With the latest development in the broken nation dominating the headlines, the attack on the Syrian opposition coalition outside the country by the rebels, it is becoming increasingly more apparent to understand the conflict. The civil war began exactly 2 years 2 months and 2 days ago.
But how did it all start? Why is Syria saturated with such hatred?
The answer lies in the rule of the President, in office for twelve years, his father for twenty-nine years before him. Bashar Al-Assad might have marginally improved the economy; however, he imposed a criminal regime, torturing, imprisoning, and executing political opponents, exercising total control over the media and breaching human rights. A year ago, the Foreign Policy magazine stated, ‘…the regime and its loyal forces have been able to deter all but the most resolute and fearless oppositional activists. In this respect, the situation in Syria is… comparable to Saddam Hussein’s strong Sunni minority rule in Iraq.’ And this now seems more true than ever.
Two years ago, the uprising began, sparked by the conflicts in Tunisia and Egypt, part of a wider series of demonstrations called the Arab Spring. Protests ignited in March 2011 at the arrest of a group of fifteen schoolchildren in Deraa who had spray-painted the revolutionary slogan of Tunisia and Egypt on a wall,
‘The people want the downfall of the regime’.
The teenagers were arrested and tortured. The events in Deraa prompted protests throughout many areas of Syria such as Hama, Homs, Latakia, Jisr al-Shughour, Baniyas, and the suburbs of Damascus, the capital of Syria. The Syrian people were desperate for freedom, for their own basic human rights, and for an end to the secret police and the illegal murders and torture. And they are still fighting a bloody war for this cause: the downfall of President Bashar al-Assad.
The government reacted to the uprising with the full power of its loyal military. Tanks and armed troops surged through the country in an attempt to quickly crush the rebellion. And video footage showed tanks and snipers firing mercilessly on unarmed protesters and civilians.
Conversely, however, the uprising was inflamed and the Syrian National Council (SNC) emerged, a united opposition group. The intensified conflict also brought the Free Syrian Army (FSA) into the fray, a band of army defectors intent on the defeat of Assad. The northern town of Jisr al-Shughour saw some of the most intense and barbaric fighting, with an exodus of refugees to neighbouring Turkey.
Throughout February 2012, the Baba Amr district of Homs was continually under siege. Of the previous 100,000 people who lived there, mere thousands remain. The FSA eventually succumbed, reporting ‘4000 civilians had refused to leave their homes, and they were withdrawing to save them from an all-out assault.’ Also throughout February, the UN had been pressing for humanitarian chief Valerie Amos to be permitted access to Syria; however, she was denied entry on 29th February 2012.
President Assad himself is from the minority Alawite sect (a branch of Shia Islam) but the majority of Syria’s population of 20 million are Sunni. Sunnis appear to largely support the uprising, and Alawites and Christians the regime, however, it is not a purely sectarian conflict yet. The EU froze Syrian officials’ assets and imposed embargos (trade bans) on Syrian arms and oil but the effects are long-term. It was in late 2012 that the growing influence of Jabhat al-Nusra became apparent within the opposition forces, an Islamist group, and then Hezbollah joined the conflict on the side of the Syrian army. Assad is also being unconditionally supported by Russia and Iran, and nuclear weapons could be involved.
The latest efforts by the UN to relieve some of the tension in the war-torn nation, were the Russian and American collaboration to try and set a date for a conference on Syria in June 2013. But they have faced inherent difficulty. A meeting of National Coalition members in Turkey was marred by utter indecision and disagreement as they failed to agree on who should represent them at June’s conference. A statement released by four leading rebel groups inside Syria, proclaimed that the opposition coalition had failed to represent the Syrian revolution. Anarchy still reigns.
David Cameron accused Syria’s ‘criminal regime’ of ‘butchering its own people’, and a year ago, warned the president’s supporters that they will face a ‘day of reckoning’.
Has that day come?
The casualties now stand at an estimated 90,000 (almost double the American losses in the whole of the Vietnam War), and 1.5 million Syrian refugees have fled the country, driven from their homes by fear and death. And now there are the disturbing reports of possible chemical weapons use in the northern town of Saraqeb. In outraged protests activists shouted things like ‘Let the world hear, Obama, Obama, regime troops have crossed all red lines’. But the CIA already believes Syria has a chemical weapons programme, speculating that it has existed ‘for years and they already have a stockpile of CW agents which can be delivered by aircraft, ballistic missile, and artillery rockets.’
Worrying to say the least.
And the massacres . . . these mass killings have sparked international horror and the UN accused security forces and pro-government Shabiha militiamen of deliberately targeting civilians, which is a violation of humanitarian law. One particularly shocking and upsetting incident occurred exactly one year ago, in May 2012, when 108 civilians, including 49 children, were shot in their homes near the town of Houla. The government simply blamed terrorists, but the truth must be accepted.
Are the rebels fighting an unwinnable war?
In a disturbingly similar scenario to the outbreak of WWI in 1914, the West and its allies expected the conflict to last weeks, possibly months . . . but certainly not years. In a particularly felicitous statement, the BBC said, ‘the situation in Syria is complicated. If you are not confused by what is going on there, then you do not understand it.’
And it is becoming increasingly apparent just how true these words are . . .