In 2015, Syria had a population of 22.5 million people, with the majority of the population being Sunni Muslim. The economy was largely dependent on oil and gas exports and tourism before the civil war began in 2011. Foreign relations at this time were strained due to the conflict and most other countries imposed sanctions on Syria for its human rights abuses and involvement in the war. Politics in Syria was dominated by President Bashar al-Assad, who had been in power since 2000. Assad’s government was accused of widespread human rights abuses during his rule, as well as for its role in the civil war which caused millions of people to flee their homes. Despite international condemnation, Assad remained in power until 2020 when he stepped down following a ceasefire agreement that ended much of the fighting in Syria. See ehealthfacts for Syria in the year of 2005.
Syria. According to COUNTRYAAH, Damascus is the capital of Syria which is located in Western Asia. The conflict that some began to call a third world war continued to rage in Syria. Before the end of the year, four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, the Russian Federation, France and the United Kingdom), as well as the regional powers of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, were militarily involved in the war. With the Russian Federation and Iran as important exceptions, the outside world was generally hostile to the regime. Despite this, a US-led alliance of Western and Arab states engaged primarily against one of the regime’s many opponents: the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, which the UN Security Council in November identified as a threat to world peace. The conflict was a major contributor to the great refugee crisis in the world – about 5 million people had left the country in just under five years. Almost half of the 250,000 dead were estimated to be civilians.
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At the beginning of the year, the Kurdish militia YPG (People’s Defense Units) drove back IS from the city of Kobane on the border with Turkey, an area that has been the focus of the world’s attention. In June, YPG also took Tal Abyad further east at the border, with the support of the US-led alliance.
In March, other Islamist groups entered Idlib, the capital of the province of the same name in the northwest. It was the second provincial capital that the government lost control of, after ar-Raqqa which fell in 2013. The regime lost its last stronghold in the province, an air base, in September.
IS in May took Palmyra in the middle of the country and destroyed there temples and other remains in the ancient city that the UN agency UNESCO classified as a World Heritage Site. The group also beheaded an 83-year-old museum manager who was responsible for the archaeological excavations in the city.
In July, Turkey also began to bomb IS’s positions in Syria, although several of the Turkish attacks were aimed at Kurds, primarily Iraq but also in Syria. As a result, NATO member Turkey fired US allies in Syria.
Amnesty International accused the government of war crimes because of repeated air strikes against Duma, a rebel-controlled suburb of Damascus. The Human Rights Organization raised alarms that many civilians were cut off from supplies. In August, around 100 people died and at least 200 were injured when a well-visited marketplace in Duma was hit by at least four robots in one of the worst massacres so far during the war.
The Russian Federation and Iran increased their military involvement, and in September the Russian Federation also began bombing inside Syria, from aircraft and ships. According to Moscow, the attacks were aimed at IS, but others claimed that it was rather other opponents of the al-Assad regime being attacked.
Attempts to broker peace occurred. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura made several proposals and during the summer he held individual consultations with conflicting parties. During the autumn, representatives of 17 countries that participated in the conflict and the UN, the EU and the Arab League gathered for talks in Vienna. This resulted in a plan for a transitional government to be established within six months and elections held within 18 months. In December, for the first time, a large number of Syrian resistance groups, both armed and political, gathered to try to find a way to resolve the conflict. The talks took place in Saudi Arabia. The UN Security Council then adopted a resolution on a ceasefire and peace talks that were intended to begin after the New Year but would not include IS.
Kofi Annan appointed Norwegian Major General Robert Mood as his military adviser. The task was, among other things, to facilitate the deployment of military observers. A pre-party of these, released by the UN forces UNTSO, was launched in mid-April. The Security Council resolved on April 21, through Resolution No. 2043. to establish the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS). The task was to monitor the ceasefire and to follow up the peace plan.
Major General Mood was appointed commander-in-chief of UNSMIS. In violation of the ceasefire agreement, UN observers were partly prevented from carrying out their mission and partly exposed to direct attacks. The latter caused the operation to be suspended in mid-June. When conditions did not allow the force to carry out its mission, it was withdrawn.
Annan resigned as a special envoy in August and was followed by Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi. He resigned in May 2014 after the Geneva peace conference failed, and was succeeded by Staffan de Mistura of Sweden. He was followed in 2019 by Norwegian diplomat Geir O. Pedersen.
A contact group, Friends of Syria, with participation from more than 60 countries, met in Tunis in February 2012, recognizing the SNC as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
In the spring of 2013, several initiatives were taken to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. Opportunities were discussed for an international military intervention in Syria, such as during the war in Libya. One of the arguments for intervention was reported gas attacks against civilians in 2013, which led to international action to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons – in which Norway also participated (see article Norway and Syria’s chemical weapons). Resistance to military intervention meant that no operation was undertaken as in Libya.
In September 2014, it became known that Norway had welcomed representatives of Syrian opposition groups for talks; then a representative of President Assad – with a view to finding a possible solution to the conflict.
A number of countries have engaged militarily in Syria through Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), which is specifically targeted at IS.
The operation came about on the initiative of the United States, which has also engaged in Syria in other ways. This has included political, economic and military support for several groups fighting the Baath regime as well as the Kurdish YPG guerrilla. This has been a leading force in the fight against IS in Northern Syria, and has taken control of large areas where an autonomous state formation has been created: Rojava.
While the United States came in early with support for the rebels, the regime received weapons assistance from Russia. In a phase of the war in which the Baath regime was on the defensive, in the fall of 2015, Russia intervened with direct military support, with the air support in particular decisive. This, as well as the support of other actors, especially Iran, helped to strengthen the government’s position. The drainage of the war was expressed in particular by the regime in December 2016 regaining control of Aleppo.
From 2014, large parts of eastern Syria were incorporated into the caliphate that IS proclaimed in Iraq and Syria. IS was militarily weakened from 2016, and at the end of 2017 was largely defeated, without bases, in Syria. In the winter of 2019, the group was also defeated in Iraq.
The civil war has significantly changed Syria’s relations with other countries in the region, and its position in the Middle East. Most of all, the war has worsened relations with Turkey, and it has strengthened relations with – and dependence on – Iran. Syria as a functional state, and thus a regional player, has long ceased to exist. Thus, the stability that existed in the form of a clear relationship between Syria and Israel is also gone. Israel fears that a disintegrated Syria, such as Libya after the regime change, could become a scene of rival militia groups and base areas for jihadists.
Part of the threat in the region in general, and for Israel in particular, is its increased influence on Iran. Iran, with its military support, has helped keep the Baath regime in power. In doing so, Iran has positioned itself militarily closer to Israel’s borders, both in Syria and through Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel fears that Iran will maintain military bases in a weakened and dependent Syria.
Several (Sunni) Arab countries have supported the rebels in Syria. These include, in particular, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which were early in supporting several groups. Kuwait has been a major player in channeling support for jihadists in Syria. While the Gulf states have provided extensive financial support, including to weapons brought into Syria through Jordan and Turkey, the regional superpower Turkey has played a key role as a base area for the rebels, both politically and militarily, and as a transit area for foreign warriors on their way to jihadists. groups. In addition to wishing for a regime change in Damascus, Turkey has been concerned with the Kurdish dimension of the war: the Syrian-Kurdish force The People’s Protection Units (YPG), and the political-military coalition Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), both supported by the United States, have been a leading force in the fight against jihadists. Turkey has used the war in Syria to attack Kurdish guerrillas in both Turkish and Syrian territory, and has repeatedly joined forces in northern Syria.
The United States has been politically involved in the fight against the Assad regime, including through extensive support to rebel groups. The political conflict between the US and Iran has also taken place during the war in Syria. The same is true of US support for Israel, both in the conflict with Iran and Syria: In March 2019, President Donald Trump acknowledged the Israeli annexation of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.