The uprising in Syria began five years ago with a small protest in Damascus on 14 March 2011, followed a few days later by larger protests in the southern city of Daraa in response to the arrest and torture of high school students who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a school wall. Coming after a string of Arab Spring uprisings that toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the protests triggered panic in President Bashar al-Assad's government. Security forces responded with brute force.
Within a few months, the confrontations escalated into an armed insurgency and the conflict became one of the most savage civil wars in recent history.
As the US, Iran, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and ultimately Russia poured in weapons and cash to back up opposing sides of the war, the fighting became more brutal. Massacres were committed on a massive scale, and swathes of cities were reduced to rubble.
The Syrian conflict has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced millions. Syria's population is estimated to have shrunk to just 16.6 million over that time, down from a pre-war level of around 22 million. In this gallery, IBTimes UK looks back at five years of brutal fighting in Syria. 25 March 2011: Anti-government protesters demonstrate near Deraa in southern Syria after Assad forces killed dozens of demonstrators Reuters 29 March 2011: Tens of thousands of Syrians gather for a pro-government rally at a central square in Damascus after President Bashar al-Assad accepted his government's resignation following nearly two weeks of pro-democracy unrest Reuters 22 January 2012: A Syrian security officer walks through a government building which was burnt and damaged during protests in the southern Syrian city of Deraa Reuters 4 May 2012: Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad after Friday prayers in Kafranbel, near Idlib Reuters 26 May 2012: People gather at a mass burial for the victims reportedly killed during an artillery barrage from Syrian forces in Houla. UN observers in Syria confirmed that artillery and tank shells were fired at a residential area, where at least 108 people, including many children, were killed Reuters 28 June 2012:A Civil Defence member extinguishes a fire at the site of an explosion outside Syria's highest court in central Damascus Reuters 4 August 2012: A Free Syrian Army fighter reacts after his friend was shot by Syrian Army soldiers during clashes in the Salah al-Din neighbourhood in central Aleppo Reuters 7 August 2012: A Free Syrian Army fighter screams in pain after he was injured in his leg by shrapnel from a shell fired from a Syrian Army tank in the Salaheddine neighbourhood of central Aleppo Reuters 9 August 2012: A Syrian Air Force fighter plane fires a rocket during an air strike in the village of Tel Rafat, north of Aleppo Reuters 16 August 2012: A Free Syrian Army fighter carries the body of a fellow rebel during clashes in Aleppo Reuters 19 December 2012: An unexploded ordnance is seen on a street in the Ain Tarma area in Ghouta, east of Damascus Reuters 31 December 2012: Ayman al-Sahili, a Reuters cameraman, reacts after he was shot in the leg while filming on the front line in Aleppo by a sniper loyal to Syrian President Bashar el-Assad Reuters 3 January 2013: A father in Aleppo reacts after the death of two of his children, whom activists said were killed by shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad Reuters 30 January 2013: Free Syrian Army fighters run for cover as a tank shell explodes during heavy fighting in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus Reuters 14 February 2013: A former Free Syrian Army fighter buries his dead four-day-old son in Arshaf village near Aleppo. The child was born with breathing difficulties, his grandmother said, and due to a lack of medical services and doctors in Syria, he did not receive medical attention until two days after he was born Reuters 13 March 2013: A boy looks inside the toppled statue of President Bashar Al-Assad's father, Hafez Al-Assad, in Raqqa province, eastern Syria Reuters 18 July 2013: An aerial view of the Zaatari refugee camp, near the Jordanian city of Mafraq AFP 19 August 2013: A man walks inside the damaged historical old souk in Homs Reuters 7 September 2013: A barrel bomb reportedly dropped from a Syrian government aircraft lies on the ground in the Ariha countryside Housam Abo Dabak/Reuters 17 October 2013: A Free Syrian Army fighter fires an anti-tank missile towards what the FSA said were locations controlled by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the eastern Hama countryside Reuters 20 October 2013: Residents run from a fire at a petrol and oil shop in Aleppo's Bustan Al-Qasr neighbourhood. Witnesses said the fire was caused by a bullet fired by a sniper loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Karaj al-Hajez crossing, a passageway separating Aleppo's Bustan al-Qasr, which is under the rebels' control and Al-Masharqa neighborhood, an area controlled by the regime Reuters 28 December 2013: A man stands in a building damaged by what activists said were air strikes from forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Maysar neighbourhood of Aleppo Reuters 7 January 2014: Men help a wounded boy who survived what activists say was an air strike by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Douma neighbourhood of Damascus Reuters 31 January 2014: Residents wait to receive food aid distributed by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) at the besieged al-Yarmouk camp, south of Damascus UNRWA/Reuters 1 February 2014: A Syrian government helicopter drops what activists said was an explosive barrel, over the Al-Shaar area of Aleppo Mohamed Mounzer Masri/Reuters 7 March 2014: Emergency personnel extinguish a fire following a reported air strike by Syrian government forces during the Friday prayer in the Sukkari neighbourhood of Aleppo AFP 27 March 2014: A man looks down at an unexploded barrel bomb reportedly dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad at a cemetery in the al-Qatanah neighbourhood of Aleppo. Reuters 14 May 2014: Debris rises during what rebel fighters said was an operation in which they blew up a tunnel targeting the regime's al-Sawadi checkpoint, in Idlib province Reuters 3 June 2014: A man carries a young girl who was injured in a reported barrel-bomb attack by government forces in Kallaseh district, Aleppo AFP 7 June 2014: A Free Syrian Army sniper aims his rifle through a hole in a wall in Aleppo Reuters 29 June 2014: A fighter loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis or Daesh) waves the Islamist extremist group's flag in Raqqa Reuters 14 July 2014: People walk amid the rubble of collapsed buildings at a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in the Al-Fardous neighbourhood of Aleppo Reuters 29 July 2014: A boy, covered with blood, reacts after sustaining injuries following what activists said was an air strike at a site by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Douma, near Damascus Reuters 18 September 2014: Turkish soldiers stand guard as Syrians wait behind the border fences near the town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province. Islamic State fighters besieged the city of Ayn al-Arab, known as Kobani, in northern Syria Reuters 21 September 2014: A Syrian Kurdish girl looks up at the Turkish police as she crosses the border into Turkey, fleeing an onslaught by the jihadist Islamic State group AFP 27 September 2014: A Syrian Kurdish refugee comforts her child after they crossed into Turkey, fleeing fighting around Kobani Reuters 7 October 2014: A picture of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is displayed on a damaged structure at the entrance to the al-Dukhaneya neighbourhood near Damascus, after soldiers loyal to Assad regained control of the area from rebel fighters Reuters 6 October 2014: A jihadist fighter is seen near a black Islamic State flag on a hill overlooking the Syrian town of Kobani Reuters 18 October 2014: Clouds of smoke and debris rise over Kobani after a US-led air strike on Islamic State positions in the town, as seen from the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border Reuters 18 October 2014: Kurds watch the fighting in the Syrian town of Kobani from a hill near the Mursitpinar border crossing Reuters 23 October 2014: Islamic State militants stand near the site of an air strike on Tilsehir hill near the Turkish border AFP 21 January 2015: Syrian men carry injured victims following a reported air strike on the besieged rebel-held town of Douma, northeast of the capital Damascus AFP 27 January 2015: People celebrate in Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey, after Kurdish forces said they had regained full control of the Syrian town of Kobani after a four-month battle Reuters 28 January 2015: A Kurdish man checks the eastern part of the Syrian border town of Kobane, known as Ain al-Arab. Kurdish forces recaptured the strategic town on the Turkish frontier from Islamic State on 26 January AFP 2 February 2015: A man gives medical assistance to an injured man as two wounded children wait nearby at a field hospital after what activists said was an air strike by forces of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Douma neighbourhood of Damascus Reuters 21 March 2015: Residents walk near upright buses that serve as protection from snipers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Aleppo's rebel-controlled Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood Reuters 25 March 2015: A female Syrian soldier from the Republican Guard commando battalion drives a tank during clashes with rebels in the Jobar area of eastern Damascus AFP 13 May 2015: Residents return to their villages on a pickup truck after Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters said that they retook control of the countryside around Ras al-Ain from Islamic State Reuters 13 June 2015: Islamic State fighters laugh as they herd people away from the Turkish border crossing AFP 14 June 2015: A Syrian child fleeing the war is lifted over fences at the Turkish border crossing at Akcakale AFP 12 July 2015: Boys play with a pipe, pretending it is a mortar, at a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the old city of Aleppo Reuters 22 August 2015: A wounded Syrian girl looks on at a makeshift hospital in the rebel-held area of Douma, east of the capital Damascus, following shelling and air raids by Syrian government forces AFP 25 August 2015: An image distributed by Islamic State militants on social media purports to show the destruction of the Roman-era Baal Shamin temple in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra Reuters 10 November 2015: Kurdish female troops from the Syrian Democratic Forces stand in a forward operating base overlooking the frontline near the Isis-held town of Hole Getty Images 30 December 2015: A child receives treatment at a makeshift hospital, following a reported air strike by Syrian government forces on the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern edges of Damascus AFP 15 February 2016: People gather around the rubble of a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) near Maaret al-Numan, in Syria's northern province of Idlib, after it was hit by suspected Russian air strikes AFP 17 February 2016: Red Cross trucks carrying aid prepare to set off for besieged areas of Syria from Damascus to deliver supplies to trapped residents Syrian Red Cross 21 February 2016: A woman carries an injured boy inside a hospital after multiple bomb blasts hit a southern district of Damascus controlled by government forces Reuters 22 February 2016: Rebel fighters inspect a piece of a rocket that landed in an area that connects the northern countryside of Deraa and Quneitra Reuters 29 February 2016: Syrian emergency personnel sit in the courtyard of their centre in the Bab al-Nairab neighbourhood of Aleppo on the second day of the historic ceasefire AFP Throughout the past five years, Assad has been unflinching, maintaining that he is fighting terrorism. The rise of Islamic State (Isis, Daesh) and al-Qaeda's branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, has eclipsed the original core of nationalist activists seeking an end to dictatorship — so completely that Assad claims that it's a myth that the uprising began with the arrest of students in Daraa and subsequent protests.
The United States was hesitant from day one to provide serious help to the opposition. Its top priority has been the fight against IS, and it is anxious to get everyone on board. That, and Russia's game-changing military intervention in Syria, led world powers to agree on a roadmap for a political transition that involves UN-supervised parliamentary and presidential elections within 18 months.
The US and Russia engineered a partial cease-fire that excludes IS and the Nusra Front. The ceasefire took effect on 27 February. Although limited, tentative and marred by sporadic violence, it has mostly held. On 5 March, Vladimir Putin made the surprise announcement that Russia was withdrawing troops from Syria, saying they had largely fulfilled their objectives.
Peace talks are to resume on 20 March in Geneva after a previous round collapsed because of a government offensive in Aleppo. At the heart of the talks will be such issues as a new constitution and elections. However, negotiations could collapse over the seemingly insurmountable issue of Assad's fate. Though the opposition dropped its demand that he step down before negotiations, it says it will not accept any process that doesn't end with his removal. Assad has shown no sign that he is willing to go — and it's not clear his international backers, including Russia, are willing to force him out.