A Syrian child poses atop a stack of neutralized shells at a metal scrapyard on the outskirts of Maaret Misrin town in the northwestern Idlib province, Syria last week.
Aaref Watad/AFP via Getty Images
On March 15, 2011, protesters inspired by successful "Arab Spring" uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, rallied in Syria to call for an end to their own repressive regime.
But unlike the governments that had earlier more or less collapsed in the face of popular uprisings and armed insurrections, Syria's President Bashar Assad was not about to go quietly. Days after the initial protests, Syrian soldiers fired on demonstrators, killing dozens in what would become the opening shots in a seemingly endless civil war that has reverberated far beyond the Middle Eastern country's borders.
The conflict has not only pitted Assad against a band of rebels, but drawn the U.S., Iran, Russia and Turkey, among others, into a complex proxy war. Along the way, it has brought out ethnic and sectarian divides, helped foster a revival of the extremist Islamic State militia, displaced millions of people and left hundreds of thousands — mostly civilians — dead.
While "much of the hot fighting in Syria has subsided, you still have massive displacement of people," Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tells NPR.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, speaking to journalists recently, said that while Syria "has fallen off the front page," it "remains a living nightmare."
"It is impossible to fully fathom the extent of the devastation in Syria, but its people have endured some of the greatest crimes the world has witnessed this century," he said.
Ordinary Syrians have borne the brunt. The Damascus government and its allies have hit hospitals and bakeries with airstrikes – measures designed to terrorize the local population, in an apparent attempt to weaken the opposition's grip on the area.
The regime has also dropped "barrel bombs" from helicopters directly onto civilian homes.
Fared al-Hor, a Syrian journalist living in Idlib, a city held by the rebel opposition, calls it a "scorched earth" strategy by which Assad's forces try to retake an area by forcing everyone to leave – rebels and civilians, alike.
"In 2016 my home was destroyed by shelling. [The regime] kept shelling and shelling until everyone left and the area was empty," he tells NPR. "I believe we were hit by more than 400 rockets in a single night."
Syrians stand next to a painted mural on the remains of a building depicting Iran as an octopus dropping bombs, in the rebel-held town of Binnish in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib, on March 11.
Rami Al Sayed/AFP via Getty Images
A web of interests
Although narrow in scope, last month's U.S. airstrikes against an obscure militia group in eastern Syria illustrates just a portion of the web of competing interests in the region that have made the civil war so intractable.
The U.S. strikes were a response to an earlier rocket attack on an airfield in Erbil, Iraq, that killed a Filipino contractor and wounded six others – including a Louisiana National Guard soldier. That attack was claimed by Awliya al Dam, or Guardian of the Blood Brigades – a Shiite group believed to be based in neighboring Iraq and backed by Tehran.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement that the airstrikes destroyed facilities inside Syria "used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kait'ib Hezbollah and Kait'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada."
The Kremlin — a staunch ally of Syria since the early days of the Cold War – called the U.S. attack "outrageous."