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It is over 12 years since the conflict in Syria began. The conflict has killed more than 350,000 people and caused the displacement of half the Syrian population. Chemical weapons have also been deployed.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, aided by Iran and Russia, controls most of Syria and is likely to remain in power. His position was further strengthened by the Arab League re-admitting Syria as a member in May 2023; Syria had been suspended from the League at the beginning of the conflict in 2011.

This research briefing describes the stalemated conflict and the stalled peace talks, the significance of Arab re-engagement with Assad and the response of the UK and United States, and the sanctions in place against Syria.

Who controls territory in Syria?

Syria’s frontlines have been largely frozen since 2020, though some recurrent fighting does occur. Around 70% of the country is now controlled by Assad Government forces, and Islamic State/Daesh no longer controls any territory.

Both Russia and Iran have long provided support to the Syrian regime to ensure they have reliable allies in the region, both in the form of Assad (Russia/Iran) and the local militia forces it has raised (Iran).

Kurdish forces continue to control substantial areas in north eastern Syria, where around 900 US troops are based to support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and combat Islamic State. Armed opposition groups, including the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham group, linked to Al-Qaeda, control areas around Idlib in the north west.

Turkey also pursues military action in Syria and Iraq. This is to restrict the Kurdish-led SDF in Syria and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, which it lists as a terrorist group (as does the European Union and US).

Diplomatic re-engagement with Assad

In the initial period of war, many Arab states backed the Syrian opposition and Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011. The League is an alliance of Arab states across the Middle East and North Africa, but it is often disunited and has not played a significant role in Syrian peace negotiations.

Since 2018, several states have repaired their relations with Assad, and this culminated in the May 2023 decision of the League to allow Syria to return (though some members, such as Qatar, argued the decision was premature, and peace plans should first be required). Symbolically, the decision is beneficial for Assad and damaging to the Syrian opposition. Reasons why some Arab states have restored diplomatic ties with Syria include:

However, continuing sanctions from the US and others will likely limit the ability of Arab countries to invest in Syrian reconstruction. The League is also seeking the return of Syrian refugees, many of whom are based in Jordan and Lebanon, restrictions on the captagon drug trade from Syria, and containing non-state armed groups, backed by Iran.

Turkey and Assad have also set out intentions to improve ties in 2023.

The US and UK continue to oppose Assad

The US, UK and EU continue to call for Assad to stand down as president and for negotiations on a new political settlement for Syria. All three apply sanctions against the Syrian regime, which may complicate attempts by Syria’s neighbours to provide financial and other support.

While all three opposed the decision of the League to allow Syria to re-join, the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, has stressed the US shares many of the same aims as the League, such as reducing Iran’s influence in Syria and negotiating a peace settlement. UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has said the UK is “uncomfortable” with the decision and the League should ensure that any steps they take “are more than matched” in reforms by Assad.

Sanctions primarily relate to oil and products that could have military uses and include exemptions for humanitarian aid and medicines. These were temporarily expanded in 2023 in response to the February earthquakes.

A 2020 report by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia argued sanctions were “barriers to [Syrian] recovery” because they hindered access to external funding. The UK Government says it remains committed to the principle of “do no harm” with its sanctions, which it says targets individuals and groups who have profited from the conflict.

Limited peace talks

Only limited peace talks have taken place under UN Resolution 2254 (2015). These have been partly undermined by the Astana Talks, held between Russia, Turkey and Iran. Russian-led talks in Sochi in 2018, however, did result in the formation of a group to negotiate a new constitution under the UN resolution. However, subsequent talks have not led to further progress.

Update log

This research briefing replaces a Library briefing of November 2021 Syria and its civil war: A future under Assad?

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