According to the United Nations, since the beginning of the civil war in Syria in 2011, approximately 400,000 Syrians have been killed. The Arab League, the EU and US have condemned the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s ongoing brutality against his own people. In March 2016, it was estimated that 4.8 million Syrians left the country, while 6.6 million were banished across Syria. There are many groups fighting in Syria, but the main four are the Kurdish forces, ISIS, other opposition such as the Islamist Syrian rebels of The Army of Conquest or Jaish al-Fatah (JaF)—who have been fighting since 2015 and some of its members are connected to al-Qaeda—and the Assad regime.

How it began: March 2011

The Syrian Civil War is the consequence of the 2010 Arab Spring and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s attempt to silence the Arab Spring protesters. It all began in the southern city of Dara’a, where, after 15 boys were arrested and tortured—one 13-year-old boy died after being tortured—for writing anti-government graffiti, people took to the streets to protest against Assad’s regime. The pro-democracy, Arab Spring protesters were met by army tanks and snipers; many were killed and others imprisoned. In July 2011, defectors from the Syrian military formed the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group to fight Assad’s regime, and the country descended into a civil war.

Arab Spring or Uprising (Tunisia, 17 Dec. 2010)

From Tunisia, to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, people took to the streets demanding democracy, economic growth and social justice. This was a revolutionary uprising hoping to build a better future based on political freedom and democracy. Most importantly, the economic impasse—unemployment, social inequality, the coexistence of brazen wealth and extreme poverty—in the Arab-speaking region, was what drove the people’s desire for radical change. This vison, while in Tunisia and Egypt was relatively peaceful and people managed to overthrow their rulers, this wasn’t the case for Libya or Syria. The dictatorial regimes in these two countries inhibited the organisation of a workers’ movement which had played a key role in Tunisia and Egypt’s victory. In the absence of any organised groups, young people using the internet and social media were instrumental in the organisation of the uprising in Syria and Libya. But these ideals were soon strangled by the violence of the Assad regime and Islamic fundamentalists. 

What caused the uprising? 

The Syrian regime is one of the most brutally oppressive and tyrannical regimes in the region. It has developed a corrupt capitalist elite with Bashar al Assad’s relatives becoming extremely wealthy, and one of his cousins being the richest man in Syria. While a handful of people in Bashar’s circle hold economic power, the rest are impoverished and unemployed. The lack of freedoms and dire economic conditions, combined with the brutal suppression of protesters, fueled anger and opposition to Assad’s government. 

Sectarian Violence: Assad’s supporters 

The protesters were in their majority non-sectarian, but the armed conflict made sectarian divisions clear. By February 2012, the war was beginning to look more of a religious one. Minority religious groups support Assad, who is a member of the Alawite sect, while the opposition consists of Sunni Muslims. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims but the establishment, including Assad, belong to the Alawite sect.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Shia majority governments of Iran and Iraq support Assad. The Sunni-majority states of Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others support the rebels. 

Assad’s regime: Cultivating the growth of ISIS

In 2013, Assad used chemical weapons and bombed civilian areas, but his support continued growing, while armed rebels fighting against him were aligning themselves increasingly with fanatical groups like al-Qaeda. Even the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which in the beginning consisted of Syrian military defectors who refused to kill protesters and were fighting against the Assad regime, have later joined al-Qaeda groups, like the Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, or returned back to the regime.

In the start, Assad’s regime had tried to prevent democratic forces by imprisoning the youth. But it had resorted to other methods, too. Releasing from its jails the jihadists they used in Iraq, the regime sought to perpetuate the false idea that the uprising was a jihadist scheme. Assad tried to destroy the democratic character of the uprising by strategically releasing members of ISIS and facilitating the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Syria.  

In Spring 2014, Assad let ISIS bring forces across Syria and into Iraq, while launching airstrikes against areas free of his control, targeting democratic opposition and leaving ISIS alone. (Kevin B. Anderson). 

ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), or IS (Islamic State)

ISIL appears as a militant jihadist group in 1999 in Jordan and pleads allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda in 2004. In 2012, Al-Qaeda emerges in Syria under the name Al-Nusra Front. The so-called Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) is also heavily involved, and later, Al-Nusra and ISI merge under the name of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This is ideal for Assad because ISIS becomes the biggest enemy of Assad’s opposition. ISIS medieval tactics of beheadings and the violent killings of civilians have made it into the most abhorred enemy of the West. 

As the Professor of International Relations at the University of London, Gilbert Achcar, said, 

“The truth is that ISIS is the Assad regime’s “preferred enemy,” because they are so repulsive for the West that they are the regime’s best argument in trying to seduce Western powers into changing their attitude toward it. You can see now very clearly how the Syrian regime is trying its best, with Russia’s help, to seduce the West into supporting it in the name of the fight against ISIS.” 

And this is what Trump, Marine Le Pen and other Western power elites advocate, an alliance with Assad and Putin. 

ISIS, taking advantage of the chaos, has taken control of large areas in Syria, waging war against all Syrian fighters, including rebels, other jihadists from the al-Qaeda affiliated group al-Nusra Front, the government and Kurdish forces.

Who is fighting in Syria? From revolution to civil war

This is not a traditional conflict consisting of just two revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces. On the one hand, there are the revolutionary forces of the young people, workers and women who oppose the old regime and demand a new progressive society. 

On the other hand, there are two counterrevolutionary forces: the old regime and the reactionary religious forces. These were used by the old regime to oppose the Left but eventually turned against it. The Islamic fundamentalist elements in Syria got a further boost from the Gulf oil monarchies, which, like Assad, wanted to strengthen them to fight what they saw as their common threat: the democratic uprising. In the end, the two counterrevolutionary forces, Assad’s regime and its allies, and the Islamic fundamentalist armed forces clashed. It is also true that many who joined ISIS did so for a salary because they were desperate for money to survive in Syria, and not because of any ideological belief. The ranks of ISIS include fighters from around the world. Those who fight for Assad are also from different regions: there are Lebanese members of Hezbollah, Iranian and Afghan fighters.

While the 2011 uprising was characterised by progressive and left ideas, it lacked organisation, that, despite the creation of internet networks, failed to materialise. Because of the threatening regime on the one hand, and the explosion of reactionary armed forces on the other hand, those who really believed in democratic change and progress fled the country to protect themselves from both enemies. Some of them were jailed or ended up dead.

So, who remains fighting in Syria? The barbaric regime of Assad which controls the capital Damascus, parts of southern Syria, parts of Aleppo and Deir Az Zor, the area near the Syrian-Lebanese border, and the northwestern coastal region. The rest of the country is controlled by rebel groups, ISIS and Kurdish forces. Kurdish groups in northern Syria are fighting for self-rule. This, along with attacks within Turkey, has led Turkey to bomb Kurdish targets in Syria. Kurdish groups are also fighting with al-Nusra Front and ISIL.

Foreign countries

Since 2014, an international coalition led by the US has bombed ISIS targets. In 2015, Russia began bombing so called “terrorist groups,” including ISIS and rebel groups backed by Western states. The US opposes the Assad regime, but has failed to intervene when the Assad government used chemical weapons. In 2015, the US withdrawn its training programme of Syrian rebels, after it was revealed that it only trained 60 fighters but spent $500million. The support of Syrian rebels by the US and the support of Assad’s regime by Russia, has also turned the war into a proxy war between the US and Russia, without the two being directly involved.

Wave of Refugees

Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, while many have tried to escape to Europe for their survival. As early as 9 June 2011, thousands of refugees crossed Syria’s borders to Turkey. In 2016 the UN reported that 13.5 million Syrians were in need of humanitarian help. Over 4.8 million have fled Syria, while the rest are displaced within the country. Syrian refugees have been resettled in countries around the world: from those neighbouring to Syria, Armenia and Egypt to the US, Australia and Europe.

Uncertainty prevails

For the conflict to be over, there is a need to reach a compromise, and Assad is uncompromising. With Russia and Iran helping him, the war is going to continue. For many political commentators, Assad’s removal will help the struggle for democratisation, and won’t necessarily enable ISIS and Al-Nusra to take over, as some others are arguing.  While a ceasefire was decided in February 2016 to stop fighting in certain areas in Syria, recent government air strikes in Aleppo have created uncertainty. 

On Tuesday (13/12/2016), the fight for Aleppo was almost over as Assad’s regime forces were closing in on the last rebel-held areas in the Syrian city. Assad’s forces had killed women and children by entering their houses in eastern Aleppo. The UN’s human rights office said that in four areas 82 civilians were shot on sight. The spokesman of the UN human rights office, Rupert Colville, said, "We're filled with the deepest foreboding for those who remain in this last hellish corner."

On the same day, MPs in the UK held an emergency debate on Syria, condemning the violence and demanding that Britain and the West do something to stop “dictators like Assad and Putin” and help the people of Syria.

On Wednesday (14/12/2016), an agreement between Turkish and Russian intelligence for a ceasefire that would allow civilians and moderate anti-government rebels to evacuate eastern Aleppo was cancelled, as airstrikes recommenced. The evacuation, however, has resumed on Sunday (18/12/2016), with 350 people managing to leave. Earlier, six buses that had been sent to evacuate areas held by Assad’s forces were set on fire. On Monday morning (19/12/2016), 10 buses left the besieged areas of Fua and Kefraya to take evacuees towards Aleppo. At 9am (14:00 GMT), the UN security council will be voting on a text that will secure the free passage of those trapped in Aleppo. 

As the humanitarian catastrophe deepens, many Syrians are using social media to plead for help, feeling abandoned by the international community. Up to 80,000 people are believed to have fled Aleppo in recent days. Hopefully, negotiations will rescue a deal to save the lives of those who still remain trapped in the hell of Aleppo.