Syria war: Why is there fighting in Syria?

A father reacts after the death of two of his children by shellfire in the rebel-held al-Ansari area of Aleppo, Syria (3 January 2013)

What began as a peaceful uprising against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad five years ago became a full-scale civil war that has left more than 250,000 people dead, devastated the country and drawn in global powers.

Why is there a war in Syria?

Long before the conflict began, many Syrians complained about high unemployment, widespread corruption, a lack of political freedom, and a state repression under President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father, Hafez, in 2000.

Anti-government protesters on the streets of the Syrian city of Deraa on 23 March 2011 Protests in the southern city of Deraa in March 2011 were suppressed by security forces

In March 2011, pro-democracy demonstrations inspired by the Arab Spring erupted in the southern city of Deraa. The government's use of deadly force to crush the dissent soon triggered nationwide protests demanding the president's resignation.

As the unrest spread, the crackdown intensified. Opposition supporters began to take up arms, first to defend themselves and later to expel security forces from their local areas. Mr Assad vowed to crush "foreign-backed terrorism" and restore state control.

A man walks past damaged buildings along a street at the Khalidiya district of Homs, Syria (19 November 2012) The city of Homs, dubbed "the capital of the revolution" suffered widespread destruction

The violence rapidly escalated and the country descended into civil war as hundreds of rebel brigades were formed to battle government forces for control of the country.

Why has the war lasted so long?
Syrian army soldiers standing on their military trucks chant slogans in support of President Bashar al-Assad, as they enter a village near the town of Jisr al-Shughour (10 June 2011) Government forces have lost control of large swathes of the country to various armed groups

In essence, it has become more than just a battle between those for or against Mr Assad.

A key factor has been the intervention of regional and world powers, including Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Their military, financial and political support for the government and opposition has contributed directly to the intensification and continuation of the fighting, and turned Syria into a proxy battleground.

Map showing territorial control in the Syrian conflict (23 February 2016)

External powers have also been accused of fostering sectarianism in what was a broadly secular state, pitching the country's Sunni majority against the president's Shia Alawite sect. Such divisions have encouraged both sides to commit atrocities that have not only caused loss of life but also torn apart communities, hardened positions and dimmed hopes for a political settlement.

Jihadist militants from so-called Islamic State take part in a military parade in Raqqa, Syria (30 June 2014) The northern Syrian city of Raqqa is the headquarters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS)

Jihadist groups have also seized on the divisions, and their rise has added a further dimension to the war. So-called Islamic State (IS), which controls large parts of northern and eastern Syria, is battling government forces, rebel brigades and Kurdish groups on the ground, as well as facing air strikes by Russia and a US-led multinational coalition.

Why are so many outside powers involved?
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Kremlin in Moscow (20 October 2015) Russia's air campaign aimed to "stabilise" the government of President Bashar al-Assad

Russia, for whom President Assad's survival is critical to maintaining its interests in Syria, launched an air campaign in September 2015 with the aim of "stabilising" the government after a series of defeats. Moscow stressed that it would target only "terrorists", but activists said its strikes mainly hit Western-backed rebel groups.

Six months later, having turned the tide of the war in his ally's favour, President Vladimir Putin ordered the "main part" of Russia's forces to withdraw, saying their mission had "on the whole" been accomplished.

A rebel fighter takes cover during clashes with the Syrian army in the Salahuddin district of Aleppo (7 August 2012) Rebels have received only limited military assistance from Western powers opposed to Mr Assad

Shia power Iran is believed to be spending billions of dollars a year to bolster the Alawite-dominated government, providing military advisers and subsidised weapons, as well as lines of credit and oil transfers. It is also widely reported to have deployed hundreds of combat troops in Syria.

Mr Assad is Iran's closest Arab ally and Syria is the main transit point for Iranian weapons shipments to the Lebanese Shia Islamist movement Hezbollah, which has sent thousands of fighters to support government forces.

The US, which says President Assad is responsible for widespread atrocities and must step down, has provided only limited military assistance to "moderate" rebels, fearful that advanced weapons might end up in the hands of jihadists. Since September 2014, the US has conducted air strikes on IS in Syria, but it has avoided attacking government forces.

US-led coalition air strike on the northern Syrian town of Kobane (18 October 2014) A US-led coalition has been conducting air strikes on Islamic State militants in Syria since 2014

Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, which is seeking to counter the influence of its rival Iran, has been a major provider of military and financial assistance to the rebels, including those with Islamist ideologies.

Turkey, another staunch supporter of the rebels, has meanwhile sought to limit US support for Kurdish forces battling IS militants in northern Syria, accusing them of being affiliated to the banned Turkish Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

What impact has the war had?
A man gives medical assistance to an injured man after what activists said was an air strike by government forces the Duma district of Damascus, Syria (2 February 2015) There are no reliably accurate statistics on the number of people killed or wounded in the fighting

The UN says 250,000 people have been killed in the past five years. However, the organisation stopped updating its figures in August 2015. One monitoring group puts the death toll at 270,000, while a think-tank recently estimated that the conflict had caused 470,000 deaths, either directly or indirectly.

More than 4.8 million people have fled Syria, most of them women and children. Neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have struggled to cope with one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history.

About 10% of Syrian refugees have sought safety in Europe, sowing political divisions as countries argue over sharing the burden. A further 6.5 million people are internally displaced inside Syria.

Displaced Syrians wait near the town of Khirbet al-Joz, in Latakia province, for permission to enter Turkey (7 February 2016) Almost half of Syria's pre-war population of 23 million has been displaced by the war

The UN says it will need $3.2bn to help the 13.5 million people, including six million children, who will require some form of humanitarian assistance inside Syria in 2016. About 70% of the population is without access to adequate drinking water, one-in-three people are unable to meet their basic food needs, more than two million children are out of school, and four out of five people live in poverty.

The warring parties have compounded the problems by refusing humanitarian agencies access to many of those in need. Some 4.6 million people live in hard-to-reach areas, including almost 500,000 people in besieged locations.

What's being done to end the fighting?
UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura attends a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland (14 March 2016) Previous attempts by the UN to broker a political settlement have failed

With neither side able to inflict a decisive defeat on the other, the international community long ago concluded that only a political solution could end the conflict. The UN Security Council has called for the implementation of the 2012 Geneva Communique, which envisages a transitional governing body with full executive powers "formed on the basis of mutual consent".

Peace talks in early 2014, known as Geneva II, broke down after only two rounds, with the UN blaming the Syrian government's refusal to discuss opposition demands.

A year later, the conflict with IS lent fresh impetus to the search for a political solution in Syria. The US and Russia persuaded representatives of the warring parties to attend "proximity talks" in Geneva in January 2016 to discuss a Security Council-endorsed road map for peace, including a ceasefire and a transitional period ending with elections.

Syrian army soldiers look on as buses carrying rebel fighters leave the al-Wair district of Homs as part of a local truce agreement (9 December 2015) A local truce in the Homs suburb of al-Wair in December allowed rebel fighters to be evacuated

The first round broke down while still in the "preparatory" phase, as government forces launched a major offensive to around the northern city of Aleppo. But the talks resumed in March 2016, two weeks after after the US and Russia brokered a nationwide, but partial, "cessation of hostilities" that Washington said saw the level of violence fall by up to 90%.

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