A month or so ago, Syria was all over the news as the international community turned its gaze to the ongoing conflict within the Middle Eastern nation. At the time, intelligence pointed to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government against the rebel forces. This act was considered crossing a “red line” by several Western powers and led to talks of intervention, political maneuvering, and international diplomatic scrambling. There was an uproar among the American population that pushed against any intention of intervention, no doubt a reaction kindled strongly by the memory of our intervention in Iraq with its lead up, misrepresentations, and eventual consequences. Yet for many Americans, the sudden coverage of Syria and our governments talk of intervention was the first time they had any true exposure to the situation in Syria. Today, Syria has once more taken a periphery position in news coverage and only the occasional development make it to the wider American audience. However, the situation in Syria has been going on for over two years and continues until today.
Syria has a long tumultuous history that can be seen from antiquity until modernity, but the roots of most of the modern conflicts stem from the transition from French Mandate Syria to its independence. Indeed, Syria was the first Arab nation to participate in a military coup d’etat and in subsequent years was involved in a series of wars with Israel, occupying Lebanon, and for the past two years has been involved in a violent civil war. Syria’s road towards independence along with its subsequent failures in establishing infrastructure and government allowed for a series of coups that kept the country in a tenuous state. The final coup which led the way to the Syria we have come to know today occurred on February 23th 1965 when the Ba’ath Party (also known as the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party) overthrew the government which had in years previously joined with Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser in forming the United Arab Republic. Secretly working in a military council, the Ba’ath Party consolidated its power and took control during the chaos and instability that ensued after Syria seceded from the United Arab Republic in 1961. Removing the previous leader, Amin Hafiz, the Ba’ath party took control with Salah Jaddid ruling the party apparatus and Hafez al-Assad controlling the military. After the disastrous war with Israel, a split between the two leaders began to grow and led to the eventual take over by Hafez al-Assad in a bloodless coup known as the “Corrective Movement” in 1970. From then on, Syria has been in a military dictatorship under the control of the Assad family with Bashar al-Assad taking control in 2000.
Since the military coup of the Corrective Movement, Syria has been involved in wars with Israel, has established a military occupation of Lebanon for 30 years until the Cedar Revolution of 2005, supported Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon-Israel War, and has repeatedly dealt blows to civil liberties. One of the clearest displays of the brutality of Ba’athist Syria was the 1982 Hama Massacre where in retaliation to the insurgency of the Muslim Brotherhood, the military killed 10,000 Syrian civilians. When Bashar al-Assad was elected as president in a race where he ran unopposed, many believed an era of reforms was upon them, but other than a series of market reforms, Syria remained firmly in the grips of an iron gauntlet. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has consistently cracked down on any political dissent, has restricted free speech, has restricted various social media websites, and has enforced its crackdowns with violent military action.
The current civil war finds its origins in 2000 when Bashar al-Assad was first elected. After the death of Hafez al-Assad, hopeful intellectuals gathered together in a series of salon-like meetings. They met privately to discuss politics, reform, and issued a series of statements. However, Bashar al-Assad quickly shut them down and arrested several participants. While this effectively put an end to what they called the Damascus Spring, the effects of the gatherings continued to echo on as other intellectuals picked up their conversations and secretly continued to meet. These private intellectual gatherings also gave voice to one of the fiercest opponents of Ba’athist Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood. In conjunction with the Muslim Brotherhood, liberal Syrian intellectuals released the Damascus Declaration which called for immediate democratic reform. Released in 2005 it coincided with a time when Syria was facing international pressure as a result of the developments in Lebanon and its subsequent withdrawal. As a result, in 2006 the government relented to the pressure and released some of the intellectuals arrested during the Damascus Spring. In 2011 the ideas and declarations put forth by the intellectuals of the Damascus Spring merged with the growing popular movement rooted in the larger Arab Spring and called for immediate reforms and the resignation of Bashar al-Assad.
The government cracked down on the protesters violently. The military fired upon protesters and began a campaign of violent suppression. In return, the protests evolved from demonstrations to an insurgency movement as it merged with several foreign and domestic rebels and defectors from the military. Since then the international community has gotten involved in varying degrees. Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia have all entered their support for the Ba’athist loyalists while the United States and many so-called Western powers have backed the rebel forces. The US has admitted to providing arms to the Free Syrian Army and introducing 50 CIA insurgent agents into Syria. As of November 7th, Saudia Arabia has admitted to spending millions providing weapons and training to the Syrian rebels. On November 11th, the Syrian opposition approved a cabinet and council which will manage and administer the opposition/rebel held territories in Syria.
While the military and political dynamics that have led up to the war are unmistakable, there is also a religious and ethnic component that mostly gets overlooked. Demographically, Syria is a largely Sunni nation with 74% of the population while 13% were recorded as Shia. During Ottomon rule, there was a definite Sunni hegemony and several Shia sects like the Alawites were oppressed. However, during the French Mandate the Alawites were able align themselves with political and military forces. Despite contest to their power, the Alawites established themselves as a dominant forces, especially in the military. When Hafez Al-Assad, who himself was an Alawite, broke with Sunni Salah Jaddin, the Ba’athist party positions primarily went to Alawites. While overtly secular, especially under Bashar al-Assad who does not openly talk about religion, his reign was secured militarily by retiring the old guard of military officers and filling their positions with young, loyalist Alawite officers.
The majority of support for the loyalists during the civil war comes from Shia and Alawite groups. The opposition groups on the other hand are primarily Sunni and even the older Muslim Brotherhood insurgency elements were Sunni.
The significance of this cannot be overstated; the Alawite hegemony over the Ba’athist party in a primarily Sunni nation has been equated by journalist Robert Kaplan to the equivalent of a Jew coming to power in Tsarist Russia. But the religious component is not limited to divisions within Muslims as Syria also has a sizable Christian population which has been faced with increasing attacks on their communities. The Syrian Christian population composed primarily of Syriac Orthodox Christians and Assyro-Chaldean Christians tend to be more urbanized and therefore are found in the larger cities, like Damascus, which have been embroiled in urban warfare. While they enjoyed some protections under Bashar al-Assad who tolerated religious minorities, they have come under increasing attack by the opposition and rebel forces who have among their coalition several extremist Islamist sects like Al Qaeda. Though the numbers are unknown, a large portion of Syria’s Christians have fled as refugees. Interestingly, while political dissent was not tolerated and dealt with extreme prejudice, religious minorities did have some protection under Bashar al-Assad.
In addition to the religious dynamic of the conflict, there are ethnic differences that are worth noting. 77% of the population is Arab, 10% Syriac-Aramaic, 9% are Kurds, and the rest are made up a variety of ethnic groups. The Kurds, who have consistently faced oppression in both Syria and Iraq and who have infrequently desired autonomy, form a large contingent of the opposition and rebel forces. While the majority of the ethnic Arabs are divided between the loyalists and rebels.
What emerges from the messy mix of religion, politics, and ethnicity is a picture that Americans don’t always see. The civil war within Syria is not just a fight between two opposition forces, those made up of loyalist to the oppressive Assad-Ba’athist regime versus the opposition rebel forces. Rather, within these lines are alliances and tensions between religious groups, political affiliations, and ethnic groups. The civil war has emerged from a long-standing convoluted history of regime coups and political instability. More importantly it is placed within a larger context when we see how the civil war sprung from a larger popular Arab Spring movement merging with earlier Syrian intellectual protests and which became militarized in response to violent government crackdowns, international arms support, and an alliance with insurgent forces religious and political.
The ongoing situation in Syria is of global importance for two reasons. The first is the travesty of the violence. The toll on the civilian population should be considered nothing short of a war crime. The Syrian military has been engaged in an indiscriminate crack down, relying on its superior arms to attack villages, compounds, and eliminating opposition whether perceived or substantiated. Secondly, the geo-political ramifications of the Syrian civil war are far-reaching. Syria’s instability can quickly spill over in neighboring Middle Eastern nations which threaten the stability of the region as a whole. The involvement of Hezbollah and Saudia Arabia on either side demonstrates their awareness of this fact. If the situation is not resolved or at the least contained, the conflict can easily spill over into Lebanon or Iraq which will then draw other countries into the mix. Iran’s backing of the Ba’athist rule while the US’s backing of the rebels threaten the nuclear talks between the two nations and what little diplomatic grounds have been gained. Furthermore, the continuing instability in Syria is a threat to Israel. Support for Bashar al-Assad from Iran and Hezbollah are a danger to Israel as well considering the alliance of Hezbollah and Hamas.
Unfortunately though, there is no clear solution to the problem. While arming the rebels in opposition to the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad may seem like an appropriate tactic, it fails to take into consideration the constitutive element of the rebel forces; we are not talking about a single opposition party or unified rebellion, but a series of disparate groups who are temporarily aligned through their opposition. Among the Syrian army defectors who renamed themselves to the Free Syrian Army, there is the primarily Kurdish, Democratic Union Party, as well as various jihadist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood influenced Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, the Damascus-located Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) who is a benefactor of Saudi Arabia, the Qatari-backed Ahfad al Rasul Brigade, the Al-Qaeda branch known as Al-Nusra Front, and much more. Some of these groups hold to hardliner positions that are a threat to minorities, stability in the regions, and US interests. Some of them have even carried out terrorist attacks against minority groups and committed travesties as terrible as the Ba’athist forces. Supplying weapons to the rebel forces means risking the chance that they fall into the hands of individuals who can in turn use those those weapons for other means than Syrian liberation. Furthermore, increasing arms availability to the Syrian rebels means an escalation of force as each side rushes to match the firepower of the other.
On the other hand, direct intervention by the US has been ruled out as a result of Russian diplomatic pressure as well as pressure domestically. If indirect military support and direct military support seem out of the question, then what can be done about a situation that if not addressed will have severe global-consequences? The only option that remains is working through allies and calling upon diplomatic power to put unified political and economic pressure on the situation, forcing both sides into talks addressing the issues and the formation of a coalition government. While seemingly an idealistic goal, it nevertheless remains the only viable hope left. We have already seen demonstrable diplomatic power with Russia’s ability to thwart American intervention in Syria and together they brought enough pressure to force Bashar al-Assad to eliminate chemical weapons–the first necessary hurdle which was jumped last week. Of course, that doesn’t limit his access to other weapons of destruction. Indeed, Assad’s forces have gained ground rather than lost.
The United States and its allies should not treat the Syrian situation as periphery matter that it keeps an eye on, but an ongoing regional-threat and humanitarian crisis. Drawing upon its diplomatic power, the United States should mobilize its allies to pressure supporters of the Ba’athists to back away from military and political support and to join a community of world powers that brings palpable and real pressure upon both sides in Syria to begin immediate peace-talks with aims towards a coalition government. While both Russia and the United States have pushed for talks, they have yet to set a date demonstrating the lack of urgency and push that Syria truly needs right now. Indeed, this remains the only way in which to ensure regional stability and prevent the situation from escalating to new heights which it is destined to do if not addressed.