Syria’s war has been the most complex conflict to emerge from the 2011 Arab uprisings. At least twice—in the spring of 2013 and in mid-2015—the Assad regime almost collapsed. Its comeback is attributable largely to outside players. The war has evolved through five phases that, along the way, have embroiled foreign figures and militias (often on different sides) from dozens of countries, regional governments, and global powers.

The first phase was ignited by protests in early 2011. Inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East, Syrian adolescents in southern Daraa scrawled anti-regime graffiti on public walls. They were arrested, held for days and tortured, in turn prompting local demonstrations that called for their release. Peaceful protests rapidly spread across Syria as the focus shifted to the regime of President Bashar Assad. As the marches gained momentum, the regime unleashed its military firepower.

The second phase witnessed the onset of an armed insurgency and Syria’s descent into full-scale civil war. By 2012, an array of poorly organized opposition groups had formed rebel brigades—many armed by foreign patrons—that seized key cities in the north, including parts of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. As the government lost territory in 2013, Lebanon’s Hezbollah openly deployed its fighters and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) dispatched military advisors to prop up the Assad government. 

The third phase was marked by the rise of ISIS and other hardline Islamist groups that tapped local sympathizers as well as foreign fighters. In 2014, the creation of the Islamic State caliphate—which claimed roughly a third of Syrian territory, with Raqqa as its capital—generated a different set of flashpoints and frontlines. It was, basically, a different war. It also prompted direct U.S. military intervention. Meanwhile, moderate rebel groups fighting the government were increasingly eclipsed by extremist factions.

The fourth phase, in 2015 and 2016, featured growing Russian military intervention, especially airpower, against moderate rebel factions. Russia deployed some of its most sophisticated weaponry and air defense systems. The roles of Hezbollah and Iran deepened too.

During the fifth phase, the Assad regime retook territory and consolidated its control over most of the country. By the end of 2016, it had retaken major cities, including Aleppo, as well as areas across Syria’s strategic western spine. In 2017, it knit together patches of the countryside to cement the restoration of government power. By mid-2018, it also recaptured strategic suburbs surrounding Damascus for the first time in five years. It then turned its sights further south to Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising. It seized the city as well as most of southwest Syria by the summer of 2018.

Each of these phases featured failed efforts at diplomacy, initially led by the United Nations and backed by the United States. But the negotiations, in Geneva, repeatedly deadlocked. In 2017, Russia launched a separate initiative, with Iran and Turkey as partners, that included negotiations in Astana, the Kazakh capital, and Sochi in Russia.

Erupting in the heart of the Levant, Syria’s war had a rippling impact throughout the Middle East; it also reverberated deep into Europe. It sparked the largest humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II (only surpassed in 2018 by Yemen’s war). Millions of refugees poured into Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and even Iraq and Egypt as well as several European countries, where the refugee crisis redefined the political landscape. At home, more than half of Syria’s population was displaced and dependent on humanitarian aid for daily subsistence. Destruction—of homes, schools, businesses, hospitals, roads and infrastructure—was estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

The multiple layers of Syria’s war reflect broader trends in the Middle East—and potentially future conflicts. They include:

  • The rise of a new generation of jihadists who have espoused a more virulent Salafi-jihadist ideology and focused on seizing territory and creating their own states.
  • Battlefield tactics that transgressed the modern norms of armed conflict, especially the indiscriminate bombing of civilians and the repeated use of chemical weapons. One chemical weapon attack by the Syrian government, in August 2013, killed more than 1,000 civilians. The government has used various chemical weapons—from sarin, a toxic nerve agent banned by international law, to chlorine, a dual-use chemical—at least 50 times, according to U.S. government sources.
  • The leveraging of emerging technologies—including drones, encryption and social media, and electronic warfare—across virtual and real battle spaces.
  • Massive civilian displacement and humanitarian need that overwhelmed the international assistance infrastructure and imperiled neighboring countries that tried to host refugees.

Originally posted February 2019. Updated July 2019.

This timeline was assembled with the help of graphic research by Lindsay Jodoin and editorial research by Garrett Nada, Sarah Timreck and Lindsay Jodoin.

Related Publications

Syria’s Ghalia Rahal: Surviving War, Building Peace

Syria’s Ghalia Rahal: Surviving War, Building Peace

Thursday, May 23, 2019

By: Palwasha L. Kakar; James Rupert

Amid the traumas of Syria’s war, women like Ghalia Rahal are building an unprecedented role in peace talks over their country’s future. Rahal—the founder of a network of women’s centers in northwest Syria—has helped energize a Syrian women’s movement despite threats from extremists, attacks on her workplaces, and the assassination of her son, a journalist. Now, Rahal and her women’s network in Syria’s Idlib Province face an extreme threat—the Syrian government military offensive against the province that has killed hundreds and displaced nearly 200,000 people.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Gender

A Visit to Post-ISIS Syria: Human Crises Pose Risk

A Visit to Post-ISIS Syria: Human Crises Pose Risk

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

By: Robin Wright

After losing its last territory in Syria on March 23, 2019, the Islamic State quickly reclaimed global attention with the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka on April 21 and a video tape of its reclusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on April 29. The jihadi movement is now shifting focus to its ISIS branches, or “provinces,” in Africa, Asia and Europe. Baghdadi signaled ISIS’s expansion by formally embracing two Sunni extremist groups in Mali and Burkina Faso. But the Islamic State’s human core—more than 100,000 fighters and their families, including children—remains clustered in the rubble of its former “caliphate” in both Syria and Iraq. In Syria, they are detained in makeshift prisons, a hospital and refugee-style camps in the desert of northeastern Syria. USIP Senior Fellow Robin Wright made a rare tour of northeastern Syria to interview men and women who were part of the ISIS caliphate and to assess the risks posed by the post-caliphate crisis.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Violent Extremism

The Fatemiyoun Army: Reintegration into Afghan Society

The Fatemiyoun Army: Reintegration into Afghan Society

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

By: Ahmad Shuja Jamal

Since 2013, as many as 50,000 Afghans have fought in Syria as part of the Fatemiyoun, a pro-Assad force organized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Based on field interviews with former fighters and their families, this Special Report examines the motivations of members of the Afghan Shia Hazara communities who joined the Fatemiyoun as well as the economic and political challenges of reintegrating them into Afghan society.

Type: Special Report

Civilian-Military Relations; Fragility & Resilience

Mona Yacoubian on the State of Play in Syria

Mona Yacoubian on the State of Play in Syria

Thursday, January 31, 2019

By: Mona Yacoubian

Eight years of conflict has decimated Syria’s infrastructure and shredded the social fabric. But, intelligence officials expect ISIS to be “fully ejected” from Syrian territory in the next two to four weeks. Mona Yacoubian argues that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal could lead to an ISIS resurgence and examines the complex regional situation.

Type: Podcast

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

View All Publications