Middle East

Syria: Mapping the conflict

Territorial control in Syria has changed many times since the country's uprising began four years ago and the current conflict is characterised by heavy fighting and marginal gains in ground.

Meanwhile, the US-led, multi-national coalition's air strikes against areas held by Islamic State (IS) - the extremist group that grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq - appears to have slowed their rapid advance across Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

Map showing territorial control in the Syrian conflict
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  • Homs

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    Homs, Syria's third largest city, has been a key battleground in the conflict. It was dubbed the 'capital of the revolution' after residents embraced the call to overthrow the president in early 2011 and much of the city fell under the control of the opposition. However, government forces gradually took back areas held by rebels and in May 2014, the city was fully regained by regime troops. Armed groups retreated from the old city in which they had been besieged for almost three years. Fighting continues to the east of the city between IS and other opposition forces.

  • Damascus

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    The Syrian capital and its outskirts remain a key strategic area of control. While the regime has succeeded in using sieges and intensive airstrike campaigns to negotiate truces with various armed groups in and around the city, fighting continues between government forces and opposition fighters. Clashes frequently break out in the city’s southern and eastern areas. Infighting among the different armed rebel groups has also increased.

  • Aleppo

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    Fighting broke out in Syria’s largest city in July 2012 with rebels taking control of a number of districts. However their offensive stalled and the battle became a war of attrition. The city continues to be a key battleground between regime forces and the opposition and contains several shifting front lines. Much of the city has been destroyed and residents suffer constant power cuts and frequent water shortages.

  • Kobane

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    Kobane, a town populated by Kurds on the border with Turkey, has been one of the key frontlines of the current conflict. The strategically-important border town was besieged by jihadist militants from Islamic State (IS) in 2014. But, after months of fighting, Kurdish militia fighters, backed by US-led air strikes, took back control of the town in January 2015. An estimated 1,600 people died.

Map sources: areas of control and border crossings from the Syria Needs Analysis Project; all other geographical detail from humanitarian organisations and Google

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According to the Syria Needs Analysis Project (Snap), the US-led bombing campaign has disrupted IS governance in the areas it controls, though to what degree remains "unclear".

However, heavy fighting continues on many fronts.

Kurdish forces have been battling IS fighters in and around the northern town of Kobane, while rebel groups, IS and government forces have fought for ground in the northern regions of Aleppo and Idlib - as well as in Hama to the south.

Rebels and the government are also battling for territory in areas approaching the capital, Damascus. Meanwhile, IS and government forces are fighting in the eastern region of Deir al-Zour.

However, Snap reports, these battles have not resulted in any major changes to front lines and relatively small victories have been achieved "at great cost".

In the southern cities of Deraa and Quneitra, where rebel groups have remained relatively united, a rebel advance against government forces has made some progress, though far from the rebels' stated goal of reaching rural Damascus.

Conflict history

The conflict has its roots in protests that erupted in Deraa city in March 2011 after the arrest and torture of some teenagers who painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall.

Opposition supporters - angered by the government's use of lethal force to crush pro-democracy demonstrations - first began to take up arms to defend themselves and later to expel security forces from their local areas.

As the country descended into civil war, armed rebel brigades battled government forces for control of cities, towns and swathes of countryside.

Wounded boy

During 2012, rebel forces enjoyed a series of tactical successes, taking control of several outlying suburbs and towns around Damascus, and ousting troops from large parts of the second city of Aleppo.

However, the advances were not decisive. By the start of 2013, the government began to recapture opposition strongholds around the capital, while there was stalemate in Aleppo, with the city divided into rebel and loyalist-controlled sectors.

Then, in June 2013, government troops backed by fighters from the Lebanese Shia Islamist movement, Hezbollah, recaptured a number of rebel strongholds.

Rebel forces have also been affected by deep divisions among groups. Secular moderates are outnumbered by Islamists and jihadists linked to al-Qaeda, whose brutal tactics have caused widespread concern and triggered rebel infighting.

Islamic State's many foreign fighters in Syria are involved in a "war within a war", battling rebels and jihadists from the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, who object to their tactics, as well as Kurdish and government forces.

Humanitarian crisis

The escalating violence and IS advances have had a significant humanitarian impact on Syria and its neighbours.

Syria is now the world's biggest internal displacement crisis, with an estimated 7.6 million people forced from their homes but remaining in the country.

Overall, the UN estimates 12.2 million are in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria, including 5.6 million children.

Meanwhile, almost 4 million people have fled Syria the country's borders mainly taking refuge in surrounding countries.

Lebanon and Turkey have each taken in more than one million Syrians, while Jordan, Iraq and Egypt have become home to hundreds of thousands more.

Syrian refugees in the region

Map showing Syrian refugees in the region

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