Posted By on 1 Mar 2018


The Syrian Civil War (Arabic: الحرب الأهلية السورية‎, Al-ḥarb al-ʼahliyyah as-sūriyyah) is an ongoing multi-sided armed conflict in Syria fought primarily between the government of President Bashar al-Assad, along with its allies, and various forces opposing the government.

This March, the Syrian conflict enters its 8th year. Meanwhile, more than 465,000 Syrians have been killed in the fighting, over a million injured, and over 12 million - half the country's prewar population - have been displaced from their homes.

THIS is a complicated war. This is a messy, cruel war where neither side has much regard for civilian casualties.

This war is not black-and-white. You might think it’s the brave rebels versus the evil dictatorial regime, and that’s part of the story. But it’s not all of it. Not by a long way.

Confused about Syria? Us too. But this quick 10-point explainer will help.

Everything you need to know about Syrian Civil War

 Syrian Civil WarSource:The New Yorker

1. Syria

A country smaller than the state of Victoria with almost the exact same population as Australia (22.5 million to our 23 million) which borders Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon. Syria has both deserts and fertile areas and is steeped in history dating back to biblical times.

2. The Syrian regime

The Syrian Civil war is a conflict between its long-serving government and those seeking to boot it out of office. The Assad family has held power in Syria since 1971. First it was Hafez al-Assad, then Bashar al-Assad.

Unlike many regime leaders in the middle east middle, The Assad family is not religiously extreme. They are Alawites — a relatively obscure branch of Islam which is not particularly hard-line. So the people have not been protesting against hard-line Islamists, as happened in other countries which participated in the Arab Spring uprisings.

But people are still angry at their government. As Rodger Shanahan points out, what they’re angry about is the failure of long-promised economic and political reforms.

3. The Civil War begins

Rodger Shanahan says the catalyst was the jailing on March 6, 2011, of some children who painted anti-regime graffiti. Some were killed in detention, and this led to public protests which spread around the country — fueled by the failure of the government to punish the perpetrators.

Another theory says the war started with demonstrations which mirrored those in neighboring countries, and which soon led to a security crackdown. In April 2011, the Syrian Army fired on demonstrators and the protests became a full-scale armed rebellion.

4. The rebellion grows…

By July 2011, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had formed. As Dr Shanahan explains, the FSA never existed before that. “Local areas formed their own militias with the aim of toppling the government without any co-ordination or centralized command or control,” he says.

“The militias were a combination of local area tribal groups, deserters from the military [who had been conscripted despite holding anti-government beliefs] and disaffected locals.”

Then a combination of Jihadists, some from Syria and some from elsewhere, joined the FSA. Some even came from the faraway Caucasus region — where accused Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev originally hailed from.

So in other words, you had genuine Syrian freedom fighters joined by people with their own Islamist agendas. But because the FSA was under-armed and undermanned, they had little choice but to form a loose coalition with these volatile new kids on the revolutionary block.

5. And pretty soon, bad guys on both sides are killing civilians…

As Father Dave Smith says, “the way it’s been depicted the last couple of years, you get the impression the rebels are Robin Hood and his band of merry men, and that all they want is freedom and justice for all. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Father Dave illustrates his point with a communication he had with a Syrian woman which he published on his blog. The woman’s name is Ghinwa and she wrote by text:

“The situation is very bad now in Latakia province. 7 Alawite villages were massacred. We know about the killing of 136 villagers all killed on sectarian bases. A friend of mind lost 21 member of his relatives.

“All of my friends who were documenting the name and the events of massacres in Latakia against Alawites are now being threatened to be killed by FSA and Al Nusra terrorists … On TV we are shown something different. It is only a propaganda. They’re trying to say that Alawites are not being killed or displaced. The truth is being hidden by mass media. .. This is sick… My sister now is very ill … I guess a part of her illness is caused by sadness … we are afraid.”

A quick recap. Alawites are the ethnicity of the ruling family. The fact they were allegedly being killed by rebel groups suggests the rebels are not all angels.

6. Civilian casualties

“There are accusations of atrocities on both sides,” Rodger Shanahan confirms. We should believe some of them, absolutely. There’s no accurate confirmation, but it’s a nasty horrible civil war with people on both sides getting killed.

Dr Shanahan says there is evidence that opposition car bombs have killed countless civilians in the name of taking out a government target. But there are equally distressing reports that government soldiers executed civilians. Others, shockingly, were executed for taking a moral stance and failing to follow orders to execute civilians.

Like we said, it’s a bloody mess. Literally. The death toll in the war is now said to be well over 100,000.

7. The president’s wife

Allow us to break up this tale with a story of the president’s wife. Her name is Asma al-Assad and she was raised in Britain by Syrian parents. She’s smart, glamorous and she worked as an investment banker before meeting her future husband in Britain in 2000 — just months before he became president.

In March 2011, the American version of Vogue magazine ran a long, glowing profile of Asma al-Assad. Talk about bad timing. The story was soon removed from Vogue’s website and the journalist who wrote it tried to cover her tracks by penning a separate story elsewhere entitled “First Lady of Hell”.

Even as the Civil war rages, the Assad family remains popular with many middle class Syrians, especially urbanized Sunni Muslims, says Dr Rodger Shanahan. “They still prefer him to the opposition,” he says.

8. Refugee hell

The United Nations estimates that more than 1.5 million refugees have now fled Syria. Father David Smith visited several camps across the border in Lebanon — a country whose population of 4.3 million is bulging with the influx of a total of nearly 2 million Palestinian and Syrian refugees.

“The camps I saw were deeply impressive,” Father Dave says. “Every Palestinian family took in two, maybe three Syrian families. These included polygamous families which presented a whole new problem. The wives often lived in separate houses in Syria but now they were not just under the same roof but sleeping on the same floor. The domestic violence and rape problems are enormous. I was deeply impressed with camp and people running it.”

9. Chemical weapons

Just who unleashed the chemical weapons attack which killed hundreds of children and other civilians last week — and why? UN weapons inspectors arrived yesterday with a mandate to find that out. And when they do, it will affect what the world does next.

“They have a mandate to say whether a chemical attack occurred but not to apportion blame,” Dr Shanahan cautions. “First, they have to establish whether an incident occurred [it is still disputed by some] and at what level the action was authorized. It is plausible that Assad didn’t authorize it but a local commander did.”

10. What happens next

The world waits. “You would think the way diplomatic maneuverings are going that if there is some kind of military strike it would be quite limited,” Dr Shanahan says. “It would be punitive, not designed to tip the military balance.”

In other words, no Iraq-style invasion or prolonged Western intervention.

And Father Dave’s opinion of what comes next? He doesn’t know. But he’s praying. He speaks of a man he met in Syria who said he’s gone “from unemployment to slavery”. That’s his way of saying the revolution has so far achieved a whole bunch of nothing except bloodshed and dislocation.

“I see the faces of all those beautiful people and I pray,” he says.

To help us navigate this tragic conflict, we ( spoke to two Australians with a unique view on the troubled nation.

We spoke to Dr Rodger Shanahan, former peacekeeper in Syria and non-resident Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

And we spoke to Father David Smith, a Sydney Anglican priest who this year traveled to Syria on a humanitarian mission. You can read his blog here at

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