The news about Syria has been among the top headlines for the past few years. A few weeks ago it came back to the centre of attention with the pictures of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while his family was escaping the atrocities in Syria. It drew the attention of the world, especially the western nations, to the situation of millions of Syrians who are caught in a long, cruel conflict. Media is now full of questions and discussions about the crisis in Syria, the condition of millions of refugees and on another level, how to put an end to the civil war.
It’s been about four years since the initiation of the uprising and the civil war in Syria. However, there are still many who cannot figure out what the problem is exactly in that poor country. Although the numbers of refugees or internally displaced people can easily be found from various sources online, finding the roots of the problem is not that easy. There are many factors that laid the foundation for the crisis as well as many powers who are directly or indirectly involved in it.
In this post, I will try to explain the Syrian crisis by my current extent of knowledge. It uses and builds upon other posts that I wrote on this issue before (Light the Dark and the Syrian Crisis and Libya). I start with some numbers explaining the current extent of the crisis. Then, after a brief description of the history of Syria, I will touch upon the Arab Spring with the focus on Syria. From the Arab Spring, I will move to the Civil War which started as a continuation of the uprising. I will explain my take from the situation including the main powers involved and their interests in the conflict. I, then, conclude by proposing a general outline for a possible solution to this crisis.
Table of contents
- Current situation
- Brief history of Syria
- The Arab Spring
- The Civil War
- Foreign Involvement
- Conclusion and Solution
At the moment, once peaceful protest for democracy and against corruption and inequality has turned out to a horrific civil war. The country is now divided among various conflicting groups, including:
- Government and pro-Assad forces
- Rebels: Free Syrian Army, Syria Revolutionary front
- Terrorist and jihadist groups: ISIS and Al-Nusra front
The civil war which has been going one for almost four years now has resulted in a severe humanitarian crisis that European Commission for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection has named the largest humanitarian crisis since the second World War. The commission’s report states the following figures regarding the scale of the crisis:
- Estimated number of humanitarian assistance inside Syria: 12.2 million
- In hard to reach/besieged areas: 4.6 million
- Estimated number of internally displaced: 7.6 million
- Number of registered refugees: 4,015,070
These refugees are mostly hosted by:
- Turkey: 1.8 Million
- Lebanon: 1.2 Million
- Jordan: 0.63 Million
- Iraq: 0.25 Million
- Egypt: 0.16 Million
Some sources estimate the number of those killed in the conflict between 200,000 to more than 310,000.
To better understand how the situation reached to this point, I start by a brief history of Syria. Then I will talk about the Arab Spring and the reasons why it became a civil war.
Brief history of Syria
The modern Syrian state came into being after the first World War as a French mandate. Before that, it was part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1945, it became an independent parliamentary republic and by 1946 French troops left its soil.
Between 1946 till 1971, the country gone through several short-lived governments and coups. In 1970, the formerly defense minister, Hafez al-Assad became president. His presidency came to an end in 2000 with his death. His son, Bashar al-Assad became the next Syrian president and has been in power till now.
During the government of Assad family, Syria has been effectively a non-democracy, governed in a one-party system. This has been accompanied by strong pressure and discrimination against the majority of the population who were not close to the government.
As of 2013, the population of Syria was about 23 million. The country hosts a variety of ethnic groups, including Arabs, Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Assyrians, etc. A diverse range of religious groups also inhabits in the country, including Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Yazidis, etc.
In 2010, the Arab Spring rose in Syria and in a duration of several months became a full-fledged military confrontation. This conflict has continued till now. In the following section, the initiation of the Arab Spring is described.
The Arab Spring
The Arab Spring is a term assigned to a series of demonstrations and uprisings that took place in the Middle East and North Africa. It started in 2010 in Tunisia and eventually spread to Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, etc.
As a result of this movement, several governments and authoritarian regimes were toppled (Egypt, Libya and Tunisia) and some governments have gone through, or promised to go through, serious reforms (Algeria and Morocco). In some, the protests have morphed to civil wars (Syria, Yemen and Libya) that have rendered those countries unstable, giving terrorist groups an opportunity to rise and gain more power.
Two of the most notable instances of the countries that went through the Arab Spring are Egypt and Libya.
After the uprising, Mubarak was ousted, Muslim brotherhood group won the majority in the election and Mohamed Morsi became Egypt’s first democratically elected president. However, because Muslim brotherhood would not serve the West’s, especially Israel’s, interests in the region, Morsi was overthrown by a coup d’etat and general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became the new president. He is closer to the West and during the last war in Gazza, closed Egypt borders and cut the support line to Hamas.
After the uprising, Muammar Gaddafi threatened to discontinue oil supply to Europe if it continued supporting Libyan opposition. Consequently, in a short period of time, UN resolutions were passed that authorised member states to announce a no-fly zone over Libya and initiate a military intervention. Shortly after, Gaddafi was captured and killed.
However, Libya was not ready for the transition and, as a result, a power vacuum engendered in the country that made it a haven for terrorist groups. Various terrorist groups now use Libya as a place for the military recruitment and training of their fighters.
Some countries saw the situation with Libya as the West’s intention just to oust Gaddafi. They also found the result of ousting Gaddafi disastrous. Therefore, when the crisis arose in Syria, they were more reluctant to side with the western powers and vote for UN resolutions. For example, only 65 countries, as well as four permanent members of the security council, voted in favour of referring Syria to the international criminal court.
The Arab Spring in Syria
Numerous factors can be accounted for the ignition of the uprising and unrest in Syria which eventually led to the current situation. Some of them, such as an authoritarian regime or corruption, are shared with other countries that went through the Arab Spring while others are specific to Syria. Some of the most important causes are:
An authoritarian regime
Practically one-party system (esp. before 2012)
Initiation of free market policies
A historic drought (2007-2010)
Mass migration to urban areas
Steep rise in the prices of food and commodities
1.5 million refugees from Iraq
The Civil War
Bashar al-Assad feared that he would share the destiny of Mubarak and Gaddafi. To save himself and prevent the West from supporting the Syrian opposition, he even revealed the position of Gaddafi by giving his cellular phone number to French intelligence services. This led to Gaddafi’s killing by the opposition forces.
Out of this fear, and probably according to Iran’s advice, Assad resisted reform and chose to suppress the uprising. To crush the opposition, he eventually increased the level of violence against protesters. The government forces captured, imprisoned, and allegedly tortured or killed many people.
As a result, after several months, the movement turned from a peaceful protest into an armed rebellion. As the military conflict escalated, terrorist groups like Al Qaeda took the opportunity to recruit forces and expand their organisations. Assad did not try to control these groups. Reportedly, he even freed some dangerous terrorists from prison. He used the presence of terrorist groups as a propaganda against the opposition forces, labelling them all terrorists.
This helped build the size and number of terrorist groups in the region. The most notorious one is Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) which gained extreme power after Syrian crisis. Being a former branch of Al Qaeda, it eventually separated from that group. It announced a caliphate and their leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, proclaimed himself the new caliph of Muslims.
ISIS is strongly media-savvy and extremely brutal. By this combination, it has succeeded to plant a deep fear in the hearts of people all around the world. The footages of their massacres have shaken the world repeatedly during past years. It’s been said that the main reason for their separation from Al Qaeda was indeed their ruthless violence.
Despite and probably because of their brutality, ISIS is at the moment one of the strongest groups fighting in Syria. They occupy a big part of Syrian land and a portion of Iraq. They control a great amount of oil and gas production of those countries which enables them to recruit and purchase arms and military equipment.
Meanwhile, despite constant cautions of human rights groups, the international community did nothing to de-escalate the conflict. Several attempts to pass UN resolutions against Syrian government were vetoed by Russian and its allies. At the same time, foreign powers, having interests in Syria, bolstered different sides of the conflict, whichever served to their interests better. By financial and arms supports to fighting groups, they worsened the situation to the current state.
In the following section, I will discuss the main foreign powers involved in the Syrian conflict and try to briefly explain their interests and actions.
The picture below shows the main powers that are currently involved in the Syrian conflict. I will explain the interests and actions of these powers separately in the following.
1) The US
- Increase influence in the region, esp. near Russia’s borders (look at the map of US bases)
- Oust Assad regime and replace with a government closer to the US
- Control other regional powers
- Support rebel groups
- Seek UN resolutions
- Send air forces
- Maintain and increase influence
- Keep the front with the US
- Contain extremism and block it from flooding its borders
- Demonstrate itself as the broker in the region
- Control other regional powers
- A new gas pipeline to Europe
- Veto UN resolutions
- Actively support Assad, directly or through Iran
- Host Syrian opposition
- Attempt to make a new coalition
- Mediate for chemical disarmament
- Send air force
- Tries not to get involved
- If forced, sides with Russia (e.g. veto UN move to refer Syria to ICC)
- Prefer ousting Assad
- Fear another Libya
- Reluctant to get into another military conflict
- Close partner
- Connection to Gazza and Lebanon
- Contain extremism and block it from flooding its borders
- Resist Saudi’s influence
- Negotiation chip with the world powers
- Gas pipeline to Europe
- Support Assad politically
- Financial supports
- Military advisors
2) Saudi Arabia
- Oust Assad
- Increase influence
- Resist Iran’s influence (prevent another Iraq)
- Maintain and enhance hegemony in Islamic and Arab world
- Political lobbying against Assad
- Financial supports to resistance groups
- Increase influence and limit other regional powers’
- Block the path from Iran to Gazza and Lebanon
- Distract international scrutiny
- Propaganda against Islam and Muslims
- Netanyahu’s talks, esp. in the UN
- Send troops to Syria
- Gain influence and limit others’
- Control the Kurds
- Cheap oil
- Buy cheap oil from ISIS
- Let terrorists cross its borders to attack Kurds
- Arresting Kurd activists
- Bomb Kurds
- Gain influence
- Gas pipeline (Qatar)
- Financial support to rebel groups
- Political lobbying
Conclusion and Solution
It is a religious war
It is not. It is a war for power. It is a proxy war for influence. It immensely resembles the cold-war era.
Groups like ISIS try to present the situation as a religious war to gain the support of young, frustrated Muslims in Western countries and also to keep the foreign powers out. They are, at the same time, killing other Muslims for gaining power.
The fighters are there for their beliefs
Not most of them. Those who are fighting are not necessarily supporting the cause their side is advocating. Many of Assad soldiers are recruited by force. On the other hand, many of the rebel forces are fighting to earn money and support their families. In an article in the Guardian, some fighters revealed that the reason they are fighting for ISIS is because it pays better than other groups and will take better care of their families if they are injured to killed.
It doesn’t, however, rule out the fact that some of the foreign fighters actually came to fight for Islam. Those are young, frustrated Muslims who are, mostly, second generation of migrants in the western countries. They have not been feeling included and mixed in their communities and have been affected by racism and discrimination. The discussion of the reasons for this phenomenon is out of the scope of this post.
Rebel groups only participate in war
Other than fighting in wars, they control territories, manage funds and industries (e.g. controlling oil production and selling it), engage in negotiation with other groups or foreign powers.
The number of people in urgent need of help is tremendous, more than 12 million. These people cannot be easily settled in other countries. There are already four million registered Syrian refugees, most of which are now in the neighbouring countries. These countries are not rich in resources and therefore, cannot sustain this burden for a long time. Otherwise, they will themselves go through serious crises.
Meanwhile, the richer European countries are not willingly accepting refugees. Some countries have promised to take tens of thousands of refugees in several years. Although generous, these numbers cannot seriously resolve the problem in short-, middle- or long-term.
And rich Arab countries, while of the same language and religion of Syrians, are refusing to take any refugees in. Ironically, those countries who intensified the crisis in Syria, are not offering help at all.
There is no doubt that this disastrous situation must end and those people must be saved from this horror. Going to war and simply bombing the country is not the best solution. The current situation clearly proves that this strategy hasn’t been effective. Instead, several steps, mostly political, can be taken to solve the problem faster and with less burden on the people.
The financial and military support to terrorist groups must cease.
Then the international and regional powers must hold some serious negotiations that
Include all regional powers
Take advantage of Iran’s new attitude towards the world
Decide on the new regime that is
Divides power proportionally among all groups
Clarify the transition phase
The new government must be empowered to overcome terrorist groups on its own
A recent example: Iraq after ISIS rise
The recent rise of ISIS in Iraq and its fast expansion and the political steps that were taken to control the situation can be mentioned as an example.
Some of the conditions that helped the fast expansion of the terrorist group were:
- Great divide between Shia and Sunni
- Sectarian attitude of Iraq former prime minister, Nouri al-Maleki
- Unprepared and unmotivated security, intelligence and military forces
- Dissatisfaction of a big portion of the population from the status quo
In a few months, ISIS expanded its territory and was moving towards Baghdad. This could be a disaster and ruin all the efforts of the past years to build a stable democracy. So, the main powers acted fast and reached to a solution that was successful in stopping the expansion of the group. The solution included the following parts:
- Coalition of all involved powers, US, Iran and Saudi Arabia
- Nouri al-Maleki resigned and Haidar al-Abadi took his place
- Power divided between Shia, Sunni and Kurds
- War against ISIS
- Air force: US
- Ground troops: Iraq army, Iraqi militias, Kurds, Iranian military advisors
What we can do
- Oppose direct military involvement of foreign powers
- Advocate peaceful diplomacy
- Support peaceful movements
- Support those in urgent need of humanitarian assistance
** Featured image courtesy of The Dark Room