The country remains stuck in an impasse between two conflicting parties: while the fight for territorial conquest of the area has diminished, it has never really ceased. The ceasefire agreed in the Northwestern part of the country at the beginning of 2020 didn’t prevent armed clashes in the Idlib area, which is still under the control of the anti-government forces. The fight for power is still ongoing and it seems that neither government forces nor rebel groups of the opposition will be able to either defeat each other militarily or find a political or humanitarian agreement to overcome the crisis. Most of the country has been destroyed by the war – a toll that includes six UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Coronavirus pandemic also impacted Syria; the Idlib region controlled by the rebels received 53,800 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the second half of April 2021. However, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), in the first part of the immunisation campaign 912,000 vaccine doses had been allocated to the areas managed by the government and the semi-autonomous area of Kurdistan. The official number of victims caused by Covid-19 in Syria is far smaller than the ones of the adjacent countries, but the reliability of these data is problematic. In April 2021, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has voted in favour of the suspension of the country from its ranks; Syria had joined the OPWC in 2013, after an attack with sarin gas killed 1,400 people in the outskirts of Damascus and Ghouta. According to the Organisation, the Syrian air forces are responsible for the attack with sarin gas and chlorine bombs of 2017 against the village of Lataminah, and the attack with chlorine bombs of 2018 against the city of Saraqib. According to the United Nations, since then the Syrian government has failed to answer 19 questions about military facilities in the country that could have been used to store or create chemical weapons. At the beginning of April 2021, Bashar al-Assad, who has been the Syrian president for 21 years, stood again for election. The elections took place on May 26th and reconfirmed his role, although they have been considered by the international observers rigged and not free.
What is being fought for
The Syrian civil war started as a revolution. Young people, influenced by the Arab Spring, started to take to the streets in March 2011 to call for the dismantling of the Regime. The revolution quickly turned into a conflict, initially between government forces and rebel groups, with the latter supported economically and militarily by overseas branches of the Muslim Brotherhood. With the subsequent impasse, the conflict became first religious and then sectarian: the Sunni majority of the country against the Alawite forces of Assad. In March/April 2014, the war radicalised even more. While Russians offered their military support to the Regime, the Iranians and the Hezbollah’s Shiite militia entered the war to defend the Shiite sacred places along the Regime. On the other side, radicalised Sunni groups, represented until then by Jabat al-Nusra, proliferated until the creation of the Islamic State. Meanwhile, the Kurdish minority started to conquer the Northeastern areas, after self-organising in the YPG (male forces) and YPJ (female forces), military groups considered ideologically close to the Turkish PKK. In the Northeastern areas, Syrian Kurds established the Rojava territory foreseeing the possibility to create a new independent territory, different from the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.
In March 2011, among the other revolts in the Arab countries, in Syria the protests against the Assad family exploded: Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president Bashar, had become president in 1971 and established an authoritarian and totalitarian regime under the control of the Baath party. Since then, the Assad family continued to run the country. On 18 March 2011, a day that will be remembered in Syria as “Dignity Friday”, thousands of people took to the streets. The army opened fire in Daraa, in the South part of the country, killing two men; this marked the beginning of the Syrian revolution. Thousands of students, under the impulse of the protests that were arising in the entire Arab world, united in protest against the dictatorship imposed by the Assad family. Universities and mosques became the centre of the revolt. The regime reacted with violence, in the belief that this reaction would stop the wave of dissent. The clashes turned into an armed conflict when several deserters from the army established the “Free Syrian Army”, that fought for years under this name. In the summer of 2011 the two sides of the conflict were shaped as we know them: on one side the actual Syrian army, on the other the “rebels” of the Free Syrian Army. The latter were led and financed principally by the Muslim Brotherhood; its leaders, mainly bandits from Syria who were exiled in other countries, supported the initial grassroots protest movements to establish their legitimacy between the civilian population. The exhausting conflict, the sudden change of alliances between different forces involved, the disenchantment of the youth who were unable to foresee a better future for themselves and turned to the armed fight (with huge consequences on their lives), all paved the way to the Islamic extremism of Jabat al-Nusra and then ISIS, together with an uncountable number of other Islamic acronyms that subsequently swore allegiance to the so-called Islamic State managed by self-appointed caliph al-Baghdadi.
According to the International Red Cross, after more than 10 years since the beginning of the conflict, 80% of Syrian people live below the poverty line. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights calculated that, as things stood at the end of 2020, the war caused more than 593,000 deaths. Approximately 11 million people need humanitarian assistance (UN data), while 6 millions of Syrians are internally displaced and 5.5 millions are in adjacent countries as refugees (UNCHR data), constituting 1/3 of global refugees. The damage to hospitals, schools, dwellings and facilities is unquantifiable. The destruction of the majority of the country is the most evident result of the conflict.
The 2020 pandemic didn’t spare Syria, thus complicating an already difficult situation. In 2017, the former United Nations High Commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein referred to Syria as “the worst man-made disaster since World War II”, with 9.3 million people suffering food insecurity and 4.5 million children suffering hunger. In May 2021, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and its army, supported by Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran and Russia (which offer military support and personnel on the field), controls the majority of the country, including Damascus, Alep, Homs and Hama. After the Turkish operations “Euphrates shield” and “Olive Branch” of 2017, and “Peace Spring” of 2019, the Syrian National Army (SNA), supported and financed by Turkey, controls the buffer zones in the Northern part of the country and North of Alep, close to the Turkish border. Hay’et Tharir al-Sham (HTS) is the name under which are gathered some of the first Qaedaist organisations that fought in Syria with the Free Syrian Army at the beginning of the revolution. As well as Jabat al-Nusra, they control the Idlib governorate, together with the North of Hama and Latakia and the West of Alep. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), established in 2015 and considered by Turkey a terrorist organisation like the PKK, are composed by the alliance between the Kurdish militia (YPG and YPJ), Arabic and Assyrian-Syrian groups, together with other minorities’ militia (Armenian, Chechen and Turkmen).
As of May 2021, the SDF controls all the Kurdish cities of the Rojava, the Northeastern part of Syria (inhabited mainly by Kurds) and the cities of Raqqa, Qamishli and Hasakah. Daesh, a jihadist group composed mainly by foreign fighters that became famous in 2014 after the conquest of a large portion of Syria and the self-proclamation of the Caliphate (fell in March 2019), doesn’t control now any area, but there are still suicide attacks in the areas that were under its control.
Key figure or organization
On 26th of May 2021, Bashar al-Assad, a man that is directly at the center of one of the bloodiest conflicts of the century, has been re-elected as President. Assad, unlike other Middle East dictators, appeared on the campaign posters in a suit, setting aside the “popular” military uniform. With his slogan “Hope through work”, he presented himself as the only man able to rebuild the country destroyed by the war. However, among 55 candidacies, only 2 were allowed to run for the election by the Constitutional Court, which was appointed by Assad. To exclude the Syrian opposition abroad, Assad decided that those who wanted to run for election had to have lived in Syria constantly in the last 10 years. The two challengers accepted were a former minister and a member of the so-called “tolerated opposition”, which is described by the dissidents as “an extension of the Regime”.
Focus 1 – Israel and Syria
The State of Israel, that occupies since 1967 the Golan Heights at the expense of Syria, officially didn’t assume any role and didn’t carry out any intervention for the Syrian domestic issues since the beginning of the revolts. However, ever since the entrance of Iran and the Hezbollah militia in the conflict, the Jewish state intensified the attacks with planes and drones inside the country. One of the biggest concerns for Israel is that Hezbollah or the Iranian militia could get closer to the area it occupies. During the first years of the conflict, Israel always refused to comment on the attacks in Syria, but in September 2018 it stated that its air forces hit more than 200 Iranian target only between 2017 and 2018. Some Israeli raids led to firefights along the border. In 2018, the Israeli army accused the Iranian special forces of being responsible for 20 mortar shells shot on the Syrian Golan Heights. Israel hit back with the widest bombing campaign of the last decades in Syria.
Focus 2 – the Assad family history of leading Syria
The Assad family has been governing Syria for more than 50 years. In 1970, the Defense minister Hafez al-Assad grabbed the power with a coup, becoming president the following year. He was the first Syrian head of state from the Alawite sect, which forms less than 10% of Syrian population. In 1973, Syria and Egypt attacked Israel, but a new defeat (after the one suffered in 1967 during the Six Days War) paved the way for the Israeli control of the Golan Heights. In 1976, Syria joined the Lebanese civil war. In 1982, the Regime repressed the protests of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, killing between 10,000 and 40,000 people. During the First Gulf War, Syria took the US’s side against Saddam Hussein. On June 10th, 2000, Hafez died and the following month his son Bashar won a referendum with 97% of votes in his favour.