Civil War in Syria

Civil War in Syria

Intensification of the Syrian civil war including possible limited military intervention


The United States entered the Syrian conflict in September 2014, leading a military campaign against the militant Sunni jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). With the support of Arab partners, the United States conducted air strikes against ISIS targets, as well as the al-Qaeda-affiliated Khorasan Group. The U.S. Senate also approved a $1 trillion government-funding bill that gives President Obama the authority to create a new training program for rebels in Syria fighting ISIS.

Since the start of the Syrian war in 2011, more than 150,000 people have been killed, nearly 6.45 million have been internally displaced, and more than 3 million have fled as refugees to neighboring countries, according to the United Nations. What began as civil violence against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has escalated into an international conflict involving Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, which support the Syrian opposition, and Iran and Russia, which back Assad. Ongoing instability has enabled the expansion of powerful jihadist elements. ISIS, most notably, has captured extensive territory in Syria, perpetrated shocking violence against Shias, Christians, and fellow Sunnis, and beheaded four captives from the United States, United Kingdom, and France.

The Geneva II peace process, a UN-backed conference aimed at facilitating a political transition, has collapsed as opposition groups and the Syrian regime struggle to find acceptable terms for resolving the conflict. Responding to Assad’s use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, the United States and Russia worked with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to dismantle Syria’s arsenal by June 2014. However, the OPCW has concluded that chlorine gas and other chemicals not covered under the agreement were mostly likely used in a “systematic manner” by the regime after the initial agreement was reached.

Thus far, the Obama administration has ruled out the possibility of sending U.S. ground troops to the region as part of the campaign against ISIS. Yet ongoing violence could create a safe haven for other extremist groups active in Syria, such as the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front and Hezbollah. Deep sectarian divisions within Syria, regional power rivalries, and spillover into neighboring states make a resolution to the Syrian conflict all the more distant.

Background Information
Breaking News
Primary Sources
Latest CFR Analysis
Related CFR Experts
  • Elliott Abrams

    Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies

  • Steven A. Cook

    Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies

  • Ed Husain

    Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies

  • Paul B. Stares

    General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action

  • Robert M. Danin

    Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies