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Clarissa Ward on 4 years of civil war in Syria

Sunday marked four years since Syria plunged into chaotic civil war.

As the conflict enters its fifth year, President Bashar Assad remains resolute in the face of a rebel movement determined to remove him from power. The consequences of the war are staggering: more than 215,000 people have been killed and nearly 4 million are now refugees.

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CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward CBS News

Covering the war is extremely challenging, but CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward has followed the conflict closely since its start. She recently took a moment to reflect on the change she's witnessed.

"In the beginning the uprising in Syria was about a desire for freedom," said Ward. "Freedom to choose one's own government, freedom to speak one's own mind. There was a lot of talk about democracy, and that quickly changed."

The change was precipitated by the formation of the Free Syrian Army, and with it, the militarization of the conflict, said Ward.

"The fiercer the bombardments came from the regime side, the fiercer the response was from the rebel side, and then gradually we saw the arrival of the Islamists on the battle field and this really completely changed the character of the uprising altogether."

Ward said that what allowed the multitude of extremist groups to begin carving out their own defacto territories within Syria, was the rest of the world's seeming indifference to the crisis.

"The world really left Syria to its own devices. The people of Syria felt completely abandoned by the international community. People were being killed on an enormous scale, thousands and thousands; the Assad regime was using airpower against a rebellion that was essentially made up of farmers carrying light weapons... It was impossible to rebuild society because the regime continued this bombardment targeting civilian areas. And so the result of that was you had these almost lawless pockets, and it was the Islamists, and not the international community and not the United Nations, who were able to come in and fill the void and provide some law, and provide some order."

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But as the various extremist factions battle each other for territory in addition to the regime, it has helped keep the fight against Assad incoherent and ineffective, and helped the dictator remain in power.

While the world chastizes Assad, largely from the sidelines, for committing atrocities against his own people, Ward explains that it has actually been an extremely effective strategy for his government.

"The bombing and the targeting of civilian areas is an incredibly efficient tactic for the regime because, simply put, it ensures that no normalcy can ever exist in these places. No interim govt can ever be built, no daily life can ever be established," said Ward.

And if anything, during the last four years Assad's position has only strengthened, said Ward.

"The world has very understandably been focused on the fight against ISIS and the very real threat that ISIS poses," she said, "but against that backdrop and with the world's gaze shifted toward ISIS, the Assad regime has continued these relentless bombardments of civilian areas essentially with impunity."

"In many senses, ISIS is the best thing to happen to the Assad regime," said Ward.