A guide to the Syrian conflict: 10 key questions

1. Who is ruling Syria?

Syria’s current President, Bashar al-Assad, inherited power from his father Hafez al-Assad upon his death in June 2000. Hafez al-Assad seized power in a coup in 1970 and installed himself as leader of the Arab socialist Baath party. After assuming power, Hafez purged the party of all political rivals and instead appointed close family members and trusted loyalists to positions of authority, so that the reins of the Baath party as well as the security apparatus were firmly held by the Assad family (who belong to the Alawite community- a minority in the predominantly Sunni nation) or by its close political and military advisors.

Hafez’s autocracy tolerated no political dissent, adopting repressive policies when dealing with political groups that challenged the regime. The regime’s intelligence services, known as the Mukhabarat, have been instrumental in ensuring the continuity of the regime by rooting out any dissidence, often through flagrant violation of human rights. In the 1970’s the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, that called for the overthrow of the regime and the establishment of an Islamic state, was met with brutal repression, culminating in the 1982 Hama massacre, which resulted in the killing of an estimated 20,000 civilians.

Following his father’s death, Bashar assumed leadership of the Baath party, promising economic and political reforms, ushering in a period known as the ‘Damascus Spring’. Bashar’s promised reforms never materialized, dashing all hopes that Syria under Bashar would be transformed from an autocratic to a modern democratic state.

2. What triggered the 2011 protests?

On March 6th 2011, a group of teenagers were arrested in the southern Syrian town of Dara for writing anti regime graffiti on a wall. This sparked massive demonstrations in the town, with government forces opening fire at the protestors. Following the brutal government crackdown, protests calling for the overthrow of the Assad regime spread to Damascus and nationwide in the following months, drawing inspiration from the Arab Spring activism taking hold across the region, where scores of Egyptians, Tunisians, Yemenites, and Libyans were mobilizing against their regimes.

In response, the regime intensified its crackdown and in May 2011, army tanks moved into the Syrian cities of Homs, Dara, and parts of Damascus, prompting widespread international condemnation against the inordinate use of military force against demonstrators. The city of Dara became one of the epicentres of anti-regime demonstrations. The siege of Dara only served to foment anti-regime sentiment across the nation.

In July 2011, protests erupted in Hama, which once again emerged as the focal point for opposition against the Baathist regime. The government responded with excessive military force, crushing the protest and reportedly killing at least 80 demonstrators.

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Source: Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

3. How has the Syrian conflict escalated from peaceful protests to a full scale civil war?

In response to the brutal military crackdown of the regime, what began as peaceful protests started to become more organized and armed, beginning a spiral of militarization that has plunged Syria into chaos.

Armed opposition consisted mostly of civilians, along with military defectors who joined the anti regime movement after witnessing the excessive use of military force by the regime. The first incidence of armed rebellion occurred in June 2011, close to the Turkish border, where local civilians seized weapons from a police station after regime forces opened fire at demonstrators. When a military unit was brought in to quell the rebellion, a part of the unit defected, and along with the armed civilians, launched a counter offensive against the security forces.

In September 2011, armed opposition clashed against regime forces in Homs, while in October, armed rebels launched an insurgency against the regime in Jebel al Zawiya. Insurgents managed to capture parts of the eastern suburbs of Damascus in January 2012. Though the insurgents were driven out by the end of the month, the rebels have managed to retain strongholds in some outer suburbs of the city. Another major rebel offensive was launched in July, when rebel forces penetrated eastern Aleppo and made their way to the city centre, targeting police and military posts and capturing significant arms and ammunition. Aleppo remains contested with regime forces controlling the West and rebel forces controlling the East.

As the opposition began acquiring more arms and ammunition (seized from army depots within Syria and acquired from international and regional donors), the conflict intensified and grew in scale, morphing into a zero sum conflict, with both sides fighting for their survival. In July 2012, the International Committee of the Red Cross ruled that the conflict in Syria was to be classified as an internal armed conflict or a civil war.

4. Who comprises the Syrian Opposition?

The Syrian uprising had one common demand: the fall of the Assad regime. The spontaneous nature of the uprising meant that no common political /ideological agenda was drawn up as an alternative to the Assad regime prior to the revolts, rather the opposition to the regime comprised of a vast array of political actors functioning both within and outside Syria (many political dissidents, such as leaders of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood have been in exile).

In an attempt to bring together various opposition groups under one umbrella organization, the Syrian National Council (SNC) was set up in March 2011. Since its inception, the SNC was plagued by internal rifts and schisms, and failed to take a clear stand on issues such as foreign military intervention, political and military strategy and a program for a post-Assad Syria. Dominated by the exiled leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and functioning in Turkey, it was criticized for not incorporating prominent secular opposition leaders into its fold, and for being out of touch with Syria’s ground reality. It had little influence over armed rebel groups operating on the ground, especially since they received military and financial support directly from various regional and non-state donors, bypassing SNC’s role of coordinating disbursement of arms from foreign donors to opposition fighters. Given the SNC’s lack of influence over militant groups, and with its representative legitimacy increasingly being called into question by both Syrian and international actors, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was formed in November 2012 (with great international diplomatic effort) that incorporated the SNC along with other opposition leaders, in an attempt to widen the support base of the political opposition. The coalition, like its predecessor the SNC, has been fraught with internal fragmentation and has been unable to claim legitimacy as the sole political representative body of the Syrian opposition. Further, it lacks governmental experience and has no real influence over the armed rebel groups.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA), composed of military defectors and volunteers, consists of the few rebel groups that support the coalition. However, given the waning military influence of the FSA (more and more of the groups comprising the FSA are abandoning it to join rival camps), and proliferation of armed groups who do not recognize the legitimacy of the coalition, it is becoming progressively harder to bridge the gap between the actors on the ground and the political opposition based outside Syria.

Syrian war analyst Charles Lister estimates that there are as many as 1000 individual armed groups currently operating in Syria, sometimes forming ad-hoc alliances with each other, other times competing with each other. All attempts at bringing together the armed rebel groups under a centralized command structure have failed. The fact that both the armed opposition and political opposition are unable to present a unified front hampers not only their ability to communicate with each other, but also the overall success of the opposition movement.

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Source: Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

5. Who are the jihadists and why are they becoming significant actors in the conflict?

The Syrian uprising began as a secular and peaceful resistance movement against an autocratic regime. The uprising, however, progressively morphed into a military conflict, with various Jihadists joining the ranks of the armed opposition.

The conflict in Syria has taken on a plurality of dimensions, with class, identity, local and regional alliances, and religious and sectarian divisions- among others- emerging as fault lines in an increasingly complex conflict. Sectarian rhetoric, employed by the Assad regime since the beginning of the uprising and stoked by regional power players, has polarized the conflict along sectarian lines and created space for Jihadists espousing virulent Sunni chauvinism to gain influence. Moreover, these Jihadist groups are actively funded by regional governments and non-state donors, looking to further their own strategic interests, allowing these groups to gain disproportionate influence in the highly militarized conflict. Jihadists have been successful in recruiting a large number of fighters, from within and outside Syria. The most significant Jihadist groups operating in Syria are:

The al-Nusra Front: The Nusra front is an al-Qaeda affiliate group that announced its creation in January 2012. Its aim is to overthrow the Assad regime as a step towards the creation of a Pan-islamic state ruled by Sharia law. The ranks of the al-Nusra front contain experienced Jihadists who are “well versed in a number of armed conflict and insurgency strategies”. Thus, even though they number an estimated 5000, they are acknowledged as one of the most efficient rebel groups operating in Syria. The al-Nusra front is operational in 11 out of 13 governorates in Syria, underscoring its territorial reach across the nation.

Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS): In April 2013, the creation of ISIS was announced, a unification between al-Qaeda in Iraq and its Syrian affiliate, the al-Nusra front. The leader of the al-Nusra front denied such a merger. Though its exact numbers are unknown, it is believe to comprise of a number of foreign Jihadists, and has quickly emerged as a major insurgency group, having strongholds in Homs, Raqqa, Abu Kamal and along the Turkish Syrian border. ISIS is funded by the oil fields under their control in Iraq and recently in Syria. They also fund their activities through ransoms from kidnappings.

Islamic Front: In November 2013, seven rebel groups coalesced to form the Islamic front perhaps forming the largest opposition rebel alliance. The new alliance, which comprises of Ahrar-al-Shaam and Suqoor-al-Shaam brigades amongst others, does not include al-Qaeda associated groups of ISIS and the Nusra front, but is instead an ‘explicitly Syrian Islamist body’. Ahrar-al.Shaam brigades are a collection of conservative Islamist and often Jihadist groups (it consists of almost 50 groups), who operate chiefly out of northern Syria but have footholds across Syria. With their insistence on minority rights (insert link), their ideological posturing is not as hard-line as the al-Nusra front. The Suqoor- al-Sham brigades are another significant actor in the opposition movement. The group is said to be funded by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and frequently employs nationalist rhetoric setting it apart from transnational Jihadi groups. That two significant opposition groups have now merged under the umbrella of the Islamic front serves to underscore the importance this new group will have in the Syrian opposition movement.

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Source: Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

6. Has the Syrian conflict now become a sectarian one?

The Assad regime has employed a sectarian discourse from the start of the uprising in an attempt to position itself as the only guarantor of minority rights. The proliferation of radical and increasingly influential jihadist insurgents, espousing a virulent brand of Sunni chauvinism has meant that sections of the opposition are also embracing a sectarian narrative. The fact that the conflict has taken on a regional dimension only exacerbates this divide. Syrian opposition is funded and armed by the Sunni dominated states of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, with Sunni fighters from all over the world (though their numbers remain considerably small) having joined the ranks of the opposition. The Syrian regime is backed by Shiite Iran and members of the Lebanese militant Shiite Hezbollah groups are now fighting alongside regime forces.

The conflict has resulted in millions being internally displaced and the threat of sectarian violence is accelerating that process. The rising spectre of violent reprisals have caused scores more to flee from their homes to areas exclusively inhabited by their own sect, changing the social landscape of many Syrian cities, towns and villages.

Though the Syrian conflict is increasingly defined as a war between an Alawite-Shia regime supported by minority groups and a Sunni opposition, allegiances in Syria do not necessarily follow this dichotomy. The regime’s support base consists not just of minorities, but also of Sunnis loyal to the regime, such as traders, businessmen and army officers, who have a stake in the regime’s survival. Similarly, the opposition movement has Alawite, Christians and other minorities in their fold.

The recent clashes between the Kurdish community and some opposition groups, most notably the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic state of Iraq and Levant, points towards increasing polarization of ethnic-religious groups in Syria. The Kurds, which comprise the 9% of the population, are geographically concentrated in North-eastern Syria, along the Turkish and Iraqi borders. Since the outbreak of clashes in 2011, the Kurds have sought to distance themselves from both the regime and the opposition, and in mid 2012, the Assad regime withdrew its forces from Kurdish areas, effectively handing over control of these areas to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). When Jihadist groups attempted to extend their influence in Kurdish areas, the PYD’s military wing successfully repelled these attacks, and since then, a number of clashes between Jihadist groups and Kurdish militants have been reported.

7. What are the humanitarian consequences of the conflict?

The world is witnessing a humanitarian crisis unfold on a scale unprecedented in recent decades. The death toll since the start of the Syrian conflict has now exceeded 100,000 casualties. Roughly one third of the Syrian population has been forcibly displaced; 5 million Syrians are internally displaced, whereas 2 million Syrians are registered as refugees in neighbouring countries. The numbers of people fleeing their homes, the number of civilian casualties and the number in need of humanitarian assistance have all multiplied in the last year. The United Nations asked in December 2013 for $6.5 billion to help 16 million people, the highest sum ever for an individual conflict. However, the donor’s conference hosted in Kuwait did not reach this figure; donors have only pledged $2.4 billion, which is far from the required figure. Furthermore, aid agencies and donor organizations face incredible difficulty in delivering humanitarian assistance, particularly in cities under siege. The refugee camps in neighbouring countries are afflicted with overcrowding, crime, and lack of basic amenities. Government forces and some opposition militias are exhibiting horrific levels of brutality. A recent report by the United Nations Human Rights Council details the range and depravity of the crimes against humanity being committed in Syria. These include summary execution, murder, rape, torture, hostage taking and other gross human rights violations.

As prospects for ending the civil war in the near future are increasingly slim, the humanitarian consequences of the conflict will continue to mount and have ripple effects across the entire region.

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Source: commons.wikimedia.org

8. Why has the Syrian regime agreed to dismantle its chemical weapons?

On August 21st 2013, witnesses and activists reported the use of chemical weapons on two Damascus neighbourhoods. Within hours, these claims were corroborated by graphic videos and pictures of dozens of victims suffering from symptoms caused by exposure to nerve gas. Though an exact figure of the number of casualties could not be established, the Syrian opposition claimed that at least 1300 people had been killed in the chemical attack, which according to them, had been carried out by the Syrian regime.

The evidentiary video footage sparked uproar from the international community. Even though the Syrian conflict had caused over 100,000 casualties, evidence of the use of chemical weapons causing over a 1000 casualties, added a different dimension to the conflict. Chemical weapons, unlike conventional weapons, are indiscriminate targeting civilians as well as soldiers. As a result, the Geneva protocol was signed in 1925, prohibiting the use of chemical weapons in warfare. A United Nations mission sent to Syria to investigate the use of chemical weapons reported that they had indeed been used, and analysts agreed that opposition forces did not have the means to launch these, placing the blame squarely on the Assad regime.

The Syrian regime denied and challenged these claims, citing lack of definitive evidence holding the regime responsible. Meanwhile, the US government mulled over the possibility of military strikes in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons. This was despite President Obama’s previously unwavering stance on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, threatening in 2012 that such use would cross a ´red line´, provoking a military strike from the US. Military action by the US in Syria never materialized because of its wariness of becoming involved in another conflict, rather a diplomatic solution was agreed upon by Russia and the US, whereby Syria agreed to hand over control of its chemical weapons arsenal to international supervision, and a framework for Syria’s chemical disarmament was agreed upon (by mid 2014, all of Syria’s chemical weapons would either be destroyed or removed). Assad, who vehemently denies charges of using chemical weapons, agreed to their disposable in order to avert a potential military strike thereby ensuring his regimes survival in Syria.

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Source: Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

9. What are the effects of the Syrian conflict on neighbouring countries?

The Syrian conflict threatens to destabilize the entire Middle Eastern region, but the consequences of the war have been particularly dire on its immediate neighbours.

The Syrian conflict could unravel the already fragile and precarious fabric of Lebanon. The increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict has had spill over effects with sectarian violence erupting in cities such as Sidon, Beirut and Tripoli, one example is the last terrorist attack against Hezbollah in a neighbourhood in Beirut.

Lebanon also has to contend with the growing number of Syrian refugees crossing into its territory. UN figures estimate an influx of 800,000 refugees currently in Lebanon, with scores more unreported. Syrian refugees now comprise 25% of the Lebanese population.

In Iraq, sectarian violence and the steady influx of refugees has exacerbated the deteriorating security situation. With the Shia dominated government of Iraq tacitly supporting the Assad regime, polarisations between the Shia majority and Sunni minority -embittered by feelings of being marginalized by he Shia government- has widened. Furthermore, the spill over effect has arrived at Iraq since Sunni militants have gained foothold in the country. That has been demonstrated by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant who has been capable of taking the city of Fallujah.

Turkey has received more than 600,000 Syrian refugees. Refugee camps are proliferating around Turkey’s southern border, and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslim refugees in its southern province of Hatay, threatens to stoke ethnic and sectarian tension in the province. The most profound challenge posed to Turkey presented itself when President al-Assad relinquished control of key Northern Syrian towns to the Democratic Syrian Party, closely allied with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Though a ceasefire is in place between the PKK and Turkey, should negotiations fail, the PKK could use northern Syria as a territorial base from which to launch military offensives against Turkey.

Jordan has received approximately 550,000 refugees straining the already financially strapped Kingdom. With an increasing number of Jordanian Jihadists crossing over to Syria to join the ranks of al-Qaeda affiliated groups, the security of Jordan itself is being undermined. This could provoke retaliatory measures from the Syrian regime, and the possibility of Jihadist factions fighting in Syria including Jordan in their purview of ‘Jihad’ or holy war.

10. Is a political solution to the Syrian conflict possible?

Syria’s deputy prime minister, in September 2013, announced that the civil war had reached a military stale mate, with neither side capable of defeating the other. This military impasse is unlikely to change anytime soon. The balance of power could shift in the event of a Western led military intervention, an endeavour the West has ostensibly rejected. Thus, all hopes hinge on a political solution. The long delayed Geneva II conference, which started on the 22nd of January of 2014, hoped to provide a platform where a political solution could be chalked out. The principles for a political transition in Syria, as formulated under the auspices of the UN, include ensuring the territorial integrity of Syria, the formation of a transitional government with full executive powers and setting up a viable timeframe within which Syria can move from a Presidential system to a multi-party, democratic parliamentary system.

Geneva II was marked by the uncertainties about which actors would participate in the conference. For example, the Syrian National Coalition only confirmed their presence after a meeting in Istanbul where they demanded the withdrawal of the invitation to Iran. Finally, the UN Secretary General withdrew the invitation to Iran because it did not accept the Geneva I conclusions. In Geneva, the regime and the opposition leaders sat around the same table and reached very basic agreements: letting women and children leave the besieged city of Homs, as well as some non-combatants (after submitting a list of males who claim to be civilians); allowing the entrance of a humanitarian convoy in the city and making lists for the exchange of prisoners.

The conference was marked by constant verbal confrontation between the two delegations: the opposition insisting on talking about political transition and the government about terrorism. Finally, the agreement concerning Homs has not been respected; but instead, local cease-fires have been achieved in order to deliver some humanitarian aid.

However, it was impossible to agree on a general cease-fire or start a political transition to end the current conflict. The Syrian opposition has set as preconditions the removal of Assad from power, and a specific timeframe for such a transition. These are concessions that the regime is not willing to grant, especially since al-Assad has gained considerable international leverage owing to his role in the dismantling of its chemical weapons arsenal. The National Coalition, already fractured by internal rifts and divisions and with its legitimacy as a representative body being called into question by opposition groups that leave its fold, will be wary of granting concessions lest its grassroots popularity decline any further. Even though the National Coalition is the chief representative body of the Syrian opposition, it is unclear whether it retains the authority to negotiate on behalf of the diverse groups that comprise the opposition, and whether it will be able to ensure that all these groups abide to a solution that may be drawn up at the Geneva II talks. The lack of consensus amongst the major powers on the political future of the country and how to mitigate the ever increasing humanitarian consequences of the conflict further complicate the peace process. Despite the conference ending without any tangible results, Lakhdar Brahimi has claimed that the conference has started to bridge the gap between the opposition and the government however their positions are still very far apart.

The second round of negotiations started on February 10th, it lasted a week and once more no agreement was reached. Both parts have agreed on having a third round of negotiations, but no date has yet been set, to discuss the following items: fighting violence and terrorism, the transitional governing body, national institutions, and national reconciliation. The main controversial issue is that the opposition wants to negotiate the second item without reaching an agreement on the first but the government refuses.


Source: Flick


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