The Syrian Civil War (Arabic: الحرب الأهلية السورية, Al-ḥarb al-ʼahliyyah as-sūriyyah) is an ongoing armed conflict in Syria between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and his allies on one side and various forces opposing him. The unrest in Syria, part of a wider wave of 2011 Arab Spring protests, grew out of discontent with the Assad’s government and escalated to an armed conflict after protests calling for his removal were violently suppressed. The war is being fought by several factions: the Syrian government and its allies, a loose alliance of Sunni Arab rebel groups (including the Free Syrian Army), the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Salafi jihadist groups (including al-Nusra Front) who cooperate with the Sunni rebel groups, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Syrian opposition groups formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and seized control of the area surrounding Aleppo and parts of southern Syria. Over time, some factions of the Syrian opposition split from their original moderate position to pursue an Islamist vision for Syria, joining groups such as al-Nusra Front and ISIL. In 2015, the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG) joined forces with Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, and some Turkmen groups, to form the Syrian Democratic Forces, while most Turkmen groups remained with the FSA.
Russia and Hezbollah militarily engaged in support of the Syrian government, while beginning in 2014, a coalition of NATO countries began launching airstrikes against ISIL.
International organizations have accused the Syrian government, ISIL, and rebel groups of severe human rights violations and of many massacres. The conflict has caused a major refugee crisis. Over the course of the war a number of peace initiatives have been launched, including the March 2017 Geneva peace talks on Syria led by the United Nations, but fighting continues.
Syria became an independent republic in 1946, although democratic rule ended with a coup in March 1949, followed by two more coups the same year. A popular uprising against military rule in 1954 saw the army transfer power to civilians. From 1958 to 1961, a brief union with Egypt replaced Syria’s parliamentary system with a highly centralized presidential government. The secular Ba’ath Syrian Regional Branch government came to power through a successful coup d’état in 1963. For the next several years Syria went through additional coups and changes in leadership.
In March 1971, Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, declared himself President, a position that he held until his death in 2000. Since 1970, the secular Syrian Regional Branch has remained the dominant political authority in what had been a one-party state until the first multi-party election to the People’s Council of Syria was held in 2012. On 31 January 1973, Hafez al-Assad implemented a new constitution, which led to a national crisis. Unlike previous constitutions, this one did not require that the President of Syria must be a Muslim, leading to fierce demonstrations in Hama, Homs and Aleppo organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and the ulama. They labeled Assad the “enemy of Allah” and called for a jihad against his rule. The government survived a series of armed revolts by Sunni Islamists, mainly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, from 1976 until 1982.
Upon Hafez al-Assad’s death in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad was elected as President of Syria. Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma, a Sunni Muslim born and educated in Britain, initially inspired hopes for democratic reforms. The Damascus Spring, a period of social and political debate, took place between July 2000 and August 2001.
The Damascus Spring largely ended in August 2001 with the arrest and imprisonment of ten leading activists who had called for democratic elections and a campaign of civil disobedience. In the opinion of his critics, Bashar al-Assad had failed to deliver on promised reforms. President Bashar Al-Assad maintains that no ‘moderate opposition’ to his rule exists, and that all opposition forces are jihadists intent on destroying his secular leadership. In an April 2017 interview with Croatian newspaper Vecernji List he reasserted his opinion that terrorist groups operating in Syria are ‘linked to the agendas of foreign countries’.
Syrian Arabs, together with some 600,000 Palestinian Arabs, make up roughly 74 percent of the population (if Syriac Christians are excluded). Syria Muslims are 74 percent Sunnis (including Sufis), and 13 percent Shias (including 8-12 percent Alawites from which about 2 percent are called Mershdis and they are the followers of Sulayman al-Murshid, percent Twelvers, or 1 percent Ismailis ), 3 percent were Druze, while the remaining 10 percent are Christians. Not all of the Sunnis are Arabs. The Assad family is mixed. Bashar is married to a Sunni, with whom he has several children. He is affiliated with the sect that his parents belong to: the minority Alawite sect which comprises an estimated 8-12 percent of the total population. Alawites control Syria’s security apparatus.
The majority of Syria’s Christians belonged to the Eastern Christian churches, such as the branches of the Eastern Catholic Churches, Syriac Orthodox Church, Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, Assyrian Church of the East, and Armenian Orthodox Church, which have existed in the region since the first century AD.
Syrian Kurds, an ethnic minority making up approximately 9 percent of the population, have been angered by ethnic discrimination and the denial of their cultural and linguistic rights, as well as the frequent denial of their citizenship.
Assyrians, an indigenous Eastern Aramaic-speaking Christian Semitic people, numbering approximately 500,000, are found mainly in northeast Syria. A larger population lives over the border in northern Iraq. Other ethnic groups include Armenians, Circassians, Turkmens, Greeks, Mhallami, Kawliya, Yezidi, Shabaks, and Mandeans.
Socioeconomic inequality increased significantly after free market policies were initiated by Hafez al-Assad in his later years, and it accelerated after Bashar al-Assad came to power. With an emphasis on the service sector, these policies benefited a minority of the nation’s population, mostly people who had connections with the government, and members of the Sunni merchant class of Damascus and Aleppo.
This coincided with the most intense drought ever recorded in Syria, which lasted from 2007 to 2010 and resulted in widespread crop failure, an increase in food prices and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers. The country also faced particularly high youth unemployment rates. At the start of the war, discontent against the government was said to be the strongest in Syria’s poor areas, predominantly among conservative Sunnis. These included cities with high poverty rates, such as Daraa and Homs and the poorer districts of large cities.
The human rights situation in Syria has long been the subject of harsh critique from global organizations. The rights of free expression, association and assembly were strictly controlled in Syria even before the uprising. The country was under emergency rule from 1963 until 2011 and public gatherings of more than five people were banned.Security forces had sweeping powers of arrest and detention.
Infowars Nightly News Director Rob Dew ( @DewsNewz ) covers the Syrian Army’s liberation of Aleppo and how the reports of them executing civilians in the streets is just another in long list of lies being promoted by western media. Eva Bartlett’s press conference
Authorities have harassed and imprisoned human rights activists and other critics of the government, who were often detained indefinitely and tortured while under prison-like conditions. Women and ethnic minorities faced discrimination in the public sector. Thousands of Syrian Kurds were denied citizenship in 1962 and their descendants were labeled “foreigners”. A number of riots in 2004 prompted increased tension in Syrian Kurdistan, and there have been occasional clashes between Kurdish protesters and security forces ever since.
Despite hopes for democratic change with the 2000 Damascus Spring, Bashar al-Assad was widely regarded as having failed to implement any improvements. A Human Rights Watch report issued just before the beginning of the 2011 uprising stated that he had failed to substantially improve the state of human rights since taking power.
In 1982, President Hafez al-Assad responded to an insurrection led by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama by sending a paramilitary force to indiscriminately kill between 10,000 and 55,000 civilians including children, women, and the elderly during what became known as the Hama massacre.
Amnesty International reports that women have been subject to discrimination and gender-based violence.
For several years, the “watchdog organization” Freedom House has rated political rights in Syria as “7” — the “least free” rating on its scale of 1 to 7 — and given Syria a rating of “Not Free.”
According to the 2008 report on human rights by the U.S. State Department, the Syrian government’s “respect for human rights worsened”. Members of the security forces arrested and detained individuals without providing just cause, often held prisoners in “lengthy pretrial and incommunicado detention”, and “tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees”. The government imposed significant restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, amid an atmosphere of government corruption. According to Arab Press Network, “despite a generally repressive political climate”, there were “signs of positive change,” during the 2007 elections. According to a 2008 report by Reporters without Borders, “Journalists have to tightly censor themselves for fear of being thrown into Adra Prison.”
In 2009 Syria was included in Freedom House’s “Worst of the Worst” section and given a rating of 7 for Political Rights: and 6 for Civil Liberties. According to Human Rights Watch, as of 2009 Syria’s poor human rights situation had “deteriorated further”. Authorities arrested political and human rights activists, censored websites, detained bloggers, and imposed travel bans. Syria’s multiple security agencies continue to detain people without arrest warrants. No political parties were licensed and emergency rule, imposed in 1963, remained in effect.
In April 2017, the U.S. Navy carried out a missile attack against a Syrian air base which had been used to conduct a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians.
Syria has a long history of arbitrary arrest, unfair trials and prolonged detention of suspects. Thousands of political prisoners remain in detention, with many belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Party. Since June 2000, more than 700 long-term political prisoners have been freed by President al-Asad, though an estimated 4,000 are reportedly still imprisoned. Information regarding those detained in relation to political or security-related charges is not divulged by the authorities. The government has not acknowledged responsibility for around 17,000 Lebanese citizens and Palestinians who “disappeared” in Lebanon in the 1980s and early 1990s and are thought to be imprisoned in Syria. In 2009, hundreds of people were arrested and imprisoned for political reasons.
Military Police were reported to have killed at least 17 detainees. Human rights activists are continually targeted and imprisoned by the government.
Among the scores of prisoners of conscience arrested in 2009, and hundreds of political prisoners already in prison, some of the more prominent prisoners were:
Kamal al-Labwani, a prisoner of conscience who had three years added to his 12-year sentence for allegedly “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which could affect the morale of the country”, on account of remarks he was alleged to have made in his prison cell.
Nabil Khlioui, an alleged Islamist from Deir al-Zour, who with at least 10 other Islamists “remained in incommunicado detention without charge or trial at the end of 2009.
Nabil Khlioui and at least 12 other alleged Islamists, mostly from Deir al-Zour, were arrested. At least 10 of them remained in incommunicado detention without charge or trial at the end of the year.
Mashaal Tammo, the killed spokesperson for the unauthorized Kurdish Future Current group, who was `held incommunicado for 12 days and charged with “aiming to provoke civil war or sectarian fighting”, “conspiracy” and three other charges commonly brought against Kurdish activists, charges that could lead to the death penalty.
Twelve leaders of a prominent gathering of opposition groups, the Damascus Declaration, continue to serve 30-month prison terms. Among those detained is Riad Seif, 62, a former member of parliament who is in poor health.
Habib Saleh was sentenced to three years in jail for “spreading false information” and “weakening national sentiment” in the form of writing articles criticizing the government and defending opposition figure Riad al-Turk.
One released prisoner was Aref Dalila. He had served seven of the ten years in his prison sentence, much of it in solitary confinement and in increasingly poor health, for his involvement in the so-called “Damascus Spring” before being released by a presidential pardon.
In June 2010, Mohannad al-Hassani, head of the Syrian Organisation for Human Rights (Swasiya) and winner of the 2010 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, was convicted of “weakening national morale” and “conveying within Syria false news that could debilitate the morale of the nation.” He was sentenced to three years in prison.
Sednaya prison alone houses more than 600 political prisoners. The authorities have kept many for years behind bars, often well past their legal sentence. The estimated 17,000 prisoners who have disappeared over the years suggests that Syria may have hidden mass graves.
In a 2006 report, Human Rights Watch reported on the continued detention of “thousands” of political prisoners in Syria, “many of them members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Party.” According to the Syrian Human Rights Committee that there were 4,000 political prisoners held in Syrian jails in 2006.
August 2016, Amnesty International released a report tackling the issue of torture and ill-treatment in Syrian government prisons which amount to crimes against humanity. Since the crisis began in March 2011, the international organization estimated that 17,723 people have died in custody in Syria – an average rate of more than 300 deaths each month. According to the report, governmental forces have used torture to scare the opponents. But today, they use it as a part of systematic attack against opposition members. According to testimonies of some survivors, detainees were subjected to numerous kind of torture aiming at dehumanizing them, and in many cases killing them. Amnesty international said that those, who are responsible for these atrocities, must be brought to justice.
Freedom of religion
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion. However, the Government restricts this right. While there is no official state religion, the Constitution requires that the president be Muslim and stipulates that Islamic jurisprudence, an expansion of Sharia Islamic law, is a principal source of legislation. According to the U.S. Department of State’s “International Religious Freedom Report 2007”, the Constitution provides for freedom of faith and religious practice, provided that the religious rites do not disturb the public order. According to the report, the Syrian Government monitored the activities of all groups, including religious groups, discouraged proselytism, which it deemed a threat to relations among religious groups. The report said that the Government discriminated against the Jehovah’s Witnesses and that there were occasional reports of minor tensions between religious groups, some attributable to economic rivalries rather than religious affiliation. There is some concern among religious minorities that democratic reforms will result in oppression of religious minorities by Islamist movements that are now repressed.
The constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic guarantees freedom of religion. Syria has had two constitutions: one passed in 1973, and one in 2012 through a referendum. Opposition groups rejected the referendum; claiming that the vote was rigged.
Syria has come under international condemnation over their alleged “anti-Semitic” state media, and for alleged “sectarianism towards Sunni Muslims”. This is a claim that Damascus denies. While secular, Syria does mandate that all students go through religious education of the religion that their parents are/were.
History of the constitutional clauses (1973)
On March 8, 1963, the Syrian Armed Forces overthrew the government of the French Mandate for Syria in a military coup d’état. After a great deal of struggle between various groups for power, the Ba’athist party assumed power over Syria. Being opposed to religion in general, the Ba‘athist theoretician Michel Aflaq associated religion with the old corrupt social order, oppression, and exploitation of the weak; seeming to have been influenced by a mixture of radical Hobbesian and Marxist views on religion. The constitution, however, still made it clear that in quote “Islamic jurisprudence shall be the main source for legislation”. Despite this proviso, there were a number of Sunni Muslims who felt that the secularization of the country had gone too far. They pressed for Islam as a state religion, demanding that all laws contrary to Islam should be abrogated. Their beliefs encompassed the understanding that the essential elements of the unity of Syria is the shari’a, which includes laws adequate to organize all aspects of life; at the level of the individual, the family, the nation and the state.
From the founding of modern- day Syria, there were underlying tensions that stemmed from sectarianism between the majority Sunni Muslim bloc and the minority Shias, Alawites, and Christians.
In 1973, a new constitution was drafted after demands from the opposition for stricter Islamic law. The Constitution was adopted by the People’s Council at the end of January 1973 but had no provision to that effect. Viewing the Constitution as the product of an Alawite dominated, secular, Ba‘athist ruling elite, Sunni militants staged a series of riots in February 1973 in conservative and predominantly Sunni cities such as Hamah and Homs. Numerous demonstrators were killed or wounded in clashes between the troops and demonstrators. After these demonstrations took place, the Assad government had the draft charter amended to include a provision that the President of Syria must be Muslim, and that Islamic law is a main source of legislation as a compromise to the Islamists. On March 13, 1973, the new Constitution (which is no longer applicable, having been amended in 2012) went into effect.
“The religion of the President of the Republic has to be Islam. Islamic jurisprudence is a main source of legislation.”
Paragraph 2 of Article 3 declares that Islamic jurisprudence is “a” source of law, but not “the” absolute .Bernard Botiveau notes that from a Ba‘athist perspective “Islam was one of the fundamental components of Arabness, but required to be located at the religious, and not the political end.” Sunni Shaykh Muhammad al-Habash interprets the provision to mean that it “refers to the situation where there is another source of law. Islam is a main source, but not the unique source. There are other sources for a wide area of law.” Scholarly commentator Nael Georges supposes that if there is no Islamic law that regulates a specific circumstance, secular law is applied. However, Georges concludes that there is not strict separation between Islam and the state in its present constitutional setup. Despite this Article in the Constitution, Syria identifies itself as secular, and does not follow Islamic law. In Bashar al-Assad’s speech in 2013, he reaffirmed his commitment to keeping Syria a secular state.
Religious and ethnic landscape
Syria’s eighteen million population is a mosaic of ethnically, culturally, and religiously distinct communities. Ninety percent of the Syrians adhere to an Arab identity; another roughly nine percent is Kurdish, Armenian, Circassian, and Turkomans filling out the mix. It is estimated that Sunni Muslims make up seventy-four percent of Syria’s overall population. As such, Sunnis provide the central symbolic and cultural orientation. Of these, a minority are of the Yazidi faith, reducing the core Sunni Arab majority to roughly two-thirds of the populace. Approximately another sixteen percent of the population, while Arab in ethnicity, consists of a few Twelver Shi`a, and various offshoots of Shi‘a Islam – Alawite, Druze, and Isma’ilis. The ‘Alawis are by far the largest community in the category of non-Sunni Muslims. Their number is estimated at eleven percent of the overall population.
Christians, of various Orthodox and Uniate traditions and the Latin Rite, along with a smattering of Protestants, make up ten percent of the population. Syria’s Arab Jewish community has, to a great extent, disappeared as a result of emigration in the early 1990s. In 1993, it was reported that there were 3,655 individuals of the Jewish faith comprising 584 families distributed throughout the various Syrian governantes.
Religious clauses are constitutionally entrenched
The Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic that was passed in 2012 guaranteed religious freedom in Article 3 and Article 33. Article 3 stipulates:
“The State shall respect all religions, and ensure the freedom to perform all the rituals that do not prejudice public order; The personal status of religious communities shall be protected and respected.”
Despite claiming to be a secular state, the 2012 constitution also states in Article 3 that the President must be a Muslim, and that the majority of laws will be based on Islam. Despite being prevalent in the constitution, Syria is seen as a secular state without having its laws based on Islam.
“The religion of the President of the Republic is Islam; Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation;…”
Personal status laws
In Syria, two kinds of judicial systems exist: a secular and a religious one. Secular courts hear matters of public, civil and criminal law. Religious courts that exercise specialized jurisdiction are divided into shari‘a courts, doctrinal courts, and spiritual courts. They hear personal status law cases only. Shari‘a courts regulate disputes among Syrian Muslims, whereas doctrinal courts are empowered to guarantee the personal status decisions of members of the Druze cult. Spiritual courts can also settle personal status matters for Jewish, Christian and other non-Muslim groups. Decisions of all of the religious courts may be appealed to the canonical and spiritual divisions of the Court of Cassation.
However, in 2016 the de facto autonomous Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava for the first time in Syrian history introduced and started to promote civil marriage as a move towards a secular open society and intermarriage between people of different religious backgrounds.
The second preponderant element of collective religious self-determination under Article 35 of the Syrian Constitution is the ability to manage and control public waqf. Making available the waqf institution is not so much a new innovation of the Syrian state, but all the more a continuation of an ancient practice which has its roots in Byzantine and Sasanian trust law. Mainly the Umayyads and the Ottomans developed what can nowadays be seen as constitutional custom. For historians the waqf institution provided the foundation for much of what is considered Islamic civilization.
In 1947 the Syrian waqf administration, headed by the Prime Minister, was formed. For the first time in Syrian history, the members of the High Council of Awqaf were nominated and not voted for. The law was later reversed, as in the year 1961, and a new statutory source came into effect. Parts of the Council’s initial authority were definitely curtailed in 1965. The competences to nominate leaders and teachers of mosques as well as religious administrators were eventually transferred to the powers of the Syrian Prime Minister in 1966.
In spite of that, notable Sunni Islamic leaders retained their influence in the waqf administration and Ministry in that they were given important offices. Today, the competences of the waqf Ministry encompass, inter alia: the administration of waqf wealth (which includes much of Syria’s property); mufti organization; administration of mosques and shari‘a schools; control of charitable state functions; and the preparation of parliamentary bills. The waqf administration as part of the waqf Ministry, is composed half of secular and half of religious personnel. Its minister is nominated by the President of the Syrian Arab Republic. Since the establishment of the Ministry, waqf ministers have always been adherents of Sunni Islam.
Non-Muslim waqf – those of the Druze, Christians, and Jews – were not included under the French programme and mandate reforms. Non-Muslim waqf continue to be administered by the leaders of the respective religious community, but is overseen by the waqf Ministry. Act No. 31 of 2006 contains an entire body of legal provisions regulating the waqf institution of the Catholic rites. Similar Acts were adopted for all non-Muslim waqf institutions. Many Christian or Jewish founders of pious trusts donated the revenues to their non-Muslim institutions. This kind of public waqf pays for the construction and maintenance of churches, schools, or the salaries of their personnel. Waqf revenues likewise pay for religious orders and other religious constructions and buildings such as cemeteries and tombs. Waqf funds are used for libraries, translation centres, and students’ scholarships. Orphanages, needs of widows, the blind or other handicapped or poor people are all cared for with waqf money.
Adoption, change, and renunciation of religion
Syrians are free to engage or refrain from engaging in belief or religious observance in any manner other than is prohibited by law. Article 35(1) of the Syrian constitution holds that: “Freedom of faith is guaranteed […].” The provision includes the freedom to retain or chose one’s religion, or to replace the current religion with another, or to adopt atheistic views. There is no official legal punishment under Syrian law for apostasy of Islam, or any other religion. Article 35(2) of the Syrian Constitution stipulates that “the state guarantees the freedom to hold any religious rites […],” as long as “they [the apostates] do not disturb public order.” As far as can be established, there is no Syrian case tying apostasy to “disturbing public order.” The provision is interpreted by scholarly means in the sense that a person who wishes to convert is free to do so as long as such activity is “made in private.” The meaning of the words “in private” in association with the requirement not to “disturb public order” need to be looked at from two varying angles: converting from a specific religion to another religion; and vice versa.
Conversion away “from” Islam
A Muslim is disallowed by virtue of Islamic jurisprudence to challenge society. Former Judge Haitham Maleh comments, “any Syrian Muslim is allowed to change his religion provided that conversion is exercised behind closed doors and without affecting neighbours.” Judge Maleh reiterates more specifically, “an effect must not even be felt by the closest family members.” This can be construed as a condemnation of publicly announcing a change in religion; although no case exists of a person being charged for publicly converting to a different religion. However, an apostate from a religion has no legal right to speak about or act upon his or her new belief. The word “private” means the forum internum of a person. This interpretation approach is also reflected, for instance, in the general inability to change a Muslim’s birth certificate or other personal documents. Moreover, it is a generally accepted practice that there are no religious ceremonies for such personal, highly intimate events. While allowed to personally change beliefs, a Syrian cannot officially change their religion as listed on their birth certificate.
The primary listed reason why Syrian Muslims cannot change their religion is not the passive role of the state, but Syrian society. Father Paulo comments “freedom of religion is virtually unthinkable with regard to the cultural role religion plays in everyday Syrian society.” He opines that the “replacing of one’s current religion would not only mean the complete loss of one’s social ties, including one’s own family, friends, and acquaintances, but maybe also professional position.” From this perspective there are no legal but a fortiori social sanctions. Islamic scholar Jørgen S. Nielsen says in the same regard “the state obviously discourages it because it simply rocks the boat.”
However, the desire to adopt a new religion is a relatively rare phenomenon. Father Paulo believes that “there are only a few such cases.”
In Syria, the often-cited Hadith Sahih of al-Bukhari is of no direct legal effect. The Hadith demands, Template:CquoteIf someone changes the religion you have to kill him is not incorporated into the Syrian Penal Code of 1949. Judge Maleh argues that the idea of Sahih of al-Bukhari in 9:57 was “to protect the Islamic society from Muslims who change their religion and start to work as enemies against Islam.” Shaykh al-Habash muses similarly “maybe Prophet Muhammad mentioned it for someone who changed his religion and began to fight as an enemy against Islam at that moment in history.” Al-Habash cannot accept it as tradition that generally applies to all people changing from one religion to another, even in the case of Islam. To him, this tradition is not part of the precious Qur’an, but “is a statement made by Prophet Muhammad and was later narrated by the people.” Finally, Shaykh al-Habash emphasizes, “ninety-nine percent of all Syrian Muslims believe that it is forbidden to use force against others.”
Conversion “to” Islam
Conversion to Islam is similarly regarded as private affair with one significant difference. Rule No. 212 of the Personal Status Act of 1953 holds that when a Muslim woman marries a non-Muslim man, Islam is offered to the husband. Moreover, the same rule reads, if he becomes Muslim his change in faith, it is written down in their marriage contract. But if he declines, the judge should keep them apart. In cases other than interfaith relationships, the act of conversion to Islam is not state institutionalized. Moreover, it is prohibited by Islamic fatwa to change religion once a person has converted to Islam. Conversion from a Christian sect to another Christian sect or Islam, while legal, is also problematic. Negative implications are felt on one’s social ties including relations with family, friends and acquaintances. Patriarch Ignatius IV expressed his aversion to community members who adopt the faith of another Christian rite, by stating:
There are new sects coming from Europe and America to Syria. As long as they are of Christian faith they are subject to few limitations. From the Greek-Orthodox point of view we dislike them, because not only are they involved in missionary work, but divide us as a Christian community. We are fully against any division, we want to stay visible. Our belief is that Jesus comes from Bethlehem, and not from London or New York.
Understanding Syrian ideals
To the Swiss scholar Marcel Stüssi, the inherent difficulty with regard to Syrian religious freedom lies in the circumstance that the Western reader is required to reset some, but not all, knowledge on Western values unless she or he wants to be trapped by specific modes of thinking. While in the West, fairness means that the state protects a more or less autonomous society in which individuals are free to form a variety of allegiances and bonds of solidarity along any lines they choose (leisure, political, religious, cultural, racial, sexual etc.), in the Near East the justice system requires the state to assure that the individual is related to the religious community as part of a larger organism.
Situation of minority groups
Membership in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is illegal, as is membership in any “Salafist” organization, a designation in Syrian parlance that denotes Saudi-inspired fundamentalism. The Syrian government and the State Security Court have not defined the exact parameters of what constitutes a Salafist or why it is illegal. Affiliation with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is punishable by death, although in practice the sentence is typically commuted to 12 years imprisonment. While there has not been an official explanation as to why Salafist parties are illegal Syria, nor how this action in constitutional, it is generally seen as the Syrian state attempting to suppress the non- Secular opposition in fear of a Saudi- backed uprising.
All religions, religious orders, political groups, parties, and news organizations must register with the government, which monitors fund raising and requires permits for all religious and non-religious group meetings; with the exception of worship. The registration process is complicated and lengthy, but the government usually allows groups to operate informally while awaiting its response. This was re-affirmed in the 2012 constitution.
There is a de facto separation of religion and state in that the Syrian government generally refrains from involvement in strictly religious matters and religious groups tend not to participate in internal political affairs. However, Syria has increased its support for the practice and study of government-sanctioned, moderate forms of Islam, and Syrian state radio also began broadcasting the dawn and afternoon Muslim prayers, in addition to its traditional broadcast of noon prayers. Syrian state television also broadcasts recitations from the Qur’an in the morning.
Syria permits the use of religious language in public spaces, including the placement of banners bearing religious slogans at the site of prominent public landmarks during religious holidays. However, there have been no recent examples of prominent religious figures addressing government functions.
Syria’s government policy officially disavows sectarianism of any kind, although religion can be a key factor in determining career opportunities. For example, Alawites hold dominant positions in the security services and military that are extremely disproportionate to their percentage of the population. Also, Jehovah’s Witnesses are discriminated against in the area of employment as their religion is banned as a “politically motivated Zionist organization”.
The April 2007 parliamentary elections for the Syrian Peoples Assembly saw an increase in the number of Islamic clerics elected to the Parliament from one in 2003 to three.
The government promotes Islamic banking. In early 2007 two Islamic banks were allowed to conduct initial public offerings: The Cham Islamic Bank and the Syria International Islamic Bank.
Syria is intolerant of, and suppresses, extremist and conservative forms of Islam. Accordingly, it selects what they believe to be moderate Muslims for religious leadership positions. These people typically have no intention of altering the secular nature of the government. Sheikh Ahmed Baderedin Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria, continued to call on Muslims to stand up to Islamic fundamentalism and has urged leaders of the various religious groups to engage in regular dialogues for mutual understanding.
All schools are officially government-run and non-sectarian, although in practice some schools are run by the Christian and Druze communities. There is mandatory religious instruction in schools for all religious groups, with government-approved teachers and curriculum. Religious instruction is provided on Islam and Christianity only, and courses are divided into separate classes for Muslim and Christian students. Groups that participate in Islamic courses include Sunni, Shi’a, Alawi, Ismaili, Yezidi, and Druze. Although Arabic is the official language in public schools, the government permits the teaching of Armenian, Hebrew, and Aramaic in some schools on the basis that these are “liturgical languages.” There is no mandatory religious study at the university level.
Religious groups are subject to their respective religious laws for matters dealing with personal status. Syria has not yet passed legislation pertaining to personal status issues for Orthodox Christians.
A new Civil Law for Catholics went into effect in 2006. It contains strict rules on the order of inheritance with regard to the relatives of the deceased, as well as on the jurisdiction of Christian courts. Additionally, there are laws that establish the legal marriage age and prohibit some instances of mixed marriage for Catholics, according to AsiaNews, the official press agency of the Roman Catholic Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions. The law gives the bishop of a diocese and the Christian courts expanded authority to determine the validity of an adoption. The new law also clarifies parental rights and inheritance rules between adopting parents and the adopted child. The Catholic leadership generally received the law positively.
Syrian law specifically provides for reduced or commuted sentences in “honor crimes”, which involve violent assaults by a direct male relative against a female. Section 548 of the Syrian penal code stipulates that a man can be absolved of any killing if he witnesses a direct female relative in the act of adultery. Moreover, a man’s sentence for murder will be greatly reduced if he sees a direct female relative in a “suspicious situation” with a member of the opposite sex who is not a relative.
Under Syria’s interpretation of Shari’a, the legal standard for men to be granted a divorce is much lower than that for women. Husbands may also claim adultery as grounds for divorce, while wives often face a higher legal standard when presenting the same case. A man can only be found guilty of adultery if the act takes place inside the home. If a wife requests a divorce from her husband, she may be denied alimony and the return of her dowry in some instances.
In the event of divorce, a woman loses the right to custody of her sons when they reach the age of 13, and her daughters when they reach the age of 15, regardless of religion. Women can also lose custody before this age if they remarry, work outside the home, or move outside of the city or country. In such cases the custody of the children reverts to the maternal grandmother until the age of 13 and 15 respectively. After that, custody reverts to the father until the children reach the age of majority.
Inheritance for all citizens except Catholics is based on Shari’a. Accordingly, married women usually are granted half the inheritance share male heirs receive. In all communities, however, male heirs must provide financial support to unmarried female relatives who inherit less. For example, a brother would inherit his and his unmarried sister’s share from their parents’ estate, and he is obligated to provide for the sister’s well-being with that inheritance. If the brother fails to do so, she has the right to sue. Polygamy is legal for Muslim men but is practised only by a minority of them.
The Syrian government generally does not prohibit links between its citizens and co-religionists in other countries or between its citizens and the international hierarchies that govern some religious groups. It does however prohibit contact between the Jewish community and Jews in Israel.
The following holy days are national holidays: Western Christmas, Orthodox and Western Easter, Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr, the Islamic New Year, and the Birth of the Prophet Muhammad.
Restrictions on religious freedom
In 2007, Syria licensed the so-called Quabasis to hold their female-only Islamic study groups inside of mosques. Until then, they were held in private homes. Some regard the licensing as a cynical attempt by the security services to make it easier to monitor the Quabasis rather than to help facilitate their activities. However, Quabasis groups are still allowed to meet in private residences.
Proselytism is not prohibited by civil law; however, the government discourages it as a potential threat to the relations among religious groups. Nevertheless, foreign missionaries were present; operating discreetly. There were no reported cases of anyone being prosecuted for posing a threat to the relations among religious groups in recent years. Instead, there were several reports that Syria gave the Shi’a favorable treatment and allowed Shi’a missionaries to construct mosques and convert Sunnis to Shiites.
All groups, religious and non-religious, are subject to surveillance and monitoring by government security services. The Government particularly considers militant Islam a threat to the government and closely follows the practice of its adherents. While the Syrian government allows many mosques to be built, it monitors and controls sermons and often closes mosques between prayers.
In Damascus, a road is being built through the old city to a major Shi’a mosque. To complete the road, the government plans to tear down several predominantly Sunni residential complexes in the old city. The country’s Sunni clerics and communities have criticized these plans.
Religious minorities, with the exception of Jews, are represented among the senior officer corps. In keeping with the Syria’s secular policy, though, the military does not have a chaplain corps; members of the military do not have direct access to religious or spiritual support; and soldiers are expected not to express their faith overtly during work hours. For example, Muslims are discouraged from praying while on duty.
Syria canceled an Islamic religious program that had been broadcast just before the major weekly prayers were shown on government-run television. On April 20, 2007, the son of the late Grand Mufti, Sheikh Salah Khuftaro, in a speech at the Abu Nur Islamic Center, denounced the Information Minister for this decision.
Abuses of religious freedom
Before the 2011 revolution, European diplomats and human rights organizations around the world characterized the level of repression against alleged Islamists as consistent throughout the years, with discrimination neither increasing nor decreasing. Some religious leaders insisted they faced increased repression at the hands of the Syrian government, however.
Human rights organizations documented the arrest of at least 30 persons for alleged ties to Islamist groups. The Government rarely furnishes documentation on the number of detained persons. Human rights groups have reported on the amount Syrians who have been arrested or detained for alleged ties to Islamist groups in previous years but whose detention have not been confirmed nor denied by the government.
Since 2007, the Syrian Supreme State Security Court has sentenced at least 22 alleged Islamists to lengthy prison sentences.
Syria continues to hold an unknown number of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists as political detainees and prisoners. Many alleged Islamists not connected to the Muslim Brotherhood have been charged and convicted for membership in a Salafist organization. Arrests of alleged Islamists and, in some cases, convictions, were motivated primarily by the Syrian government’s view of militant Islamists as potential threats to government stability.
Syria primarily cites tense relations with Israel as the reason for barring Jewish citizens from employment in the civil service or serving in the armed forces, and for exempting them from military service obligations. Jews are the only religious minority group whose passports and identity cards note their religion, and they must obtain the permission of the security services before traveling abroad. Jehovah Witnesses face similar persecution.
Jews also face extra scrutiny from the government when applying for licenses, deeds, or other government papers. The Jewish community is prohibited from sending historical Torahs abroad under a law against exporting any of the country’s historical and cultural treasures. This poses a serious problem for the dwindling Jewish community concerned about the preservation of its ancient religious texts.
Improvements and positive developments in respect for religious freedom
On June 24, 2007, Syrian Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmed Baderedin Hassoun called on Jews of Syrian origin to return to Syria, claiming that the property and synagogues of Jews who left Syria remained as they were and would be placed at the disposal of their original owners. There have been no noticeable increase of Jews in Syria since, with no change in the discrimination and barring from the work force that those of the Jewish faith.
On 14 March 2007, during a lecture at Damascus University, Syrian Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Baderedin Hassoun called for amending the laws that allow honor killings, which he said violate the Islamic spirit of the law.
Religious freedom since the revolution
Since the uprising began in Syria, the country has grown increasingly sectarian, with a sharp divide between Shia Muslims and Christians generally supporting the government, and Sunni Muslims generally supporting the Free Syrian Army. The presence of Jews in Syria is almost non-existent, and they have not played a significant role in the revolution.
Societal abuses and discrimination
There have been occasional reports of minor tensions between religious groups, mainly attributable to economic rivalries rather than religious affiliation.
In March 2007 there were reports of riots in Hassakeh Province between Christians and predominantly Muslim Kurds. There were reports of three deaths. It was unclear whether there was any religious basis to the conflict.
No official statistics were kept on honor crimes, but there were scattered reports of them in the local media. Most prominent was the case of Zahra Ezzo. On January 31, 2007, Ezzo was murdered by her brother after being kidnapped and forced to run away by a friend of the family. The incidence of honor crimes is believed to be considerably higher in rural areas.
Social conventions and religious and theological proscriptions made conversion relatively rare, especially Muslim-to-Christian conversion. In many cases, societal pressure forced such converts to relocate within the country or leave the country to practice their new religion openly.
Banning of head and face coverings
On 21 July 2010, the government in Damascus ordered the banning of face-covering niqab in public and private universities amid fears of increasing Islamic extremism among young Muslim students; with hundreds of teachers wearing niqabs were transferred out of Syrian schools and universities and reassigned to administrative jobs, where they would not come into contact with students.
Article 520 of the penal code of 1949, prohibits having homosexual relations, i.e. “carnal relations against the order of nature”, and provides for up to three-years imprisonment.
In 2010 the Syrian police began a crackdown that led to the arrest of over 25 men. The men were charged with various crimes ranging from homosexual acts and illegal drug use, to encouraging homosexual behavior and organizing obscene parties.
Freedom of movement
Syrians can not leave the country without an “exit visa” granted by the authorities.
Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides for the human right of Freedom of Movement as such “(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country.”
Despite this universal human right travel within Syria is discouraged, by the government and the rebels, and Extremist groups and the government have imposed restrictions on the freedom of movement on the people of Syria. Bans have been said to have increased significantly since 2006, though exact statistics are hard to come by as secret security agencies are commonly the ones issuing the bans.
The Syrian Constitution, in Article 38(3), allows freedom of movement “within the territories of the state unless restricted by a judicial decision or by the implementation of laws of public health and safety.” From 2011 to 2015, the last four years of the Syrian war, the freedom of movement has been most widely restricted in certain areas and on certain individuals. Restrictions vary between regions, partly because of continuous fighting in certain areas. In rebel held areas there are severe restrictions on the movement of government supporters (or people thought to be government supporters). Foreign diplomats are unable to visit a majority of Syria, and are often not allowed outside of Damascus (Syrian capital).
In the areas of Jindires in Afrin, and Ras al Ayn, curfews where executed in 2012 and 2013 extremist groups put in place a curfew of 5pm, after which nobody could be seen in public. Then in December 2014 a travel ban was announced on Syrian men aged 18 to 42 (military age). The memorandum supposedly states that all Syrian males must have special permission to leave the country, obtained from army officials.
An example of an individual travel ban is Louay Hussein, president of an opposition group in Syria (Building the Syrian State, or the BSS party), was unable to attend peace talks in Moscow in April 2015 because the regime refused to rid of his lifelong travel ban, however on the 26th April 2015 Hussein managed to evade his ban and flee to Spain. Also Syrian human rights defenders are having their movement restrained by being held in arbitrary arrest. The human rights defenders Mazen Darwish, Hani Al-Zitani, and Hussein Gharir were arrested in February 2012 for ‘publicizing terrorist acts’. The United Nations General Assembly has repeatedly called for their release.
Al-Furat University in the city of Deir ez-Zor has been facing movement restrictions by ISIS recently. In January 2015 circulars were issued to ISIS checkpoints in the area to scrutinize all university students passing. To encourage students to abandon their studies and join the ranks of ISIS, the rebels have been restricting the students from travelling between regime areas and ISIS held areas, preventing many students from entering or exiting the university grounds.
Further from this there are certain restrictions on movement placed on Women, for example Syrian law now allows males to place restrictions on certain female relatives. Women over the age of 18 are entitled to travel outside of Syria, however a woman’s husband may file a request for his wife to be banned from leaving the country. From July 2013, in certain villages in Syria (namely Mosul, Raqqu and Deir el-Zour), ISIS no longer allow women to appear in public alone, they must be accompanied by a male relative/guardian known as a mahram. Security checkpoints in civilian areas set up by the government and by ISIS have allowed them to monitor these restrictions. With the males of Syria often being involved in the fighting, no matter which side, this is leaving many Syrian women at home alone with the children, stranded and unable to leave to purchase food and supplies. Further, women in Tel Abyad and Idlib city have been banned from driving by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nursa.
Other countries have begun closing their borders to Syrian refugees. On October 7, 2013, Turkey built a two-meter wall on the Syrian border in the Nusaybin district where there was frequent fighting with the rebels. Then on March 9 Turkey closed a further two of its border crossings from Syria, Oncupinar and Cilvegozu, in response to the escalating violence and worries of a terrorist plot. Up until this date Turkey had accepted nearly 2 million Syrian refugees. Aid trucks are still welcome to cross the border, but it is strictly closed to individuals.
The Syrian government continues its practice of issuing exit visas with strict requirements. They have also closed the Damascus airport frequently because of growing violence. Bans on travel are frequently used against human rights activists and their associates, often these people would not learn about their travel ban until they were prevented leaving the country. Usually no explanations are given for these travel restrictions. The government often bans members of the opposition and their families from travelling abroad, and they are targeted if they attempt to, causing opposition families to fear attempting to leave Syria for fear of being attacked at the airport or border crossing. Though this action is illegal under international law, Syrian courts have been known to decline to interfere in matters of national security.
Article 38(1) provides that “no citizen may be deported from the country, or prevented from returning to it”. This, along with Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights creates a general legal right to travel internationally. As well as preventing citizens from leaving Syria, there have also been many instances of citizens being prevent from returning to Syria, whether they left illegally or not. A positive step in regards to this was taken on the 28th April 2015, when it was announced by Syrian authorities that citizens who had previously fled the war would be able to re-attain passports without a review by the intelligence service, or going though the Department of emigration and passports. These citizens had fled the country illegally and either not taken their passports, or lost them.
Freedom of speech and the media
The number of news media has increased in the past decade, but the Ba’ath Party continues to maintain control of the press. Journalists and bloggers have been arrested and tried. In 2009, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Syria number three in a list of the ten worst countries in which to be a blogger, given the arrests, harassment, and restrictions which online writers in Syria faced.
Internet censorship in Syria is extensive. Syria bans websites for political reasons and arrests people accessing them. Internet cafes are required to record all the comments users post on chat forums. Websites such as Wikipedia Arabic, YouTube and Facebook were blocked from 2008 to 2011. Filtering and blocking was found to be pervasive in the political and Internet tools areas, and selective in the social and conflict/security areas by the OpenNet Initiative in August 2009. Syria has been on Reporters Without Borders’ Enemy of the Internet list since 2006 when the list was established.
In addition to filtering a wide range of Web content, the Syrian government monitors Internet use very closely and has detained citizens “for expressing their opinions or reporting information online.” Vague and broadly worded laws invite government abuse and have prompted Internet users to engage in self-censorship to avoid the state’s ambiguous grounds for arrest.
The Syrian Centre for Media and Free Expression was closed by the government in September 2009. It was the country’s only NGO specializing in media issues, Internet access and media monitoring during election campaigns. It had operated without government approval, and had monitored violations of journalists’ rights and had taken up the cause of the ban on the dissemination of many newspapers and magazines.
Syrian civil war
During the Syrian civil war, a UN report described actions by the security forces as being “gross violations of human rights”. The UN report documented shooting recruits that refused to fire into peaceful crowds without warning, brutal interrogations including elements of sexual abuse of men and gang rape of young boys, staking out hospitals when wounded sought assistance, and shooting of children as young as two. In 2011 Human Rights Watch stated that Syria’s bleak human rights record stood out in the region. While Human Rights Watch doesn’t rank offenders, many have characterized Syria’s human rights report as among the worst in the world in 2010.
While it is claimed that ‘the majority of these violations have been committed by the Syrian government’s forces’, Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that each side appeared to have committed war crimes.
Human rights in Rojava
Kurds in Syria form the country’s largest ethnic minority, traditionally inhabiting the northern region of Rojava. They were subject to multiple forms of discrimination and persecution unter the Baathist governments of Syria. In his report for the 12th session of the UN Human Rights Council titled Persecution and Discrimination against Kurdish Citizens in Syria, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights held:
Successive Syrian governments continued to adopt a policy of ethnic discrimination and national persecution against Kurds, completely depriving them of their national, democratic and human rights — an integral part of human existence. The government imposed ethnically-based programs, regulations and exclusionary measures on various aspects of Kurds’ lives — political, economic, social and cultural.
Measures against Kurds included depriving ethnic Kurdish citizens of their citizenship; suppressing Kurdish language and culture; discrimination against citizens based on Kurdish ethnicity; confiscation of Kurdish land and settlement by Arabs. In the course of the Syrian Civil War, the Rojava region gained de facto autonomy and under the political philosophy of Democratic Confederalism formed the polyethnic Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava, consisting of several autonomous cantons.
In a report “‘We Had Nowhere Else to Go’: Forced Displacement and Demolition in Northern Syria,” Amnesty International documented allegations of forced evictions of Arabs and Turkmens and the destruction of their homes. The report said that “in some cases, entire villages have been demolished”, and that villagers were “ordered to leave at gunpoint, their livestock shot at”. Some persons claimed to Amnesty that “they told us we had to leave or they would tell the US coalition that we were terrorists and their planes would hit us and our families. Threats by the YPG of calling in US airstrikes against villagers were reported. Amnesty International concluded that “these instances of forced displacement constitute war crimes.” Arabs and Turkmen claimed that YPG militias have stolen their homes and livestock, burned their personal documents and claimed the land as theirs, and that Turkmen “are losing lands where they have been living for centuries.” During the Syrian civil war, several attacks by Arab or Kurdish Muslims have targeted Syrian Christians, including the 2015 al-Qamishli bombings. In January 2016, YPG militias conducted a surprise attack on Assyrian checkpoints in Qamishli, in a predominantly Assyrian area, killing one Assyrian and wounding three others.
Human rights accomplishments in Rojava
According to the 2014 Constitution of Rojava, the administration of the de facto autonomous region is committed to international law regarding human rights, explicitly incorporating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as other internationally recognized human rights conventions. It is extraordinary for the Middle East in its explicit affirmation of minority rights and gender equality and a form of direct democracy known as Democratic Confederalism. The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which limits the concept of human rights and to which Syria is a signatory state, does not apply in Rojava. In July 2016, a draft for an updated constitution was presented, taking up the general progressive and democratic confereralist principles of the 2014 constitution, mentioning all ethnic groups living in Rojava, addressing their cultural, political and linguistic rights.
The civil laws of Syria are valid in Rojava, as far as they do not conflict with the Constitution of Rojava. One notable example for amendment is the family law, where Rojava proclaims absolute equality of women under the law and a ban on polygamy. There is affirmative action to give power to minority groups and ethnicities as a guiding principle. A new criminal justice approach has been implemented that emphasizes restoration over retribution. Prisons are operated by TEV-DEM, housing mostly those charged with terrorist activity related to ISIL and other extremist groups. The death penalty has been abolished.
While under the regime of the Ba’ath Party school education consisted of only Arabic language public schools, supplemented by Assyrian private confessional schools, the Rojava administration in 2015 (leaving the private schools untouched) introduced for public schools primary education in native language either Kurdish or Arabic and secondary education mandatory bilingual in Kurdish and Arabic for public schools (with English as a third language).
Human rights issues in Rojava
Rojava has pursued a policy of open access to international media as well as international human rights organisations. Human Rights Watch after a visit in early 2014 reported “arbitrary arrests, due process violations, and failed to address unsolved killings and disappearances” and made recommendations for government improvement. The report documented the alleged cases of “arbitrary arrests” and “unfair trials” that had occurred since the beginning of the revolution in 2012. Rojava officials claimed that the few proven instances of misconduct were isolated incidents and not tolerated. In a separate report, Amnesty International criticised arbitrary long term detainment followed by unfair trials lasting minutes with no lawyers for the defendants accused of involvement with ISIL. However, Fred Abrahams, special advisor to HRW who visited Rojava and drafted the report, noted that the Rojava institutions have taken solid steps to addressing the problems and had been receptive to criticism. He notes that they were currently in the process of political transitioning from the Syrian government, training a new police force and creating a new legal system.
During the Syrian Civil War, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the largest of Rojava’s self-defence militias under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces, were accused of crimes against Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen communities. The allegations include kidnappings of suspected persons, torture, ethnic cleansing, and expulsion. In an October 2015 report, Amnesty International alleged cases of forced displacement, demolition of homes, and the seizure and destruction of property. According to Amnesty International, some displaced people said that the YPG has targeted their villages on the pretext of supporting ISIS; some villagers revealed the existence of a small minority that might have sympathized with the group. The YPG dismissed the charges. A Syrian National Council (SNC) member who headed a delegation from the SNC to investigate allegations about the displacement of Arab civilians, said there was no evidence of Arabs or Turkmen having been displaced. In an interview by Society for Threatened Peoples with the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdulrahman said that all “ethnic cleansing” allegations against YPG were nonsense. He also explained that these allegations were propaganda of Turkish and Syrian National Congress origin, because of their hostility towards Kurds. In response to allegations of human rights violation from within its ranks, the YPG in fall 2015 asked for and received human rights training from Geneva Call and other international organizations for its forces.
In October 2015, Amnesty International reported that the YPG had driven civilians from northern Syria and destroyed their homes in retaliation for perceived links to ISIL. The majority of the destroyed homes belonged to Arabs, but some belonged to Turkmens and Kurds. Turkish “Daily Sabah” claimed that Amnesty International has said that Kurdish PYD conducted ethnic cleansing against Turkmens and Arabs after seizing Tal Abyad. However, Amnesty International has published only one report about the Syrian Kurdish forces and it is related to destroying villages and homes, not ethnic cleansing at all. The Amnesty International report concluded that there are documented cases of forced displacement that constitute war crimes.
In 2015, Assyrian and Armenian organizations protested the enforcement of Kurdish self-administration in the Hasaka province, including expropriation of private property by the PYD and interference in church school curricula and also criticized illegal seizure of property, and targeted killings Assyrians have also criticized the enforcement of revisionist curricula in private and public schools with a Kurdish-nationalist bias. They have claimed that in textbooks the Kurds “alter historical and geographical facts”, including Assyrian place names which are changed to Kurdish names, and students are taught that King Nebuchadnezzar from the Old Testament married a Kurdish woman.
Protests, civil uprising, and defections (January–July 2011)
The protests began on 15 March 2011, when protesters marched in the capital of Damascus, demanding democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners. Security forces retaliated by opening fire on the protesters, and according to witnesses who spoke to the BBC, the government forces detained six. The protest was triggered by the arrest of a boy and his friends by the government for writing in graffiti, “The people want the fall of the government”, in the city of Daraa The 13-year old boy, Hamza al-Khateeb, was tortured and killed. Writer and analyst Louai al-Hussein, referencing the Arab Spring ongoing at that time, wrote that “Syria is now on the map of countries in the region with an uprising”. On 20 March, the protesters burned down a Ba’ath Party headquarters and “other buildings”. The ensuing clashes claimed the lives of seven police officers and 15 protesters. Ten days later in a speech, President Bashar al-Assad blamed “foreign conspirators” pushing Israeli propaganda for the protests.
Protests in Douma
Until 7 April, the protesters predominantly demanded democratic reforms, release of political prisoners, an increase in freedoms, abolition of the emergency law and an end to corruption. After 8 April, the emphasis in demonstration slogans shifted slowly towards a call to overthrow the Assad government. Protests spread. On Friday 8 April, they occurred simultaneously in ten cities. By Friday 22 April, protests occurred in twenty cities. By the end of May 2011, 1,000 civilians and 150 soldiers and policemen had been killed and thousands detained; among the arrested were many students, liberal activists and human rights advocates.
Significant armed resistance against the state security took place on 4 June 2011 in Jisr al-Shugur. Unverified reports claim that a portion of the security forces in Jisr defected after secret police and intelligence officers executed soldiers who had refused to fire on civilians. Later, more protesters in Syria took up arms, and more soldiers defected to protect protesters.
Early armed insurgency (July 2011–April 2012)
The Early insurgency phase of the Syrian Civil War lasted from late July 2011 to April 2012, and was associated with the rise of armed oppositional militias across Syria and the beginning of armed rebellion against the authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic. The beginning of the insurgency is typically marked by formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on 29 July 2011, when a group of defected officers declared the establishment of the first organized oppositional military force. Composed of defected Syrian Armed Forces personnel, the rebel army aimed to remove Bashar al-Assad and his government from power.
This period of the war saw the initial civil uprising take on many of the characteristics of a civil war, according to several outside observers, including the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, as armed elements became better organized and began carrying out successful attacks in retaliation for the crackdown by the Syrian government on demonstrators and defectors.
The Arab League monitoring mission, initiated in December 2011, ended in failure by February 2012, as Syrian Ba’athist troops and oppositional militants continued to do battle across the country and the Syrian Ba’athist government prevented foreign observers from touring active battlefields, including besieged oppositional strongholds.
In early 2012, Kofi Annan acted as the UN–Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria. His peace plan provided for a ceasefire, but even as the negotiations for it were being conducted, the rebels and the Syrian army continued fighting even after the peace plan.:11 The United Nations-backed ceasefire was brokered by special envoy Kofi Annan and declared in mid-April 2012.
Ceasefire attempt (April–May 2012)
On 12 April, both sides, the Syrian government and rebels of the FSA, entered a UN-mediated ceasefire period. It had eventually turned into a failure, with infractions of the ceasefire by both sides resulting in several dozen casualties. Acknowledging its failure, Annan called for Iran to be “part of the solution”, though the country has been excluded from the Friends of Syria initiative. The peace plan practically collapsed by early June and the UN mission was withdrawn from Syria. Annan resigned in frustration on 2 August 2012.
Renewed fighting (June–October 2012)
Following the Houla massacre of 25 May 2012, in which 108 people were summarily executed, and the subsequent FSA ultimatum to the Syrian government, the ceasefire practically collapsed, as the FSA began nationwide offensives against government troops. On 1 June, President Assad vowed to crush the anti-government uprising. On 5 June, fighting broke out in Haffa and nearby villages in the coastal governorate of Latakia Governorate. Government forces were backed by helicopter gunships in the heaviest clashes in the governorate since the revolt began. Syrian forces seized the territory following days of fighting and shelling. On 6 June 78 civilians were killed in the Al-Qubeir massacre. According to activist sources, government forces started by shelling the village before the Shabiha militia moved in. UN observers headed to Al-Qubeir in the hope of investigating the massacre, but they were met with a roadblock and small arms fire and were forced to retreat.
On 12 June 2012, the UN for the first time officially proclaimed Syria to be in a state of civil war. The conflict began moving into the two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. In both cities, peaceful protests – including a general strike by Damascus shopkeepers and a small strike in Aleppo were interpreted as indicating that the historical alliance between the government and the business establishment in the large cities had become weak. On 22 June, a Turkish F-4 fighter jet was shot down by Syrian government forces, killing both pilots. Syria and Turkey disputed whether the jet had been flying in Syrian or international airspace when it was shot down. Bashar al-Assad publicly apologised for the incident.
By 10 July, rebel forces had captured most of the city of Al-Qusayr, in Homs Governorate, after weeks of fighting.By mid-July, rebels had captured the town of Saraqeb, in Idlib Governorate. By mid-July 2012, with fighting spread across the country and 16,000 people killed, the International Committee of the Red Cross declared the conflict a civil war. Fighting in Damascus intensified, with a major rebel push to take the city. On 18 July, Syrian Defense Minister Dawoud Rajiha, former defense minister Hasan Turkmani, and the president’s brother-in-law General Assef Shawkat were killed by a suicide bomb attack in Damascus. The Syrian intelligence chief Hisham Ikhtiyar, who was injured in the same explosion, later succumbed to his wounds. Both the FSA and Liwa al-Islam claimed responsibility for the assassination.
In mid-July, rebel forces attacked Damascus and were repelled over two weeks, although fighting still continued in the outskirts. After this, the focus shifted to the battle for control of Aleppo. On 25 July, multiple sources reported that the Assad government was using fighter jets to attack rebel positions in Aleppo and Damascus, and on 1 August, UN observers in Syria witnessed government fighter jets firing on rebels in Aleppo. In early August, the Syrian Army recaptured Salaheddin district, an important rebel stronghold in Aleppo. In August, the government began using fixed-wing warplanes against the rebels. On 19 July, Iraqi officials reported that the FSA had gained control of all four border checkpoints between Syria and Iraq, increasing concerns for the safety of Iraqis trying to escape the violence in Syria.
On 6 September 2012 Kurdish activists reported that 21 civilians were killed in the Kurdish neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsud in Aleppo, when the Syrian Army shelled the local mosque and its surroundings. Despite the district being neutral during the Battle of Aleppo and free of government and FSA clashes, local residents believed that the district was shelled as retaliation for sheltering anti-government civilians from other parts of the city. In a statement released shortly after the deaths, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) vowed to retaliate. A few days later, Kurdish forces killed 3 soldiers in Afrin (Kurdish: Efrîn) and captured a number of other government soldiers in Ayn al-Arab (Kurdish: Kobanî) and Al-Malikiyah (Kurdish: Dêrika Hemko) from where they drove the remaining government security forces. It was also reported that the government had begun to arm Arab tribes around Qamishli in preparation for a possible confrontation with Kurdish forces, who still did not completely control the city.
On 19 September, rebel forces seized a border crossing between Syria and Turkey in Raqqa Governorate. It was speculated that this crossing could provide opposition forces with strategic and logistical advantages due to Turkish support of the rebels, whose headquarters subsequently relocated from southern Turkey into northern Syria. At least 8 government soldiers were killed and 15 wounded by a car bomb in the al-Gharibi district of Qamishli on 30 September 2012. The explosion targeted the Political Security branch.
In October, rebel forces seized control of Maarat al-Numan, a town in Idlib Governorate on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo and captured Douma, marking increased influence in Rif Dimashq. Lakhdar Brahimi arranged for a ceasefire during Eid al-Adha in late October, but it quickly collapsed.
Rebel offensives (November 2012 – April 2013)
After Brahimi’s ceasefire agreement ended on 30 October, the Syrian military expanded its bombing campaign in Damascus. The district of Jobar suffered the first bomb hit from a fighter jet in Damascus. The following day, Syrian Air Force commander Gen. Abdullah Mahmud al-Khalidi was assassinated by opposition gunmen in the Damascus district of Rukn al-Din. In early November 2012, rebels made significant gains in northern Syria. The rebel capture of Saraqib in Idlib Governorate, which lies on the M5 highway, further isolated Aleppo. Due to insufficient anti-aircraft weapons, rebel units attempted to nullify the government’s air power by destroying landed helicopters and aircraft on air bases. On 3 November, rebels launched an attack on the Taftanaz air base.
On 18 November, rebels took control of Base 46 in the Aleppo Governorate, one of the Syrian Army’s largest bases in northern Syria, after weeks of intense fighting. Defected General Mohammed Ahmed al-Faj, who commanded the assault, stated nearly 300 Syrian troops had been killed and 60 had been captured, with rebels seizing large amounts of heavy weapons, including tanks. On 22 November, rebels captured the Mayadin military base in the country’s eastern Deir ez-Zor Governorate. Activists said this gave the rebels control of much territory east of the base, stretching to the Iraqi border. On 29 November, at approximately 10:26 UTC, the Syrian Internet and phone service was shut off for two days. Syrian government sources denied responsibility and blamed the blackout on fiber optic lines near Damascus becoming exposed and damaged; Edward Snowden in August 2014 claimed that this Internet breakdown had been caused, though unintendedly, by hackers of the NSA during an operation to intercept Internet communication in Syria.
In mid-December 2012, American officials said that the Syrian military had fired Scud ballistic missiles at rebel fighters inside Syria. Reportedly, six Scud missiles were fired at the Sheikh Suleiman base north of Aleppo, occupied by rebel forces. It is unclear whether the Scuds hit the intended target. The government denied this claim. Later that month, a further Scud attack took place near Marea, a town north of Aleppo near the Turkish border, apparently missing its target, and the FSA penetrated into Latakia Governorate’s coast through Turkey. In late December, rebel forces pushed further into Damascus, taking control of the adjoining Yarmouk and Palestine refugee camps, pushing out pro-government Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command fighters with the help of other factions. Rebel forces launched an offensive in Hama Governorate, later claiming to have forced army regulars to evacuate several towns and bases, and stating that “three-quarters of western rural Hama is under our control.” Rebels also captured the town of Harem near the Turkish border in Idlib Governorate, after weeks of heavy fighting.
On 11 January 2013, Islamist groups, including al-Nusra Front, took full control of the Taftanaz air base in the Idlib Governorate, after weeks of fighting. The base had been used by the Syrian military to carry out helicopter raids and deliver supplies. The rebels claimed to have seized helicopters, tanks and rocket launchers, before being forced to withdraw by a government counter-attack. The leader of the al-Nusra Front said the amount of weapons they took was a “game changer”. On 11 February, Islamist rebels captured the town of Al-Thawrah in Raqqa Governorate and the nearby Tabqa Dam, Syria’s largest dam and a key source of hydroelectricity. The next day, rebel forces took control of Jarrah air base, located 60 kilometres (37 mi) east of Aleppo. On 14 February, al-Nusra Front fighters took control of Shadadeh, a town in Al-Hasakah Governorate near the Iraqi border.
On 20 February, a car bomb exploded in Damascus near the Ba’ath Syrian Regional Branch headquarters, killing at least 53 people and injuring more than 235. No group claimed responsibility. On 21 February, the FSA in Quasar began shelling Hezbollah positions in Lebanon. Prior to this, Hezbollah had been shelling villages near Quasar from within Lebanon. A 48-hour ultimatum was issued by a FSA commander on 20 February, warning the militant group to stop the attacks.
On 2 March, intense clashes between rebels and the Syrian Army erupted in the city of Raqqa, with many deaths reported on both sides. On the same day, Syrian troops regained several villages near Aleppo. By 3 March, rebels had overrun Raqqa’s central prison and freed hundreds of prisoners, according to the SOHR. The SOHR also stated that rebel fighters had taken control of most of an Aleppo police academy in Khan al-Asal, and that over 200 rebels and government troops had been killed fighting for control of it.
By 6 March, the rebels had captured the city of Raqqa, effectively making it the first provincial capital to be lost by the Assad government. Residents of Raqqa toppled a bronze statue of his late father Hafez al-Assad in the centre of the city. The rebels also seized two top government officials. On 18 March, the Syrian Air Force attacked rebel positions in Lebanon for the first time, at the Wadi al-Khayl Valley area, near the town of Arsal. On 21 March, a suspected suicide bombing in the Iman Mosque in Mazraa district killed as many as 41 people, including the pro-Assad Sunni cleric, Sheikh Mohammed al-Buti. On 23 March, several rebel groups seized the 38th division air defense base in southern Daraa Governorate near a highway linking Damascus to Jordan. On the next day, rebels captured a 25-kilometre (16-mile) strip of land near the Jordanian border, which included the towns of Muzrib, Abdin, and the al-Rai military checkpoint. On 25 March, rebels launched one of their heaviest bombardments of Central Damascus since the revolt began. Mortars reached Umayyad Square, where the Ba’ath Party headquarters, Air Force Intelligence and state television are located.
On 26 March, near the Syrian town of al-Qusayr, rebel commander Khaled al Hamad, who commands the Al Farooq al-Mustakilla Brigade and is also known by his nom de guerre Abu Sakkar, ate the heart and liver of a dead soldier and said “I swear to God, you soldiers of Bashar, you dogs, we will eat from your hearts and livers! O heroes of Bab Amr, you slaughter the Alawites and take out their hearts to eat them!” in an apparent attempt to increase sectarianism. Video of the event emerged two months later and resulted in considerable outrage, especially from Human Rights Watch which classified the incident as a war crime. According to the BBC, it was one of the most gruesome videos to emerge from the conflict to-date. On 29 March, rebels captured the town of Da’el after fierce fighting. The town is located in Daraa Governorate, along the highway connecting Damascus to Jordan. On 3 April, rebels captured a military base near the city of Daraa.
In mid-January 2013, as clashes re-erupted between rebels and Kurdish forces in Ras al-Ayn, YPG forces moved to expel government forces from oil-rich areas in Hassakeh Province. Clashes broke out from 14 to 19 January between the army and YPG fighters in the Kurdish village of Gir Zîro (Tall Adas), near al-Maabadah (Kurdish: Girkê Legê), where an army battalion of around 200 soldiers had been blockaded since 9 January. YPG forces claimed to have expelled government after the clashes. One soldier was reportedly killed and another eight injured, while seven were captured (later released) and 27 defected. Fighting at the oil field near Gir Zîro ended on 21 January, when government forces withdrew after receiving no assistance from Damascus. In Rumeilan, directly west of al-Maabadah, another 200 soldiers had been surrounded by YPG forces, and 10 soldiers were reported to have defected.
From 8 to 11 February, heavy clashes broke out between the YPG and government troops in the PYD/YPG-held district Ashrafiyah where, according to SOHR, at least 3 soldiers and 5 pro-government militiamen were killed. The fighting followed deadly shelling on 31 January on Ashrafiyah, in which 23 civilians were killed after FSA units moved into the Kurdish sector of Aleppo. According to its own reports, the YPG lost 7 of its members in the fighting, while also claiming that 48 soldiers were killed and 22 captured, and a further 70 injured. In early March, YPG forces established full control of oil fields and installations in north-east Syria after government forces posted there surrendered. Also, YPG assaulted government forces and took control of the towns of Tall ʿAdas, which is adjacent to Rumeilan oil fields, and Al-Qahtaniya (Kurdish: Tirbespî).
Government offensives (April–June 2013)
On 17 April, government forces breached a six-month rebel blockade in Wadi al-Deif, near Idlib. Heavy fighting was reported around the town of Babuleen after government troops attempt to secure control of a main highway leading to Aleppo. The break in the siege also allowed government forces to resupply two major military bases in the region which had been relying on sporadic airdrops. On 18 April, the FSA took control of Al-Dab’a Air Base near the city of al-Qusayr. The base was being used primarily to garrison ground troops. Meanwhile, the Syrian Army re-captured the town of Abel. The SOHR said the loss of the town would hamper rebel movements between al-Qusayr and Homs city. The capture of the airport would have relieved the pressure on the rebels in the area, but their loss of Abel made the situation more complicated. The same day, rebels reportedly assassinated Ali Ballan, who was a government employee, in the Mazzeh district of Damascus. On 21 April, government forces captured the town of Jdaidet al-Fadl, near Damascus.
In April, government and Hezbollah forces launched an offensive to capture areas near al-Qusayr. On 21 April, pro-Assad forces captured the towns of Burhaniya, Saqraja and al-Radwaniya near the Lebanese border. By this point, eight villages had fallen to the government offensive in the area. On 24 April, after five weeks of fighting, government troops re-took control of the town of Otaiba, east of Damascus, which had been serving as the main arms supply route from Jordan. Meanwhile, in the north of the country, rebels took control of a position on the edge of the strategic Mennagh Military airbase, on the outskirts of Aleppo. This allowed them to enter the airbase after months of besieging it.
On 2 May, government forces captured the town of Qaysa in a push north from the city’s airport. Troops also retook the Wadi al-Sayeh central district of Homs, driving a wedge between two rebel strongholds. SOHR reported a massacre of over 100 people by the Syrian Army in the coastal town of Al Bayda, Baniyas. However, this could not be independently verified due to movement restrictions on the ground. Yet the multiple video images that residents said they had recorded – particularly of small children, were so shocking that even some government supporters rejected Syrian television’s official version of events, that the army had simply “crushed a number of terrorists.” On 15 June, the Syrian Army captured the Damascus suburb of Ahmadiyeh near the city’s airport. On 22 June, the Syrian Army captured the rebel stronghold town of Talkalakh.
Continued fighting (July–October 2013)
On 28 June, rebel forces captured a major military checkpoint in the city of Daraa. On 12 July FSA reported that one of its commanders, Kamal Hamami, had been killed by Islamists a day before. The rebels declared that the assassination by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, was tantamount to a declaration of war. On 17 July, FSA forces took control of most of the southern city of Nawa after seizing up to 40 army posts stationed in the city. On 18 July, Kurdish YPG forces secured control of the northern town of Ras al-Ain, after days of fighting with the al-Nusra Front. In the following three months, continued fighting between Kurdish and mainly jihadist rebel forces led to the capture of two dozen towns and villages in Hasakah Governorate by Kurdish fighters, while the Jihadists made limited gains in Aleppo and Raqqa governorates after they turned on the Kurdish rebel group Jabhat al-Akrad over its relationship with the YPG. In Aleppo Governorate, Islamists massacred the Kurds leading to a mass migration of civilians to the town of Afrin.
On 22 July, FSA fighters seized control of the western Aleppo suburb of Khan al-Asal. The town was the last government stronghold in the western portion of Aleppo Governorate. On 25 July, the Syrian Army secured the town of al-Sukhnah, after expelling the al-Nusra Front. On 27 July, after weeks of fighting and bombardment in Homs, the Syrian Army captured the historic Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque, and two days later, captured the district of Khaldiyeh. On 4 August, around 10 rebel brigades, launched a large-scale offensive on the government stronghold of Latakia Governorate. Initial attacks by 2,000 opposition members seized as many as 12 villages in the mountainous area. Between 4 and 5 August 20 rebels and 32 government soldiers and militiamen had been killed in the clashes. Hundreds of Alawite villagers fled to Latakia. By 5 August, rebel fighters advanced to a position 20 kilometres (12 miles) from Qardaha, the home town of the Assad family. However, in mid-August, the military counter-attacked and recaptured all of the territory previously lost to the rebels in the coastal region during the offensive. A Syrian security force source “told AFP the army still had to recapture the Salma region, a strategic area along the border with Turkey.” According to a Human Rights Watch report 190 civilians were killed by rebel forces during the offensive, including at least 67 being executed. Another 200 civilians, primarily women and children, were taken hostage.
On 6 August, rebels captured Menagh Military Airbase after a 10-month siege. The strategic airbase is located on the road between Aleppo city and the Turkish border. On 21 August a chemical attack took place in the Ghouta region of the Damascus countryside, leading to thousands of casualties and several hundred dead in the opposition-held stronghold. The attack was followed by a military offensive by government forces into the area, which had been hotbeds of the opposition. On 24 August, rebels captured the town of Ariha. However, government forces recaptured Ariha on 3 September. On 26 August, rebel forces took over the town of Khanasir in Aleppo Governorate which was the government’s last supply route for the city of Aleppo.
On 8 September, rebels led by the al-Nusra Front captured the Christian town of Maaloula, 43 kilometres (27 miles) north of Damascus, The Syrian Army launched a counterattack a few days later, recapturing the town. On 18 September, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) overran the FSA-held town of Azaz in the north. The fighting was the most severe since tensions rose between militant factions in Syria earlier in the year. Soon after ISIS captured Azaz, a ceasefire was announced between the rival rebel groups. However, in early October, more fighting erupted in the town.
On 20 September, Alawite militias including the NDF killed 15 civilians in the Sunni village of Sheik Hadid in Hama Governorate. The massacre occurred in retaliation for a rebel capture of the village of Jalma, in Hama, which killed five soldiers, along with the seizure of a military checkpoint which killed 16 soldiers and 10 NDF militiamen. In mid-September, the military captured the towns of Deir Salman and Shebaa on the outskirts of Damascus. The Army also captured six villages in eastern Homs. Fighting broke out in those towns again in October. On 28 September, rebels seized the Ramtha border post in Daraa Governorate on the Syria Jordan crossing after fighting which left 26 soldiers dead along with 7 foreign rebel fighters. On 3 October, AFP reported that Syria’s army re-took the town of Khanasir, which is located on a supply route linking central Syria to the city of Aleppo. On 7 October, the Syrian Army managed to reopen the supply route between Aleppo and Khanasir.
On 9 October, rebels seized the Hajanar guard post on the Jordanian border after a month of fierce fighting. Rebels were now in control of a swath of territory along the border from outside of Daraa to the edge of Golan Heights. The same day, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite fighters, backed up by artillery, air-strikes and tanks, captured the town of Sheikh Omar, on the southern outskirts of Damascus. Two days later, they also captured the towns of al-Thiabiya and Husseiniya on the southern approaches to Damascus. The capture of the three towns strengthened the government hold on major supply lines and put more pressure on rebels under siege in the Eastern Ghouta area. On 14 October, SOHR reported that rebels captured the Resefa and Sinaa districts of Deir ez-Zor city, as well as Deir ez-Zor’s military hospital.
Government offensives (October–December 2013)
The Syrian Army along with its allies, Hezbollah and the al-Abas brigade, launched an offensive on Damascus and Aleppo. On 16 October, AFP reported that Syrian troops recaptured the town of Bweida, south of Damascus. On 17 October, the Syrian government’s head of Military Intelligence in Deir ez-Zor Governorate, Jameh Jameh, was assassinated by rebels in Deir ez-Zor city. SOHR reported that he had been shot by a rebel sniper during a battle with rebel brigades. On 24 October, the Syrian Army retook control of the town of Hatetat al-Turkman, located southeast of Damascus, along the Damascus International Airport road.
On 26 October, Kurdish rebel fighters seized control of the strategic Yarubiya border crossing between Syria and Iraq from al-Nusra in Al Hasakah Governorate. Elsewhere, in Daraa Governorate, rebel fighters captured the town of Tafas from government forces after weeks of clashes which left scores dead. On 1 November, the Syrian Army retook control of the key city of Al-Safira and the next day, the Syrian Army and its allies recaptured the village of Aziziyeh on the northern outskirts of Al-Safira. From early to mid-November, Syrian Army forces captured several towns south of Damascus, including Hejeira and Sbeineh. Government forces also recaptured the town of Tel Aran, southeast of Aleppo, and a military base near Aleppo’s international airport.
On 10 November, the Syrian Army had taken full control of “Base 80”, near Aleppo’s airport. According to the SOHR, 63 rebels, and 32 soldiers were killed during the battle. One other report put the number of rebels killed between 60 and 80. Army units were backed-up by Hezbollah fighters and pro-government militias during the assault. The following day, government forces secured most of the area around the airport. On 13 November, government forces captured most of Hejeira. Rebels retreated from Hejeira to Al-Hajar al-Aswad. However, their defenses in besieged districts closer to the heart of Damascus were still reportedly solid.
On 15 November, the Syrian Army retook control of the city of Tell Hassel near Aleppo. On 18 November, the Syrian troops stormed the town of Babbila. On 19 November, government forces took full control of Qara. The same day, the Syrian Army captured al-Duwayrinah. On 23 November, al-Nusra Front and other Islamist rebels captured the al-Omar oil field, Syria’s largest oil field, in Deir al-Zor Governorate causing the government to rely almost entirely on imported oil. On 24 November, rebels captured the towns of Bahariya, Qasimiya, Abbadah, and Deir Salman in Damascus’s countryside. On 28 November, the Syrian Army recaptured Deir Attiyeh.
On 2 December, rebels led by the Free Syrian Army recaptured the historic Christian town of Ma’loula. After the fighting, reports emerged that 12 nuns had been abducted by the rebels. However, the FSA disputes this and said that the nuns had been evacuated to the nearby rebel held town of Yabrud due to the Army shelling. In early December, the Islamic Front seized control of Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, which had been in hands of FSA. The groups also captured warehouses containing equipment delivered by the U.S. In response, the U.S. and Britain said they halted all non-lethal aid to the FSA, fearing that further supplies could fall in hands of al-Qaeda militants. On 9 December, the Army took full control of Nabek, with fighting continuing in its outskirts.
Fighting between ISIS and other rebel groups (January–March 2014)
Tension between moderate rebel forces and ISIS had been high since ISIS captured the border town of Azaz from FSA forces on 18 September 2013. Conflict was renewed over Azaz in early October and in late November ISIS captured the border town of Atme from an FSA brigade. On 3 January 2014, the Army of the Mujahideen, the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front launched an offensive against ISIS in Aleppo and Idlib governorates. A spokesman for the rebels said that rebels attacked ISIS in up to 80% of all ISIS held villages in Idlib and 65% of those in Aleppo.
By 6 January, opposition rebels managed to expel ISIS forces from the city of Raqqa, ISIS’s largest stronghold and capital of the Raqqa Governorate. On 8 January, opposition rebels expelled most ISIS forces from the city of Aleppo, however ISIS reinforcements from the Deir ez-Zor Governorate managed to retake several neighborhoods of the city of Raqqa. By mid January ISIS retook the entire city of Raqqa, while rebels expelled ISIS fighters fully from Aleppo city and the villages west of it.
On 29 January, Turkish aircraft near the border fired on an ISIS convoy inside the Aleppo province of Syria, killing 11 ISIS fighters and 1 ISIS emir. In late January it was confirmed that rebels had assassinated ISIS’s second in command, Haji Bakr, who was al-Qaeda’s military council head and a former military officer in Saddam Hussein’s army. By mid-February, the al-Nusra Front joined the battle in support of rebel forces, and expelled ISIS from the Deir Ezzor Governorate. By March, the ISIS forces fully retreated from the Idlib Governorate. On 4 March, ISIS retreated from the border town of Azaz and other nearby villages, choosing instead to consolidate around Raqqa in an anticipation of an escalation of fighting with al-Nusra
Government offensives and Presidential election (March–June 2014)
On 4 March, the Syrian Army took control of Sahel in the Qalamoun region. On 8 March, government forces took over Zara, in Homs Governorate, further blocking rebel supply routes from Lebanon. On 11 March, Government forces and Hezbollah took control of the Rima Farms region, directly facing Yabrud. On 16 March, Hezbollah and government forces captured Yabrud, after Free Syrian Army fighters made an unexpected withdrawal, leaving the al-Nusra Front to fight in the city on its own. On 18 March, Israel used artillery against a Syrian Army base, after four of its soldiers had been wounded by a roadside bomb while patrolling Golan Heights.
On 19 March, the Syrian Army captured Ras al-Ain near Yabrud, after two days of fighting and al-Husn in Homs Governorate, while rebels in the Daraa Governorate captured Daraa prison, and freed hundreds of detainees.
On 20 March, the Syrian Army took control of the Krak des Chevaliers in al-Husn. On 29 March, Syrian Army took control of the villages of Flitah and Ras Maara near the border with Lebanon.
On 22 March, rebels took control of the Kesab border post in the Latakia Governorate. By 23 March, rebels had taken most of Khan Sheikhoun in Hama. During clashes near the rebel-controlled Kesab border post in Latakia, Hilal Al Assad, NDF leader in Latakia and one of Bashar Al Assad’s cousins was killed by rebel fighters.
On 4 April, rebels captured the town of Babulin, Idlib. On 9 April, the Syrian Army took control of Rankous in the Qalamoun region. On 12 April, rebels in Aleppo stormed the government-held Ramouseh industrial district in an attempt to cut the Army supply route between the airport and a large Army base. The rebels also took the Rashidin neighbourhood and parts of the Jamiat al-Zahra district. On 26 April, the Syrian Army took control of Al-Zabadani. According to SOHR, rebels took control of Tell Ahrmar, Quneitra. Rebels in Daraa also took over Brigade 61 Base and the 74th battalion.
On 26 April, the FSA announced they had begun an offensive against ISIS in the Raqqa Governorate, and had seized five towns west of Raqqa city. On 29 April, activists said that the Syrian Army captured Tal Buraq near the town of Mashara in Quneitra without any clashes. On 7 May, a truce went into effect in the city of Homs, SOHR reported. The terms of the agreement include safe evacuation of Islamist fighters from the city, which would then fall under government control, in exchange for release of prisoners and safe passage of humanitarian aid for Nubul and Zahraa, two Shiite enclaves besieged by the rebels. On 18 May, the head of Syria’s Air Defense, General Hussein Ishaq, died of wounds sustained during a rebel attack on an air defense base near Mleiha the previous day. In Hama Governorate, rebel forces took control of the town of Tel Malah, killing 34 pro-Assad fighters at an army post near the town. Its seizure marked the third time rebels have taken control of the town.
Syria held a presidential election in government-held areas on 3 June 2014. For the first time in the history of Syria more than one person was allowed to stand as a presidential candidate. More than 9,000 polling stations were set up in government-held areas. According to the Supreme Constitutional Court of Syria, 11.63 million Syrians voted (the turnout was 73.42%). President Bashar al-Assad won the election with 88.7% of the votes. As for Assad’s challengers, Hassan al-Nouri received 4.3% of the votes and Maher Hajjar received 3.2%. Allies of Assad from more than 30 countries were invited by the Syrian government to follow the presidential election, including Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, India, Iran, Iraq, Nicaragua, Russia, South Africa and Venezuela. The Iranian official Alaeddin Boroujerdi read a statement by the group saying the election was “free, fair and transparent”. The Gulf Cooperation Council, the European Union and the United States all dismissed the election as illegitimate and a farce
State employees were told to vote or face interrogation. On the ground there were no independent monitors stationed at the polling stations It is claimed in an opinion piece that as few as 6 million eligible voters remained in Syria Due to rebel, Kurdish and ISIS control of Syrian territories there was no voting in roughly 60% of the country.
Civil war spill over to Iraq and U.S. airstrikes (June 2014 – January 2015)
Starting on 5 June, ISIL seized swathes of territory in Iraq in addition to heavy weapons and equipment from the Iraqi Army, some of which they brought into Syria. Government airstrikes targeted ISIL bases in Raqqa and Al-Hasakah in coordination with an Iraqi Army counteroffensive. On 14 June, government forces retook the town of Kessab in northern Latakia Governorate, while rebels took over Tall al-Gomo near the town of Nawa in the Daraa Governorate, as well as reentering the Qalamoun area. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, on 17 July ISIL took control of the Shaar oil field, killing 90 pro-government forces while losing 21 fighters. In addition, 270 guards and government-aligned fighters were missing. About 30 government persons managed to escape to the nearby Hajjar field. On 20 July, the Syrian Army secured the field, although fighting continued in its outskirts. On 25 July, the Islamic State took control of the Division 17 base near Raqqa.
On 7 August, ISIL took the Brigade 93 base in Raqqa using weapons captured from their offensive in Iraq. Multiple suicide bombs also went off before the base was stormed. On 13 August, ISIL forces took the towns of Akhtarin and Turkmanbareh from rebels in Aleppo. ISIL forces also took a handful of nearby villages. The other towns seized include Masoudiyeh, Dabiq and Ghouz. On 14 August, after being captured by the Al Nusra Front, the Free Syrian Army commander Sharif As-Safouri admitted to working with Israel and receiving anti-tank weapons from Israel and FSA soldiers also received medical treatment. It is possible this confession was obtained under duress. On 14 August, the Syrian Army as well as Hezbollah militias retook the town of Mleiha in Rif Dimashq Governorate. The Supreme Military Council of the FSA denied claims of Mleiha’s seizure, rather the rebels have redeployed from recent advances to other defensive lines. Mleiha has been held by the Islamic Front. Rebels had used the town to fire mortars on government held areas inside Damascus.
Meanwhile, ISIL forces in Raqqa were launching a siege on Tabqa airbase, the Syrian government’s last military base in Raqqa. Kuwaires airbase in Aleppo also came under fierce attack by ISIL. On 16 August, there were reports that 22 people were killed in the village of Daraa by a car bomb outside a mosque. The bomb was thought to be detonated by ISIS. Also on 16 August, the Islamic State seized the village of Beden in Aleppo Governorate from rebels.
On 17 August, SOHR said that in the past two weeks ISIL jihadists had killed over 700 tribal members in oil-rich Deir ez-Zor Governorate. On 19 August, Abu Abdullah al-Iraqi, a senior figure in ISIL who had helped prepare and plan car and suicide bombs across Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq was killed. Some reports said that he was killed by Hezbollah fighters. There were also several reports that he was killed by the Syrian Army in the Qalamoun region, near the border with Lebanon. On 19 August, American journalist James Foley was executed by ISIL, who claimed it was in retaliation for the United States operations in Iraq. Foley was kidnapped in Syria in November 2012 by Shabiha militia. ISIL also threatened to execute Steven Sotloff, who was kidnapped at the Syrian-Turkish border in August 2013. There were reports ISIS captured a Japanese national, two Italian nationals, and a Danish national as well. At least 70 journalists have been killed covering the Syrian war, and more than 80 kidnapped, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
On 22 August, the al-Nusra Front released a video of captured Lebanese soldiers and demanded Hezbollah withdraw from Syria under threat of their execution. On 23 August, the Tabqa airbase was no longer encircled by ISIL fighters and the Syrian Army had taken back the M-42 Highway from ISIL fighters, which leads to the city of Salamiyah in the Hama Governorate. Also in Raqqa, the Syrian Army took control of the town of Al-Ejeil. ISIL reportedly sent reinforcements from Iraq to the governorate of Raqqa. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 400 ISIL fighters had also been wounded in the previous five days in clashes with the Syrian Army and National Defense Force in Raqqa alone. At the same time, several senior UK and US figures urged Turkey to stop allowing ISIL to cross the border to Syria and Iraq. It was around this time that the Americans realized that the Turks had no intention of sealing their side of the border, and so Washington decided to work with the Syrian Kurds to close off the border on the Syrian side. A year later, with the Kurds in control of most of the Turkey–Syria border, and the Syrian army advancing under Russian air support to seal the remainder, the situation was causing great ructions in Ankara.
On the following day, the Islamic State seized Tabqa airbase from government forces. The battle left 346 ISIL fighters and 195 soldiers dead. Prisoners taken by ISIL forces were executed and a video of the mass killing was posted on YouTube. The death toll varied from 120 to 250.
On 26 August, the Syrian Air Force carried out airstrikes against ISIL in the Governorate of Deir ez-Zor. This was the first time the Syrian Army attacked them in Deir ez-Zor as the Syrian Army pulled out of Raqqa and shifted to Deir ez-Zor for its oil and natural gas resources as well as strategically splitting ISIL territories. American jets began bombing ISIL in Syria on 23 September 2014, raising U.S. involvement in the country. At least 20 targets in and around Raqqa were hit, the opposition group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Foreign partners participating in the strikes with the United States were Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Jordan. The U.S. and “partner nation forces” began striking ISIL using fighters, bombers and Tomahawk missiles, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
U.S. aircraft include B-1 bombers, F-16s, F-18s and Predator drones, with F-18s flying missions off the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) in the Persian Gulf. Tomahawk missiles were fired from the destroyer USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) in the Red Sea. Syria’s Foreign Ministry told the Associated Press that the U.S. informed Syria’s envoy to the U.N. that “strikes will be launched against the terrorist group in Raqqa”. The United States informed the Free Syrian Army beforehand of the impending airstrikes, and the rebels said that weapons transfers to the Free Syrian Army had begun. The United States also attacked a specific faction of al-Nusra called the Khorasan Group, who according to the United States had training camps and plans for attacking the United States in the future. For its part, Turkey launched an official request to the U.N. for a no-fly zone over Syria. The same day, Israel shot down a Syrian warplane after it entered the Golan area from Quneitra.
By 3 October, ISIL forces were heavily shelling the city of Kobanî and were within a kilometer of the town. Within 36 hours from 21 October, the Syrian air force carried out over 200 airstrikes on rebel-held areas across Syria and US and Arab jets attacked IS positions around Kobanî. Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said the YPG forces in Kobanî had been provided with military and logistical support. Syria reported its air force had destroyed two fighter jets operated by IS. By 26 January, the Kurdish YPG forced ISIL to retreat from Kobanî, thus fully recapturing the city. The U.S. later confirmed that the city had been cleared of ISIL forces, and ISIL admitted defeat in Kobanî city three days later, although they vowed to return.
The Southern Front (October 2014 – February 2015)
In February 2014, the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army formed in southern Syria. Six months later, they started a string of victories in Daraa and Quneitra during the 2014 Quneitra offensive, the Daraa offensive, the Battle of Al-Shaykh Maskin, the Battle of Bosra (2015) and the Battle of Nasib Border Crossing. A government counter-offensive (the 2015 Southern Syria offensive) during this period, that included the IRGC and Hezbollah, recaptured 15 towns, villages and hills, but the operation slowed soon after and stalled.
Since early 2015, opposition military operations rooms based in Jordan and Turkey began increasing cooperation, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar also reportedly agreeing upon the necessity to unite opposition factions against the Syrian government.
Northern Al-Nusra Front and Islamist takeover (October 2014 – March 2015)
In late October 2014, a conflict erupted between the al-Nusra Front on one side and the western-backed SRF and Hazzm Movement on the other (Al-Nusra Front–SRF/Hazzm Movement conflict). ISIL reportedly reinforced al-Nusra. By the end of February 2015 al-Nusra had defeated both groups, captured the entire Zawiya Mountain region in Idlib province and several towns and military bases in other governorates, and seized weapons supplied by the CIA to the two moderate groups. The significant amount of weapons seized included a small number of BGM-71 anti-tank missiles similar to weapons systems al-Nusra Front had previously captured from government stockpiles such as French MILANs, Chinese HJ-8s and Russian 9K111 Fagots. Reuters reported that this represented al-Nusra crushing pro-Western rebels in the north of the country. According to FSA commanders in northern Syria, however, the elimination of Harakat Hazm and the SRF was a welcome development due to the leaders of those factions allegedly involved in corruption. The Western-backed 30th Division of the FSA remained active elsewhere in Idlib.
By 24 March 2015 the al-Nusra Front dominated most of Idlib province, except for the government-held provincial capital, Idlib, which they had encircled on three sides along with its Islamist allies. On 28 March a joint coalition of Islamist forces, the Army of Conquest, captured Idlib. This left the north largely taken over by Ahrar ash-Sham, al-Nusra Front and other Islamist rebels, with the south of the country becoming the last significant foothold for the mainstream, non-jihadist opposition fighters.
Army of Conquest advances in Idlib (April 2015 – June 2015)
On 22 April, a new rebel offensive was launched in the north-west of Syria and by 25 April, the rebel coalition Army of Conquest had captured the city of Jisr al-Shughur. At the end of the following month, the rebels also seized the Al-Mastumah military base, and Ariha, leaving government forces in control of tiny pockets of Idlib, including the Abu Dhuhur military airport. In addition, according to Charles Lister (Brookings Doha Center), the Army of Conquest coalition was a broad opposition effort to ensure that the Al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front was contained, with the rearguard involvement of Western-backed factions being regarded as crucial. Still, according to some, the FSA in northern Syria had by this point all but dissipated. Many of the moderate fighters joined more extremist organizations, such as Ahrar ash-Sham, the largest faction in the Army of Conquest, which led to the subsequent rise of the Islamist Army of Conquest coalition.
Rebel advances led to government and Hezbollah morale plunging dramatically. In north-west Syria these losses were countered by a Hezbollah-led offensive in the Qalamoun mountains north of Damascus, on the border with Lebanon, that gave Hezbollah effective control of the entire area.
Resurgent ISIL advance (May 2015 – September 2015)
On 21 May, ISIL took control of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, after eight days of fighting. The jihadists also captured the nearby towns of Al-Sukhnah and Amiriya, as well as several oil fields. Following the capture of Palmyra, ISIL conducted mass executions in the area, killing an estimated 217–329 government civilian supporters and soldiers, according to opposition activists. Government sources put the number of killed at 400–450. By early June, ISIL reached the town of Hassia, which lies on the main road from Damascus to Homs and Latakia, and reportedly took up positions to the west of it, creating a potential disaster for the government and raising the threat of Lebanon being sucked further into the war.
On 25 June, ISIL launched two offensives. One was a surprise diversionary attack on Kobanî, while the second targeted government-held parts of Al-Hasakah city. The ISIL offensive on Al-Hasakah displaced 60,000 people, with the UN estimating a total of 200,000 would be displaced. In July 2015, a raid by U.S. special forces on a compound housing the Islamic State’s “chief financial officer”, Abu Sayyaf, produced evidence that Turkish officials directly dealt with ranking ISIS members.
ISIS captured Qaryatayn city from the government on 5 August 2015. Australia joined the bombing of ISIL in Syria in mid September, an extension of their efforts in Iraq for the last year. On August 2, U.S. officials informed Reuters that the United States had decided to “allow air strikes to help defend against any attack on the U.S.-trained Syrian rebels, even if the attackers come from forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.” The following day the Pentagon announced that it would begin flying its first unmanned, armed drone missions in Syria.
Russian intervention and government offensive (30 September 2015–February 2016)
Russian military facilities involved in the war in Syria
Caspian Flotilla Russian Navy (Astrakhan) Caspian Flotilla Russian Navy (Makhachkala)
Caspian Flotilla Russian Navy (Kaspiysk)
Aircraft group (ru) ASF RF
720th PL of the Russian Navy
Russian Navy Russian Aerospace Force | Group Special forces
On 30 September 201 at an official request by the Syrian government headed by President Bashar al-Assad, the Russian Aerospace Forces began a sustained campaign of air strikes against both ISIL and the anti-Assad FSA. Initially, the raids were conducted solely by Russian aircraft stationed in the Khmeimim base in Syria. Shortly after the start of the Russian operation, U.S. president Barack Obama was reported to have authorized the resupply of Syrian Kurds and the Arab-Syrian opposition, Obama reportedly emphasizing to his team that the U.S. would continue to support the Syrian opposition now that Russia had joined the conflict.
On 7 October 2015, Russian officials said the ships of the Caspian Flotilla had earlier that day fired 26 sea-based cruise missiles at 11 ISIL targets in Syria destroying those and causing no civilian casualties On the same day, the Syrian government’s ground forces launched a ground offensive that in the following few days succeeded in recapturing some territory in northern Hama Governorate, close to the government’s coastal heartland in the west of the country.
On 8 October 2015, the U.S. officially announced the end of the Pentagon’s $500 million program to train and equip Syrian rebels in an acknowledgment that the program had failed (other covert and significantly larger CIA programs to arm anti-government fighters in Syria continue.
Two weeks after the start of the Russian campaign in Syria, The New York Times opined that with anti-government commanders receiving for the first time bountiful supplies of U.S.-made anti-tank missiles and with Russia raising the number of airstrikes against the government’s opponents that had raised morale in both camps, broadening war objectives and hardening political positions, the conflict was turning into an all-out proxy war between the U.S. and Russia. Despite multiple top-ranking casualties incurred by the Iranian forces advising fighters in Syria, in mid-October the Russian-Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah offensive targeting rebels in Aleppo went ahead.
At the end of October 2015, the U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter signalled a shift in the strategy of the U.S.-led campaign saying there will be more air strikes and ruling in the use of direct ground raids, the fight in Syria concentrating mostly on Raqqa. On 30 October and two weeks later, Syria peace talks were held in Vienna, initiated by the United States, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, in which on 30 October Iran participated for the first time in negotiations on Syrian settlement. The participants disagreed on the future of Bashar Assad.
On 10 November 2015, the Syrian government forces completed the operation to break through the Islamic State insurgents’ blockade of the Kweires air base in Aleppo Province, where government forces had been under siege since April 2013. In mid-November 2015, in the wake of the Russian plane bombing over Sinai and the Paris attacks, both Russia and France significantly intensified their strikes in Syria, France closely coordinating with the U.S. military. On 17 November, Putin said he had issued orders for the cruiser Moskva that had been in eastern Mediterranean since the start of the Russian operations to “work as with an ally”, with the French naval group led by flagship Charles De Gaulle that had been on her way to eastern Mediterranean since early November. Shortly afterwards, a Russian foreign ministry official criticised France’s stridently anti-Assad stance as well as France’s air strikes at oil and gas installations in Syria as apparently designed to prevent those from returning under the Syrian government’s control; the Russian official pointed out that such strikes by France could not be justified as they were carried out without the Syrian government’s consent. In his remarks to a French delegation that included French parliamentarians, on 14 November, President Bashar Assad sharply criticised France’s as well as other Western States’ actions against the Syrian government suggesting that French support for Syrian opposition forces had led to the Islamic State-claimed attacks in Paris.
On 19 November 2015, U.S. President Barack Obama, speaking of the Vienna process, said he was unable to “foresee a situation in which we can end the civil war in Syria while Assad remains in power”; he urged Russia and Iran to stop supporting the Syrian government. On 20 November 2015, the UN Security Council, while failing to invoke the UN’s Chapter VII, which gives specific legal authorisation for the use of force, unanimously passed Resolution 2249 that urged UN members to “redouble and coordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL also known as Da’esh as well as ANF, and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al-Qaida, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the United Nations Security Council, and as may further be agreed by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) and endorsed by the UN Security Council”. The adopted resolution was drafted by France and co-sponsored by the UK the following day after Russia introduced an updated version of its previously submitted draft resolution that was blocked by the Western powers as seeking to legitimise Assad’s authority.
On 24 November 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane that allegedly violated Turkish airspace and crashed in northwestern Syria, leading to the Russian pilot’s death. Following the crash, it was reported that Syrian Turkmen rebels from Syrian Turkmen Brigades attacked and shot down a Russian rescue helicopter, killing a Russian naval infantryman. A few days after, Russian aircraft were reported to have struck targets in the Syrian town of Ariha in Idlib province that was controlled by the Army of Conquest causing multiple casualties on the ground. On 2 December 2015, the Parliament of the United Kingdom voted to expand Operation Shader into Syria with a majority of 397-223. That day, two British Tornado aircraft took off from RAF Akrotiri immediately at 22:30, each carrying three Paveway bombs. Two further aircraft were deployed at 00:30 on 3 December, and all aircraft returned by 06:30 without their bombs. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said that the strikes hit the Omar oil fields in eastern Syria, and that eight more jets (two Tornados and six Typhoons) were being sent to RAF Akrotiri to join the eight already there.
On 7 December 2015, the government of Syria announced that US-led coalition warplanes had fired nine missiles at its army camp near Ayyash, Deir al-Zour province, on the evening prior, killing three soldiers and wounding 13 others; three armoured vehicles, four military vehicles, heavy machine-guns and an arms and ammunition depot were also destroyed. The government condemned the strikes, the first time the government forces would be struck by the coalition, as an act of “flagrant aggression”; the coalition spokesman denied it was responsible. Anonymous Pentagon officials alleged later in the day that the Pentagon was “certain” that a Russian warplane (presumably a TU-22 bomber) had carried out the attack. The claim was denied by the Russian military spokesman who noted that four Western coalition warplanes (other than U.S.) had been spotted over the Deir az-Zor area in Syria on 6 December. On 14 December 2015, Russia’s government news media reported that the Syrian government forces retook a Marj al-Sultan military airbase east of Damascus that had been held by Jaysh al-Islam.
The UN resolution 2254 of 18 December 2015 that endorsed the ISSG’s transitional plan but did not clarify who would represent the Syrian opposition, while condemning terrorist groups like ISIL and al-Qaeda; it made no mention of the future role of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
On 12 January 2016, the Syria government announced that its army and allied forces had established “full control” of the strategically situated town of Salma, whose pre-war population was predominantly Sunni, in the northwestern province of Latakia, and continued to advance north. On 16 January 2016, ISIL militants launched raid on government-held areas in the city of Deir ez-Zor and killed up to 300 people. Counter-strikes by Russian Air Force fighter jets, in support of Syrian army forces, were reported to take back the areas.
On 21 January 2016, Russia’s activity presumably aimed at setting up a new base in the government-controlled Kamishly Airport was first reported; the northeastern town of Qamishli in the Al-Hasakah Governorate had been largely under the Syrian Kurds’ control since the start of the Syrian Kurdish–Islamist conflict in the governorate of Al-Hasakah in July 2013. Similar activity by the U.S. forces was suspected in the Rmeilan Airbase in the same province, 50 kilometres (31 miles) away from the Kamishly Airport; the area is likewise controlled by the US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
On 24 January 2016, the Syrian government announced its forces, carrying on with their Latakia offensive, had seized the predominantly Sunni-populated town of Rabia, the last major town held by rebels in western Latakia province; Russian forces were said to have played an important role in the recapture. The capture of Rabia was said to threaten rebel supply lines from Turkey. By 26 January 2016, the Syrian government established “full control” over the town of Al-Shaykh Maskin in the Daraa Governorate, thus completing the operation that had begun in late December 2015. The town’s capture by the Syrian government was remarked as a “turning of the tide in the Syrian war” by Al-Jazeera
Partial ceasefire (from 26 February–July 2016
Defense ministers of Russia, Iran and Syria in a tripartite meeting in Tehran
On 26 February 2016, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2268 that endorsed a previously brokered U.S.-Russian deal on a “cessation of hostilities”. The cease-fire started on 27 February 2016 at 00:00 (Damascus time). The ceasefire does not include attacks on UN-designated terrorist organizations. At the close of February 2016, despite individual clashes, the truce was reported to hold. By the end of March, the Syrian government forces with support from Russia and Iran successfully captured Palmyra from the ISIS.
By early July 2016, the truce was said to have mostly unraveled, violence again escalated, and the fighting between all the major parties to the conflict continued At the end of July 2016, the fighting between the government and Islamist rebels in and around Aleppo intensified.
On 12 August 2016, the Syrian Democratic Forces fully captured Manbij from ISIL. Some days later the SDF announced a new offensive towards Al-Bab, which could eventually connect the Kurdish regions in Northern Syria.
A few days after, the battle of al-Hasakah began. On 22 August, the Kurdish YPG, having captured Ghwairan, the only major Arab neighborhood in Hasaka that had been in government hands, launched a major assault to seize the last government-controlled areas of the northeastern Syrian city of Hasaka, after a Russian mediation team failed to mend the rift between the two sides the next day the capture of the city was completed. A few days prior, the Pentagon admonished the Syrian government against “interfering with coalition forces or our partners” in that region, adding that the U.S. had the right to defend its troops.
On 24 August 2016, Turkey’s armed forces invaded Syria in the Jarablus area controlled by ISIL starting what the Turkish president called the Operation Euphrates Shield, aimed against, according to his statement, both the IS and Kurdish “terror groups that threaten our country in northern Syria”.
The Syrian government denounced the intervention as a “blatant violation of its sovereignty” and said that “fighting terrorism isn’t done by ousting ISIS and replacing it with other terrorist organizations backed directly by Turkey”. The PYD leader Salih Muslim said that Turkey was now in the “Syrian quagmire” and would be defeated like IS. Speaking in Ankara the same day, US vice president Joe Biden indirectly endorsed Turkey’s move and said that the U.S. had made it clear to the Syrian Kurdish forces that they should move back east across the Euphrates, or lose US support.
As Turkish troops and the Turkish-aligned Syrian rebels took control of Jarablus and moved further south towards the Syrian town of Manbij, they clashed with the Kurdish YPG, which led the U.S. officials to voice concern and issue a warning to both sides. On 29 August, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter specified that the U.S. did not support Turkey’s advance south of Jarablus. The warning as well as an announcement made by the U.S. of a tentative ceasefire between the Turkish forces and the Kurds in the area of Jarablus were promptly and angrily dismissed by Turkey’s officials. However, combat between the Turkish forces and the SDF died down, and instead Turkish forces moved West to confront IS. In the meantime the SDF, including Western volunteers, continued to reinforce Manbij.
At sunset on 12 September 2016, a U.S.-Russian brokered cease-fire came into effect. Five days later, the U.S. and other coalition members’ jets bombed Syrian Army positions near Deir ez-Zor—purportedly by accident, but with Russia contending that it was intentional—killing at least 62 Syrian troops that were fighting ISIL militants. Shortly after, the ceasefire broke down, and on 19 September the Syrian Army declared to no longer observe the truce. Also on 19 September, an aid convoy in Aleppo was attacked with the U.S. coalition blaming the Russian and Syrian governments for the attack and these same governments denying these accusation and instead blaming terrorists for the attack.
On 22 September, the Syrian army declared a new offensive in Aleppo. The offensive succeeded on 14 December, when the final Rebel stronghold in Aleppo was recaptured by the Syrian government followed by a ceasefire agreement.
On 26 October 2016 US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that an offensive to retake Raqqa from IS will begin within weeks. The SDF proceeded with this effort, in operation Wrath of Euphrates. This operation utilised up to 30,000 Arab, Christian and Kurdish troops, with support from the Western Coalition. By December 2016 it had captured many villages and land west of Raqqa, previously controlled by IS. By January 2017, much of the land west of Raqqa had been seized, and the second phase of the operation was complete.
Russian/Turkish backed ceasefire (December 2016 – April 2017)
In December 2016, Syrian government forces completely recaptured all of rebel-held parts of Aleppo, ending the 4-year battle in the city. On 15 December, as it was reported government forces were on the brink of retaking all of Aleppo—a “turning point” in the civil war, Assad celebrated the “liberation” of the city, and stated, “History is being written by every Syrian citizen.” On December 29, 2016 Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a new ceasefire deal had been reached between the Syrian Government and opposition groups, with Russia and Turkey acting as guarantors, and Iran as a signatory to a trilateral agreement. The ceasefire came into effect at 00:00 Syrian time (02:00 UTC) on December 30. It does not include UN-designated terrorist groups, such as ISIL and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Syrian High Negotiations Committee representatives in Turkey confirmed that they were involved in the deal. Talks were scheduled to be held between the groups in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, on January 15.
Early reports indicated that despite sporadic fighting incidents, the ceasefire appeared to be holding, with no civilian deaths. Also late on December 29, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that four million people in Damascus and surrounding areas were without reliable access to water after major supply infrastructure was subject to deliberate targeting on December 22. They said that although the government had initiated a program of rationing, they were concerned that safe water may not be accessible to everyone and called on parties to reach peaceful agreements to guarantee basic services.
On January 2, 2017, rebel groups said that they would disengage from planned talks after alleged ceasefire violations by Government forces in the Wadi Barada valley near Damascus. The government says the region is excluded from the ceasefire because of the presence of Fatah al-Sham, but some local activists deny that they have a presence there. At the end of January, government forces managed to capture Wadi Barada and the water supply of Damascus was restored. Several hundred rebel fighters surrendered and were granted passage to Idlib. On 14 February 2017, the cease-fire between Assad forces and rebels collapsed throughout the country, leading to fresh clashes in various locations and a fresh rebel offensive in Daraa. A new peace conference in Geneva was held on 23 February.
On 23 February, Turkish forces captured Al-Bab from ISIL north-east of Aleppo. On 25 February, Syrian forces captured Tadef, less than 3 kilometres (1.9 miles) south of Al Bab, from ISIL Syrian government forces have started an offensive east of Aleppo to conquer Dayr Hafir from ISIL and prevent further Turkish advances. Meanwhile, further south, the Syrian Arab Army recaptured Palmyra from the Islamic State on 2 March, however the city was not fully secure until 4 March.
On March 17, Syrian military fired S-200 missiles at Israeli jets over Golan Heights. The Israeli military claimed that the Arrow anti-ballistic system intercepted one missile, while the Syrian military claimed that they had downed an Israeli jet. Israeli defense minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to destroy Syria’s air defense systems if Israeli planes are fired at again. The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the Israeli ambassador to clarify the situation.
The Syrian Arab Army entered Dayr Hafir, the last stronghold held by the Islamic State in East Aleppo, on March 23, and secured it by March 23. This opened up an opportunity to push south into the Ar-Raqqa governate where the Islamic State’s de facto capital resides; however on March 23, a Syrian Democratic Forces contingent landed on a peninsula west of Raqqa via boats and helicopters, in an effort to cut off the Syrian Arab Army from entering the Islamic State’s de facto capital, Raqqa. On 28 March, an agreement was reportedly brokered by Qatar and Iran for the evacuation for four besieged towns in Syria, where around 60,000 people live. The deal involved evacuating the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya, two towns in the Idlib Governorate besieged by rebel forces, in exchange for the evacuation of residents and rebels in Zabadani and Madaya, two towns under siege by government forces in the Rif Dimashq Governorate.
On 7 April, in what was the U.S.’ first deliberate direct attack on Syrian forces in the six years of the conflict, U.S. warships launched fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles on the Syrian government’s Shayrat Air Base, which the U.S. said was the source of the chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun that occurred three days prior to the airstrikes.] As the U.S. strike was conducted without authorization from either the United States Congress or United Nations Security Council, it raised questions about its legality under the U.S. law as well as international law. An emergency meeting of the UN Security Council was held, having been requested by Bolivia and supported by Russia to discuss the U.S. strikes, in which the United States said that “the moral stain of the Assad regime could no longer go unanswered” and called on Russia to reconsider its “misplaced alliance with Assad” while Russia described the strikes as “an act of aggression against a sovereign country violating the norms of international law, and under a trumped-up pretext at that.” According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Shayrat airbase remained operational and Syrian warplanes took off from it the following day.
On 12 April, the agreement of four besieged towns in Syria came into effect. Buses and ambulances arrived in the four towns with the assistance of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to begin the evacuations of civilians and combatants from the 4 towns. On 15 April, a convoy of buses carrying evacuees from Fua and Kafriya was bombed in Aleppo, killing more than 100 people.
Advanced weaponry and tactics
Sarin, mustard agent and chlorine gas have been used during the conflict. Numerous casualties led to an international reaction, especially the 2013 Ghouta attacks. A UN fact-finding mission was requested to investigate alleged chemical weapons attacks. In four cases the UN inspectors confirmed use of sarin gas. The initial reports did not accuse any party of using chemical weapons. In August 2016, a confidential report by the United Nations and the OPCW explicitly blamed the Syrian military of Bashar al-Assad for dropping chemical weapons (chlorine bombs) on the towns of Talmenes in April 2014 and Sarmin in March 2015 and ISIS for using sulfur mustard on the town of Marea in August 2015.
The United States and the European Union have accused the Syrian government of conducting several chemical attacks. Following the 2013 Ghouta attacks and international pressure, the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons began. In 2015 the UN mission disclosed previously undeclared traces of sarin compounds[disputed – discuss] in a “military research site”. After the April 2017 Khan Shaykhun chemical attack, the United States launched its first attack against Syrian government forces.
Many nations including but not limited to Syria, the United States, Russia, China, Israel and India are not parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and do not recognize the ban on the use of cluster bombs. The Syrian Army began using cluster bombs in September 2012. Steve Goose, director of the Arms division at Human Rights Watch said “Syria is expanding its relentless use of cluster munitions, a banned weapon, and civilians are paying the price with their lives and limbs”, “The initial toll is only the beginning because cluster munitions often leave unexploded bomblets that kill and maim long afterward.”
Russian thermobaric weapons, also known as “fuel-air bombs”, have been used by the government side during the Syrian civil war. One Buratino thermobaric rocket launcher “can obliterate a roughly 200 by 400 metres (660 by 1,310 feet) area with a single salvo”. Since 2012, rebels have said that the Syrian Air Force (government forces) is using thermobaric weapons against residential areas occupied by the rebel fighters, such as during the Battle of Aleppo and also in Kafr Batna. A panel of United Nations human rights investigators reported that the Syrian government used thermobaric bombs against the strategic town of Qusayr in March 2013. In August 2013, the BBC reported on the use of napalm-like incendiary bombs on a school in northern Syria. On 2 December 2015, The National Interest reported that Russia was deploying the TOS-1 Buratino multiple rocket launch system to Syria, which is “designed to launch massive thermobaric charges against infantry in confined spaces such as urban areas.”
Several types of anti-tank missiles are in use in Syria. Russia has sent 9M133 Kornet, third-generation anti-tank guided missiles to the Syrian Government whose forces have used them extensively against armour and other ground targets to fight Jihadists and rebels. U.S.-made BGM-71 TOW missiles are one of the primary weapons of rebel groups and have been primarily provided by the United States and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has also supplied many tonnes of Eastern European sourced 9K111 Fagot launchers and warheads to Syrian rebel groups under its Timber Sycamore program.