The modern state of Syria was formed as a French mandate in 1920 following World War I and became independent in 1946. Syria has been governed by the authoritarian military Ba’ath Party since 1971 under the leadership of minority Alawi Muslims Hafez al-Assad (1971–2000) and his son, Bashar al-Assad (2000–present). Syria was under a state of Emergency Law from 1963 to 2011 that suspended constitutional provisions for citizens justified by the declared war with Israel. While the Syrian government characterizes itself as secular, religion is deeply significant to Syrians and the ideologically secular Ba’ath Party has made concessions in order to retain power, which is reflected in the office of the presidency (who must be Muslim), in Syrian laws (which are based on Islamic law), and in government sponsorship for religious institutions.

Though the majority of Syrians identify with some form of Sunni Islam, the country is home to a vast diversity of religious and ethnic groups, including Kurds, Armenians, Turkmen, Alawis, Twelver Shi’a Muslims, various Christian denominations including Greek Orthodox Christians and  Druze, Yezidis, Baha’is, and Jews.

The country is currently in crisis as the result of a protracted civil war that began in 2011 as a series of protests calling for democratic and economic reforms. These initial protests were led by citizens and inspired by the “Arab Spring” spawned in Tunisia months earlier.

President Bashar al-Assad initially appeared open to reform,[1] but soon responded with violence claiming that the protestors were Muslim extremists seeking to overthrow the government.[2] The Arab League suspended Syrian membership due to the government’s violent response to protests, and the Arab League, the United Nations, and the European Union have condemned the attacks and called on Assad to step down. The violence has moved into a third stage of conflict with the rise of an influx of foreign jihadist forces. The most prominent of those forces are fighting under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Qatar and Saudi Arabia initially supplied aid to the rebel forces during the civil war phase that included members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which has long been opposed to the ruling Ba’athists. With the rise of ISIL, overt support has diminished though many assume that wealthy individuals continue to support even this extreme form of opposition to Assad.[3] Russia, China, and Iran remain allies of Bashar al-Assad and his regime, as does Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Inside Syria, the Alawi community generally (though not uniformly) backs the regime and their numbers are prominent in the Syrian armed forces. Many Sunnis in the ruling classes defend the regime, while others are actively opposed. Christians are divided, often by socioeconomic status and/or religious and ethnic security. Many Kurds joined the opposition immediately while others initially attempted to remain neutral hoping to achieve some form of sovereignty once the conflict ceased.[4] As of mid-2014 the Kurds united in opposition to ISIS.

Accurate information on Syrian casualties and displacement is difficult to obtain due to a ban on outside journalists and a state-controlled media. It is widely agreed that the death toll in Syria is above 200,000. In August of 2015, the UN estimated the death toll at 250,000.[5] Overall, about 11 million people have been displaced by the Syrian conflict. 6.5 million people have been forced from their homes to other parts of Syria,[6] while 4.5 million people have fled the country altogether.[7] The majority of people seeking safety outside of Syria left for nearby Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, while just over 10% traveled to Europe.[8] This huge number of refugees has contributed to what many call a global refugee crisis.

Syria’s Role in the Global Refugee Crisis

Syria plays a decisive role in global refugee crisis, although people forced to flee countries such as Afghanistan, Kosovo and parts of Northern Africa have also contributed.

Refugees from Syria have overwhelmed neighboring Lebanon, and are thought to make up about 20% of the country’s population.[9] Lebanon began to require visas from Syrians in January 2015, and there are now over a million Syrian refugees registered there.[10] Following the suspension of registration, called for by the Lebanese government, many refugees awaiting registration have not been included in statistics.

By contrast, there are 2.5 million refugees in Turkey.[11] Turkey announced it would close the two remaining border gates with Syria in March 2015.[12] After upholding a longstanding policy on open borders, this decision was made in response to terrorist threats to Turkey, in addition to continued pressure from Western allies such as Germany.[13]

Europe is struggling to handle the constant influx of refugees, so many of them travelling from Syria. The European Union (EU) has received repeated criticism for responding inadequately to the crisis. More than 30% of Syrian refugees in Europe have gone to Serbia, Kosovo, and Germany, while 57% are scattered across Sweden, Hungary, Austria, the Netherlands and Bulgaria.

The EU has openly condemned countries such as Hungary for mistreating many Syrians by erecting border-fences, in addition to criminalizing and detaining Syrian refugees, and in 2015, the EU attempted to establish a coherent policy in response to the high inflow of refugees, who are dying in their attempts to reach safety.

Many Syrians have given their life savings to smugglers in the hope of reach destinations such as Europe. The use of inadequate boats for travel has often resulted in refugees dying en route, and many families have been split up. It is not uncommon for parents to entrust their children to smugglers out of desperation if they are not allowed to cross the border, or if they have run out of money. Social media campaigns such as that launched by Humans of New York have been important in increasing the visibility of Syrians in the West by telling their personal stories.

Germany has proved a particularly controversial actor in the refugee crisis. The Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, has faced a huge drop in support for accepting so many refugees from Syria and elsewhere. (In 2015 overall, Germany allegedly took in 1.1 million migrants.)[14] A 2016 poll taken by a public broadcaster called ARD found that 81% of people in Germany did not believe the government was handling the refugee crisis successfully.[15] Merkel has been very prominent in EU efforts to welcome more Syrian refugees, and to formalize this process.

A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) commended the EU for reaching an agreement to resettle 160,000 asylum seekers in Greece and Italy, and to augment the resettlement of refugees currently outside the Union.[16] However, HRW also criticized the EU’s slow and inefficient implementation of these plans.

Historical Legacies→

[1] Bashar al-Assad, quoted in “President al-Assad: The Solution in Syria Is Political,” Syrian Arab News Agency, August 23, 2011,, accessed May 26, 2011.

[2] Bashar al-Assad, quoted in “President al-Assad: Crisis in Syria Is Mostly External,” Syrian Arab News Agency, July 5, 2012,, accessed May 26, 2013; “President al-Assad: The Solution in Syria Is Political,” Syrian Arab News Agency, August 23, 2011,, accessed May 26, 2011.

[3] “Islamic State: Where does jihadist group get its support?” BBC, September 1, 2014,

[4] “Guide to the Syrian Opposition,” BBC, April 23, 2013,, accessed May 26, 2013.

[5] “7504th Meeting, Alarmed by Continuing Syria Crisis, Security Council Affirms Its Support for Special Envoy’s Approach in Moving Political Solution Forward,” United Nations Security Council, August 17, 2015,, accessed February 5, 2016.

[6] Stephen O’Brien, “Statement to the Press on Syria,” United Nations, 14 December 2015.

[7] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Syria Regional Refugee Response Inter-agency Information Sharing Portal,, accessed February 5, 2016.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Patrick Boehler and Sergio Pecanha,“The Global Refugee Crisis, Region by Region,” The New York Times, August 26, 2015,, accessed February 5, 2016.

[10] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Syria Regional Refugee Response Inter-agency Information Sharing Portal,, accessed February 5, 2016.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Boehler and Sergio Pecanha,“The Global Refugee Crisis, Region by Region,” The New York Times, August 26, 2015,, accessed February 5, 2016.

[13] Ceylan Yeginsu and Karam Shoumali, “Turkey Moves to Close All Gates at Border With Syria,” The New York Times, March 29, 2015, , accessed February 5, 2016.

[14] “Refugee Crisis Pushes Support for Germany’s Angela Merkel to Four-Year Low,” The Guardian, February 3, 2016,, accessed February 5, 2016.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “European Union Refugee Response Falls Short,” Human Rights Watch, January 1, 2016,, accessed February 5, 2016.


Image Credits

"Syrian refugees living in Jordan," by Freedom House, modified image from Flickr Creative Commons.