So far on this blog, I’ve looked at the Islamic State, complained about American policy in West Asia, and described the influx of refugees overwhelming Europe. Yet somehow I haven’t yet gotten to the crux of the problem: the Syrian Civil War. Well, time to fix that.
Syria is a medium-sized Arab country with a long and interesting history. Most of it isn’t particularly relevant for this post; suffice it to say that it’s had its periods of glory, from the Assyrian Empire in the 1st millennium BCE to the Umayyad Caliphate (empire) in the 600s, but for the most part it’s been under the thumb of various regional empires: Persian, Iraqi, Egyptian, and most recently, Turkish. It also has several major minorities: the Alawites, a secretive, pseudo-Shi’ite sect; the Kurds, a non-Arab ethnicity living in the north and northeast; the Ismailis, another Shi’ite sect; some Christians; and the Druze, an entirely different religious group with roots in Greek philosophy and Judaism. The majority, meanwhile, are Sunni, the orthodox branch of Islam that most of the surrounding countries also follow.
When World War I brought down the Osmanli (Turkish) Empire that ruled over West Asia, Syria was quickly scooped up as a French prize. France was interested in Syria because of old missionary connections on its coast, and to round out its North African possessions with some stuff on the other side of the Mediterranean, but it was never embraced by the Syrians. To prevent uprisings against its rule, France carved Syria up into 5 different colonies, mostly along sectarian lines — the Druze got a state in the south, the Alawites got a state along the coast, the Turks got a state in the northwest (which later joined Turkey). This was unpopular among the locals, who revolted against French rule anyway, with no luck.
Thus, even though the point of the French “mandate” was to prepare Syria for self-rule through the guiding power of French civilization, the Syrians didn’t have much to work with when they finally got their independence in 1946. The new country became dominated by rich Sunni urban families who had been patronized by the French, but a bunch of political parties proliferated and jockeyed for power anyway — Communists, Islamists (Muslims who see their religion as having an explicitly political role), nationalists, socialists, Francophiles. The army, which the French had promoted to keep the whole thing together, was also a major factor, and early Syrian politics were a mess of coups, unstable coalitions, and political bickering. It even united with Egypt at one point to make a point about Arab nationalism. (The union failed, so I guess the point that was made was different from what the Syrian generals intended.)
Finally, in the ’60s, one party won out in the ideological power struggle: the Ba’ath Party. It combines various crowd-pleasing elements, like socialism, concern for the rural poor, Arab nationalism, and hatred of Israel, with a carefully secular focus to avoid offending any of Syria’s religious groups. By 1970, one figure in the regime was dominant: Hafez al-Assad, an air force pilot who had used his base of loyalty in the military to outmaneuver his competitors. He crushed all opposition, established himself as an absolute dictator, and spread Ba’athist ideology to legitimize his rule.
One problem, though: He was Alawite, and not very religious either. Even though Alawites only make up about 12% of the Syrian population, an Alawite cabal soon dominated the military, government, and Ba’ath Party. Assad’s defeat in 2 wars against Israel and his support of the Shi’ite revolution in Iran weren’t popular either. Frustrated at the repressive governance of an infidel, Islamists rose in revolt against him in 1980 and secured control of 1 major city (Hama, in the sort-of center). But Assad called in the army and air force, which took care of it mercilessly. From then on it was clear that Assad was in charge, that resistance was hopeless, and that Ba’athist ideology was a charade to appease the masses. Assad’s real base of support was force and violence, and he was cruel in punishing those who opposed him (or hinted at opposing him). He was basically Saddam Hussein Lite (Hussein, by the way, also subscribed to the Ba’athist ideology).
Syria’s malaise had a lot of resemblances to the malaise in other Arab countries: a corrupt, narrow elite, lack of economic opportunity in a mostly state-run economy, a secular regime presiding over religious minorities, the army and ruling party acting as a “deep state” keeping order behind the scenes, and a growing population of discontented youth. It was no surprise, then, that Syria exploded in 2011 with the Arab Spring. Just like in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere, angry crowds marched in the street, calling for Assad to step down. 2 questions hung in the air: 1) How would the new Assad react? Hafez had died in 2000, passing the throne on to his son Bashar, a weird-looking and comparatively quiet guy who had mostly dialed back his father’s stifling repression. 2) Would Syria’s combustible ethnic mixture explode under the tension?
Unfortunately, both of the questions were answered badly. Assad opted for token reforms and dialogue first, then reached for guns and tear gas when those didn’t mollify the protestors. He made it very clear that any political reform that threatened his family’s power base was off the table, and protestors were dragged off the streets, beaten and electrocuted, and shot. Faced with these brutal tactics, the protestors armed themselves, and by the summer the protest movement had mutated into a full-fledged civil war, with neither side backing down.
This was going on in Libya at the same time… but it got worse in Syria, and fast. The Syrian army is strong and well-armed. It has a secure base of power among the Alawites and the country’s upper classes. Syria also has a powerful ally — Russia. The alliance dates back to Soviet times, when Moscow hoped to curry favor with disaffected Arabs through military and financial aid. Eager to protect its last remaining ally from that lost cause, and to keep its useful naval base on the Mediterranean, Russia protected Syria in UN debates and supplied it with weapons and military equipment. China also backed up Assad’s retaliation, since China hates rebellions against dictators in general. The rebellion was divided and disorganized — although this was a problem in other Arab resistance movements too — and its leadership was based in Turkey, cut off from the fighting.
The biggest factor in making the Syrian war a total bloodbath, though, was sectarianism. Assad’s bias towards Alawites in the army and security forces morphed into outright prejudice against Sunnis, who tended to defect to the rebellion anyway. The army began carrying out shocking massacres of entire Sunni villages. In retaliation, Sunni militias wiped out Alawite villages outside of the usual coastal zone where the Alawite stronghold is. Iran and Iraq, the two Shi’ite powers, backed Assad. Hezbollah, the Shi’ite militia in Lebanon, intervened in the Lebanese border zone to attack Sunnis. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, all Sunni countries, supported rebel groups with their own money and arms. The idealistic democratic yearnings of 2011 melted away into religious zealotry fired by bloodthirsty rage.
The whole time, Assad dismissed the rebellion as a terrorist uprising. He needed to keep the people under his thumb, you see, otherwise the terrorists would win. He had a point: radical Islamic groups participated in the uprising as well, and jihadists migrated into eastern Syria from neighboring Iraq. But the Syrian army targeted the more moderate and secular rebels over the fanatics. The secular opposition, grouped together in the coalition “the Free Syrian Army,” is hampered by internal disagreements and factionalism. Jihadist fighters have a clear agenda and stalwart foreign backing from pious Arabians: a restoration of the caliphate, the golden age of Islam from way back in the Early Middle Ages (and as I mentioned at the beginning, based in Syria). As a result, the Free Syrian Army did lose ground and jihadists — “terrorists” — seized the initiative.
And so what was once a struggle for freedom from oppression and stagnation degenerated into a jihad. Fired up by Islam’s cult of martyrdom, jihadist warriors surge into the battlefield with little regard for their own safety, proving to be fearsome fighters but at the cost of losing their own lives. Jihadists take grisly photos of their dead with staged smiles to encourage hopeless and/or confused foreign youths to come to Syria and give their lives for God as well. Fanatical Sunnis butcher their opponents, torture them sadistically, and even cut out and eat their hearts to give them strength. The army machine guns entire villages, used poison gas on at least 1 occasion, pounds middle-class neighborhoods with artillery, cuts off food and medical supplies to civilian areas, and mercilessly bombs its cities into submission. By 2013, the war had become a savage shitstorm eclipsing all other wars (currently ongoing, anyway) in its body count and destruction.
As if all this wasn’t enough, in 2014 the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the most prominent of the jihadist/terrorist groups fighting in Syria, lived up to its name and established an Islamic state in east Syria and north Iraq — Islamic in its opinion, anyway. As my older blog post explained, it’s freaked out the whole world with its mass executions, draconian laws, religious intolerance, and hostage beheadings.
The war has dragged on for 4 years now, yet the situation has barely changed. At times it’s appeared that the rebellion is doomed; at others (including now), that the regime is losing ground. In general the situation has been what it is in the map above: the Islamic State controlling the east, Kurds fending off intruders into their northern territory, an FSA stronghold in the northwest, and rebels fighting it out with the army in the rest of the country, including the 2 big cities, Aleppo and Damascus. There have been a few major offensives — in May, the Islamic State took Palmyra, an ancient oasis in the actual center of the country — but no decisive changes.
The bloody stalemate and carnage has drawn foreigners into the conflict. As already mentioned, Syria has become a proxy for Iran, which funds Hezbollah and advises the Syrian army. Saudi Arabia, always worried about strategic victories for Shi’ites, supports the more conservative and overtly religious Sunni militias. Turkey, which had been making a conscious effort to repair strained relations with Syria, quickly moved into opposition when the war heated up, and provides refuge for moderate Syrian rebels and refugees. Its role in the war has been limited by its hatred of the Kurds, though; most Kurds live in Turkey, and the Turkish state fears a strong, well-armed Kurdish army more than it does a strong, well-armed Syrian Arab army. (A Kurdish insurgency, the PKK, has roiled southeastern Turkey for decades.)
Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries have clamored for Western intervention as well. The West, which was mostly optimistic during the Arab Spring and particularly eager to see the troublesome Syrian dictatorship uprooted, has staunchly supported the opposition. Yet for the most part Western countries haven’t intervened in the war decisively. The closest they came was in 2013, when Assad attacked a Damascus suburb with sarin gas. This is considered a WMD (Weapon of Mass Destruction), so America began to beat its war drums again, albeit reluctantly. Britain refused to join it. The American public response was mostly negative. Barack Obama dropped the idea after Russia proposed an intervention to destroy Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile instead.
As I have noted before, there has been loud and sustained shouting about Obama’s supposed cowardice in America for years, and some Europeans have claimed it is America’s moral duty to punish the Syrian dictatorship. But the Syrian battlefield is combustible. The Syrian state has deep roots, a solid army, and durable institutions. Having witnessed the chaos that ensued in Iraq when those were pulled out by the roots, Obama is loath to try that again, especially since he prides himself on pulling American troops out of Iraq and America has no stomach for another prolonged occupation. Some fret that pumping more weapons onto the battlefield will merely pile on the corpses and smash more infrastructure without really solving anything.
And, yes, there’s the terrorism issue. The question of how much of the Syrian rebellion were “terrorist groups” (or potential future terrorist groups) was always in the background in the beginning. With the rise of the Islamic State, the question is front and center. If America arms Syrian rebels, would those arms one day be turned against it, a la Afghanistan in the ’90s? Who is America’s real enemy — a hostile if not exactly threatening Syrian regime, or crazed Muslim fanatics? Hawks have always urged the US to fund moderate rebels, but as mentioned before, the FSA is weak and fractious. And would Syrians support American puppets?
Freaked out by the Islamic State, America has nonetheless assembled a coalition to “degrade” it (push back its military and political advances): NATO, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Morocco and Iran have all performed air strikes against it over the past year. The attacks have set back the wannabe caliphate a little, but without a ground assault, it looks like it’ll be hard to dislodge. Although it’s hardly popular in the areas it rules over, many locals (who are mostly Sunni) prefer their strict order to the chaotic carnage of the Alawite government.
America faces a dilemma when opposing Syria, however: it doesn’t want a power vacuum that the Islamic State or other jihadist groups (Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, etc.) could exploit. The CIA is training and arming “carefully vetted” non-fanatical rebels, but they are still minor players in the war. The overly sectarian nature of the war is also repulsive for Westerners: unlike Syria’s Muslim neighbors, they don’t care which religious group takes power, but they are mindful that whichever side loses might get exterminated, with the blind fury of years of violence driving the victors to criminal actions. Without a clear vision for what kind of Syria it wants, and without very strong backing on the ground, America is left “without a Syria strategy” (as Obama bluntly put it last year). Its secretary of state (foreign minister), John Kerry, convened a peace conference in 2013 to try to resolve the conflict peacefully, but to no one’s surprise, it didn’t go anywhere.
Meanwhile, Russia has an idea: just support Syria. Worried about the Islamic State’s appeal to Muslims around the world and desperate to secure its toehold in West Asia, Russia has stepped into the war last week, thrusting the issue back into the headlines. Although hostile Westerners have claimed that Russia is merely trying to distract everyone from the morass of its war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin points out that the Islamic State is the greater threat, so foreigners should support the regime that opposes it. His arguments are undermined by the fact that Russian planes are attacking the FSA instead and flying in the west of Syria, far from Islamic State strongholds. Although it’s way too soon to tell whether Russian intervention will be decisive in saving Assad, it’s awoken worries of a new Russo-American conflict, since Russian and American military advisers are now operating on opposite sides.
With no end of the war in sight, most ordinary Syrians have packed up and moved out of the war zones, or at least into a safer part of the country. Many have fled Syria altogether, fueling a huge surge in the refugee numbers I wrote about last month. While some have headed for Europe, lured by its safety and wealth, most remain camped in squalid, depressing tent cities in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The latter 2 countries have been overwhelmed by the millions of refugees, and aren’t sure how many more they can take.
Meanwhile, Syrian planes continue to barrel-bomb civilians; soldiers continue to gun down unarmed people; food and medical supplies remain scarce; children are growing up without parents or an education; civilians caught on the front lines are tugged between a dictatorial army and rival sectarian militias, either of whom will kill them for supporting the other; roads, houses, mosques, parks, and stores are shattered by rockets; women and girls are routinely gang-raped; the economy is at a complete standstill; Syria’s precious cultural heritage — medieval mosques, legendary souks (markets), the pre-Muslim temples of Palmyra — is brought to ruin; and the optimistic dreams of 2011, of a free, prosperous Syria, shrivel in the face of fatalistic jihadism, sectarian identities, unbridled hatred and animosity, and the bitter realization that the government would rather destroy the country and massacre its people than cede its power.
God help Syria. It will take a long, long time to recover from this tragedy.