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.

Syria: Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War

As you will have no doubt heard – due to the fact that the media has finally cottoned on to the horrors occurring – there is a vicious and bloody civil war being fought in the country of Syria.  Unrest began in March 2011 after demonstrations against the Assad regime broke out as part of the Arab Spring uprisings.  The regime responded in the form of tear gas, bullets, shells, warplanes, and recently, cluster bombs.  Violence spiraled in a series of massacres and resistance from a growing rebellion army, dragging the country into the largest civil conflict in the country’s history.

The Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 after a rebellion was launched by Fascist forces, led by General Francisco Franco and aided by the established Fascist dictatorships in Europe, sought to topple the democratic left-wing government.  The war raged for three years between the ‘Republican’ forces and the ‘Nationalist’ forces, and by 1939 the Nationalists had taken control of the country, imposing a military dictatorship which would last for decades.

There are many similarities between the two conflicts in some ways, and differences in others, but enough similarities to be worth commenting on.  Whether Syria will be one of many cases where history is repeated remains to be seen, but hopefully this post will explore where these repetitions may occur.  As ever, I am not an expert and there are merely my own views – as misguided they may possibly be.

Both the Spanish Civil War and the Syrian Civil War, from a Western Liberal perspective, can be interpreted as a war between freedom and tyranny.  The lines blur, as they always must in wars, but overall this seems to be the case.  In Spain the combatants were the democratic (to begin with) Republican government and the dictatorial, Fascist Nationalists.  There is little doubt that, having seen the atrocities in Spain’s totalitarian government under Franco, which was to follow, the Nationalists were not on the side of freedom.  With the Republican government increasingly becoming a puppet of the Soviet Union, almost entirely dependent on Soviet support, it is debatable whether this side could be considered the side of ‘freedom’, but as the war began the Republicans were certainly fighting in the defence of democracy and freedom.

Syria is more clear cut.  The regime of Bashar al-Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, has ruled Syria for nearly four decades.  The government’s rule has been characterised by brutal oppression; Syria is a country where mass imprisonment and torture are commonplace.  An Islamic revolt occurred between 1976 and 1982, culminating in the mostly undocumented Hama massacre which razed the city and killed tens of thousands of people.  In retrospect, this can be seen as a sort of blueprint by the government in handling civil unrest.  Assad’s regime is undeniably on the side of oppression and tyranny.  The rebellion to oust him began as mass protests by hundreds of thousands of Syrians across the country, and the rebel army which followed is dedicated to fighting for a free, democratic future.  Yes, there are extreme factions within the rebellion – most worryingly Islamic jihadists – whose growing influence is a cause for concern, but I believe a majority of the fighters would reject their views.

Another similarity, which in my view is the strongest, is how both wars rapidly became a proxy war.  A proxy war is the situation where a major power, or often two major powers, instigate or support sides in a conflict which the power itself if not directly involved in.  I’ve already mentioned how the Spanish Civil War became a proxy war, with the Nationalists supported by the Fascist dictatorships of Germany, Italy and Portugal, and with the Republicans supported by the Communist Soviet Union.  This level of support on the Fascist side extended deeply.  The Guernica bombing is a famous example of German intervention, and over 10,000 German soldiers fought in the war.  Italy’s level of support went further, with over 60,000 Italian soldiers fighting on the Nationalist side, as well as in the form of aid such as warships, ammunition and over 700 warplanes.  The Fascist powers of Europe were desperate for a Nationalist victory as this would further isolate the dwindling democratic powers of Europe – namely Britain and France.

Support for the Republicans came almost exclusively from the Soviet Union, whose motives were more halting the spread of Fascism than to install Communism in Spain.  Its level of support was also large, with many thousand Soviet soldiers fighting for the Republicans and large amounts of aid being sent.  The Republicans also received aid from Mexico, though this was nowhere near comparable to the amount provided by the European dictators.

The attitude of what would today be perceived as ‘The West’ was one of non-intervention.  In fact, many officials in Britain were open about their desire for a Nationalist victory, as this was seen as preferable to a potential spread of Communism.  Britain, France and the USA pledged to not become involved in the war, limiting their role to that of sending humanitarian aid.

This was similar to the situation in Syria in many ways.  Although to not as great a degree or from as many sources, much military and logistical aid is making its way to the opposing sides in the Syrian conflict.  The regime’s most outspoken backer is Iran, which sees its unusual alliance with the secular dictatorship as a way of maintaining influence in the Middle-East and applying pressure onto Israel.  The regime is also, more covertly, receiving aid from Russia – both politically and militarily.  Russia’s political support of Syria, due to its presence on the UN Security Council, has prevented any meaningful international intervention in the conflict, thus giving the Assad regime the opportunity to clamp down on resistance without interference.  Russia is also a large supplier of arms to the regime, despite international condemnation.

Support for the rebellion comes from an even stranger source; the highly oppressive Gulf States – most significantly Qatar and Saudi Arabia.  The rebellion in Syria is being fought, mostly, for freedom and democracy, so it may at first appear odd that these Islamic Monarchies are supporting the movement, but their motivations are down to politics.  Fiercely opposed to Iran, the Gulf states see this as an opportunity to sever Iranian influence upon the region.  Democracy would be an unfortunate side-effect to this goal.

Dark green shows countries which have recognised Syria’s opposition. Light green shows countries which have officially supported the opposition.

Very much like in the Spanish Civil War, the role of ‘The West’ has been minimal.  Although there is clear vocal support from most democracies towards the rebel movement, most governments are unwilling to become involved without a legally-binding resolution from the UN, which is currently being blocked by Russia and China.  To date France, Turkey, the UK and Spain have recognised the ‘Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces’ as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and, along with the USA, have been providing non-lethal aid – including communications equipment.  Turkey is also allowing its territory to be used by rebel fighters to organise and supply.

However, although there are many similarities between the Spanish Civil War and the Syrian Civil War, there are also many differences.  One significant difference is the root of each conflict.  The Spanish Civil War began as an armed insurgency and coup attempt by the Nationalist Forces, whereas the Syrian Civil War began as a popular uprising against President Assad’s regime and the armed elements followed later.  From my perspective this gives the rebel factions in Syria more legitimacy than those in Spain had, as they are actually fighting for the will of ‘the people’ (but not all).

The forms of warfare are also different.  The war in Spain was fought in trenches, land battles and with heavy aerial capabilities from both sides.  The rebels in Syria are far more disadvantaged: they’re fighting a guerrilla war across the cities and country side of Syria, fighting street by street and making minimal gains against the regime’s artillery and air-power.  The role of warplanes is significant in both conflicts, but in Syria this role is far more one-sided with the air virtually dominated by Assad forces.

The war in Syria has not attracted the number of foreign volunteers to join the rebellion as would be expected.  The most significant volunteer movement from abroad would be the emergence of Islamic Jihadist groups, whose numbers make up over 5,000 fighters.  This pales in comparison to the 32,000 volunteers who joined the Republicans in Spain to fight against Fascism.

And finally, although the most difficult at present to judge, is the direction in which the war is flowing.  The Nationalists made steady gains all throughout the Spanish Civil War and were heading towards a victory from early on.  The situation in Syria, being far from conclusion, can only be predicted.  Although the regime has an upper hand in virtually every respect, it is gradually being pushed back in all areas of the country be rebels.  Despite this, the war is currently in a state of stalemate.  Most analysts and observers do not believe the Assad regime will survive, however, due to the wide opposition to it both domestically and internationally.  It appears likely that both wars will be won by the rebellion and end in revolution, but where in Spain this was a triumph for Fascism, in Syria this will, it is hoped, be a triumph for democracy.

In conclusion, there are both many similarities and differences between the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 and the Syrian Civil War of 2011-present.  It may be futile to explore the similarities, or it may also give an indication of the direction Syria as a country will go during the war and after.  It is said that history repeats itself, and I believe this is and will increasingly be one of those instances.