Both the government and the rebels have committed a lot of violence and brutality. How many have died is difficult to say because it is impossible to obtain reliable information. But in August 2014, the UN reported that more than 191,000 people had died since the war broke out. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights) reported at the end of May 2016 that the total number is now over 400,000, a figure also reported by the UN envoy to the country.
A common tactic on the part of the regime has been to air bomb areas. In some cases, there have been rebel targets, but human rights activists have also shown that they have met civilian targets. According to testimonies from people who left the government, many airstrikes have lacked a special target. They try to scare the civilian population so that they do not support the rebels.
There are also reports of people starving to death in besieged areas. The government’s strategy has then been to block the import of food and medicine in besieged areas, as this can be used by opponents. The same tactics have been used by the rebels, but not to the same extent.
Civilians have been subjected to outright massacres. In May 2012, more than 100 civilians were killed in Houla, Homs province. In May 2013, government forces and militias attacked areas of the Mediterranean province of Tartous. More than 300 civilians were killed there in three days.
The rebels attacked several villages in Latakia province, including the one on the Mediterranean coast, in August 2013, killing nearly 200 civilians in a single day. Furthermore, IS had executed 4,225 people since they proclaimed their caliphate in June 2014. Among other things, they have stoned and beheaded people.
The Kurds are Syria’s second largest ethnic group. They are found mainly in northern and northeastern Syria, on the border with Iraq and Turkey, and have long been discriminated against. At the beginning of the war, many Kurds joined the opposition to Assad. The government responded partly by force, but also gave the Kurds strengthened civil rights.
The PYD (United Democratic Party), which is related to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in Turkey, is the largest party of the Syrian Kurds. During the war, their influence in the Kurdish areas has been strengthened. In 2013, the PYD announced that it would establish autonomy in the Kurdish areas of Syria. Since the beginning of 2014, there is a Kurdish administration in these areas. Since October 2015, the PYD has been part of the SDF (Syria’s Democratic Forces) rebel alliance.
Violence between rebel groups
It is not just the Assad regime that has fought against IS. Several of the rebel groups have also turned against them. This violence intensified sharply in early 2014. Several rebel groups have had air support from a US-led coalition created to defeat IS.
The Kurdish PYD’s armed branch has also fought against other rebel groups. During the second half of 2014, fierce fighting broke out between PYD and IS over the city of Kobane (also known as Ayn al-Arab) and north of Aleppo, in 2015 and 2016 several battles were fought between Kurdish forces and a rebel alliance called the Conquest of Aleppo (Fatah Halab).
Chemical weapons are used
On August 21, 2013, chemical weapons were used in the Damascus area. It turned out to be nerve gas, probably Sarin, which is very dangerous. More than 800 people were killed, perhaps as many as 1,400. Most likely, the Syrian government was behind these attacks.
The sarin attacks led to strong reactions from the outside world, and it was decided that Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons would be destroyed. The OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) would inspect that this really happened, together with the UN, starting on 1 October 2013.
In June 2014, the last weapons were handed over, and in January 2015, the closure of the premises used to manufacture the weapons began. However, accusations have abounded that Syria has hidden some weapons.
Furthermore, the government has been accused of attacks with chlorine gas, also a chemical weapon.
The war has a religious dimension: Assad is an Alawite, a group related to Shia Muslims. The opposition is mainly Sunni Muslim.
Many of the massacres that have taken place in Syria have been carried out by one group against another (neither the Sunni nor the Shia groups are innocent). This escalates the fear of the other group, and creates a very tense atmosphere among both Sunni and Shia Muslims.