The spark that sent the Syrian Civil War into flames was lit during the Arab Spring of 2011. The Arab Spring was a collection of uprisings that took place across the Middle East, stripping previous leaders of their titles but also creating power vacuums that have been filled by never-ending violence. In this article, we will look at what started the Syrian Civil War and the timeline of its important events.
What Is the Syrian War About?
The Syrian Civil War began in 2011 out of a desire to remove President Bashar al-Assad from office. Syrians, at the time, complained of high unemployment, a lack of political freedom, and government corruption after Assad replaced his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000. Nine years have passed since the civil war started, and the current battle lines are predictably drawn by outside influencers and the centuries-old hatred between the Sunnis and the Shia.
President Bashar al-Assad is a member of the Shia Alawite sect, while the Sunnis are composed of the vast majority of Muslims in the world. From a geological perspective, the vast majority of Muslims in Egypt and Saudi Arabia are Sunni, while the majority in Iraq and Iran are Shia. In Syria, the split is closer, but the Sunnis still have a large majority.
What Started the Syrian Civil War?
Pro-democratic protests began as soon as January of 2011, demanding political reform. As the months moved on, protests began to become more widespread. But one event in particular took the protests to a new level.
In March 2011, pro-democracy protests were taking place across the region, and the unrest was especially severe in Syria. Some of the initial protests took place in the city of Deraa, where a group of teenagers was arrested and tortured for painting revolutionary slogans on a wall at school. Security then opened fire on protestors, killing several people. In response, more protestors flooded the streets.
In May of 2011, the Siege of Homs began. It would last for three years until May of 2014.
Early Insurgency: July 2011 to April 2012
Protests erupted across the nation with a common cause: the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad. Despite military force used to suppress the protestors, by July 11, there were hundreds of thousands of demonstrators. The supporters of the opposition eventually took up arms in order to both protect themselves and to keep security forces out of their neighborhoods.
On July 18, 2011, the International Committee of the Red Cross declared that the fighting had become so extensive that it needed to be regarded as a civil war. From March through July, there were massive amounts of arrests, thousands wounded, and hundreds of deaths. Massive defections from the Syrian Army fueled the conflict from one of civil unrest to a full-scale rebellion. On July 29, 2011, the Free Syrian Army of rebels was formed.
Two days later, the Syrian Army cracked down, resulting in the Ramadan Massacre. On July 31, 2011, the Syrian Army killed more than 90 people in an attack on the prominent protest city of Hama on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan.
Siege of Latakia
Throughout the month of August 2011, the Syrian government attempted multiple crackdowns by attacking protestors. On August 14, the Siege of Latakia began. For the first time, the Syrian Navy became involved in the conflict as heavy machine guns were fired from boats at commercial districts in Latakia. On the ground, security forces opened fire on protestors in Damascus, Daraa, and Homs.
Syrian National Council
On August 23, 2011, the Syrian National Council was founded in an attempt to organize the government opposition. But the opposition was so scattered and unaligned that organization was easier said than done. The council was made up mainly of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), along with fractions of political groups, exiles, and armed militants.
Battle of Rastan
In September 2011, the Free Syrian Army had its first major confrontation with the Syrian Armed Forces. The Syrian government was backed by helicopters and tanks as it conducted an offensive into Al-Rastan, a town in Homs. The Battle of Rastan took place from September 27 until October 1 and was the most intense action of the war to that point.
Defections from the Syrian Army continued into October, and many of the clashes at that time were between the government and recent defectors. In the first week of October, Syrian rebels had captured the city of Idlib. Fighting continued along the Turkish border just as Turkey decided to get involved in the conflict. The Turkish government supported the Free Syrian Army and allowed the rebels to set up a headquarters in the Hatay Province, which is near the Syrian border.
November 2011 to December 2011
Fighting escalated in November 2011 between the Free Syrian Army and Syrian security forces. The fighting was especially focused at the ongoing Siege of Homs, where rebels successfully held off government forces. As the rebel resistance in Homs continued to increase, the city became known as the “Capital of the Revolution.”
From November to December, the Free Syrian Army launched attacks on a Syrian air force intelligence base in Harasta, a suburb of Damascus. The FSA continued their attacks on an airbase in Homs, a youth headquarters in Idlib, and an intelligence hub in Idlib. On December 15, FSA opposition ambushed military bases and killed 27 soldiers near the city of Daraa.
Outside Powers Exert Influence
By December 2011, outside powers, including France, Britain, and the United States, were all providing aid to the Syrian rebels. British and French special forces were on the ground while U.S. Spec Ops and the CIA provided equipment and intelligence to assist the rebellion.
As the war raged on with the help of western powers, Syria increased the intensity of the fighting by employing widespread artillery operations. Many civilian homes were destroyed in the endless shelling of large artillery guns. At this point in the conflict, crowds of protestors were a rare sight, replaced by armed conflicts in the streets.
The Syrian Army continued to employ tanks and heavy artillery as they attempted to root out the FSA from towns around Damascus. On January 7, the Syrian Army stormed into Zabadani, an FSA stronghold. The fighting lasted until January 18, with the FSA regaining control of the city. The fighting continued as the FSA launched an offensive into the town of Douma on January 21 and was driven out by a Syrian counterattack on January 30. Eventually, the Syrian Army managed to retake control of the majority of towns around Damascus.
On January 29 in the town of Rastan, dozens of Syrian Army fighters who were guarding checkpoints defected, turning their guns on soldiers loyal to the government. The rebels were able to gain control of Rastan and its surrounding suburbs by February 5.
February 2012 to April 2012
On February 3, the Syrian Army began an offensive to retake rebel neighborhoods in Homs. Weeks of intense fighting went on before the Syrian Army was able to take a rebel base in Baba Amr. By the end of March, the Syrian Army had retaken 70 percent of Homs. Rebels were also ousted from Idlib.
UN Brokered Peace Talks
In May 2012, the UN successfully brokered a ceasefire. However, fighting continued as the talks were being negotiated. And on May 25, one of the most horrific events to date took place in Taldou, a town in the Houla region, which is just northwest of Homs. The Houla massacre resulted in two separate executions, killing a total of 108 civilians, including 49 children and 34 women. The UN found that the acts were committed by the Syrian Army and Shabiha, a government-hired militia.
Escalation of the Syrian Civil War
On June 1, 2012, President Assad made the assertion that he would crush the uprising. On June 12, the UN officially declared Syria to be in a civil war.
Another attempted ceasefire failed in October 2012, and rebel forces continued to make advances from late 2012 into early 2013. By March 6, 2013, the FSA had taken the city of Raqqa, the first provincial capital they had taken from Assad’s government. In April, the rebel advances had been quelled by the Syrian Arab Army.
Intense fighting continued to take place in the towns of Idlib and Babuleen. At this time, Hezbollah joined forces with the Syrian government. The combined army took back the towns of Saqraja, al-Radwaniya, and Burhaniya. By May 15, the UN estimated the total death toll of the conflict to be 80,000.
On June 28, 2013, the rebels took a majority military base in Daraa. Soon after, the Syrian rebels declared war on the Islamic State, which had also sided with the Syrian government. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIL, became the catalyst for increased U.S. involvement. By July, the conflict had reached a stalemate. But the fighting continued.
United States Involvement in Syria
By September 2014, a host of new countries joined in the opposition against ISIL. Congress carried out President Obama’s plan to train the rebel fighters, while the U.S. also launched airstrikes against extremist groups in the area.
In November 2015, the U.S. began deploying special forces to the area. British forces joined in March 2016. Throughout 2016, the U.S. continued to train rebel fighters, while bringing more Special Operations Forces into the area.
In March 2017, 400 U.S. Marines were deployed to Syria to provide artillery cover for the forces on the ground. By October, the Syrian Democratic Forces had taken the al-Omar oilfield, the largest of its kind in Syria. The United States then began building a large military base on the site.
But by December 19, 2018, President Trump was ready to bring U.S. troops back home, announcing as many as 2,500 soldiers would be returning. In early 2019, the U.S. began to move equipment and supplies out of the area. A total of 400 U.S. troops were to remain as indefinite “peacekeepers.” The total withdrawal from Syria would be dependent on ISIL not posing as a security threat.
The American withdrawal was expedited by an agreement in October 2019 between Syria and the Russian government. Turkey also joined forces with Syria and Russia, and a deal was reached to demilitarize northern Syria.
Russia had been assisting the Syrian government since 2015, but in October 2019, Russian ground forces entered the region, taking over many of the bases abandoned by the U.S. Russia continued its airstrikes from late 2019 into 2020. Meanwhile, the Syrian Army continued to attack what was left of the rebel forces.
Syrian War Crimes
The UN has determined that all sides of the fighting have committed war crimes. Some of the most horrific of these crimes have been barrel bombs dropped from government aircraft on large gatherings in rebel-occupied areas. The United States announced that it would impose major sanctions against Syria, Russia, and Iran, for these war crimes. Some have forecasted that the American sanctions could cripple the Syrian economy.