August 2013: Course of the Syrian Civil War

I’ve been planning since June this year to write a piece summarising developments in and the overall course of the Syrian Civil War.   However, as the conflict seems ever more hopeless and it becomes clearer that I have no authority at all to comment on it, I’ve been putting off writing anything.  Now though, as this shameful failure of international cooperation has returned dramatically to the news, I feel compelled to write something.

Because other journalists and bloggers have discussed the pros and cons of Western military intervention in Syria, I shan’t go into too much detail here but instead will link to these articles at the end.  To summarise: last Wednesday, 21st July, evidence emerged of a horrific massacre in the East of Damascus in which hundreds of civilians were killed, seemingly by chemical weapons.  This led to a flurry of accusations: the Syrian government and rebels blamed each other, of course, while international powers took predictable stances – The USA, UK, France, Israel, Turkey and the Gulf States have accused the government of carrying out the massacre, while Russia and Iran have suggested the rebels might be responsible.  I clearly couldn’t comment, but the government being behind the chemical attack initially seems more likely; while the rebels had the motive of causing a backlash against the government while UN chemical weapon investigators had just entered the country, they very probably lacked the capability to do so.  They occurred during the context of a government offensive into rebel-held areas, which you can make of what you will.  That the rebels were behind it can’t be ruled out either.

The weapons inspectors have since Monday been investigating the site of the attacks – the rebels, it should be noted, agreed far sooner than the government.  US Secretary of State John Kerry accused the government of:

“Refus[ing] to allow the UN investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them. Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systematically destroying evidence. That is not the behavior of a government that has nothing to hide”

Since the attacks, there has been a clamour from among certain Western governments to act.  The USA has moved warships into the Mediterranean, while Kerry’s speech appeared to be setting the stage for military intervention of some form.  UK Prime Minister David Cameron appears to share the USA’s view that military action should be taken.  The most likely option will be remote missile strikes against Syrian military targets, as a ‘punishment’ of sorts for the use of chemical weapons, aimed at deterring the Assad regime of using them any further as well as sending a signal to the tyrants of the future that their use will not be tolerated.  Looking at it this way, I hesitantly agree with this strategy – although it seems strange that chemical weapons, as horrific as they are, appear worse to the international community than the shooting of children on streets, bombardment of civilian districts, the imprisoning, torturing and executing of anyone suspected of supporting the opposing side; the list of crimes go on and on.  That said, I’m glad a ‘red line’ can be drawn somewhere.

There certainly isn’t an appetite for military intervention.  The ghost of Iraq is still present in the UK and USA, and while a full military invasion is thankfully not on the table even something as seemingly non-committal as missile strikes are very unpopular, with the UK population twice as likely to oppose them.  There’s a similar hesitancy within parliament.  Parliament has been recalled early from recess for the fourth time this government.  While Cameron has the final word on deploying the British armed forces, it would be seen as very politically dangerous to do so without parliament’s consent.  Labour has said it will not support military action until the UN inspectors have published their report, and it seems the Liberal Democrats could be hesitant also.  Events have been moving and it’s all quite confusing, but I think there will be two votes: one tomorrow on a motion calling for a ‘strong humanitarian response’, and one next week once the report is available on the possibility of military action.  This could have the effect of slowing down momentum for a response but I agree with Labour that we should wait for the UN report before making any decisions.

It’s also worth noting that military action would probably be illegal without UN Security Council backing – almost certain to be blocked by Russia and China.  This is just another example of how flawed and outdated an institution it is, in need of heavy reform.

By Futuretrillionaire [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

So that’s the situation regarding any potential military not-quite-intervention.  On the ground in Syria, the government appears to have been consolidating its position.  While still besieged and embattled – someone earlier on the BBC made the ridiculous argument that Syria today might be in a stronger military position than Iraq in 2003, seeming to forget that the government can’t even control its own claimed territory, let alone go to war with the most powerful alliance in the history of the world – it has been making gains.  Most significantly, Hezbollah entered the fray earlier this year and helped the Syrian army capture the town of al-Qusayr and nearby villages along the Lebanese border, assuring a strategic route for the government between Damascus and its strongholds along the coast.

Small exchanges of territory have since occured, largely in the government’s favour although this week the rebels captured the town of Khanasir to the south of Aleppo which has effectively cut off government forces in and around Aleppo from the rest of the country.  In Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, the rebels roughly control the east while the government controls the west.  Losing Aleppo would be a major blow to the Assad regime and perhaps even put the war onto even footing.  Meanwhile, a disturbing ‘civil war within a civil war’ seems to be occurring, as moderate and radical elements of the rebellion turn against each another.  This began when a Free Syrian Army leader was assassinated by rebels linked to al-Qaeda.  Radical Islamist elements – including the expanding al-Nusra Front – appear now to be leading the rebellion and control significant territories to the north and east of the country.  It’s these divisions which have made the West back away from plans to arm the rebels, an option I have also become more wary of.  There have also been clashes between these rebels and Kurdish militias, which has been responsible for a mass exodus of refugees into Iraq.

Gosh, this has been depressing to write.  Again, I really am not qualified to talk about the deteriorating situation in Syria, but I think it’s important we in the West understand what is going on before we make any decisions to involve ourselves.  For the average person, there’s really not a lot we can do to help ease Syria’s suffering.  I’d suggest lobbying MPs and the government but it’s not lack of will holding them back, rather a lack of credible options and divisions within the UN Security Council.  The Red Cross have set up a Syria Appeal for donations to help provide supplies for the growing number of refugees, which seems to be all we can do to improve the situation, unfortunately.

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The Syrian Civil War: Two Years On

Arab SpringTwo years ago today, on the 15th March 2011, small-scale protests were held in the southern city of Daraa in Syria in response to the imprisonment and torture of young students for writing anti-government graffiti.  A small event in a small city which in normal circumstances would be insignificant, but, by this point, two Arab dictators had been swept from power by popular protests in Egypt and Tunisia, unrest was brewing in Yemen and Bahrain, and a civil war had broken out in Libya.  This was part of the Arab Spring revolutionary wave, a new generation’s chance to claim freedom in a region infamous for brutal dictatorships and human rights abuses; a revolution which Syria’s government, headed by President Bashar al-Assad, was determined to prevent affecting his own country.

He failed.  As any thinking person could have perceived simply from the events of the last few months: oppression does not stop a popular uprising.  Perhaps Assad had hoped for a repeat of the Hama Massacre of 1982, an undocumented brutality by the Syrian regime which quelled an Islamic protest in the city of Hama, estimated to have killed tens of thousands.  In this age of the internet and mass communications truths cannot be hidden, and within days the protests had spread across the country.  The government responded, predictably, with bullets.  The protesters responded, predictably, with bullets of their own.

Syrian War Today

A crude war map of the current situation, taken from Wikipedia. Green represents government-held cities, brown those by the opposition and blue where the situation is unclear.

Two years on, what began as a peaceful protest has erupted into a full scale civil war, estimated to have claimed the lives of over 70,000 people and caused over 1 million Syrians to flee the country, in addition to 2 million who are internally displaced.  The country’s population was no more than 21 million before the war.  Unlike in Libya, where NATO had a UN mandate to intervene which brought about the downfall of Colonel Gaddafi, the international community has not become involved.  This is largely due to divisions: the West would like to see the Assad regime fall, partly because of humanitarian reasons but also due to his alliance with Iran.  However they are reluctant to do anything which could cause the situation to become anymore unstable; the horrific ethnic violence which resulted from the Iraq war is still fresh in recent memory.  A ‘Friends of Syria’ group has given the opposition political support; words and little else.  Only Qatar and Saudi Arabia are openly arming the opposition, and I highly doubt they are doing so in the name of democracy.  Furthermore, Russia and China both have strategic interests in Syria and have thus far refused attempts to take action against the Syrian government.  Their roles as permanent members on the UN Security Council has meant no resolutions against the regime can be adopted.

There is, however, a sign things are changing.  Recently both Prime Minister Cameron of the UK and President Hollande of France have suggested the possibility of arming the Syrian opposition – even if it means going against an EU arms sanction.  I can appreciate the dangers of such action, that it could cause more suffering and deaths, and that the weapons could fall into the arms of Islamic extremists.  My own personal belief is that both these things will happen anyway; the longer the stalemate goes on, the more people will die, and an Islamic group called the Al-Nusra Front has assumed massive influence in opposition-held parts of Syria – the Syrian people, abandoned by the world, have understandably turned to such groups.  The Assad regime is finished – of that there is no doubt.  Arming the rebels will bring the inevitable end to the war closer, in the long run resulting in fewer deaths and preventing Islamist groups from gaining any more influence.

Another interesting, small point to note is that the Syrian opposition, under the umbrella group ‘Syrian National Coalition’ – which has recognition from half of the world – has taken Syria’s seat in the Arab League.  The Arab League has taken a surprisingly anti-tyranny stance during the Arab Revolutions, considering its reputation as a kind of ‘Despots Club’ in the past.

I wrote in my 2013 predictions that the Assad regime would collapse this year.  This is no closer to a reality now than it was back in January and, while I am absolutely certain his government will not survive this war, he has surprised everyone by clinging onto power where others have not.  No one knows when, or how, this conflict will end.  Most analysts agree that the capture or death of Assad and the complete unraveling of his regime would probably not end the violence.  Wartime alliances would collapse – most likely the Free Syrian Army, the largest opposition armed group, would turn against the Al-Nusra Front.  The conflict already has an unsettling ethnic element, as Assad’s government is comprised largely of Alawites, whereas the rebellion has its core within Sunni Muslim groups.  Villages have turned upon each other, resulting in horrific massacres.  This could become far worse.  Syria could even collapse entirely and become a failed state like Somalia or Western Sahara.  It will be a long time before Syria sees stability once again.