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The Syrian Arab Republic has for decades been ruled by the Assad family. Hafiz Assad ruled Syria from 1971-2000. In 2000, his son Bashar Assad succeeded him. The Syrian regime is considered a military regime, and Bashar Assad has continued his father’s autocratic rule. Bashar Assad represents the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, Ba’ath meaning “resurrection” in Arabic. This is the same party of former dictator Saddam Hussein of Iraq. The Ba’athists hold a pan-Arab ideology which originally sought to unite all Arabs together in a socialist and revolutionary Arab nation, while usually discriminating against non-Arabs like the Kurds, the Jews, etc.  

Syrian Ethnic and Religious Groups  

  • Alawites (Shias): Assad has ruled in favor of his own Alawite community, about 12% of pre-War Syrians. The Alawites are a branch of Islam who affiliate with the Shia sect. The Alawites have ruled Syria since Hafiz Assad took over the country in 1971. 
  • Other Shias: Iran has been settling Shias from Iraq and other nations into areas controlled by Assad. The numbers of Shia in Syria may now exceed 500,000.
  • Sunnis: The largest group in Syria are the Sunni Arab Muslims, over 70% of the country’s pre-War population. They have been at the heart of the original protests, and now, the rebellion against Assad.
  • The Kurds: There are an estimated 2 million Kurds living in the northern region of Syria, which the Kurds call Rojava (West-Kurdistan). Most Kurds are Sunni Muslim. The Kurds in Syria have faced systematic repression and discrimination. There are still 300,000 stateless Kurds in Syria. Before 2011, Syrian Kurds were not allowed to use the Kurdish language.  
  • The Christians: The Christian population made up about 10% of Syria’s pre-War population. They tend to support Assad because of the dangers facing them from the mostly jihadist Sunni rebel groups.
  • The Druze: The Druze are an ethnoreligious group who constitute about 3% of the pre-War population of Syria, from 500,000-700,000 persons. The Druze are concentrated in the mountainous areas around Damascus. The area is called Jabal al-Arab or Jabal al-Druze. They tend to support Assad.

Failed Arab Spring in Syria 

The civil war in Syria began in 2011 after peaceful demonstrations turned violent in Deraa, which is located in southern region. Assad’s forces opened fired on the protestors, which led to mass protests across the country. Protestors, labeled as “terrorists” and “armed criminal gangs” by the Assad regime, were forced to defend themselves. Assad quickly attempted to implement some “reform,” allowing Kurds to be “citizens” of Syria, and removing his nationalist Ba’ath party as the “leader of the state and society.” These changes did nothing to calm the tension, as protestors continued to call for the removal of Assad. Full civil war then erupted. 

2019 Civil War Developments in Syria

It is the 8th year of the civil war in Syria. Much of Syria has been reconquered by Assad, with the help of Iran and Russia. Iranian troops, backed by Hezbollah and other foreign Shia militias, have supported Assad throughout the conflict, by providing military advisors, weapons, lines of credit and oil transfers. Russia has provided air cover, and arms and equipment. In 2017, Russia agreed to deals with Assad that will allow Russia to keep its air and naval bases in Syria. Russia has been blamed by many observers for bombing civilians to support Assad. These bombings often include the use of bunker buster bombs, thermobaric bombs, incendiary munitions, and cluster bombs. Russia has also deployed advanced anti-missile systems to Syria – the S-300s in Tartus and the S-400s in Latakia – even though neither is needed to fight the ISIS or al-Qaeda.

The Kurds have been the most moderate forces in Syria. Originally, they forged an alliance with some Sunni Arabs and Christians in the northeast region to set up an autonomous territory, under the name of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) and its military wing, the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF). The U.S. also allied with them, and stationed U.S. troops in their territories. However, after U.S. troops were removed from much of the area, Turkey attacked the SDF, forcing them to ally and accept the authority of Assad. 

Turkey has militarily intervened multiple times in Syria, usually aiming to squash Kurdish gains. First it conquered some small border areas. Then it conquered Afrin. Turks killed at least 10,000 Kurds, and drove out 180,000 more, and is replacing them with Sunni Arabs and Turkmen from Syria. 78 Turkish soldiers were killed in Afrin, along with 437 Turkey-aligned Syrian Sunni rebels. The Turks put a jihadist group in charge. The Turks and their allies have been accused of ethnic cleansing and, in some cases, of massacring Christians and Yazidis. Turkey later attacked along the entire border with SDF controlled territory to establish a “safe zone” free of Kurdish fighters about twenty miles wide. This attack has killed and wounded hundreds, and prompted from 180,00 to 300,000 civilians to flee their homes or shelters, including 80,000 children. Turkey claims that 440 Kurdish fighters have been killed since the operation, while the SDF has said 56 of its fighters have died. Turkey also said four of its soldiers were killed, along with 16 allied Syrian fighters. Turkey has relied on the Islamist fighters it controls in Syria, renamed the Syrian National Army, which have been accused of war crimes. Turkey has also fought troops from the Assad regime. Turkey hopes to repopulate this area with Syrian Sunni Arabs who are refugees in Turkey, and to take control of Syrian oil. Turkey has begun to deport Syrian refugees to the areas of Syria it controls. Eventually, Turkey negotiated a cease fire with Russia, splitting control of the safe zone area with the Russians and the Assad regime, with the SDF pushed back from all Turkish border areas. Turkey has demanded that the U.S. turn over the SDF commander, Mazloum Abdi. The Turks have violated the cease fire.

The Assad forces and their allies have been gaining ground against rebel forces in Idlib. The dominant faction is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Turkey has been supportive of the Idlib rebels, and negotiated a temporary truce between them and Assad. But since the truce ended, more than 860 civilians, more than 1,400 insurgents and over 1,200 pro-regime forces have been killed since April. 400,000 civilians have been displaced.

2020 Civil War Updates in Syria

The year 2020 has seen even greater cooperation between Russia and the Assad Regime, and in turn, an increase in clashes between Russian and American forces in Idlib.  Despite a ceasefire that was brokered between Turkey and Russia in January 2020, Russian and Iranian backed Syrian forces have continued to attack Idlib, with Assad vowing less than a month after the most recent ceasefire to retake the last rebel stronghold, which is situated on Syria’s border with Turkey.  In October 2019, President Trump and Mark Esper ordered the evacuation of American troops from northern Syria, however after bipartisan concern, about 600 American troops remain in Idlib where they continue to coordinate with the Kurdish YPG, the leading group of the Syrian Defense Forces in the region.   Russia’s most recent escalation of the conflict came at the end of May when Russia delivered advanced MiG-29 jet fighters to the Assad regime, which came with requests from Putin to officially expand Russian presence and cooperation with Syrian forces.  This move comes as the US plans to increase sanctions and travel restrictions on foreign actors supporting the human rights violations and violence of the Assad regime in the National Defense Authorization Act for the Fiscal Year 2020.

In Aleppo, several Iran and Russia-backed groups who have based military operations out of the city have recently faced challenges from Israel.  Various Iranian and Russian backed militia groups, including the Palestinian Liwa al-Quds militia and Hezbollah, have set up security checkpoints throughout the city, pose major threats to Israel, and carry out military action against the SDF.  However, throughout May Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets have destroyed several military facility and weapons factories, causing Iranian nationals to flee Syria.

Important Points

  • In Oct. 2019, the U.S. killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph of the Islamic State, in Idlib near the border controlled by Turkey. The SDF provided crucial information that enabled him to be discovered. Al-Baghdadi was in territory controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. HTS was also looking for him. Turkey may have known that IS leader Baghdadi was living in Syria, may have visited Turkey, and was planning to relocate to Turkey.
  • In the North, the Turks and their allies have conquered areas including al-Bab, Afrin and other border areas. The Turks and their allies have focused on fighting the SDF, not ISIS, and have not carried out any operations targeting al Qaeda-affiliated groups since 2014. Turkey’s military operation in Syria, “represents an intentioned-laced effort at ethnic cleansing.”
  • Iran has established a “land bridge” or “Shiite Crescent” from Iran through northern Iraq into Syria and Lebanon, to enable the Iran-led regional alliance to transport fighters and weaponry in both directions. However, Iran aspires to gain the ability to direct more militiamen and supplies to Syria through SDF controlled areas to accelerate their military buildup inside the country. The Iranians are also establishing their own military bases across this country, including in southern Syria to threaten Israel.
  • There are tensions between Assad’s principal backers, Iran and Russia. Russia would like all Syria under the regime’s direct authority. Iran is intent on preserving alternative instruments of power that run parallel to the state. Putin has privately said that he does not want Syria to become a “Persian colony.” Publicly he has called for all foreign troops to leave Syria. Forces aligned with the Iranians and forces aligned with the Russians have clashed.
  • Israel has often targeted for destruction Iranian forces and bases in southern Syria. Israel has articulated a set of red lines: Iran transferring, via Syria, to Hezbollah of game-changing weapons, specifically precision-guided missiles; and any attempt to open a new front in terrorist operations along the Golan Line of Separation. Israel has also demanded that Iranian forces and the Shiite militias be a distance of 60-70 kilometers from the border with Israel and Jordan.
  • Russia has delivered an S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Assad in Syria. The system has a radius of some 200 kilometers, meaning a battery placed near Damascus would cover much of Israel.

Syrian Territories

    • The Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian and other allies control more than two-thirds of Syria, including the Western coast, Damascus, and Syria’s three largest cities, and 10 of its 14 provincial capitals. They control about 2/3rds of the population. More recently, the SDF has recognized Assad’s sovereignty over their territory, and Assad forces have been gaining ground against rebel forces in Idlib.
    • The SDC has set up their Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which holds about 28% of Syria, and has about 4 million people, a majority of which are not Kurdish. The SDC controls the Omar oil field, Syria’s largest oil facility, which gives them control of “one of Syria’s most important economic arteries to Syria” that is essential to “reconstruction.” Before Syria’s 2011 civil war, Syria had a lucrative oil industry, pumping about 400,000 barrels a day. The U.S. has provided arms and supplies to the Kurds, and then the SDF, although Turkey has objected. The SDC has a good record of respecting the rights of minorities in the region. A constitution was finalized by 2016, and elections have been held. A system of justice has even been set up. This federation is not meant to serve as a Kurdish state; the SDC is in favor of a federal system in Syria. After the U.S. removed the troops from their region in October 2019, the SDC negotiated a deal with Assad, allowing his forces to replace the SDF in the border regions next to Turkey, and recognizing his sovereignty over their areas. The SDF also may have agreed to have its troops join the Syrian Army, which is desperate for new soldiers.
  • Turkey controls more than 4,000 square kilometers (1,500 square miles) of Syrian territory; around 600,000 people live in the enclave, most of them displaced from elsewhere in Syria. It also has influence over Idlib, the last area dominated by non-SDF Syrian rebels. There are an estimated 2.5 to 3.3 million people – at least 1.2 million of whom are internally displaced – currently crammed into Idlib. Turkey maintains 12 military “observation points” in the province. The Turks also have paid the wages, provided logistical support, and provided weapons to some of those fighters. 
  • In February 2020 Asad’s forces, backed by Russia, have made immense advancement in the Idlib area, pushing back Turkish forces and fire exchanges claiming the lives of Turish and Russian officers.

Assad – Pink | SDF – Yellow | Dark Green – Turkey | Green & White – Idlib | Light Green – U.S. troops in Al Tanf

Military Strength

  • Assad regime
    • The war has taken a toll on the Syrian army, which may have only 10,000-20,000 deployable troops.
    • There are also 100,000-150,000 soldiers. Many are poorly trained conscripts and volunteers, as well as militia auxiliaries responsible for local security. They cannot be relied on outside their home regions.
  • Iran brought Shia fighters into Syria. Iran has stated its intention to help Assad retake all of Syria. Iran pays for its own troops, the Shia fighters, and some Syrian groups. 1000 Iranian IRGC troops have died. 
    • Iranian sponsored forces fighting number roughly 80,000 fighters, less than 10% Iranian, and the rest including Lebanese Hezbollah, Shia Iraqis, Shia Afghanis, and Shia Pakistanis. The three main forces are: the Iraqi al-Nujaba; the Afghan Fatemiyoun, and the Pakistani Zainebiyoun.
    • Iran has started to build naval, air, and land bases in Syria. 
    • Iran helped create Alawite militias, named the National Defense Forces, of up to 100,000 men, and two other militias, the Desert Hawks, in the northern port city of Latakia, and the Tiger Forces from Hama, who are now client forces of Russia. Each of whom have between 3,000 – 6,000 fighters. 
    • Iran is seeking to develop a Syrian Hezbollah of tens of thousands of Syrian men.
  • Russia officially acknowledges that there are more than 300 military police Syria; unofficially, it may have more than 4000. Sky News has estimated 500 to 600 Russians have died in Syria, compared with the official casualty count of 19. Russia has deployed planes including Su-24 and Su-34 frontline bombers to Latakia, Syria. Russia has deployed a naval force in Syria, with a carrier. Russia has deployed the S-300 and S-400 missile systems to its Hemeimeem air base in Latakia and its Tartus naval base, which it is expanding, to include nuclear ships. 
  • ISISAround 12,000 ISIS fighters are being held in Syria, 4500 of them foreigners. Yet there are an estimated 15,000 ISIS fighters still at large in Syria and Iraq. If the U.S. removes its troops, a Pentagon draft report is concerned that ISIS may reclaim territory. ISIS has a war chest of as much as $400 million.
  • The Kurds/ The SDF –The 70,000 Kurdish forces are called the YPG (People’s Protection Unit) and the YPJ (Women).Some of these are part of the SDF forces. 
    • The SDF has about 100,000 troops. This includes Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen & Christian Assyrians. 
    • The SDF commander in chief is Mazloum Kobani.
    • The SDF has had 11,000 of its fighters killed, with 24,000 wounded.
  • The U.S. withdrew many of its troops in Syria. 500 – 600 troops remain in SDF territory, guarding the oil fields, while about 150 remain at al-Tanf near the Jordanian border. 
  • The Turks & their allies –Over a thousand Turkish troops and possibly 100,000 allied Syrian fighters called the National Liberation Front in Turkish controlled areas. 
    • Most of the Syrian fighters are radicals with ISIS or other groups who have committed war crimes.
    • Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (the former al-Qaeda franchise in Syria) controls Idlib and neighboring areas. HTS has about 20,000 fighters. They set up the Salvation Government. The head of the Salvation Government is Fawaz Hilal, but the region’s strongman is HTS chief Abu Mohammed al-Jolani. Turkey has supported HTS. 
    • Hurras al-Din, the new al-Qaeda affiliate, is a splinter faction of HTS.

Humanitarian Crisis

In 2011, the population of Syria was numbered at 22 million. The civil war has driven some 5.6 million people out of the country and displaced around 6.6 million within its borders. 80% of Syrians are living in poverty, almost 60% are unemployed, and about half the children do not attend school. This great migration has destabilized the Middle East and Europe. Half a million people have been killed; about 85% of the dead were civilians killed by the forces of the Syrian government and its allies. Assad is cracking down in the areas he controls, and he and the Iranians have been brutal to their opponents. They have been also repopulating their areas with Shia Muslims from Iraq and Afghanistan, and even from Lebanon and Iran. The UN estimates that it will cost $400 billion to rebuild Syria. One American citizen has been executed by the Assad forces.

For more information please contact: EMET/ 202.601.7422/

About the Author

The Endowment for Middle East Truth
Founded in 2005, The Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) is a Washington, D.C. based think tank and policy center with an unabashedly pro-America and pro-Israel stance. EMET (which means truth in Hebrew) prides itself on challenging the falsehoods and misrepresentations that abound in U.S. Middle East policy.

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