The Syrian Arab Republic: Civil War Gone Global
The Civil War in Syria has emerged as a result of domestic issues that have rapidly developed into a multifaceted conflict in the Middle East. The Syrian Civil war is due in part to: clashing ideologies leading to sectarian divides, severe disconnects between citizens and government, regional geopolitical tensions, and global foreign influences. The effects of the ongoing Syrian Civil war quickly began to ripple throughout the middle eastern and international political community. When international laws are broken and violent war crimes are committed, civil war becomes a global concern.
Regarding global standards of human security, the war in Syria is a point of interest . When more than 100,000 lives have been lost and more injured, 2.4 million refugees and 4 million people internally displaced, the obligation to protect human lives is deemed by many to be more important than the sovereignty of Syria (UNHR).
In the process of understanding the motivations of this civil war, awareness of the key ideologies in the region is crucial. Cross-cultural ideologies complicate internal, regional and international Syrian relations, as they have for many years. Syria’s chief of state, President Bashar Al-Assad stated in an interview with a United States news reporter that, “unless you understand the ideological aspect of the region, you cannot understand what is going on” (Wall Street Journal).
Religion is a determining factor in most political and social affairs in Syria and the Middle East. The Syrian constitution declares Islamic jurisprudence a main source of its legislation. Sharia, otherwise known as Islamic law, is codified in many Syrian laws that determine social function in the country. There is no separation of church and state in Syria; political and religious issues are inevitably interconnected. There are multiple sectarian bodies that occupy Syria: Sunni Muslim, Shia (mostly Alawite and Druze), and Christian.
74% of the Syrian population are Sunni Muslim. Sunni Islam is the world’s second largest religious body, below Christianity (Central Intelligence Agency). Coming about after the death of Muhammad, Sunni Islam is composed of Muslims who believe Abu Bakr to be the first Caliph (the ruler of the Islamic community). Sunnis consider themselves the people of unification, who affirm the true traditional Muslim views, as opposed to the Shia.
Shia Muslims reject Abu Bakr as the first Caliph, consider Ali to be the first and Abu Bakr the fourth. The word Shia means follower, intended to represent the sect of Muslims who are the followers of Ali (also known as the Shi’ites). The Shia make up the second largest denomination of Islam. 13% of the Syrian population identify under other Muslim denominations, mostly Alawite and Druze, both of which are smaller sects of Shia Islam (Central Intelligence Agency).
10% of the Syrian population is Christian, most of which are Greek Orthodox. The majority of the Christians in Syria reside in urban cities such as Aleppo, Damascus, Hamah and Latakia. 3% of the Syrian population is Jewish, residing mostly in Aleppo and Damascus (Central Intelligence Agency).
Politically, there are seven major parties dividing Syria: the National Progressive Front (including the Arab Socialist Renaissance [Ba’th] Party), the Socialist Unionist Democratic Party, the Syrian Arab Socialist Union, the Syrian Communist Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and the Unionist Socialist Party.
In viewing the full picture, the conflict in Syria is multifaceted and always will be, it is impossible to comprehend the millions of forces and ideas that clash during any war. A war cannot be viewed with only a lens of strict sectarian analysis, or strictly the examination of political intentions, rather, political analysts must examine the situation on all fronts.
The foundation of the Syrian civil war is accredited to the long lasting political tensions of dictatorship, government corruption, and human rights abuses on behalf of the Arab Spring that have provoked civilian response. Hafez Al-Assad, father of current president Bashar al-Assad, was the prime minister of Syria from 1970-1971 and the President of Syria from 1971-2000. Hafez al-Assad participated in the Syrian March Revolution in 1963, using military force to bring the Ba’th Party to power. The new leadership appointed Assad as Commander of the Syrian Air Force. In a second coup, Assad assisted in removing traditional leaders of the party and brought in a radical military faction lead by Salah Jadid in 1966. Assad was appointed defense minister, later seizing power from Jadid and appointing himself leader of Syria with the influence of one-man rule in 1970. Hafez al-Assad grew old and ill, and groomed his son, Bashar al-Assad to be his successor, Bashar al-Assad came into power after his father’s death in 2000 (Central Intelligence Agency).
Around the year 2010, Syrians became motivated by the the Arab Spring, at which point Syrians began to speak out against their government and organize; citizens were taken as political prisoners and became victims of aggressive censorship on the part of the Assad Regime. In March 2011, the people of Syria begin to protest in Damascus and other major cities, displaying a strong message against the Presidency of Bashar Al-Assad. In April, the Syrian government under-rule of the Assad regime announced conciliatory measures made in attempt to settle the social unrest: the release of dozens of political prisoners, and the lifting of a 48-year-old state of emergency. Despite Assad’s efforts, protests grew violent. By the end of April, Syria faced an asymmetrical nationwide armed civilian rebellion met by government military forces (BBC). This marked the transition from a civilian protest, to a nationwide civil war.
In May 2011 Syrian army tanks were sent to Deraa, Banyas, and the homes and suburbs of Damascus. This action is considered an effort to crush anti-regime protests. As a result, the United States and the European Union tightened sanctions against the Assad Regime (BBC). The Assad regime labeled the civilian forces as “rebels” and “terrorists” during the progression of militant intensity.
In June 2011, the Assad Regime released a claim that 120 members of Syrian security forces were killed by “armed gangs” in the town of Jisr al-Shughour. In response, Syrian government troops besieged the town and more than 10,000 people fled as refugees to Turkey (BBC). President Assad then pledged to start a “national dialogue” on reforming the government of Syria. The global community became directly involved with the Syrian civilian crisis as The International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear watchdog reported Syria to the UN Security Council over an alleged covert nuclear reactor program. The findings of a UN investigation reveal that the structure housing the alleged reactor had been entirely destroyed in an Israeli air raid in 2007 (United Nations).
In July 2011, President Assad removes the governor of Hama from power after a large demonstration in the Northern Province. Assad continued to send troops to the city in effort to restore governmental order, with the cost of hundreds of lives. Opposition activists met in Istanbul to form a unified opposition to the Syrian government (CBC News).
International tensions rose in October 2011 as Russia and China veto a UN resolution condemning Syria. In November 2011 the Arab league votes to suspend Syria on the grounds that they failed to comply with the Arab Peace Plan, committing violent crimes against humanity. The Arab League moved to impose military sanctions on the region. The Syrian Government then launched attacks on the foreign embassies of the Arab League. In December, the Syrian government allowed official observers from the Arab League into Syria, they did not stay as long as intended because of the brutal violence in the region rendering it unsafe (BBC).
In February of 2012, Russia and China blocked a UN Security Council draft resolution on Syria. In March, the UN Security Council drafted a non-binding peace plan sponsored by Syrian Envoy Kofi Annan. China and Russia agree to support the plan after a tougher draft was modified, but the UN statement fell short of a formal resolution (BBC). Syrian opposition and military violence continued into the spring and summer of 2012.
In May, the Security Council discussed the Syrian government’s continued use of heavy weaponry and military killings of more than one hundred civilians in Houla. The delegation of France, the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada and Australia expelled senior Syrian diplomats in protest of continued gruesome violence on the part of the Syrian government forces (CBC News).
In June 2012, the Geneva I Conference on Syria was held on the 30th. (Talks being initiated by UN Syrian peace envoy Kofi Annan.) The conference was attended by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, a representative of China, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, and Kofi Annan. In the discourse of the talks, Kofi Anaan of Syria stated that there was need for a “transitional government body with full executive powers.” William Hague of Britain insisted that all five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the US, Russia, China, France and the UK, support Mr. Annan’s efforts. Clinton suggests Syrian President Assad could (in such transitional government) not remain in power (Businessweek). This statement received an immediate response in the negative by Lavrov of Russia; tensions between Russia and the US became a complicating factor of the peace talks in Geneva.
In August 2012, a US supported UN General Assembly resolution demanded that President Assad resign. President Obama warned that the use of chemical weapons would tilt the US towards intervention. Obama, on August 20th in a statement released by the White House Press Corps, claimed: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us if we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized” (Obama). Suspicions regarding Syrian Government usage of chemical weapons was prominent throughout the Syrian civil war. The use of chemical weapons violates the UN agreement of Geneva Protocol, which prohibits the use of chemical weapons in warfare. Geneva protocol entered into force on 8 February 1928. On the 7th of September in the year 2000, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) prohibited possession of Chemical Weapons (United Nations).
In October 2012, Syrian tensions with Turkey rose when a Syrian mortar fire on a Turkish border town killed five Turkish civilians. Turkey returned fire on the ground, then intercepted a Syrian plane allegedly carrying arms from Russia; both countries banned the other’s planes from their air-space (CBC News). In November, more fighting on the Syrian borders lead to additional cross-border conflict. After several months of occasional firing from Syrian military forces in the Golan Heights, the Israeli military fire on Syrian artillery units. This was the first exchange of fire between Israel and Syria since the Yom Kippur War of 1973 (BBC).
In December, a major step of political position-taking indicates that the Syrian civil war is a global affair. The US joined forces with Britain, France, Turkey and Gulf states in formal recognition of Syria’s opposition National Coalition as “the legitimate representative” of the Syrian people,, as opposed to recognition of the Assad regime (BBC). The reasoning behind this action shows a support for the civilian rebellions of Syria, which make up an overwhelming majority of the Syrian population. This formal recognition shows a clear international disdain towards the Assad Regime.
The Syrian civil war was analyzed by the United Nations in late 2012, the UN report described the conflict to be, “overtly sectarian in nature” because of the Alawite government of Syria and Shia-identified groups fighting largely against Sunni-dominated rebel groups “(United Nations).
In January 2013, international tensions continued to rise. The Syrian executive government accused Israeli jets of attacking a military research center near the Syrian capital city of Damascus. Syria denies the regional news reports that Lorries carrying weapons bound for Lebanon were hit (BBC). This denial of carrying weapons bound for Lebanon is speculated to be a cover-up on part of the Syrian government. Unverified reports claim Israel had targeted an Iranian commander charged with moving weapons of mass destruction to Lebanon.
Sympathy for civilian victims of violence in Syria grew in the international community; by the end of January 2013 international donors pledge more than $1.5 billion to help civilians affected by the conflict in Syria (BBC). In March 2013, Syrian militia warplanes bombed the city of Raqqa after rebels seized control of the city. Also in March, US and Britain pledged non-military aid to rebels. Britain and France proposed a lift of European Union arms embargo. Rebel National Coalition elected US-educated technocrat Ghassan Hitto as interim “prime minister” (BBC). The election of a prime minister as the leader of the Rebel National Coalition is a huge step toward the creation of a transitional government in Syria. On a global political scale, this action is an aggravating factor for the Syrian government’s ally:Russia, a long standing political enemy of the US.
President Bashar Al-Assad spoke out for the first time since June 2012, on the 6th of January 2013. Assad stated that there is conflict in his country due to “enemies” outside of Syria who will “go to Hell” and be “taught a lesson” (Al-Assad). This demonstrated a clear and apparent disdain toward the political and military involvement of foreign actors. Assad ensured that he is still open to a political solution, insisting that failed attempts at a solution do”not mean” that the Assad regime is not interested in a political solution” (Al-Assad). Despite a major lack of cooperation and bashing of international efforts of peace, Assad stated that he is willing to work with other nations in order to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict. With actions contradicting his official statements, Assad sent an unclear message to the international community.
Regarding strictly the internal state of Syria, Assad said: “it is about doing something that is changing; to change the society, and we have to keep up with this change, as a state and as institutions. You have to upgrade yourself with the upgrading of the society. There must be something to have this balance” (Al-Assad). The perspective of President Assad is vital in understanding the actions of the Assad regime. The civil war is seen by many as a revolutionary war of conflicting ideas, however the simple explanation of the war on behalf of Assad does not account for the violent actions of the Syrian government and the violation of international treaties.
Assad believes the state of Syria is in a political, social, and ideological transition, but he is very vague in his explanations,
“It [the reform in Syria] is something new, but I would not call it a ‘new era’ because it is not a new era but it is something new that will change many things, at least in the way we think as governments and as officials regarding our people. This is the most important point, and the other thing that is going to change is the way the West and the great powers will look at our region and the way they will look at our states and our officials” (Al-Assad).
There is an obvious disconnect between the civilians and the government, the polarization of the two may lead to a split of the region into two independently governed bodies, yet, it is still unclear as to what will be the outcome of this so-called transitional period.
Assad was asked to address the role of the West in the Syrian civil war:
“From the outside, what is the role of the West? It’s now been twenty years since we started the peace process in 1991. What have we achieved? The simple way to answer this question is to say is it better or worse? We can for example say that it is five percent better than before we started the peace process. I can tell you frankly that it is much worse. That is why you have more desperation. This is the end result. If you talk about the approach, I always talk about taking the issue into a vicious cycle of desperation especially when you talk about peace. I am talking now about peace. You have other factors: you have negotiations, and then exaggerated hopes followed by failure, and then comes another hope and another failure. So, with time the diagram will be going down, and that is what has been happening: a little bit up and more down. This is one example about peace” (Al-Assad).
Bashar Al-Assad does not seem optimistic about the future of peace in Syria. The issue is highly internal and extremely complicated in the opinion of Assad, external factors complicate the issue further.
Bashar Al-Assad fully explained his disagreements with the intervention of other nations:
“This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance. So people do not only live on interests; they also live on beliefs, especially in very ideological areas. Unless you understand the ideological aspect of the region, you cannot understand what is happening” (Al-Assad).
Assad was then asked, “do you think that the West or the US will have less influence or less inability to dictate because of these changes?” he answered:
“This is the first time to hear the word ‘dictate’ from the West because we are called ‘dictators,’ and a ‘dictator’ should dictate. The answer is yes, because you dictate through officials, through governments, but you cannot dictate through the people. And as long as the people have a major say in the future, then you are going to have the minor say in the United States, and not only in the United States but anyone who wants to influence the region from the outside” (Al-Assad).
The lack of organization of the Syrian opposition party at this time is seen as a clear weakness for United States influence in Syria in the opinion of Assad. This is probably why he sees himself and the Syrian government maintaining power over the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.
A second round of Peace talks took place in mid-February 2013. John Kerry, US Secretary of State, attended the Geneva II Middle East Peace Talks on Syria, reports: “We have seen a refusal to engage on the part of the regime,” Brahimi agrees with the US delegation that Assad’s envoys refused to discuss a transitional government. Kerry continued to speak out, on February 16th: “Assad regime’s obstruction has made progress even tougher.” Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, accused the US today of trying to create a “very negative climate for dialogue in Geneva,” the Associated Press reports (Businessweek).
Clearly, the growing US-Syrian tensions within the Peace talks create stagnation. The Assad regime arrested family members of the Syrian Opposition Coalition delegation to the Geneva II peace talks on the grounds that the designated delegates were “terrorists.” President John Kerry and the Obama administration urged the release of the delegates, and offered full protection to all delegates that attend future Peace Talks. In regard to the lack of cooperation on part of the Assad regime, Kerry stated: “In the end, they will bear responsibility if the regime continues with its intransigence in the talks and its brutal tactics on the ground” (Businessweek).
The Assad regime continued to brutalize the Syrian civilians through aerial bombardment and ground attacks that injure and kill civilians by the thousands. The political and arbitrary imprisonment, systematic torture and deaths of tens of thousands of people without access to due process, are but a few of the regime’s documented human rights violations. John Kerry continued intense dialogues directed at the delegation of the Syrian government in diplomatic efforts, and in clear favor of the Syrian National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary Opposition Forces: “The opposition delegation has regularly demonstrated that they are willing to engage constructively in the interests of all the Syrian people. In sharp contrast, we have seen a refusal to engage on the part of the regime” (Businessweek).
In April 2013, Britain and the United States demanded an investigation into the usage of chemical weapons in Syria (BBC). The UN received 16 different complaints on the use of Chemical weapons in Syria, 7 have been investigated, 9 have been dropped for lack of sufficient or credible information, in 4 cases UN inspectors confirmed the use of Sarin gas, a chemical substance banned by the OPCW and Geneva Protocol (UNODA). The breach of international agreements via use of chemical weapons is a clear reason for the intervention of any member-state of the United Nations, or a reason for the United Nations to engage in collective action.
In May 2013 Syria and Israel continued to exchange fire at the Golan Heights. EU leaders then agreed not to renew the bloc’s arms embargo on Syria (BBC). This agreement was a step toward potentially freeing EU countries to arm the rebels in Syria and provide military aid to the Rebel National Coalition. In 2013, Hezbollah, the political party: party of Allah. based in Lebanon, associated with Shi’ite groups, entered the war in support of the Syrian army. The rebel groups have received support from Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States.
In July, the Syrian government is in control of 30-40% of the country’s territory and 60% of the Syrian population (CBC News). July proved to be an intense month politically for the rebel groups in the Syrian Civil war, facing a leadership overhaul. Saudi-supported Ahmed Jarba replaces interim leader George Sabra of the main opposition National Coalition, defeating a Qatar-supported rival. The interim Prime Minister, Ghassan Hitto, quit the position due to an inability to form a government in the rebel-held territory (BBC). There is a great success on part of the rebels, after two months of successful government offensives, the rebels claim to have captured Khan Al-Assal, who was the last major government leader of the last government-controlled town in the West of the Aleppo Province (BBC).
With the Syrian Civil War’s extremely violent history and political complexity up to this point, August 2013 marks a time of unprecedented violence on behalf of the Syrian government forces. This serves to be the major breaking point in the international relations of the Syrian conflict. On August 21st several opposition-controlled or disputed areas of the Ghouta suburbs of the Markaz Rif Dimashq district around Damascus were struck by rockets containing sarin gas. There are estimates of 281-1,729 fatalities and at least 3,600 injuries are the result of this attack. The UN requested access to sites in Ghouta the day after the attack, but Syrian government forces continued to bomb the area (UNODA).
On August 23rd, government and rebel forces clashed in Ghouta, the Syrian military continued to shell Ghouta. The UN called for a ceasefire to allow inspectors to visit the Ghouta sites and the Syrian government granted the UN’s request on the 25th of August, four days after the attack. UN affiliated inspectors worked from the 26th to 31st August, investigating sites of the attack. The UN reports confirmed the use of Sarin gas. The UN report of 2014 found that ‘the evidence available concerning the nature, quality and quantity of the agents used on 21 August indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military, as well as the expertise and equipment necessary’ and that the chemical agents used in the Khan al-Assal chemical attack ‘bore the same unique hallmarks’ as those on the chemical weapons that were used in Al-Ghouta attack (UNODA). Based on the UN reports, it is more than likely that Syrian government is responsible for using chemical weapons to attack civilians, breaching international agreements, multiple times after continuous warnings and threats from other nations.
The Syrian civilians place the blame on the Assad Regime for the Ghouta attack. The National Intelligence agencies of Western and Arab world’s surrounding Countries, the Arab League, European Union, the US, the UK and France all report the Assad Regime to be at fault for the Ghouta chemical weapons attack. Russia and the Assad Regime report the attack to be the fault of the rebel forces (Dickenson) (Reuters) (Putin). On September 9th, the United States Secretary of State, John Kerry made a rhetorical suggestion that Syria turn over all of its chemical weapons within a week. US and France headed a coalition of countries on the verge of carrying out air strikes in Syria in response to the August 21, 2013 attacks (CBNC World).
The United States, wishing the Assad regime to step out of power and allow for The National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces to build a democratic society in Syria, used the threat of air strikes to create fear and anxiety in Syria in an attempt to demonstrate accountability.Russia initiated negotiations with Syria and the United States on the matter. The negotiations lead to a groundbreaking agreement just five days later on September 14th, 2013. The nations agreed on a “Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons,” which is an agreement for the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles by mid-2014 (Reuters).
On September 27th the Executive Council of the OPCW adopted, “Destruction of Syrian Chemical Weapons,” which is a detailed implementation plan based on the U.S./Russian agreement. On September 27th, the UN Security Council also unanimously passed United Nations Security Council Resolution 2118, incorporating the OPCW Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons during the Syrian civil war and making it binding to Syria. The destruction of Syria’s declared chemical weapons and production equipment was successfully completed by the October 31st deadline (OPCW).
President Barack Obama stated that the use of chemical weapons would clearly warrant intervention, in August 2012. A year later, chemical weapons are confirmed to have been used by the Assad Regime, and the United States Secretary of State John Kerry makes a clear request to the Syrian government that the weapons be handed over within a week. Then, the US, in coalition with France and other supporting countries threatened to conduct air strikes against the Syrian forces. This threat served as a catalyst for Russia’s initiation of negotiations regarding a peaceful agreement, considered one of the first Russia-US accounts of cooperation in decades. Ultimately, the chemical weapons within Syria were removed within the agreed time.
Whether or not the conflict in Syria is a political uprising and a fight for democracy, or a sectarian conflict with religious ideological incentives, the war is being fought by a government force that demonstrates little integrity for human life. International actors put fourth strong and strategic messages and actions throughout the timeline of events in the Syrian Civil war, and ultimately, efforts of foreign embassies have taken steps toward protecting of the sanctity of human life through the enforcement of international law.
Internally, the two sides can be viewed through many different perspectives: the rebel civilians and the Syrian government, the Sunni Muslims and the Alawite Shi’ite government forces, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Force and the Assad Regime, the Arab Spring protesters and the rule of many Middle Eastern governments, the Ba’th party and the opposition. Cross-border consequences of the Syrian Civil war make the already multifaceted internal conflict, a threat to regional security. Countries directly affected being Turkey and Israel.
External factors provide support for either side; Russia, being in support of the regime, and the US being in support of the rebels. The additional ideologies of the intervening nations, allies of Russia and the US, the additional resources of intelligence and arms, and the alternative motives of parties involved turned a civil war into an international conflict. It is possible that the globalization of civilization and international politics have progressed to the point that internal conflict does not exist without foreign influence.
At the cost of many lives, the near destruction of a nation, and regional turmoil, a game of geopolitical chess continues. As Zbigniew Brzezinski stated, “To resolve conflicts, excessive ambitions and one’s own fears and aspirations must be sacrificed” (Brzezinski). The intervention in the Syrian civil war has been an example of diplomatic successes and failures. The Syrian civil war is a costly lesson in the never-ending study of international politics.
As the ongoing crisis in Syria develops, international, regional, and internal efforts of peace will continue for the sake of the Syrian people and all other parties affected. The UN will continue to enforce international law in Syria, serve as means to organize peace talks and negotiations. The civil war in Syria is now global and world of globalized politics is a world of international accountability.
Despite all of the information presented, it must also be recognized that there is much more to know about the Syrian Civil war than is readily discoverable. When it comes to war, there will always be an infinite amount of influential detail that those interested do not have immediate access to. What political analysts know for certain, is that there are people dying, being injured, and families are being torn apart and taking refuge. Regardless of the motives behind the fighting, the international political community must unite in order to achieve peace in order to protect human rights and preserve human life.
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