The Syrian conflict has witnessed seven years of overwhelming violence and death. An endless cycle of confrontation and ceasefire, punctuated by repeated aborted negotiation attempts, have all further complicated and prolonged what we have come to understand as the Syrian Civil War. Every aspect of the conflict, becomes either embroiled in discussion or debate, results in no action, or adds to the hardships faced by the Syrian population.  Throughout the conflict, scholars and experts have debated the idea of turning points or critical junctures.

When examining the idea of critical turning points, it is imperative that we consider events not just at the macro-level. What cannot be overemphasized is the fact that each of these turning points, while changing the broader trajectory of the conflict, also had very real, life-altering consequences for local communities. Through merging the idea of the local into the discussion of the macro, we gain a better understanding of the reality of some of the critical junctures within the Syrian conflict.

While there are many potential turning points, I identify three critical turning points in the Syrian conflict. They are as follows: the militarization of the Syrian uprising in early 2011, Obama’s failure to uphold his red-line declaration in 2013, and the 2015 commencement of Russian military intervention. Each of these situations altered the trajectory of the conflict dramatically, not just on a macro-level, but for local communities.

The militarization of the peaceful protests that began in March 2011 transformed the Syrian uprising into a bloody, violent full-scale military conflict. When the protests began in March 2011, Syrians across the country raised their voices in protest against the repression and tyranny of the Assad regime. In response, the government forces employed violence, cracking down on protesters. These events would escalate into more violence from the regime as well as the protesters. This initial event would usher the uprising in a direction that would leave a mark on Syrian history forever. The militarization of the opposition changed Syria from a country facing civil unrest to a country ensnared in conflict. Moreover, the escalating level of violence led to the formation of various opposition groups. These groups would develop different identities, sponsors, and alliances; resulting in a myriad of armed groups which would subsequently fractionalize the opposition and result in further fighting and violence. From this point on, the Syrian uprising had transformed into a civil war.

The escalation from protests to conflict altered the way the international community viewed Syria, but more importantly, it changed and disrupted the lives of Syrians. The militarization of the conflict would lead to the regime tightening its grasp on state services, leading to access challenges for Syrians. The fighting across the Syrian geography would disrupt daily life, prevent children from attending school, create financial problems for families, or lead Syrians to flee their homeland. These disruptions in daily life would be further exacerbated when the international system began to intervene and to strengthen certain parts of the armed opposition.

The second turning point was the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and President Obama’s subsequent failure to uphold his red-line declaration in 2013. In August 2013, Assad and his forces used Sarine gas near Damascus, killing more than fourteen hundred civilians. The US intelligence assessment asserted that the regime used chemical weapons as a method to push Syrian opposition forces back from rebel-held territory when government forces were unable. With the failure of President Obama and the United States to provide any actionable response, the Assad regime became even less fearful of any foreign intervention. The regime action and the US inaction altered the geopolitics surrounding the Syria conflict. Given the lack of direct military action or an escalation in support to rebel groups by the United States, other countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia also began to disengage. The stalled support created a feeling of abandonment within the armed opposition. The lack of intensified engagement by the United States, prompted bolder action by the Assad regime, Iran, and eventually Russia. However, beyond the macro-level implications, this event also had large ramifications for the Syrian population. The chemical weapons attack signaled that Syrians’ fears would not be limited to airstrikes or gunfire, but would have to also include weapons such as sarine gas.

The third critical turning point that altered the conflict on both the macro and micro level was  Russian military intervention. In September 2015, Russia launched airstrikes that were reported to target ISIS, however US intelligence reports argued that the airstrikes targeted key Assad opponents, including US-backed units. On an international level, the Russian-intervention altered the geopolitical dynamics. The Russian intervention solidified the alliance between Assad, Iran, and Russia, but also further demonstrated the lack of heightened support by Western actors. Moreover, as a result of this inaction, it became even more apparent to opposition groups and the Syrian population that they could not expect help or aid from the United States or other western countries. Rather, it would be the Russians who would ultimately guide how the Syrian conflict would unfold and negotiations for the conflict’s termination. Russian actions under the  intervention have attempted to restrict the number of Russian casualties, but has led to higher civilian casualties due to less discriminate military tactics. The attempt to restrict Russian casualties raises the level of violence and the number of threats for Syrians. Now they must prepare for a bombing or chemical weapon attack from their own government, as well as attacks from a world superpower.

Following these events and so many other daily tragedies, the Syrian population has remained isolated from the international community. These three critical turning points have contributed to further deterioration of daily life for Syrians and altered geo-politics in the region. While the Assad regime has escalated its attacks through chemical weapons, international powers have delineated new rules and retained new spheres of influence. The failure of US engagement in the conflict, both militarily and diplomatically, along with the Russian-Syrian alliance has allowed for Russia, Iran, and Syria to largely control the results of the Syrian conflict. With the United States continuing its inaction to implement change or alter the status quo, other countries have also taken a less direct approach. As a result, the Syrian conflict continues as the Syrian population faces even more hardship.


[Other roundtable submissions can be found here.]