Since demonstrations against the Syrian government erupted in March 2011, clashes between the Assad regime and opposition forces in Syria have claimed more than 126,000 lives and resulted in 2 million Syrians fleeing their country.
Syria is a republic with a one-party rule. The ruling Baath party seized power in Syria in 1963. When Hafez al-Assad (the father of Bashar) launched a coup in 1970, power was increasingly collected in his hands and those of his family, close advisers, the military and the security forces. In order to preserve rule of the Baath party, Baath party members controlled unions and children were indoctrinated with the party ideology at schools. At the same time, immense intelligence services were founded, informing the leadership about any political dissent.
This strategy worked until the successful uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya in February 2011 gave impetus to protests in Syria. Protests started in Syria’s southern city of Deraa after a group of children were arrested and tortured after painting revolutionary slogans on a wall. When security forces responded to the protests by using live ammunition, protests spread across the country and a nationwide protest movement emerged. The protesters demanded basic reforms, more freedoms, a multiparty political system and an end to emergency law. On 29 July 2011, the Free Syrian Army announced its formation. Its main aim was to overthrow Assad’s government and protect the protestors. With the Free Syrian Army obtaining financial and military support from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia and new opposition groups entering the fray the violence in Syria quickly escalated. It obtained an international element with Jihadist groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda flocking into Syria to fight the regime and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah (encouraged by Iran) committing troops to the Syrian regime. After the US suspected the Syrian regime of conducting a chemical weapons attack against its citizens on 23 August 2013, it threatened to intervene militarily. However, a last-minute Russian proposal prevented this, committing the Syrian regime to destroying its chemical weapons stockpiles. All hopes for a political solution of the conflict are now on UN-brokered peace talks between the Syrian Government and the Syrian opposition in Geneva. The previous two rounds of peace talks have yielded few results, as the Syrian government rejects to discuss a transitional Syrian government as long as the Syrian opposition insists on President Bashar Assad to step down.
The intelligence services, better known as ‘Mukhabarat’ have been central in preserving the one-party rule by the Baath party. Comparable to the East German Stasi, the Mukhabarat has operated with a huge network of informers penetrating all of Syrian society, making political organisation almost impossible. Syrians suspected by the Mukhabarat of political dissent have been detained without process, subjected to torture and extra-judicial killings while imprisoned. The Mukhabarat has even started a campaign targeting protesters living abroad, having Syrian Embassy officials intimidate them and targeting their relatives in Syria.
In Syria, most posts in the public sector, the military and the government have been reserved for Baath party members. The Assad family and businessmen close to the family have profited from their political influence, establishing monopolies and semi-monopolies. At the same time, the Assad regime demands a share of the profit of successful local businesses. With the Syrian population suffering from rising levels of inflation, high unemployment and the lack of a social security net, grievances over the high level of corruption have collided with rising poverty levels. This has fuelled dissent against the Assad regime.
Although some Sunnis still prop up the regime, the leadership of the Syrian regime is largely drawn from the Alawite community. The Alawites account for 12% of the Syrian population. They are the majority in Latakia province and have a sizeable presence in the central province of Homs and in Damascus. Historically, the Alawite community had a subordinate position in Syria, generating resentment against the Sunni community. During the civil war, existing sectarian tensions between Alawites and Sunnis have been stirred up by extremists on both sides. While the atrocities committed by the Syrian army and pro-regime militias (largely drawn from the Alawite community) have mainly taken place in Sunni neighbourhoods, atrocities committed by the opposition forces have been targeting primarily the Alawite community in Syria.
Ethnic tensions between the Kurds and Arabs in north-eastern Syria have flared up as a result of the civil war. The Syrian regime left the north-eastern provinces in the summer of 2012, creating a vacuum. This vacuum has fuelled tensions in the ethnically mixed population areas. Kurdish militias claiming to protect the Kurdish population have clashed several times with the predominantly Arab opposition forces from the Free Syrian Army, Ahrar-al Sham, Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS, who suspect the Kurdish militias of conspiring with the Assad government. The presence of resources such as oilfields and border posts (which can be used for smuggling) in the area has further exacerbated tensions between these groups. The clashes between the Kurdish militias and opposition forces have resulted in tit-for-tat kidnappings, the demolition of Kurdish homes and Arab and Kurdish families fleeing the area.
Since demonstrations in Syria against the regime erupted, the regime has desperately tried to cling on to power. It has responded to the protests by detaining and using force against protestors. As soon as the first armed fighting broke out, the Syrian regime has labelled its battle against opposition forces as a struggle “against terrorists subjected to foreign interference.” This label has been exploited by the regime as a pretext for the use of excessive force. Syrian forces have executed defectors, laid siege to and extensively shelled opposition-held districts and are suspected of having conducted an attack with chemical weapons in a pro-opposition neighbourhood in Damascus on 23 August 2013. The Syrian Air Force has used cluster bombs and vacuum bombs targeting rebel-held areas, causing many casualties among civilians. In addition, pro-government militia (the ‘Shabiha’) are playing an important role in the civil war. The Shabiha have been suspected of conducting several mass killings in neighbourhoods and villages considered to be pro-opposition.
Syrian National Coalition
The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) presents itself to the outside world as the political arm of the opposition movement. Its goal is to overthrow the Assad regime and “establish a democratic, pluralistic Syria based on the rule of law and civil state, where all Syrians will be equal regardless of their ethnic, religious and sectarian background.” The armed wing of the SNC is the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, which is a loose network of brigades that emerged from the Free Syrian Army. Although the SNC has been recognised by 100 countries, its functioning has been undermined by internal struggles. Opposition forces have criticised the SNC in public statements for being “a dysfunctional organisation subjected to foreign interference.” This criticism severely undermines the legitimacy of the SNC to speak on behalf of the Syrian opposition. In addition, influential extremist opposition forces such as Ahrar-al Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) do not recognise the SNC as their political representative.
Iran has been a staunch ally of Syria. The relationship between Iran and Syria dates from 1980, when Syria supported Iran against their mutual rival Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). As Iran is ruled by a theocratic Shi’ite regime and Alawites are technically regarded as an off-shoot of the Shiite sect, both regimes have a sectarian link. In addition, both Iran and Syria share an animosity against the US and Israel. They are part of the ‘Axis of Resistance’, an alliance (which also consists of Hezbollah and Hamas) that is opposed to Israel and Western hegemony in the region. Since the outbreak of the conflict, Iran has supported the Syrian regime by sending arms, supplying oil and providing financial support to the cash-strapped regime. In addition, Iran has given military advice to the Syrian regime. For Iran, survival of the Syrian regime is crucial since it is their main ally in the region. Syria plays a pivotal role in supplying Iranian weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and providing Iran retaliatory capacity in case of an Israeli airstrike against its nuclear program.
Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf States
Saudi-Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states have a Sunni leadership and are considered to be pro-Western. The Arab Gulf states are suspicious of Iran as a result of Iran’s anti-western inclination and Shi’ite leadership. Because of the friendship between Iran and the Syrian regime, the relationship between the Arab Gulf states and the government of Syrian President Assad has been dire. The uprising in Syria has provided the Arab Gulf states an opportunity to install a friendlier regime in Syria and diminish Iranian influence. Therefore, they have called for an intensification of political, economic and military support to the Syrian opposition and advocated military intervention in Syria to support the overthrow of the Assad government. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been supplying weapons to opposition groups in Syria. Private funding from citizens in the Gulf has also gone to opposition forces in Syria, including groups linked to Al-Qaeda.
Extreme violence has been a main feature of the civil war in Syria with fighter jets and artillery of the Syrian security forces indiscriminately targeting civilian areas and suicide and car bombings conducted by extremist opposition forces claiming many lives. UN human right investigators have accused both government forces as opposition forces of war crimes by committing murder, torture, rape and conducting indiscriminate attacks on civilians.
There is scope for the civil war to escalate into a regional war. Syrians fleeing to neighbouring countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey) have placed a considerable burden, resulting in higher inflation, shortages of medicines in some areas, the spread of diseases and spiralling rents. In addition, the civil war in Syria has enhanced existing sectarian tensions in Lebanon and Iraq. In Lebanon, supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime have been battling each other in the city of Tripoli and Sunni Jihadist groups have conducted bomb attacks in Hezbollah strongholds. In Western Iraq, Al-Qaeda has used its gains in the civil war in Syria to reinvigorate itself, resulting in a wave of deadly violence with suicide bombings and sectarian killings in the country.
With both the Syrian regime and the opposition forces receiving external backing, the civil war has an international dimension. For a non-violent transformation of the civil war, it is paramount to design a diplomatic solution satisfying Iran and Russia on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the other hand so that the resources that are put into the civil war dry up. This will most likely result in a transitional Syrian government, consisting of elements of the opposition and moderate elements of the current Syrian regime. In addition, Syrian people should be provided the prospect of a future government that represents a clear break with the current Syrian regime. This calls for breaking the power of the intelligence services in Syria to reduce political repression, establishing the rule of law to reduce corruption, organising elections to give the Syrian population a say in their future government and guaranteeing minority rights to reduce sectarian and ethnic tensions. As long as a political solution for the civil war in Syria is not found, increased efforts should be taken to help Syria’s neighbouring countries absorbing Syrian refugees, preventing the escalation of the conflict.
آفاق لتحول سلمي
تتخذ الحرب الأهلية أبعادا دولية مع تلقي كلا من النظام السوري وقوات المعارضة دعما خارجيا. ينبغي لذلك, من أجل إحداث التغيير, بناء حل دبلوماسي يرضي إيران وروسيا من جهة, والسعودية و تركيا من جهة أخرى، لإيقاف المصادر المُستَثمرة في الحرب الأهلية. من المرجح أن ينتج حلا كهذا حكومة إنتقالية، مركبة من عناصر من المعارضة وعناصر معتدلة من النظام السوري الحالي. ينبغي كذلك توفير احتمالات وتطلعات للشعب السوري لإنشاء حكومة مستقبلية تمثل انطلاقة نقية مع النظام السوري الحالي. سيدعو ذلك لتحطيم قوة المخابرات في سوريا من أجل تقليص الكبح السياسي، بناء القانون للتقليل من الفساد، تنظيم الإنتخابات لمنح الجمهور السوري قوة تأثير وفرصة لإبداء الرأي بالحكومة المستقبلية وضمان حقوق الأقليات لتقليص التوتر الطائفي والإثني. عدم إيجاد حل سياسي للحرب الأهلية في سوريا يعني توجيه جهود زائدة لمساعدة الدول المجاورة لسوريا لاستيعاب لاجئين سوريين، ومنع اشتداد الصراع.