Overview of the crisis in Syria

The war in Syria has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced 12 million, forcing more than 4 million to flee the country since 2011. The UN has called it “the greatest humanitarian crisis of our era.”

In the context of the Arab Spring uprisings, Syrians rose up in March of 2011 to call for the end of dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, whose regime has continued the brutality of his father Hafez al-Assad’s rule, begun in 1971. The uprising was, and continues to be, violently repressed by the Assad regime.

The Syrian government has used highly destructive barrel bombs, chemical weapons, siege and starvation as tools of war against their own people, and have prevented access to humanitarian relief. In addition to the Bashar al-Assad regime’s crimes against humanity, the war now also involves a host of regional, sectarian, and global actors all fighting their own wars, including the United States, Russia, Iran, Al Nusra Front and ISIS.

There is an urgent need for serious engagement by the international community to end the war in a manner that respects the demands of the Syrian people instead of the various parties pushing their own geopolitical and sectarian agendas.

2017 Roundtable discussion on Syria


The War

As the United Nations envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura said, it is “totally unacceptable that the Syrian airforce attacks its own territory in an indiscriminate way, killing its own citizens. The use of barrel bombs must stop. All evidence shows that the overwhelming majority of the civilian victims in the Syrian conflict have been caused by the use of such indiscriminate aerial weapons.”

Many assume that ISIS is committing the war crimes driving Syrians from their homes, but the truth is that the vast majority of Syrian civilians killed — more than 95% according to human rights groups — have been killed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The United States bears no small responsibility. The Syrian war — and particularly the rise of ISIS — has everything to do with U.S. actions dating back to the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, which gave rise to ISIS in the first place. Even now the U.S. airstrikes in Syria and neighboring Iraq are escalating the war in both places.


At least 4 million Syrians have fled their homeland since 2011, while millions more are internally displaced. Most refugees have gone to neighboring countries.

The EU prevents the vast majority of Syrians displaced by the war from applying for asylum from countries close to home, which necessitates the perilous journeys refugees are taking to reach EU territory in order to gain asylum.

Meanwhile, just under 2,200 Syrian refugees were allowed into the United States in 2015, a number that reached still a mere 10,000 in 2016.

As poet Warsan Shire has said, “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark”: this devastating and urgent refugee crisis is a humanitarian disaster grown from the deeper political disaster of the war in Syria.

Ending the refugee crisis must start with freedom and justice in Syria.

Further Reading

History & Context on Syria:

An introduction to Syria – its history and its present revolutionary struggles
What do Syrians Want? By Mohammed Idrees Ahmad in Dissent
An article about the Assad regime and its control over state institutions
Syria Deeply
Teach-In: Syria in the Context of the Arab Uprisings
Jadaliyya’s daily-updated Syria Page

On Outside Intervention & Players:

Omar Dahi’s “Chemical Attacks and Military Interventions”
Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer by Phyllis Bennis

On the Syrian Revolution and Civilian Struggles:

Article in The Intercept about forgotten stories of Syrian revolutionaries
How Many Syrians?
Syria’s local councils, not Assad, are the answer to Isis


Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami
Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline Edited by Malu Halasa, Zaher Omareen and Nawara Mahfoud