The Museum has been closely monitoring the conflict in Syria since its outbreak in March 2011. The violence has cost the lives of more than 220,000 Syrians, displaced over half the population, and produced widespread atrocities and crimes against humanity.
The conflict is not simply a civil war between opposing armed forces. What started as a democratic uprising has now become an overtly sectarian conflict in which civilians are targeted for atrocities based upon their religious and ethnic identity. Members of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority are bearing the brunt of the Syrian government’s massive campaign of crimes against humanity and war crimes, while some of the forces opposing the regime have committed abuses and atrocities against members of Syria’s religious and ethnic minorities.
In addition, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS; also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS)—which has been battling both the Syrian and Iraqi regimes as well as some of the Syrian opposition forces since the spring of 2013—is waging a campaign of persecution and horrific brutality against religious communities that do not ascribe to its brand of Islamist extremism.
The uprising’s transformation into a sectarian conflict has seen a dramatic rise in the civilian death toll: nearly one-half of the more than 220,000 killed have been civilians—including an estimated 20,000 children. As sectarian violence becomes more widespread and systematic, there is increasing danger that it could escalate to genocide.
The result of this conflict is a humanitarian catastrophe of staggering proportions. Every day Syrian men, women, and children are falling victim to the constant bombardment of their neighborhoods, schools, markets, and hospitals; to starvation, exposure, preventable diseases, and lack of medical care; and to torture, rape, and killings. The rapidly rising number of Syrian refugees now exceeds four million, and another 7.6 million are internally displaced.
The Syrian people are not the only ones endangered by the conflict. The sectarianization of the fighting is exacerbating tensions throughout the region. These tensions, combined with the burden of caring for millions of refugees, threaten to destabilize neighboring countries and lead to wider war. The plight of the Syrian people thus has grave implications for security and interests throughout the world.