The entry of Bashar al-Assad
In 2000, Hafez al-Assad died of a heart attack, and his son Bashar al-Assad took over as president of Syria. He began his first term in a more open political spirit and there was talk of both political and economic reforms. Political prisoners were released from prisons, media censorship was eased and political debate was tolerated.
But the positive development ended in February 2001 when the government, frightened by the rapid changes, backed down. In 2007, a new parliamentary election was held in which Bashar al-Assad, the only candidate, was appointed president for another term.
Syria and Israel
Syria is one of Israel’s biggest opponents, and the countries have fought three wars against each other. The wars have affected the Golan Heights. Peace talks between Syria and Israel have not led to a solution to the conflict, but the Golan Heights should today be a demilitarized zone. On several occasions, fighting between different groups involved in the current conflict in Syria has taken place in the area, which has led to Israel intervening militarily.
Interference in Lebanon
Syria has long considered that Lebanon should have been part of Syria. In June 1976, Syria intervened in the Lebanese civil war, and remained a supporting party until the end of the war in 1989.
Syria has also played an important role in Lebanese politics and had a military presence until 2005. At that time, Syria was in a bad mood because the Syrian intelligence service was suspected of being behind the assassination of Lebanese Foreign Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Syria had no choice but to leave Lebanon.
The Arab Spring is the collective name for the wave of popular uprisings against non-democratic regimes that began in 2010 and spread across North Africa and the Middle East. The starting shot came on December 17, 2010 when the salesman Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest against the authorities. This triggered major demonstrations for democracy in Tunisia.
Similar protests spread to several countries and reached Syria on March 15, 2011. Peaceful demonstrations were held in several parts of the country, and the people demanded political reforms and an end to widespread corruption.
The regime responded with harsh means, and soon the first civilian casualties had been reaped. Then the tone hardened among the protesters who began to demand the resignation of the government. In April, the situation degenerated, and the military began using increasingly extreme methods to control the crowds and stop the demonstrations.
Since then, the situation in Syria has developed into a very bloody civil war.
Hundreds of armed actors
A very large number of groups have been formed. According to some reports, there are over 1000 armed groups in the country. They cooperate in many cases, but these alliances are often loose. A lot of collaboration seems to be based on what is favorable at a specific time.
The war began as a struggle for democracy, but now there are major ideological differences between the rebel groups. The free Syrian army that was formed early is often considered relatively secular, but there are also groups with a clear religious profile. There is also a spread among the religious groups, where Islamist fundamentalists are the most extreme.
Among the most well-known fundamentalist groups are Jabhat al-Nusra and IS. Jabhat al-Nusra (Syrian People’s Support Front) became known in early 2012, and was part of al-Qaeda until July 2016. IS (Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) was an extension of the al-Qaeda group that has long existed in Iraq. In early 2014, they were expelled from the larger al-Qaeda network, and in late June of that year, they proclaimed a caliphate (Islamic State) in parts of Syria and Iraq. Since then, they have committed enormous crimes against the civilian population in the areas they control.
The Syrian government, for its part, has received assistance from the Syrian militia. They have collaborated with the government, beaten and killed protesters and carried out attacks to intimidate the population.
The government has also received help from the Lebanese Shia Muslim group Hezbollah (God’s party). Among other things, this group played an important role when the government took back the city of Qusayr in Homs province in May and June 2013. The government also receives help from the Iraqi Shia Muslim militia. When the Syrian government began to feel threatened in the western parts of the country in 2015, Russia and Iran came to the rescue. The two states have since helped the Syrian government regain control of several areas.