(Note: This piece first appeared on May 1, 2017)
Five years old Omran Daqneesh sits clueless in an ambulance. He has just been pulled out of rubble along with his family. Omran looks into camera, self-consciously he tries to fix his hair matted with blood sticking to his forehead. His own blood. But that’s all he does. No cry. No talk. This little video clip reduced a CNN anchor to tears on live television. But that wasn’t for the first-time that human suffering in Syria had shaken us all.
Almost a year ago the body of three years old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. The family of the young boy was trying to reach the Greek island of Kos only 4 kilometers away. 16 people in an inflatable boat meant for eight. Within five minutes the boat capsized in the Mediterranean and Aylan’s lifeless body was soon found face down on a shore near Bodrum, Turkey. A Turkish photojournalist took the picture of the boy in that state. This heart-rending photograph also spread around the world in no time. Shock was on display everywhere. But nothing was done. Nothing probably could be done.
When a civil war destroys a country, it brings civilization crashing down into a heap of rubble, and human loss can seldom be quantified. Since the start of the war five hundred thousand Syrians have been killed and over 7.6 million have been displaced. Many fleeing their homeland have not just brought the heartbreak, the nightmares and the memories of broken dreams to foreign lands but also a destabilizing effect. Since the exodus began and Turkey initially accepted refugees, its economy has slowed down. In Europe their arrival has caused a backlash and given xenophobic far-right an opportunity to whip up support.
Terror groups like the so called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) also gained international attention not in Iraq but primarily in Syria. And given that there is no way to know for sure that no ISIS member smuggles himself disguised as a refugee, incidents of violence have been blamed on asylum seekers from Syria. It is a human catastrophe that doesn’t seem to stop.
And recently after Donald Trump decided to carry out punitive missile strikes in Syria following the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian government, the world has held its breath fearing the possibility of armed conflict between Russia and the United States. There is nothing ordinary about the Syrian conflict and nothing normal. It has the potential to single handedly transform our world into a dystopia. Let us study its origin, current dynamics and the best possible solution.
How It All Began
“Ejak el door, ya doctor” or “It’s your turn, Doctor”. The Syrian civil war began with this simple sentence spray painted on the external wall of a school by a group of teenage boys. It was meant to be a prank. But it went awry. Within no time, Bashar al-Assad’s secret police was upon them. They were arrested and tortured. The Arab spring in neighboring countries had already started shaking the moorings of authoritarian rule. The panic of Syrian dictator was palpable. But incarceration and torture of its kids, a bunch of 7th graders, for random pranks was too much for the people of Daraa, a city on the border of Jordan. And when the parents contacted the authorities they were told to forget their children. Around a month after the arrests, fearing for the children’s lives thousands poured out on the streets demanding their release. When police failed to quell the protest, special forces were flown in from Damascus. They opened fire on the protestors, killing two and injuring many. Next day the forces opened fire on the funeral procession killing a child. Protests only increased. When the authorities saw the unmanageable size of the pushback they released the arrested boys. But instead of calming the crowds, the battered condition of the released kids only added fuel to fire and the protests continued. When the army employed brute force the protests spread to other cities including Latakia, capital Damascus, Homs, Baniyas, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa. Thus, began the violent uprising.
As the violent protests and the crackdown continued some members of the armed forces defected and joined the protestors. Even before the uprising, every Syrian citizen was bound by law to go through an obligatory military duty. That too came handy during the start of the resistance. And as the clashes continued, the law and order vacuum was exploited by the external forces and many countries got involved.
Historical and Geographical Context
Syria is located in a very tumultuous region. It shares borders with Lebanon, Israel and the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, and Jordan to the south. According to a rough estimate its population is around 23 million. Around 90 percent of its population is Arab. Kurds, Armenians and others make the rest of the population. Unlike neighboring Iraq, its population is predominantly Sunni. Of its 87 percent Muslim population, 74 percent is Sunni, 13 percent Alawites, Ismailis and Twelver Shias. Rest of the population includes 10 percent Christians and 3 percent Druze, an ethno-religious esoteric group. Administratively Syria is divided into 14 governorates and 60 districts.
After its freedom from France in 1946, Syria remained a hotbed of political intrigue, coups, frail attempts to democratize, unstable governments and bloodshed. It was in 1963 that the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party finally managed to form a relatively stable government. Palace intrigues were to continue until 1970 but the party’s grip on power was not to waver.
Ba’ath Party which emerged as a pan nationalist Arab movement was only successful in Iraq and Syria. In Syria, an Alawite Shia Defence Minister Hafez al Assad finally managed to depose the sitting ruler and formed a government in November 1970 that was to continue until his death. After the 1963 coup the government had imposed a state of emergency in the country that would continue for almost 40 years curbing free speech, the peaceful right of assembly of more than five people and other rights that were taken for granted.
Under Hafez-al-Assad’s leadership Syria formed a military alliance with former Soviet Union. The USSR established the first and the only naval facility in the Mediterranean Sea at Tartus, Syria because of the strengthening relationship. This arrangement continued even after the demise of the communist bloc and modern day Russia inherited the base. In recent years the two states have agreed to convert it in to a permanent Russian base for its nuclear armed warships. Russia has waved off $9.8 billion Soviet era loan to the country. In addition to the above mentioned naval base, Russia now operates an air force base in Palmyra apart from two or more secret spy bases elsewhere.
Another key relationship worth mentioning here is that between Syria and Iraq. While Syria and Iraq shared common political platform, Saddam Hussein after assuming power in 1979 accused Syrian government of plotting against him. This almost immediately ensured continued hostility between the two countries. A noteworthy fact is that while Iraqi population is predominantly Shia, Saddam was a Sunni and it was other way round in Syria where majority is Sunni but its longest serving ruler Assad senior belonged to minority Alawite Shia population.
After the Iranian revolution’s success in 1979 the relations between Iran and Syria grew rapidly. With Assad senior, Iran got a crucial ally in a region dominated by an ocean of Sunni regimes. The relationship was also beneficial to Tehran because it gained a space to arm and train the Shia Hezbollah militia against Israel. In the Iran-Iraq war, Syria supported Iran. Despite such close relations between the two countries Hafez al Assad never visited Iran during Ayatollah Khomeini’s life for the simple reason that the late Ayatollah didn’t consider him a Muslim.
The senior Assad died in 2000 and his reluctant second son Dr. Bashar al-Assad, an ophthalmologist by profession, inherited the throne. After the demise of the Soviet Union his father and later he himself had tried to open and liberalize the economy which led to the rise of a rich urban class like an island in the sea of poverty. Between 2006 and 2011 the country endured a devastating drought in which 75 percent of the country’s farms and 85 percent of its livestock perished forcing around 1.5 million citizens to migrate to urban centers like Damascus and Homs.
The economic disparity increased dramatically under the son and so did the sense of deprivation. It was after the spread of unrest that Dr. Assad decided to lift the state of emergency and tried to replace it with self-serving counter terrorism laws. But it was too late by then and the disaffected masses continued the revolt.
The Current Field of Play
A detailed list of the groups fighting in Syria will most likely crowd out all discussion on these pages. To an estimate by the end of 2013 there were around one thousand-armed opposition groups in Syria and that was before the stunning emergence of the ISIS. But today the warring forces can be divided into four broader groups. 1) ISIS, 2) Syrian government and pro-Assad militias, 3) opposition groups, and 4) soldiers of Rojava, or the Kurdish dominated regions.
By 2014 ISIS controlled one third of the Syrian territory. Its fortunes have dwindled since then but it remains a potent force in the country. This offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq seeks to erase the border between Iraq and Syria and form a new state. It has been mostly successful in undermining the border and creating an environment where its presence in Syria boosts its positions in Iraq. There is a broad consensus among most domestic and foreign forces in the country that it poses the biggest threat to the region and the entire world. However, the hatred towards Assad’s regime among the major opposition forces ensures that the front against ISIS remains divided and fragmented. Russian forces in Syria have claimed to go after ISIS. However, they have often been accused of targeting anti Assad forces in Syria in the garb of fighting ISIS.
Assad’s forces have seen a sharp decline since the start of the civil war. Before the outbreak of war they boasted of having around 220,000 soldiers. However, since then they have declined to around 25 thousand mainly due to deaths and defections. In 2013, the western allies learned that Assad regime had used chemical weapons against his own citizens. That was the time when the United States came the closest to sending its troops to Syria. Yet, primarily because of Russia’s aggressive advocacy and posturing and the diminishing appetite for war among Americans, President Obama stopped short of formally joining the Syrian conflict. Russia also worked out a deal with the Syrian government which resulted in the regime voluntarily surrendering its chemical stockpile to the international agency. At that time, the United States was satisfied with the arrangement and believed that all facilities had been dismantled. However, recent developments have contradicted that assertion and the West now believes that Assad still retains chemical weapons capacity.
Apart from Assad’s own forces, pro-government militias include Hezbollah which initially sent military advisors and later brought in its elite military units. The Lebanese Shia militia initially proved very useful to the Assad regime. However, since then it has endured numerous military reverses and attracted Israeli airstrikes. Other militias include foreign Shia groups.
Among foreign forces supporting Assad, Iran has been of critical importance. It has sustained Syrian government’s economy despite facing sanctions at home and has provided the regime with the needed military hardware. Apart from that it initially sent roughly 2000 members of its elite al Quds force. But till today the true extent of its military involvement is unknown and often underreported.
Russia’s support has been vital to the regime’s survival because it provided the crucial air cover. Even as the U.S. missile attack destroyed a substantial portion of the regime’s airpower, Russia has vowed to rebuild it.
The Syrian opposition groups mainly include secular Sunni forces and nationalist Jihadis. The most significant among them is the Free Syrian Army. It is a willy-nilly coalition of military defectors, small militias and ragtag groups. Despite its ambitious name it doesn’t have a centralized command. It has suffered recently at the hands of Assad’s army.
Another important group is Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra or The Nusra Front). It originated as the local wing of Al Qaeda. The group is known for its brutal tactics mirroring methods used by the ISIS. Qatar and other Arab countries have made hectic efforts to convince its leadership to sever ties with Al Qaeda so that they can aid and arm it. Last year the efforts paid off and the group announced its separation from Al Qaeda and rebranded itself.
When a civil war destroys a country, it brings civilization crashing down into a heap of rubble, and human loss can seldom be quantified. Since the start of the war five hundred thousand Syrians have been killed and over 7.6 million have been displaced. Many fleeing their homeland have not just brought the heartbreak, the nightmares and the memories of broken dreams to foreign lands but also a destabilizing effect.
Various other nationalist religious militias have also been chipping in to challenge the country’s leadership. But all above mentioned opposition groups have been on the retreat since the fall of Aleppo late last year. Assad’s forces now have control over five major cities and they have consolidated power there.
The fourth major player in the Syrian mix is Rojava or the Kurdish majority districts bordering Turkey. The YPG or the People’s Protection Units are its militia arm. The Kurdish groups have mainly been fighting ISIS and since the withdrawal of Assad forces from the Kurdish dominated north have been more tolerant of the central government. Occasionally they have come in direct conflict with pro-Assad militias. However, their vociferous pushback against ISIS onslaught has earned them support from the United States as well whose military advisors are embedded with some of the units. But the U.S. support has irked neighboring Turkey and ensured its involvement in the conflict. Since the Kurdish want to use their fellow Kurds in neighboring countries this has not gone down well with the other Arab countries either which have Kurdish populations to worry about.
In short, Syrian stalemate resulting from the foreign and local royal rumble threatens to destabilize the entire region and can even lead to a great power conflict affecting the entire world. It is incumbent upon all stakeholders to find a lasting solution.
The Way Forward
All sides accept that the biggest threat in Syria facing the world is the presence of ISIS. However, don’t confuse it with a consensus that could lead to a joint effort. The foreign forces will not unite until something is done about Assad’s rule. Given that the high ranks of the Syrian army are dominated by the minority Alawites even Assad’s success would mean continued instability in the country. There are reports that though they do not acknowledge it publicly Assad’s two main boosters, Iran and Russia are also growing wary of his shenanigans. Assad himself seems to be cracking under pressure and is said to have developed a tick in the left eye due to anxiety. But his removal from power will not be possible if moderates lose power in Iran or the U.S. does not actively convince Russia that his departure from power will not result in a change in Russia’s sphere of influence. However, all must join hands to end hostilities and massacre of civilian population. It is a great human tragedy and must be stopped without any further power politics.
(The piece first appeared here)