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

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    City could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters

    Turkey Aims New Crackdown at Journalists, Academics, Airline Workers

    Ankara continues targeting people allegedly linked to exiled cleric, who it says led the failed military coup

    Pakistan Ready to Inaugurate Rebuilt Afghan Border Crossing

    Construction of Torkham Gate triggered deadly clashes between Pakistani and Afghan military forces

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    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.
    London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunitiesi
    X
    VOA News
    July 25, 2016 5:09 PM
    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Calm the Waters: US Doubles Down Diplomatic Efforts in ASEAN Meetings

    The United States is redoubling diplomatic efforts and looking to upcoming regional meetings to calm the waters after an international tribunal invalidated the legal basis of Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.
    Video

    Video Four Brother Goats Arrive in Brooklyn on a Mission

    While it's unusual to see farm animals in cities, it's become familiar for residents of Brooklyn, New York, to see a little herd of goats. Unlike gas-powered mowing equipment, goats remove invasive weeds quietly and without adding more pollution to the air. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this is a pilot program and if it proves to be successful, the goat gardener program will be extended to other areas of New York. Faith Lapidus narrates.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora