Here’s what you need to know about the civil war in Syria

It’s one of the biggest humanitarian crises of our time.

If you’re like me, you know there has been a civil war raging in Syria for a long time. You know that a lot of people have died and that the war has prompted one of the biggest refugee crises in history. But when it comes to understanding what has prompted the violence for a war that has now entered its eighth year, your knowledge might fall flat, and for good reason: the conflict is super complicated. If this describes you, then you’ve found the right article.


The cause of the conflict in Syria originated with politics. Arab Spring, the 2011 uprising that started in Tunisia and sparked protests all across the Middle East also sparked an uprising in Syria. In Syria, the uprising was against the President Bashar Al-Assad due to unemployment and political corruption. Although protests were peaceful, the president responded with military force. Many protesters were killed, which provoked further conflict and the formation of an opposition group called the Free Syrian Army that sought to overthrow the current government. By 2012, Syria had entered a brutal civil war.

International Intervention

What complicates the conflict is the fact that this isn’t just Syria’s war. Major political powers are involved, which has prolonged the violence.

During Obama’s presidency, the U.S. supported the anti-Assad rebels but did not intervene in Syria, which was a controversial move. What complicates the lack of U.S. intervention isn’t Syria’s war but another major violent group: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISIS formed in 2013 in Iraq before migrating to Syria. ISIS is an extremist group with intentions of promoting one form of Islam and eliminating anyone who threatens it. They were able to grow in Syria partly because President Assad did nothing to stop them. Global attention on ISIS meant less attention on him.

But after ISIS killed a U.S. journalist and filmed it, the U.S. did intervene. Obama launched an airstrike but made it clear that they were not aiding anti-Assad forces, only fighting against ISIS.

U.S. participation in the war changed with President Trump. Assad launched a chemical attack allegedly with the nerve agent sarin in 2017, a type of warfare that is globally considered inhumane and goes against The Chemical Weapons Convention. Sarin is a deadly and horrific chemical that basically causes the nervous system to shut down, and can cause death within minutes. The attack in 2017 killed 89 civilians, and Trump, horrified at the images of the dead, responded by initiating an airstrike against the base where the chemical attack originated. However, since then, the U.S. has not intervened

Russia also plays an important role in the conflict. They are in support of Assad’s regime, and unlike the U.S. they have been directly involved. Russia has greatly supported Assad, and was instrumental in Assad’s victory in Aleppo in 2016.

Beyond the U.S. and Russia, many other regional countries are involved. Countries like Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon support Assad, while Turkey, Qatar, and Saudia Arabia support the opposition. The involvement of each of these countries is complex, with different interests and motivations, making it yet another contributing factor to why this war continues.

What’s Happening Now

While there have been attempts at peace, like in Geneva in 2012 and another attempt in 2017, they have been unsuccessful. The UN has not intervened because the way it is structured. Beyond the UN General Assembly there is the Security Council, which is made of the following five countries: The U.S., Russia, China, the U.K., and France. In order to take action, the Security Council needs a unanimous decision, as it only takes one country to veto an entire vote. As Russia is in support of the Assad regime, it is likely that they would be the country to veto the vote.

The most recent event has been attacks on Eastern Ghouta, the last rebel stronghold. Almost 700 civilians have been killed in these attacks. Although a “humanitarian corridor” was set up to allow civilians to leave safely during certain hours of the day, Assad’s regime has still attacked during those hours. As of now, it’s unclear what is going to happen in Syria except that violence is sure to continue.

What Can I Do?

The civil war in Syria has been one of the most heinous conflicts. Assad’s tactics rely on civilian deaths– the deaths of his own people– in order to win. He has bombed hospitals and mosques, making it next to impossible to provide medical care to victims. Syrians are also suffering from severe food insecurity. And as men, women, and children have died by the hundreds of thousands, the world has mostly watched.

If all of this feels overwhelming, know that you’re not alone. This conflict is complex: it’s a mix of politics and external powers and humanitarian ethics. From my perspective as a U.S. citizen, the Middle East feels so far away. And from my perspective as a millenial, I have grown up associating the Middle East with violence. Seeing war-torn images of Iraq and Afghanistan and now Syria is something that I, unfortunately, am accustomed to.

But I shouldn’t be, and neither should you. While there may be little you can actually do to stop the violence in Syria, there is plenty you can do from wherever you are in the world.

For starters, there are tons of organizations, like the International Rescue Committee or the White Helmets to which you can donate. Depending on where you live, there are probably refugees in your country. Lend your help and support! Volunteer with organizations that are helping Syrian refugees settle into their new home. These people who have had to witness their homes and families be destroyed are not always welcomed into their country of refuge, and you could be a person who changes that.

Most importantly, stay aware and educated on what’s going on. Know your political representatives’ stances on the conflict. Don’t accept violence in Syria as normal, because it’s not. It’s one of the biggest humanitarian crises of our time.