The Syrian civil war is an ongoing armed conflict in Syria between forces loyal to the Syrian Ba'ath Party government and those seeking to oust it. The conflict began on 15 March 2011, with popular demonstrations that grew nationwide by April 2011. These demonstrations were part of the wider Middle Eastern protest movement known as the Arab Spring. Protesters demanded the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has held the presidency in Syria since 1971, as well as the end of Ba'ath Party rule.
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|Syrian civil war|
|Part of the Arab Spring|
Bombed-out vehicles after street fighting in Aleppo, October 2012
For a war map of the current situation, see here.
| Syrian government
(For other forms of foreign support, see here)
| Syrian opposition
|Commanders and leaders|
| Bashar al-Assad
|| George Sabra
| Syrian Armed Forces: 110,000 (by Apr 2013)
General Security Directorate: 8,000
| Free Syrian Army: 50,000 - 80,000  (by May 2013)
|Casualties and losses|
|Syrian government||16,699–41,800 fighters killed*|
|92,901–100,000 killed overall (April 2013 UN estimate)
96,430–120,000 killed overall (May 2013 SOHR estimate)
|*Number possibly higher due to the opposition counting rebels that were not defectors as civilians.
**Number includes foreign fighters from both sides, as well as foreign civilians
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The Syrian civil war is an ongoing armed conflict in Syria between forces loyal to the Syrian Ba'ath Party government and those seeking to oust it. The conflict began on 15 March 2011, with popular demonstrations that grew nationwide by April 2011. These demonstrations were part of the wider Middle Eastern protest movement known as the Arab Spring. Protesters demanded the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has held the presidency in Syria since 1971, as well as the end of Ba'ath Party rule.
In April 2011, the Syrian Army was deployed to quell the uprising, and soldiers fired on demonstrators across the country. After months of military sieges, the protests evolved into an armed rebellion. Opposition forces, mainly composed of defected soldiers and civilian volunteers, became increasingly armed and organized as they unified into larger groups. However, the rebels remained fractured, without organized leadership. The Syrian government characterizes the insurgency as an uprising of "armed terrorist groups and foreign mercenaries". The conflict has no clear fronts, with clashes taking place in many towns and cities across the country. The Arab League, United States, European Union, and other countries condemned the use of violence against the protesters. The Arab League suspended Syria's membership because of the government's response to the crisis, but granted the Syrian National Coalition Syria's seat on 6 March 2013.
Until late 2011 the armed conflict had not reached the biggest cities of Damascus and Aleppo. Late 2012 marked growing influence of the Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra within the opposition forces, while Hezbollah entered the war in support of the Syrian army. The regime is further upheld by support from Russia and Iran. Qatar was an early funder of weapons for the opposition forces. In mid-2012 full-scaled urban battle began in Damascus, followed by the even more deadly battle of Aleppo. On 15 July 2012, the International Committee of the Red Cross assessed the Syrian conflict as a "non-international armed conflict" (the ICRC's legal term for civil war), thus applying international humanitarian law under the Geneva Conventions to Syria. The war degenerated into a stalemate in early 2013, with both sides making limited advances in different places. According to the UN, the conflict was becoming "overtly sectarian in nature", though both the opposition forces and the Syrian government deny that sectarianism plays any key role in the conflict.
In May 2013, the United Nations released an estimate that the war's death toll had exceeded 80,000. By June, this figure was updated to 92,900–100,000. According to various opposition activist groups, between 72,960 and 96,430 people have been killed, of which about half were civilians, but also including 58,500 armed combatants consisting of both the Syrian Army and rebel forces, up to 1,000 opposition protesters and 1,000 government officials. By October 2012, up to 28,000 people had been reported missing, including civilians forcibly abducted by government troops or security forces. According to the UN, about 4 million Syrians have been displaced within the country. To escape the violence, as many as 1.5 million Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring countries. In addition, tens of thousands of protesters have been imprisoned and there were reports of widespread torture and psychological terror in state prisons. International organizations have accused both government and opposition forces of severe human rights violations. UN investigations have concluded that the government's abuses are the greatest in both gravity, frequency and scale. In early 2013 Amnesty International declared that "the vast majority of war crimes and other gross violations continue to be committed by government forces", though its research also pointed to "an escalation in abuses by armed opposition groups." 
The Ba'ath Party government came to power in 1964 after a successful coup d'état. In 1966, another coup overthrew the traditional leaders of the party, Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar. General Hafez al-Assad, the Minister of Defense, seized power in a "corrective revolution" in November 1970, becoming prime minister. In March 1971, Assad declared himself President, a position he would hold until his death in 2000. Since then, the secular Ba'ath Party has remained the dominant political authority in a virtual single-party state in Syria, and Syrian citizens may only approve the President by referendum and – until the government-controlled multi-party 2012 parliamentary election – could not vote in multi-party elections for the legislature.
In 1982, at the height of a six-year Islamist armed insurgency throughout the country, Hafez al-Assad conducted a scorched earth policy against Islamist-held quarters inside the town of Hama to quell an uprising by the Sunni Islamist community, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and others. This crackdown became known as the Hama massacre, which left tens of thousands – both armed insurgents and civilians – dead, although estimates of the death toll still vary.
The issue of President Hafez al-Assad's succession prompted the 1999 Latakia protests, when violent protests and armed clashes erupted following the 1998 Syrian People's Assembly elections. The violent events were an explosion of a long-running feud between Hafez al-Assad and his influential younger brother Rifaat. Two people were killed in fire exchanges between Syrian police and Rifaat's supporters during a police crackdown on Rifaat's port compound in Latakia. According to opposition sources, denied by the government, the protests resulted in hundreds dead and injured. Hafez al-Assad died one year later, from pulmonary fibrosis. He was succeeded by his son Bashar al-Assad, who was appointed after a constitutional amendment lowered the age requirement for President from 40 to his then age of 34.
Bashar al-Assad, who speaks English fluently and Asma al-Assad, his wife - who is a British-born and British-educated Sunni Muslim, initially inspired hopes for democratic and state reforms; a "Damascus Spring" of intense social and political debate took place from July 2000 to August 2001. The period was characterized by the emergence of numerous political forums or salons, where groups of like-minded people met in private houses to debate political and social issues. Political activists such as Riad Seif, Haitham al-Maleh, Kamal al-Labwani, Riyad al-Turk and Aref Dalila were important in mobilizing the movement. The most famous of the forums were the Riad Seif Forum and the Jamal al-Atassi Forum. The Damascus Spring ended in August 2001 with the arrest and imprisonment of ten leading activists who had called for democratic elections and for a campaign of civil disobedience. In March 2004, government security forces cracked down on a Kurdish uprising in the north of the country, which demanded rights for the long-disenfranchised Kurdish minority, killing dozens of Kurds and imprisoning thousands more. Opposition renewed in October 2005 when Syrian Christian activist Michel Kilo collaborated with other leading opposition figures to deliver the Damascus Declaration, which criticized the Syrian government as "authoritarian, totalitarian and cliquish" and called for democratic reforms.
The Assad family comes from the minority Alawite religious group, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that comprises an estimated 12 percent of the total Syrian population. It has maintained tight control on Syria's security services, generating resentment among some Sunni Muslims, a sect that makes up about three-quarters of Syria's population. Ethnic minority Syrian Kurds have also protested and complained over ethnic discrimination and denial of their cultural and language rights. When the uprising began, Bouthaina Shaaban, a presidential adviser, blamed individual "radical extremist" Sunni clerics and "takfiri" preachers for inciting Sunnis to revolt, such as Qatar-based Yusuf al-Qaradawi called for in his heated sermon in Doha on 25 March. The Syrian government allegedly has relied mostly on Alawite-dominated units of the security services to fight the uprising. Assad's younger brother Maher al-Assad commands the army's elite Fourth Armored Division, and his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, was the deputy minister of defense until the latter's assassination in the 18 July 2012 Damascus bombing.
Discontent against the government was strongest in Syria's poorer areas, predominantly among conservative Sunnis. These included cities with high poverty rates, such as Daraa and Homs, rural areas hit hard by a drought in early 2011, and the poorer districts of large cities. Socioeconomic inequality increased significantly after free market policies were initiated by Hafez al-Assad in his later years, and accelerated after Bashar al-Assad came to power. With an emphasis on the service sector, these policies benefited a minority of the nation's population, mostly people who had connections with the government, and members of the Sunni merchant class of Damascus and Aleppo. By 2011, Syria was facing a deterioration in the national standard of living and steep rises in the prices of commodities. The country also faced particularly high youth unemployment rates.
The state of human rights in Syria has long been the subject of harsh criticism from global organizations. The country was under emergency rule from 1963 until 2011, effectively granting security forces sweeping powers of arrest and detention. The Syrian government justified this by pointing to the fact that the country has been in a continuous state of war with Israel. After taking power in 1970, Hafez al-Assad quickly purged the government of any political adversaries and asserted his control over all aspects of Syrian society. He developed an elaborate cult of personality and violently repressed any opposition, most notoriously in the 1982 Hama massacre. After his death in 2000 and the succession of his son Bashar al-Assad to the Presidency, it was hoped that the Syrian government would make concessions toward the development of a more liberal society; this period became known as the Damascus Spring. However, Bashar al-Assad is widely regarded to have been unsuccessful in implementing democratic change, with a 2010 report from Human Rights Watch stating that he had failed to substantially improve the state of human rights since taking power, although some minor aspects had seen improvement. All political parties other than the Ba'ath Party have remained banned, thereby leaving Syria a one-party state without free elections.
Rights of free expression, association and assembly were strictly controlled in Syria even before the uprising. The authorities harass and imprison human rights activists and other critics of the government, who are oftentimes indefinitely detained and tortured in poor prison conditions. While al-Assad permitted radio stations to play Western pop music, websites such as Amazon.com, Facebook, Wikipedia and YouTube were blocked until 1 January 2011, when all citizens were permitted to sign up for high speed internet and those sites were allowed. However, a 2007 law requires Internet cafes to record all comments that users post on online chat forums.
Women and ethnic minorities have faced discrimination in the public sector. Thousands of Syrian Kurds were denied citizenship in 1962 and their descendants continued to be labeled as "foreigners" until 2011, when 120,000 out of roughly 200,000 stateless Kurds were granted citizenship on 6 April by a decree of president Bashar al-Assad. Several riots prompted increased tension in Syria's Kurdish areas since 2004. That year, riots broke out against the government in the northeastern Kurdish-Assyrian town of Qamishli. During a chaotic soccer match, some people raised Kurdish flags and the match turned into a political conflict. In a brutal reaction by Syrian police and clashes between Kurdish and Arab groups, at least 30 people were killed, with some claims indicating a casualty count of about 100 people. Occasional clashes between Kurdish protesters and security forces have since continued.
In December 2010, mass anti-government protests began in Tunisia and later spread across the Arab world, including Syria. By February 2011, revolutions occurred in Tunisia and Egypt, while Libya began to experience its own civil war. Numerous other Arab countries also faced protests, with some attempting to calm the masses by making concessions and governmental changes.
Before the uprising in Syria began in mid-March 2011, protests were relatively modest, considering the wave of unrest that was spreading across the Arab world. Syria remained what Al Jazeera described as a "kingdom of silence", due to strict security measures, a relatively popular president, religious diversity, and concerns over the prospects of insurgency like that seen in neighboring Iraq.
Minor protests calling for government reforms began in January, and continued into March. A "Day of Rage" was called for by activists in Syria to occur on 4 February via social media websites Facebook and Twitter. However, protests failed to materialize within the country itself.
The unrest began on 15 March in Damascus, in Aleppo, and in the southern city of Daraa, sometimes called the "Cradle of the Revolution". Daraa had been straining under the influx of internal refugees who were forced to leave their northeastern lands, due to a drought exacerbated by the government's lack of provision. The protests were triggered by the incarceration and torture of several young students, who were arrested for writing anti-government graffiti in the city. Demonstrators clashed with local police, and confrontations escalated on 18 March after Friday prayers. With thousands protesting, the clashes resulted in several civilian deaths. On 20 March, a mob burned down the Ba'ath Party headquarters and other public buildings. Security forces quickly responded, firing live ammunition at crowds, and attacking the focal points of the demonstrations. The two-day assault resulted in the deaths of fifteen protestors.
Meanwhile, minor protests occurred elsewhere in the country. Protesters demanded the release of political prisoners, the abolition of Syria's 48-year emergency law, more freedoms, and an end to pervasive government corruption. The events lead to a "Friday of Dignity" on 18 March, when large-scale protests broke out in several cities, including Banias, Damascus, al-Hasakah, Daraa, Deir az-Zor and Hama. Police responded to the protests with tear gas, water cannons, beatings. At least 6 people were killed and many others injured.
On 25 March, mass protests spread nation-wide, as demonstrators emerged after Friday prayers. Over 100,000 people reportedly marched in Daraa, but at least 20 protesters were reportedly killed. Protests also spread to other Syrian cities, including Homs, Hama, Baniyas, Jasim, Aleppo, Damascus and Latakia. Over 70 protesters in total were reported dead.
Even before the uprising began, the Syrian government conducted numerous arrests of protesters, political activists and human rights campaigners, many of whom were labeled "terrorists" by Assad government. In early February, authorities arrested several activists, including political leaders Ghassan al-Najar, Abbas Abbas, and Adnan Mustafa.
The police often responded to the protests violently, not only using water cannons and tear gas, but also beating protesters and firing live ammunition.
As the uprising began, the Syrian government waged a campaign of arrests that had caught tens of thousands of people, according to lawyers and activists in Syria and human rights groups. In response to the uprising, Syrian law had been changed to allow the police and any of the nation's 18 security forces to detain a suspect for eight days without a warrant. Arrests focused on two groups: political activists, and men and boys from the towns that the Syrian Army would start to besiege in April. Many of those detained experienced various forms of torture and ill-treatment. Many detainees were cramped in tight rooms and were given limited resources, and some were beaten, electrically jolted, or debilitated. At least 27 torture centers, run by Syrian intelligence agencies, were revealed by Human Rights Watch on 3 July 2012.
President Assad has characterized the opposition as armed terrorist groups with Islamist "takfiri" extremist motives, portraying himself as the last guarantee for a secular government form. Early in the month of April, a large deployment of security forces prevented tent encampments in Latakia. Blockades were set up in several cities, to prevent the movement of protests. Despite the crackdown, widespread protests remained throughout the month in Daraa, Baniyas, Al-Qamishli, Homs, Douma and Harasta.
During March and April, the Syrian government, hoping to alleviate the unrest, offered political reforms and policy changes. Authorities shortened mandatory army conscription, and in an apparent attempt to reduce corruption, fired the governor of Daraa. The government announced it would release political prisoners, cut taxes, raise the salaries of public sector workers, provide more press freedoms, and increase job opportunities. Many of these announced reforms were never implemented.
The government, dominated by the Alawite sect, made some concessions to the majority Sunni and some minority populations. Authorities reversed a ban that restricted teachers from wearing the niqab, and closed the country's only casino. The government also granted citizenship to thousands of Syrian Kurds previously labeled "foreigners".
A popular demand from protesters was an end of the nation's state of emergency, which had been in effect for nearly 50 years. The emergency law had been used to justify arbitrary arrests and detention, and to ban political opposition. After weeks of debate, Assad signed the decree on 21 April, lifting Syria's state of emergency. However, anti-government protests continued into April, with activists unsatisfied with what they considered vague promises of reform from Assad.
Since demonstrations began in March, the Syrian government has restricted independent news coverage, barring foreign free press outlets and arresting reporters who try to cover protests. Some journalists had been reported to have gone missing, been detained, been tortured in custody, or been killed on duty. International media have relied heavily on footage shot by civilians, who would often upload the files on the internet.
The government disabled mobile phones, landlines, electricity, and the Internet in several places. Authorities had extracted passwords of social media sites from journalists through beatings and torture. The pro-government online group the Syrian Electronic Army had frequently hacked websites to post pro-regime material, and the government has been implicated in malware attacks targeted at those reporting on the crisis. The government also targeted and tortured political cartoonist Ali Farzat, who had been critical of the crackdown.
Many observers of the conflict have stated that propaganda has been used by both the Syrian government and opposition factions since the beginning of the conflict. Although there are extremists fighting against the government, most independent media sources do not refer to the opposition as terrorists. However, SANA, the Syrian government's official news agency, often refers to the opposition as "armed gangs" or "terrorists". The Syrian foreign ministry and Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, viewed the U.S. government's statements concerning the danger of the Syrian government using chemical weapons against civilians as propaganda. Similarly, other observers speculated that such U.S. statements might be used as a pretext to launch a military intervention in Syria. Jonathan Steele, a Guardian columnist, asserted that all of the "western media's" reporting on the conflict is biased propaganda. It is also reported that SANA television interviews sometimes use government supporters disguised as locals who stand near sites of destruction and claim that they were caused by rebel fighters.
Syrian public school instructors teach students that the ongoing conflict is a foreign conspiracy – something which many people regard as propaganda. There have been several occurrences of videos of violence circulated by social media on both sides that have turned out to be footage from conflicts in other countries.
As the unrest continued, the Syrian government began launching major military operations to suppress resistance, signaling a new phase in the uprising. On 25 April, Daraa, which had become a focal point of the uprising, was one of the first cities to be besieged by the Syrian Army. An estimated hundreds to 6,000 soldiers were deployed, firing live ammunition at demonstrators and searching house to house for protestors, arresting hundreds. Tanks were used for the first time against demonstrators, and snipers took positions on rooftops. Mosques used as headquarters for demonstrators and organizers were especially targeted. Security forces began shutting off water, power and phone lines, and confiscating flour and food. Clashes between the army and opposition forces, which included armed protestors and defected soldiers, led to the death of hundreds. By 5 May, most of the protests had been suppressed, and the military began pulling out of Daraa, with some troops remaining to keep the situation under control.
During the crackdown in Daraa, the Syrian Army also besieged and blockaded several towns around Damascus. Throughout May, situations similar to those that occurred in Daraa were reported in other besieged towns and cities, such as Baniyas, Homs, Talkalakh, Latakia, and several other towns. After the end of each siege, violent suppression of sporadic protests continued throughout the following months. By 24 May, more than 1,000 people have been killed in the uprising according to the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria.
When the uprising began in mid-March, many analysts believed that the Syrian government would remain intact, partly due to strict loyalty tests and the fact that most top-position officials belonged to the same sect as Assad, the Alawites. However, in response to the use of lethal force against unarmed protesters, many soldiers and low-level officers began to desert from the Syrian Army. Many soldiers who refused to open fire against civilians were summarily executed by the army. The first defections occurred during the April Daraa operation. The number of defections increased during the following months, as army deserters began to group together to form fighting units. As the uprising progressed, opposition fighters became more well-equipped and organized, and senior military officers and government officials began to defect as well to the opposition. Some analysts stated that these defections were signs of Assad's weakening inner circle.
The first instance of armed insurrection occurred on 4 June 2011 in Jisr ash-Shugur, a city near the Turkish border in Idlib province. Angry protesters set fire to a building where security forces had fired on a funeral demonstration. Eight security officers died in the fire as demonstrators took control of a police station, seizing weapons. Clashes between protesters and security forces continued in the following days. Some security officers defected after secret police and intelligence agents executed soldiers who refused to shoot civilians. On 6 June, Sunni militiamen and army defectors ambushed a group of security forces heading to the city which was met by a large government counterattack. Fearing a massacre, insurgents and defectors, along with 10,000 residents, fled across the Turkish border.
In June and July 2011, protests continued as government forces expanded operations, repeatedly firing at protesters, employing tanks against demonstrations, and conducting arrests. The towns of Rastan and Talbiseh, and Maarat al-Numaan were besieged in early June. On 30 June, large protests erupted against the Assad government in Aleppo, Syria's largest city. On 3 July, Syrian tanks were deployed to Hama, two days after the city witnessed the largest demonstration against Bashar al-Assad. On 31 July, a nationwide crackdown nicknamed the "Ramadan Massacre" resulted in the death of at least 142 people and hundreds of injuries. Some besieged cities and towns were described as having famine-like conditions.
On 29 July, a group of defected officers announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which would become the main opposition army. Composed of defected Syrian Armed Forces personnel and civilian volunteers, the rebel army seeks to remove Bashar al-Assad and his government from power. This began a new phase in the conflict, with more armed resistance against the government crackdown. The FSA would grow in size, to about 20,000 by December, and to an estimated 40,000 by June 2012.
On 23 August, a coalition of anti-government groups was formed, the Syrian National Council. The group, based in Turkey, attempted to organize the opposition. However, the opposition, including the FSA, remained a fractious collection of political groups, longtime exiles, grass-roots organizers and armed militants, divided along ideological, ethnic or sectarian lines.
Throughout August, Syrian forces stormed major urban centers and outlying regions, and continued to attack protests. On 14 August, the Siege of Latakia continued as the Syrian Navy became involved in the military crackdown for the first time. Gunboats fired heavy machine guns at waterfront districts in Latakia, as ground troops and security agents backed by armor stormed several neighborhoods. The Eid ul-Fitr celebrations, started in near the end of August, were muted after security forces fired on large demonstrations in Homs, Daraa, and the suburbs of Damascus.
During the first six months of the uprising, the inhabitants of Syria's two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, remained largely uninvolved in the anti-government protests. The two cities' central squares have seen organized rallies of hundreds of thousands in support of president Assad and his government.
A major confrontation between the FSA and the Syrian armed forces occurred in Rastan. From 27 September to 1 October, Syrian government forces, backed by tanks and helicopters, led a major offensive on the town of Al-Rastan in Homs province, which had been under opposition control for a couple weeks. There were reports of large numbers of defections in the city, and the FSA reported it had destroyed 17 armoured vehicles during clashes in Rastan, using RPGs and booby traps. The 2011 Battle of Rastan between the government forces and the FSA was the longest and most intense action up until that time. After a week of fighting, the FSA was forced to retreat from Rastan. To avoid government forces, the leader of the FSA, Col. Riad Asaad, retreated to the Turkish side of Syrian-Turkish border. Many of the rebels fled to the nearby city of Homs.
By October, the FSA started to receive military support from Turkey, who allowed the rebel army to operate its command and headquarters from the country's southern Hatay province close to the Syrian border, and its field command from inside Syria. The FSA would often launch attacks into Syria's northern towns and cities, while using the Turkish side of the border as a safe zone and supply route. A year after its formation, the FSA would gain control over many towns close to the Turkish border.
In October 2011, clashes between government and defected army units were being reported fairly regularly. During the first week of the month, sustained clashes were reported in Jabal al-Zawiya in the mountainous regions of Idlib province. Syrian rebels captured most of Idlib city as well. In mid-October, other clashes in Idlib province include the city of Binnish and the town of Hass in the province near the mountain range of Jabal al-Zawiya. In late October, other clashes occurred in the northwestern town of Maarrat al-Nu'man in the province between government forces and defected soldiers at a roadblock on the edge of the town, and near the Turkish border, where 10 security agents and a deserter were killed in a bus ambush. It was not clear if the defectors linked to these incidents were connected to the FSA.
In early November, clashes between the FSA and security forces in Homs escalated as the siege continued. After six days of bombardment, the Syrian Army stormed the city on 8 November, leading to heavy street fighting in several neighborhoods. Resistance in Homs was significantly greater than that seen in other towns and cities, and some in opposition have referred to the city as the "Capital of the Revolution". Unlike events in Deraa and Hama, operations in Homs have thus far failed to quell the unrest.
November and December 2011 saw increasing rebel attacks, as opposition forces grew in number. In the two months, the FSA launched deadly attacks on an air force intelligence complex in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, the Ba'ath party youth headquarters in Idlib province, Ba'ath Party offices in Damascus, an airbase in Homs province, and an intelligence building in Idlib. On 15 December, opposition fighters ambushed checkpoints and military bases around Daraa, killing 27 soldiers, in one of the largest attacks yet on security forces. The opposition suffered a major setback on 19 December, when a failed defection in Idlib province lead to 72 defectors killed.
By early 2012 daily protests had dwindled, eclipsed by the spread of armed conflict. January saw intensified clashes around the suburbs of Damascus, with the Syrian Army use of tanks and artillery becoming common. Fighting in Zabadani began on 7 January when the Syrian Army stormed the town in an attempt to rout out FSA presence. After the first phase of the battle ended with a ceasefire on 18 January, leaving the FSA in control of the town, the FSA launched an offensive into nearby Douma. Fighting in the town lasted from 21 to 30 January, before the rebels were forced to retreat as result of a government counteroffensive. Although, the Syrian Army managed to retake most of the suburbs, sporadic fighting continued. Fighting erupted in Rastan again on 29 January, when dozens of soldiers manning the town's checkpoints defected and began opening fire on troops loyal to the government. Opposition forces gained complete control of the town and surrounding suburbs on 5 February.
On 3 February, the Syrian army launched a major offensive to retake rebel-held neighborhoods. In early March, after weeks of artillery bombardments and heavy street fighting, the Syrian army eventually captured the district of Baba Amr, a major rebel stronghold. The Syrian Army also captured the district of Karm al-Zeitoun by 9 March, where activists claimed that government forces killed 47 women and children. By the end of March, the Syrian army retook control of half a dozen districts, leaving them in control of 70 percent of the city. By early April, the estimated death toll of the conflict, according to activists, has reached 10,000.
Kofi Annan's peace plan provided for a ceasefire, but even as the negotiations for it were being conducted, Syrian armed forces attacked a number of towns and villages, and summarily executed scores of people.:11 Incommunicado detention, including of children, also continued. On 12 April, both sides, the Syrian Government and rebels of the FSA entered a UN mediated ceasefire period. It was a failure, with infractions of the ceasefire by both sides resulting in several dozen casualties. Acknowledging its failure, Annan called for Iran to be "part of the solution", though the country has been excluded from the Friends of Syria initiative. The peace plan practically collapsed by early June and the UN mission was withdrawn from Syria. Annan officially resigned on 2 August 2012.
Following the Houla massacre of 25 May 2012 and the consequent FSA ultimatum to the Syrian government, the ceasefire practically collapsed towards, as the FSA began nationwide offensives against government troops. On 1 June, the President Assad vowed to crush the anti-regime uprising, after the FSA announced that it was resuming "defensive operations".
On 5 June, fighting broke out in Haffa and nearby villages in the coastal province of Latakia. Rebels fought with government forces backed by helicopter gunships in the heaviest clashes in the province since the revolt began. Syrian forces seized the territory from rebels following eight days of fighting and shelling. On 6 June 78 civilians were killed in the Al-Qubeir massacre. According to activist sources, government forces started by shelling the village before the Shabiha militia moved in. The UN observers headed to Al-Qubeir in the hope of investigating the alleged massacre, but they were met with a roadblock and small arms fire before reaching the village and were forced to retreat.
At the same time, the conflict began moving into the two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, which the government claimed were dominated by a pro-Assad silent majority. In both cities, peaceful protests – including a general strike by Damascus shopkeepers a small strike in Aleppo were interpreted by some as indicating that the historical alliance between the government and the business establishment in the large cities had become weak.
On 22 June, a Turkish F-4 fighter jet was shot down by Syrian government forces, killing both pilots. Tensions between Syria and Turkey dramatically escalated following this incident, as both sides disputed whether the jet had been flying in Syrian or international airspace when it was shot down. Despite Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's vows to retaliate harshly against Assad's government, no such intervention materialised. Bashar al-Assad publicly apologised for the incident, and relations between the two countries cooled.
By mid-July 2012, fighting had spread across the country. Acknowledging this, the International Committee of the Red Cross declared the conflict a civil war. Fighting in Damascus intensified, with a major rebel push to take the city.
On 18 July, Syrian Defense Minister Dawoud Rajiha, former defense minister Hasan Turkmani, and the president's brother-in-law General Assef Shawkat were killed by a bomb attack in Damascus. The Syrian intelligence chief Hisham Ikhtiyar, who was injured in the same explosion, later succumbed to his wounds. Both the FSA and Liwa al-Islam claimed responsibility for the assassination. The fate of the interior minister Mohammad al-Shaar was initially the subject of conflicting reports, variously reporting him as injured but alive, and dead. There were also rumors that President Assad might also have been injured in the attack as he did not appear in public for some days, but new images of Assad surfaced days later. The assassinations were the first of such high-ranking members of Assad's elite since the uprising began. In an interview later that month, General Mohammad Al-Zobi of the rebel forces stated that the explosion had been carried out using 15 kilograms of explosives, which had been smuggled into the building and then detonated remotely.
On 19 July, Russia and China vetoed a United Nations resolution that would impose sanctions against the Syrian government, showing again the divide in international opinion towards the conflict. Russia and China, who are major trade allies with Syria, stated that they sought a more balanced resolution calling equally on both sides to halt violence. On the same day, Iraqi officials reported that the FSA had gained control of all four border checkpoints between Syria and Iraq, increasing concerns for the safety of Iraqis trying to escape the violence in Syria.
In late July, government forces managed to break the rebel offensive on Damascus by pushing out most of the opposition fighters, although fighting still continued in the outskirts. After this, the focus shifted to the battle for control of Aleppo. On 25 July, multiple sources reported that the Assad government was using fighter jets to attack rebel positions in Aleppo and Damascus, and on 1 August, UN observers in Syria witnessed government fighter jets firing on rebels in Aleppo. In early August, the FSA offensive to capture Aleppo was repelled, and the Syrian Army recaptured Salaheddin district, an important rebel stronghold in Aleppo.
On 19 September, rebel forces seized a border crossing between Syria and Turkey in Ar-Raqqah province. It was speculated that this crossing, along with several other border crossings into Turkey and one into Iraq, could provide opposition forces with strategic and logistical advantages, allowing them greater ease in transporting supplies into the country. In late September, the FSA moved its command headquarters from southern Turkey into rebel-controlled areas of northern Syria.
On 3 October 2012, a Syrian–Turkish border clash ensued when a mortar shell fired from Syria hit a residential neighborhood of the Turkish border town of Akçakale. Five Turkish citizens were killed, and the Turkish military responded with artillery strikes against targets inside Syria. This was the most serious cross-border escalation to date.
On 9 October, rebel forces seized control of Maarat al-Numan, a strategic town in Idlib province on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo. By 18 October, the FSA had captured most of Douma, the biggest suburb of Damascus, although fighting continued in the area.
On 22 October, a Jordanian soldier died in a gunfight between Jordanian troops and Islamic militants attempting to cross the border into Syria. Sameeh Maaytah, the Information Minister of Jordan, said the soldier was the first member of the Jordanian military to be killed in clashes connected to the civil war in Syria.
Lakhdar Brahimi arranged for a ceasefire during Eid al-Adha in late October, but it quickly collapsed as both rebels and the Syrian Army resumed large-scale operations.
After Brahimi ceasefire agreement officially ended on 30 October, the Syrian military expanded its aerial bombing campaign in Damascus. A bombing of the Damascus district of Jobar was the first instance of a fighter jet being used in Damascus airspace to attack targets in the city. The following day, Gen. Abdullah Mahmud al-Khalidi, a Syrian Air Force commander who was described by the state media as one of the country's top aviation experts, was assassinated by opposition gunmen in the Damascus district of Rukn al-Din.
In early November 2012, rebels made significant gains in northern Syria. The rebel capture of Saraqib in Idlib province, which lies on the strategic M5 highway, further isolated Aleppo from government-controlled areas of the country. Due to insufficient anti-aircraft weapons, rebel units attempted to nullify the government's air power by destroying landed helicopters and aircraft on air bases. On 3 November, rebels launched an attack on the Taftanaz air base, a core base for the Syrian military's helicopter and bombing operations.
On 18 November, rebels took control of Base 46 in the Aleppo Governorate, one of the Syrian Army's largest bases in northern Syria, after weeks of intense fighting with government forces. Defected General Mohammed Ahmed al-Faj, who commanded the assault, hailed the capture of Base 46 as "one of our biggest victories since the start of the revolution", claiming nearly 300 Syrian troops had been killed and 60 had been captured, with rebels seizing large amounts of heavy weapons, including tanks.
On 22 November, rebels captured the Mayadeen military base in the country's eastern Deir ez Zor province. Activists said this gave the rebels control of a large amount of territory east of the base, stretching to the Iraqi border. On 29 November, at approximately 10:26 UTC, the Syrian Internet and phone service was shut off for a two-day period. There was much speculation that the Syrian government was responsible for the outage; however, state sources denied responsibility and blamed the blackout on fiber optic lines near Damascus becoming exposed and damaged.
In mid-December 2012, American officials said that the Syrian military had resorted to firing Scud ballistic missiles at rebel fighters inside Syria. Reportedly, six Scud missiles were fired at the Sheikh Suleiman base north of Aleppo, which rebel forces had occupied. It is unclear whether the Scuds hit the intended target. The government denied this claim. Later that month, a further Scud attack took place near Marea, a town in a rebel-held area north of Aleppo near the Turkish border. The missile appeared to have missed its target. That same month, the British Daily Telegraph reported that the FSA had now penetrated into Latakia province's Mediterranean coast through Turkey, and that the Syrian government's forces were unable to repel the FSA invasion thus far.
In late December, rebel forces pushed further into Damascus, taking control of the adjoining Yarmouk and Palestine refugee camps, pushing out fighters from the pro-government Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command with the help of other factions. Rebel forces launched an offensive against army positions in Hama province, later claiming to have forced army regulars to evacuate several towns and bases, and stating that "three-quarters of western rural Hama is under our control." Rebels also captured the northern town of Harem near the Turkish border in Idlib province, after weeks of heavy fighting.
On 11 January, Islamist groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, took full control of the strategic Taftanaz air base in the northern Idlib province, after weeks of fighting. The air base, one of the largest in northern Syria, was often used by the military to carry out helicopter raids and deliver supplies. The rebels claimed to have seized helicopters, tanks and multiple rocket launchers, and other military equipment, before being forced to withdraw by a government counter-attack. The leader of the Al-Nusra brigade said the amount of weapons they took was a "game changer".
On 17 January, clashes broke out between Islamist rebels and Kurdish militiamen near the town of Ras al-Ain. According to the Kurdish National Council (KNC), the Islamist rebels came across the border from Turkey and began shelling the town indiscriminately. The KNC appealed to the Free Syrian Army and the main opposition National Coalition to halt the siege. Activists stated that they feared Turkey sought to use jihadists in its conflict with the Kurds.
On 11 February, Islamist rebels captured the town of Al-Thawrah in Raqqa province and the nearby Tabqa Dam, Syria's largest dam and a key source of hydroelectricity. The next day, rebel forces took control of Jarrah air base, located 60 kilometres (37 mi) east of Aleppo. The base had been used to launch bombing raids in Aleppo province, and had served as an important supply line for the Assad regime. On 14 February, fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra took control of Shadadeh, a town located in Hasakah province near the Iraqi border.
On 20 February, a car bomb exploded in the Mazraa neighborhood of Damascus near the Ba'ath Party headquarters, killing at least 53 people and injuring more than 235. None of the organized groups on either side in the conflict claimed responsibility.
On 21 February, the FSA in Quasar began shelling Hezbollah positions in Lebanon. Prior to this, Hezbollah militants had been shelling villages near Quasar from within Lebanon. A 48-hour ultimatum was issued by a FSA commander on 20 February, warning the militant group to stop the attacks or face retaliation.
On 2 March, intense clashes between rebels and the Syrian Army erupted in the north-central city of Raqqa, with many reportedly killed on both sides. On the same day, Syrian troops regained several villages along the highway near Aleppo. By 3 March, rebels had overrun Raqqa's central prison, allowing them to free hundreds of prisoners, according to the SOHR. The SOHR also claimed that rebel fighters were now in control of most of an Aleppo police academy in Khan al-Asal, and that over 200 rebels and government troops had been killed fighting for control of it.
On 4 March, rebel forces launched an offensive to capture Raqqa outright. By 6 March, the rebels had captured the entire city, effectively making Raqqa the first provincial capital to be lost by the Assad regime. Residents of Raqqa celebrated by reportedly tearing down a huge poster of Assad, and toppling a bronze statue of his late father Hafez Assad in the centre of the city. The rebels also seized two top government officials.
On 18 March, the Syrian Air Force attacked rebel positions in Lebanon for the first time. The attack occurred at the Wadi al-Khayl Valley area, near the border town of Arsal.
On 23 March, several rebel groups seized the 38th division air defense base in southern Daraa province near a strategic highway linking Damascus to Jordan. On the next day, rebels captured a 25 km strip of land near the Jordanian border, which included the towns of Muzrib, Abdin, and the al-Rai military checkpoint.
On 25 March, rebels launched one of their heaviest bombardments of Central Damascus since the revolt began, with mortars reportedly hitting Umayyad Square, where Baath Party headquarters, Air Force Intelligence and state television are also located. The attack was launched when rebel forces advanced into the Kafr Souseh district of Damascus.
On 26 March 2013, near the Syrian town of al-Qusayr, rebel commander Khaled al Hamad, who commands the Al Farooq al-Mustakilla Brigade and is also known by his nom de guerre Abu Sakkar, ate the heart and liver of a dead soldier and said "I swear to God, you soldiers of Bashar, you dogs, we will eat from your hearts and livers! O heroes of Bab Amr, you slaughter the Alawites and take out their hearts to eat them!" in an apparent attempt to increase sectarianism. Video of the event emerged two months later and resulted in considerable outrage, especially from Human Rights Watch which classified the incident as a war crime. According to the BBC, it was one of the most gruesome videos to emerge from the conflict up-to-date.
On 3 April, rebels captured a military base near the city of Daraa.
On 17 April, government forces breached a six-month rebel blockade in Wadi al-Deif, near Idlib. Heavy fighting has been reported around the town of Babuleen after government troops outflanked weakened rebel positions with troops now attempting to secure control of a main highway leading to Aleppo. The break in the siege also allowed government forces resupply two major military bases in the region which had been relying on sporadic airdrops.
On 18 April, the FSA took control of Al-Dab'a Air Base near the city of al-Qusayr. The base had no aircraft and was being used primarily to garrison ground troops. Meanwhile, the Syrian Army took control over the town of Abel. The SOHR director described the Army takeover of the town by saying that it will hamper rebel movements between al-Qusayr and Homs city. According to him, the capture of the airport would have relieved the pressure on the rebels in the area, but their loss of Abel made the situation more complicated. The same day, rebels also reportedly assassinated Ali Ballan, who was head of public relations at the Ministry of Social Affairs and a member of Syria's relief agency, in a restaurant at Mazzeh district in Damascus. On 21 April, government forces captured the town of Jdaidet al-Fadl, near Damascus.
In April, government and Hezbollah forces launched an offensive to capture rebel-held areas near al-Qusayr. On 21 April, pro-Assad forces captured the towns of Burhaniya, Saqraja and al-Radwaniya near the Lebanese border. By this point, eight villages had fallen to the government offensive in the area.
On 24 April, after five weeks of fighting, government troops seized control of the town of Otaiba, east of Damascus. The town had been under rebel control for the previous eight months, serving as the main arms supply route from Jordan. Meanwhile in the north of the country, rebels took control of a key position on the edge of the strategic Mennagh Military airbase, on the outskirts of Aleppo. This allowed them to enter the airbase after months of besieging it.
On 2 May, government forces captured the town of Qaysa which lies to the east of Damascus in a steady push north from the city's airport. Troops also retook the Wadi al-Sayeh central district of Homs, driving a wedge between two rebel strongholds. SOHR reported a massacre of over 100 people in the coastal town of Al Bayda, Baniyas, when the Syrian army stormed the town. However, this could not be independently verified due to movement restrictions on the ground. Yet the multiple video images that residents said they had recorded in Bayda and Ras al-Nabeh — particularly of small children, were so shocking that even some government supporters rejected Syrian television’s official version of events, that the army had simply "crushed a number of terrorists."
On 3 May 2013, the Syrian army backed by the Shabiha reportedly committed a massacre of civilians near the city of Baniyas. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that at least 50 people – and possibly as many as 100 – were killed. Witnesses said the dead were killed with knives or blunt objects and that dozens of villagers were still missing.
On 8 May, government forces captured the strategic town of Khirbet Ghazaleh, situated along the highway to the Jordanian border. Over 1,000 rebel fighters withdrew from the town due to the lack of reinforcements and ammunition. The loss of the town also resulted in the reopening of the government supply-route to the contested city of Daraa. The rebels continued to withdraw from other towns and decided not to face the Army's advance along the highway. On 11 May, the rebels managed to cut a newly build desert road used as an Army supply route between central Syria and Aleppo's airport. On 12 May, government forces took complete control of Khirbet Ghazaleh and secured the highway near the town.
By mid-May, due to the recent Army gains in retaking modest, but strategically important, locations, military analysts pointed out that the government will have a major advantage in any future peace talks with the opposition and the West. Pro-government, rebel and independent analysts credited the government advances to the major restructuring of their forces, which they filled with thousands of militia irregulars trained at least in part by Hezbollah and Iranian advisers in counter-insurgency operations. The government's success was also credited to the shift by the Army from conducting counter-insurgency operations to holding on to strategic areas and not trying to recapture the whole country and crush the rebellion.
On 16 May, rebels also claimed they recaptured the town of Qaysa, Rif Damascus, after launching a unified counter-offensive. On 17 May, rebels captured four villages in Eastern Hama, including the Alawite town of Tulaysiah. The villages were abandoned by its residents days before the rebels arrived.
On 19 May, government forces captured the rebel-held town of Halfaya in Hama Province. The Syrian army also launched its offensive against the rebel-held town of Qusayr after taking control of surrounding villages and countryside. A military source reported the Army entered Qusayr, capturing the city center and the municipality building. One opposition activist denied this, but another confirmed it and stated the Army was in control of 60 percent of the city. An al Jazeera reporter in Beirut also said that it seemed that the Syrian army had control of most of the town. During the day's fighting, Hezbollah commander Fadi al-Jazar was killed.
An anonymous opposition source told the Associated Press that the attack was launched from the east and the south and that Hezbollah fighters took control of the town hall in a few hours and that by the end of the day, rebels units were pushed out of most of Qusayr. He added that the fighting was now concentred in the northern part of the city. The attack appeared to surprise the rebels, who expected the army to push by the north on several rebels controlled villages before attacking the city. The turning point of the offensive was reached when Hezbollah fighters took control of the Al Tal area overlooking Qusayr. Several rebels fighters accused some commanders from fleeing the Al tal area at the last minute. Meanwhile SOHR reported that the Syrian army was at the area by the western neighborhood of al-Quseir in order to lay siege on the city itself.
On 24 May, rebels captured a military base near the town of Nairab.
On 1 and 2 June, after heavy fighting, the Syrian Army recaptured three of the Alawite villages that had been previously captured by the rebels in Eastern Hama province, after rebel forces retreated from the area.
On 5 June, rebel forces withdrew from al-Qusayr, and the Syrian military and its allies took full control of the town. The following day, government forces captured the nearby village of Dabaa.
On 6 June, rebels attacked and temporarily captured the Quneitra border crossing which links the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights with the rest of Syria. However, the same day, government forces counter-attacked with tanks and armoured personnel carriers, recapturing the crossing.
On 7 June, Syrian troops backed by Hezbollah captured two villages north of al-Qusayr: Salhiyeh and Masoudiyeh. The next day, they captured the village of Buwaydah, the last rebel-held village in the al-Qusayr region.
Between 7 and 14 June, Army troops, government militiamen, and reportedly Hezbollah fighters, launched operations in the province of Aleppo. Over a one-week period, government forces had advanced both in Aleppo city and the countryside around the city, pushing back the rebels. However, on 14 June, according to an opposition activist, the tide had started reversing, after rebels managed to halt an armoured reinforcement column from Aleppo city for two government-held Shiite villages northwest of the city. As of 16 June, the rebels had been holding back the column for two days. Rebels claimed of being able to destroy one tank and kill 20 government soldiers northwest of the town of Maaret al-Arteek. Before the column was stopped, government forces had captured the high ground at Maaret al-Arteek, threatening rebel positions. Government forces did also manage to make some advances in the southern part of Aleppo province, capturing the village of Ain-Assan village. During the fighting in Aleppo city itself, on 13 June, government forces managed to temporarily advance into the rebel-held Sakhour district from two directions, but were soon repelled. Some described it as just simply another skirmish or possibly a probing attack and not a full assault.
On 10 June, Shia pro-government fighters from the village of Hatla, east of Deir al-Zour, attacked a nearby rebel position, killing four rebels. The next day, in retaliation for the attack, thousands of rebels attacked and captured the village, killing 60 residents, fighters and civilians, according to SOHR. 10 rebel fighters were killed during the attack.
At dawn on 13 June, rebels seized an Army position on the northern edge of the town of Morek, which is located on the strategic north-south highway, in fighting that killed six soldiers and two rebels. Later in the day, the Army shelled the base and sent reinforcements in an attempt to recapture the post.
On 14 June, the Al Nusra front captured a military barracks near Idlib city, after three days of fighting.
On 15 June, the Syrian army captured the Damascus suburb of Ahmadiyeh near the city's airport. Rebels said fighting began after rebels entered the town to use it as a position to launch mortars on the Damascus airport. They added that fighting was ongoing. 
Syria is thought to have the world's third-largest stockpile of chemical weapons, and opposition forces are concerned that the regime may use them as a last resort to retain power. In August 2012, the United States warned that the use of such weapons was a "red line" for the Ba'athist regime, and would result in "enormous consequences" if crossed. Similarly, France and the United Kingdom have warned of severe consequences for the use of chemical weapons, with France in particular promising a "massive and blistering" response.
Allegations that chemical weapons have been used in Syria first began to emerge on 23 December 2012, when Al Jazeera released unconfirmed reports that a gas attack killed 7 civilians in the rebel-held al-Bayyada neighbourhood of Homs.
On 19 March 2013, new unconfirmed reports surfaced that SCUD missiles armed with chemical agents may have been fired into the Khan al-Asal district in Aleppo and the Al Atebeh suburbs of Damascus, with both sides accusing each other of carrying out the attack.
An 23 April 2013 the New York Times reported that the British and French governments had sent a confidential letter to the United Nations Secretary General, claiming that there was evidence that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in Aleppo, Homs, and perhaps Damascus. Israel also claimed that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons on 19 March near Aleppo and Damascus. By 25 April the U.S intelligence assessment was that the Assad regime had likely used chemical weapons – specifically sarin gas. However, the White House announced that "much more" work had to be done to verify the intelligence assessments. Syria has refused an investigation team from the UN from entering Syria, though Jeffrey Feltman, UN under-secretary for political affairs, said on Wednesday that a refusal would not prevent an inquiry from being carried out.
On 29 April, another chemical attack was reported, this time in Saraqib, in which 2 died and 13 were injured. The injured were taken to Turkey. On 5 May, Turkish doctors confirmed that no traces of sarin had been found in the blood samples of victims.
A U.N. report stated that there are "reasonable grounds" to believe that limited amounts of chemical weapons have been used in at least four attacks in the civil war, but more evidence is needed to determine the exact chemical agents used or who was responsible. Stating that it has not been possible "to determine the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator."
British and French authorities claim to have evidence that Sarin nerve gas has been used in Syria, these findings and evidence have been passed on to the US government. The evidence is largely made up of samples of bodily fluids taken from individuals who claim to have been affected. However both countries admitted that they cannot prove with "100% certainty" their claims.
On 30 May, Turkish newspapers reported that Turkish security forces have arrested Al-Nusra Front fighters in the southern provinces of Mersin and Adana near the Syrian border and confiscated 2 Kg of sarin gas from them. According to the reports the fighters were going to use the gas in bomb-making.
On 2 June, Iraq defense ministry announced that they have intercepted an Al-Qaeda in Iraq cell working to produce sarin and mustard gas. Al-Qaeda in Iraq officially confirmed in April 2013 that [Al-Nusra Front]] is part of the organization.
On 13 June, the United States announced that there is definitive proof that the Assad government has used limited amounts of chemical weapons on multiple occasions on rebel forces, killing 100 to 150 people. Sarin was the agent used with no proof that the rebels had access to such weapons. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes did not confirm whether this proof showed that Syria had crossed the 'red line' established by President Obama by using chemical weapons. Mr Rhodes stated that: "The president has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has."  Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that "the accusations of Damascus using chemical weapons put forth by the USA are not backed by credible facts." Tests conducted by France confirmed the United States conclusions, according to the French government.
The Syrian army began using cluster bombs in September 2012. Steve Goose, director of the Arms division at Human Rights Watch said “Syria is expanding its relentless use of cluster munitions, a banned weapon, and civilians are paying the price with their lives and limbs,” “The initial toll is only the beginning because cluster munitions often leave unexploded bomblets that kill and maim long afterward.”
In December 2012, the Syrian government began using Scud missiles on rebel-held towns, primarily targeting Aleppo. On 19 February, four Scud missiles were fired, three landed in Aleppo city and one on Tell Rifaat town, Aleppo province. Between December and February, at least 40 Scud missile landings were reported. Altogether, Scud missiles killed 141 people in the month of February. The United States condemned the Scud missile attacks. On 1 March, a Scud missile landed in Iraq. It is believed that the intention was to hit the Deir Ezzor governate. On 29 March, a Scud missile landed on Hretan, Aleppo, killing 20 and injuring 50. On 28 April, a Scud missile landed on Tell Rifaat, killing four, two of them women and two of them children, SOHR reported. On 3 June a surface to surface missile, not confirmed as a Scud, hit the village of Kafr Hamrah around midnight killing 26 people including six women and eight children according to SOHR.
Suicide bombings began in December 2011; Jabhat al-Nusra has claimed responsibility for 57 out of 70 similar attacks through April 2013. Targeting government officials, the bombings have claimed numerous civilian casualties.
Thermobaric weapons, also known as "fuel-air bombs," may have been used by the government side during the Syrian civil war. Since 2012, rebels have claimed that the Syrian Air Force (government forces) is using thermobaric weapons against residential areas occupied by the rebel fighters, such as during the Battle of Aleppo and also in Kafr Batna. A panel of United Nations human rights investigators reported that the Syrian government used thermobaric bombs against the rebellious town of Qusayr in March 2013.
The Shabiha are unofficial pro-government militias drawn largely from Assad's Alawite minority group. Since the uprising, the Syrian government has frequently used shabiha to break up protests and enforce laws in restive neighborhoods. As the protests escalated into an armed conflict, the opposition started using the term shabiha to describe any civilian Assad supporter taking part in the government's crackdown on the uprising. The opposition blames the shabiha for the many violent excesses committed against anti-government protesters and opposition sympathizers, as well as looting and destruction. In December 2012, the shabiha were designated a terrorist organization by the United States.
Bassel al-Assad is reported to have created the shabiha in the 1980s for the government use in times of crisis. Shabiha have been described as "a notorious Alawite paramilitary, who are accused of acting as unofficial enforcers for Assad's regime"; "gunmen loyal to Assad", and "semi-criminal gangs comprised of thugs close to the regime". Despite the group's image as an Alawite militia, some shabiha operating in Aleppo have been reported to be Sunnis.
In 2012, the Assad regime created a more organized official militia known as the Jaysh al-Sha'bi, allegedly with help from Iran and Hezbollah. As with the shabiha, the vast majority of Jaysh al-Sha'bi members are Alawite and Shi'ite volunteers.
General Secretary Nasrallah denied Hezbollah had been fighting on behalf of the Syrian government, stating in a 12 October 2012 speech that "right from the start the Syrian opposition has been telling the media that Hezbollah sent 3,000 fighters to Syria, which we have denied".
However, according to the Lebanese Daily Star newspaper, Nasrallah said in the same speech that Hezbollah fighters helped the Syrian government "retain control of some 23 strategically located villages [in Syria] inhabited by Shiites of Lebanese citizenship". Nasrallah said that Hezbollah fighters have died in Syria doing their "jihadist duties".
Former secretary general of Hezbollah, Sheikh Sobhi Tfaili, confirmed in February 2013 that Hezbollah was fighting for the Syrian army.
On 12 May 2013, Hezbollah, with the Syrian army, attempted to retake part of Qusayr. By the end of the day, 60 percent of the city, including the municipal office building, were under pro-Assad forces. In Lebanon, there have been "a recent increase in the funerals of Hezbollah fighters" and "Syrian rebels have shelled Hezbollah-controlled areas."
As of 14 May 2013, Hezbollah fighters were reported to be fighting alongside the Syrian army, particularly the Homs province. and Hassan Nasrallah has called on Shiites and Hezbollah to protect the shrine of Sayida Zeinab. President Bashar al-Assad denied in May 2013 that there were foreign fighters, Arab or otherwise, to be fighting for the government in Syria.
On 25 May 2013, Nasrallah announced that Hezbollah is fighting in the Syrian Civil War against Islamic extremists and "pledged that his group will not allow Syrian militants to control areas that border Lebanon". He confirmed that Hezbollah was fighting in the strategic Syrian town of Qusair on the same side as Assad's forces. In the televised address, he said, "If Syria falls in the hands of America, Israel and the takfiris, the people of our region will go into a dark period."
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is the main armed opposition in Syria. Its formation was announced in late July 2011 by a group of defecting Syrian Army officers. In a video, the men called upon Syrian soldiers and officers to defect to their ranks, and said the purpose of the Free Syrian Army was to defend civilian protesters from violence by the state. Many Syrian soldiers subsequently deserted to join the FSA. The actual number of soldiers who defected to the FSA is uncertain, with estimates ranging from 1,000 to over 25,000 by December 2011. The FSA functions more as an umbrella organization than a traditional military chain of command, and is "headquartered" in Turkey. As such, it cannot issue direct orders to its various bands of fighters, but many of the most effective armed groups are fighting under the FSA's banner.
As deserting soldiers abandoned their armored vehicles and brought only light weaponry and munitions, FSA adopted guerilla-style tactics against regime security forces in urban areas. Its primary target has been the Shabiha militias; most FSA attacks are directed against trucks and buses that are believed to carry security reinforcements. Sometimes, the occupants of government vehicles are taken as hostages, while in other cases the vehicles are attacked either with roadside bombs or with hit-and-run attacks. The FSA has also targeted power lines and water mains in "retaliation against Hezbollah's provocations". To encourage defection, the FSA began attacking army patrols, shooting the commanders and trying to convince the soldiers to switch sides. FSA units have also acted as defense forces by guarding neighborhoods with strong opposition presences, patrolling streets while protests take place, and attacking Shabiha members. However, the FSA also engaged in street battles with security forces in Deir ez-Zor, Al-Rastan, and Abu Kamal. Fighting in these cities raged for days, with no clear victor. In Hama, Homs, Al-Rastan, Deir ez-Zor and Daraa in late 2011, the Syrian military used airstrikes against them, leading to calls from the FSA for the imposition of a no-fly zone by Western powers.
More than 3,000 members of the Syrian security forces had been killed by May 2011, which the Syrian government stated was due to "armed gangs" among the protesters. However, the opposition blamed the deaths on the government. Syrians have been crossing the border to Lebanon to buy weapons on the black market since the beginning of the protests. Clan leaders in Syria claim that the armed uprising is of a tribal, revenge-based nature, not Islamist. On 6 June, the government said more than 120 security personnel were killed by "armed gangs"; 20 in an ambush, and 82 in an attack on a security post. The main centers of unrest have been described as being predominately Sunni Muslim towns and cities close to the country's borders where smuggling has been common for generations, and thus have more access to smuggled weapons.
Daniel Byman believes the political and military opposition are each worryingly divided and disconnected from each other, and thus uniting, training and pushing the armed opposition to avoid religious sectarianism is crucial. The latter is important, for otherwise the Alawites and other minorities will fight all the harder, and make post-Assad Syria more difficult to govern. Others would say that part of Byman's analysis represents a failure to understand that the leadership within Syria is decentralised out of necessity, that this is a good thing, and that decentralisation is not the same thing as fragmentation, and certainly does not represent an absence of strong leadership. Whichever view one accepts, there are undeniably rivalries between different strands and disagreement between those advocating peaceful protests and those backing armed struggle.
In the Spring of 2013, there were reports of many defections from the Free Syrian Army to Al Nusra, due to lack of weapons. Free Syrian Army fighters complained about the lack of western help, and cited Al Nusra as an organization which could effectively provide weaponry needs for their fighters. One estimate put the amount of defections to al Nusra as high as 25% of the FSA.
In May 2013, Salim Idriss, one of the FSA leaders, acknowledged that rebels were badly fragmented and lacked the military skill needed to topple the government of President Bashar Assad. He said it was difficult to unify rebels because many of them were civilians and only a few of them had military service. Idriss said he was working on a countrywide command structure, but that a lack of material support was hurting that effort. He pointed out shortage of ammunition and weapons, fuel for the cars and money for logistics and salaries. “The battles are not so simple now,” Idriss said. “At the beginning of the revolution, they had to fight against a checkpoint. They had to fight against a small group of the army. Now they have to liberate an air base. Now they have to liberate a military school. Small units can’t do that alone, and now it is very important for them to be unified. But unifying them in a manner to work like a regular army is still difficult." He denied any cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra but acknowledged common operations with another Islamist group Ahrar ash-Sham. In April the US announced it would transfer $123 million of aid through his group.
The al-Nusra Front, being the biggest jihadist group in Syria, is often considered to be the most aggressive and violent part of the opposition. Being responsible for over 50 suicide bombings, including several deadly explosions in Damascus in 2011 and 2012, it is recognized as a terrorist organization by Syrian government and was designated as such by United States in December 2012.
In April 2013, the leader of the Islamic state of Iraq released an audio statement announcing that Jabhat al-Nusra is its branch in Syria. The leader of Al Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, said that the group will not merge with the Islamic state of Iraq, but still maintain allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda.
The relationship between the Front and the indigenous Syrian opposition is tense, even though Jabhat al-Nusra has fought alongside the FSA in several battles. The Mujahideen's strict religious views and willingness to impose sharia law disturbed many Syrians. Some rebel commanders have accused foreign jihadists of "stealing the revolution", robbing Syrian factories and displaying religious intolerance.
Formed on 23 August 2011, the National Council is a coalition of anti-government groups, based in Turkey. The National Council seeks the end of Bashar al-Assad's rule and the establishment of a modern, civil, democratic state. SNC has links with the Free Syrian Army.
On 11 November 2012 in Doha, the National Council and other opposition forces united as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The following day, it was recognized as the legitimate government of Syria by numerous Persian Gulf states. Delegates to the Coalition's leadership council are to include women and representatives of religious and ethnic minorities, including Alawites. The military council will reportedly include the Free Syrian Army.
The main aims of the National Coalition are replacing the Bashar al-Assad government and "its symbols and pillars of support", "dismantling the security services", unifying and supporting the Free Syrian Army, refusing dialogue and negotiation with the al-Assad government, and "holding accountable those responsible for killing Syrians, destroying [Syria], and displacing [Syrians]".
The National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC) is a Syrian bloc consisting of 13 left-wing political parties, among which is the Kurdish PYD. The NCC is a bloc taking position in between SNC and pro-government movements, and has a left-leaning political profile.
The NCC differs from the Syrian National Coalition on two main points of strategy:
Despite having endorsed the Free Syrian Army on 23 September 2012, the FSA has dismissed the NCC as an extension of the government, stating that "this opposition is just the other face of the same coin". The Coordination Committee, unlike the Syrian National Council, believed that the solution was to keep the current Syrian government, and hoped to resolve the current crisis through dialogue, in order to achieve "a safe and peaceful transition from a state of despotism to democracy". Despite since changing its stance of the continuation of the Assad government in some kind of transitional capacity, the NCC has held onto its policy of opposing all foreign intervention, but has previously suggested the group would find the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria acceptable.
Both the opposition and government have accused each other of employing sectarian agitation. The successive governments of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad have been closely associated with the country's minority Alawite sect of Islam, whereas the majority of the population, and thus most of the opposition, is Sunni, lending plausibility to such charges, even though both leaderships claim to be secular.
The government has also been widely accused of fomenting sectarian hatred against the opposition. Analysts describe Assad's use of force to displace Sunni populations as a form of ethnic cleansing. In a March 2012 TIME report, an anti-Assad activist claimed that the Syrian government had paid government workers to write anti-Alawite graffiti and chant sectarian slogans at opposition rallies. Alawites who have taken refugee at the coast and in the Alawite mountains as well as in Lebanon have also told journalists that they were offered money by the Syrian government to spread sectarianism through chants and graffiti.
At the uprising's outset, some protesters reportedly chanted sectarian threats such as "Christians to Beirut; Alawites to the coffin". Some prominent opposition groups (such as the Muslim Brotherhood) have a religious basis which has been seen as threatening to Syria's Alawite and Christian minorities. Smaller opposition factions, such as the Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist Al-Nusra Front, take explicitly sectarian positions. There are reports of incidents in which rebel forces engaged in sectarian violence, such as burning Shi'ite mosques.
In mid-2012, the fear of rising sectarian anger against the Alawite community led to speculation of a re-creation of the 1920s-era Alawite State as a safe haven for Assad and the leadership should Damascus finally fall. Latakia and Tartus provinces both have Alawite-majority populations, and historically constituted the territory of the Alawite State between 1920 and 1936. Around the same time, Christians living in Aleppo started to arm themselves, many with the help of the Syrian government. Christian groups expressed fears that Islamist rebels would persecute them, as had happened to Christians in Iraq during the Iraq War.
In December 2012, UN human rights investigators stated that there had been "a clear shift" in the nature of the conflict since the beginning of the year, with more fighters and civilians on both sides describing the civil war in ethnic or religious terms. The investigators claimed that, sectarian divides have deepened, as "ethnic and religious minority groups have increasingly aligned themselves with parties to the conflict", raising the possibility of reprisal killings and prolonged violence that could last for years after the government falls.
As for April 2013, the secular motives of the initial protests have been almost totally displaced by growing Islamist influence. In rebel-held areas the courts staff consists of clerics and lawyers applying Sharia, while the military command has also been filled with officers willing to infuse Islamic law into a future government. As New York Times reporters related, "nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of." Jabhat al-Nusra fighters put back oil fields staff to work and took control of Aleppo's bakeries and flour distribution. However, experts say that hard-line Islamists make up only 8,000 of the 140,000 rebel force. With the NPR reporting that Islamist only make up a small fraction of the opposition.
Kurds – mostly Sunni Muslims, with a small minority of Yezidis – represented 10% of Syria's population at the start of the uprising in 2011. They had suffered from decades of discrimination and neglect, being deprived of basic civil, cultural, economic, and social rights. Additionally, since 1962, they and their children had been denied Syrian nationality, leading to a widespread inability to seek employment in the public sector.:7 When protests began, Assad's government finally granted citizenship to an estimated 200,000 stateless Kurds, in an effort to try and neutralise potential Kurdish opposition. This concession, combined with Turkish endorsement of the opposition and Kurdish under-representation in the Syrian National Council, has resulted in Kurds participating in the civil war in smaller numbers than their Syrian Arab counterparts. Consequently, violence and state repression in Kurdish areas has been less severe. In terms of a post-Assad Syria, Kurds reportedly desire a degree of autonomy within a decentralised state.
In 2012, several cities with large Kurdish populations, such as Qamishli and Al-Hasakah, began witnessing large-scale protests against the Syrian government. The government responded by sending in tanks and firing upon the protesters. However, the head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), Salih Muslim, stated in July 2012 that he did not support either the government or the opposition. Kurdish fighters have since clashed with both government and rebel forces.
Since the outset of the civil war, numerous Kurdish political parties have organised themselves into an umbrella organisation, the Kurdish National Council. Until October 2011, most of these parties were members of the NCC. After October 2011, only the PYD remained in the NCC, holding a more moderate stance regarding the Assad regime.
On 19 July 2012, Kurdish militias from the PYD and Kurdish National Council forced out government forces from several areas, including the town of Ayn al-Arab (known as Kobanê in Kurdish). Kurdish militias then denied access to the FSA, whose fighters approached upon hearing of the Kurdish victory, arguing that Kurds could take care of Kurdish areas alone. Nuri Brimo, a spokesperson for the PYD, announced that the liberation of Kobane was the beginning of a battle for the whole of Syrian Kurdistan and its autonomy.
Some in the opposition claimed that the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group in Turkey, is helping the Syrian government in the conflict. However, Murat Karayilan, the leader of the PKK, denied such claims, stating that the Kurds in Syria do not support either side and desire both neutrality and autonomy. In February 2013, Arab rebels and Kurdish fighters in northern Syria agreed to a peace deal, ending months of hostilities.
Iraqi and Syrian Kurds established control over their own regions with the help of the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers' Party and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Irbil, under President Massoud Barzani. The Syrian Kurdish enclave has been fighting westward to secure an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea, between the northern part of the Alawi region and the Syrian border with Turkey.
The reaction of the approximately 500,000 Palestinians living in Syria to the conflict has been mixed. Syria's Palestinian community largely remained neutral in the early days of the uprising. Ongoing government attacks and shelling have caused any pro-government sympathies among the Palestinians in Syria to dwindle severely. According to the UN, 75% of the Palestinians in Syria have been affected by the uprising, and more than 600 of them have been killed. Although many Palestinians are appreciative of the civil rights given to them by the Syrian government, in comparison to other Arab states, these same rights have allowed the younger generation of Palestinians to be "raised essentially as Syrians" who "find it hard not to be swept up in the fervor on the streets", according to the New York Times.
While major Palestinian factions such as Hamas have turned against the Syrian government, other groups, particularly the PFLP-General Command (PFLP-GC), have remained supportive. The PFLP-GC has been accused by pro-rebel Palestinians of actively participating in the conflict as secret police in the refugee camps. In late October 2012, pro-rebel Palestinians formed the so-called Storm Brigade with the task of wresting control of the Yarmouk Camp in Damascus from pro-government groups.
In May 2013, the PFLP announced that it would be forming combat units in an attempt to "recapture" Israeli-occupied territory, in particular the Golan Heights. Hezbollah and the Assad government offered tacit support to the plan.
The conflict in Syria has received significant international attention. The Arab League, European Union, the United Nations, and many Western governments condemned the Syrian government's violent response to the protests, and many expressed support for the protesters' right to exercise free speech. Initially, many Middle Eastern governments expressed support for Assad, but they switched sides as the death toll mounted. Both the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation suspended Syria's membership.
In June 2012 UN Action Group on Syria met in Geneva and agreed on a six-point plan that would lead to free elections in Syria, with a transitional government including members of Assad's administration and the opposition. However, the draft resolution, proposed soon after by Russia, was rejected by Western countries as lacking pressure and not demanding that Assad would step down in the first place. Russia and China never agreed with such provision.
The US and its NATO allies have pressed for al-Assad's departure. The draft eventually put under vote by UNSC called Assad to stop use of heavy weapons in urban areas and withdraw his forces, or face sanctions. It was vetoed by Russia and China, as having "uneven content intended to put pressure on only one party." Russian officials stated that plans for Syria's political future should not be forced on it from outside and claimed that "terrorists" are present within the opposition's ranks. In December 2012, the Russian deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, claimed Syria's government was "progressively losing control" and that "the victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be excluded", although the Russian Foreign Ministry insisted soon after that the country had not changed its position on Syria and "never will". Iran, a longtime ally of Syria, has consistently expressed support for Assad.
On 15 June Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi announced that he was severing diplomatic relations between Syria and Egypt, closing the Egyptian embassy in Damascus and ordering Syria to close its own embassy in Cairo.
During the 5 December 2011 night, about 35 armed fighters tried to cross the border of Syria from Turkey, but were engaged immediately by the Syrian border forces who inflicted several wounds to them and were able to repel them back to Turkey. Once they were back on Turkish soil, the Turkish army allegedly picked them up in trucks and took care of the injured fighters. A further attempt happened during the night of 12 December, when 15 infiltrators tried again to cross the border. They were unsuccessful and two of them were killed by Syrian border patrols
Tensions were further raised later that year in October, when Syrian mortar rounds began landing in Turkish territory. On 3 October, a Syrian mortar shell hit the Turkish town of Akçakale, killing 5 civilians. Turkey responded by shelling Syrian army positions along the border. Throughout October, Syrian mortar shells repeatedly landed in Turkish territory, and the Turkish military launched retaliatory artillery and mortar strikes, firing into Syria a total of 87 times. These attacks reportedly killed 12 Syrian soldiers and destroyed several tanks.
During 2013, two deadly bombings took place on the Syria-Turkish border. In the first event in On February 11, 2013, a bomb exploded at the Turkısh-Syrian border crossing in Cilvegözü, killing 14. On May 11, 2013, a car bomb exploded in the Turkish border city of Reyhanli, killing at least 40 and injuring over 100.
In late 2012, tensions between Israel and Syria escalated. On 25 September, several mortar shells landed in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights region, landing in an open area adjacent to the border fence. Overall, throughout October and early November 2012, several Syrian mortar and light artillery shells hit the Golan Heights. One mortar round may have been responsible for a brushfire that erupted in the area. On 3 November, three Syrian tanks entered the demilitarized zone in the central Golan Heights as a number of mortar shells were fired into the area. On 5 November, an Israeli army jeep was damaged by Syrian army gunfire as it patrolled the border.
The Akashat ambush was a well planned assault against a Syrian Army convoy defended by Iraqi soldiers that took place on 4 March 2013, as the group was travelling in the province of Anbar, next to the border with Syria. The Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for the ambush on March 11. In the clashes, 51 Syrian soldiers killed.
Another 9 Iraqi soldiers were killed as well from insurgent fire. The attackers carried unknown casualties.
A number of clashes and incidents took place on Jordanian Syrian border since the beginning of civil war, mostly involving Jordanian Army and Syrian Army, but occasionally also the Syrian rebels.
On 22 October 2012, a Jordanian soldier died in a gunfight between Jordanian troops and Islamic militants attempting to cross the border into Syria. Sameeh Maaytah, the Information Minister of Jordan, said the soldier was the first member of the Jordanian military to be killed in clashes connected to the civil war in Syria.
At the beginning of summer 2012, two Hezbollah fighters were killed in a clash with Syrian rebels who were on Lebanese territory.
On 17 September, Syrian Ground-attack aircraft fired three missiles 500 metres (1,600 ft) over the border into Lebanese territory near Arsal. It was suggested that the jets were chasing rebels in the vicinity. The attack prompted Lebanese president Michel Sleiman to launch an investigation, whilst not publicly blaming Syria for the incident.
On 22 September, a group of armed members of the Free Syrian Army attacked a border post near Arsal. This was reported to be the second incursion within a week. The group were chased off into the hills by the Lebanese Army, who detained and later released some rebels due to pressure from dignified locals. Michel Sleiman praised the actions taken by the military as maintaining Lebanon's position being “neutral from the conflicts of others". He called on border residents to “stand beside their army and assist its members.” Syria has repeatedly called for an intensified crackdown on rebels that it claims are hiding in Lebanese border towns.
On 30 January 2013, about ten jets bombed a convoy believed to be carrying Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles to Lebanon. The attack, attributed to Israeli airforce, did not result in any counterattacks from Syria, although Syria has said it reserves the right to retaliate. Western intelligence sources reported that Iranian general Hassan Shateri had been killed in the airstrike. Iran acknowledged his death at the hands of the Israelis without further details. Israel refused to comment on its alleged involvement.
News organizations reported that Israel allegedly attacked Syria on the night between 2 and 3 May 2013. US officials said that the Israeli war planes shot into Syria from Lebanese air space, and that the warplanes did not enter Syrian air space. No counter-attacks by Syria were reported at any front, and the Syrian ambassador to the UN said that he was not aware of any attacks on Syria by Israel. Israel either didn't make any comment.
News sources reported a set of massive explosions in Damascus on the night of 4–5 May 2013. Syrian state media described this as an "Israeli rocket attack", with the targets including a military research center of the Syrian government in Jamraya. The Daily Telegraph reported anonymous Israeli sources as confirming that this was an Israeli attack on Iranian-made guided missiles allegedly intended to be shipped to Hezbollah. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitoring group based in Britain, said at least 42 Syrian soldiers were killed in the strikes.
Turkey, once an ally of Syria, has condemned Assad over the violent crackdown and has requested his departure from office. In October 2011, Turkey began sheltering the Free Syrian Army, offering the group a safe zone and a base of operation. Together with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turkey has also provided the rebels with arms and other military equipment. After Syria had shot down a Turkish warplane and both countries had exchanged fire across the border, Turkey requested American Patriot missile batteries to help defend its borders against possible Syrian aggression; the missiles were delivered by NATO in January 2013.
Since 2012, the United States, United Kingdom and France have provided opposition forces with military aid, including weapons, communications equipment, body armor, medical supplies and non-combat armored vehicles. The U.K. was also reported to have provided intelligence support from its Cyprus bases, revealing Syrian military movements to Turkish officials, who then pass on the information to the FSA.
It has been also reported that CIA operated along the Turkish-Syrian border, where agents investigated rebel groups, recommending arms providers which groups to give aid to. CIA agents also helped opposition forces to develop supply routes, and provided them with communications training. The majority of the weapons provided to rebel forces by Saudi Arabia and Qatar have ended up in the hands of hardline Islamic jihadists, who it is feared will create problems elsewhere once the Syrian conflict comes to a close.
In spring 2012, Saudi Arabia and Qatar announced they would begin arming and bankrolling the opposition. Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, and Emile Hokayem of the International Institute of Strategic Studies argued that such support would be unlikely to immediately make a decisive impact. A ship carrying weapons from Libya believed destined for Syria's rebels was intercepted by Lebanon in April 2012. In December 2012, Qatar was reported to be shipping arms to Sunni Islamists in Syria as a means of cementing alliances in the Middle East. The Financial Times reported that Qatar had funded the Syrian rebellion by "as much as $3 billion" over the first two years, but in May 2013 reported that Saudi Arabia was becoming the main provider of arms to the rebels.
In December 2012, a new wave of weapons from foreign supporters were transferred to rebel forces via the Jordanian border in the country's south. The arms included M79 Osa anti-tank weapons and M-60 recoilless rifles purchased by Saudi Arabia from Croatia. Previously, most of the weapons were delivered via the Turkish border in the north. However, much of the arms unintentionally ended up in the hands of Islamist rebels. The goal for the change in routes was to strengthen moderate rebels and to bring the war closer to Damascus.
In early March 2013, a Jordanian security source revealed that the United States, Britain, and France were training non-Islamist rebels in Jordan. On 22 April 2013 the European Union lifted its embargo on Syrian oil to import barrels directly from rebel groups. Several of the oil fields are believed to be under control of Jabhat al-Nusra. Some analysts say the decision might also set up a deadly competition between rebel groups over the resource.
Since April 2013, Saudi Arabia had began supplying the FSA with limited amounts of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. However in June 2013, a gulf source declared that Saudi Arabia had fully equipped rebels with shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles without limitations for the first time.
On 13 June, a government official states that the Obama administration, after days of high-level meetings, has approved providing lethal arms to the Supreme Military Council (SMC). The SMC is a rebel command structure that includes representatives from most major rebel groups, and excludes the Islamic extremist elements. The decision was made shortly after the administration has concluded that the Assad government has used chemical weapons on opposition forces, thus crossing the "red line" drew by Obama earlier in 2012. The arms will include small arms and ammunition, and possibly anti-tank weapons. However, they will not include anti-aircraft weapons, something repeatedly requested by the armed opposition. Further such weapons would be supplied by the US "on our own timeline".
The Pentagon has proposed a limited no-fly zone over southern Syria, using F-16s and Patriot missiles, operating from Jordanian airspace. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that such a move would be illegal under international law. Proponents of the proposal say a no-fly zone could be imposed without a UN Security Council resolution, since the US would not regularly enter Syrian airspace and wouldn't hold Syrian territory.
Russia, whose Tartus naval base, electronic surveillance facility in Latakia and airbase facilities at Tadmur (Palmyra) are its only military outposts outside the former Soviet Union, has supplied the Syrian government with arms as part of a business contract signed before the uprising began. Most Syrian military equipment, including tanks, missiles, and artillery, was acquired from Russia, which continues sales and technical support. Russian-built air defense systems and anti-aircraft missile batteries purchased by Syria have been upgraded through the installation of new equipment and modification of existing systems by Russian suppliers during the civil war; sometimes these installations are manned by Russian military advisers. According to Russian Ground Forces Air Defense commander Major General Alexander Leonov, Syria's Russian-supplied air defenses are sophisticated and effective. Overcoming them, as would be required in the event of the threatened military intervention should Syria use chemical weapons, would be a major challenge for U.S. and NATO forces.
Western diplomats have frequently criticized Russia's behavior, but Russia denied its actions have violated any international law. Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed that Russia does not support either side. However, a Syrian jetliner returning from Moscow in October 2012 was forced to land in Ankara, the Turkish capital, and the government of Turkey announced hours later that Russian munitions and military equipment had been discovered aboard the aircraft and confiscated. The Russian Foreign Ministry denied that the cargo of the plane was sold to the Syrian military by the Russian government and claimed that its shipping did not violate international sanctions, contrary to the Turkish assertion. Later in October, the Russian military demanded an inquiry into the source of the Syrian rebels' U.S.-made Stinger surface-to-air missiles. By January 2013, Russia showed "little sign of easing support for the Assad regime" and was "carrying out the largest naval exercises since the Soviet era off the coast of Syria", though some analysts speculated that this was merely cover to use its warships for large-scale evacuations of its citizens. By May 2013 Russia was reported to have recently sent advanced anti-ship missiles to Damascus, capable of sinking vessels nearly 300 kilometres away. Russia remained 'somewhat enigmatic' about supplies of the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Syria. Sergei Lavrov said Russia was not thinking of selling, but had already concluded a sale. However, president Putin said in June that Russia had not yet delivered the arms.
Iran, which sees Syria as a key regional ally, has not only provided the Assad regime with arms and technical support, but has also sent combat troops, specifically the Revolutionary Guards, to support Syrian military operations. Technical support has reportedly included unmanned aerial vehicles (a.k.a. 'drones') to guide Syrian military planes and gunners in their bombarding of rebel positions. It has been reported that Iran also trained personnel from Hezbollah, a militant group based in Lebanon which has deployed pro-Assad fighters to Syria. In January 2013, during a prisoner swap between the Syrian rebels and the Assad regime, 48 Iranians were reportedly released by the rebels in exchange for nearly 2,130 prisoners held by the Syrian government. Rebels claimed the captives were linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. United States State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland described the Iranians as "members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard", describing their presence as "just another example of how Iran continues to provide guidance, expertise, personnel, technical capabilities to the Syrian regime." In March 2013, Israeli sources alleged that Iran and Hezbollah had built a 50,000-strong joint militia to support Assad. Iraq, located between Syria and Iran, has been criticized by the U.S. for allowing Iran to ship military supplies to Syria over Iraqi airspace. According to the New York Times, Iranian arms transfers are changing the balance of power in the region, and the civil war has "become a regional contest for primacy in Syria between Sunni Arabs and the Iran-backed Assad government and Hezbollah of Lebanon." Iran is reportedly using Maharaj Airlines to ship weapons to the Syrian government.
Some analysts have interpreted the Syrian conflict as part of a regional proxy war between pro-opposition Sunni states, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and Iran and Shi'ites in Iraq, who support the Alawite-led Syrian government.
Russian, Eastern European and Iranian civilians have been viewed as legitimate targets by some resistance leaders and forces, a position rejected by the Syrian opposition coalition. At the outbreak of the civil war, there were an estimated 30,000 Russian civilians in Syria, and an additional 30,000 from former Soviet republics such as the Ukraine. Some – such as Anhar Kochneva, a journalist and blogger who was taken prisoner by Syrian rebels, and confessed under pressure that she worked for Russian intelligence – have played a role in support of the Assad regime, but many are civilian workers uninvolved in espionage or military operations.
On 30 April 2013 Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, declared in a broadcast speech that the Shiite military group would help Assad's government "with its full organizational might" and will not allow Syria "to fall into hands" of America, Israel and Islamic extremists. He warned that any damage made to Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque, an important Shiite shrine near Damascus, could unleash uncontrollable sectarian conflict, similar to one that had happened in Iraq.
On 11 June President Vladimir Putin acknowledged that a lack of reforms from the Syrian government may have led to the current strife. He stated on Russian state media that:
"Syria as a country was rife for some kind of change. And the government of Syria should have felt that in due time and should have undertaken some reform. Had they done that, what we're seeing in Syria today would have never happened." 
The ICSR estimates that 2,000–5,500 foreign fighters have gone to Syria since the beginning of the protests, about 7–11 percent of whom came from Europe. It is also estimated that the number of foreign fighters does not exceed 10 percent of the opposition armed forces. The European Commission expressed concerns that some of the fighters might use their skills obtained in Syria to commit acts of terrorism back in Europe in the future.
The most significant group is Al-Nusra Front, headed by Abu Mohammed al-Golani, which probably accounts for up to a quarter of opposition fighters in Syria. It includes some of the rebellion's most battle-hardened and effective fighters, coming from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Palestine, Lebanon, Australia, Chechnya, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Azerbaijan, France, Iraq, Spain, Denmark and Tajikistan.
After the civil war in Libya had finished, fighters from there began moving to Syria through Turkey. It was reported by Syrian opposition that foreigners brought heavy weapons with them, including surface-to-air missiles. However, Libyans denied that claim. Abdulhakim Belhadj, head of the Tripoli Military Council, met with FSA leaders near the border with Turkey. The meetings were a sign of growing ties between new Libyan government and Syrian opposition. The arrangements included transfers of money and weapons, as well as training of the rebels by skilled fighters from Libya. One of the Libya's most known rebel commanders, Mahdi al-Harati, traveled to Syria in a group of 30 fighters, to form Liwaa al-Umma there.
In October 2012, various Iraqi religious sects join the conflict in Syria on both sides. Radical Sunnis from Iraq, have traveled to Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government. Also, Shiites from Iraq, in Babil Province and Diyala Province, have traveled to Damascus from Tehran, or from the Shiite Islamic holy city of Najaf, Iraq to protect Sayyida Zeinab, an important mosque and shrine of Shia Islam in Damascus.
Hundreds of young Saudis were reported to travel through Turkey or Jordan in order to fight against Assad in Syria. In one documented case a judge encouraged a group of convicted young men to "fight against the real enemy, the Shia". Most of them joined Syrian rebels. Since convicted criminals cannot leave Saudi Arabia without Interior Ministry permission, it is suspected that officials silently allow them to travel to fight.
Hundreds of Egyptian fighters are suspected to be involved in Syrian conflict. Some of them traveled there and back several times. The government officially confirmed 10 "martyrs".
USAID and other government agencies in US delivered nearly $385 million of aid items to Syria in 2012 and 2013. The United States is providing food aid, medical supplies, emergency and basic health care, shelter materials, clean water, hygiene education and supplies, and other relief supplies. Islamic Relief has stocked 30 hospitals and sent hundreds of thousands of medical and food parcels.
Iran has been exporting between 500 and 800 tonnes of flour daily, by sea and land, to Syria.
On 26 April 2013 a humanitarian convoy, inspired by Gaza Flotilla, departed from Turkey to Syria. Called Hayat (Life), it is set to deliver aid items to IDPs inside Syria and refugees in neighboring countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
The World Health Organization has reported that 35% of the country's hospitals are out of service and, depending upon the region, up to 70% of the health care professionals have fled. Cases of diarrhoea and hepatitis-A have increased by more than twofold since the beginning of the year. Due to the fighting the normal vaccination programs cannot be undertaken. The displaced refugees also may pose a risk to the countries to which they have fled.
Estimates of deaths in the conflict vary widely, with figures, per opposition activist groups, ranging from 72,960 to 96,430. On 2 January 2013, the United Nations stated that 60,000 had been killed since the civil war began, with U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay saying "The number of casualties is much higher than we expected, and is truly shocking." Four months later, the U.N.'s updated figure for the death toll had reached 80,000. On 13 June the UN released an updated figure of people killed since fighting began, the figure being exactly 92,901, for up to the end of April 2013. Navi Pillay, UN high commissioner for human rights, stated that: "This is most likely a minimum casualty figure." The real toll was guessed to be over 100,000. Some areas of the country have been affected disproportionately by the war; by some estimates, as many as a third of all deaths have occurred in the city of Homs.
One problem has been determining the number of "armed combatants" who have died, due to some sources counting rebel fighters who were not government defectors as civilians. At least half of those killed have been estimated to be combatants from both sides, including more than 15,300 government soldiers. In addition, UNICEF reported that over 500 children had been killed by early February 2012, and another 400 children have been reportedly arrested and tortured in Syrian prisons; both of these claims have been contested by the Syrian government. Additionally, over 600 detainees and political prisoners are known to have died under torture. In mid-October 2012, the opposition activist group SOHR reported the number of children killed in the conflict had risen to 2,300, and in March 2013, opposition sources stated that over 5,000 children had been killed. SOHR's methodology for counting civilian victims has been questioned, as the organisation includes opposition combatants among the number of civilian casualties, as long as these are not former members of the military.
The violence in Syria has caused millions to flee their homes. In August 2012, the United Nations said more than one million people were internally displaced. Many have sought safety in nearby countries. Jordan has seen the largest influx of refugees since the conflict began, followed by Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. On 9 October 2012, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that the number of external Syrian refugees stood at between 355,000 to 500,000. In April 2013, the UN stated that the number of Syrian refugees had exceeded 1.4 million.
The "vast majority" of human rights violations documented in Syria, including numerous international crimes, have been committed by the Syrian military and security forces and their allied militia.:4:10:1:20 Some violations are considered by many to be so serious, deliberate, and systematic as to constitute crimes against humanity:7:5:18–20 and war crimes.:7 According to Human Rights Watch, the Assad government has created an "archipelago of torture centers".:1 A key role in the repression, and particularly torture, is played by the mukhabarat: the Department of Military Intelligence, the Political Security Directorate, the General Intelligence Directorate, and the Air Force Intelligence Directorate.:9:1, 35 Human Rights Watch has also stated it has evidence of cluster bomb attacks on civilians by Syria's air force.
With regard to armed opposition groups, the UN accused them of offences including unlawful killing, torture and ill-treatment, kidnapping and hostage taking, and the use of children in dangerous non-combat roles.:4–5 A example was documented with video footage, where a boy – aged between 12 and 14 – executed a prisoner, cutting his throat with a machete. Human Rights Watch also reports evidence of rebels kidnapping civilians for ransom, as well as summary executions of army soldiers and numerous cases of physical torture.
On 14 January 2013, the International Rescue Committee released a report stating many refugees flee Syria due to a widespread fear of rape. The report also spoke of the systematic targeting of health care workers, and the shooting of engineers seeking to maintain the sanitation and water infrastructure of Aleppo.
As the conflict has expanded across Syria, many cities have been engulfed in a wave of crime as fighting caused the disintegration of much of the civilian state, and many police stations stopped functioning. Rates of thievery increased, with criminals looting houses and stores. Rates of kidnappings increased as well. Rebel fighters were sighted stealing cars and destroying an Aleppo restaurant in which Syrian soldiers had eaten.
By July 2012, the human rights group Women Under Siege had documented over 100 cases of rape and sexual assault during the conflict, with many of these crimes believed to be perpetrated by the Shabiha and other pro-government militias. Victims included men, women, and children, with about 80% of the known victims being women and girls.
Criminal networks have been used by both the government and the opposition during the conflict. Facing international sanctions, the Syrian government relied on criminal organizations to smuggle goods and money in and out of the country. The economic downturn caused by the conflict and sanctions also led to lower wages for Shabiha members. In response, some Shabiha members began stealing civilian properties, and engaging in kidnappings.
Rebel forces sometimes relied on criminal networks to obtain weapons and supplies. Black market weapon prices in Syria's neighboring countries have significantly increased since the start of the conflict. To generate funds to purchase arms, some rebel groups have turned towards extortion, stealing, and kidnapping.
The civil war has caused significant damage to Syria's cultural heritage, including World Heritage Sites. Destruction of antiquities has been caused by shelling, army entrenchment and looting at various tells, museums, and monuments. A group called Syrian Archaeological Heritage Under Threat is monitoring and recording the destruction in an attempt to create a list of heritage sites damaged during the war and gain global support for the protection and preservation of Syrian archaeology and architecture.
The Syrian civil war has led to incidents of sectarian violence in northern Lebanon between supporters and opponents of the Syrian government, and armed clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli. Fighting between rebels and government forces has spilled into Lebanon on several occasions. The Syrian Air Force has conducted air strikes on targets in Lebanon, while rebels have launched rockets on Hezbollah targets.
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