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The Syrian Crisis: A Timeline

Charles Glass 6 April 2016

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Since 2011, the Syrian civil war has claimed roughly 400,000 lives, with an estimated 8 million Syrians, more than a third of the country’s population, forced to flee their homes. Militant Sunni groups, such as ISIS, have taken control of large swathes of the nation while Bashar Al-Assad continues to engage in campaigns of violent suppression and torture in the face of dissent. The impact of this catastrophe is now being felt on the streets of Europe and the United States. In his latest book, Syria Burning: A Short History of A Catastrophe, veteran Middle East expert Charles Glass provides an accessible overview of the origins and permutations defining the conflict. Below is a timeline of the crisis, starting with the peaceful protests in Dera'a. 

(Protests in Douma, a Damascus suburb. Flickr)

2011: Harsh government suppression fans local demonstrations into a mass civil uprising and isolates the regime abroad.


Protesters in Dera’a demand the release of a dozen teenagers who have been arrested for anti-regime graffiti and tortured. Security forces open fire, killing several demonstrators. This escalates and radicalizes the demonstrations, which spread to Damascus, Homs, Idlib, and other population centers. President Bashar al-Assad pursues a two-pronged strategy, promising political reform while overseeing harsh military crackdowns on the protests. In May, government tanks move against demonstrators in Dera’a and the suburbs of Damascus, as well as in Homs, which has become the center of the uprising. The opposition’s call for a national strike is largely ignored in Syria’s two most populous cities, Damascus and Aleppo. The following month sees government troops besiege the town of Jisr al-Shughour. The regime’s brutal suppression provokes increasing international condemnation and in May, the US and EU impose sanctions.

(Free Syrian Army rebels holding a planning session. Wikimedia Commons)


In July, Syrian security forces reportedly kill more than 100 protesters in Hama. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declares that Assad has “lost legitimacy.” The crackdown pressures the Syrian opposition to become organized and militarized. Military defectors establish the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in July and in October, six months into the uprising, some opposition groups coalesce as the Syrian National Council (SNC). Its declared aim is to topple Assad within six months. The UN Security Council condemns “widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities,” but Russia and China veto a resolution threatening sanctions.

(A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad among the trash in al-Qsair. Flickr


The Arab League suspends Syria and imposes sanctions. France calls for western military intervention, while Russia continues to arm the regime. Armed conflict between the FSA and regime soldiers is becoming the dominant dynamic on the ground, and in November the FSA launches a high-profile attack on a military base near Damascus. In December, two car bombs in Damascus kill 44 people—the opposition blames the regime, while the Syrian government and, later, US officials finger al-Qaeda. An Arab League observer mission enters Syria.

(Syrian woman stands amidst rubble. Wikimedia Commons)

2012: The conflict escalates to all-out civil war. Foreign assistance to both sides fuels the violence and adds proxy wars to the internal conflict. 


The Arab League observer mission withdraws in January, citing increasing violence. The same month sees the birth of a new rebel military faction, the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, and in a videotape released soon afterward al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri urges Sunni Muslims to support the Syrian revolt. In February, the UN General Assembly votes 137-12 for Assad to resign. Russia and China veto a similar resolution at the Security Council. The “Group of Friends of the Syrian People,” a collection of more than 60 (later rising to more than 100) countries and organizations including France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States, proclaims the SNC a “legitimate representative” of Syria. The EU announces new sanctions, while former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is appointed UN–Arab League Special Envoy to Syria. Government forces and the FSA contend for control in Homs, Damascus, and other major cities. In April, the “Friends of Syria” pledge economic support for opposition forces, while Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states announce a new fund for the FSA. A ceasefire brokered by Annan does not stem the violence.

(A meeting of the United Nations Security Council. Wikimedia Commons)


In May, the Security Council unanimously condemns the regime’s use of heavy weapons in Houla, which killed dozens of civilians. In July, the International Committee of the Red Cross declares the situation in Syria a civil war. Fighting is intense in Idlib, Damascus, Deir Ezzor, Homs, Hama, and Dera’a. Battling for control in Damascus, rebel forces bomb the capital’s National Security HQ, killing and injuring several senior officials including the Defense Minister and Deputy Defense Minister. The US and UK announce new sanctions against regime officials, but China and Russia veto a Security Council Chapter VII resolution. Major fighting breaks out in Aleppo when opposition forces blow up the government security headquarters and occupy parts of the city. The Syrian Army and Air Force attack the rebel positions in Aleppo.

(The Omayyad Mosque in 2013, after destruction of the minaret. Wikimedia Commons)


The Kurds now control much of a Kurdish-speaking belt in northeast Syria under an agreement with the Syrian government. An August UN General Assembly resolution denounces Assad’s use of heavy weaponry in Aleppo and Damascus. The regime suffers a few high-level defections. The UN pulls out of Aleppo due to increasing violence. An incompetent Kofi Annan resigns as international envoy, and is replaced by the veteran Algerian diplomat and former foreign minister, Lakhdar Brahimi. President Obama identifies the use of chemical or biological weapons as a “red line” that may trigger military action. In September, the FSA launches a major offensive in Aleppo; a month later, much of the city’s historic market and the ancient Omayyad Mosque are destroyed by fire and shelling. In October, Secretary of State Clinton dismisses the SNC as lacking a base inside the country and “no longer . . . the visible leader of the opposition.”

(Syrian Rebel Army patrols near Homs. Flickr)


Syrian opposition groups, including the SNC, establish the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. In December, the US declares the Nusra Front a terrorist organization and accuses it of trying to “hijack” the uprising. Turkey refuses to classify Nusra as a terrorist group. The US accuses Assad of using Scud missiles, and joins Turkey, France, the UK, and the Gulf states in formally recognizing the National Coalition as Syria’s legitimate representative. Heavy fighting sees opposition forces take control of most of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus.

(Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State (IS) militant group. Flickr)

2013: Jihadists increasingly dominate the opposition, as the regime regains the military initiative.


Assad rebuffs international demands to step down. Fighting continues in population centers across the country. After opposition forces capture the city of Raqqa in March, the US and UK promise non-military aid to the rebels. In April, the Syrian Army and Hezbollah launch a major offensive to retake the strategically crucial town of Qosair. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-proclaimed “emir” or prince of al-Qaeda in Iraq, claims responsibility for establishing the Nusra Front, and announces the groups’ merger as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The leader of the Nusra Front and al-Qaeda’s al-Zawahiri reject the move.

(Obama announces plans for Iraq and Syria. Flickr)


The UN updates its estimate of the conflict death toll to 80,000, as the EU ends its embargo on arming the rebels. Government forces capture Qosair, a major strategic victory. The conflict continues to reverberate in Lebanon, where two rockets strike a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut. Divisions within Syrian opposition forces widen, and in July, ISIS assassinates two FSA commanders. In August, Islamist forces including the Nusra Front and ISIS attack Alawite villages in Latakia province, committing serious atrocities, but their territorial gains are short lived. President Obama announces that the US will bomb Syria, but only after Congressional approval. Opposition forces capture a military airport north of Aleppo and the towns of Ariha and Khanasir, severing regime supply lines to Aleppo. On August 30, the British parliament votes against military intervention in Syria.

(Tomahawk missile being fired from the USS Philippine Sea and the USS Arleigh Burke at targets in Syria. Wikimedia Commons)


The US Administration backs down from attacking Syria. UN inspectors report that chemical weapons have been used in Damascus. Opposition forces, including the Nusra Front, seize the Christian town of Maalula, but it is quickly retaken by the Syrian Army. The Security Council unanimously calls for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, and Assad permits international inspectors to begin the process in October. The regime launches two major offensives, which yield major gains around Damascus and Aleppo. Al-Zawahiri orders the dismantling of ISIS, which Baghdadi rejects. In December, the US and UK suspend “non-lethal assistance” to rebels in northern Syria after jihadists seize FSA bases.

(FSA fighter walking among rubble in Aleppo. Wikimedia Commons)

2014: Military and diplomatic stalemate drags as the death count rises. A major ISIS breakthrough in Iraq triggers a radical shift in international priorities.


The Islamic Front coalition of Salafist rebel groups and FSA forces launch an offensive against ISIS, and after al-Zawahiri distances al-Qaeda from ISIS in February, the al-Nusra Front joins the fray. In March, jihadist groups and FSA elements from Turkey conquer the Syrian Armenian town of Kessab. Worldwide outrage and Armenian pressure compel Turkey to declare the Nusra Front a terrorist group. The Syrian Army drive the jihadists out a month later, and the inhabitants return. Two rounds of peace talks in Geneva convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon achieve nothing. By a unanimous vote, the Security Council demands that all parties to the conflict cease attacks on civilians, singling out for censure the use of barrel bombs in populated areas. In May, a three-year battle for Homs ends in victory for the government, which permits rebel forces to evacuate the city. Special Envoy Brahimi resigns.

(Humvee down after ISIS attack in Mosul, Iraq. Wikimedia Commons)


ISIS achieves a dramatic military breakthrough in Iraq, capturing the major cities of Mosul and Tikrit. It renames itself the Islamic State (IS) and proclaims a global caliphate. Assad holds a presidential election in government-controlled areas, winning nearly 90 percent of the vote, and international inspectors complete the removal of chemical weapons. Staffan de Mistura is appointed Brahimi’s successor as UN special envoy for Syria. Human Rights Watch condemns the regime’s continued use of barrel bombs in Aleppo. In August, the Nusra Front captures the Quneitra Crossing into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. IS reportedly massacres hundreds of people in Deir Ezzor province, while in Iraq, it captures the towns of Zumar, Wana and the Sinjar hills. IS kidnaps hundreds of Yazidi women, whom its militants rape or force into unwanted marriages. An IS siege of hundreds of Yazidi civilians on Mount Sinjar is broken by US air strikes and Kurdish fighters on August 14. The US begins arming Iraqi-Kurdish forces and, along with a coalition of international forces, commences air strikes on ISIS in Iraq. The US has now gone from calling for Assad’s downfall to bombing his regime’s opponents. On August 24, IS seizes the Syrian military airfield of Tabqa, completing the group’s control of Raqqa province. IS proceeds to loot and destroy antiquities in Syria and Iraq, some dating to the second millennium B.C.

(Kurdish YPG fighters. Flickr)


IS invests the Kurdish town of Kobani in Syria. Kurdish fighters, aided by international air strikes, repel IS forces from most of the town. The Israeli-American journalist Steven Sotloff is executed by IS. IS continues to attack from bases in Turkey. The Syrian Army presses on north of Aleppo until it controls all major supply lines to the city. It captures the strategically important town of Morek in October. In November, the Nusra Front captures Nawa from the Syrian Army and IS downs a Syrian Air Force fighter jet, while regime air strikes in Raqqa kill dozens. The American aid worker Peter Kassig is beheaded by IS. By December, it is widely accepted that the armed opposition will not succeed in toppling Assad.

(Airstrikes in Syria. Flickr)

2015: The Islamic State and other jihadist forces make territorial gains and losses, while the regime loses the initiative it had seemed to hold the year before. Meanwhile, international intervention increases, with Russia, France, and Arab countries launching airstrikes.


After four months of fighting, Kurdish forces retake the city of Kobani in northern Syria from IS in late January. They then advance into the Islamists’ stronghold of Raqqa Province for the first time. Meanwhile, Syrian regime airstrikes kill 65 people in east Damascus, and loyalist forces execute rebels in the village of Ratyan, north of Aleppo. In early February, IS releases a video showing captured Jordanian pilot Moath Youssef al-Kasasbeh being burned alive, leading to a series of retaliatory airstrikes by the Jordanian Air Force. Kurdish fighters reconquer villages near Tel Hamis in the northeast towards the end of the month, forcing an IS retreat. The jihadist group then launches an offensive in the west of the country, attacking the government-held Tadmur airbase in the Homs Governorate. In early March, Abu Homam al-Shami, military chief of the Nusra Front, is killed during regime airstrikes. However, the Nusra-led Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) captures the city of Idlib near the end of the month. Gains made by all sides fail to break the wider stalemate.

(Palmyra. Flickr)


On the first day of April, IS takes large parts of Yarmouk refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus after clashes with anti-Assad Palestinian militias. Two weeks later, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and FSA take significant towns and territory near Kobane. However, IS responds to these losses by taking much of the town of al-Sukhnah in Homs province. In mid-May, the jihadist group captures the historic site of Palmyra from government troops, initiating a campaign of destruction that provokes international condemnation. It continues to push the regime back elsewhere, taking a number of towns and advancing within 35 kilometers of Homs. In another setback for pro-Assad forces, Jaish al-Fatah takes Ariha, the last regime-held town in Idlib province, threatening the government heartland of Latakia. In late June, IS resumes its efforts to retake Kobani, killing 146 civilians on the second day of the offensive in one of the conflict’s largest massacres. An IS suicide bomber also kills 20 people in Hasakeh, the most important city in northeast Syria.

(Syrian and Iraqi immigrants getting off a boat from Turkey on the Greek island of Lesbos. Wikimedia Commons)


In early July, IS releases a video of a mass execution of 25 regime soldiers in Palmyra’s amphitheater. Hezbollah and Syrian Army fighters enter the strategic town of Zabadani near the Beruit-Damascus highway, held by Nusra Front and other rebel groups. Regime forces make gains in pushing IS back from territory around Palmyra. The Syrian Air Force continues to make use of controversial barrel bombs, with a particularly large strike in mid-October killing 50 people in Douma, a suburb of Damascus under rebel control. Meanwhile, the regime loses territory to the Army of Conquest and FSA in the vital al-Ghab Plain. The area lies on the highway connecting the regime’s heartland of Latakia with Aleppo, and control of it is crucial to government efforts to hold the latter. At the end of August, IS fighters attack the southern outskirts of Damascus. Rumors circulate of Russian airstrikes in early September, along with reports that Russian troops are conducting training drills inside regime territory. The government air force drops barrel bombs throughout September, causing many civilian deaths in Aleppo and Bosra. Airstrikes are also conducted against IS-held Raqqa. Later in the month, government forces recapture a number of villages around Hama. International tension increases, as France launches its first airstrikes against IS training camps and Russian President Vladimir Putin claims US support for rebels to be “illegal” according to UN resolutions. Shortly after, Russia begins its own campaign of airstrikes.

(A vigil held in paris after the November 2015 Paris attacks. Wikimedia Commons)


Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi supports the Russian intervention. With Iranian and Russian support, the regime begins another offensive to retake Hama, but the FSA put up fierce resistance. However, the regime gains ground in Idlib province, capturing the villages of Atshan and Om Hartein. Relations between the United States and Russia worsen further, with a US government official claiming that Russian airstrikes are deliberately targeting CIA-trained rebels rather than IS, killing 150 to date. In late October, international talks to resolve the crisis are held in Vienna. Notably, Iran is invited to participate for the first time. While agreeing on the need to defeat IS and bring regime and rebel representatives to the negotiating table, disagreement remains over the future of President Assad. Iran and Saudi Arabia reportedly clash, as do the United States and Russia. A week later, President Obama announces that US Special Forces will be sent to Syria in an “advisory” role. November sees a dramatic escalation in the international dimensions of the conflict, with a large-scale terror attack—believed to have been orchestrated by IS—killing 130 people in Paris. President Hollande vows to create a “grand coalition” to defeat IS. A few days later, the United Nations Security Council drafts a resolution committing them to destroying the group “by any means necessary.” However, tension between international players rises as the Turkish Air Force shoots down a fighter jet in their airspace. Turkey claims it to be a legitimate act of defence; President Putin reacts by accusing Turkey of aiding IS and promising “serious consequences.”

Western media reports that the Free Syrian Army is on the verge of breakdown, resulting from low fighter morale, a lack of progress in creating “liberated zones” or in making any significant victories. This results in some soldiers' defection to the Nusra Front. The regime launches a deadly airstrike in the suburbs of Damascus, striking a building where many civil rights activist and residents were discussing the state of the humanitarian crisis. More than 40 people were killed and 75 wounded, all of who were civilians. Russian airstrikes in Aleppo’s Azaz district and the rebel-held town of Jisr al-Shughour result in numerous civilian casualties as well. A number of rebel leaders are killed in Damascus from Russian airstrikes, coordinated with Syrian intelligence. Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu publicly admits that Israeli forces have been active in Syria.

(Military situation in Syrian Civil War as of April 4, 2016. Wikimedia Commons)

2016: The Islamic States loses territory to the Assad regime. International intervention recalibrates in the wake of increasing proxy wars and violence.

January – April

The Syrian Army seizes a majority of Al-Shaykh Maskin, a town in southern Syria, from the FSA and the Islamic Front. FSA supports the Saudi decision to cut diplomatic ties with Iran. ISIS kidnaps over 400 civilians in eastern suburb of Syria after clashes with the Syrian Army and their supporters. An ISIS supporter kills 71 people in Damascus in a suicide bomb attack.  A Saudi defense chief expresses his intentions to send troops to Syria if there is US approval. The Syrian foreign minister warns against such ground invasion, stating that any foreign troops entering Syria with no government approval will “return home in wooden coffins.” Russian airstrikes continue to spawn civilian casualties. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu accuses Russia of terrorism, stating that "If Russia continues behaving like a terrorist organization and forcing civilians to flee, we will deliver an extremely decisive response”.

46 people are killed in a double car bomb explosion in Homs. On the same day, 30 were killed several bomb blasts near Damascus. ISIS claimed responsibility for both incidents. ISIS claims responsibility for the terrorist attack at the Brussels airport and metro station, killing 30 people and injuring over 300. The US-Russia proxy war delves out of control. The two countries agree to a “cessation of hostilities”, excluding territories held by ISIS and the Nusra Front. The United Nations adopts a resolution demanding all parities comply with this US-Russia deal, despite accusations from Saudi Arabia accusing Russia and Syria of violating the ceasefire. In the wake of this partial decrease in violence, Syrians begin to take to the streets in peaceful demonstration, demanding freedom from both Assad and other jihadist groups. Russia commences its partial withdrawal of troops from Syria. With help from Russian airstrikes, the Syrian regime retakes Palmyra from ISIS. The Syrian government seizes the city of al-Qaryatain from ISIS.

Excerpted from Syria Burning. 

Filed under: mena, syria