Whatever happened to… Syria’s civil war?

Fighting among various opposition groups in Syria has declined, but the war is not officially over.

“Syria is living through what we can call a frozen conflict,” Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Qutaiba Idlbi said. “Basically, the war itself has not been over, but we’ve been seeing a steady cease-fire since 2020.”

Turkey and Russia agreed to pause fighting in March 2020. Russian President Vladimir Putin met with his counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and said he hoped the agreement would lead to a halt in military action in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern region.

“In reality, though, while the war has stopped, we have also seen somehow a partition of Syria. In a sense, we are seeing three different Syrias, one influenced or controlled by Russia and Iran, one influenced by the United States and one influenced by Turkey,” Idlbi said, “which kind of makes the Syrian conflict today managed completely by those three parties.” 

People inspect damage at a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo’s district of al-Sukari, March 7, 2014. (REUTERS/Hosam Katan/File Photo)


Most of Southern Syria is controlled by President Bashar al-Assad’s government, which has seen support from Russia and Iran.

“Russia and Iran have tremendous influence over Assad,” Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said, “because Russia and Iran want access to the Mediterranean, and they want to control Syria.”

The U.S. began assisting Syrian rebels in 2014 as part of a military operation to defeat the Islamic State. Around 900 U.S. troops are still based in Syria. They mostly support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which control most of northern Syria.

“We have an exemption of almost all sanctions for areas across northern Syria which allows investment in that region,” Idlbi said. “In terms of the economic model and the living conditions, it seems that northern Syria is providing much better conditions and is even attracting families who are living under the Assad regime to migrate into northern Syria.” 

The U.S. has supported other government opposition groups in addition to the SDF and has operated a training base in Eastern Syria. Turkish and Syrian Arab Proxy Forces are occupying an area in the northwest. Extremist groups have claimed a small region in the west. Even China reportedly is trying to influence the country.


“China brokered a deal between Saudi and Iran in the absence of the United States. While everyone was celebrating that deal, I think many in Washington were wondering where the role of the United States is,” Idlbi said.

Arab countries recently welcomed Assad back into their alliance and have given him renewed recognition. During a summit in Saudi Arabia, he called on Arab nations to reject external interference in their affairs, despite having support from other foreign governments.

“Our position has been very clear. We’re not going to be in the business of normalizing relations with Assad, with that regime,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a news conference in Saudi Arabia on Thursday. “It has not earned that step forward — that recognition toward acceptance.”

Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., criticized the Arab League for allowing Assad to return and said holding dictators accountable was important as a warning to other bad actors.

“If you allow one brutal dictator to go unchecked, then you allow another. So it could happen on a continuous basis, and then sooner or later it could start hitting you at home also,” Meeks said. “It’s important for us to be in lockstep with our allies, those that have the same beliefs that we have, those that have the same common ideas of democracy stick together so that we can begin to isolate the dictators who kill their own people and commit war crimes.”

bashar al assad in saudi arabia

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arriving in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to attend the Arab League summit in May 2023. (SANA/Handout via Reuters, File)


Reports of chemical weapons attacks in Syria began in 2012. The Syrian government blamed opposition groups, but U.S. intelligence asserted the Assad regime was behind the attacks. Its targets often included civilians.

“That’s a red line for us,” then-President Obama said in August 2012. “There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.” 

One year later, Obama requested approval from Congress to send U.S. troops to Syria. Military intervention was avoided at that time after Syria agreed to accept a deal negotiated by the U.S. and Russia.


The agreement called for inspecting, controlling and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons. 

By April 2014, 92% had been removed from Syria. Reports of the Syrian government using chemical weapons continued with the last known event in May 2019. Experts have warned Assad could be preparing to use the weapons once again against his own people. 

“There are still reports about the Assad regime continuing to store or even produce chemical weapons to restore its stockpile that has been depleted because of the deal that was brokered between the United States and Russia in 2013,” Idlbi said. “I think that’s a result of the cease-fire itself and the pause in military operations across Syria.”

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