The Syrian Civil War: A Modern Conflict

The following was the main project of my Global Studies class, and was written in January of 2015. The year that has followed seems to be full of more anguish and little resolution. The Kobanî massacre resulted in 200 Kurds killed by ISIL attacks and suicide missions, and the Douma massacre resulted in 100 killed by Syrian government airstrikes. Regardless of numbers, truly no one is winning.

Evolution of Conflict

The conflict in Syria is one of epic proportions.  At least two million Syrian citizens have fled the country, and another four and a half million are internally displaced (The Political Science of Syria’s War). The equivalent of the population of Tennessee all being expelled from their homes. The campaign has evolved from an oppressed population protesting in the wake of successful Arab Spring protests (in countries such as Egypt and Libya) to a disjointed mess of rebels, extremists, governments, and terrorists.  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has drawn disapproval from many by grouping together rebels who have taken up arms with terrorists that are piggybacking off of the mayhem to promote their own interests (President Bashar al-Assad Interview…). With no clear solution, a multitude of belligerents, and an uncooperative government, the impacts of the Syrian Civil War will be felt for decades to come.

Syria is a geographic nightmare. Bordered by Iraq to the east, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has continually advanced through northeast Syria. In the north, Kurdish fighters take a stand for their own rights as an ethnic group that spreads across several countries. In the larger cities in the west, the Syria Battlelinesgovernment and opposition face off, while occasionally facing off with ISIS forces on the eastern front (Syrian Civil War). In addition, Lebanon and Turkey directly border and both have interests in the region. The government is often viewed as the voice of the Alawite minority. The Sunni versus Alawite perception is really an oversimplified version of what’s going on. The Sunni muslims are made up of Arabs as well as Kurds. The Islamic state adds a whole new dynamic to the situation. These four main factions have formed in a small area, equipped with weapons and support from other countries that wish to have an influence on the fighting, including, but not limited to the United States, Turkey, Qatar, Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia (The Political Science of Syria’s War).

With all this potential built up, protests in 2011 put everything into action. As said by Rami Nakhla,  a Syrian cyberactivist, “We want what what everyone in the region wants: an end to corruption, the ability to choose and dismiss our leaders, freedom of speech, and freedom from fear,” (Baker, Aryn. “Has Assad Won?”). Syria’s majority population’s discontent is not a recent development. It’s deeply rooted over half a century’s worth of mass detention, corruption, and oppression of intellectuals and politicians (Baker, Aryn, “Has Assad Won?”). These kinds of conditions inevitably lead to drastic actions.

The story of Joseph Dzhugashvili (later known as Joseph Stalin) is a fine example of such. As a young boy, Dzhugashvili lived the life of the lower class. Owning land was hard for the peasantry and when he was offered the schooling of a priest, he became more and more educated. Him and many colleagues developed a passion for Vladimir Lenin’s works and Stalin found that his way to materialize his beliefs was through the pen. He wrote for newspapers and soon became an enemy of the Tsar’s government. Although Dzhugashvili himself was exiled to Siberia several times, and lived a life as a fugitive, he and his associates, with the backing of the people, overtook the monarchy. (Service, Robert) With preconditions like this, many feel entitled to use force to get the rights that they deserve. As John Locke insisted, when government violates individual rights, the people may rebel. This ideology has been behind many comparable movements, such as the American and French revolutions (Powell, Jim). Syria’s situation, while adulterated by many other factors, is not much different, and should be expected to be fought by the opposition with full force because, as they see it, their livelihoods are on the line.

The war has extended longer than anyone had expected. Initial hopes were for a swift revolution like other Arab Spring events, but it has by now evolved into a monstrous, unmanageable mess. The situation is captured perfectly in the words of Mohammad, a protester who only wanted to be identified by his first name, “We thought it would work, that it would be quick, like Tunisia and Egypt. But our revolution was stolen. They turned it from a fight for freedom into an Islamic revolution. I don’t want to have to choose between the extremists and the government, they are both killers,” (Aryn, Baker; BUQAYA, LEBANON). The general consensus is that the conflict is much more than it originally intended to be, it has truly become an interstate conflict when its roots have it as a push for human rights.

Proxy WarWhy wasn’t it quick like Tunisia or Egypt? Because the Syrian Civil War has taken the form of a proxy war, where countries promote their interests in another sovereign country’s land. Syria receives support from Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia. The opposition does from the West, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar,  and jihadi groups. This leads to longer lasting-conflicts, as one side does not need to commit their own soldiers to a cause, they just need money. If one side starts losing, add a big chunk of money. When this happens on both sides, a sort of stalemate is not uncommon. (The Political Science of Syria’s War).

As for more intrastate matters, the conflict is rooted in a variety of sources. In an interview with Charlie Rose, president Bashar al-Assad says, when questioned whether he believes this is becoming a religious war, that “it started partly as a sectarian war in some areas, but now it’s not, because when you talk about sectarian war or religious war, you should have a very clear line between the sects and religions in Syria according to the geography and the demography in Syria, something we don’t have. So it’s not religious war, but al-Qaeda always uses religions – Islam, actually – as a pretext and as a cover and as a mantle for their war and for their terrorism and for their killing and beheading and so on” (“President Bashar al-Assad Interview…”). Whether Assad is right or not about just how much of the opposition are terrorists and how much are those same Syrian protesters that are simply fighting for human rights, the conflict has become a breeding ground for Islamist militants and propagandists. It is, however, still sectarian in other areas that are not dominated by ISIS. It’s also a bit of an ethnic conflict (versus a civil conflict) as Kurdish nationalism has shone through amidst all the hubbub of rebellion. Syrian Kurds have joined with their Iraqi cousins to protest the borders established by Europeans after World War I (Klein, Joe). At this point, “civil war” is hardly an adequate term to describe the conflict, it’s an absolute Middle Eastern fiasco; ethno-territorial, sectarian, radical Islamist, and political.

The Syrian government is dominating the opposition vis-à-vis military and intimidation strategies. The government forces generally have the upper hand. As President Assad said, “They went to every part there’s no army in it, and the army went to clean and get rid of them. They don’t go to attack the army in an area where the army occupied that area and took it from it … what the army is doing is cleaning those areas, and the indication that the army is strong is that it’s making advancement in that area” (“President Bashar al-Assad Interview…”). Although the president attempts to downplay the rebels (by making it seem like Syria does not care about the cities they occupy at all), the fact of the matter is they are generally not on the offensive, they have taken up cities and are being bombarded by effective, modern weaponry. Even worse, studies suggest that aerial bombing as a counterinsurgency tactic suggests that it only further drives the civilians caught in the crossfire to support the insurgents (The Political Science of Syria’s War). It’s a self-sustaining fire.

To add to the mayhem, chemical weapons — something as taboo in the military like any other weapon of mass destruction (biological, radiological, nuclear) — were used against civilians in Damascus, killing an estimated 1,400 people. UN-conducted investigations uncovered a lot about the attack, which used sarin, a schedule 1 substance. Since it is a nerve agent, it can cause permanent neurological damage (granted the victim is not killed by the attack). While the government still denies involvement, they are agreeing to cease production of chemical weapons and to get rid of the ones they have now. Some of his opponents believe he is delaying this process, and/or continuing to use less deadly chlorine gas (Baker, Aryn. “Has Assad Won?”).

With all this going on, Assad’s power has not truly wavered like Muammar Gaddafi’s or Hosni Mubarak’s. There haven’t been any signs of the government wishing to give in to demands, as they think they can handle the rebels forces (and are doing a good job at it). Again, the rebels wanted a quick shift in power, the government wanted to quickly put down a rebellion. Neither of the parties got what they really wanted. In the meantime, ISIS has entered the forefront and taken whatever power they can get amidst the chaos (Baker, Aryn. “Has Assad Won?”).

All of this tumult has taken its toll on the people. On average, over three thousands refugees arrived in a neighboring country every day in 2014. Nearly three million refugees are in neighboring countries Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. Not only syria_refugeesis this conflict clearly affecting these citizens, but it is also taking an economic toll on neighboring countries. Microeconomic impacts are heavy with the sharp increase in supply of low-skilled labor (Zetter, Roger). Despite refugees not having permission to work, undocumented jobs will always thrive, and as they do, market prices for basic commodities increase. Low income households are even more negatively affected, “Even before the crisis 25% of the Lebanese population lived below the upper poverty line of US$4 per day and the influx of refugees was projected to push an additional 170,000 Lebanese into poverty and to double unemployment to above 20% by 2014” (Zetter, Roger). Macroeconomically, regional trading patterns have been severely disrupted. Lebanon’s economic growth rate has been reduced by 2.9% from a predicted 4.4% in 2012–2014. The end user also feels the trade disruption in the form of increased commodity prices. Lebanese revenue has been decreased by $1.5 billion while expenditures have increased by $1.1 billion as the demand for public services grows. All the while, Syria is losing millions of its own workers and suffers from similar problems. If the war were to end, it’s estimated to take thirty years for the economy to recover to a pre-2010 stage (Baker, Aryn. “Has Assad Won?”). Exports from Lebanon to Syria have increased significantly, which is about the only way the conflict positively affects countries such as Lebanon (Zetter, Roger).

Internal and External Attempts on Peace

Attempts on peace have been well thought out, but not well-executed. When asked if he has a plan, President Bashar al-Assad replied, “When you have these terrorists, the first part of the same plan which is political should start with stopping the smuggling of terrorists coming from abroad, stopping the logistic support, the money, all kinds of support coming to these terrorists. This is the first part. Second, we can have national dialogue where different Syrian parties sit and discuss the future of Syria. Third, you can have interim government or transitional government. Then you have final elections, parliamentary elections, and you’re going to have presidential elections” (“President Bashar al-Assad Interview…”). However effective as this plan sounds, it isn’t executed due to unreasonable prerequisites on Assad’s part, as stated in his interview with Charlie Rose:

Charlie Rose: But the question is: would you meet with rebels today to discuss a negotiated settlement?

President al-Assad: In the initiative that we issued at the beginning of this year we said every party with no exceptions as long as they give up their armaments.

Charlie Rose: But you’ll meet with the rebels and anybody who’s fighting against you if they give up their weapons?

President al-Assad: We don’t have a problem.

Charlie Rose : Then they will say “you are not giving up your weapons, why should we give up our weapons?”

President al-Assad: Does a government give up its weapons? Have you heard about that before?

Charlie Rose: No, but rebels don’t normally give up their weapons either during the negotiations; they do that after a successful…

President al-Assad: The armament of the government is legal armament. Any other armament is not legal. So how can you compare? It’s completely different (“President Bashar al-Assad Interview…”).

The problem is that Assad creates a double standard. These people want their say in government, but the president does not want to treat them as equals. He does not want to acknowledge, in any way, that they are a strong force. Less symbolically and more literally, the rebels have no reason to trust that they will get what they want but have all the reason to believe that the government will play Judas at their weakest moment. There is a perfectly good protocol to follow to try and negotiate a power sharing agreement, but it’s hard to reach when Assad makes it hard to reach.

Syria OldIn the meanwhile, de facto partitioning is taking place, especially in the case of the Kurds. World War I resulted in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire followed by its partitioning by France and Britain. France mandated the area that became Syria and Lebanon today. It wasn’t until 1942 that the Alawite state became an official part of greater Syria. In 1936 six leading Alawites, including Bashar al-Assad’s grandfather Sulayman al-Assad, wrote a letter to the French powers in charge of the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon, pleading that the Alawite state not be made a part of Syria, as Alawites were and often still are discriminated against by Sunni muslims (Mackey, Robert). The point is, just because Europeans drew lines in the sand nearly 100 years ago doesn’t mean Kurdistanthat everyone in the same border will get along, or that they will agree with exactly where the lines are placed. Such is the case with the Kurds, who span across five nations. Turkey, Syria, and Iraq were all a part of the Ottoman empire pre World War I (Pichon, Eric). So while no one likes to talk about partitioning, it is still a reasonable proposition as a partial solution, and is especially appealing to Kurdish nationalists who strive for autonomy.

While the United Nations has chartered ceasefires and conducted investigations, they appear to have had little effect on the current situation. A ceasefire only lasts so long, and the president denies the conclusions made by the UN investigators at Damascus. The chemical weapons attack has brought a lot of scrutiny upon Assad, and he was questioned heavily about it in Charlie Rose’s interview:

Charlie Rose : So you’re against the use of chemical warfare?

President al-Assad : Yes, not only me. As a state, as a government, in 2001 we proposed to the United Nations to empty or to get rid of every WMD in the Middle East, and the United States stood against that proposal. This is our conviction and policy.

Charlie Rose: But you’re not a signatory to the chemical warfare agreement.

President al-Assad: Not yet.

Charlie Rose: Why not?

President al-Assad: Because Israel has WMD, and it has to sign, and Israel is occupying our land, so that’s we talked about the Middle East, not Syria, not Israel; it should be comprehensive.

Whether Assad’s point is reasonable or not (some might say that possessing chemical weapons does not really directly reason for others to have chemical weapons, others may see it necessary, like other weapons of mass destruction), he always has some excuse to not work with the United Nations’ or others’ proposals, be it allowing for talks without rebels giving up their arms, or to completely get rid of their chemical weapons (“President Bashar al-Assad Interview…”).

Recommended Strategies for Resolution

The ideal solution is vexed by hindrances such as Assad’s, but it would generally consist of demilitarization and power sharing from both sides. The first step should be to eliminate chemical weapons from the picture, as they pose an immediate threat to both parties. Few argue that they should be used, especially after World War I. Stockpiling and not using is not acceptable, and if it takes disarming Israel of their chemical weapons, so be it. The events in Damascus are a clear reason as to why this needs to be top priority.

Ceasefires should be next on the list, as they are easier to achieve than demilitarization, but still effective at inhibiting further violence. While this does not directly solve the problem, the goal is to reduce violence and take stepping stones towards demilitarization. Even though this is a relatively small act from a military standpoint, it can have a more profound cognitive effect on the people fighting, on either side. To give the belligerents a taste for the reduced fighting.

Attempts should be made by the United Nations to push for intrastate peace talks and power sharing negotiations.  The obstacle they need to get around is President Assad’s unwillingness to negotiate with rebels unless they lay down their arms.  It’s an unrealistic request that appears to be the main obstacle in further progress towards peace. Ideally, both rebel and government forces should demilitarize to reduce tensions which would make it easier to negotiate compromises. If the government, the rebels, and the Kurds are able to make compromises and to begin to work together, they can shift their focus to pushing out ISIS—a belligerent widely condemned—from the region.

Apace with these steps should be attempts to start fixing the social and physical issues brought on by the conflict. The ultimate goal is to restore Syria’s economy and infrastructure to pre-2011 levels and set them up to continue growing. Immediate focus should be placed on returning refugees and helping them, especially financially, to adjust back to life in Syria. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which staffs people in more than 125 countries, already has a presence in Syria helping refugees. Their continued assistance would be imperative to recovering the labor market that has been so hindered by the refugee crisis (About Us). Human Rights Watch could help lobby for solutions to issues with chemical weapons, and other, conventional methods of indiscriminate killing (which accounts for the majority of the death toll so far (Bolopion, Philippe).

Member nations should be careful not to clout the intrastate negotiations too much. World War I is over, and it’s time for the post-Ottoman people to take their own stands. Instead of Europeans drawing lines, people native to that region should be making the decisions. What the people want is their voices to be heard, so let it be so. Guide Syria to move away from civil violence and towards what Syria, as a whole, wants itself to be.

Works Cited

“About Us.” The UN Refugee Agency. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.

Baker, Aryn. “Has Assad Won?.” Time 183.22 (2014): 20-30. Academic Search Premier. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

Baker, Aryn, LEBANON BUQAYA, and RAMI AYSHA. “Deepening Divide.” Time 177.24 (2011): 24-27. Academic Search Premier. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

Bolopion, Philippe. “Dispatches: What About Justice for Syria’s Victims?” Human Rights Watch. N.p., 10 Sept. 2013. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.

Burrows, Lindsey. “Maps to Help You Understand the Syrian War.” The American Interest. The American Interest, 26 Feb. 2014. Web. 10 Jan. 2015.

Klein, Joe. “Number Four Bashar Assad The Lethal Tyrant.” Time 182.26 (2013): 118. MasterFILE Elite. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

Latuff, Carlos. Proxy war on Syria Opera Mundi. N.p., n.d. Web.

Mackey, Robert. “Syria’s Ruling Alawite Sect.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 June 2011. Web. 10 Jan. 2015.

Pichon, Eric. “Iraq: Towards an Independent Kurdistan?” European Parliamentary Research Service. European Parliamentary Research Service, 10 July 2014. Web. 10 Jan. 2015.

“The Political Science of Syria’s War.” The Political Science of Syria’s War (n.d.): n. pag. Pomemps, 18 Dec. 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

Powell, Jim. “John Locke: Natural Rights to Life, Liberty, and Property.” Foundation for Economic Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Jan. 2015.

“President Bashar Al-Assad Interview With CBS News.” Le Grand Soir. N.p., 13 Sept. 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

Service, Robert. Stalin: A Biography. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2005. Print.

Zetter, Roger, and Héloïse Ruaudel. “Development And Protection Challenges Of The Syrian Refugee Crisis.” Revista Migraciones Forzadas 47 (2014): 6-10. Academic Search Premier. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.