Over the last three years, the country of Syria has been embroiled in civil unrest within its borders. Conflict in Syria has since degenerated into armed combat that has President Bashar al-Assad’s government on one side, and rebel forces on the other. Since the conflict began in Syria, it is estimated that approximately two hundred thousand lives have been lost. The Syrian conflict has contributed to the decimation of entire neighborhoods, and it has consequently displaced about nine million Syrians.
Conflict in Syria started in the year 2011 when pro-democracy protests sporadically broke out in the country. The protestors were mainly calling for an end to President Bashar Al-Assad’s rule. The government responded to the protests by using brutal force against the dissidents. Currently, the conflict in Syria encompasses several rebel factions that are fighting against the ruling government. As the conflict progresses, the control of various Syrian territories keeps changing.
By “July 2013, the Syrian government forces only controlled about thirty-five percent of the country’s territory” (Rodgers and Gritten 1). The Syrian conflict has attracted considerable international interest since it started.
Most countries, as well as international organizations, have expressed widespread condemnation over the blatant disregard of human rights that has dominated the conflict in Syria. This paper explores the various dimensions of conflict in Syria, including its background, participants, effects, challenges, international reaction, and prospects.
In March 2011, the middle-eastern country of Syria witnessed anti-government protests that quickly spread across the country. The protests were part of a wave of unrest that took place in other countries in North Africa and the Middle East including Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Similar protests had been instrumental in the ousting of the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia. The two ousted presidents had striking similarities with Bashar Al-Assad the President of Syria.
The two personalities had been long-serving presidents and part of aristocracies. “Syria gained its independence in 1946 thereby becoming a democratic country” (Rodgers and Gritten 1). However, the country was later to witness a series of military and civilian coups ending in the coming to power of General Hafez Al-Assad. Hafez Al-Assad is the father of the current Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad who took over from his father in the year 2000 (Rodgers and Gritten 1).
The Syrian government’s reaction to civil unrest was most likely influenced by the fear of the results of similar protests in North Africa and the Middle East. On March 18, several protestors who were opposed to the arrest of children who had painted anti-government graffiti in the Syrian city of Dara were shot when security agents fired into their protest march. The government’s violent reaction contributed to following up protests in later dates.
It was alleged that the government had ordered security officials to shoot at protestors. In the initial stages of the Syrian conflict, the government gave various promises of reforms although none of these appealed to the protestors. Nevertheless, the Syrian government continued to use violence against protestors and finally banned unauthorized protests in the country under ‘emergency law’ thereby increasing the use of violence against protesters.
As the genesis of the Syrian conflict was unfolding, the government continued to blame the protests on conspiracies of foreign forces and ethnic tension. On the other hand, the government tried to appeal to the most discontented groups in Syria, including the “conservative Muslims and the Kurdish minority” (Hinnebusch 34).
For instance, in “April 2011 the government responded to demands of conservative Muslims by shutting down the only casino in Syria and revising an order that had barred all female teachers from covering their faces” (CNN 1). The wave of concessions also reached out to the Kurds who were granted a state holiday by the government.
Participants- The Syrian Government and Allies
Originally, the conflict in Syria put the government forces against a united opposition front. However, as the conflict escalated, several other factions joined in the melee.
The conflict had been sporadic in the initial stages, but it appeared to escalate after the Arab League failed in its monitoring mission in Syria. By February 2012, the Syrian government forces had begun an advanced military campaign that targeted the areas that were mostly inhabited by opposition supporters. Within a short time, the military had started to use heavy artillery against civilian homes.
The conflict in Syria has two main sides; the Syrian government and its supporters on one side, and the opposition forces on the other side. The Syrian army was the original entrant into the Syrian conflict. Before 2011, the Syrian Army was estimated to consist of approximately three hundred thousand officers.
Syria also had over a quarter million military reservists. However, due to the civil nature of the Syrian conflict, some of the military personnel and reservists defected to the opposition. It is estimated that about sixty thousand soldiers have defected to the opposition since the conflict started (CNN 1).
Another participant in the Syrian Civil War is the National Defense Force (NDF). The NDF is made up of some of the informal militias that pledged their allegiance to President Al-Assad’s government. Consequently, the NDF is armed and financed by the Syrian government.
Currently, the PDF is estimated to consist of approximately a hundred thousand fighters. The PDF mostly plays an assisting role in the operations of the national army and consists of a women’s league. The Shabiha is a militia group that consists of people from President Assad’s ethnic group.
The Shabiha’s involvement in the Syrian conflict started during the early protest-days when the government used the group to infiltrate civilian protests. The Shabiha are alleged to have engaged in various atrocities against the opposition supporters. The United States has since deemed the Shabiha a terrorist organization.
The Hezbollah came into the Syrian conflict in October 2012 as supporters of President Assad’s government. Initially, the involvement of the Lebanese Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict was denied by both Assad and Hezbollah’s leadership. However, Hezbollah later admitted to fighting alongside the Syrian government with the aim of protecting its interests along the Syria-Lebanon border. By the end of 2013, both Hezbollah and Syria had confirmed their alliance in the Syrian conflict.
Iran is the only country that has offered full and unconditional support to the Syrian government since the conflict started. Since 2011, Iran has been providing the Syrian government with the military, financial, training, and technical assistance. Iran’s involvement in the Syrian conflict is informed by the country’s need to preserve its strategic interests in the Middle East. For instance, the “Syrian minister of Finance and Economy admitted that the Iranian government had provided more than fifteen billion dollars to Syria” (CNN 1).
The Syrian National Council (SNC) is a group of opposition movements around Turkey. The main goal of SNC is to dislodge President Assad from power and establish a new system of government. In the conflict zone, the SNC supports the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA). The FSA was mainly formed by defecting Syrian army officers.
In July 2011, the FSA was one of the first civilian-military organizations to be formed in Syria. The FSA is an umbrella militant-organization and it covers several rebel organizations. FSA has received military, technical, and financial support from several foreign countries including the United States, Turkey, and other Arab countries.
There are several Islamic groups that are taking part in the conflict in Syria. The Islamic Front is a coalition of several fighting organizations that are involved in the Syrian conflict. The Islamic Front has over seven militant organizations under its command and a membership of approximately fifty thousand fighters.
The Mujahedeen is an extremist rebel organization that is fighting alongside the Syrian opposition forces in the conflict. Other Jihadist organizations that have engaged in the conflict in Syria include the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Al-Nusra have pledged their support to the Syrian opposition, and they are considered as one of the deadliest fighters by the government forces.
On the other hand, the ISIL is a Jihadist group that has caused great concern in the Syrian conflict over its human rights abuses and non-tolerance. Interestingly, ISIL has not pledged direct support to either the government or the opposition forces. Therefore, ISIL has emerged as a third force in the Syrian conflict.
Effects of the Conflict in Syria
The conflict in Syria has witnessed some of the world’s worst human rights abuses in recent history where both the government and the rebels have engaged in this transgression. Some of the human rights violations that have resulted from the conflict include mass murders, violence against women, war crimes against civilians, public executions, and denial of critical aid in war-torn areas. The conflict in Syria has also created a major refugee crisis in both the country and its neighboring states.
Since the conflict started, millions of Syrian citizens have fled their homes and sought refuge elsewhere. By September of 2013, the “UN reported that more than 6.5 million Syrians had been displaced, of whom 2 million fleeing to neighboring countries, 1 in 3 of those refugees (about 667,000 people) seeking safety in tiny Lebanon (normally 4.8 million population), while others have fled to Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq” (CNN 1).
The number of fatalities that have resulted from the conflict in Syria is often disputed although actual numbers range from 110,000 to 192,000. This makes the conflict in Syria to be one of the worst civil wars in recent history. The deplorable living conditions in the conflict zone have also contributed to the spread of deadly diseases in Syria.
The government has in some cases reacted by “cutting off vaccination, sanitation and safe-water services to areas that are considered politically unsympathetic” (Rodgers and Gritten 1). The conflict in Syria has greatly contributed to the degradation of the Syrian social fabric.
International Reaction and Challenges to Ending the War
Most Western countries, the United Nations, and the Arab League have blamed Syria for igniting and fueling the ongoing civil war. Among the United Nations’ member states, only China and Russia have defended Syria. The United States, the European Union, and the Arab League have all responded to the conflict in Syria by imposing sanctions on Syria.
The biggest challenge when it comes to ending the war is the lack of a well-organized rebel force that can effectively fight against Syrian government forces. Most of the rebel forces operate as small units that cannot match the power of the united government forces. Another challenge is the lack of decisive foreign influence in the conflict (Wright 58). For instance, the United Nations resolution to end the conflict through military influence was opposed by both China and Russia.
Furthermore, most Western countries have refrained from using their military personnel in the battleground. For instance, both the United Kingdom and the United States have rejected proposals to send army personnel to help the opposition forces to fight the government. The entry of foreign military units into the conflict also threatens to derail the completion of the war. For example, ISIL has become a threat to the future attainment of peace in Syria just like the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The conflict in Syria is an example of how the search for democracy can greatly influence a country’s structure. From its genesis in 2011, the conflict in Syria has captured the attention of the entire world due to its escalating nature. The participants of the conflict range from foreign militaries to Jihadist organizations. The main concern is that the war-torn country will provide a playing field for criminal organizations. Eventually, the end of the conflict will most likely depend on the concerted efforts of global leaders.
CNN. Syria Civil War Fast Facts. Cable News Network, 19, Jun. 2014. Web. 18 Nov. 2014. <http://edition.cnn.com/2013/08/27/world/meast/syria-civil-war-fast-facts/>.
Hinnebusch, Raymond. “Syria: from ‘authoritarian upgrading’to revolution?.” International Affairs 88.1 (2012): 95-113.Print.
Rodgers, Lucy and David Gritten. Syria’s War. British Broadcasting Corporation, 13 Aug. 2014. Web. 18 Nov. 2014. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-26116868>.
Wright, Robin. Dreams and shadows: The future of the Middle East, New York: Penguin, 2013. Print.