Against the backdrop of a devastating three-year drought, economic woes, extensive social unrest, and the presence of non-state armed groups such as ISIS, the uprising in Syria began as part of the Arab Spring in 2011, when protestors sought the end to President al-Assad’s regime. The government responded with harsh military measures that only accelerated the call for change. Military defectors then loosely organized the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and many civilian Syrians took up arms to join the opposition. Today, the FSA is still embroiled in battle with the Syrian Government’s Army, or the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). The FSA is supported by the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. The Assad regime and the SAA, with the help of Russia, Iran, and Iranian-backed Hezbollah, have as of mid-2018 recaptured most of Syria’s territory. Meanwhile, since its defeat in Raqqa October 2017, ISIS’s power has been substantially diminished. Nonetheless, the insurgent group and other non-state armed groups (see below) still maintain a presence in Syria. An effective ceasefire proves to be elusive as Syria’s Civil War is perpetually complicated by scourges of terrorism and the five proxy battles between Israel vs. Iran, Turkey vs. Kurds, U.S. vs. Turkey, Russia vs. U.S., and Secularists vs. Islamists.
Primary Terrorist Presence in Syria –
Islamic State (ISIS): Since its formation in 2013, ISIS has been motivated to sustain a self-declared caliphate in western Iraq and eastern Syria. In October 2017, U.S. backed forces concluded a successful campaign to drive ISIS out of its declared capital in Raqqa, Syria. ISIS remains in control of an area near Albu Kamal, surrounded by government forces westward and Kurdish forces in the east (Al Jazeera).While the apparent military defeat of ISIS is heralded by some as a hopeful indicator of stability, ISIS still manages to reaffirm its presence in Syria. Despite losing most of its territorial control, ISIS has increasingly resorted to suicide attacks to reaffirm its ability to strike and wreak havoc anywhere, especially in regime-controlled areas (Wall Street Journal).
Al-Nusra Front/Jabhat Fateh al-Sham/Hayat Tahrir al-Sham: The al-Nusra front (formed in 2011) was considered Al-Qaeda’s ideological successor in Syria (Aljazeera). In July 2016, the Syria-based jihadist group, (originally named Jabhat al-Nusra) changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and allegedly cut ties with Al-Qaeda. It is an internationally sanctioned terrorist group (it is designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S.), second strongest in Syria after ISIS, seeking to replace the Assad regime with an Islamic state. Since January 2017, it has been operating as a part of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) coalition.
Hezbollah: Iranian-backed Islamist Group, listed by the U.S.as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, involved on behalf of the Syrian Regime since 2013. Hezbollah and Iran plan to remain in Syria until it is “fully liberated from terrorists” (June 2018, Nabih Berri).
Failaq al-Rahman or the al-Rahman Legion: Founded in 2013, the group includes over 9,000 fighters. The group is said to have been allied with the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) against Jaysh al-Islam in the area resulting in infighting (BBC).
Other Groups Engaged in the Conflict:
Free Syrian Army (FSA): Formed in 2011, this umbrella alliance of rebel groups has been fighting the Assad Regime since the start of the country’s Civil War. Backed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States, FSA has remained in control of limited areas in northwestern Syria but is hindered by a lack of unity and cooperation between factions.
The Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Kurdish Forces (YPG and PKK): Spearheaded by its largest militia, the Kurdish YPG (The People’s Protection Units) militia and backed by the U.S., the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is an alliance of Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen, Assyrian and Armenian militias mainly fighting against ISIS, Al-Nusra Front and other Jihadist groups. The coalition is comprised of about 55,000 fighters. The Pentagon considers the Kurdish militia its most reliable fighting partner in the region while Turkey regards the Kurdish militia as an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist groupby both Turkey and the United States (The New York Times).This serves as a point of discord between the NATO allies, the United States and Turkey (Foreign Policy).
U.S. Sanctions in Syria – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and the Syrian Arab Army (SAA):
Syria was initially sanctioned by the U.S. government in Executive Order 13338 in 2014, and subsequently expanded by a series of additional Executive Orders beginning in 2011. The sanctions, implemented by the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), block the property and interests in property of the Government of Syria as well as individually listed persons, and prohibit certain transactions or dealing with the government or persons, including investments, exportation, reexportation, sale, or supply of any services to Syria from the United States or by a U.S. person. The names of individually sanctioned persons are incorporated into OFAC’s SDN list.
As of June 2018, the main cities under government control are: Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Latakia, Tartus, Palmyra, Albu Kamal. With help from Russia and Iran, Assad has now recovered most of Syria.
Recognizing that the Syrian people need many critical services and goods, OFAC has issued several general licenses that allow U.S. persons to send non-commercial, personal remittances to Syrian persons.
OFAC General License No. 11: allows nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to engage in not-for-profit activities in Syria in support of humanitarian projects, democracy-building, education, and non-commercial development projects directly benefiting the Syrian people.
Human Rights, Humanitarian and Refugee Crises:
Refugee Crisis: As of April 2018, there are 5.6 million refugees and 6.6 million internally displaced persons. Half of Syria’s population, 13.1 million, is still in need of aid and 2.98 million people are in hard-to-reach areas. International Committee of the Red Cross reports that 4 out of 5 people are living in poverty and 1.75 million children are out of school.
Chemical Attacks: The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic has confirmed at least 34 chemical attacks since 2013, many of which conducted by the Syrian government (The New York Times).
Government efforts to ensure rebels are not treated: A World Health Organization official said Syrian government officials removed 70% of the supplies, including surgical materials and trauma kits, from trucks meant for Eastern Ghouta (Reuters).
International Committee Red Cross: More than half of Syria’s public hospitals and health-care centers are closed or only partially functioning.
Other restrictions on Humanitarian Aid:
INGO Closures: Turkish authorities are conducting a “campaign of closures and arrests against international relief nongovernmental organizations” providing aid inside Syria (The Century Foundation). For example, the U.S.-based relief INGO Mercy Corps which provided basic humanitarian assistance to between 350,000 and 500,000 people inside Syria from Turkey was closed by Turkish authorities in Feb. 2017 (Mercy Corps).
Syria in Recent News:
- July 21, 2018: White Helmets Evacuated by Israel (BBC)
- July 25, 2018: ISIS suicide attack Southern Syria (NPR)
July 30-31, 2018: Astana track negotiation underway in Sochi (Aljazeera)
- July 31, 2018: “Syrian government forces seal victory in southern territories” (The Guardian)