By Anant Mishra:
Syria, a Middle East country has been a victim of savage and bitter civil wars. A recent UN study revealed the list of casualty stating 59,648 killing instances between March 2011 and November 2012. Syria had been into conflict for decades, became a victim of another conflict during Arab spring in March 2011. The main combatants included the rebel forces that led an all out assault against the current regime, government under the leadership of Bashar Al Assad. The General Assembly and Security Council of the UN passed resolutions condemning the actions by Assad’s government, calling an end to the violence in Syria. However these resolutions had little impact on the fighting as casualties were escalating.
President Assad was already named a terrorist by rebels; global leaders too demanded Al Assad’s resignation. The conflict which by now turned from a peaceful protest to an all out armed rebellion, expanded till the Syrian border. Turkey became a key player in the conflict as it harboured almost thousands of Syrian refugees. Middle East experts feared that that Syrian conflict would result in a terrible sectarian crisis, starting a proxy war between western forces and Iran. At this point international communities hoped that with the actions and crimes committed against the civilians Bashar Al Assad would step down and a well organised opposition would take the charge.
Syria Shares its boundaries with Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Mediterranean Sea. The nation became independent in 1946. Prior to independence, Syria was ruled by French till the fallout of the Ottoman Empire, right after the First World War. Soon after its independence political struggle began within the nation; bringing the nation under series of military coups. This political instability prompted the Syrian Leaders to align with Egypt into a United Arab Republic, 1958. However the experiment failed, leading the withdrawal of Syria in 1961. After its withdrawal, Syria established itself as Syrian Arab Republic. The final coup in Syria, led to the rise of Hafez Al Assad, leader of the Socialist Ba’ath Party in 1970. Hafiz ruled Syria until death in 2000, leaving the throne for his son. Bashar Al Assad rose to power by a “presidential referendum”. He is the current leader of Syria, elected twice for a second term in 2007.
Talking about the ethnic culture, Syrian population mostly comprise of Sunni Muslim, making up to 74% of the population. Shi’a Muslims (Alawits and Druze) comprised of 16% of the population. The remaining were Christians and small community of Jews, scattered throughout Damascus, Al Quamishi and Aleppo. They also comprised of small communities of Kurdish and Armenian residents.
Syria is the 52nd largest country in the world, with a population of 22.5 million. There are approximately 1.5 million personals internally displaced within the nation along with 600,000 refugees from Palestine. The Golan Heights has been an area of sectarian tension, since it lost the territory to Israel in 1967 Arab Israeli War. Currently there are 1000 strong UN Disengagement Observer Force Patrolling in the buffer zone since 1964. As Syria held democratic elections, a number of intelligence agencies considered it authoritarian. Many political parties that had links with the Kurdish communities were considered to be illegal.
Moreover Syria has been in a state of emergencies from 1963 to 2011. Hence nation became vulnerable to the violation of constitutional rights. Before 2011, the most noteworthy crisis took place in Syrian history was the “Hama Massacre” of 1982. Hafez Al Assad fought a long battle against armed insurgency against Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. In response the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood assassinated 20 key members of the ruling Ba’ath Party. Ibrahim Youssef, leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood claimed responsibility for the massacre. He further claimed that the attack was retaliation against regime’s discrimination towards Sunni majority.
The Muslim Brotherhood claimed Hama as a liberated city. Syrian military, directly under orders of President Hafiz Al Assad bombarded the city for three weeks, in an effort to bring the city under regime’s control. Among 10,000 and 40,000 killed in the siege, a vast number of casualties were that of civilians. There were many claims against Al Assad’s discrimination towards the majority of the population; hence speculations were made as his disloyalty towards the population contributed in the rise of ongoing civil war.
The Current Situation
The conflict in Syria was sparked by “Arab Spring” that began from Tunisia in January 2011. In March young group of teenagers were arrested for writing political graffiti on walls. Due to this arrest, protest began in the town of Daraa, demanding the release of teenagers. Dozens of people were killed when security forces cracked down the protesters. Like Tunisia many of its neighbouring nations were suffering from causes like “employment, corruption and political oppression”. Syria too was once such victim of this sort. Hence the demands to release the political prisoners soon joined the echo. The military response towards the peaceful led to violent riots, which then lasted for days. The government, left with no choice had to release the prisoners and demanded an end to the emergency.
The regime now under pressure from the protestors as well as from global leaders decided to step down. Even Al Assad was ordered to follow similar leads as that of Hosni Mubarak and Zine Ali Abidine Ben Ali. In a statement issued from his office, Assad promised to listen to the people and put an end to the state of emergency. However the statement issued by him was a meagre diplomatic cover up. Four days later, Syrian regime sent almost four thousand troops to the city of Daraa for the crackdown.
In June 2011, the regime accused armed gangs for killing 120 security personnel. In response of the attack, military plundered the city of Jisr- Al- Shoughour, leaving more than 10,000 civilians homeless. The outcome of the attack was tragic, leaving half the population of the city flee to Turkey. International Atomic Energy Agency reported Syrian nuclear development programs to Security Council. After identifying the location of nuclear reactor, a joint task force was set up in collaboration with the Israeli and US armed forces. Following the day the structure housing the nuclear reactor was destroyed in an Israeli air strike in 2007. After revealing secret nuclear facility set up by Assad’s regime, mass demonstration began in the city of Hama. Assad had the leader of Hama killed.
In the wake of Arab spring Syrian National Council was formed in October 2011. It was an attempt to bring different opposition parties together and create a powerful response as well as an alternate to the Syrian government. The Syrian National Council was formed with an ideology and agenda of peace in Syria, bringing an end to the conflict and putting an end to the regime. Some of its working procedures are –
1. Working to over throw regime legally
2. Affirming national unity among all the components of Syrian society (e.g. Arabs, Kurds, ethnic, religion and sectarian groups) rejecting all calls for ethnic strife.
3. Safe guarding on violent character of Syrian Revolution
4. Protecting national independence and sovereignty rejecting military intervention.
After the formation SNC has published number of activities and journals stating its agendas about the cause. However the revolution has escalated to a violent form. Unlike its agendas SNC did nothing more than reject meetings with the regime officials, declining the possibility of talks among the two. Later in the years, when so called peaceful revolution became violent, League of Nations summoned head of SNC, Ahmed Mazola – Khatib to start talks with the then Vice President Faruq – Al – Shara.
Throughout the revolution Syria was at odd with the Arab League. In November Arab League suspended Syria as it failed to support Arab peace plan. The League openly threatened Syria by continuing suspension and harsh sanctions until human rights violations were stopped. As Syria’s membership suspended “all Arab states were asked to withdraw its Ambassadors from Damascus” by the Joint Commission on Security for League of Nations. With the sanctions crippling the government and suspension from the Arab League Syria was forced to comply. In December Syrian government allowed Arab League to send monitors to observe the enforcement peace plan. The monitoring mission came to an abrupt end due to increased violence and humanitarian crisis, endangering the lives of monitors
In October 2011, China and Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria. The resolution condemned Syria and threatened with possible sanctions. Russia was a close ally and has been more than a decade. Hence Moscow’s sympathy as well as aid to Damascus was Russia’s desperate attempt to save Syria. The nation was also a key Russian export destination. UN pressure was increased by the mid 2012. In February 2012, the Arab League approached Security Council with an ideal solution. This proposed solution called for Bashar Al Assad’s immediate resignation from office. Thirteen Security Council members voted but Russia and China vetoed. US Ambassador Susan Rice was taken aback by the veto. Talking to the media she said, “The only possible solution that could have saved the condition of Syria was denied, leaving the two countries unwilling to put an immediate stop on the crisis”. She added, “More lives will be lost and blood will be on their hands”.
A month later UN envoy Kofi Annan drafted a peace plan that was endorsed by the Security Council. China and Russia agreed to approve the Peace plan after it was amended to a weaker version. However no formal resolution was passed by the Security Council. As violence continues to escalate during spring, UN released a report stating 7,500 civilian casualties within the nation. As violence increased from both the sides, member nations condemned for using heavy weaponry and private armies in the battle. As protest again the atrocities against the civilian population, many countries such as France, the UK, Germany, Spain, Canada and Australia expelled diplomats of Syria.
In August 2012, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution demanding Al Assad resignation. US President Barrack Obama warned Syrian regime against the use of chemical weapons as it would result in a possible US intervention in the region. In December 2012, the US along with the governments of France, Turkey, Britain, and Gulf states formally recognised Syrian Apposition “National Coalition”, as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. This came just after a three day meeting with the delegation of SNC in Brussels. The meeting was to discuss plans to gain power after Post Assad Syria.
On January 22, 2013 United Nations Secretary General issued a statement declaring Syria a resultant of failure of peace through diplomacy. Furthermore he stated that peace in Syria was the primary focus of United Nations and its allies. As the situation escalated, Russia began evacuating its personnel and fellow Russians from conflict zones. US State Department spokeswomen Victoria Nuland criticised the peace process scenarios and escalations in crime against humanity by Assad regime. There are 6, 50,000 displaced Syrians in refugee camps and many have taken shelter in neighbouring nations. However there are many Syrians stuck in refugee camps near Syria – Turkey border, hence failed to relocate elsewhere.
Regional and International Response
As every nation from the European belt criticised Al Assad and his regime for actions, many nations threatened for a pre-emptive attack, Iran and Lebanon based Hezbollah came to the rescue. Agitated by the support United States and the west increased more sanctions. However a veto by Russia and China in the Security Council, United Nations failed to support the West.
Turkey played a substantial role as it became a safe haven for more than 50,000 refugees. It became a vital link for the opposition to supply weapons and fighters from the west. This action brought Turkey directly under fire of the Syrian Authorities. Not long ago, a Turkish fighter plane was shot down by the loyalist forces. However the reason for the Turkish fighter jet low altitude flight was kept unknown. Speculations were made indicating the flight to be on a reconnaissance mission. Turkey responded the attack by declaring the regime forces a threat to its sovereign land and ordered to eliminate if the forces were found near the Turkish border. Syria retaliated by mortars, killing 5 civilians on the border. Agitated by this attack, Turkey closed its airspace for flights in and out of Syria.
Iran was one such influential nation that backed Syrian government throughout the uprising. Iran’s nuclear development concerned nations such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Iran supported Al Assad, as the governing religion was Alawits, an offshoot of Shia’asm and majority of Iranians were Shia’ites. Moreover Syria and Iran supported Hezbollah, the anti Israel Shia’ite that became a powerful force with the Lebanon connection. Meanwhile the Syrian crisis created a destabilizing regional refugee problem and provided a new battleground for fundamentalists and Sunni radicals such as Al Qaeda and a new organization widely known as ISIS or ISIL.
Currently there are over 30,000 refugees in Lebanon. Most of the Syrians are displaced in Iraq. However the Shia’ites government in Iraq continue to battle Sunni radicals. Sunni radical groups one side, Shia’ites on the other hand, with western powers acting as a third front, creating a messy affair.
-Author is a Former Youth Representative United Nations