Syria: A Breakdown of the Seven Year War

Syria is like a buzzword in the news today. We hear Syria, we know it is bad, we know we feel terrible for anyone from Syria, and we know that we need to help the Syrians. However, after a couple of conversations it’s come to light that whilst people understand there is war, not everyone really understands the cause of the conflict in Syria and what is going on now. So lets break it down.

The Beginning

7 years ago is when the conflict started. It is now longer than the second world war. For many years prior to this the political situation in Syria had been tense. Syrians complained of corruption, economic downfall and a hinderance on their freedom. However, it was the Arab Springs (the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia) which fuelled the start of this war. Encouraged by the successful overthrowing of leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, in March 2011, Syrians began their own pro-democracy protests against president Bashar al-Assad.

Whilst reports say that protests were peaceful, the governments aggressive and deadly response to quash the protests, made matters worse. Young men were detained, tortured and killed, others were shot on the streets.

The ferocious response lead to protesters demanding the Assad stepped down from leadership. When there was no sign of this happening, rebels formed the Free Syrian Army to defend themselves and their homes. Assad viewed these actions as acts of terror and it was not long before civil unrest erupted.

Photo from Getty Images


In addition to political leadership disputes, the conflict has now become sectarian, it has the added layer of a battle between religions. The majority of Syrians and the Free Syrian Army are Sunni Muslims, however the government and their corresponding security forces are members of the Shia Alawite sect. The Alawites are an “offshoot of Shia Islam” and are a minority in Syria making up approximately 10-12% of the population. The Telegraph reports that the Alawites have always been determined to defend themselves against the Sunni majority which contributed to the excessive use of violence from the government when a separation began to develop.

“Sunnis complain that as the war became increasingly sectarian, Alawite-led militias were responsible for massacres of civilians, including women” – The Telegraph

International Involvement 

To add yet another layer of fuel to the fire, there has been considerable involvement from international players, which according to the BBC is “making the situation far more complex and prolonging the fighting.”. The involvement of these third party actors has caused more division and increased the animosity between the warring sides.

The Alawite government have received backing from Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Lebanese Hezbollah (political party) and Afghani Shiite (an Afghan minority recruited by Iran, the majority of Afghanistan is Sunni and have shown support for the opposition). These international players sympathise with the Shia Alawite. Furthermore, in 2015 Russia made its position on the war clear as they launched air campaigns in support of the Syrian government. The involvement of these countries has tipped the war in favour of the Syrian government and provided them with huge amounts of money and man power.

On the other hand on the side of the so called ‘rebels’, there has been backing from Saudi Arabia and western countries. The UK, France and the US have all shown a degree of support over the past seven years to aid rebels and the Free Syrian Army. However, the wests involvement and willingness to provide assistance does not begin to match the back up received by the Syrian government. In fact, The Guardian have gone as far as to place blame on the west for their lack of intervention and the continuing existence of the Syrian war which has now far surpassed a mere political or religious uprising.

The report suggests that that intervening states are now using the Syrian war as a playground for power games. Israel and Iran have used it to link with Lebanese Hezbollah which has in turn strengthened their presence in Palestinian territories and ability to confront Saudi forces in Yemen. Russia have also seized the USA’s lack of action as a chance to take hold of the Middle East and restore “Soviet-era global reach”.

“[B]y deciding to hand off responsibility, Obama sent another damaging message: that the US, the world’s only superpower, and key allies such as Britain, were not prepared to fight for a free, democratic Syria” – The Guardian

However, the USA do have its reasons for being cautious, as do the UK, as they remember the consequences of entering into the Iraqi war in 2003.

Nevertheless, the war has spiralled out of control. Even Turkey, who on paper align with the west, have recently begun to challenge the USA and Nato. The Syrian war is a political hot potato that has additionally allowed ISIS and Al Qaeda to flourish. Yet, this is no time to be playing battleships, too many civilian lives have been compromised and there there are many more at stake. But with no end in sight, reports suggest that this war has irreversibly damaged our era and impacted the international playing field for the worse.

Peace Talks

If there is any hope of resolution it is going to require external intervention. Talks between the two opposing sides have been ongoing for years, but with Assad refusing to stand down, and rebels refusing to cease fighting until he does so, all discussions are proving futile.

Since 2012 there have been nine UN regulated ‘peace’ talks. The latest round in 2017 failed over disputes about the future of Assad at their leader. Russia, who back Assad, have since been accused of trying to undermine the UN’s efforts by setting up parallel political processes in May 2017 and January 2018. However, most opposition refused to attend an event hosted by supporters of their opposition.

Yet, whilst UN talks seem to have failed, the talks hosted in Sochi in 2018, a Russian city, have brokered a deal potentially saving the lives of thousands. The deal, known as the Idlib deal, was reached between Russia and Turkey who support opposing sides. The Idlib deal concerns the Idlib province, the last remaining rebel strong hold in Syria. For weeks the Syrian government have been mounting an attack on the rebels in the province which is home to some 3 million Syrians, many of whom are already internally displaced. Reports say that had an attack have been executed, it would have been a humanitarian crisis.

The deal reached proposed a 15-20km de-militarised zone which would diminish Idlib as a target for the Syrian government or Russian warplanes. In October 2018, Turkey confirmed that rebel groups had removed all heavy weapons from the region to the back line. Radical fighters were also required to leave the zone by the 15th of October, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claim that to date no militia groups have left the province.

The agreement has staved off an attack for now, but there is a lot of criticism over its long term effectiveness. There is still much work to be done. On 27th October a four way summit between Turkey, Russia, Germany and France, with the presence of the UN special envoy, commenced. The summit is to discuss all aspects of the Syrian war, including the Idlib agreement, with the aim of uncovering a solution to this 7 year conflict. We await the outcome of the summit.

“The news of an agreement between Russia and Turkey offers relief, but only in so far as it will avoid a bloodbath in Idlib,” Rachel Sider IRIN News


The war has caused one of the worlds most severe refugee crisis’s. The UN have registered over 12 million Syrian refugees, abroad and internally displaced, who have had to flee for their lives. They now live in camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan as they venture across Europe in search of a life free from persecution, or await the day they can return to Syria. The refugee population, which has in turn impacted the rest of Europe, will continue to grow unless a solution can be reached.

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