The Rise of the Assad Family
Syria has been ruled by the Assad family since 1970, when Hafez al-Assad seized power in a coup. Since then, the Ba’ath Party, under the Assads, has dominated Syrian political and economic life, ensuring loyalty through the mukhabarat, Syria’s feared secret police. 
Hafez al-Assad and the Tadmur and Hama Massacres
In 1976, the Muslim Brotherhood, a political Islamist movement, initiated a protest campaign against the Assad regime. On June 27, 1980, the day after a foiled assassination attempt against Hafez al-Assad, military commander Rifaat al-Assad (brother of Hafez) reportedly led paramilitary forces to Tadmur Prison in Palmyra and summarily executed between 500 to 2,000 Brotherhood-affiliated prisoners.  In February 1982, President Hafez al-Assad ordered Syrian security forces, led by Rifaat al-Assad, to attack the city of Hama and crush the Muslim Brotherhood opposition. The fighting, which lasted nearly four weeks, resulted in the death of thousands of Syrian civilians. 
Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Uprising
When Hafez al-Assad died in office in 2000, his son, Bashar al-Assad, succeeded him as President and Ba’ath Party leader. With the younger Assad’s election came promises of political, economic, and social reforms, which never materialized.  By 2011, Syria had become a tinderbox, plagued by unemployment, drought, corruption, and the repression of human rights. That year, the Arab Spring swept the Middle East and North Africa, with protest movements ousting authoritarian governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. In Syria, the first major Arab Spring protests occurred on March 15, 2011, when thousands demonstrated around Syria, calling for democratic and economic reform. 
But it was an act of torture that catalyzed the uprising. On March 18, 2011, residents of the southern city of Deraa rose up to protest the torture of 15 schoolboys, some as young as 9 years old, arrested for spray-painting walls with slogans of the Arab Spring.  Regime security forces killed 6 protesters, the first deaths of the uprising.  A cycle of protest and crackdown followed. Throughout 2011, Syrian government forces committed crimes against humanity and state terrorism against the civilian population, deploying the mukhabarat, the army, and sectarian militias called shabiha (Arabic for “ghosts”) in attacks on protestors.  Panicked by the free flow of information and dissent through online social media, the regime launched what it called a “media war” and targeted Syrians who were filming protests on cell phones and posting to YouTube or Facebook. In August 2011, senior Assad regime officials circulated instructions to security forces around the country to launch joint military and intelligence operations against demonstrators and those “tarnishing the image of Syria in the foreign media,” among other targets. By November 2011, an estimated 3,500 civilians had been killed by regime forces, according to the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria. 
As one Syrian observed: “Videos of tens of thousands of people demonstrating against tyranny gave way to the images of deserted streets in derelict towns. Of tanks driving up main streets and planes bombing villages.” – Wassim al-Adl 
Torture has long been a defining characteristic of the Assad regime. Beginning in the spring of 2011, the regime rounded up tens of thousands of people—including activists, doctors, journalists, and human rights defenders—into detention centers run by the mukhabarat. Detainees were subjected to torture on an industrial scale.  In August 2013, a former Syrian military police photographer code-named “Caesar” smuggled out tens of thousands of forensic photographs, many documenting torture and deaths in government custody between May 2011 and August 2013. 
- Photo: UNRWA
The democratic uprising became a bloody civil war in late 2011, as members of the opposition took up arms. In summer 2011, several Syrian military officers defected to form the Free Syrian Army (FSA).  By that fall, FSA and Assad regime forces were locked in battles in Homs, Idlib, and other provinces, marking the emergence of an armed conflict. Homs became a symbol of the opposition’s resilience—and a proving ground for the regime’s tactics of siege, starvation, and indiscriminate bombing.  After FSA fighters expelled Assad regime checkpoints from Baba Amr and other districts of Homs in November 2011, the regime laid siege to opposition-held neighborhoods, shelling civilian areas with artillery.  Syrian media activists and foreign journalists seeking to cover the siege entered the regime’s crosshairs. On February 22, 2012, Assad regime military and intelligence officials launched an artillery attack against the Baba Amr Media Center, killing US journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik. [Read more about CJA’s war crimes case for the killing of Marie Colvin.]
As the civil war engulfed the entire country, the toll on civilians mounted. In 2013, the world was shocked by a chemical weapons attack on East Ghouta, an opposition-held area near Damascus.  But conventional weapons have killed far more civilians, as the Syrian air force indiscriminately bombed urban areas. The barrel bomb, an improvised explosive, sometimes carrying a chorine gas payload, and dropped from planes and helicopters, has become a weapon of choice of the regime.  Siege and starvation have also been used as a weapon of war by the regime, and to a lesser extent by other parties. By the summer of 2016, more than 400,000 people are under siege in 15 locations across Syria, without access to food and medical supplies. 
The Rise of ISIL and the al-Nusra Front
The uprising was originally nonsectarian and called for a pluralistic democracy. Assad, however, portrayed the crisis as a sectarian conflict, positioning himself as the only alternative to extremism.  The uprising eventually fractured into a complex war between government forces, moderate rebels, Kurdish militias, and an array of militant Islamist groups, including ISIL and al-Qaeda affiliate the al-Nusra Front.  Assad, who had supported Al-Qaeda in Iraq in the 2000s, actively fomented sectarian strife to undermine the moderate opposition. In May 2011, he released a group of extremists from Sednaya prison; 13 would go on to play prominent roles in ISIL, the al-Nusra Front, and other armed groups. 
In August 2011, ISIL began sending fighters from Iraq into Syria to establish an organizational stronghold.  The al-Nusra Front emerged from ISIL networks in Syria in January 2012. Under the harsh rule of ISIL and al-Nusra, non-conforming Sunnis, religious minorities, and LGBT people were subjected to brutal violence, while journalists and aid workers were taken hostage and in some cases horrifically executed.
By 2013, ISIL had become a major player, seizing territory from moderate rebels in eastern Syria and erasing the Syria-Iraq border created by Great Britain and France in the colonial Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916.  After occupying parts of Sinjar and Ninewah provinces in Iraq in August 2014, the historic homelands of the Yazidi and Assyrian Christian religious minorities, ISIL launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing and extermination.  ISIL created a system of enslavement for thousands of Yazidi women and girls, transferring them from Iraq to Syria to serve as war booty for ISIL fighters.  In June 2016, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria concluded that ISIL attacks on the Yazidis constituted genocide. 
Syria’s war has internationalized, with Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah backing the regime and Gulf and NATO states backing the opposition. In 2014, an array of international forces launched military interventions in Iraq and Syria against ISIL. From its base in Syria, ISIL has sent operatives to launch terrorist attacks in Turkey, France, and Belgium—further extending the periphery of the Syrian conflict. An end to the conflict, and a solution to its root causes, remain elusive.
For more on ISIL’s campaign in Iraq and Syria.
 See generally John McHugo, Syria: A Recent History, London: Saqi, 2014, pp. 155–200.
 Adam Taylor, Among Syrians, Palmyra is famous for a different landmark — its brutal prison, Washington Post, May 22, 2015,
 Thomas Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem, New York: Doubleday, 1990, pp. 81–90.
 Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, London: Pluto, 2016, pp. 16–21.
 Id. at 37.
 Id. at 38.
 In Syria, Crackdown After Protests, NY Times, March 18, 2011,
 Burning Country, at 48.
 Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian
Arab Republic, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/S-17/2/Add.1, Nov. 23, 2011, para. 28,
 Wassim al-Adl, The Day We Broke Fear, Maysaloon, June 3, 2013,
 See Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Deaths in Detention in the Syrian Arab Republic, Thematic report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic U.N. Doc. A/HRC/31/CRP.1, Feb. 3, 2016,
paras. 17-19, http://goo.gl/96cDvi
 Human Rights Watch, If the Dead Could Speak: Mass Deaths and Torture in Syria’s Detention Facilities, Dec. 16, 2015, https://goo.gl/N58IgD
 Joseph Holliday, The Assad Regime: From Counterinsurgency to Civil War, Institute for the Study of War, March 2013, 19–21,
 Rick Gladstone & C.J. Chivers, Forensic Details in U.N. Report Point to Assad’s Use of Gas, NY Times, Sept. 16, 2013,
 Thomas Gibbons-Neff, House witnesses describe use of chlorine gas in barrel bombs by Assad regime in Syria, Washington Post, June 17, 2015,
 Human Rights Watch, Syria: Give Besieged Areas Urgent Aid Access, Jan. 8, 2016,
https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/01/08/syria-give- besieged-areas- urgent-aid- access
 See Liz Sly, How the Syrian revolt went so horribly, tragically wrong,
Washington Post, March 12, 2016, https://goo.gl/F3u99T (quoting former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford).
 Jennifer Cafarella, Harleen Gambhir, Katherine Zimmerman, US Grand Strategy: Destroying ISIS and al-Qaeda, Report Three: Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS: Sources of Strength, Institute for the Study of War, February 2016, 9-11,
 Maria Abi-Habib, Assad Policies Aided Rise of Islamic State Militant Group, Wall Street Journal, Aug. 22, 2014 4:35 p.m. ET, http://goo.gl/JT2JeV
 Cafarella, et al., US Grand Strategy: Destroying ISIS and al-Qaeda, at 9-11,
 See Daniel Byman, Comparing al-Qaeda and ISIS: Different goals, different targets, Brookings Institution, April 29, 2015,
 Romain Caillet, The Islamic State: Leaving al-Qaeda Behind, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 27, 2015,
 United Nations Human Rights Council, Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, August 13, 2015, 15-18,
 See United Nations Human Rights Council, Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic: ‘They came to destroy: ISIS crimes against the Yazidis,” June 16, 2016,