The US just attacked Assad for the first time — here’s how Syria’s six-year civil war has unfolded

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Children push containers in strollers as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016
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Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters

Last week, the US responded to a deadly chemical weapons attack believed to have been carried out by the Syrian government six years into the country’s devastating civil war.

The war, which erupted in 2011 following a popular uprising against the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad, has left nearly half a million people dead and sparked the largest refugee crisis since World War II.

These are the complicated and horrifying events that sparked the war, and, ultimately, the US response.


In the spring of 2011, a series of pro-democracy protests known as the Arab Spring were rocking countries across the Middle East. In Syria, people peacefully protested in the streets after President Bashar Assad’s government arrested and tortured teenagers for writing some pro-revolution graffiti on their school wall.

Source: BBC


To quell the protests, government forces started opening fire during marches and sit-ins. With hundreds of people now killed by Assad’s government, the protesters who initially called for more civil liberties started demanding a total overthrow of Assad’s regime.

Source: The Guardian


With no end to the violence, some former government officers formed the Free Syrian Army to support the opposition. As sides battled for control over major cities such as Homs and Aleppo, the fighting escalated into a full-blown civil war by the end of 2011.

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A Free Syrian Army fighter carries his weapon as he smokes a cigarette near the frontline of Otaiba, in al-Ghouta region in the eastern rural suburbs of Damascus, August 15, 2013.
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REUTERS/Mohamed Abdullah

Source: BBC


By 2012, fighting between rebel groups and government forces had spilled into the streets, killing and displacing thousands.

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Forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad walk past damaged buildings in the government held Sheikh Saeed district of Aleppo, during a media tour,
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Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

Source: BBC


Assad’s government started using heavy artillery and barrel bombs — munitions filled with materials like shrapnel and nails — to quell the opposition, which led to even more deaths in both rural and urban regions.

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Residents carry an injured man at a site damaged by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria’s president Bashar Al-Assad in Maarat Al-Nouman, south of Idlib June 8, 2015.
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REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Source:BBC


By 2017, over 450,000 Syrians had been killed in the war. “The level of human suffering that I am witnessing with the Syria crisis is indeed without a parallel,” said UN High Commissioner Antonio Guterres.

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Men rescue a boy from under the rubble after what activists said was explosive barrels dropped in Aleppo by forces loyal to Assad.
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REUTERS/Hosam Katan

Source: I Am Syria and Al Jazeera


The Civil War also spurred the biggest global refugee crisis since World War II. Nearly half of Syria’s pre-war population has been internally displaced or forced to flee their homes for other countries in the Middle East, Europe and North America.

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Refugees and migrants arrive on an overcrowded boat on the Greek island of Lesbos, November 10, 2015.
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Thomson Reuters

Source: Unicef


2016 took an even greater toll on Syria’s children, many of whom have been killed, separated from their families or stranded in refugee camps.

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Migrants’ children wait to cross the border from Slovenia into Spielfeld in Austria, February 16, 2016.
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REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Source: UNICEF and Business Insider


As the war continued, Assad’s government is believed to have started using highly toxic chemical weapons to strike densely populated areas. More than 1,000 people died in a 2013 sarin gas attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, which crossed Obama’s now-infamous “red line” and led to a deal brokered with Russia to destroy Assad’s declared chemical weapons stockpile.

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Resident carries an injured man through a site damaged from what activists said was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad on the main field hospital in the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus October 29, 2015.
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Reuters

Source: Business Insider and Washington Post


Years of fighting also fueled the rise of Islamic extremists like ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, who capitalized on the turmoil by taking over large sections of Syria and Iraq.

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A rebel fighter takes away a flag that belonged to Islamic State militants in Akhtarin village, after rebel fighters advanced in the area, in northern Aleppo Governorate, Syria, October 7, 2016.
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REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Source: BBC


As fighting continued to devastate the Middle Eastern nation, the conflict escalated into a proxy war between the US, Russia, and Iran. While the US decried Assad’s government and supported moderate rebel groups fighting the regime, Russian airstrikes and Iran-backed militias bolstered Assad’s army.

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Reuters

Source: Reuters (map) and Al Jazeera


Both Assad’s government and rebel groups were responsible for grave human rights abuses, a UN report found.

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Residents help a man out of rubbles after what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Douma, eastern Al-Ghouta, near Damascus, March 7, 2015.
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REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

Source: United Nations


With Russia supplying weapons to Assad’s government, the fighting for major cities like Palmyra and Aleppo continued into 2017. Six years of unabated bombing and fighting caused irreparable damage to Syrian infrastructure and society.

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This Nov. 20, 2014 photo shows an area controlled by the Islamic State group, past the Qada Azadi roundabout, foreground, in Kobani, Syria. Amid the wasteland and destroyed buildings, a sense of camaraderie has developed among the town’s defenders who have doggedly fought off militant advances for more than two months.
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Jake Simkin/AP

Source: The Washington Post


On April 7, 2017, Assad’s government is believed to have carried out another chemical strike on a town in Idlib province. At least 70 people, including 10 children, died in the attack.

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A man carries the body of a dead child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib
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Thomson Reuters

Source: Business Insider


US President Donald Trump launched cruise missiles at the airfield where Assad’s warplanes are believed to have taken off loaded with chemical weapons. It was the first US attack on the Syrian government since the war erupted in 2011.

Source: Business Insider and Newsweek


As Western countries fight over political influence, the Syrian War continues to ravage, kill and displace Syrian families. Nearly 5 million people fled the country as refugees and over 400,000 are waiting inside refugee camps.

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The ongoing conflict in Syria has created a refugee crisis
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REUTERS/Kadir Celikcan

Source: United Nations