCO listed all six Syria’s World Heritage sites as endangered but direct assessment of damage is not possible. It is known that the Old City of Aleppo was heavily damaged during battles being fought within the district, while Palmyra and Krak des Chevaliers suffered minor damage. Illegal digging is considered a grave danger, and hundreds of Syrian antiquities, including some from Palmyra, appeared in Lebanon. Three archeological museums are known to have been looted; in Raqqa some artifacts seem to have been destroyed by foreign Islamists due to religious objections.
In 2014 and 2015, following the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, several sites in Syria were destroyed by the group as part of a deliberate destruction of cultural heritage sites. In Palmyra, the group destroyed many ancient statues, the Temples of Baalshamin and Bel, many tombs including the Tower of Elahbel, and part of the Monumental Arch. The 13th-century Palmyra Castle was extensively damaged by retreating militants during the Palmyra offensive in March 2016. ISIL also destroyed ancient statues in Raqqa, and a number of churches, including the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Deir ez-Zor.
In June 2014, members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) crossed the border from Syria into northern Iraq, and have taken control of large swaths of Iraqi territory as the Iraqi Army abandoned its positions. Fighting between rebels and government forces also spilled over into Lebanon on several occasions. There were repeated incidents of sectarian violence in the North Governorate of Lebanon between supporters and opponents of the Syrian government, as well as armed clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli. The fight between ISIL and the Kurds in the town of Kobanî on the Turkish border led to rioting throughout Turkey and to brief occupations of a number of parliament buildings in Western Europe.
Syria peace talks in Vienna, 30 October 2015
During the course of the war, there have been several international peace initiatives, undertaken by the Arab League, the United Nations, and other actors. The Syrian government has refused efforts to negotiate with what it describes as armed terrorist groups. On 1 February 2016, the UN announced the formal start of the UN-mediated Geneva Syria peace talks that had been agreed on by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Vienna. On 3 February 2016, the UN Syria peace mediator suspended the talks. On 14 March 2016, Geneva peace talks resumed. The Syrian government insisted that discussion of Bashar-al-Assad’s presidency “is a red line”, however Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad said he hoped peace talks in Geneva would lead to concrete results, and stressed the need for a political process in Syria.
The Astana Process talks between Opposition and government representatives concluded on January 24, 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan; with Russia, Iran and Turkey supporting the existing ceasefire agreement. The Astana Process talks are considered a complement, not replacement, of the United Nations-led Geneva Process talks.