Syria has been plagued with insurmountable problems since it found itself amidst a civil war in 2011. There are a numerous actors in Syria who are simply trying to use the country for its own benefit. No one, including the superpowers, are offering any solutions.
Bashar Hafez al-Assad has been the President of Syria since 17 July 2000. He is also the head of the Syrian Armed Forces and Regional Secretary of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party’s Syrian branch. He is the son of Hafez al-Assad, who was President of Syria from 1971 to 2000.
The Syrian Civil War
The United States, the European Union, and a majority of the Arab League called for Assad's resignation after he allegedly ordered crackdowns and military sieges on Arab Spring protesters, an act that led to the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in March 2011.
The human rights situation in Syria is exceptionally poor and has been deteriorating steadily since 2008. The 2010-11 Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen inspired major protests in Syria, and the Syrian Army intervened in March 2011 to suppress the protests.
In April 2011, hundreds died in clashes between the Syrian Army and opposition forces, which included armed protestors and soldiers who had defected from the military.
Following these incidents, Syria then descended into a complex patchwork of shifting alliances and territories between the Assad government, rebel groups, the majority-Kurdish SDF and Salafi jihadist groups (including the Islamic State, also known as ‘ISIL’). As many as half a million people died in the war, including roughly 1,00,000 civilians.
The Kurdish Link
The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), more commonly known as ‘Rojava’, is a de facto autonomous region in northern Syria. The region gained its de facto autonomy in 2012, as part of the on-going Rojava conflict and the wider Syrian Civil War.
Northern Syria is polyethnic and home to a sizeable ethnic Kurdish, Arab, Syriac-Assyrian and Turkish populations. It also boasts of smaller communities of ethnic Armenians, Circassians and Chechens.
Kurdish nationalists regard parts of northeastern Syria as ‘Western Kurdistan’, one of the four parts of Greater Kurdistan. The regions within the DFNS are not officially recognised by the government of Syria, or any international state or organisation, as autonomous.
The Refugee Problem
By April 2012, during the early insurgency phase of the Syrian Civil War, and before the 10 April ceasefire crafted by Kofi Annan’s peace plan, the United Nations (UN) reported that 2,00,000 or more Syrians had been internally displaced. Within Syria, there were 1,00,000 refugees from Iraq, and 70,000 more had already returned to Iraq.
By the end of 2012, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees reported that the number of refugees had jumped to well over 7,50,000.
By the end of August 2014, the UN estimated that 6.5 million people had been displaced within Syria, and more than three million had fled to countries such as Lebanon (1.1 million), Jordan (6,00,000) and Turkey (8,00,000).
In the first half of 2017, an estimated 11 million displacements were recorded, and around 2,50,000 more refugees were registered in the neighbouring countries. It is difficult to estimate how many of them have crossed the border recently.
A Humanitarian Crisis
The Syrian conflict is one of the worst humanitarian crises of our times. Half the country’s pre-war population – more than 11 million people – have been killed or forced to flee their homes. Some are risking their lives on the way to Europe, hoping to find acceptance and opportunity. According to the UN, USD 4.6 billion was required in 2017 to meet the urgent needs of the most vulnerable Syrians, but only a little more than half of the amount was received.
The Syrian Ba’athist government is supported, both politically and militarily, by Iran and Russia, actively promoted by the Lebanese Hezbollah party, by the Syrian-based Palestinian group PFLP-GC and others.
Since 30 September 2015, Russia has waged an intense air campaign against ISIL and other anti-government forces in Syria. Activity by the Russian military in Syria has been criticised by the US and its regional allies, and Turkey overtly clashed with the Russian military in November 2015 over Russia′s bombardment of the areas held by anti-government forces it supported.
The Syrian opposition, which is represented politically by the Syrian National Coalition, receives financial, logistical, political and, in some cases, military support from major Sunni states in the Middle East that are allied with the US, most notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
From the early stages of the civil conflict in Syria, major Western countries, including the US, France and the UK, have provided political, military and logistical support to the opposition, and to rebel groups in Syria that have not been designated by them as terrorist organisations. Since July 2015, Turkey has also supported the Syrian Kurdish forces along its border, and created a buffer zone within the Syrian territory.
The predominantly Kurdish People's Protection Units, the main armed service of the Rojava government and its executive council, have received military and logistical support from Iraqi Kurdistan, and air support from the US, Canadian, British and French Air Forces.
The Salafist groups are partially supported by Turkey, while ISIL receives support from several non-state groups and organisations from across the Muslim world. A number of Western and other countries, most notably the US, Russia, Britain and France, have participated in direct military action against ISIL in Syrian territory.
There are believed to be as many as 1,000 armed rebel groups in Syria, commanding an estimated 1,00,000 fighters. Many of these groups are small and operate only at the local level, but a number of them have emerged as powerful forces with affiliates across the country, or have formed alliances with other groups that share a similar way of thinking.
One of the last remaining areas in Syria under rebel control is that of the eastern Ghouta suburbs, outside Damascus. The rebels there are demanding the ouster of al-Assad’s government, and they are being bombarded by Syrian military airstrikes.
Some groups aim to form an Islamic state in Syria based on Sharia law. Some groups have tanks, mobile artillery and anti-guided missiles procured from victories against the Syrian Army. These organisations receive money from donors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. The groups also fight among themselves.
The Second Holocaust
A chemical attack took place on 4 April 2017 in the town of Khan Shaykhun, in Syria’s Idlib Governorate. At the time of the attack, the town was under the control of Tahrir al-Sham, a group also referred to as the ‘al-Qaeda in Syria’. The town was reportedly struck by a government forces-led airstrike, which was followed by massive civilian chemical poisoning.
The toxic gas killed at least 74 people and injured more than 557. Many have attributed the attack to the forces controlled by Syrian President al-Assad. The Assad government has denied using any chemical weapons in the air strike, and the Russian Defence Ministry has been shown to have tried to cover up Assad’s involvement.
On 7 April 2018, the United States launched 59 cruise missiles at Shayrat Air Base, which US intelligence claimed was the source of the attack.
In the wake of this attack, Syria has been immersed in a quagmire, with multiple forces acting against it.
Now, we must wait and see how it emerges from the tangle.
(Y Udaya Chandar is a retired Colonel from the Indian Army. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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