A peaceful uprising against Syria's president ten years ago descended into a full-scale civil war. The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands, destroyed cities, and drawn in other countries. In March 2011, pro-democracy protests broke out in the southern city of Deraa, Syria inspired by uprisings against oppressive leaders in neighboring nations by the “Arab Spring”. Protesters were rallying against the 40-year regime of Bashar al-Assad and his family. Assad wasn’t ready to leave. The Syrian government used deadly force, crushing protesters, and killing dozens. This sparked protests against Assad nationwide.
The violence rapidly escalated and the country descended into civil war. Soon enough the conflict expanded beyond a struggle between Syrians who supported or opposed Assad. Foreign powers started taking sides, and extremist jihadist organizations, such as the Islamic State (ISIS) group and al-Qaeda, became involved.
Russia and Iran have been the Syrian government's main supporters. With Turkey, western powers, and several Gulf Arab states supporting the opposition to varying degrees. This has started a complete proxy war between the U.S., Iran, Russia, and Turkey.
Russia had military bases in Syria before the war, leading them to launch an air campaign in support of Assad, giving the government an advantage in the war. The Russian military claims their strikes target only “terrorists’ but activists say they kill mainstream rebels and civilians. Iran is said to have given billions of dollars to Assad and deployed hundreds of troops.
Since 2014, a US-led international coalition has also launched airstrikes and sent special forces into Syria to assist the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). It is an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, working on retaking territory once held by ISIS militants in the country's northeast and preventing the jihadist group from re-establishing itself.
Though the violence has waned, 11 years of fighting have had a dramatic effect on Syrian residents. More than half of Syria's pre-war population of 22 million has fled. Millions are living in tented camps, with many more displaced. About 7 million are refugees or asylum seekers. Neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey hosting 84% of them have had trouble dealing with one of the greatest refugee exoduses in our modern-day history.
According to the UN, 14.6 million people in Syria required humanitarian aid as of February 2022, with about 5 million of those individuals being categorized as having an extreme or catastrophic need. A total of 12 million individuals, up 51% from 2019, struggle to eat enough each day, and 500,000 children suffer from severe malnutrition.
Though the government has managed to stay in control of Syria’s biggest cities, large parts of the country are still held by rebels, jihadists, and the Kurdish-led SDF. “As long as the various players can get resources, the fighting will be hard to stop," Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, told NPR.
The Syrian War is one of the most horrific conflicts in human history. There is still no clear path to peace. However, there is still hope. In spite of living in displacement camps, Syrian families are able to demonstrate tremendous tenacity and resourcefulness, building homes, running schools and businesses, and providing some sense of normalcy for their children.