photo credit: cnn.com
On March 18th 2011 The New York Times ran an article about a protest that occurred three days earlier in Dara’a, a city in southern Syria. This country, the author purported, was one in which “antigovernment protests are virtually unknown.” Most reporters at this time understood the situation in a similar light: The Syrian government under the al-Assad family was never friendly to protest, their current president Bashar al-Assad forthrightly stating, “Run your lives privately and enrich yourselves as you wish, but do not challenge my government.” He did not have this wish fulfilled.
The foundations for the Syrian Civil War were laid on that day in Dara’a, as the Syrian Police opened fire on the protesters, killing six. But as the anti-government movement in Syria took a completely different form from the Arab Spring in other parts of the Middle East, out of these protests emerged a complicated and bloody civil war.
It is difficult to understand all of the nuances of this conflict, especially because the situation on the ground changes frequently. The sheer number of factions, foreign interventions, rebel groups, and militias makes for a mire of political, religious, and ethnic tensions. Here on the Collie, we will attempt to demystify this interconnected sociopolitical web in an attempt to elucidate the key factors that contribute toward understanding the current crisis in Syria.
Colonial interests after World War I shaped Syria’s political and ideological reality.
Just before World War I, much of Middle East was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. This huge empire was home to diverse peoples—In the land that is now Syria, these groups included “Orthodox, Catholic, and other Christians; Alawis, Ismailis, and other sorts of Shia Muslims; and Yazidis, Kurds, Jews, and Druze, all alongside a Sunni Muslim majority.” Though one might expect these groups to be at odds, during the time of the Ottoman Empire these groups were relatively peaceful compared to today. Each lived in its own enclave, spoke its own language, held to its own customs, and more or less self-governed on a local level.
However, the Ottoman Empire sided with the Central Powers (Italy, Germany, Austro-Hungary) during World War I and was defeated. This left the Entente powers, particularly France and the UK, with the problem of dividing the now available Middle East. France and England both had territorial interests in that area and as such acquired large pieces of land across Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Kuwait, many of which fell into areas termed as British or French mandates.
Although in theory the Arabs settled in Damascus were to be in control of their land, the French had other ideas. In 1920, they staged a regime-change in Damascus and in doing so made Syria a “de facto colony of France.”
The French government’s objective in Syria was simply to institute a more Europeanized society. They attempted to supplant Arabic language with French, “to make French customs and law the exemplar, to promote Catholicism as a means to undercut Islam, and to favor the minorities as a means to control the Muslim majority.”
This was, of course, a problem for the Sunni Muslim majority in Syria: Why, after all, should the Christians run Syria if the majority of the population was Muslim? In the end, Syria turned to violence. As William Polk explains in his article for The Atlantic, “while they did not create dissention among the religious and ethnic communities, the French certainly magnified it.”
In 1946, the French finally withdrew their troops from Syria, ending the violent era of French mandate. One year later, the Ba’ath party, “an Arab nationalist party formed by Salah al-Din al-Bitar and Michel Aflaq” held its first congress
The French imperial mandate certainly left its mark on modern Syria. Emerging from this violent and misguided colonial scheme is an understandable distrust of foreign powers active in Syria. Additionally, the end of French Rule left the area with a new political organization, the state. Syrians of the time were not at all familiar with the concept of national organization—as Polk puts it, “If the grandfathers or great grandfathers of people alive today were asked about what entity they belonged to, they would probably have named the city or village where they paid their taxes.”
As French soldiers withdrew from the country, a multiethnic and multi-religious Syria faced the perplexing task of how to unify such disparate groups under one nation: that is, in such a diverse country, what would it mean to be Syrian?
The al-Assad regime arose in direct response to a postcolonial Syrian landscape.
After the French withdrawal from Syria, the Ba’ath Party held its first congress. Founded by Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar, one Christian and the other Sunni, the party was meant to be secular, socialist, and modern, and also “defined by a culture of ‘Arabism’ overriding the traditional concepts of ethnicity.” One can easily see how this ideology appealed to a postcolonial Syria: The idea that the diverse social, religious, and ethnic landscape could be politically unified was attractive to many.
However, the Ba’ath party was not alone in its vision for a new Syria as it was starkly opposed by the Muslim Brotherhood, another wing of Syrian nationalism. The main difference between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Ba’ath party lay in their ideas about minorities: while the Ba’ath party advocated for “overriding the traditional concepts of ethnicity,” the Muslim Brotherhood believed that “minorities had no place” in a Syrian Nation.
Again, one can understand why the Muslim Brotherhood was wary of minorities within the Syrian Nation. Having just emerged from French colonial rule, many Sunni Muslims felt disenfranchised. With the French out of the picture, it seemed an ideal opportunity to create a Syrian nation where the Sunnis, and not a minority religion, were in control of their own lands.
However, this Sunni nationalist climate created a difficult situation for members of minority communities. Enter Hafez al-Assad, pictured above. His last name is familiar to most readers as he is the father of current president Bashar al-Assad. Hafez al-Assad was not fond of the Muslim Brotherhood for a variety of reasons. Perhaps his being stabbed by a Muslim Brother contributed in part to his animosity toward them, but his chief objection lay with his religious affiliation. Al-Assad was an Alawi Muslim, one of the minorities the Brotherhood believed had no place in Syria.
Al-Assad sought power initially through the military, but soon decided that political forays would be more profitable than military endeavors. As such, he predictably turned to the Ba’ath Party, where his religion would not be an obstacle to political success. Al-Assad finally got elected to the presidency by a plebiscite in 1971.
Hafez al-Assad tenure as Syria’s president was marked by his distrust of foreign intervention against his government, a fear that was not unfounded. The United States government took an explicitly anti-Assad position and conducted covert operations against his regime. As such, when the Iran-Iraq War commenced, al-Assad sided with Iran against US-backed Iraq. This cemented his position as an enemy of the United States, with the Bush administration placing Syria within the “Beyond the Axis of Evil” categorization.
Even today, colonialism’s effects are still prominent in Syrian affairs. Regarding the current civil war, Bashar al-Assad (Hafez’s son) stated that “Syria has been able to overcome the pressures and threats it has faced for years and is able to get out of this crisis thanks to the strength of its people and commitment to unity and independence.” One can easily see in Bashar al-Assad’s manner of speech a tendency to reject foreign influence in Syria, and instead to preserve the country’s autonomy.
This was further made clear by al-Assad’s response to the Paris bombings, when he argued that France needed to “change policies… that have contributed to the spread of terrorism.” These statements both clearly evidence Bashar al-Assad’s sensibility, likely influenced in part by his father’s opinions about foreign intervention: Outside powers have meddled in Middle Eastern affairs for too long, and Syria would be better off if left to its own devices.
Climactic factors exacerbated Syria’s political tension.
Let us jump forward to 2006, a year in which Syria’s economic situation took a turn for the worse. It is necessary to understand that Syria is not a very large country at all, and even less large is the amount of arable land within the country. This naturally means that farmers must live off of very small tracts of land. In 2006, agriculture in Syria took a dire hit from a drought that would last until 2011. During this period of time, “at least 800,000 farmers” lost “their entire livelihood and about 200,000 simply abandoned their land.”
This loss of arable land precipitated a large-scale movement of people flooding into Syria’s cities, leaving the streets overcrowded with now destitute farmers, seeking help from a government that was offering them no aid. To observers of this crisis at the time, Syria looked like a time bomb. The senior UN Food and Agriculture Representative in Syria “turned to the USAID program for help. Terming the situation a ‘perfect storm,’ in November 2008 he warned that Syria faced ‘Social destruction,’” a full three years before the first revolts. USAID determined that their resources would not be sent to Syria.
The assembly in Dara’a resulted directly from this economic crisis, as former farmers assembled to protest the government’s refusal to combat the worsening economic situation within the country. However, Bashar al-Assad did not see the protests in this light, treating them rather as early evidence of a violent and large-scale incursion.
The many groups fighting Syria’s Civil War have myriad political, religious, and ethnic differences. No two groups are fighting for the same objective.
Mapping Syria today has proven to be a perplexing challenge, what with the extraordinary number of competing rebel groups, government militias and armies, and foreign interventions. Figuring out who is fighting for what is not easy.
The main Syrian rebel movement today is broadly referred to as the Free Syria Army, or the FSA, but as Aron Lund notes, “The FSA has always been more of a brand name than an actual organization.” Headed nominally by Brigadier General Salim Idris, the FSA or SMC (Supreme Military Council) is the primary US-backed group in Syria, which essentially means that any group who wants to tap into US resources includes itself under the FSA umbrella.
The FSA, along with Ahrar al-Sham and the Syrian Islamic Front (other rebel groups) are similar insofar as they are Sunni Muslim groups. While such groups certainly oppose the al-Assad regime due to its record of violent oppression, it is also true that some of the fighting must be influenced by the age-old antipathy between the Alawi and Sunni Muslims.
Also competing within the country are groups that the US has formally classed as terrorist organizations, namely Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Both of these groups are “hardline” Salafi-jihadi groups, and certainly carry some hatred for the many religious minorities living in Syria.
The al-Assad regime in large part relies on the military strength of its army, but increasingly the regime seeks assistance from groups known as Shabiha, or pro-Assad militia groups consisting of “clients of the intelligence services, Ba’athist true believers, old paramilitary groups created in the early decades of Ba’ath Party rule, and armed gangs in thrall to individual members of the ruling family.”
The Kurds of Rojava present somewhat of a different story: Having long sought autonomy in the region, Syrian Kurds operating under the PPK (Popular Protection Units) have seized the opportunity presented by the war to secure and protect their land in North Syria. They have “occasionally defended against regime incursions, but more often clashed with Arab rebels, particularly Islamist factions.” While the Kurds have no love for the al-Assad regime, their unwillingness to openly attack Assad has led some Arab rebel groups to class them as a “Kurdish Shabiha.”
Fotini Christia made the point that “The Sunni-versus-Alawite cleavage… is overly simplistic as it ignores ethnic distinctions among the different Sunni groups in Syria and it fails to account for religious minorities such as the Christians and the Armenians.” Yet even this fails to account entirely for the bloodshed within the country, as is evident by the frequency of battles between supposedly allied rebel groups.
Perhaps this has to do with the parochial organization of the rebel groups in Syria, seeing as “The revolt broke out across the country in a highly localized way, with little centralized leadership or institutional cohesion.” Without any broad organization between 1,200 rebel groups, it is unsurprising that each group fears “that their rivals within the opposition will seize the fruits of victory.”
External interventions have only worsened Syria’s civil war.
As if the profusion of rebel groups in Syria wasn’t enough to give you a headache, the influence of foreign interventions in Syria has only made the situation much more incomprehensible. Americans are largely aware that both the United States and Russia have intervened in the civil war, but perhaps it’s unclear why.
The common narrative regarding US intervention in Syria arose out of the allegation that the al-Assad regime utilized illegal chemical weapons against its opposition. Indeed, “hundreds of people were killed in August 2013 after rockets filled with the nerve agent sarin were fired at several suburbs of Damascus.”
In 2014 Bashar al-Assad agreed to remove and destroy his stockpile of chemical weapons. This operation was supposedly carried out, only to be disproved later that year when the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons “found chlorine was used ‘systematically and repeatedly’ in deadly attacks” against the Syrian rebels.
Perhaps this was the United States government’s motivation behind intervention in Syria. However, as we have already noted, Bashar al-Assad and the US have been longtime enemies, and the United States likely has a vested security interest in seeing the anti-American al-Assad regime toppled.
The interests of the United States in Syria became far more controversial after the Russian government under Vladimir Putin intervened in Syria as well—on the other side of the conflict. This has given rise to what observers call a “proxy war:” That is, the US and Russia are to some degree using the Syrian war to fight their own conflict between themselves.
Religion, of course, is also a major cause of intervention in Syria. The Shia Hezbollah party of Lebanon and Shia Iran have intervened on behalf of the Shia Alawi al-Assad government, while the largely Sunni Gulf States have intervened on behalf of the Sunni rebels.
Despite all of these divisions, the fight against ISIL remains common across all groups. Though ISIL is Sunni, the rebel groups with funding from the United States must necessarily combat ISIL, while the Kurds and the al-Assad regime also attack this enemy. Despite the common opposition to ISIL’s encroachment, the organization has “capitalised on the chaos and taken control of large swathes of Syria.”
It must unfortunately be noted that no side of this conflict can be called the good, and no side the bad. That is, the US intervention on behalf of the rebel groups is not free from repercussions. The al-Assad regime incontrovertibly uses chemical weapons against civilians, and yet war atrocities are extant on all sides of the conflict. As William Polk notes, “Senior rebels have publicly threatened to carry out a genocide of the country’s main ethnic/religious minority, the Alawis.”
The battle lines in Syria right now are in constant flux, and military groups from all sides of the conflict too often target overcrowded urban centers. This has produced a staggering number of civilian casualties. It is also no wonder that in such a violent landscape, many Syrian families have chosen to flee the country as refugees and join the large numbers of people seeking asylum in the EU.
We are now going to follow that wing of the crisis in Syria, the mass migration of Syrians into southern Europe. But first, to discuss the potential outcomes of this war, the dreadful truth of the situation is that “Syria has among the worst possible configurations [for peace]: a highly fragmented opposition, many potential spoilers, and foreign actors intervening enough to keep the conflict raging but not enough to decisively end the war.”
Many political scientists have observed that modern civil wars tend to run for roughly 10 years and as such, they classify the Syrian Civil War as adolescent and therefore far away from resolution. I am hesitant to apply such generalized numbers to a unique conflict, but these theorists are correct about one thing: The war in Syria is far from over. Hopefully, though, from the above passage, you will be more equipped to read and understand the news as events develop in Syria.
Want to learn more about the refugee crisis in Europe? Follow this to the second part of this article.
 The New York Times. “In Syria, Crackdown After Protests.” March 18, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/19/world/middleeast/19syria.html?_r=0
 Polk, William R. “Understanding Syria: From Pre-Civil War to Post-Assad.” The Atlantic, December 10, 2013.http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/12/understanding-syria-from-pre-civil-war-to-post-assad/281989/
 Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Syrian Civil War.” 12-8-2015. http://www.britannica.com/event/Syrian-Civil-War
 Aljazeera. “Assad says Syria ‘able’ to get out of crisis.” 25 May 2012. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/05/2012524113941282101.html
 Lamloum, Imed. “Syria’s Assad blames France as Arab world condemns Paris attacks.” Yahoo News. https://www.yahoo.com/news/syrias-assad-blames-france-arab-world-condemns-paris-193922961.html?ref=gs
 Lund, Aron. “The Non-State Militant Landscape in Syria.” Combating Terrorism Center, August 27, 2013. https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/the-non-state-militant-landscape-in-syria
 Christia, Fotini. “What Can Civil War Scholars Tell Us About the Syrian Conflict?” From The Political Science of Syria’s War, December 18, 2013.
 Lynch, Marc. “The Political Science of Syria’s War.” Foreignpolicy.com. http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/12/19/the-political-science-of-syrias-war/
 Gilsinan, Kathy. “The Confused Person’s Guide to the Syrian Civil War.” The Atlantic. October 29, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/10/syrian-civil-war-guide-isis/410746/
 Lucy Rodgers, David Gritten, James Offer, and Patrick Asare. “Syria: The Story of the conflict.” The BBC. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26116868