UNDERSTANDING THE SYRIAN CONFLICT
“Where is Syria?” was the response that I would normally get in the years prior to 2011 when I made mention of the country. “Syria is a Middle Eastern country in Western Asia that borders the countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine, and Israel,” I would reply. Fast forward a few years and telling people where Syria is on the map oftentimes became unnecessary. Everyone has heard of Syria now.
Syria is a country that has been embroiled in war for almost five years now. Syria, is a country that currently produces the greatest number of refugees in the world. Syria, is a country that has been named one of the worst humanitarian crises since the end of the Second World War. This is the Syria that people have come to know today, but what do people really know about Syria?
The causes of the Syrian Conflict are deep-rooted in a number of factors that remain unknown to the general Western public. Contrary to popular belief, the war in Syria cannot simply be attributed to the Arab Spring that began in Tunisia in late 2010. The war in Syria today finds its roots in Syria’s history, geopolitical position, and foreign influences. These root causes are not to undermine Syrians’ genuine desire to bring change to their country when the opportunity presented itself in 2011; however, these root causes cannot be excluded from understanding Syria’s story.
The Creation of “Syria”
It is the year 1918, World War One (WWI) has come to an end and the French and British have emerged as victors. The Ottoman Empire, on the other hand, has grown increasingly weak and must suffer the partition of its empire at the hands of the French and British. It is this partition of the Ottoman Empire that led to the creation of the modern Middle East and the creation of Syria, which at the time, included modern day Lebanon and the Turkish city of Hatay.
The French and British act of drawing artificial borders when dividing the Ottoman Empire, however, did not account for the multitude of ethnic and religious groups that were lumped together to create “Syria.” While this diversity may not have presented problems for Syria in the short-term, it did prove to be problematic in the long-term, as you will soon discover.
French Mandate for Syria
In 1920, the British and French control of the modern Middle East became formalized by the League of Nations mandate system, with France being assigned the mandate of Syria on September 29, 1923. This French mandate of Syria lasted until 1943, with Lebanon and Syria emerging as two independent states and Hatay joining Turkey in 1939. By 1946, French troops had completely left the region, which only set the stage for a new political environment for Syria.
Syrian politics truly began to shape itself when Syria gained its independence from France on April 17, 1946.
In 1948, Syria, along with other Arab states, invaded Palestine in an attempt to prevent the creation of an Israeli state. Defeat in this war, however, only triggered an anti-Israel mindset that would dominate Syrian politics in future years. Over the years, the Syrian government has bluntly disapproved of Israel’s presence in the Middle East and has even supported non-state actors such as Hezbollah in Lebanon who seek the defeat of Israel. It is this politics of hostility towards Israel that has made Syria a target for attack by Israel and its allies, as will be further explored in this blog.
In 1956, in response to events surrounding the Suez Canal, Syria signed a pact with the Soviet Union, allowing for Communist interests to take root in the country and for Syria to create a long-standing relationship with present-day Russia. Russia, as we will also discover, has been an avid supporter of the Syrian Government since the beginning of the Syrian War, and is one of the many reasons why Bashar Al-Assad remains in power today.
Lastly, in the years leading up to Hafiz Al-Assad’s rise to power in 1971, Syria experienced a number of coup d’états, making Syrian politics and government increasingly dominated by the military and security forces; this ultimately acted as a precursor for the dictatorship that was to come to Syria.
It is this sort of political environment in the post-independence period that established fertile ground for what Syria’s future was going to entail.
In 1971, Hafez Al-Assad, father of current President Bashar Al-Assad, became President of Syria.
After Assad Sr. had ousted his predecessor Salah Jadid from power and declared himself the undisputed leader of Syria from 1970-1971, a referendum was passed in 1971 that officially named Hafez Al-Assad the President of the Syrian Arab Republic.
Hafez Al-Assad was feared, but also immensely respected in both his country and the entire Middle East. While he may have brought years of stability to Syria, he also transformed Syria into a one-man rule state, where political dissent was met with brutal force, and freedom of speech was unheard of.
Additionally, Assad Sr. was an Alawite —a member of a religious minority in Syria that makes up no more than 12% of the population. His membership to such a group was against the backdrop of a country that was over 75% Sunni Muslim. This situation led to him instilling a Ba’athist secular ideology in all institutions of the state, which is what kept any sectarian strife, and serious challenges to his power by the Sunni majority, at bay for almost 40 years.
Perhaps the most significant precursor to the 2011 Syrian Revolution was Hafez Al-Assad’s participation in a three-week siege that came to be known as the Hama Massacre of 1982. In the Syrian city of Hama, Assad crushed a Sunni rebellion, killing approximately 20,000 people. The persecution and expulsion of anyone affiliated with the rebellion led to deep-rooted hostility towards the Assads by the family members of those affected by the massacre.
The Syrian Revolution of 2011, therefore, presented an opportunity for all those affected by the Hama Massacre to unleash their grievances and oust the family that they had failed to get rid of in the 1980s.
In June 2000, Syria’s president passed away, after having held power for almost three decades. Hafez al-Assad, however, had prepared his son Bashar Al-Assad to become the leader of Syria by securing support for him among the army chiefs and high-ranking government officials. Because of this, Bashar’s transition to power went very smoothly.
When Hafez Al-Assad died in 2000, his son Bashar Al-Assad assumed the presidency. Assad Jr. was an ophthalmologist, educated in the United Kingdom and married to a Syrian-British woman. Syrians hoped that having these two seemingly highly educated and Westernized individuals would bring positive change to the country; and, so, when a referendum was held in Syria in 2000 asking Syrians whether they wanted Bashar Al-Assad to officially claim the presidency, the response was largely positive, with the vast majority of Syrians voting in favor of having Bashar as leader.
Indeed, Bashar did significantly open up the country in comparison to his father. He brought the internet to the country, imposed neoliberal policies that opened Syria to the international economy, and, on the whole, modernized and improved the country.
However, while he may have modernized the country, the Syrian government‘s attitude towards political dissent had remained the same: as long as Syrians did not question the government’s authority, they were guaranteed a stable life.
This situation begs an important question: if Bashar Al-Assad was highly educated and perceived to be quite Westernized, why did he not bring democracy to Syria?
The answer lies not with Bashar, but rather with the people surrounding him. Many of the government officials around him were the friends of his father’s. In addition, the military and security forces in Syria —dominated by the Alawites —have very strong leverage over matters relating to the politics of Syria. Therefore, any radical change of the status quo by Bashar Al-Assad —such as a transition to democracy —would have very likely led to a coup against him.
For this reason, while Bashar may have significantly opened up the country to economic and social modernity, he was very limited in what he could do when it came to political modernization. In the interest of preserving Syria’s stability and Bashar’s personal grip on power, the political status quo in Syria was maintained.
The Political Relations of Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad
Bashar Al-Assad’s political relations are very much linked to the elongation of the Syrian Conflict today.
First, Assad’s alliance with Iran and Russia presents an unfavourable situation to its neighbour Israel, and consequently, Israel’s ally, the United States. To make matters worse, Bashar Al-Assad is heavily invested in supporting Hezbollah —the Shiite resistance group in Lebanon —and has supplied them with arms and funds during its fights against Israel.
It is this foreign policy that has put Syria under the radar and made it susceptible to attack from both Israel and the United States. However fears of sparking a world war with Iran —who allegedly possesses nuclear weapons —and Russia has deterred Israel and the United States from ever declaring a flat out war against Syria. When the revolution was initiated in 2011, the United States and its allies pulled out the democracy card and used it as an opportunity to drive the hatred against Assad. Their massive support for the toppling of Assad was arguably more driven by personal geopolitical interests than by the interests of Syrians.
Conditions Internal to Syria:
A severe degree of corruption is undoubtedly one of Syria’s hallmarks. Bashar Al-Assad did not make any significant efforts to rid the country of the corruption that was evident in all levels of society and government. Syrians, fully aware of the corruption in their country, saw the opportunity to support a revolution in 2011 as an avenue for positive change.
Additionally, economic conditions of Syria would also not play in Assad’s favor. Rising unemployment and a weak economic standing in the international community led Syrians to perceive the revolution as an opportunity for reform and positive change. Not once did they think that their country would spiral into the war that it is in today.
Despite all this, Syrians were happy. While they may have not had democracy or freedom of speech, many Syrians lived a very comfortable life. Health care and access to education (primary, secondary, and post-secondary) are completely free of charge. Pharmaceuticals, clothes, and food were also available to Syrians at a very low cost. And the best part: despite the repressive nature of the Assad government, they undoubtedly made Syria a safe country, establishing it as the fourth safest country in the world up until the revolution.
When the Syrian Revolution hit Syria in 2011, it was perceived to be an opportunity to improve what they have. Unfortunately, however, Syrians did not get what they want.
The Arab Spring and the Syrian Revolution:
The ongoing war in Syria was initially an extension of the Arab Spring, in which the 2010 Tunisian Revolution created a “domino effect,” inspiring revolutions against dictatorial regimes in many Middle Eastern countries, including Syria. The trigger for the Syrian Revolution in March 2011 was the arrest of several teenagers from the city of Dara’a whom were tortured for participating in anti-government graffiti, which in turn led to a series of protests across the country by which the Syrian government responded to with brutal repression. The failure of protests to topple Bashar Al-Assad’s regime arguably motivated the development of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) insurgency whom was determined to end over 40 years of Assad family rule and repression. Consequently, the initiation of conflict in Syria was primarily inspired by the need for democracy and freedom from Assad family rule.
An important question remains: Why has the Syrian Conflict become so messy and has yet to come to an end? More precisely, why is it that countries like Tunisia and Egypt did not spiral into a deep-rooted war, whereas Syria’s revolution transformed itself from being an aspiration to perhaps a regret?
The answer is complex, but several-fold.
The first reason why the “Syrian Revolution” became the “Syrian Conflict” has much to do with Syria’s foreign policy.
The government’s foreign relations with Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia have ultimately backfired on the country. On the one hand, the West has been motivated to support, arm, and finance the rebel forces. The West’s allies, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have poured billions of dollars to finance the Syrian rebel groups.
In addition, Sunni Islamic scholars in Saudi Arabia and Qatar have preached for people from all over the world to go and perform jihad in Syria. In their point of view, a fight against the Alawite dominated government in Syria is a fight against infidels, as, in their eyes, Alawites are not “real” Muslims. This led to Syria becoming a jihadi battleground, literally attracting jihadists from every part of the world to fight the Syrian government alongside the main Syrian rebel group, the FSA.
This situation, in turn, only led to more problems. The first challenge lies with the ideology of these jihadists in contrast with that of the FSA. While the FSA was created with the aim of ousting Assad and bringing about a democratic transition to Syria, the foreign mercenaries did not have democracy and freedom on their agenda. Their motive for fighting in Syria was much more sectarian in nature, which presented a severe problem for Syria. On the one hand, these foreign mercenaries fought according to their own rules and were not aligned with the command of the FSA rebel forces. This not only meant that the Syrian government was fighting more than one group with different ideologies, but also, the FSA became increasingly weak and fragmented as the foreign jihadists were not cooperating with them.
On the other hand, we have the Syrian government, who is also certainly not fighting this war alone. Russia and Iran have provided monetary aid and arms to support the Syrian Army in their fight against the rebel forces. Hezbollah, moreover, has gone so far as to enter Syria and fight alongside the government.
It is quite clear, therefore, that there are many foreign forces influencing the events in Syria, with each party working in its own interests as opposed to working in their interests of Syrians.
The United States and its allies have pushed for the toppling of Assad not for democracy’s sake, or for Syrians’ sake, but rather for their own sake. The toppling of Assad would mean putting in place a Western puppet, which would not only preserve the security of Israel, but would also cripple Russia’s influence in the Middle East.
The Syrian government’s allies, too, are also working in their interests. For Russia, keeping Assad in power means challenging US dominance in Middle Eastern and world affairs and maintaining access to the Mediterranean Sea through its naval base in the Syrian port city of Tartus. Secondly, Iran is interested in keeping Assad in power because over the years Syria has acted as the conduit for the flow of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah. Lastly, Hezbollah is interested in keeping Assad in power because the loss of Syria’s support will weaken Hezbollah and encourage Israeli attack on South Lebanon once again.
Therefore it is clear that there are many foreign interests in the Syrian War that have nothing to do with bettering the lives of Syrians and improving their country.
Peace for Syria:
As all parties involved in the Syrian conflict continue to act in their own selfish interests, Syria is spiraling into a humanitarian catastrophe, with Syrian lives being lost on a daily basis.
Two notable international peace talks, namely Geneva Conference I and Geneva Conference II, have attempted to bring together the Syrian government and the main opposition group, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, to the negotiating table. Both talks, however, undoubtedly failed as both parties have refused to compromise their demands. On the one hand, the Syrian government does not recognize the National Coalition as a legitimate opposition group, whereas the Opposition refuses to negotiate until Assad steps down.
Meanwhile, the fighting continues and Syrians continue to suffer.
Where is Syria Today?
Where does Syria stand today? The FSA has been weakened and fragmented to the point where it can, realistically, not defeat the government, but only challenge it.
The Syrian government, too, is becoming increasingly weak. Not only is the economic and social situation of the country deteriorating, which is putting them in an increasingly unfavourable light amongst Syrians, but they are also fighting a war on many fronts. On the one hand, they continue to fight the Syrian Opposition, which has been sustained by the financial and arms support that continue to stream from Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the USA. On the other hand, the government is now dealing with an even bigger challenge: The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS).
ISIS does not just threaten Syria’s security, it threatens our security as well. The ISIS-linked terrorist attacks that happened on Friday, June 26, 2015 in Kuwait, France, and Tunisia are proof that ISIS is not merely Syria’s problem, but the problem of the entire world.
Where does this leave Syria and how we choose to deal with the country’s conflict? Does ISIS’s presence mean that we may need to work with a dictator to preserve the world’s security in the face of a radical Islamist group? What about democracy and reform for Syrians? The answer to this question, as you can see, is certainly not easy.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Syrian Conflict.
It is a complex war with no easy solution on the horizon. All parties involved in the conflict have allowed for personal interests to cloud their judgement. The cry of the Syrian civilian has not been heard, but it is time that we let their voices stand out.
What do Syrians want, is the question that we should be asking.
Syrians want the war to end. Those that have attained refugee status want to return to their homes. Those that live in Syria would like to live in peace once again without fearing that they will not make it through the next day. Syrians wanted reform and positive change in 2011 but now all they want is a peace of mind and some stability.
In the horrendous stage that Syria is in now, we cannot expect to throw democracy at the country and expect the democracy to be a success. Democracy is due to fail in Syria if we force it at this time. What is needed in Syria is modernization of other forms: social and economic modernization need to be re-established in the country before we can expect it to undergo a successful democratic transition.
Let us help Syrians and put our personal interests aside. Let us help rebuild Syria; let us help push for transitional justice and peacebuilding mechanisms; let us help Syrians. Syrians need our help and they need it now more than ever. Together, we can stand up for the Syrian; the Syrian whose voice has been ignored amidst the sounds of the fighting. Syrians are the key to peace in Syria and the only way they can succeed and bring peace to their country is if we empower them.