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.

International News Round-Up

Syria

  • After a meeting of the ‘Friends of Syria’ group, the USA has decided to recognise Syria’s opposition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.  Most of the scores of countries present have at least recognised the opposition as a legitimate representative.  Politically this will be another victory for the opposition, but it may also have an impact ‘on the ground’.  William Hague has discussed the possibility of arming the opposition if President Assad does not strive further for national dialogue.
  • Syria has also been reported to have fired several ‘scud-type’, Soviet-made missiles into opposition-held areas in the north of the country.  This appears to be the next stage of the government’s response.  When repression failed they sent in the army; when they were losing to the opposition’s guerrilla warfare they began shelling cities; when this failed to defeat the rebels they began conducting air raids; and now the opposition are increasingly wielding anti-aircraft weapons it appears the regime has turned to missiles.  They are becoming increasingly backed against the wall.  The next logical stage in this escalation would be chemical weapons, which would essentially be suicide for the regime.

North Korea

  • North Korea has launched a rocket, breaking several United Nations resolutions.  Although North Korea insists that this is for peaceful means, but countries such as the USA, Japan and South Korea believe this is a test for ballistic missiles, which could eventually reach the West coast of the USA.  Despite having the capabilities to bomb any country in the world, the thought of its own territory being under threat terrifies the American government.    Though I don’t think anyone wants to see a nuclear-armed North Korea with the capabilities  to launch inter-continental ballistic missiles.

Venezuela

  • Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, has returned to Cuba for cancer treatment, despite claiming during his election campaign that his cancer had completely been cured.  Cancer can make sudden reappearances so I wouldn’t like to make any assumptions one way or the other.

South Africa

  • In other health-related news, Nelson Mandela, the first black African to be President (from 1994 – 1999) and leader of the anti-Apartheid movement, has been rushed into hospital with a lung infection.  He is apparently doing well, but at the age of 94 his health is bound to be frail.  I think the world is united in hoping he has a full recovery.