News / Middle East

    Explaining Syria’s Crisis: Simple Protest Sparked Prolonged Chaos

    FILE - Syrians wait to be evacuated from the besieged town of Madaya, northwest of Damascus, Jan. 11, 2016. They were among about 400 people needing immediate life-saving treatment for malnourishment and other medical conditions.
    FILE - Syrians wait to be evacuated from the besieged town of Madaya, northwest of Damascus, Jan. 11, 2016. They were among about 400 people needing immediate life-saving treatment for malnourishment and other medical conditions.
    VOA News

    Negotiators meeting for Syrian peace talks that began Friday in Geneva are focusing on urgent goals: establishing a cease-fire, delivering humanitarian aid, and setting a course for long-term resolution of the nearly five-year conflict.

    They’re also confronting a crisis years in the making, rife with deep sectarian divisions, clashing regional and international interests, and a rising threat from the radical Islamic State militant group that has exploited Syria’s instability.

    What sparked the crisis?

    In March 2011, a popular uprising began against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian regime after the arrest, and alleged torture, of more than a dozen youngsters in the southern city of Daraa. They’d scribbled anti-government slogans on a wall. Protesters took to the streets, demanding the youngsters’ release – as well as sweeping political reforms. 

    The government made some concessions – repealing a restrictive emergency law, for instance – but also responded with a bloody military crackdown, initially killing four demonstrators. Unrest spread from that flashpoint city, along with demands for Assad’s resignation. Rebel groups took up arms.

    Since then, the conflict has left more than 250,000 people dead in Syria and displaced as many as 11 million others from a prewar population of about 22 million. Of those, at least 4 million have fled to neighboring countries. Tens of thousands have risked harrowing journeys to seek refuge in Europe, fueling a migrant crisis there.

    FILE - Anti-Syrian government demonstrators take to the streets in the southern city of Daraa, March 23, 2011.
    FILE - Anti-Syrian government demonstrators take to the streets in the southern city of Daraa, March 23, 2011.

    Who’s involved in the conflict?

    There are multiple players and multiple spheres – local, regional and international. (The Financial Times news site sorts them out, along with their complicated allegiances, in graphic form.)

    Assad belongs to Syria’s ruling Alawite religious minority, a largely secular offshoot of Shia Islam. Regionally, Assad’s government is closely allied with heavily Shi’ite Iran and with neighboring Hezbollah in Lebanon. Support for Assad and the Syrian army has come from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah and Russian airstrikes.

    The opposition in Syria includes many Sunni Islamist rebel groups as well as secular ones. They include Kurds, the largest ethnic minority in the predominantly Arab country. The main Sunni and Kurdish groups collaborate in fighting not only the Assad regime but also IS militants. The opposition has the backing of the West, including the United States and the European Union. 

    Syria historically has been a bastion of religious tolerance in the Middle East, with Muslim sects, Christians and Jews living in close proximity, the On Faith website points out in examining faith’s role in the conflict.

    What are some of the key developments?

    Initially, in late April 2011, the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Syria’s intelligence agency and two of Assad’s relatives – and pressed for European allies to use their greater influence to halt the bloodshed. That August, Obama called for Assad’s resignation.

    FILE – A survivor of what activists say was a gas attack rests in a mosque in Damascus’ Duma neighborhood, Aug. 21, 2013.
    FILE – A survivor of what activists say was a gas attack rests in a mosque in Damascus’ Duma neighborhood, Aug. 21, 2013.

    By October 2012, the U.S. had given $200 million in humanitarian aid and $50 million to assist unarmed opposition groups. The following August, Obama sought congressional authorization to use military force against Syria.

    April 29, 2011: U.S. sanctions Syria’s intelligence agency for Syria’s crackdown on “Arab Spring” anti-government protests.

    Aug. 28, 2011: U.S. President Barack Obama calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to leave office.

    Aug. 20, 2012: Obama warns Assad against using chemical weapons in the conflict. 

    April 2013: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announces the formation of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (IS), an Islamic militant group.

    March 2013: Syria bombs the rebel-held northern city of Raqqa. The U.S. and Britain promise nonlethal support for moderate rebels. 

    Aug. 30, 2013: The U.S. condemns the Syrian government for reportedly gassing roughly hundreds of “women and children and innocent civilians.”

    Aug. 31, 2013: Obama seeks congressional authorization to use military force against Syria.

    September 2013: UN weapons inspectors verify chemical weapons killed roughly 300 people in Damascus.

    December 2013: After IS fighters seize warehouses used by the Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebels, U.S. suspends aid.  

    June 2014: IS militants seize Mosul and Tikrit in Iraq and announce plans to establish a caliphate.

    August 8, 2014: Obama authorizes “targeted airstrikes,” with two rounds of attacks hitting IS targets in northwestern Iraq. 

    Aug. 20, 2014: IS releases a video showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley, 40, kidnapped a year earlier in northern Syria. His executioner warns the U.S. government that trying “to deny the Muslims their rights of living in safety under the Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people.”

    Sept. 2, 2014: IS releases a video showing the decapitation of American journalist Steven Sotloff, kidnapped in August 2013 near Aleppo, Syria. 

    Sept. 22, 2014: A U.S.-led coalition – including Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – begins a campaign of airstrikes against IS targets in Syria.

    Feb. 10, 2015: U.S. officials confirm the death of American aid worker Kayla Mueller, 26. Kidnapped in Aleppo in August 2013, she reportedly had been held by IS senior member Abu Sayyaf in eastern Syria and was repeatedly raped by IS leader Baghdadi. IS claims Mueller died Feb. 6 in a weapons warehouse near Raqqa.

    May 16, 2015: U.S. Special Operations forces kill Sayyaf and capture his wife, Umm Sayyaf, in a ground raid in eastern Syria.

    May 20, 2015: IS militants seize control of most of Palmyra, a central Syrian city with 2,000-year-old ruins designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. IS militants subsequently destroy two Roman-era temples.

    September 30, 2015: Russia begins airstrikes in support of Syria’s Assad government. Moscow claims the campaign targets IS, but the Pentagon and Western officials note Western-backed rebels are also hit. 

    Oct. 30, 2015: Obama authorizes fewer than 50 U.S. special operations forces to coordinate movements of Syrian local fighters with the U.S.-led coalition.

    Reuters news agency contributed to this report.

    In April 2013, the militant extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant emerged, an outgrowth of al-Qaida, and by early 2014 it had seized the Syrian city of Raqqa, establishing it as the capital of its planned caliphate.

    In May 2013, the UN General Assembly voted to condemn Assad’s forces, citing "grave concern" at Syrian authorities’ threat or actual use of chemical or biological weapons. Assad’s forces repeatedly have denied accusations of attacking civilians with sarin nerve gas and barrel bombs. Chemical weapons were used in subsequent attacks August 21 on several Damascus suburbs, U.N. inspectors later noted in a report that did not assign blame. But a White House report said the U.S. intelligence community had "high confidence" that Assad’s government was responsible for the chemical attacks, which killed an estimated 1,429 people. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

    In September 2014, after territorial gains by the Islamic State and confirmation that the group had beheaded two American journalists, the United States formed a multinational coalition and launched a bombing campaign against IS targets in Syria.

    In late September 2015, Russia began its own airstrikes in Syria. The Kremlin said it was bombing IS targets, but its warplanes have repeatedly attacked other Assad opponents, including allies of the U.S.-led coalition.

    What’s next?

    Syrian peace talks began Friday afternoon despite a boycott by several anti-Assad groups, including the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee. Rebels had set a condition of halting airstrikes and sieges on towns before they would participate in talks. They said they were focused on fighting off the Syrian government forces closing in on their ranks in the Damascus suburbs.

    Also missing from the table were Kurds, who – despite showing effective fighting skills against Islamic State – were excluded at Turkey’s insistence, Reuters news service reported. But a delegation from the Syrian government was there.

    Given the sensitivities of talks, U.N. organizers said they’re holding indirect "proximity talks," meeting with some stakeholders in separate rooms.

    You May Like

    US-Russia Tensions Complicate Syria War

    With a shared enemy and opposing allies, Russia and the US are working to avoid confrontation

    Video Re-opening Old Wounds in Beirut's Bullet-riddled Yellow House

    Built in neo-Ottoman style in 1920s, it is set to be re-opened in Sept. as ‘memory museum’ - bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity

    Cambodian-Americans Lobby for Human Rights Resolution

    Resolution condemns all forms of political violence in Cambodia, urges Cambodian government to end human rights violations, calls for respect of press freedom

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    by: Anonymous
    February 01, 2016 12:23 PM
    The gas attack was a Turkish covert false-flag operation against the Syrian people to trigger a US attack on the Syrian government, which failed. As becomes evident more and more everyday, Turkey = ISIS and AQ

    by: Ozigooner
    January 29, 2016 4:42 PM
    The author of this article forgets to mention that the Sunni Arab population in Syria chanted back in 2012, 'Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the coffins'. Also, there is no moderate opposition in Syria. Only Assad's army & the Kurds are secular minded. The so-called opposition FSA are just ISIS's poorer cousins funded by the US & the Gulf States/Turkey who bring instability in Syria & it's people.
    In Response

    by: meanbill from: USA
    January 31, 2016 7:15 PM
    Hey CL Who _ The US and NATO used the exact same reason in Libya and Syria (to save a few thousand protesters) when they interfered and tried to bomb both countries back to the stone age, and they also supported terrorist groups in both countries to depose their leaders to change their governments? .. They were both really CIA supported Libyan and Syrian spring protests and riots, not an Arab spring?

    Why the US and NATO wanted to change the leadership and governments in Libya and Syria (that were no possible threat to ether of them) is beyond logic, and why so many millions of innocents had to suffer and die because of any of their reasons, defies any logic also?
    In Response

    by: C L Who
    January 30, 2016 10:25 PM
    Also forgot to mention how the "rebels" just happened to be armed and waiting at the moment of protest.....courtesy of Saudi, Turkey and USA/CIA. Yes there was popular rebellion, but that was over after a few months. Beyond that, it's all foreign mercenaries vs. the Syrian government.

    by: Barbara E Bj from: United States
    January 29, 2016 4:37 PM
    Excellent article!

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territoryi
    June 24, 2016 9:38 PM
    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.

    Video Trump Unleashes Broadside Against Clinton to Try to Ease GOP Doubts

    Recent public opinion polls show Republican Donald Trump slipping behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election matchup for November. Trump trails her both in fundraising and campaign organization, but he's intensifying his attacks on the former secretary of state. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.

    Video Florida Gets $1 Million in Emergency Government Funding for Orlando

    The U.S. government has granted $1 million in emergency funding to the state of Florida to cover the costs linked to the June 12 massacre in Orlando. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Tuesday in Orlando, where she met with survivors of the shooting attack that killed 49 people. Zlatica Hoke reports.

    Video How to Print Impossible Shapes with Metal

    3-D printing with metals is rapidly becoming more advanced. As printers become more affordable, the industry is partnering with universities to refine processes for manufacturing previously impossible things. A new 3-D printing lab aims to bring the new technology closer to everyday use. VOA's George Putic reports.

    Video Big Somali Community in Minnesota Observes Muslim Religious Feast

    Ramadan is widely observed in the north central US state of Minnesota, which a large Muslim community calls home. VOA Somali service reporter Mohmud Masadde files this report from Minneapolis, the state's biggest city.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora