Early insurgency phase of the Syrian Civil War

The early insurgency phase of the Syrian Civil War lasted from late July 2011 to April 2012, and was associated with the rise of armed oppositional militias across Syria and the beginning of armed rebellion against the authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic. Though armed insurrection incidents began as early as June 2011 when rebels killed 120–140 Syrian security personnel, the beginning of organized insurgency is typically marked by the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on 29 July 2011, when a group of defected officers declared the establishment of the first organized oppositional military force. Composed of defected Syrian Armed Forces personnel, the rebel army aimed to remove Bashar al-Assad and his government from power.

Early insurgency phase of the Syrian Civil War
Part of the Syrian Civil War

Syrian Arab Army checkpoint in Douma, January 2012
Date29 July 2011 – 20 April 2012
Syria, neighbouring countries

UN-mediated truce:

  • General cease of hostilities in late April and early May
  • Cease-fire collapse and conflict escalation by June 2012

Syrian Arab Republic

 Syrian opposition

Liwa al-Islam
Ahrar al-Sham
Al-Nusra Front
Fatah al-Islam[4]

Foreign mujahideen[5]
Commanders and leaders

Bashar al-Assad
President of Syria
Adel Safar
Prime Minister of Syria
Dawoud Rajiha
Defense Minister
Fahed al-Jasem el-Freij
Chief Of Staff (Syrian Army)
Maher al-Assad
4th Division Commander
Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar
Interior Minister
Assef Shawkat
Deputy Defense Minister and Intelligence head

Walid Muallem
Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Minister

Riad al-Asaad
Free Syrian Army commander
Mustafa Ahmed al-Sheikh
Higher Military Council head
Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni
Muslim Brotherhood leader
Hussein Harmoush (POW)
Free Officers Movement commander, until August 2011

Zahran Alloush
Liwa al-Islam commander
Hassan Aboud
Ahrar al-Sham leader

Abu Mohammad al-Julani
al-Nusra Front emir
Syrian Army: ~60,000[lower-alpha 1]
Security agencies and affiliated paramilitaries: ~200,000[7]
Ba'ath Party militias: tens of thousands[8]
Shabiha: 5,000–10,000[8]
Rebel claim
Casualties and losses
Syrian security forces:
3,770 (opposition sources)[10]–3,857 (Ba'athist sources: 15 March 2011–21 June 2012)[11] soldiers and policemen killed
Syrian rebels:
2,980[12]–3,235[13] fighters killed

Civilian casualties (including 1,800–2,154 civilians killed during civil uprising):

10,414[14]–10,669[15] killed overall (government claim)
15,200[10]–16,163[16] killed overall (opposition claims)
35,000 wounded overall[17]
(see Deaths below for other estimates on killed)
240,000 displaced (including 180,000 refugees)

This period of the war saw the initial civil uprising take on many of the characteristics of a civil war, according to several outside observers, including the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, as armed elements became better organized and began carrying out successful attacks in retaliation for the crackdown by the Syrian government on demonstrators and defectors.[18]

The Arab League monitoring mission, initiated in December 2011, ended in failure by February 2012, as Syrian Ba'athist troops and oppositional militants continued to do battle across the country and the Syrian Ba'athist government prevented foreign observers from touring active battlefields, including besieged oppositional strongholds.

In early 2012, Kofi Annan acted as the UN–Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria. His peace plan provided for a ceasefire, but even as the negotiations for it were being conducted, the rebels and the Syrian army continued fighting even after the peace plan.[19]:11 The United Nations-backed ceasefire was brokered by special envoy Kofi Annan and declared in mid-April 2012.


The civil uprising phase of the Syrian Civil War was an early stage of protests – with subsequent violent reaction by the Syrian Arab Republic authorities – lasting from March to 28 July 2011. The uprising, initially demanding democratic reforms, evolved from initially minor protests, beginning as early as January 2011 and transformed into massive protests in March.

The uprising was marked by massive anti-government opposition demonstrations against the Ba'athist government of Bashar al-Assad, meeting with police and military violence, massive arrests and brutal crackdown, resulting in hundreds of casualties and thousands of wounded.

Despite Bashar al-Assad's attempts to pacify the protests with massive crackdown and use of censorship on one hand and concessions on the other, by the end of April, it became clear the situation was getting out of his control and the Syrian government deployed numerous troops on the ground.

The civil uprising phase created the platform for emergence of militant opposition movements and massive defections from the Syrian Army, which gradually transformed the conflict from a civil uprising to an armed rebellion, and later a full-scale civil war. The rebel Free Syrian Army was created on July 29, 2011, marking the transition into armed insurgency.

Insurgency timeline

During the June 2011 Jisr ash-Shugur operation, the Syrian army claimed to have begun a crackdown on terrorists between June 4 and June 12, which left 120–140 security personnel dead.[20][21][22][23]

Formation of FSA (July–November 2011)

On 29 July 2011, seven defecting Syrian Armed Forces officers formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA), originally composed of defected Syrian military officers and soldiers, aiming "to bring this government (the Assad government) down" with united opposition forces.[24][25] On 31 July, a nationwide crackdown nicknamed the "Ramadan Massacre" resulted in the death of at least 142 people and hundreds of injuries.[26] On 23 August, a coalition of anti-government groups called the Syrian National Council was formed. The council, based in Turkey, attempted to organize the opposition. The opposition, however, including the FSA, remained a fractious collection of political groups, longtime exiles, grassroots organizers and armed militants divided along ideological, ethnic and/or sectarian lines.[27]

Throughout August 2011, government forces stormed major urban centres and outlying regions, and continued to attack protests. On 14 August, the Siege of Latakia continued as the Syrian Navy became involved in the military crackdown for the first time. Gunboats fired heavy machine guns at waterfront districts in Latakia, as ground troops and security agents backed by armour stormed several neighbourhoods.[30] The Eid ul-Fitr celebrations, which began at the end of August, were muted after security forces fired on protesters gathered in Homs, Daraa, and the suburbs of Damascus.[31]

By September 2011, Syrian rebels were engaged in an active insurgency campaign in many parts of Syria. A major confrontation between the FSA and the Syrian Armed Forces occurred in Al-Rastan. From 27 September to 1 October, Syrian government forces, backed by tanks and helicopters, led an offensive on the town of Al-Rastan in Homs Governorate, in order to drive out army defectors.[32] The 2011 Battle of Rastan between government forces and the FSA was the longest and most intense action until that time. After a week, the FSA was forced to retreat from Rastan.[33] To avoid government forces, the leader of the FSA, Colonel Riad Asaad, retreated to Turkey.[34] Many of the rebels fled to the nearby city of Homs.[35]

By October 2011, the FSA started to receive active support from the Turkish government, which allowed the rebel army to operate its command and headquarters from the country's southern Hatay Province close to the Syrian border, and its field command from inside Syria.[36]

In October 2011, clashes between government and army units which had defected were being regularly reported. During the first week of the month, sustained clashes were reported in Jabal al-Zawiya in the mountains of Idlib Governorate. Syrian rebels also captured most of Idlib city.[37] In mid-October, clashes in Idlib Governorate included the towns of Binnish and Hass in the governorate near the mountain range of Jabal al-Zawiya.[38][39] In late October, clashes occurred in the northwestern town of Maarrat al-Nu'man between government forces and defected soldiers, and near the Turkish border, where 10 security agents and a deserter were killed in a bus ambush.[40] It was not clear if the defectors linked to these incidents were connected to the FSA.[41]

According to defectors, in 2011 the Syrian government intentionally released imprisoned Islamist militants and provided them with arms "in order to make itself the least bad choice for the international community", though the "claims could not be independently verified" of the one defector quoted, who "did not have documents supporting" the allegations."[42][43] On 19 October 2011 U.S. media reported that "large crowds of Syrians rallied in the northern city of Aleppo in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad". The Syrian government estimated over a million pro-government demonstrators, while others estimated crowds at least "tens of thousands" comparable in size to a pro-government rally "a week earlier in Damascus."[44][45]

Escalation (November 2011 – April 2012)

In early November 2011, clashes between the FSA and security forces in Homs escalated as the siege continued. After six days of bombardment, the Syrian Army stormed the city on 8 November, leading to heavy street fighting in several neighborhoods. Resistance in Homs was significantly greater than that seen in other towns and cities, and some in opposition have referred to the city as the "Capital of the Revolution". Unlike events in Deraa and Hama, operations in Homs failed to quell the unrest.[35]

November and December 2011 saw increasing rebel attacks, as opposition forces grew in number. In the two months, the FSA launched deadly attacks on an air force intelligence complex in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, the Ba'ath Syrian Regional Branch youth headquarters in Idlib Governorate and Damascus, an airbase in Homs Governorate, and an intelligence building in Idlib.[46] On 15 December, opposition fighters ambushed checkpoints and military bases around Daraa, killing 27 soldiers, in one of the largest attacks yet on security forces.[47] The opposition suffered a major setback on 19 December, when a failed defection in Idlib Governorate lead to 72 defectors killed.[48]

In December 2011, The American Conservative cited former counter-terrorism specialist and CIA military intelligence officer Philip Giraldi that already "unmarked NATO warplanes are arriving at Turkish military bases close to the Syrian border, delivering weapons from the late Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenals as well as volunteers from the Libyan Transitional National Council who are experienced in pitting local volunteers against trained soldiers" and that in addition, "French and British special forces trainers are on the ground, assisting the Syrian rebels while the CIA and U.S. Spec Ops are providing communications equipment and intelligence to assist the rebel cause." Giraldi stated that "CIA analysts are skeptical regarding the march to war" for reasons including that "the frequently cited U.N. report that more than 3,500 civilians have been killed by Assad’s soldiers is based largely on rebel sources and is uncorroborated" while cautioning that "Americans should be concerned about what is happening in Syria... It threatens to become another undeclared war like Libya but much, much worse."[49]

In January 2012, Assad began using large-scale artillery operations against the insurgency, which led to the destruction of many civilian homes due to indiscriminate shelling.[50][51] By this time, daily protests had dwindled, eclipsed by the spread of armed conflict.[52] January saw intensified clashes around the suburbs of Damascus, with Syrian Army use of tanks and artillery becoming common. Fighting in Zabadani began on 7 January when the Syrian Army stormed the town in an attempt to root out the FSA presence. After the first phase of the battle ended with a ceasefire on 18 January, leaving the FSA in control of the town,[53] the FSA launched an offensive into nearby Douma.[54] Fighting in the town lasted from 21 to 30 January, before the rebels were forced to retreat as result of a government counteroffensive. Although the Syrian Army managed to retake most of the suburbs, sporadic fighting continued.[55] Fighting erupted in Rastan again on 29 January, when dozens of soldiers manning the town's checkpoints defected and began opening fire on troops loyal to the government. Opposition forces gained complete control of the town and surrounding suburbs on 5 February.[56]

On 3 February, the Syrian Army launched a major offensive in Homs to retake rebel-held neighborhoods. In early March, after weeks of artillery bombardments and heavy street fighting, the Syrian Army eventually captured the district of Baba Amr, a rebel stronghold. By the end of March, the Syrian Army retook control of half a dozen districts, leaving them in control of 70 percent of the city.[57] By 14 March, Syrian troops successfully ousted insurgents from the city of Idlib after days of fighting.[58] By early April, the estimated death toll of the conflict, according to activists, reached 10,000.[59] In April 2012, Assad forces began employing attack helicopters against rebel forces.[50]

In early 2012, Kofi Annan acted as the UN–Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria. His peace plan provided for a ceasefire, but even as the negotiations for it were being conducted, the rebels and the Syrian army continued fighting even after the peace plan.[19]:11


The United Nations-backed ceasefire was brokered by special envoy Kofi Annan and declared in mid-April 2012, but eventually met a similar fate, with unarmed UN peacekeepers' movements tightly controlled by the government and fighting. By early June 2012, the civil war entered its most violent phase, with fighting spreading all across the country and fatalities mounting in unprecedented numbers. Incommunicado detention, including of children, also continued.[60]

See also


  1. Though the Syrian Army officially comprised around 220,000 soldiers at the start of the insurgency, including active and reserve personnel, more than half of these troops either defected to the insurgents or refused to answer calls of mobilization. As result, the army was limited to about 60,000 men in 2011.[6]


  1. "Defecting troops form 'Free Syrian Army', target Assad security forces". The World Tribune. Archived from the original on 27 November 2011. Retrieved 13 November 2011.
  2. "Syrian Rebels Plot Their Next Moves: A TIME Exclusive". TIME. 11 February 2012. Archived from the original on 8 July 2013. Retrieved 14 April 2017.
  3. Staff, By the CNN Wire. "Sources: Annan, Clinton to meet about Syria - CNN.com".
  4. "Lebanon's Most Wanted Sunni Terrorist Blows Himself Up in Syria". Yalibnan. 23 April 2012. Retrieved 17 May 2012.
  5. Bolling (2012), p. 7.
  6. Cooper (2015), p. 13.
  7. Cooper (2015), p. 20.
  8. Cooper (2015), p. 21.
  9. Graeme Smith (2 July 2012). "Syrians in Ontario give rebels reinforcements from afar". The globe and mail. Retrieved 11 July 2012.
  10. 2,566 security forces (15 March 2011-20 March 2012), 1,291 security forces (21 March-21 June),"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-10-29. Retrieved 2012-07-17.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) total of 3,857 reported killed
  11. The VDC website has reported 1,093 former military rebels being killed, of which 113 were killed in Homs province in the period an FSA commander stated that 2,000 former military and civilian rebels overall were killed in Homs province alone;"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-12-05. Retrieved 2014-10-25.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) based on this a lower estimate of rebel fatalities can be calculated to be 2,980
  12. The Syrianshuhada website has reported 1,398 former military rebels being killed, of which 163 were killed in Homs province in the period an FSA commander stated that 2,000 former military and civilian rebels overall were killed in Homs province alone;"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-12-05. Retrieved 2014-10-25.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) based on this an upper estimate of rebel fatalities can be calculated to be 3,235
  13. Hanania, Ray (6 April 2012). "Syria Medical Crisis Relief Efforts To Be Held At The Suburban Collection Showplace". Aams.blogspot.com. Retrieved 10 April 2012.
  14. "UN: Syria now in a civil war". MSNBC. 1 December 2011. Retrieved 26 December 2011.
  15. "Deadly Reprisals: deliberate killings and other abuses by Syria's armed forces". Amnesty International. June 2012. Retrieved 25 June 2012. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  16. "Syria vows 'decisive' response in Jisr al-Shughour". BBC News. 7 June 2011. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
  17. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-09-02. Retrieved 2017-04-21.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  18. Karouny, Mariam (6 June 2011). "Syria to send in army after 120 troops killed". Reuters. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
  19. Sly, Liz (6 June 2011). "Syria says protesters killed 120 soldiers". The Washington Post. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
  20. Landis, Joshua (29 July 2011). "Free Syrian Army Founded by Seven Officers to Fight the Syrian Army". Syria Comment. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
  21. "Defecting troops form 'Free Syrian Army', target Assad security forces". World Tribune. 3 August 2011. Archived from the original on 27 November 2011. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
  22. "Syrian army kills at least 95 in Hama: activist". Dawn. Agence France-Presse. 31 July 2011. Retrieved 7 June 2015.
  23. Barnard, Anne; Hubbard, Ben. "Syria News". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 August 2012.
  24. Rania Abouzeid (15 September 2011). "In Blow to Opposition, a Dissident Syrian Army Officer is Captured". TIME. Retrieved 24 September 2017.
  25. "Mass Torture Photo is likely for Hussein Harmoush". Zaman al-Wasl. 1 February 2015. Retrieved 24 September 2017.
  26. Oweis, Khaled Yacoub (14 August 2011). "Tank, navy attack on Syria's Latakia kills 26-witnesses". Amman. Reuters. Retrieved 14 August 2011.
  27. "Syrian forces kill seven protesters as Muslims celebrate first day of Eid". Al Arabiya. 30 August 2011. Archived from the original on 17 June 2018. Retrieved 1 February 2012.
  28. "Syria forces storm main town, fight defectors-residents". Reuters. 27 September 2011.
  29. "Syria: 'Hundreds of thousands' join anti-Assad protests". BBC. 1 July 2011. Retrieved 3 August 2011.
  30. Oweis, Khaled Yacoub (4 October 2011). "Dissident Syrian colonel flees to Turkey". Reuters. Retrieved 18 August 2012.
  31. Holliday, Joseph (December 2011). "The Struggle for Syria in 2011" (PDF). Institute for the Study of War.
  32. Yezdani, İpek (1 September 2012). "Syrian rebels: Too fragmented, unruly". Hürriyet Daily News. Retrieved 21 September 2012.
  33. "Syria sends extra troops after rebels seize Idlib: NGO". Ahram.
  34. "Activist group: Fourteen killed in Syrian violence". The Jerusalem Post. Reuters. 13 October 2011. Retrieved 8 February 2012.
  35. "Activists: Syrian forces fight defectors; 5 killed". The Hindu. Chennai, India. Associated Press. 17 October 2011. Retrieved 23 May 2012.
  36. "Assad forces fight deserters at northwestern town". Reuters. 25 October 2011. Retrieved 8 August 2013.
  37. "11 troops killed as UN chief urges end to Syria violence". NDTV. Agence France-Presse. 18 October 2011. Retrieved 22 July 2013.
  38. Sands, Phil; Vela, Justin; Maayeh, Suha (21 January 2014). "Assad regime set free extremists from prison to fire up trouble during peaceful uprising". The National. Retrieved 11 August 2014.
  39. Weiss, Michael (23 June 2014). "Trust Iran Only as Far as You Can Throw It". Foreign Policy. Retrieved 11 August 2014.
  40. "Pro-Assad Rally Shows Syrian Government Can Still Command Support". The New York Times. 20 October 2011.
  41. Bakri, Nada (20 November 2011). "New Phase for Syria in Attacks on Capital". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 August 2013.
  42. Bakri, Nada (15 December 2011). "Syrian Army Defectors Reportedly Kill 27 Soldiers". The New York Times.
  43. "Syria unrest: Dozens of army deserters 'gunned down'". BBC. 20 December 2011.
  44. NATO vs. Syria By Philip Giraldi 19 December 2011, The American Conservative
  45. "Observations on the Air War in Syria" (PDF). Air & Space Power Journal. March–April 2013.
  46. "Syrian Air Force & Air Defense Overview". Institute for the Study of War. 25 October 2012.
  47. Neil MacFarquhar (26 October 2012). "Syrian Protesters Emerge Amid Clashes and Bombing During a Holiday Cease-Fire". The New York Times. Retrieved 16 January 2014.
  48. Sly, Liz (21 January 2012). "Syria's Zabadani is 'liberated', but for how long?". The Washington Post.
  49. Smaan, Maher; Barnard, Anne (16 September 2015). "Para los que aún viven en Siria, la rutina está marcada por el miedo y el horror". The New York Times (in Spanish).
  50. Yacoub, Khaled (30 January 2012). "Assad troops fight back against Syria rebels". Reuters. Retrieved 8 August 2013.
  51. "Syria – Mar 4, 2012 – 11:48". Al Jazeera. 4 March 2012.
  52. "Syria 'more than 11,000 killed in 13 months'". The Telegraph. London. Telegraph Media Group Limited. 16 April 2012. Retrieved 7 June 2015.
  53. "Syrian troops retake opposition stronghold". Al Jazeera. 14 March 2012.
  54. "Syria agrees to Kofi Annan's April 10 peace deadline, UN Security Council told". Metro. 2 April 2012.
  55. "Syria: Repression continues despite Annan plan hopes". Amnesty International. 3 April 2012. Retrieved 30 June 2012.

Works cited

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