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Syria, as most of us know, that since a few years now is in ruins and is undergoing a civil war. But the circumstances that led the protests to war and the prolonged nature of the battlefield (Syrian territory) is very much complex and confusing, with a number of foreign influences and their support to different groups.
The stability of a government over its country, to a certain extent, defines the stability of the very country. The populace too, however, plays an important role in making a country stabilized. Differences in the ideology of the government versus its people have always been a root to the rise of a new government in democratic countries, generally. But when we talk about the countries ruled by rulers, it’s not that simple.
A ruler may (in most cases) not give up on his autocracy voluntarily even when he is aware of the amount of loathing populace carries for him. We know such rulers as dictators.
The world has witnessed, so far, many dictators – Adolf Hitler, Omar al-Bashir, Than Shwe, Kim Jong-il, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, etc., are a few famous ones amongst them all. To add a name to the above list, I find no better nomination than Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syrian Arab Republic (generally known as Syria).
Roots of the conflict
Bashar al-Assad, the 19th president of Syria, who succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad in July 2000. The Assad family was now ruling for over 30 years in Syria as Hafez ruled over Syria from 1971. Hafez did, in his time, develop and modernize the country. But it didn’t happen just like that- instead, at the cost of brutal repression over the populace.
We think that the protests in Syria started happening since 2011, right? No. The protests against the government started in 2000 itself when Bashar became the president of the country. Those protests, however, were subtle and nuclear in nature and consequently couldn’t make any effect.
In 2011, after the successful uprising of Arab Spring in Middle Eastern countries like Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the Syrian people followed their example. Arab Spring is a name given to the anti-government protests, first observed in Tunisia. In Tunisia and Egypt, the protestors became successful to take down the government with lesser violence compared to Libya and currently, Syria. In Libya, the protests turned into a civil war and ended with the killing of Muammar Gaddafi.
Now, in Syria, the spreading of Arab Spring to Middle Eastern countries from north African countries, became effective. In early 2011, the protests started against the president and his ruling. The protestors complained about the following things:
1. Lack of political freedom
2. High unemployment
3. State repression; and
4. Widespread corruption.
The protests initially started in the city of Deraa, a southern Syrian city and later spread across the country.
Protests becoming a Civil War
In March 2011 peaceful protests took a violative form after a few teens were arrested and tortured for writing political graffiti on public walls, and many people were killed in open fire on demonstrators by the security forces. The unrest in Deraa spread nationwide and consequently protests started for the resignation of Assad. Assad, to this situation, responded with the killing of a number of protesters and imprisoning many. Considering the situation to get worse the peaceful way, some rebel groups started showing up equipped with arms.
In July 2011 uprising turns into Civil War as the rebel groups took up to the streets with opposition supporters backing them up with arms and funds.
At the same time, a part of Syrian military broke up with the government and joined the rebels. They called themselves “Free Syrian Army” (FSA).
With the rise of armed rebel forces in the region, the war, to an extent, became a war of religions. Breaking down the religion distributions in Syria- 74% of the Syrians are Sunni Muslims, 8% Christians, 3% Druzes and 12% Shia Alawites. Alawites are a sect of the Twelver branch of Shia Muslims, centered in Syria. Syria, though being a state having a maximum of Sunni Muslims, is governed by an Alawite family (Assad’s) since high time now.
In August 2013, hundreds of people died in Chemical weapon bombarding, allegedly done by the president Bashar as the westerners believe that it only could’ve been carried out by the government. While, on the other hand, the government blamed rebels for the same.
Along with the local rebel groups, there came another group into existence knows as “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)” or “Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL)”. ISIL is a group of extremists and jihadis. Another rebel group in the country activated with the civil war, known as Kurdish group. Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the country, containing 9% of the total population of Syria. Along with all the local and external rebel forces, different world powers and external forces started involving in the conflict and the condition of Syria became worse and more empathizing.
Different countries all across the globe started involving in the issue and made the Syrian circumstances more complicated. World powers like the U.S.A. and Russia, middle eastern countries like Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Lebanon- started backing up the different sides fighting the war.
To make things simpler, let’s break down the list of parties involved in the war:
1. Syrian army
2. Kurdish groups
3. Rebel forces including FSA
With the interference of external forces into the civil war, it also turned out to be a Proxy War among various nations, like Russia & US and Saudi Arabia & Iran.
The following are the external powers and their influence over Syrian territory, so far:
1. World powers like Russia and US:
In late 2013, Russia proposed to the Assad government to surrender over control of the Chemical weapons to the International Community, to avoid a US military strike. Syria accepted this proposal of Russia and gives up control over its chemical weapons by dismantling all available stock of chemical weapons including of missile warheads and aerial bombs.
Now, for Russia, it was important that Assad stays in power and restore the stability over its people and in the country again as it had its own interest in it. Russia and Syria’s relations go back in cold war times when the Soviet Union gained influence in Syria and provided it with aid and arms. But in 1990s Soviet Union collapsed, and Russia’s influence over Syria reduced. Now, Vladimir Putin, who first became President in 2000 (and also Bashar al-Assad), is of the ideology of Soviet Union. He wanted to gain Russia’s influence over Syria again and to make Russia a Great Power, as it used to be in cold war times.
Also, Russia has its key navel facility base at a Syrian port of Tartus. It is Russia’s only Mediterranean base. So, for Russia, helping Syria is helping themselves to create arm’s market in the Middle-East and to expand the military powers.
Russia, in Sept. 2015, intervenes for the Assad government launching air-strikes against “terrorists” (the ones they believed to be terrorists). It said, it would bomb only ISIS, but the truth is, they also bombed the anti-Assad rebel groups, including of a few ones backed by the US.
The US, on the other hand, intervened in Syria in April 2013 when Obama administration signed a secret order allowing and authorizing CIA to train and equip Syrian rebels. The first slot of arms and CIA training to the Syrian rebels reached after weeks of chemical bombarding in August 2013. But the program soon enough was shut down after it came into the officials’ eyes that the CIA had spent 500 million dollars and had only trained 60 fighters so far. The US now had become a participant in this proxy war.
With the rise of ISIS in 2014 in Syria, the US had changed its plan and now declared that it would provide training and arms to those who are fighting ISIS and not Assad. It created a bit confused there as the US moved away from their original stance. It, now became clear, that the US opposes ISIS more than it opposes Assad.
On record, Russia and the US declared themselves to be fighting against the terrorists in Syria, i.e., ISIS. But they didn’t stop attacking each other’s support groups either. And thus, Russia and the US were fighting Proxy Wars without colluding directly with each other.
In 2016, when Donald Trump became a new president of the US, vowed to stay out of Syria and Assad should remain in power. Trump administration, almost opposite of Obama administration, showed interest in co-operating with Russia in the Syrian war. But after the use of chemical weapons again in 2017, Trump changed his stance over the issue, saying that his attitude towards Syria and Assad has “changed very much” and for the first time, launched dozens of Tomahawk missiles on an air-base in Syria.
2. Other Middle Eastern countries:
The Middle Eastern countries intervening in Syria involves of, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, etc.
Iran, being the oldest ally of Syria, came first to the rescue and stood beside President Assad. Iran is the largest Shia Muslim state, share the same of Assad’s. by the end of 2012, Iran started sending daily cargo flights and providing with hundreds of officers in Syria to fight alongside Assad and his regime.
To counter Iran’s influence in Syria, Saudi Arabia started sending money and weapon to the anti-Assad rebels through Turkey. Iran further boosted its influence in Syria when Hezbollah, a militia group in Lebanon- backed by Iran, comes forward to fight alongside Assad’s regime. Iran is believed to have spent billions of dollars a year to provide financial and military assistance to Assad. Now, in return, Saudi Arabia further increased the export of finance and weapons to the rebel groups, through Jordan this time.
Now, here’s a quick fact. Saudi Arabia, is a Sunni Muslim country and Iran, being the largest Shia Muslim country have been each other’s enemies for a long time now. Mainly, because of their religious differences. They have never indulged directly in a war, but they fight proxy wars with each other, mainly to take up the influence over the Middle East.
Turkey, on the other hand, is an ally of the US in Syrian matter. But the relation became confusing when Turkey started bombarding on the Kurds who were fighting the ISIS and backed by the US. But strangely, Turkey didn’t bomb the ISIS. This brought some unclear alliance relationship between the US and Turkey, as the US sees ISIS as its main enemy while its ally, Turkey doesn’t.
By 2013, the Middle East divided between Sunni Powers, generally supporting the rebels and Shia Powers, generally supporting Assad. And hence, things got more complicated in the matter.
Another group in 2014, came into existence declaring themselves to be the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. ISIS was affiliated with al-Qaeda, mostly based in Iraq. It broke away from the other rebel groups including al-Qaeda over internal disagreements and later, it became an enemy of al-Qaeda. ISIS was a group of extremists and Jihadis, whose sole purpose was violation and terror against humanity. ISIS was fighting other rebel groups, including the Kurds and not Assad’s regime. It carved out a ministate of their own and named it their Caliphate and started marching towards Iraq, seizing territories.
Currently, the civil war of Syria is divided into two parts- (i) Assad’s regime, supported by Russia, Iran, Lebanon, (ii) anti-Assad rebels, supported by the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and Qatar. Where the ISIS has almost been dragged out of the country and the places it once owned during the civil war have been recovered by either the government or by the rebels. ISIS lost control of its self-declared capital, Raqqa in Oct. 2017.
UN’s Role in the Crisis
Security Council in February 2012 introduced a resolution condemning the actions against Syria, but it couldn’t be adopted as Russia and China voted against it. In the same month, 2012 UN General Assembly passed a nonbinding resolution endorsing Arab League plan for Assad to step down. It got 137 votes in favor, 12 against and 17 abstentions.
UN initiated mediation between the Syrian government and the oppositions in 2012. The UN Security Council urged for implementing of the 2012 Geneva Communique, that focused on a transitional governing body with full powers “formed on the basis of mutual consent”. This led to the Peace Talks rounds for intra-Syrian talks.
The first round of UN-mediated peace talks took place in Geneva in 2012 under the surveillance of then special Envoy of Syria, Kofi Annan.
Talks in 2014, known as Geneva II, broke down only after two rounds. The reason behind breaking down of the rounds, according to the special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, is that the Syrian government refused to discuss the opposition’s demands.
The UNSC in the last week of February 2018 approves a 30 days ceasefire in Syria, with unclear details of when the period of 30 days would start or end.
By the end of the week of March 2018, the UN and its partners were successful to enter into Douma to deliver remaining food assistance. The World Food Program (WFP) and its partners, namely, International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) and Syrian Arab Red Crescent are hoping to enter again to further deliver much needed humanitarian and food assistance to the people inside East Ghouta. The UN and its partners, in Douma, completed 27,500 deliveries out of all 70,000-people surviving in Douma.
Refugees of Syria:
Not finding enough resources to live or even a hope to survive longer, millions of Syrians have left the country so far. Some have found shelter in neighbor countries, while some left for further development to Europe and other parts of the world.
As of February 2018, the UN refugee agency working under UNHRC had registered over 5.5 million refugees from Syria and also it is their estimation that more than 6.5 million people are Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) within Syrian borders, 1.2 million were driven out of their homes in 2015 alone.
Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon are playing a vital role in hosting most of the Syrian refugees, while 10% of Syrian refugees have sought assistance and safety in Europe, bearing the political division as countries argue over sharing the burden.
Because of a number of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe, the tension in the EU has been rising as they have no particular proportionate burden of a country towards migrants. Countries like Greece, Italy, and Hungary have been facing more number of migrants than the other. In September, EU ministers have voted to relocate 160,000 refugees migrated to Europe as a part of relocation scheme. Under the scheme, another 54,000 refugees were to be moved out of Hungary. But the Hungarian government declined and further proposed to receive more migrants from Italy and Greece under the relocation scheme.
The UK, however, hasn’t prepared any such plans for a quota system, but the Home Office disclosed that 1,000 Syrian refugees have resettled under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme in 2015. Prime minister David Cameron has said that the UK will further accept 20,000 more refugees from Syria over the next five years.
In 2017, about 66,000 refugees are believed to be returned back to Syria, according to reports. The UN says it will need $3.2bn to help 13.5 million people, including of those 6 million children. Up to 4.5 million people in Syria are live in hard-to-reach areas, including nearly 400,000 people in 15 besieged locations, where they do not have access to the lifesaving aids.
With the country has been dragged into ruins and violence, it would now take years to rebuild the country again. The external forces, for their own benefits and interests, led the people of the country to death and inhumane services. On March 15, 2018, the Syrian civil war would enter into its eighth year. Even after the eight years, there is no sign of an end to this prolonged war. Neither of sides could give up against each other as it came to a question of ego and power. Neither Russia could move out of the country before 2017, neither really could the US. Both had to prove the superiority over each other.
On the other hand, neither Saudi Arabia and its allies could back out nor Iran and its allies. Maybe for them, power and/or religious war was more important than the survival of humanity. More than 450,000 people have been killed, a million injured and over 12 million- half of the country’s original population have been displaced whether inside or outside the borders of Syria.
Whoever now takes control of Syria, has nothing left to rule over other than the ruined buildings, blood-stained roads, and empty streets. History would never be able to forget the civil war of Syria. I really hope that the other “observing” countries take a lesson from this and doesn’t repeat the same thing in future. We, though have shreds of evidence against Bashar al-Assad and his cruelty over his people, but for a moment, let’s assume that he was right and others were wrong – even then why didn’t he step down from the presidency, for nothing else but the sake of humanity.
What if, the cure, now, is worse than the disease itself?
– Swapnil Fatania
Content Writer at Legal Bites
i “Syria’s civil war explained from the beginning” by al-Jazeera
ii “Why is there a war in Syria?” by BBC
iii “Syria civil war fast facts” by CNN
iv “Syria: UN aid convoy returns to East Ghouta” by UN.org