Civil War in Syria

Civil War in Syria

Intensification of the Syrian civil war resulting from increased external support for warring parties, including military intervention by outside powers

Recent Developments

External involvement in the Syrian civil war is increasing. In September 2015, Russia deployed fighter jets, helicopters, surface-to-air missiles, and approximately two thousand military personnel to its military base near Latakia, and began an air campaign in Syria to support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Following a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, for which the self-declared Islamic State claimed responsibility, France expanded its air strikes in Syria and the United Kingdom launched its own air campaign, both targeting the Islamic State. And earlier, in October 2015, the Obama administration authorized the deployment of fifty U.S. Special Operations ground forces to join Kurdish forces in the fight against the Islamic State. That same month, Secretary of State John Kerry met with all major external participants in the conflict for the first time, including Russia and Iran, to “explore the modalities of a nationwide cease-fire” and request that the United Nations oversee a transition of power. 

Background

What began as protests against President Assad’s regime in 2011 quickly escalated into a full-scale war between the Syrian government—backed by Russia, Iran, and the Lebanese Shia Muslim political party and militant group Hezbollah—and anti-government rebels groups. This has led to spillover into neighboring states and intervention by outside parties, particularly in response to the expansion of the self-declared Islamic State from Iraq into Syria. 

Ongoing instability has enabled the expansion of powerful radical elements. The Islamic State has captured extensive territory in Syria, perpetrated shocking violence against Shiites, Christians, and fellow Sunnis, and beheaded captives from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and other countries. Additionally, the Islamic State has been able to recruit over 25,000 foreign fighters, most of whom are fighting in Syria.

France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, with the support of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab partners, have conducted air strikes against Islamic State targets. After a controversial U.S. train-and-equip program was shut down in September 2015—having successfully trained less than one hundred fighters and of whom some had defected to al-Qaeda—the Obama administration authorized the deployment of fifty U.S. Special Operations ground forces to support Kurdish forces fight the Islamic State. Meanwhile, at the request of the Syrian government in September 2015, Russia began launching air strikes against what it claimed were Islamic State targets, but has been criticized by U.S. officials for also focusing on moderate rebel groups opposed to Assad.  

Efforts to reach a diplomatic resolution have been unsuccessful. The Geneva II peace process, a UN-backed conference for facilitating a political transition, collapsed as opposition groups and the Syrian regime officials struggled to find mutually acceptable terms for resolving the conflict. In October 2015, the United States, Russia, and European countries invited Iran to participate in negotiations, renewing hopes of reaching an outcome. Although the Obama administration expressed willingness to work with Russia and Iran, it has ruled out the possibility of a return to status quo under Assad. During an October 2015 U.S.-led meeting, external participants, including Russia and Iran, agreed on two objectives: a cease-fire and a UN-facilitated rewriting of the constitution followed by elections. However, no target dates or deadlines were set. 

Concerns 

Since the start of the war, more than 250,000 people have been killed, 4.1 million have fled the country, and 6.5 million have been internally displaced. A majority of refugees have fled to Jordan and Lebanon, straining already weak infrastructure and limited resources. More than two million Syrians, along with migrants and refugees from other war-torn countries, have fled to Turkey and attempted to cross the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe, overwhelming European countries without the capacity or, in some cases, willingness to cope. Meanwhile, external military intervention, including arms and military equipment, training, air strikes, and even troops, in support of proxies in Syria threatens to further prolong a conflict already in its fifth year. While the Obama administration has ruled out the possibility of using U.S. air strikes to target Assad, the introduction of Russian air power and U.S. special operations forces presents the threat of further U.S.-Russia military escalation and confrontation. Additionally, ongoing violence could create a safe haven for other extremist groups active in Syria, allowing groups such as Hezbollah and the al-Qaeda affiliated-Nusra Front to launch attacks against U.S. personnel in the country, or the Islamic State to launch attacks against the United States or European allies and partners. 

Background Information
Breaking News
Primary Sources
Latest CFR Analysis
Related CFR Experts