Abstract: In March 2011 Syria’s government, led by Pres. Bashar al-Assad, faced an unprecedented challenge to its authority when pro-democracy protests erupted throughout the country. Protesters demanded an end to the authoritarian practices of the Assad regime, in place since Assad’s father, Ḥafiz al-Assad, became president in 1971. The Syrian government used violence to suppress demonstrations, making extensive use of police, military, and paramilitary forces. Opposition militias began to form in 2011, and by 2012 the conflict had expanded into a full-fledged civil war. Is this war historical, sectarian? Who’s involved and what do they want? Who’s fighting who? Understanding the reasons for this war may explore the historical context of the conflict and provide the enlightenment that could engender peaceful solutions to the war that have ravaged Syria.
Introduction: The present Syrian conflict didn’t emerge to the surface overnight; it has long history seated in unemployment, corruption, and lack of political freedom under the rule of President Bashar Al Assad, since he took office in 2000, succeeding his late father Hafez. With the rise of Arab Spring in the neighboring countries, it inspired pro-democracy demonstrators to flare up in the Southern City of Derra in 2011, which led to a nationwide demand for president Assad’s immediate resignation. The government moved to crush the dissidents. The demonstrators resisted and the unrest escalated. Armed oppositions defended themselves and later expelled the security forces of their areas. Thus, what started as a peaceful uprising against the Syrian president turns into a barbaric civil war, which has left almost 353,900 people dead including 106, 000 civilians, as a documented till March 2018 by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights-UK based monitory group. (Human Rights Watch, 2018)
How is the conflict manifested? There is little interest in bringing the Syrian war to an end despite the horrific killings, devastated cities and terrorism pouring into other countries. Many groups and states have vested interests and veiled agendas are involved to exploit the situation and prolong the war.
Who’s fighting who and for what? It’s complicated but the best way is to start looking at the war as a conflict between those who in broad terms support and oppose President Assad and his government
On the Syrian side, there is Russia, which carries out airstrikes and provides political support at the United Nations. Iran provides arms, credit, military advisers and reportedly combat troops. Hezbollah (The Lebanese Shia movement) has sent thousands of fighters. And the Shia Muslim militias (recruited by Iran from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen) provide support to Syria.
On the side of the “rebels”, there is Turkey that provides arms, military, and political support. In addition, the Gulf Arab States provide money and weapon. The US (provides arms, training and military assistance to “moderate groups) and Joran also provides logistical support and training. UK and France The UK, France and other western countries have also provided varying levels of support to what they consider to be “moderate” rebels. (BBC News, 2017)
Who are the Terrorist Groups and who brands them “terrorists?” Many countries, primarily Russia, have time and again emphasized the need to form a single list of terrorist groups. Since different actors have different views of the current situation, they have failed to arrive at a consensus. Yet the “global community” has recognized as terrorists two largest anti-government groups in Syria: Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra. These two groups have been regarded by the United States and others as Foreign Terrorists Organizations (FTO).
ISIS: The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is the latest incarnation of al Qaeda in Iraq or the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) which emerged after the US invasion of Iraq. Since the American withdrawal, ISI has continued its terrorist campaign against the Iraqi government while expanding its areas of operations to include Syria.
Jabhat al-Nusra: Jabhat al-Nusra took the field in January 2012, a year after protests against the regime began. Through its ferocity on the battlefield and the dramatic suicide bombings, the group has attracted support and recruits to become what many regarded as the most effective rebel force. This group is designated as Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States.
Hezbollah: Hezbollah is a hybrid organization. It operates a profitable criminal enterprise, while it also runs schools and provides Lebanon’s Shia Community with various forms of social assistance. Hezbollah continues to conduct terrorist operations. In 2012, its operatives were responsible for terrorist plots and attacks on Israel targets in Europe. Hezbollah is also designated as Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States.
Why are these groups called Terrorist Group and what are the beliefs of their critics? Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS and Hezbollah are designated as FTO by the United States because according to the US they adhere to a violent extremist ideology that is anti-Western, and encourages violence as a key element of pursuing its goals. According to the FTO Designation Criteria, these groups engage or retain the capability and intent to engage in terrorism and threaten the security of the US, its national defense, foreign relations or the economic interests of the US. (INFOCUS 2019). As a result of this designation, the US seeks to limit these groups financial, property, and travel interests.
What are the beliefs of Terrorists Groups?
ISIS makes no secret of its ultimate ambition: A global caliphate secured through a global war. To that end it speaks of “remaining and expanding” its existing hold over much of Iraq and Syria. It aims to replace existing, man-made borders, to overcome what it sees as the Shiite “crescent” that has emerged across the Middle East, to take its war — Islam’s war — to Europe and America, and ultimately to lead Muslims toward an apocalyptic battle against the “disbelievers.”
Prophecy is critical to ISIS, which accepts the word of the Prophet and the hadith, or sayings, attributed to him literally and without question. Prophecy provides ISIS with the glue of theological certainty. And according to those prophecies, the Islamic armies will ultimately conquer Jerusalem and Rome.
- Jabhat al-Nusra
The Nusra Front adheres to a Salafist, jihadist ideology with the professed aim of establishing Islamic governance in all areas under its control. In the group’s January 2012 inaugural video, a masked representative outlined its regional objectives. He introduced the Nusra Front as “Syrian mujahedeen” who have come “back from various jihad fronts to restore God’s rule on the Earth [Islamic law] and avenge the Syrians’ violated honor and spilled blood.
Hezbollah, Arabic Ḥizb Allāh (“Party of God”), also called Hezbullah, is a radical Shiite Muslim political party and militant group fighting against Israel and western occupation and influence within Lebanon. With aims of expelling the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) combatants in southern Lebanon, Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. The invasion and subsequent occupation prompted sectarian division within the region and gave rise to the loose formation of Shiite resistance and Iranian alliance, which formed the foundation of Hezbollah.
Did the Syrian war begin before the official escalation? Even before the conflict began in Syria, many Syrians were complaining about high unemployment, officials not behaving as they should do, and a lack of political freedom under their President Bashar al-Assad. However, the event which caused the situation to develop into a full-blown civil war dates back to 2011, to the Syrian city of Deraa.
Local people decided to protest after 15 school children were arrested – and reportedly tortured – for writing anti-government graffiti on a wall. The protests were peaceful, to begin with, calling for the release of the children, democracy and greater freedom for people in the country.
The government responded angrily and, on 18 March 2011, the army opened fire on protesters, killing four people. The following day, they shot at mourners at the victims’ funerals, killing another person. People were shocked and angry at what had happened and soon the unrest spread to other parts of the country.
At first, the protesters just wanted democracy and greater freedom. But after government forces opened fire on peaceful demonstrations, people demanded that President Bashar al-Assad resign. However, he refused to do this which made the protesters extremely angry. President Assad still had a lot of people in Syria that supported him and his government, so they began to fight against people who were against the government. By July 2012, the violence in Syria had become so widespread that it was in a state of civil war.
Is the Syria crisis a war by definition? Syria did not start out as a case of the civil war because the opposition to the government mainly took the form of a popular uprising in March 2011. However, later that year, the Free Syrian Army and its organization of an armed rebellion against the government (in defense of the civilian uprising) fulfilled at least the most basic criterion of a civil war — the armed confrontation between a rebel group and the government.
Can you find economic or political pressure like sanction before the escalation? Even before the war began, Syria had been subject to US sanctions for several decades. These restrictive measures are the US response to a series of activities by the Syrian government that concern US national security interests. The most notable of these concerns is Syria’s apparent support for what the US called terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
More recently, the Syrian government, under President Bashar al-Assad has waged – and continues – a violent campaign against unarmed civilian demonstrators in Syria. In the wake of a crackdown by the Syrian government that leftover 9000 dead, a string of condemnations came from the US, European Union, the Arab League and the vast majority of the UN General Assembly. The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions in response to the crackdown. The U.S. sanctions regime against Syria prohibits all foreign assistance to the country, as well as exports and re-exports of items on the U.S. Munitions List, all items on the Commerce Control List, and all other U.S. products except food and medicine. U.S. sanctions prohibit any financial transaction with the Syrian government and block all property of the Syrian government, its senior leaders, U.S. persons that support the Syrian government, and individuals and entities involved in the planning, sponsoring, organizing, or perpetrating of terrorist attacks.
Who benefits from the civil war in Syria in the short and long terms? Russia and Iran, the two main military allies and enablers of the Syrian regime, are engaged in competition over access to the Syrian economy, with a particular focus on opportunities to obtain reconstruction contracts. In addition to lines of credit and the supply of vital strategic products, Russia and Iran are pursuing a larger role in the Syrian economy by agreeing on investment contracts for their major companies and conglomerates. Moscow and Tehran seek partial compensation for their military interventions in Syria, and both adopt an opportunity-based approach to the Syrian market. Russia demands unconditional international support for the reconstruction of Syria to stabilize the security of the country and to allow the return of refugees. Moscow also perceives reconstruction as an opportunity to facilitate the international and regional rehabilitation of Bashar al-Assad. Russia and Iran have built up alliances with local businessmen in Syria, and each country has established a business council to support and boost these relationships. The key sectors targeted by Russian and Iranian companies include oil and gas, electricity, agriculture, tourism, and real estate. Contracting Russian private companies come at a lower political cost to Syria than allowing Tehran to further expand in key sectors of the Syrian economy. However, Iran will remain influential in the foreseeable future as it is an important trade partner with Syria and an essential provider of oil refined products.
Conclusion: The Syrian Civil War is shrouded in intricacies and myriad of tinges. In my mind, the war can come to an end if the necessary actions are taken by all the parties. The first solution should come from inside Syria and not imposed on the Syrian people. The rebels and the government have to fashion an agreement that facilitates the disarming of the fighters and integrating them into society. It is important for President Assad to step down as he has suggested and a new interim government is set up to pave the way for a multiparty election.
More importantly, outside and foreign powers must stop supporting sectarian organizations and interfering in the internal affairs of Syria. A lot of anger could have been avoided if countries like the US and Russia had not fueled the conflict to satisfy their personal gains. Finally, the UN must play a constructive role in the process of creating a democratic space in Syria and helping the nation to rebuild for the future.
World Report (2019). Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/world_report_download/hrw_world_report_2019.pdf
BBC News. (2014). Syrian war: A brief guide to who’s fighting whom. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-28632223
Human Rights Watch (2018) Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/syria
Fisher, M. (2010, September 18). Straightforward answers to basic questions about Syria’s war. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/19/world/middleeast/syria-civil-war-bashar-al-assad-refugees-islamic-state.html