Weeks after President Trump said he wanted the United States out of Syria, the U.S. is back in the thick of the conflict. On Friday, the U.S., France and the United Kingdom launched a series of airstrikes intended to cripple Syria’s ability to manufacture chemical weapons, which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been using against his own people. It’s unclear if the strikes were effective. Seven years into the civil war and with an estimated 500,000 dead, how did we get here?
How did the conflict in Syria start?
In March 2011, around the time the Arab Spring pro-democracy demonstrations were sweeping across the Middle East, similar protests broke out in Syria. Bashar al-Assad, who had succeeded his father to the presidency in 2000, cracked down on protesters calling for his removal, using deadly force. More protests followed, resulting in more crackdowns, and the country spiraled into civil war.
The conflict quickly became much more complicated than a battle for or against al-Assad. The country splintered into several factions and their international supporters, including:
• Supporters of al-Assad and the Syrian government, including international allies Russia (which already had military bases in Syria) and Iran;
• Moderate Sunni Arab rebels including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), backed by the U.S., Turkey and Saudi Arabia;
• The mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which organized in late 2015, backed by the U.S., France, Turkey and the UAE;
• Fundamentalist Salafi jihadists. All the chaos allowed for the rise of ISIS in the region.
Beginning in 2011, the United States and the United Nations have enacted economic sanctions on Syria to penalize al-Assad from using weapons against his own people. It was one of those attacks this month that led to the joint action by the U.S., France and the UK last weekend.
The Syrian conflict has resulted in a high number of casualties and displacements. As of March 2018, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that more than 500,000 people have been killed: The group estimates 353,900 deaths, including 106,000 civilians; 56,900 missing and presumed dead; and 100,000 undocumented deaths.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country as of April 2018. More than 6.1 million people have been displaced but remain in Syria.
The conflict in Syria is deeply entrenched, and no end in sight. Nine rounds of peace talks at the United Nations have been unsuccessful.