Syria is a Middle Eastern country sharing a western maritime boundary with the Mediterranean Sea and land borders with Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, and Jordan. Throughout the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Syria has been in an ongoing state of political unrest as citizens became increasingly dissatisfied with the authoritarian policies of the governing Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party and its leader, Hafez al-Assad. For decades, large numbers of Syrians opposed his government’s dictatorial regime. This opposition continued when Hafez al-Assad was succeeded by his son, Bashar al-Assad, in 2000.
Ten years later, protests in Tunisia inspired demonstrations in many Middle Eastern countries. This unrest—dubbed the Arab Spring—roused the people of Syria. Widespread demonstrations against the oppressive Syrian government began in March 2011. The tense situation soon erupted into civil war, leading to a humanitarian crisis that quickly became one of the world’s most pressing and high-profile geopolitical issues. Since then, the Syrian civil war has led to hundreds of thousands of casualties, and millions more have been displaced or have fled the country in an effort to escape the violence.
Prior to the outbreak of the civil war, it is estimated that the Arabic-speaking country had a population of approximately 20 to 23 million people, according to the World Bank. By 2015, that figure had fallen to 18.5 million, although estimates vary, due to difficulties with gathering conclusive data during wartime. The country continues to suffer population loss as more of its citizens are killed or displaced. About 74 percent of the population belongs to the Sunni Islamic sect, and a significant minority is composed of the Alawites, who consider themselves part of the Shia branch of Islam but incorporate Christian practices into their religion. Prior to the breakout of the civil war, Shias, predominantly Alawites, comprised about 13 percent of Syria’s total population. Some of the traditionally Sunni areas abandoned by fleeing civilians during the civil war were repopulated by Shias, with the backing of Iran. About 10 percent of the country’s population practices Christianity. Syria is also home to small communities of practitioners of Judaism and the Druze faith.
Syria Prior to 1970
In 1516, the Ottoman Empire gained control of the region and ruled Syria for 400 years until 1918, when British-backed Arab troops captured the capital city of Damascus. In 1920, after Germany and the Ottoman Empire were defeated in World War I, the Ottoman Empire was divided among the European states that had won the war, and France took control of Syria. Syria remained under French control until 1946, when the United Nations (UN) called for the withdrawal of the French colonial government, determining France’s presence in Syria and Lebanon to be a violation of UN principles. The newly established republican government of Syria declared its full independence from France on April 17, 1946, though internal unrest continued to impede efforts to generate political stability. A series of military coups threatened the stability of the civilian government, and control frequently shifted from one political party to another. The disorder allowed Arab socialist and nationalist movements to gain strength within Syria, setting the stage for future upheaval.
The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, better known as the Ba’ath Party, led a campaign for political unification with Egypt in 1958, which resulted in the two countries briefly forming the United Arab Republic (UAR) until Syria seceded in 1961. The Ba’ath Party overthrew the pro-nationalist government of the Syrian Arab Republic in 1963 and installed the National Council of the Revolutionary Command (NCRC), a group of powerful military and civilian leaders led by President Amin al-Hafiz.
Tensions mounted between the military and civilian arms of the Ba’ath Party. The more extreme civilian wing staged a successful coup in 1966 and installed a civilian-led government. This new regime was weakened by the Arab-Israeli War in June 1967 and subsequently faced competing efforts by the military wing of the party. Minister of Defense Hafez al-Assad, who was part of the party’s military committee, went on to execute a nonviolent takeover, dubbed the “Corrective Movement,” in November 1970. Al-Assad then named himself leader of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. He had gained tremendous influence in the party through aggressive political strategizing, and used it to secure his place as Syria’s head authority figure. As a result, however, the rift between the military and civilian factions of the Ba’ath Party deepened during this period.
Regime of Hafez al-Assad
Hafez al-Assad, a member of the Alawi sect, quickly established power by forming several Ba’ath-dominated governmental bodies. In 1971, the party also secured 87 of the 173 seats in the newly established People’s Council. Al-Assad led the Regional Command, a congressional body that worked swiftly to install him as the chief authority figure. He was elected president by national referendum in March 1971. Al-Assad expanded political support for his authoritarian government by forming the National Progressive Front, a coalition of Ba’ath-controlled minority parties. A new constitution was adopted in March 1973, and was followed by the first parliamentary elections in more than a decade. Al-Assad then passed a change to the constitution, eliminating the requirement that Syria’s president be a Muslim. Rioting broke out in response, which al-Assad quashed with military action.
The Syrian people initially welcomed al-Assad’s authoritarian rule. His policies encouraged economic development, promoted education, and supported a strong military. Government stability slowly returned, but with it came the suppression of political opposition. Many Syrians were discouraged by the voting process, as their choices were restricted to Ba’ath Party politicians. In 1976, Hafez al-Assad sent troops into neighboring Lebanon, which was mired in a civil war. Al-Assad’s initial goal was to stabilize the country and strengthen his Lebanese Maronite Christian allies. The peacekeeping mission soon grew in scope, and Syrian troops went on to occupy Lebanon for twenty-nine years, using military force to control the Lebanese economy and political landscape.
Al-Assad ran unopposed in five consecutive elections and ruled for thirty years. During this time, Syrians who expressed anti-government sentiment risked severe punishment. A revolt in the city of Hama in 1982 was promptly crushed by Al-Assad’s forces, resulting in at least ten thousand deaths. Large sections of the ancient city were also destroyed during the clash.
The Rise of Bashar al-Assad and Subsequent Protests
Following Hafez al-Assad’s death from a heart attack on June 10, 2000, his second son, Bashar al-Assad, was confirmed as president in a referendum vote. Like his father, the younger al-Assad ran unopposed. Syrians hoped Bashar al-Assad, who had studied medicine in England, would work toward political transparency and government reform. Reform did not come, however, and economic growth was stagnant. Any sign of opposition toward the government was met with arrests or detentions. In 2001, al-Assad ordered the detention of several proreform activists, further discouraging dissent against his government. Ethnic divisions between his Shia regime and the mostly Sunni populace also elevated internal tensions.
In 2004, the UN called on Syria to withdraw its remaining troops from Lebanon. Following this withdrawal in 2005, the Syrian government cracked down on activism at home. The unyielding repression and al-Assad’s reelection in 2007 motivated dissidents to take further action. In early 2011, galvanized by the Arab Spring demonstrations in other countries, Syrian protesters began to march in the streets, condemning al-Assad’s regime. The new, sustained calls for reform in Syria were sparked by the abuse of protesters. Several students were detained and tortured for writing antigovernment graffiti in March 2011, prompting demonstrations in the city of Dara’a, where security forces opened fire on the activists. These events further prompted more protest activity around Syria.
Demonstrations grew significantly larger and more aggressive as the year progressed. Syrian forces freely fired on protesters, killing thousands. Nevertheless, the brutality of Syrian forces did not subdue the insurgents; instead, it only fueled their anger. Rebel armies assaulted government forces. Though the government announced plans for reform, change was minimal. Al-Assad sent tanks and soldiers to opposition epicenters around the country to contain the resistance. The government disconnected water and electricity services in many areas to weaken the rebels, and implemented communication blackouts in some regions, cutting off Internet and phone services.
By October 2011, an estimated three thousand people—including two hundred children—had been killed in clashes between the military and insurgents. That same month, various rebel groups formed the Syrian National Council (SNC) to bring down the al-Assad regime. The group had the support of a large contingency of the international community, which condemned al-Assad’s use of force against protesters. Many countries issued sanctions against Syrian officials and demanded al-Assad’s resignation. Near the end of 2011, the Arab League, an association of prominent Middle Eastern countries, asked al-Assad to remove his tanks and stop his violent responses to protest activity. Al-Assad agreed, but Arab League delegates subsequently reported that al-Assad did not follow through on his pledge, and as a result, Syria was suspended from the Arab League in November 2011. Similar negotiations took place in 2012, when UN officials attempted to organize a ceasefire. Instead, al-Assad’s army only increased its assault on dissident forces. In a December 2011 ABC News interview, al-Assad denied that his government had given any order to shoot at activists, instead claiming that forces were deployed solely to uphold the Syrian constitution. He also contended that activist deaths were the result of judgments made by individual security forces units and their commanders.
By this point, the international community was speculating as to whether the United States would become involved in the conflict. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, sparking a US-led international military response, Hafez al-Assad sided with the United States, though Syria’s participation in the conflict also benefited Syrian interests. Anti-US sentiment among Syria’s pro-al-Assad faction grew after Bashar al-Assad took power in 2000. Bashar al-Assad remained openly hostile toward Israel, a key US ally in the region, and the US government reportedly made further covert attempts to bring about regime change in Syria. After civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, simmering anti-American sentiment in Syria ignited. Attacks on the US embassy and the American ambassador eventually forced the United States to evacuate embassy employees and shut down its operations in 2012.
The number of Syrian civil war casualties rose to more than 7,500 by the end of February 2012, and efforts to negotiate with Bashar al-Assad remained unproductive. Though an election to amend the constitution was held that month, opposition leaders called the vote a sham and largely boycotted it. Elections in May once again resulted in mostly Ba’ath Party winners, with members of the al-Assad family and a few other top Alawites retaining their grip on power. Despite international efforts to end the violence, clashes persisted. The terrorist group al-Qaeda became involved in the conflict by infiltrating and acting in concert with anti-Assad rebel forces, leading to a rise in suicide bombings and car bombings. According to statements from al-Qaeda leaders published in the New York Times, the group was “returning the favor” to Syrian opposition fighters who had previously assisted al-Qaeda efforts in Iraq. By the end of July 2012, the conflict had escalated to a full-scale civil war that had displaced more than two hundred thousand Syrian citizens. By the end of that year, the conflict had claimed the lives of an estimated sixty thousand people—most of them civilians—according to the UN.
The US government continued to insist that al-Assad step down and hand over power to a representative government. The number of refugees fleeing Syria increased significantly. Hundreds of thousands of people who had lost their homes in the fighting were living in refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq. The conflict continued in Syria, with several sectarian and jihadist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), joining the fight. As it had in other unstable areas of the Middle East, ISIS sought to exploit the power vacuum created by the Syrian civil war to recruit new members to its extreme cause. Russia also became involved in the conflict, attacking ISIS positions while working to protect al-Assad’s grip on power. The official position of the Russian government is that al-Assad is a crucial source of stability in the Middle East, and Russia continues to support al-Assad’s presidency. This position has placed Russia at odds with the United States, however, as well as many other countries that have called for al-Assad to step down or be removed.
In 2012, the civil war continued to intensify, and in the summer of that year, both Syrian and US officials confirmed that al-Assad’s government had built a stockpile of chemical weapons, including nerve agents, mustard gas, and others. The first allegations that al-Assad had deployed chemical weapons against rebel forces surfaced in December 2012, which put al-Assad’s government in direct violation of international UN charters forbidding the use of chemical weapons in warfare. While this theoretically provided justification for forcibly removing al-Assad from power, a subsequent UN investigation was unspecific in its findings, and only concluded that there were reasonable grounds to suspect that al-Assad may have authorized the use of banned chemical agents on multiple occasions. Given the lack of conclusive evidence, the international community did not take direct action against al-Assad. In 2013, al-Assad agreed to disclose Syria’s chemical weapons inventories and manufacturing facilities, and destroy its existing stockpiles of these weapons.
Russian military support of the pro-al-Assad faction increased during a month-long bombing campaign of rebel-controlled areas around the Syrian city of Aleppo in September and October 2016. In April 2017, al-Assad was once again accused of ordering chemical weapons attacks, leading the United States to conduct a controversial airstrike against a Syrian military air base despite warnings from the international community that such action would only result in further extremism and instability.
Since the conflict broke out in 2011, an estimated eleven million Syrians have been displaced, with nearly five million refugees fleeing Syria to seek safety in other countries, including neighboring nations in the Middle East as well as the United States, Canada, and various European destinations. Estimates dating to March 2017 put the number of displaced people still within Syria at 6.3 million. Some of these people have resorted to extreme measures in an effort to escape, including dangerous attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe aboard overcrowded and unstable vessels, which were often supplied by human traffickers. An estimated 13.5 million people within Syria remained in need of humanitarian assistance in early 2017, according to the UN.
International response to the refugee crisis has been mixed. Some countries, such as Germany, have pledged to accept hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, while others, such as Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, have cited cultural differences and security concerns upon resisting open-door policies. Security concerns arise from fears that extremists and terrorists may be hiding amid the ranks of legitimate refugees and attempting to enter Western countries to carry out attacks. In June 2016, a referendum in the United Kingdom resulted in the nation’s decision to leave the European Union, with the Syrian civil war forming a key element of the pro-exit side of the referendum campaign. Supporters of the United Kingdom’s efforts to leave the European Union expressed a desire for the nation to have greater autonomy and control over its own immigration policies, though opponents of this viewpoint accused the United Kingdom’s pro-exit faction of inaccurately exploiting the situation to further its own political ends.
The Syrian refugee crisis has also contributed to the rise of populist and anti-immigration sentiments in other European countries, including France and the Netherlands. Within the United States, President Donald Trump issued two controversial executive orders in January and March 2017, the most updated of which imposed immigration bans against travelers from six Muslim-majority nations, including Syria, from entering the United States for ninety days, as well as prohibiting entry to all refugees for 120 days.