Syrian civil war enters fifth year

Civilians are suffering in darkness as the conflict rumbles on. How did the country get into such a mess?

A cloud of smoke rises following an air strike by Syrian government forces in the rebel-held area of Douma
(Image credit: ABD DOUMANY/AFP/Getty)

As the conflict in Syria dragged into a fifth year, humanitarian groups have reported that 83 per cent of all light sources in Syria had been extinguished during the last four years of fighting.

"Syria’s people have been plunged into the dark,” said David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee. "There is at present very little light in this tunnel."

Miliband said that more than 200,000 people have been killed during the conflict, and said that those who have survived are "destitute, fearful, and grieving for the friends they have lost and the country they once knew."

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Although measuring the war's duration is straightforward enough – it marked its fourth anniversary on Sunday – understanding how it started and which factions are fighting is becoming more difficult as the conflict progresses.

How did it start?

The Syrian civil war started in March 2011, when weeks of anti-government protests finally erupted into armed conflict.

The protests were part of a wider wave of dissatisfaction that engulfed the Arab world in early 2011. Known as the Arab Spring, the protests and subsequent regime changes started when Mohamed Bouazizi – an unemployed graduate in Tunisia – set himself on fire after his vegetable cart was seized by police.

While Bouazizi died in January 2011, launching uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, it took two months for protests to reach Syria. Under government orders Syrian security forces responded with deadly force and, on 19 March 2011, killed five protesters in the country’s southern city of Deraa.

Events escalated quickly and by December full-blown fighting had broken out between military defectors and troops loyal to the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Four years on, who is fighting whom?

This is a complex question. Initially the war was fought between forces loyal to president Assad and rebel groups, the largest of which include the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamic Front.

However, as the war has developed, other groups, forces and nations have been drawn into the fighting. Militants from Islamic State (IS) have taken control of swathes of both Iraq and Syria, including the Syrian city of Raqqa.

IS forces in turn, through their persecution of Shia Muslims and minority groups – including Kurdish communities in Syria and Iraq – have attracted military action from the Kurdish Peshmerga, as well as the militaries of Iran, Bahrain, Jordan and UAE, with air support from the US government.

Humanitarian issues

The humanitarian situation in Syria continues to deteriorate. UN estimates say almost 300,000 people have died in the conflict, with a further 11 million displaced.

Many of the armed groups – government troops, rebel groups and IS militants – have been accused of committing war crimes. Even the internationally esteemed Peshmerga has been caught up in the accusations, Al Jazeera reports, although this appears to have been an isolated incident.

In the most serious single incident of the conflict, hundreds of civilians died following a series of chemical weapons attacks carried out by the Syrian government on 22 August 2013. Although the regime has promised not to use chemical weapons, reports from Reuters suggest that it is continuing to do so.

The Syrian government has also been condemned for the indiscriminate use of barrel bombs, cluster munitions and torture.

What is the UK doing in response?

The UK has so far avoided any involvement in the Syrian conflict, following the defeat of a government vote in 2013. However the Foreign Office continues to support "moderate" Syrian rebel groups in their fight against Assad.

"So long as Assad is in power, the fighting will not end," the Foreign Office has said. "The moderate opposition [is] fighting against his tyranny. It is not remotely realistic to talk about Assad remaining in power as a way of bringing the conflict to an end."

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