syrian crisis

Syrian Crisis

The crisis in Syria began in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring after President Bashar al-Assad ordered security forces to violently attack civilians protesting the Syrian government. It has led to over 500,000 deaths and the largest refugee crisis of the twenty-first century.


In March 2011, pro-democracy protesters frustrated with high unemployment, corruption and lack of political freedom under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, took to the streets to voice their complaints. Government security forces responded to these protests with deadly force and opened fire on demonstrators. As the number of protesters grew, there were eventually nationwide protests for Assad’s resignation. Protesters began arming themselves and clashing with security forces, leading to a full-blown civil war. The Free Syrian Army rebel group was formed in July 2011 to overthrow Assad and his authoritarian regime. 

The conflict escalated into sectarian disputes with the country’s Sunni majority against Assad’s Shia Alawite sect, drew in regional and world powers, and allowed the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) to inflame the war. In 2011, al-Qaeda forces joined the rebellion against President Assad before seizing control of territory in Syria, later renaming themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and claiming land under their control as their caliphate. In addition to Syrian rebels, Kurdish forces also fought against ISIS. 

Hundreds were killed in August 2013 after rockets filled with the nerve agent sarin were fired at several suburbs of Damascus. The Syrian government blamed rebel forces but most Western powers believed it to be an order from Assad. By 2014, ISIS controlled more territory than the Syrian government itself. The US began air strikes in Syria in September 2014 to deter ISIS from using Syria as a base for its operations. In late 2015, American ground troops entered Syria to recruit, advise, and organize the Syrian Democratic Forces. Throughout much of the conflict, the US did not articulate any clear strategy in Syria but tried to maintain a positive relationship with Turkish allies while supporting Kurdish forces that fought against them. 

In December 2018, President Trump announced that ISIS had been defeated in Syria, allowing for the withdrawal of 2,000 US troops there. Critics of the decision argue that it could be catastrophic for the stability of the post-conflict region, and pulling out only panders to Russia, Iran, and Assad. Experts also warn that while the physical Islamic caliphate appears defeated, we have not actually seen the end of ISIS yet. 

By summer 2019, the rebel attempts at uprooting the regime failed, and Assad remains in power. 


In just under ten years, the conflict in Syria has produced more than 5.6 million refugees. Neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey do not have the sufficient infrastructure or capabilities to deal with all the incoming refugees to their countries and as a result have struggled to support both their domestic and foreign population. The Syrian refugee crisis has impacted nearly every corner of the world. In the West, the influx of refugees has caused debate about cultural clashes and an increase in crime, causing domestic unrest in many countries where citizens are divided about whether or not to accept refugees.

Aside from domestic disputes, the US must also deal with the foreign policy implications from action (or inaction) taken in response to the conflict. For example, in 2012, President Barack Obama announced that if the Assad regime were to use chemical weapons, these actions would result in US military intervention. A year later, chemical weapons were used around Damascus, and all evidence pointed responsibility on Assad. Instead of utilizing his executive authority to order military action, Obama sought authorization from Congress. Congress did not act on Obama’s authorization request, so the US never took action to enforce Obama’s “red-line.” Critics argued that this weakened the perception of the US around the world and illustrated that we were incapable of enforcing our word.

In addition to the refugee crisis, the Syrian conflict has furthered sectarian divides in the Near East through a brutal proxy war that has drawn in regional and world powers. While Iran and Russia have backed President Assad, Sunni opposition has attracted support from major players such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the US.

Our Take

Bashar al-Assad and his authoritarian regime’s utter disregard of human rights has contributed to one of the most consequential refugee crises in history. Unfortunately, the Syrian conflict is one among many in the Near East that presents a host of bad actors and options. The Sunni Muslim majority in Syria has been fighting to obtain rights from a brutal regime that is ultimately committed to suppressing those rights.

Although the chaos takes place thousands of miles from Western homeland, its impact is being felt globally. In response, we strongly support action driven not only by humanitarian concerns, but also by our foreign policy interests such as regional stability, reducing the threat of terrorism, and supporting our allies in the region. At Philos, we place a significant emphasis on the protection of religious minorities and we support the model of government that would best secure their rights. In Syria, federalism provides a solution that would keep Syria intact while simultaneously allowing for the security of smaller ethno-religious states with the ability to check power against power.

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