Syria is in its 10th year of gruesome armed conflict — a war that has important implications for the region and increasingly for global security.

Syrian men play backgammon at a market in Damascus during more peaceful times, 26 October 2005. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

News-Decoder first published this article by former intern Pauline Bock in October 2015. While much has transpired since then — and many more Syrians have died — the contours of the conflict and its alarming risks remain broadly the same. A transfixed and terrified world is still witnessing a deadly conflict that started as a civil war and which quickly evolved into a proxy fight involving military forces from outside nations with radically different aims. For more News-Decoder “decoders” explaining big issues, click here.

The Syrian conflict arose from the Arab Spring that swept across states in North Africa and the Middle East.

But for a mix of reasons — historical, religious, geographic and geopolitical — Syria now represents one of the world’s biggest and thorniest challenges as it spawns a refugee crisis and puts Russia and Iran on a possible collision course with the United States and its allies.

Unrest broke out in 2011 when opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, emboldened by Arab Spring protesters who had toppled or were threatening longstanding regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, took to the streets against his autocratic regime.

The conflict started as a civil war, but a complex web of alliances involving Middle East nations, Western powers and Russia, against the backdrop of rising Shia-Sunni tensions in the region, quickly raised the stakes.

By February 2016, 470,000 Syrians had been killed in the conflict, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, an independent Syrian research organization. The United Nations stopped publishing casualty figures in 2014.

More than 5.6 million Syrians have fled their country, creating a wave of refugees who first flooded Syria’s neighbors and then started heading to Europe and beyond, according to the UN. Another 6.1 million have been uprooted from their homes in Syria.

Although the UN has made Syria a priority, differences between Russia and other members of the Security Council have tied the world body’s hands.

Syria is an important strategic player.

Syria shares borders with Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Lebanon and the Mediterranean to the west and Israel and Jordan to the south, making it a major strategic player in the Middle East.

Once part of the ancient Assyrian kingdom, the region is rich in culture and history.

The Syrian Arab Republic includes various religious groups — primarily majority Sunni Muslims, Christians and Alawites, a branch of Shia Muslims.

Bashar al-Assad is the leader of the Alawite minority. The Free Syrian Army, the main rebel force, is 90 percent Sunni, lending a sectarian element to the conflict.

Syria’s neighbors have aligned themselves along religious lines: majority Shia Iran supports Assad while Sunni majorities in Qatar and Saudi Arabia are backing the rebels.

Formerly the Arab Levant and part of the Ottoman empire, the modern state of Syria was created after World War One as a French mandate. In October 1945, Syria gained independence.

Military coups ensued during a tumultuous post-independence period. A referendum in 1961 created the Arab Republic of Syria, but the country remained unstable until the Ba’ath party under the autocratic Assad family claimed power with yet another coup d’état in 1970.

Hafez al-Assad led the country until 2000 and was succeeded by his son Bashar.

Escalation in Syria

The conflict started as a civil war opposing Assad and rebels demanding his departure. Government forces stepped up repressive tactics, and the fighting quickly worsened.

Islamic State (ISIS), a violent jihadist group, took advantage of divisions in opposition forces and Sunni outrage to take control of a large swathe of territory in Syria and Iraq in its bid to set up a caliphate. Its public executions of adversaries including members of other rebel groups, as well as foreign journalists and aid workers, and its territorial ambitions helped pave the way to air strikes by a U.S.-led coalition against the jihadist group.

By the end of 2017, ISIS — under pressure on multiple fronts — had lost control of much of the territory it seized at the outset of the war.

Russia has supported Syria’s government since the beginning of the conflict and, keen to prop up Assad and retain influence in the region, started flying bombing missions over Syria in 2015 — the first time since the end of the Cold War that Russia has entered into armed conflict outside the confines of the former Soviet Union.

Syria has long been one of Russia’s main allies in the region and an important military client. Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union is in Syria, which supported Moscow during the Cold War.

The fighting has reduced neighborhoods in many cities to ruins and in a number of cases has involved chemical weapons. Syrian government forces have been blamed for most of the chemical attacks, including the most deadly, although Islamic State militants and Syrian opposition forces have also been accused of resorting to banned chemical weapons.

Use of chemical weapons has triggered two missile attacks by U.S. forces on Syrian targets, first in April 2017 and again a year later, when the United States was joined by Britain and France in bombing chemical weapons facilities.

Those missile attacks were strongly condemned by both Russia and Iran, which also backs Assad.

The presence of military forces in Syria from several outside nations, including Russia, Turkey and the United States, as part of a complex web of alliances fighting across multiple fronts has raised the global stakes in a conflict that started out as a civil war and which has evolved into a proxy war involving several states with nuclear weapons.

Now for the first time since the end of World War Two, U.S. and Russian military forces are involved in a common armed conflict with opposing aims as the world holds its breath.

Who’s who in Syria

Here is a breakdown of how outside powers are involved in the Syrian conflict (Assad’s backers in red, opponents in blue).


The Free Syrian Army and moderate Syrian rebel groups

Assad, ISIS, extremist Islamic groups including al-Qaeda’s local branch, Jabhat al-Nusra

Strikes by drones and war planes against ISIS.

The U.S. military trains and equips Syrian rebels. A Pentagon program to train opposition fighters against ISIS has won few recruits.


Assad. Iran is the Syrian regime’s strongest regional ally.

Shia Iran opposes Sunni fighters including the Free Syrian Army, ISIS and Sunni extremists.

Iran has provided military support including advisers, weapons and financial aid to Assad since start of the war in 2011. Hezbollah, Iran’s ally in Lebanon, joined its effort in supporting Assad in 2012.


The U.S. coalition and rebel Syrian forces

Assad’s government and ISIS

Turkey, a NATO member, allows the U.S. to use Turkish air bases and the Free Syrian Army to seek refuge on its soil while providing supplies to fighters in Syria. Turkey has taken in millions of Syrian refugees and has sent troops into northern Syria to fight Kurdish forces it accuses of backing armed separatists in Turkey.

Saudi Arabia

Some Syrian rebel groups

Assad’s government

Saudi Arabia ships weapons and funds to Syrian rebels. It is participating in U.S.-led air strikes in Syria against ISIS.


Some Syrian rebel groups

Assad’s government

Qatar funds and trains Syrian rebels. The main U.S. air strike military base, Al Udeid Air Base, is in Qatar. It supports U.S.-led air strikes.


Moderate Syrian rebel groups

ISIS, Islamist extremists and Assad’s government

Britain is in the U.S.-led coalition. British pilots have participated in air strikes in Syria, but UK war planes have not been involved.


Moderate Syrian rebel groups

ISIS, Islamist extremists and Assad’s government

France is in the U.S.-led coalition and has conducted air strikes in Syria. 


Assad’s government, Russia’s main ally in the Middle East

Officially ISIS although the U.S.-led coalition says Russian planes have bombed other rebel groups and killed civilians

Syria is a long-time ally of Russia, which has a military base in Syria — its only base outside of the former Soviet Union — and is a long-time supplier of weapons to Assad’s forces.

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