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Ten years after its civil war began, Syria remains in conflict. President Bashar al-Assad, with the backing of Russia and Iran, however, now seems likely to hold on to power. This is despite the opposition and condemnation of the UK, US and others for his human rights abuses and non-compliance with chemical weapons conventions.

This briefing gives a timeline of main events, statistics on the humanitarian and economic effects of the war, UK participation, and a list of further reading and regularly updated resources on the conflict.

The Library briefing, Syria and its civil war: A future under Assad? discusses the continuing role of foreign powers in the country, the potential for further fighting, and the prospects for a negotiated peace.

Iranian and Russian backing for Assad, coupled with his strengthened military position and re-engagement with many Arab states, undermines incentives for his regime to make meaningful concessions in future UN-led peace talks.

Section 4 of this briefing provides a list of further resources and reading on the conflict, including reports by UK Parliament Committees, regularly-updated resources on the conflict, and timelines.

Casualties in Syria

Due to issues in recording, access, and partiality in the information available, it is unlikely the true figure of those killed and injured will ever be known.

In September 2021, the UN published updated estimates on the number of civilians killed in Syria. It compiled a list of 350,209 individuals killed between March 2011 and March 2021. This, the UN said, was the “minimum verifiable number” and “certainly an undercount.”

Refugees and displaced people

The total pre-war population of Syria was around 21 million. More than half this population is now displaced from their homes, either internally within Syria or as refugees abroad.

As of December 2020, there were around 6.7 million internally displaced people living in Syria. 5.8 million have been displaced for more than three years.

Refugees first started leaving Syria in large numbers in 2012, with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees recording around 730,000 Syrian refugees in that year. In 2021, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) recorded 6.8 million Syrian refugees and asylum seekers globally.

Since 2014, 29,000 Syrians have been granted asylum or another form of humanitarian protection in the UK. Around two thirds (20,300) were resettled through the Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme (VPRS), a programme set up in 2014 to resettle vulnerable people displaced by the Syrian conflict (see section 2.3 of the briefing for data sources).

Humanitarian needs of the population

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports there were 13.4 million in need of humanitarian assistance in 2021.

In 2021, around 12.4 million were food insecure, meaning they are compromising on food quality or variety, or reducing the quantity they consume. This was a 56% rise from the 7.9 million food insecure people in 2019.

Syria has also seen substantial economic disruption. In 2017, the World Bank estimated the proportion of the population living in extreme poverty rose from 12% of the population in 2007 to 63% in 2016. Economic losses were estimated to total US$ 442 billion from 2012 to 2020.

UK aid to Syria

The UK has provided a total of £3.7 billion in official development assistance (ODA) to Syria from 2011 to 2021. ODA is aid intended to promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries. Such assistance must be reported to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Since 2011, Syria has been one of the largest recipients of UK bilateral ODA in Asia, receiving the fourth-largest amount overall (behind Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh).

In its September 2021 annual report, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said it planned to spend £48 million in 2021/22 in bilateral ODA to Syria, compared to £153 million in 2020/21. All plans are subject to change and in previous years the government has exceed its pledges to Syria.

UK military activity

Since August 2014, the UK has conducted airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State (IS), under Operation Shader, and provided military support to the US-led coalition. Operations in Syria began in December 2015.

As of July 2021, the RAF has flown 8,700 sorties and released 4,300 precision weapons (eg, missiles) to target IS across the region.

As of 30 September 2021, one member of the UK armed forces has been killed in action during Operation Shader and three have suffered battle injuries. A further three military personnel died on operation, but not in hostile action.

The most recent figures to 2019/20 show that the cost of Operation Shader has amounted to £2 billion in real terms since 2014. The cost of operations peaked in 2017/18 and has since fallen by around 74%. This fall is largely attributed to a reduction in equipment and infrastructure costs.

Islamic State fighters in Syria/Iraq

In 2017, the UN estimated that more than 40,000 foreign fighters from 110 countries travelled to join IS in Iraq and Syria, and that 5,600 from 33 states had returned home. Many remain in Syria, either in custody or at large.

The number of UK citizens who have fought with IS in Iraq and Syria is uncertain—in 2019, the Government estimated they numbered 900. In 2018, the Government said that of the 900:

  • 40 had been prosecuted because of their actions in Syria (4%)
  • 180 had been killed (20%)
  • 540 had returned to the UK (60%). Note in 2019, the Home Office reported around 400 had returned (44%)
  • This implies around 180-320 remained in Syria (20%-36%).

The Library briefing, Returning terrorist fighters (March 2019) has more on policy debates on how to deal with returning fighters and terrorists.


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