SYRIA // An Overview of the Conflict


Syria is surviving unprecedented suffering and facing an unknown future. Even if the conflict in Syria ended tomorrow, the depth of destruction and devastation will take decades of hard work to rebuild. Syria needs help now, and they will need sacrificial service in the generations to come. 

Responding to this ongoing and longterm need, the Syrian Division of FAI Relief launched medical centers in multiple isolated locations in Syria in 2017, providing family and pediatric care, trauma care, surgery, and maternity care to those who have lacked access to medical services for years and who are unreached by the Gospel.

As we invest in serving and reaching those languishing in this complex war, it is important to understand the geopolitical dynamics that profoundly impacts the places where we serve and the people who we serve. This awareness helps inform our prayers and strategic decisions. We hope that this regional report does the same for you.

The war in Syria officially enters its eighth year on March 15th, 2018, and it has killed nearly half a million people and displaced 13.5 million more—over 60% of Syria’s pre-war population. Rather than “winding down” as the Assad regime and its allies have claimed, suffering in Syria has now reached unprecedented levels, with no end to the conflict in sight.

This civil war began in the southern city of Daraa in February 2011, when fifteen teenage boys were arrested for writing graffiti on their school wall in support the broader “Arab Spring” movement. After being caught and detained by police, these young men were subjected to such severe torture that one of the them died. Locals responded by protesting the boys’ harsh treatment, and the Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, sent in the army to shutdown the demonstrations. During the largely peaceful marches in Daraa, the army opened fire on the crowds, killing and imprisoning many. The government’s heavy-handed response added fuel to an already explosive mix of pro-democracy activism emboldened by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, widespread economic woes, and decades of living under the oppressive dictatorship of the Assads and their Baathist government. The protests intensified and spread to other cities across the nation where hundreds of thousands demanded the resignation of President Assad. They were met with brutal and extreme measures by the government that resulted in high civilian casualties. By October 2011, the protests had shifted to an armed uprising—the civil war in Syria had begun. 

Though the initial protests of 2011 were mainly non-sectarian, dividing into those either pro- or anti-Assad, the opposition quickly split into smaller groups along factional lines. Some opposition groups are moderate and “pro-democracy,” with hopes that they will one day see Syria with a secular, representative government. However, many more of these groups are Sunni Muslim of varying extremism, angry at the atrocities of the Assad regime, as well as chafing under the rule of the Shia Alawite sect of the President and his Baathist ruling party. However, Sunni Muslims are the majority of the Syrian population, and many minorities (including Syrian Christians) fear Sunnis coming into power and losing the protection minorities experienced under the Assad regime. These are not baseless fears—another authoritarian government could be installed should opposition forces succeed in overthrowing Assad, and such a possibility prevents the international community from wholeheartedly supporting the opposition forces. (Read more about the Syrian combatants)

The rise of the Islamic State in 2013 (known as IS, ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) was a disastrous development in a war that was already being fought on many fronts. This jihadist group, exploiting the chaos and political vacuum in Iraq and Syria, became a de facto state and a force to be reckoned with on an international level. By 2015, IS held territory that spanned from Mosul in Iraq almost all the way to Aleppo in Syria. At its peak, over ten million people lived under the brutal rule of IS.

The lightning-quick emergence of IS on the world stage brought in regional and international powers to the fighting fields of Syria in 2014, including a US-led anti-IS coalition. By the end of 2017, this coalition would include over 74 countries.

Russia also became involved in fighting what it termed “terrorists” in 2015, not as a member of the US-led coalition, but as a direct ally of the Assad regime. Russia did carry out airstrikes against IS, but it targeted opposition groups as well. 

As IS lost more and more ground, it became clear that many regional and international actors had more than just the elimination of the jihadist group in mind, as Sunni and Shia proxy militias fought for strategic territory within Syria in order to advance their broader regional ambitions. As internal clashes between Syrian combatants have slowed, confrontations between external forces have escalated. (Read more about international involvement)

The cities and regions surrounding Eastern Ghouta, Idlib, Afrin, and Deir Ezzor in Syria are now familiar words in the West as constant reporting of airstrikes, chemical attacks, and high civilian casualties keep their names in the news. Each of these battle fronts have distinct power struggles, have different groups fighting the Assad regime, and have proxy armies advancing their own interests, making each clash within the conflict a mire of shifting loyalties and goals. Such complex maneuvering is extremely difficult to untangle, let alone solve peacefully—so the battles rage on still. (Read more about current fronts

Syria continues to be an area of chaos, war crimes, and proxy fights in the region, with no resolution or end in sight.

Syrian Combatants

The armed rebellion in Syria has evolved significantly since its inception. While the pro-government forces have the fairly straightforward goal of subduing all of Syria under the control of Assad and the central government, the opposition forces have less obvious and consistent motives. Among the opposition, secular moderates are now almost outnumbered by Islamists and jihadists, and militias backed by outside countries have extended the motives for conflict well beyond Syria’s borders.

While all parties have committed war crimes, the pro-Assad combatants far outstrip the rebels in their atrocities—including murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearances. Damascus also uses civilian suffering—such as blocking access to food, water and health services through sieges—as a method of war. Civilians continue to die in the thousands, killed by barrel bombs dropped by government aircraft on gatherings in rebel-held areas. 

Pro-Assad Regime forces and allies, Syrian army, NDF, etc.
The Syrian Armed Forces is a conscripted military, with Syrian males required to serve when they turn 18. When the Syrian Civil War began, the Syrian Armed Forces were sent to fight opposition forces. However, large numbers Sunni soldiers began to defect from the Syrian Armed Forces as the conflict escalated and formed rebel Free Syrian Army.

The National Defense Forces (NDF) is a volunteer pro-government militia, formed in 2012 and organized by the Syrian government as a part-time reserve component of the Syrian Armed Forces. The NDF has generally positive interaction with the US-backed Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In February 2018, NDF battalions volunteered to help defend SDF-held Afrin against Turkish advancement.

Syrian Opposition forces and allies: FSA, Turkmen, etc. 
A wide range of groups, from political dissidents to jihadi militants, are opposed to the Assad regime, but they remain largely divided and attempts to form coalitions have been largely ineffective. 

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a loose conglomeration of armed brigades formed in 2011 by defectors from the Syrian army and civilians backed by the United States, Turkey, and several Gulf countries. Since January 2018, however, it has been fighting alongside Turkey to capture Afrin from the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Syrian Turkmen, with the support of the Republic of Turkey, have taken up arms against the Assad government, and are closely affiliated with the FSA. While most Turkmen oppose the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) they still joined the SDF to fight the Assad regime. 

Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (mainly Kurds) and allies: SDF, YPG, YPJ, etc.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are a multi-ethnic and multi-religious alliance of predominantly Kurdish fighters, but also Arab and Assyrian/Syriac militias, as well as some smaller Turkmen, Armenian, Circassian and Chechen groups. The SDF is mostly composed of, and militarily led by, the People's Protection Units (YPG), a mostly Kurdish militia. It also includes the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), an all-female military organization that includes Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Circassians, and foreign volunteers.

Founded in October 2015, the SDF states its mission as fighting to create a secular, democratic, and federal Syria. The main opponents of the SDF are the Salafi Jihadist groups, IS, and Turkish-backed opposition groups.

Salafi Jihadist groups: Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, Syrian Liberation Front, etc.
The al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, the biggest jihadist group in Syria, is often considered to be the most aggressive and violent part of the opposition forces. The al-Nusra Front renamed itself to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) in June 2016, and later became the leading member of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a coalition of Salafi jihadist groups in 2017, though many still use the original name of al-Nusra. 

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has a complex relationship with the more moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is itself a coalition of opposition groups, some of which were more willing to co-operate with JFS than others.

The Syrian Liberation Front is a Syrian rebel group formed as a merger of Ahrar al-Sham and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement. This coalition of multiple Islamist and Salafist units coalesced into a single brigade and later a division in order to fight against Assad. They initially merged with with HTS in early 2017, but later split off.

All of these Salfi Jihadist groups wish to see a Sunni Syria under strict Islamic law. 

Islamic State and allies
IS emerged in northern and eastern Syria in 2013 after overrunning large portions of Iraq. The group quickly gained international notoriety for its brutal executions and its energetic use of social media to recruit fighters  from around the world. The group was, until 2014, affiliated with al-Qaeda, While they only hold a fraction of the territory they held at the peak of their power, they still hold ground in several regions in Syria. 

International Involvement

Foreign backing and open intervention have played a large role in Syria's civil war. What began as another Arab Spring uprising against an autocratic ruler has mushroomed into a brutal proxy war that has drawn in regional and world powers.

Russia has taken on a key role since its direct intervention in the conflict in 2015, launching decisive air strikes and expanding its military footprint to support Assad's regime. Russia is against what it referred to as "terrorist groups" in Syria, which include IS as well as anti-Assad rebel groups backed by the US. 

IRGC from Iran, Hezbollah, Shia groups from Iraq
The governments of majority-Shia Iran and Iraq, and Lebanon-based Hezbollah, have supported Assad, both as a means of expanding the Shia sphere of influence, as well as opening up a land corridor to connect Tehran to Beirut. This land corridor will  allow for Shia weapons and supply lines to Shia militias to have wide access to the region, and to Israel’s front door. Tehran is believed to be spending billions of dollars a year to bolster the Assad regime, providing military advisers and subsidizing weapons. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from Iran and Shia militias from Iraq provide military support for the Assad regime on the ground. 

The Assad government is also supported by Lebanon's Shia Islamist Hezbollah movement, whose fighters have provided important battlefield support since 2013.

US-led International coalition
The US has armed anti-Assad rebel groups and led an international coalition bombing IS targets since 2014. They have actively backed the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led coalition, to root out IS. While not wanting to get involved in the broader conflict of the Syrian civil war, the US has repeatedly warned the Assad regime against its use of chemical weapons, and has criticized Russia for enabling the government forces to commit war crimes. 

Saudi Arabia, Jordan, UAE, etc. 
Sunni-majority countries, including Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia support anti-Assad rebels and, to some extent, Salafi groups. Many Sunni powers in the region are watching the Shia states maneuvering for regional clout with growing concern, and wish to halt Shia power while expanding Sunni influence.  

In February 2018, Israelis said an Iranian surveillance drone crossed into Israel from Southwest Syria. Israel downed the aircraft and launched a retaliatory air strike. During that operation, an Israeli F-16 fighter was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft guns, its pilots ejecting to safety. Israel responded with a wave of air strikes on what it described as joint Syrian and Iranian military outposts in Syria.

Israel carried out air raids inside Syria, reportedly targeting Hezbollah and pro-government fighters and facilities. The first time Syrian air defenses shot down an Israeli warplane was in February 2018. 

Israel is determined to keep Iran and its Shia proxies far away from its borders, as Iran has publicly and explicitly stated a determination to eradicate Israel on multiple occasions. This has led to the rather strange warming of relations between Israel and the Sunni states of the Middle East as they face the common enemy of Tehran. 

Since 2016, Turkish troops have launched several operations against IS near its borders, as well as against Kurdish groups armed by the US. Though Ankara’s stated goal is to create a buffer zone along its southern border, accusing the US-backed Kurdish-led SDF of being terrorists, Erdogan has publicly called for the revival of the Ottoman empire, and for a retaking of the ground Turkey lost over a century ago, including much of northern Syria. Such nationalist and expansionist statements lead many to doubt that Turkey will relinquish any ground they take to either the Assad regime or the opposition forces. 

Current Fronts

In 2012, Assad ceded the Afrin pocket, along with other border regions, to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. With the support of the US military, these Kurdish fighters were a major catalyst in the collapse of IS in Syria.

However, in mid-January of 2018, Turkey, along with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) entered the fray and attacked the region of Afrin along the Turkish border. Ironically codenamed by Turkey as “Operation Olive Branch” for the many olive orchards in and around Afrin, this attack opened up a new international front to the conflict in Syria. 

Every combatant in this fight has their own endgame. 

Some rebel fighters want to expand the territory under their control from Afrin to Idlib, a city currently under control of an Islamist group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. However, more moderate opposition forces in the FSA want to oust the Islamists in the region and reclaim the territory. These opposition forces are almost all Sunni, so they have a natural basis for their alliance with Turkey.

Turkey claims that the capture of Afrin is imperative in order to secure their southern border from “terrorists.” How can Turkey say that the SDF, who were instrumental in booting IS from the region, are terrorists? Because the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), a part of the SDF, is thought to have a connection with the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), a group that has long been outlawed in Turkey. However, in light of Turkish President Erdogan's publicly stated expansionist ambitions, and Turkey's history of oppressive animosity towards its Kurdish minority, it is not surprising that they would seize this opportunity without any real provocation.

The Kurds see Afrin as vital to a future as a possible autonomous state. As a people beset with enemies on all sides, they see self-rule as the only way to protect themselves from the aggressions of Syrian Arabs, Turks, Iraqis, and Iranians. 

When Turkey launched this attack, it pitted its NATO army against American weapons and many foreign fighters from NATO countries fighting for the SDF. Despite Ankara's justifications, their operations in Syria are triggering an open-ended battle between NATO allies. Further, it's unlikely Turkey will cede the ground to Assad or the opposition forces should they succeed in taking this ground. Erdogan views much of northern Syria as rightfully Turkish, as territory formerly under Ottoman rule. 

The region of Idlib on the Turkish border in northern Syria is the largest remaining rebel stronghold in the conflict. As other regions formerly held by opposition forces are captured by the Assad regime, rebel combatants often retreat to Idlib. Though many different opposition groups operate here, this region is dominated by the al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. 

In April 2017, Idlib was hit by a sarin gas attack, and has continued to suffer chlorine attacks as the battle has intensified. 

At peace talks in late 2017, Russia, Iran, and Turkey designated this region as one of four “de-escalation zones.” Shortly thereafter, however, the Assad regime, supported by Russian jets, launched an offensive to retake the region. The nearly daily bombardment and ground operations have left hundreds dead, and has set off the largest exodus of the Syrian conflict, with hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced, often fleeing towards the closed Turkish border. 

With a civilian population of over two million and a large number of opposition forces, many experts speculate that the most deadly battle of the Syrian conflict will be here. 

Deir Ezzor
Deir Ezzor, a region in eastern Syria along the Euphrates river, has some of the most lucrative oil fields of region, and has been fought over fiercely by many different parties since the beginning of the conflict. It also lies along a highly strategic “land corridor” that connects Tehran to Beirut, making the land crucial to maintain supply routes to Shia militias and their allies. 

In 2014, IS took control of Deir Ezzor and began selling the crude oil to Assad and Turkey to finance their operations. Though the US-backed Kurdish group, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), have now taken ground up to the eastern bank of the Euphrates and the Assad regime has taken ground up to the western bank, IS has not been fully eradicated from the province. Hundreds of jihadists are thought to be in the Deir Ezzor desert along the Syria-Iraq border, and they continue to launch attacks on both the Kurds and the Assad regime forces incurring high casualties on all sides. 

The US, keen to maintain a presence in the region and disrupt the Shia land corridor, has a major base in al-Tanf in southern Deir Ezzor. In February 2018, when the Assad regime attacked the headquarters of the SDF without provocation, the US launched airstrikes directly against the regime forces, killing over 100 pro-Assad combatants. 

Eastern Ghouta
Eastern Ghouta is a suburban region just east of the Syrian capital Damascus. As one of the first areas to protest against Assad at the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the regime sees Eastern Ghouta as an important symbol and strategic to regain. Though officially one of the de-escalation zones of the Russian-led ceasefire deal in 2017, Assad continues to lay siege to the region, and Syrian and Russian jets have destroyed much of the city through constant bombardments. 

There are many different opposition groups operating in Eastern Ghouta, the four main factions being the Free Syrian Army and Jaish al-Islam, along with the more extreme groups Ahrar al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham

In August 2013, Assad carried out his deadliest chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta. Over 1000 people were killed by Sarin gas dropped by regime jets.

International awareness has rallied for the people suffering in Eastern Ghouta, especially in the first months of 2018, as the United Nations has reported on the severe food and medicine shortages there. The Assad regime refused to allow meaningful humanitarian relief to enter Eastern Ghouta, and thousands of those besieged by the regime suffered from severe malnutrition and lack any kind of medical care. In early March 2018, after pressure from the international community, the Assad regime set up a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians from Eastern Ghouta, and thousands fled to Damascus. 

Though Aleppo was the largest city in Syria before the start of the Syrian civil war, it is most likely now second in population to Damascus. The Old City of Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has also been largely destroyed by the ongoing conflict.

In July 2012, a major military confrontation between the opposition groups and Assad regime began called the “Battle of Aleppo.” After four years of fighting, this battle was one of the longest sieges in modern warfare and one of the bloodiest battles of the Syrian civil war, leaving an estimated 31,000 people dead, and hundreds of thousands displaced. 

In August 2016, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with the support of US air power, helped to root IS forces from Manbij, a flashpoint northeast of Aleppo city near the Turkish border.

In December 2016, the city of Aleppo itself fell to the regime after intense bombardment and blockades, and the battle of Aleppo was over. These pro-Assad fighters are now pushing up through the southern suburbs and clashing with the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, Turkish troops, and opposition forces in the greater Aleppo province. 

The US has troops stationed near Aleppo, and trying to deter Turkey from its southern expansion toward Manbij and capture of Kurdish-held territory. The US has warned Turkey that it will not withdraw should Turkey continue southward, potentially setting up a confrontation between the two NATO allies.

In Spring 2018, FAI Relief launched a labor and delivery clinic in an isolated and impoverished community in Syria. Serving this next generation of Syrians is a beautiful, hopeful, defiant answer to the carnage that surrounds them on a daily basis. It is our privilege to walk alongside people and provide an incarnate witness of an incarnate God

If you’re burdened by the ongoing brutality within Syria’s borders and want to affect change that’ll last beyond tomorrow, we invite you to stand with us today. 

Find out more about FAI Relief's work in Syria here.

Give to support our ground operations here. 

Dispatch, SYRIAFAI