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11 Key Things You Should Know About the Bloodshed in Syria

A primer gives the key aspects of the Syrian uprising, from the international response to the legitimacy of the opposition.

The Syrian flag.
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For the past year and a half, Syria has been convulsed by violence, with little indication of victory for either the regime of Bashar Al-Assad or the opposition looking to unseat the regime.

Despite the country’s apparent deterioration into civil war, the global response has remained ambivalent and unclear, with no clear solution to the many mitigating circumstances that surround the conflict. This is partly due to the interdependent networks that link Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey, countries that face their own longstanding political crises. But the situation is made even worse by the lack of clear, credible information coming out of Syria, and the overwhelming pace by which events on the ground change every day. 

1. What is the history of the Syrian conflict?

Though the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world have played a pivotal role, tensions have been high in Syria for a number of years. After the presidential inauguration of Bashar Al-Assad, the son of the previous Syrian dictator, many expected that he would usher in a freer, more relaxed political environment. But the short-lived “Damascus Spring” of 2000 was quashed as Assad reverted to the heavy-handed approach of his father.

More recently, severe droughts throughout Syria have caused a surge in poverty and famine, creating mass displacements and population transfers in the process. The simmering tensions brought about by these developments exploded with the start of the Arab uprisings, and most of the early hotspots in Syria were the same agricultural regions most economically affected by the drought. The leadership of the anti-Assad opposition largely drew its ranks from the disaffected intelligentsia of the Damascus Spring.

2. What is the nature of the opposition?

It’s been exceedingly difficult to gauge the composition, ideology and motives of the Syrian opposition, partly due to the lack of credible information coming out of Syria, but also in large part due to the diversity of movements operating under an anti-Assad banner.

The Syrian National Council is the most well-known opposition organization, with a significant international presence and a fairly robust organizational structure (complete with a parliament, executive council, and media/PR bodies). The SNC also ostensibly cooperates closely with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella term for armed anti-Assad militias. The other major opposition groups, including the Syrian Regional Council and the National Coordination Committee, have either failed to reach the same level of international recognition, or have explicitly rejected it.

3. How much legitimacy does the opposition have?

Several countries already recognize the SNC as an official representative of the Syrian people, but the council has struggled in its attempt to claim the mantle of leadership of the Syrian uprising. For one, no one has been able to determine the extent to which the SNC influences the course of events in Syria. The organization is primarily composed of expatriates, and has a number of questionable ties to autocratic governments in the Arabian Gulf. It has recently faced a stream of high-level resignations, amid accusations that the group is too heavily controlled by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and that its internal governance structures have been too autocratic. The SNC’s newly elected leader has vowed to tackle some of these problems head-on.

The SNC also loosely cooperates with the Local Coordinating Committees, the cells responsible for much of the ground-level organizing in Syria itself, but they quarrel as often as they cooperate, and competing media narratives make it difficult to determine just how much support the SNC actually has in Syria.

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