War in Syria officially began on March 15th 2011, although serious fighting between the different parties only broke out in the months to follow. The accepted date is purely conventional: on that day the first victims were registered during clashes in Daraa, in the southern region. On that day however, Syria is still a united Country under complete control of the government in Damascus.
Between December 2010 and the start of 2011, the Arab world was taken by storm by what textbooks call “the Arab Spring”. First Tunisia, then Egypt and finally Libya passing through Yemen as well: the upheavals which originated in the streets and squares of many Arab countries brought down governments which had appeared solid, including that of Ben Alì in Tunis and Hosni Mubarak in Cairo. In March 2011 tensions in Libya turned into outright war. Nato’s intervention in only a matter of months was to bring the dramatic downfall of Gaddafi.
Syria was not to remain unscathed by the events. In 2000 the country was governed by Bashar al Assad, son of previous ruler Hafez al Assad and a member of the Schiite-Alawi minority. The Country wasgoverned by a single party, the Baath party dominating political and public life in Syria. In February the first sit-ins were organized against Assad and the Baath but, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, civilian participation was initially low.
However, the echo of what was happening in neighboring Arab countries also influenced Syria. In March protests became more intense. The police were forced to intervene and in some cases the government decided to send the army into the streets. Despite Damascus and Aleppo being on the whole pro-government, Homs and Hama were theaters of violent clashes. As mentioned on March 15th victims were registered in Daraa. For his part, president Assad on the one hand constantly tried to put down the protests whileon the other concedinga number of constitutional reforms, allowing for the existence of other parties and favoring increased political participation.
Until May 2011 the situation appeared extremely tense but under control: government institutions continued to have a strong hold on all territories in administration and the state apparatus. What’s more, on April 23rd, as a further sign of leniency, the government lifted the state of emergency which had been declared several years earlier. However, surprisingly, protests recommenced, this time also flaming two Shiite strongholds, the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartus.
The global picture began to change on June 4th 2011, when for the first time an armed attack by a group of protestors was registered in the town of Jisr ash-Shugur, located in the province of Idlib: the army fought back for a week to restore control.
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(Caption): Training of the Free Syrian Army (LaPresse)
The above was not to be an isolated incident: ina matter of a few months the protests turned into guerilla warfare in numerous towns. All this was strongly fueled by the rise of the Free Syrian Army, better known by the acronym Fsa. Made up of deserters and militia men, the Fsa began a series of shootings against the regular army in different areas of the Country. The official founding of the group was announced on July 29th2011; one month later, in Istanbul, the organization constituted the Syrian National Council made up of the opposition leaders abroad. Both the bodies adopted the Syrian flag used during the French colonial period (What is the Free Syria Army).
In the month of July, all eyes were on Hama. The Country’s fourth city had a strongly rooted opposition movement within its territory due to local inhabitants’ resentment caused by the 1982 bombings when Hafez al Assad stamped out with an iron fist a budding revolt organized by theMuslim Brotherhood. Tension flared high at the Hama protests. For over a month the army was forced to intervene. Control of the city was maintained but at a costly price in terms of lives.
From Hama, tensions spread to Homs: Al Rastan, an important town near Syria’s third metropolis, was the theatre of several battles. At the end of September the army waschased out of town for four days. Meanwhilein the province of Idlib, fighting continued in numerous communities and villages.
However, the realization of being at war definitely set in for Syria at the end of the year and following events in Homs: in a series of coordinated attacks, the FSA kills 38 Syrian soldiers and Assad’s army in unable to regain control of the situation. The Country’s third city began to witness the presence of trenches and barbed wire along its roads: the situation plunged into all-out conflict. Already at the start of 2012 Homs was being called the capital of the revolution, as the insurgents controlled most of the city and it is from here that operations carried out in the northern area of Syria are launched, while government troops slowly retreat from the province of Idlib.
At the beginning of February the first air strikes carried out by aviation members who have remained faithful to Assad are the unequivocal statement that Syria has plunged into the dark spiral civil war. From now on the lives of its peoplewere to be marked by the daily strife of conflict.
In the context of general war, clashes spread throughout the country: from Idlib to Homs, passing though the outskirts of Damascus and Daraa. Despite internal divisions and increasingly being marked by Islamic influences, in Spring 2012 the Fsa prepared the terrain for what seemed to be the coup de grace to Assad’s government.
Zero hour struck in July: following the suicide attack in the capital which decimated the heads of the Syrian defence, “operation Vulcano“ is launched on July 18thwith the aim of conquering Damascus. The following daythe rebels turned to Aleppo in the attempt to take it over from government forces. With areas such as Qalamoun and Ghouta already in rebel hands and the Idlib and Daraaa provinces as well as the city of Homs out of government control, the offensives in Aleppo and Damascus gave rise to talk of an upcoming “regime change” in Syria.
However the situation stalled: in Damascus the army pushed Fsa forces out of the historic center and political heart of the city, allowing Assad to di remain in control. In Aleppo the rebels were able to conquera large part of the city, although a number of neighborhoods remained in the hands of the government. By now the population was living in dire conditions, especially in the larger cities: electricity and water were rationed, the price of food increased dramatically, medicines were scarce. War continued to loom on increasingly nefarious.
In July 2012,events further disrupt and divide the Country: a number of regions in northern Syria prevalently inhabited by Kurds witness the strengthening of pro-Kurdish militia. The Ypg brigades are formed, advancing to the city of Afrin and through the province of Al Hasakah.
The Syrian army retreated and opted to focus on winning back areas with an Arab majority: in the span of a few weeks Arab northern Syria falls into Kurdish hands who however, unlike the FSA, do not aim to depose Assad but to gain a greater autonomy for their territories.
Two significant events convey the idea of what was happening within the rebel organizations in 2012: in both Damascusand the coastal provincesthe people did not support the FSA. This gave rise to groups which carried out violent acts prevalently against Shiites but also against other minorities. In other words there was a drastic strengthening ofthe jihadist groups within the FSA. Finally Al Nusra Front and Isil took over, implementing Al Qaeda’s ideologies and methods in Syria and the territories occupied by the FSAduring previous months (What is the Al Nusra Front).
2012 is known as the year of the “Jihadist highway”,and with good reason: thousands of foreign jihadistfighters travelled from the border in southern Turkey, swelling the ranks of the terrorist groups. Money, weapons and ammunition also flowed in from Turkey as well as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf countries. On a political level, the west gave ample support to the Syrian opposition despite the emergence of jihadist groups within it. The terrorists were thus able to gain ground and supplant the FSA, going on to conquer more government territories: in 2013 Raqqa falls into the hands of Al Nusra, as do most of the Deir Ezzor and Idlib provinces.
Taking advantage of internal divisions within an increasingly Islamist opposition, as well as the debacle in the attempt to take complete control of the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, at the start of 2013 government forces have the opportunity of reorganizing themselves and staging a counteroffensive. The first real turn of events in the conflict occurs between April and June 2013 at al-Qusayr, a strategic district of the Homs province. Here the army launched an aviation-ground forces coordinated attack which was able to advance through the entire district and besiege the principal localities.
On June 5th Al Qusayr was declared completely free. This one victory allowed Assad’s government to obtain multiple results in one single shot: it was the demonstration that he had the forces necessary to counterattack;it liberated a strategic district on the border with Lebanon; it closed the way for terrorists to reach the coastal provinces as well as preventing hostilities to regain Homs and the Qalamoun region. However there was yet another aspect not to be underestimated: for the first time members of Hezbollah had fought alongside government forces. The support of the Lebanese Schiites was to reveal itself decisive in years to come.
While the army also proceeded with its advance on the outskirts of Damascus, on 21st August 2013 an air strike on of the capital’s neighborhoods still occupied by the rebels claimed several victims. The Jobar area in particular was hit: the media immediately reported the event stating that chemical weapons had been used during the attack. Assad’s government promptly denied the fact, while the US with president Barack Obama at its head, began to evaluate the possibility of military intervention.
According to the then head of the White House, the use of chemical weapons constituted a no-go redline, and Washington should therefore get ready to bomb Syria and restrain Assad. However Russia’s president Vladimir Putin intervened to prevent this from happening: for the first time Moscow openly declared itself in favor of Damascus. Infact relations with the Syrian government dated back to the Soviet Union times, due to the Russian naval base in Tartus.
The arm wrestle between the US and Russia continued throughout the month of September, with Putin sending naval wars to the Mediterranean to protect the Syrian coast. In the end Obama stepped back. The United States, faced with the insistence ofRussia which had once again taken center stage on the international checkboard, and confronted with a public opinion which was prevalently against the attack, decided against bombing Syria. The United Nations, on their part, launched an investigation into the dynamics of the Jobar attack.
2014 opened with deep tensions within the Islamist and jihadist front: in particular the figure of Iraqi terrorist Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi emerged dramatically onto the scene. The leader of Isil was the craftsman who hadengineered the merge of his group with Al Nusra Front; the move however had not gone down well with commanders of the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda and war broke out between the two groups. Meanwhile Isil, whose name had now changed to Isis (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), began to attack other Islamic groups, conquering Raqqa and advancing in the province of Deir Ezzor, where only the main city was resisting the militants attack.
Al Nusra and other extremist groups held their ground only in the area north of Aleppo and at Idlib, as well as in Ghouta and Daraa; all the remaining territories not under government control were under Isis domination. The advance ofAl Baghdadi’s faithful militants,raising their black flags in the conquered lands was swift and sudden.
Isis conqueredterritories in all of the eastern region of the Country, along the Euphrates river, advancing towards the outskirts of Aleppo and Syria’s central desert. But the militants had also established their own territories in Iraq as well. And so it was that in July 2014, Al Baghdadi pronounced the founding of the caliphate from the mosque in recently conquered Mosul.The Islamic State, as it was to be known from then on, extended from Iraq to Syria, and went on to expand its boundaries during the summer of 2014. In particular, the advance of the Islamic State in Kurdish territory caught international attention.The media covered the siege of Kobane, a Kurdish town on the border with Turkey, where the Kurdish militia and population succeeded in fending off the attacker, however only after five months of fighting.
The West was taken aback by the cruelty of Islamic State militants: targeted killings, overtly theatrical executions, violence against minorities, the destruction of monuments, and videos showing the beheading of captives. In the wake of all this, a coalition led by the US was formed, which included a number of Arab countries such as Bahrein, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
In August the coalition bombed Islamic State targets in Iraq, while on September 22nd it began operations in Syrian territory. The coalition did not coordinate bombings on Syria with Assad’s government in Damascus who were informed of the strikes through the mediation of Iran.
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(Caption): Territories under Isis control in Syria and Iraq in May 2015
Operations however did not result in a significant outcome: Isis advanced in Syria throughout 2014 reaching itspeak in May 2015 when the militants raised the black flags in the city of Palmyra. Famous for its Roman remains, defeat in this area of the Country constituted a hard blow both on a military level as well as a psychological one, with Isis now headed into central Syria.
These were probably the most difficult moments for the Syrian army since 2012, that is since the FSA had appeared to be able to take control of Damascus and Aleppo. And yet the complete reconquest of Homs on April 8th, 2014 after the evacuation of the insurgents barricaded inside the old town, seemed to give Assad a decisive advantage and that he might win back all the other Syrian territories.
Isis’ advance, the victories of Al Baghdadi’s men, as well as the general weariness of the worn-out Syrian troops, exhausted by four years of war worried the heads of the Syrian republic who once again feared the end of Assad’s government.
With the arrival of militants affiliated to Al Nusra in Idlib, in March 2015, and their march in the mountains north of Latakia, a pro-Assad coastal fort, the Syrian army and population suffered a harsh blow. In August 2015 as things stoodthe government of Damascus controlled only 30% of the territory.
Given the situation, at the end of summer 2015 the Syrian government formally asked Moscow to intervene in its favor. On September 30th, shortly after approval on the part of the Duma, Russia officially entered the war in Syria. A military base was established in Latakia, the aviation and special forces were deployed; Russia’s first strikes targeted Isis and Al Nusra Front jihadists.
On the field government forces immediately benefited from the situation: troops advanced south of Aleppo and to the east of Syria’s second city,on November 10th , troops broke the siege at Kuwayris military base, surrounded by Isis for the last two years. In the Damascus area also the army advancedthrough the periphery, in rebel hands since2012. Further, important gains were made north of Latakia, where villages and towns were won over from the Islamists on the Turkish border. It is along the frontier with Turkey that on November 25th one of the most serious episodes since Russian intervention occurred: a Russian warplane was shot down by two Turkish fighter jets. According to Ankara, the plane had violated Turkish airspace, however the Russians responded it was not so, and that the plane did not pose a real threat for Turkey. Diplomatic relations between the two Countries turned dangerously tense and for several days the world feared the possibility of a direct conflict between the two.
After having reached its maximum extension, the caliphate not only, stopped its advance but also began to lose some of the lands conquered between 2014 and 2015. The situation in northern Syria was particularly under the spotlight: here the Kurdish Ypg militia begin to gain ground and defeat Isis on many fronts.
All this gave rise also to a number of issues which in the long run would be decisive: especially as the Kurdish breakthrough occurredalso in areas where the majority of the population was Arab. The Ypg forces dis not advance only at Al Hasakah; they reached the border of the Raqqa and Deir Ezzorprovinces in the south, while in the north they unified the district of Kobane with those ofthe Al Hasakah province thus creating a maxi Kurdish region which was starting to worry Ankara.
In October 2015, after winning over numerous areas from the Islamic State, a new military coalition was announced: the Syrian Democratic Forces (Sdf). It brought together the YPG Kurdish militia and a number of Arab tribes. However,Moscow and Damascus suspected former Islamic militants and groups affiliated with the FSA might also be involved. The coalition is supported by the US who send troops and vehicles in the territories under SDF comtrol as well as setting up the first American bases in Syria.
On 15th July 2016 another international event was destined to have important repercussions on the war in Syria: that evening a group of military officers in Turkey attempted to overthrow president Erdogan with a coup d’etat. The coup was unsuccessful and was crushed by forces who had remained faithful to the former mayor of Istanbul, however in those hours the Turkish government received no expressions of solidarity from the international community. The first phone call Erdogan received was instead from Vladimir Putin.
From that moment on, Turkey was to radically change its attitude towards Russia as well as regarded the Syrian conflict. Erdogan suspected he had been betrayed by the West, who might have sanctioned the coup. But there was more: the Turkish president seized the opportunity, seeingRussia as an interlocutor to whom he could express his deep aversion towards the creation of a Kurdish region in Syria and US support towards the SDF forces.
After the high tensions caused by the downing of the warplane on November 15th, Russia and Turkeyresumed a more relaxed relationship with Syria being the first major element of contact between Moscow and Ankara. After having contributed in destabilizing the Country by allowing a great flow of Jihadis through the Turkish border in 2012, Erdogan became a player with the power to act as a mediator in the war.
All this was put on paper in Astana on December 20th 2016: in the capital of Kazakhstan, the governments of Syria, Russia, Turkey and Iran, a Country which had positioned hundreds of soldiers and volunteers on the field, met for the first time to try and initiate a path to bring stability to the war torn Country.
In Astana the Countries essentially confirmed what for months has been clear on the field: in exchange for its role as mediator with a number of Islamist groups which she financed, Turkey received silent approval for military intervention in Syria against the Kurds.
OnAugust 16th,2016 SDF forces conqueredManbij, an Arab-majority town north of Aleppo under Isis occupation for three years. Following the conquest it appeared clear to Ankara that the Kurds were attempting to unify the Afrin district with the others conquered from 2014 onwards, with the intent of creating a maxi region governed by Kurds on the border with Turkey. In order to prevent this on August 24th itgave the go ahead to operation “ Euphrates Shield“, with which Turkish soldiers stormed into Syrian territory alongside groups financed by Ankara.
With this operation they were able to occupy areas north of Aleppo which were still in the hands of Isis, distancing once and for all the two regions dominated by pro-Kurdish forces. The operation known as Euphrates Shield ended only in March and not without difficulties. Turkey was once again to deploy forces on Syrian territory in January 2018, with operation “Olive branch”, conquering the Kurdish district of Afrin.In this case again the Turks were aided by anti-Assad groups which they themselves financed.
Summer 2016 was not only marked by great diplomatic changes concerning the Syrian conflict: temperatures soared, not only due to the climate, but also set ablaze by Assad’s final battle to settle the score with Islamists in Aleppo. Supported by Russian forces the Syrian army began launching full-scale attacks on the rival posts, especially in the eastern part of the city.
Advancing along the so-called “Castillo Road”, Aleppo’s beltway, the pro-government forces won back a number of neighborhoods and stormed areas in which the Syrian flag had not been hoisted since 2012. In July 2016 the battle of Aleppo marked a turning point with the army successfully besieging neighborhoods still under rebel control. Finally, after four years of deadlock, the pro-government forces were able to go from being besieged tothe besiegers. From that moment onwards, despite numerous difficulties, the Syrian army carried out a gradual but decisive advance throughout the area of Aleppo.
The urban battle was to score very high death toll, both in terms of soldiers and civilians.After the 2012 attack it was the first time that the end of the war could be envisaged in Syria’s second city. Government forces continued to advance throughout autumn and the final turn came with the division of Aleppo’s Islamic alliance into two branches. At the end of November the Syrian army successfully took over a number of eastern neighborhoods. On December 12th the districts ofBustan Al-Qasr and Sheikh Saeed, opposition strongholds, fall into loyalist hands. This last attack struck the coup de grace to the morale of the besieged: on 15thDecember, thanks to Russia’s and Turkey’s mediation, an agreement is reached for the evacuation of the last Islamists still in the city, which were to be transported to Idlib onboard the green buses. By 22nd December evacuation was complete and Damascus announced the end of the battle of Aleppo after four and a half years of fighting.
On Christmas eve Syria’s second city awokein ruins, completely ravaged, but with no more internal barriers and divisions: from that moment on, people in Aleppowere finally able to resume living.
By the start of 2017 the situation in Syria had radically changed compared to twelve months earlier: Assad was now in control of the three major cities and had made numerous territorial conquests in the Damascus area. As well as having at his disposal hundreds of men who were no longer engaged in the battle of Aleppo. Furthermore the Astana summit and Turkey’s increased involvement had in some way conveyed the idea thatAssad’s victory was only a question of time.
Meanwhile important changes took place in the US: in November 2016 the New York businessman Donald Trump beat rival Hillary Clinton at the presidential elections and became head of the White House on January 20th. Initially the close relations with Putin’s Russia which Trump had announced during the election campaign had everyone hoping in a positive turn for Syria as well.Further, Damascus had viewed the election of Hillary Clinton, supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood as Secretary of State during the Arab Spring, as a further obstacle to their relations with Washington.
In April however the scenario was destined to change: news spread that in the town of Khan Shaykhun, in the province of Idlib occupied by Islamists, government forces had carried out a strike using chemical weapons. Again, like in the 2013 Jobar attack, Assad’s men were considered responsible for the attack even before an international investigation was launched. From Washington Donald Trump promised there would be immediate consequences and that he would not be stepping back in any way.
On 7 April 2017 a raid with missiles launched by American war ships located in the Mediterranean struck the Al Shayratmilitary base in the province of Homs. According to the US, the chemical attack had been launched from this very base. A new serious escalation seems to be looming on the horizon: however that same day the US released statements of appeasement which suggested that the raid was to be an isolated occurrence, at least for the time being. Two days after suffering the attack the base hit by US missiles was already operational. Further, after a few weeks it was known that the US before carrying out the attack had informed the Kremlin.
Once the crisis of the suspected chemical attack in April was over the Syrian army was able to resume its campaigns to win back territories from the rebels. With Aleppo now completely under its control the government looked to the desert which was still occupied by Islamic State.
The breakthrough came in June 2017, when the Syrian army conquered the city of Rusafa, ancient Sergiopolis. The conquest, at the height of a campaign which had seen the army reconquer all the eastern area of the province of Aleppo, opened the way to the desert.
Forthe whole of summer 2017, Syria witnessed the downfall of the Islamic State’s defenses in the central part of the Country. With Palmyra already conquered, in March Assad could put his hands on the gas fields in the in the eastern area of the province of Homs, in the town of Sukhnah, moving on towards the rural area of the province of Deir Ezzor. In these territories the Syrian flag had not been hoisted since 2013. Again, in the summer of 2017, pro-government forces reached and secured a large border with Iraq, except for the Al Tanf area which was still occupied by US-backed forces. The summer offensive in which Isis lost over half of the territories it had conquered between 2014 and 2015, was greatly helped by the contribution made by the militants of the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah.
(Caption): The ancient neighborhood of Palmyra (LaPresse)
Concurrently, to the east of the Euphrates, the Sdf militia advanced in the provinces of Al Hasakah and Raqqa. The caliphate capital was the scene of an operation which starting from the beginning of 2017 led to its siege in July by pro-Kurd militants. The conquest of Raqqa however only took place in the month of October, with the American airforce playing a decisive role in supporting the troops on the battlefield who were inexperienced in urban battles.
With government forces winning back most of the desert area in three months and with Raqqaconquered by the SDF it could be said that the Islamic State had been wiped out of Syria. The only two pockets were in the province of Deir Ezzor and on the Iraqi border.
Special mention should be given to the easternmost capital city of Deir Ezzor. The city on the Euphrates river counting over 150,000 inhabitants was put under siege first by al Nusra and then in 2013, by Isis. For four long years, pro-government soldiers and inhabitants within its borders coexisted side by side fighting the daily attacks carried out by the terrorists.
Before the summer of 2017, the front where government forces are deployed was situated more than 250 km away: the city stood as a small pro-Assad enclave in the hearty of the Isis controlled desert. Under the lead of General Issam Zahradine, the troops defended the pocket thereby allowing citizens not to live under the Caliphate’s insignia. Food, water, medicines and ammunition are dropped from the sky.
With government troops advancing in the desert the moment of liberation from the Isis siege was approaching for Deir Ezzor. The much-anticipated event occurs in September 2017 when the Tiger Force, the Syrian army’s elite units, reach the posts of Zahradine’s men.After four years Deir Ezzor is united with the rest of the Country: in no other place like in this towndo they know what it means to live side by side with Isis terrorists.
Today life in Deir Ezzor is returning to normality: electricity is running again and food and water are supplied by road without major complications; life has resumed free of the echoes of war. In October 2017 however, about a month after the end of the siege, general Zahradine was killed by a land mine as he was patrolling the banks of the river Euphrates. He will forever remain a Syrian symbol of martyrdom and resistance against the caliphate. (The battles which led up to the liberation of Deir Ezzor).
In May 2018 Damascus is secured:after nearly six years the Syrian is completely free of Islamic pockets which had established themselves with the July 2012 operation Volcano. Between March and April the army took back control of the eastern Ghouta region and in particular Jobar and the city ofDouma. Subsequently Assad’s forces attacked and reconquered the Palestinian refugee camp, of Yarmouk, the last remaining Islamic pocket in Damascus. The capital was now free from war with no more fear of internal clashes: to Assad this meant greater security and increased authority under a political profile.
However it is during the evacuation of Douma, with the terrorists being transferred to the territories occupied by pro-Turkey Islamists, that news is released regarding yet another alleged chemical attack. Exactly one year after the American raid ordered by Trump, a chemical attack is alleged to have killed over 100 people in the town of Douma.Once again before investigations are able to identify who is responsible the US, France and Great Britain point the finger at Assad and on 14 April they launch a raid against military bases. Just like twelve months earlier however the attack is a one-off action; after all Russia would not have permitted a large-scale operation against Assad.
The situation of greatest tension remains in the aftermath the arm wrestle betweenIsraelandIran: Tel Aviv will not accept to have Teheran’s men and vehicles close to its border, reason for which in the last two months alone Israel has carried out at least four raids in Syrian territory against Iranian targets.
In May 2018 Assad controls over 60% of the Country: the only provinces still excluded are those of Daraain the southand Idlib in the north, while in eastern Syria small pockets of Isis militants resist along the desert. As concerns the territories in the hands of the US-supported SDF and pro-Turkey groups north of Aleppo the situation is somewhat different: the impression is that these areas will have to wait for diplomatic and political negotiations to shape their course.
On the whole however, as from 2018 security in the Country, especially in government areas, has increased and in many territoriesthere is talk of reconstruction.