Sparked by civil uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, the Syrian conflict began with protests in Deraa calling for greater political freedoms and democratic reforms, which quickly spread across the country. The protests escalated and violent confrontation began when security forces cracked down heavy-handedly on the protesters. President Bashar al-Assad failed to offer substantive reform. An armed opposition emerged involving numerous army defectors but remained poorly organised and equipped. The Syrian army set about besieging rebel strongholds, using airstrikes to target these areas.
Western countries and Gulf states support the moderate armed opposition, variously funding and equipping rebel groups, and encouraged the formation of an opposition in exile - the Syrian National Coalition. However, the Assad regime continues to enjoy the support of its allies: Russia, which blocks resolutions against it at the UN Security Council; and Iran, which provides military backing for the regime, leading offensives against the rebels. Attempts by UN and Arab League envoys to resolve the conflict at a national and local level have failed repeatedly.
The armed opposition is splintered into a plethora of moderate, Islamist and jihadist groups. Al-Qaeda offshoot the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is growing into a powerful separate force and holds large swathes of territory across Syria and Iraq. Foreign fighters from across the world travel to Syria to fight with ISIS, but also with other rival jihadist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which retains its affiliation with al-Qaeda.