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Country Reports

Syria Country Report

Overview

INTRODUCTION

Since 2011, Syria has suffered an ongoing civil war between President Bashar al-Assad's regime, which receives direct military support from Russia and Iran, and many different opposition groups. The Syrian opposition includes Sunni rebel groups backed by Turkey under the label of the Free Syrian Army, jihadist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and al-Nusra Front), and the primarily Kurdish, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Multiple rounds of UN-backed peace talks have taken place in Geneva since 2012, with several rounds of Russian-initiated peace talks occurring in Astana, Kazakhstan this year. While multiple ceasefires have been briefly implemented, they have generally deteriorated quickly.

There has yet to be significant progress towards a negotiated political settlement.

Due to the current complex security situation, Western governments advise against all travel to Syria, with some banning travel to the country.

POLITICS

The difficultly in achieving a negotiated political settlement is largely due to the differing political objectives of the various opposing factions, as well as their external supporters.

President Assad's government forces and pro-Assad militias have regained large swaths of previously lost territory, primarily due to the financial and military support from Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Russian airstrikes and military equipment, combined with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) and Hezbollah's military operations, enabled the Assad regime to re-take Aleppo in December 2015 and the city of Homs in May 2017, in addition to other strategic pieces of territory. With Assad close to recapturing all of Damascus, the Idlib and Rif Dimashq (east of Damascus) provinces are the last substantial pieces of territory held by rebel forces.

In April 2017, the Assad regime was accused of using chemical weapons against civilian targets in Idlib province. The attacks were condemned by Western governments and the UN. In response to the attacks, the US launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat airbase in Homs province, reportedly destroying the jets used in the chemical attacks.

The Syrian opposition is highly fragmented; that said, the ultimate objective of most rebel groups remains the removal of the Assad regime. However, the US and other Western countries involved in the US-backed coalition are highly focused on destroying IS strongholds through the use of airstrikes, special operations forces, and direct US military training and support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF, of which the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) accounts of 70-75% of its forces, has been the primary on-the-ground ally for the US due to their military effectiveness and preference for fighting IS rather than the Assad regime. In February 2017, the SDF announced it had retaken the city of al-Bab in the Aleppo province from IS. The SDF began an offensive on IS's de-facto capital Raqqa on June 6, 2017. The US's decision to directly provide arms to the YPG before the offensive has significantly increased Turkish-US tensions.

Turkish military forces entered Syria in August 2016 during operation Euphrates Shield in order to push IS forces away from the Turkish-Syrian border and to deter further advances by YPG forces in northern Syria. Despite the Turkish announcement that the operation had successfully concluded by the end of March 2017, Turkey continues to back a collection of Sunni rebel groups labeled as the "Free Syrian Army." Turkey has also launched airstrikes against YPG forces. The Turkish government strongly opposes the YPG due to their direct affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a 30-year insurgency against the Turkish government.

The YPG and other Kurdish militias have gained substantial amounts of territory in north and northeastern Syria and seek to establish regional autonomy. President Recep Erdogan sees this increased autonomy as a threat to Turkish sovereignty by fueling demands for similar autonomy by Turkish Kurds.

Since January 2017, multiple rounds of talks in Geneva and Astana have failed to produce a negotiated political agreement. On May 9, 2017, Russia, Turkey, and Iran signed an agreement in Astana to create "de-escalation zones" in Idlib province, the Rastan and Talbisch region in northern Homs province, Eastern Ghouta north of Damascus, and the opposition-controlled region along the Jordanian border that includes pieces of Derra and Quneitra provinces. The zones were intended to protect civilians and allow for humanitarian aid to be delivered. Russia, Turkey, and Iran maintain a security presence to enforce the agreement. However, both sides failed to meet a June 4 deadline to delineate the exact boundaries of the zones, and the logistics of policing of the area remain unclear.

The United Nations (UN) has stopped keeping track of the official death toll in the conflict since 2015. However, a recent UN estimate suggests that at least 400,000 people have been killed in the conflict, compared with 250,000 in 2015. There are approximately 4.7 million Syrian refugees in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.

REGIONS TO AVOID

Traveling through any part of Syria poses significant safety risks. However, government-controlled territory is relatively safer, particularly the coastal Latakia and Tartus provinces. While the northern and northeastern Kurdish-controlled regions are also relatively safer, they still experience occasional terrorist attacks and should be avoided.

While the regime controls the majority of the capital Damascus, with the exception of some neighborhoods in the suburbs, fighting still occurs. In February 2017, the government staged several attacks to retake the remaining neighborhoods. However, terrorist attacks in Damascus can also occur. Terrorist attacks, such as the March 15, 2017 attack on the Court of Justice that left 25 dead, are also possible in Damascus.

Since February 2017, most of the fighting has taken place in the north (Aleppo province), in IS controlled region in eastern Homs province, and on the border region with Jordan (mostly the city of Deraa), which has been targeted by the regime and Russia through heavy airstrikes.

Central and eastern Homs province should be avoided. While the Assad regime controls the majority of territory extending east from Homs to Palmyra, the majority of eastern Homs province is under IS control.

Raqqa and Deir Az Zor provinces should be avoided at all costs due to the current offensive on Raqqa by the US-backed coalition to expel IS, ongoing fighting between Syrian government forces and IS militants in Deir Az Zor, and IS control of the surrounding territory.

The rebel-controlled Idlib and Rif Dimashq provinces should also be avoided due to the presence of armed Salafist and Al-Qa'ida-affiliated terrorist groups. Fighting among rebel groups also represents a heightened security risk, particularly in Idlib province.

The Syria-Iraq border should also be avoided as it is used as a transit point for jihadist militants from both countries.

TERRORISM

There is a severe and constant terrorist threat in Syria. Terrorists often target public buildings, public transportation, and other public spaces.

Terrorist attacks have grown in number since the beginning of 2017, as IS continues to lose territory.

KIDNAPPING

In addition to war-related risks, the threat of kidnapping remains severe, including in Damascus.

IS has called for its followers to attack Western interests and citizens present in the Middle East. Western citizens in Syria are particularly exposed to the risk of kidnapping. There have been numerous kidnappings of foreign journalists over the past few months, with several being executed by IS fighters.

NATURAL RISKS

Travelers should keep in mind that Syria is located in a seismic zone.

During winter, low temperatures and snow can affect some villages in the western part of the country.

TRANSPORTATION

Roads are generally in good condition, however many of them have been destroyed or damaged due to the civil war.

Most airports throughout Syria are not in operation. While the Damascus International Airport is still operational, most flights have been suspended.

It is possible to travel to Syria from Lebanon via land border crossings.

The railway network (Damascus-Lattaquie and Damascus-Aleppo) is not well developed and not generally used.

LEGAL

Syria is a majority Muslim country; however, society is pluralistic and largely tolerant of other religions and cultures. Alcohol consumption is allowed.

Drugs, however, are forbidden and the death penalty is still applicable for people in possession of drugs.

Payments with and money withdrawal using Visa or Mastercard are not possible.

HEALTH

The Syrian health infrastructure has been devastated over the course of the ongoing war. The absence of vaccines due to the inability of humanitarian convoys to enter besieged cities has significantly inhibited attempts to control outbreaks.

As of June 2017, 17 children have been paralyzed as a result of a vaccine-derived polio outbreak in Mayadin and Raqqa. This represents the first polio outbreak in Syria since 2014.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is a very limited risk of contracting malaria from May to October in areas located along the northern border, especially in the rural Al-Hasaka province. No locally-acquired cases have been reported since 2005 but the reporting system has been interrupted since 2010.

Once called the "Aleppo Evil," cutaneous leishmaniosis is endemic in Syria, and is particularly prevalent in refugee camps near the border due to the poor sanitary conditions linked to the ongoing conflict. The city of Hama currently is currently plagued by a leishmaniosis outbreak due to the lack of sanitation. This disease, which causes skin sores, is transmitted by infected phlebotomine sandflies.

Diarrheal diseases are very common in Syria, with cholera outbreaks occurring regularly. Typhoid fever is also present in Syria, with outbreaks reported in besieged cities and refugee camps. To reduce the risk of contracting cholera or other food-and water-borne diseases, wash hands regularly, drink only bottled or purified water, and avoid eating raw or undercooked foods. 

Bilharziosis (a parasitic disease caused by a microscopic worm) is endemic in the country. Infection occurs when the larvae of the parasite, released by freshwater snails, penetrate the skin of a person when in contact with infested water. It is recommended to avoid drinking, bathing, or washing clothes in bodies of freshwater, as parasitic larvae may be present.

There have been cases of animal rabies reported in the country. Avoid contact with both domestic and wild animals (bites, scratches, licks). If you are scratched or bitten, seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Climate

The climate is arid in the center of the country, Mediterranean along the coast, and mountainous in the northeast. Summers are hot (30°C) and dry along the coast while winters are mild and rainy. In the desert zone, conditions are dry and very hot (40°C) in the summer with little rain; winters are cool and temperatures can fall to 3°C overnight.

Useful Numbers

Country Code: 963 Police: 112 Fire Dept.: 113 Ambulance: 110

Electricity

Voltage: 220 V ~ 50 Hz

Outlets:

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