Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Conflict in Syria (2011 – 2013)

Damaged houses in Homs, 2012 (Photo HH)

Syria has not been immune from the wave of pro-democracy agitation that has swept the Arab world since the end of 2010. Beginning in January 2011 and gathering momentum in mid-March, major protest demonstrations took place throughout Syria, including the Kurdish areas, meeting brutal repression from the authorities. The initial focus of the Syrian pro-democracy movement – termed the ‘Syrian Revolution’ by the protesters – was the southern town of Daraa, near the Jordanian border, where the unrest was sparked by the detention and torture of fifteen teenagers for painting walls with anti-regime graffiti. Protests rapidly spread across the country, although until 18 May, in Aleppo, major demonstrations had not occurred in the central parts of the two largest cities (Damascus and Aleppo). Initially, the protesters demanded only political reforms. In the face of the regime’s violent response, those demands evolved into an insistence on the regime’s downfall. Faced with the government’s stubbornness, the opposition increasingly took up arms, both to defend themselves and to attack loyalist forces. By the end of 2011 the regime was facing a large armed insurgency as well as continuing peaceful street protests.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) and informal groups soon countered the brutal violence of the security forces. In a television interview in November 2011, President al-Assad mentioned the loss of 800 lives on the side of government forces. The regime, in turn, mounted a ferocious assault on the city of Hama. Hundreds of corpses lay scattered in the streets and Hama hospitals were overwhelmed with casualties. By mid-May 2011 mass graves were discovered near Daraa, reportedly containing the bodies of people murdered by the security forces. In the meanwhile, the United States, Europe and Turkey demanded al-Assad’s resignation, while supporting the formation of a Syrian government in exile.

The violence in Syria prompted the UN Human Rights Council to establish an independent commission of inquiry in September 2011 to investigate alleged human rights violations since the start of the uprising. The commission found evidence of executions, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearance, torture, sexual violence and violation of children’s rights by Syrian military and security forces (see for example the reports from the 18th Special Session held on 2 December 2011, and the International Crisis Group report Unchartered Waters, November 2011).  The aggression continued as the Red Crescent struggled to gain access to critical areas and could hardly evacuate the wounded.

President Bashar al-Assad’s regime sought to appease the populace by announcing limited reforms and other measures. Public-sector salaries were raised. The period of military service was reduced from 21 months to 18 months. Some local provincial governors were replaced. A number of political prisoners were freed, although those released were vastly outnumbered by new detainees. On 29 March 2011 the government of Prime Minister Naji al-Otari resigned, and a new administration was formed under Adel Safar, a reformist and former agriculture minister. On 7 April 2011 the President issued a decree granting citizenship to Syria’s stateless Kurds. On 21 April 2011 the 1963 Emergency Law was annulled. On 30 April 2011 the Prime Minister announced the government’s intention to implement comprehensive political, security, and social reforms, although no precise measures were specified.

By May 2012, almost 15,000 Syrians had been killed in the uprising, according to the opposition, and many thousands more had been wounded. Tens of thousands had been detained, and torture of detainees was widespread. Some 55,000 Syrians had fled to neighbouring states. The authorities resolutely, and without evidence, claimed that the uprising was a foreign plot aimed at destabilizing the country. In February 2013, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay announced that the death toll in Syria is now approaching 70,000.

Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey increased their capacity to receive more than 170,000 Syrian refugees, the UNHCR affirmed in August 2012. By February 2013, the UNHCR stated that the total number of registered refugees and individuals awaiting registration was 953,310 (see the UNHCR’s breakdown of registered refugees per country).

‘National Dialogue’

These were essentially cosmetic measures, because substantive concessions to the pro-democracy movement would almost certainly spell the end of the regime, as it is highly unlikely that the Baath Party and Bashar al-Assad and his family would win a free and fair election. A ‘National Dialogue’ was launched by the regime at a conference with ‘oppositionists’ in Damascus on 10-11 July 2011, but this was seen by most bona fide oppositionists as a sham by which the regime would appear to be reforming while taking no substantive steps to relinquish its control. The pro-democracy movement denounced and boycotted the Dialogue.


On 21 March 2012 the UN Security Council endorsed a non-binding peace plan drafted by UN envoy Kofi Annan. This six-point peace plan expressed ‘its gravest concern at the deteriorating situation in Syria’ and urged the Syrian authorities to ‘commit to stop the fighting and achieve urgently an effective United Nations supervised cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties to protect civilians and stabilize the country’, starting from 10 April. China and Russia agreed to support the plan as it fell short of a formal resolution. On 21 April, the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) was established by UN Security Council’s Resolution 2043, initially for a 90-day period, to monitor a cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties and to monitor and support the full implementation of the Joint Special Envoy’s six-point plan to end the conflict in Syria.

In the following month, the Houla (near Homs) massacre took place, where 108 people, including 49 children and 34 women, were killed. The UN later released a report which stated that it was likely that Syrian troops and Shabiha militia were responsible for the massacre, concluding that: ‘On the basis of available evidence, the commission has a reasonable basis to believe that the perpetrators of the deliberate killing of civilians, at both the Abdulrazzak and Al-Sayed family locations, were aligned to the Government. It rests this conclusion on its understanding of access to the crime sites, the loyalties of the victims, the security layout in the area including the position of the government’s water authority checkpoint and the consistent testimonies of victims and witnesses with direct knowledge of the events. This conclusion is bolstered by the lack of credible information supporting other possibilities.’ According to a report issued by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the tragic events in Houla left dozens of people dead or wounded and prompted thousands to flee the area.

In response, Jihad Makdissi, spokesman for the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, said in a press conference on May 27: ‘We completely deny responsibility for this terrorist massacre against our people.’ He also repeated the claim that the Syrian government was the target of a ‘tsunami of lies. (…) Women, children and old men were shot dead (…). This is not the hallmark of the heroic Syrian army.’ But the UN Security Council strongly condemned the government’s use of heavy weapons, as well as the Houla massacre. In protest Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the US expelled senior Syrian diplomats. On 31 May, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) announced it would set President Bashar al-Assad a 48-hour deadline to abide by an international peace plan to end the violence, stating that ‘It ends on Friday at 12.00 (09.00 GMT) then we are free from any commitment and we will defend and protect the militants, their villages and their cities.’ When the violence resumed, the FSA began a nation-wide offensive against government troops, which led to a total collapse of the ceasefire.

On 2 June 2012, President al-Assad addressed his reshuffled Parliament, saying that the country’s unrest has taken a bloody toll and that the government faced a ‘real war’, indicating that the conflict would be long-lasting and required the sidelining of all other priorities. A few days later, al-Assad appointed Riad Farid Hijab as Syria’s new Prime Minister. Hijab, a member of the ruling Baath Party and the former Minister of Agriculture, formed a new government after  parliamentary elections were held the previous month.

Violence escalated between the Syrian government and the FSA and different parties involved, raising awareness that the violence in Syria was heading towards an inexorable vicious cycle of tit-for-tat attacks between the various parties. The death toll rose further, as massacres took place in cities across the country. Civilians fled their villages in hundreds, leading to a dramatic influx of refugees in neighboring countries. UNSMIS confirmed that Syrian army helicopters had fired on towns near Homs, including Rastan and in June 2012, for the first time, it recorded aerial attacks in the crackdown on dissent. Kofi Annan said he was ‘gravely concerned’ at this news and an UN spokeswoman said that ‘artillery and mortar shelling, machine guns and smaller arms’ were being used against the towns of Rastan and Talbiseh. On 15 June UNSMIS decided to suspend its activities, owing to an intensification of armed violence across the country.

At the end of June 2012, Syria shot down a Turkish F4 fighter jet that had strayed into its territory. Turkey, which had become one of the Syrian leader’s fiercest critics when he responded violently to pro-democracy protests inspired by popular upheavals elsewhere in the Arab world, stressed that its answers to this attack would take place at the right time. The North Atlantic Council met at Turkey’s request to hold consultations within the framework of Article 4 of the North Atlantic (or Washington) Treaty, which states that ‘the Parties will consult whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of any of the Parties is threatened’. However, despite the downing of the Turkish plane and some opposition leaders’ calls for Western military intervention in Syria, the United States and its allies had already made their calculations. They refused to get involved militarily in what was turning into a protracted conflict, preferring the diplomatic route. Syrian allies Russia and China had already shielded Syria from UN sanctions and stridently opposed any military intervention.

On 30 June 2012, a conference called by Special Envoy Kofi Annan inviting some world powers met in Geneva, Switzerland, to pave the way for a political-transitional government of national unity in Syria, including members of both the government and opposition. It would also oversee the drafting of a new constitution and elections. While Syria’s fractured opposition abroad rejected the plan, the Syrian government welcomed it. Even though Russia and China insisted that others should not dictate how Syria’s transition should take place, they both signed up to the final agreement as it did not explicitly call for al-Assad to cede power. As a consequence, the Arab League hosted, on 2 July 2012, its first conference in Cairo for the Syrian opposition. Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby called for the fragmented Syrian opposition to unite and said that the UN-brokered plan for a transitional government in Syria fell short of expectations.

As violence escalated further, on 15 July 2012, the ICRC called the Syrian conflict a civil war. On 18 July 2012, the FSA killed three security chiefs in a bomb strike in Damascus and seized Aleppo in the north. A government offensive to recapture the city failed as the government suffered further blows.

July 2012 was one of the bloodiest months so far in the uprising against al-Assad’s regime that began peacefully in March 2011. Syrian rebels made a run on Aleppo, which had been a key bastion of support for President Bashar al-Assad over the course of the 17-month-old uprising. Some of the fiercest fighting was seen in the country’s largest city. Fighting continued in the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, as the Syrian regime accused regional powerhouses Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey of trying to destroy the country, vowing to bring an end to the war. Rebels captured large sections of Aleppo as tanks and artillery shells fired at neighbourhoods in the city. Civilians fled as the number of internally displaced and refugees rose. The ICRC stated that ‘thousands of civilians, especially in the governorates of Damascus and Aleppo, are struggling to stay safe. Despite facing increasing challenges in July 2012, the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent assisted over 125,000 people affected by violence in several parts of Syria.’

On 3 August 2012, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 11266 criticizing the Security Council’s failure on Syria. It stated that the General Assembly was ‘gravely concerned by the escalating violence in Syria’, and that it  ‘today strongly condemned Damascus’ indiscriminate use of heavy weapons in civilian areas and its widespread violations of human rights’, demanding that all parties ‘immediately and visibly’ commit to ending a conflict that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called ‘a test of everything this Organization stands for’. The General Assembly demanded that President al-Assad would resign, stating that high-level defections were gathering pace. The international disarray over the crisis was starkly underlined by Kofi Annan’s decision to resign as international peace envoy to Syria. In his resignation statement Kofi Annan said: ‘At a time when we need – when the Syrian people desperately need action – there continues to be finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council.’

On 6 August 2012, Syria’s Prime Minister, Riad Hijab, defected and fled to Jordan with his family, widening the cracks in President Assad’s regime even further. In the meanwhile, the influx of refugees in neighbouring countries Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon rose tremendously.

On 17 August, the UN appointed veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi as a new UN/Arab League envoy for Syria to take over from Annan after the expiration of his mandate on 31 August 2012.

On 20 July, the UN Security Council extended the UNSMIS mission for 30 days and said that any further extension could be possible only ‘in the event that the Secretary-General reports and the Security Council confirms the cessation of the use of heavy weapons and a reduction in the level of violence sufficient by all sides’ to allow the UNSMIS monitors to implement their mandate. As those conditions were not met, UNSMIS mandate came to an end at midnight on 19 August.

Syria was now wreaked by violence, with more than 17,000 people, mostly civilians, killed since the uprising against President al-Assad began some seventeen months earlier. There were reports of an escalation in violence in many towns and villages, as well as the country’s two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. In September, the FSA claimed responsibility for two explosions at the military headquarters in Damascus. According to government sources, the ‘suicide attacks’ resulted in the deaths of four guards. Tensions between Syria and Turkey rose further when Syrian mortar fire on a Turkish border town killed five Turkish civilians. The NATO expressed grave concern over the developments on its south-eastern borders and stated on 3 October 2012 that ‘In the spirit of indivisibility of security and solidarity deriving from the Washington Treaty, the Alliance continues to stand by Turkey and demands the immediate cessation of such aggressive acts against an Ally, and urges the Syrian regime to put an end to flagrant violations of international law’. Turkey fired back and intercepted a Syrian plane allegedly carrying arms from Russia. Both countries banned each other’s planes from their air space.

A UN-brokered ceasefire during the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha broke down due to continued government attacks.

October was like any other month in the Syrian uprising that was sliding into a civil war. The Syrian army conducted airstrikes on the northern provinces where the fighting opposition had made some advances. The residents of Idlib and Aleppo sought through mounds of rubble for survivors. Videos and footage coming from these cities showed shelled buildings and survivors pulling bodies from the debris. Syrian rebels were condemned by human rights groups for the killing of a group of captured soldiers, stating that the FSA may have committed a war crime. Activists in Syria estimate that more than 36,000 people had by then been killed in the nation’s conflict. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent estimated in November 2012 that 2.5 million people had been displaced within Syria. According to the UN, which dubbed the latest figure ‘conservative’, more than 408,000 Syrians had fled to neighbouring countries, and more were fleeing every day. Palestinian refugees in Syria were facing harsh circumstances as this was their second displacement and some of the neighbouring countries were denying them entry.

Syria’s conflict did not remain within its borders, as it spilled over into neighbouring countries. A Jordanian soldier was killed in clashes with armed militants trying to cross the border into Syria and sectarian clashes took place in Lebanon leaving two dead. Also, Israeli tanks struck a Syrian artillery launcher after a stray mortar shell flew into Israel-held territory, fueling concerns that the Arab Spring’s longest and deadliest revolt could spark a regional war.

The Syrian National Council failed to be an effective political opposition force,  unable to respond to the accelerating events in Syria. The Council was incapable of forming a unified structural coalition that would properly reflect the aspirations of the Syrian people, especially after the militarization of the conflict, which led to a chasm between the leadership of the SNC and developments within Syria.

The unity of the opposition was obstructed directly by the same countries that had called upon the Syrian opposition to unify its ranks. These foreign forces set up direct contact with and military support for the rebel groups on the ground, which in practice undermined and prevented the formation of any kind of hierarchical political leadership that could oversee the opposition forces’ actions.

The US administration expressed explicit criticism of the Syrian National Council, which allegedly had thus far monopolized the representation of the Syrian opposition, blocking consensus. Washington therefore ‘requested’ the formation of a ‘broader Syrian coalition’ that would bring together the forces represented within the Council as well as other opposition groups.

As a result of behind the scenes efforts by Washington and its main European (Britain, France) and regional allies (Qatar, Turkey), on 11 November 2012 several major Syrian opposition forces united in Doha (Qatar) as the ‘National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces’ – usually referred to as the Syrian National Coalition. Former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Moaz al-Khatib, considered a moderate, was elected as its President. A 63-member Council forms the political body of the Coalition. It includes members of most Syrian opposition blocs – like the side-lined, Muslim Brotherhood dominated Syrian National Council which is strongly represented in the Coalition (one of the three Vice-Presidents, 22 of the 63 Coalition Council members) – and a number of defected politicians from the al-Assad regime. In addition the Coalition includes members of revolutionary movements and provincial local councils – new bodies whose features have yet to materialize. The Free Syrian Army declared its support for the Coalition.

However, some players were excluded from the Coalition, like the National Coordination Committee, a bloc of thirteen left-wing political parties and ‘independent political activists’, as well as Salafist Islamist groups, like the Jabhat al-Nusra [li-Ahl al-Sham] (Support Front [for the People of Syria]), Ahrar al-Islam (Free Men of Syria), Liwaa al-Towhid (The unity of Allah Brigade) and Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of Syria).

Shortly after the formation of the Syrian National Coalition, Washington decided to put Jubhat al-Nusra on its list of terrorist organizations. This caused outrage in some parts of the country as al-Nusra has gained popularity, especially in the villages and towns, where many people are wary of the political intensions and designs of the West.

The main aim of the Syrian National Coalition is to replace al-Assad’s regime. It was established in accordance with the principles and objectives of the Syrian revolution and activists’ demands to:

‘Oust the regime (including its symbols and pillars of support); dismantle the security services; unify and support the military councils of the Free Syrian Army; reject dialogue or negotiation with the criminal regime; and hold accountable those responsible for killing Syrians, destroying our country, and displacing the Syrian people.’

On 12 December 2012 the US, Britain, France, Turkey, the EU and the Gulf States recognized the Syrian National Council as ‘the legitimate representative’ of the Syrian people. US President Obama stated that the National Coalition was now inclusive, reflective and representative enough for this ‘big step’, yet the international support was conditional upon building a political and civil administration. At the end of December 2012, the European Commission had contributed about USD 210 million in humanitarian aid to help people affected by the Syrian civil war. The EU also rolled over its arms embargo on all Syrian parties for another three months to 1 March 2013 and decided at the end of November 2012 to review sanctions on Syria every three months instead of every year in case it would need to equip the rebels in the future.

The Syrian National Coalition has not yet produced any functional outcomes, only announcements and committees, as it suffers from divisions and fragmentation over the composition of the future government and the current Coalition itself.

As fighting continues between the Syrian forces and the rebels, Syrian warplanes hit a security building that had been taken over by rebels along the Turkish border, wounding several people and sending dozens of civilians fleeing across the frontier. On 4 December 2012, the NATO approved Turkey’s request for Patriot anti-missile systems to bolster its defense against strikes from Syria. The NATO decided to augment Turkey’s air defence capabilities in order to defend the population and territory of Turkey and contribute to the de-escalation of the crisis along the Alliance’s border. Germany, the Netherlands and the United States committed to provide Patriot missile batteries, subject to their respective national procedures. These systems will be under the operational command of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). Any deployment will be defensive only. It will in no way support a no-fly zone or any offensive operation.


On 6 January 2013 al-Assad appeared in a one-hour speech on television, ignoring international demands for him to step down, calling on Syrians to defend their country against Islamic extremists and on foreign countries to end their support for rebels seeking to destroy the nation. He dismissed any possibile dialogue with the ‘criminals’ who were purportedly behind the uprising.

Israeli jets targeted a military research center north-west of Damascus. Syria denied reports that lorries carrying weapons bound for Lebanon were hit. Israel has not commented, but has frequently expressed concern at the possible movement of chemical weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

A report issued on 5 February 2013 by the UN Human Rights Council’s commission of inquiry on Syria, stated that ‘The depth of the Syrian tragedy is poignantly reflected in the accounts of its victims. Their harrowing experiences of survival detail grave human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The destructive dynamics of the civil war not only have an impact on the civilian population but are also tearing apart the country’s complex social fabric, jeopardizing future generations and undermining peace and security in the entire region.’ The independent team urged the UN Security Council to act urgently to halt the violations and ensure the accountability for grave violations as both sides of the conflict are committing war crimes.

A week later, Syrian National Coalition-leader al-Khatib proposed to hold talks with Farouq al-Sharaa, a deputy of President Bashar al-Assad, on a political transition in which al-Assad would be given safe passage to go into exile. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN/Arab League joint envoy, reinforced this call in Cairo on 18 February 2013, saying that talks between the Syrian opposition and an ‘acceptable delegation’ from the Damascus government that is not directly involved in repression could begin on UN premises and should lead to a political solution to the country’s 23-month-old war.