The Syrian civil war has been going on for almost a decade. With all the foreign intervention, this war is not just an ordinary war between two parties; It has turned into a “proxy war”. This war is more complicated than what one would imagine. Hundreds die every month due to armed attacks and bombings. People are deprived of basic healthcare as most hospitals right now are in ruins. The whole country is in ruins. But how did Syria end up in such a mess that can’t be solved anytime soon…? Let’s dig deep into the origins.
RELIGIOUS DEMOGRAPHICS OF SYRIA:
Syria is located in the middle east, bordering Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Israel. Syria identifies itself as a nation that follows Islam. Almost 75% of the people are Sunni Muslims. Alawites, an ethnic minority group (sub-sect of Shia) make up about 5% of the population. 10% of the population is Christian and the rest is made up by Armenians, Kurds, and other religious groups.
THE BEGINNING OF THE WAR
The Al Assad family has been ruling the country since Syria got independence from the British. They ran Syria’s only political party, The Ba’ath party, which comprises mostly of Alawites. In 1963, under the rule of Hafez Al Assad, a state of emergency was declared in Syria, which gave the police the power to arrest anyone, at any given time, without charge. The government couldn’t justify why they declared a state of emergency. Many saw this as the government’s attempt to curb protests, control the media and give Alawites more rights.
In the year 2000, Bashar Al Assad assumed power. Under his regime, Syrians witnessed an all-time increase in the unemployment rate, corruption, no political freedom and constant repression by the government. People couldn’t protest because the Syrian government was an authoritarian one, just like most Arab countries.
In 2011, several protests against the government started taking place in Egypt and slowly spread to other Arab countries. These protests were called Arab springs. A similar thing happened in Syria. People took to the streets to oppose the emergency bill after a group of boys were arrested and tortured as they wrote something ill against the Assad regime. The security forces started attacking the unarmed civilians. The word spread all across the country. Protesters became more violent.
The bill was eventually taken down by Assad, only to be replaced by another bill that enforced stricter laws on protesting and expression of political views in public.
Enraged by this absurd bill, thousands of people took to the streets in the city of Homs. They decided not to move from the streets and spending the night on the streets by putting up tents. At dawn, the security forces opened fire against the protesters, following the orders of Bashar Al Assad, who claimed that people protesting are “terrorists”. This triggered the so-called Syrian Civil war.
ARAB & PERSIAN ROLE IN THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR
The war initially began between the two parties: the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The SAA was backed by Al Assad, and the FSA comprised of Syrian people who opposed the government and turned into armed rebels. Not only did the FSA comprise of civilians, but also defectors from the SAA who decided to join the civilians to fight against the government. Al Qaeda also joined the Free Syrian Army to fight Assad, forming a new branch in Syria called Jabhat al-Nusra.
The rebels became stronger and were successful in driving the SAA away from certain regions. The FSA assumed complete control over these regions. These regions were the first in the long history of Syria to elect their own leader and have freedom. At the same time, The Kurdish minority up North formed their own armed group to counter the Syrian dictator.
Things started falling apart for the SAA. In such a situation, a dear Shia-Muslim Friend named “Iran” came to Al Assad’s rescue. Supporting Shia and related communities (Alawites) was in their common interest, that’s why they had a good relation. Iran started supplying ammunitions and also sent hundreds of officers on Syrian ground. This was the point where this mere civil war turned into a “proxy war.”
To oppose Iran’s intervention, the powerful countries in the Arab league started funding the rebel groups and also provided them with weapons. All Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries could do was provide them with light artillery. These were no match to the aircraft and other heavy weapons like tanks, rocket and missile launchers that the SAA possessed, facilitated by Iran’s intervention. The FSA was proving to be weaker.
Iran, in response to Saudi Arabia’s support, called the Lebanese militia backed by it to join the war in Syria, named “Hezbollah.” Saudi Arabia, upset by Iran’s move, started funding the rebels twice as much as they did earlier. This time, Jordan started opposing the Assad regime.
AMERICAN INTERVENTION IN THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR:
Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, was horrified after he heard that Assad used chemical weapons on his own people. The whole world condemned this inhuman act. The US threatened Assad of conducting a military strike against him.
Three days later, Russia urged Assad to give up all his chemical weapons to avoid any such horrible incidents in the future. The US-backed down, but Assad still had most of Rusia’s support. In response, the USA sent CIA agents to train the rebels in Syria to fight. Thus, the US officially becomes a part of the Syrian Civil War.
THE BIRTH OF ISIS
In 2014, the course of this war completely changed when a group of fighters from an Al-Qaeda affiliate group, based mostly in Iraq, left due to mutual disagreements. The group was called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or Daesh according to the Arab world. They conquered the north-eastern part of Syria and most parts of Iraq, calling it as its Caliphate. This group was led by Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, who was recently assassinated by the US forces.
The ISIS wanted to overthrow Assad and wanted their Caliph, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi to take Syrian matters into his own hands. It also fought other rebel groups like the Kurds in the northern part of Syria and its nemesis, Jabhat Al-Nusra. This group also attacked anyone who didn’t believe in its ideologies, whether Muslim or not.
The US, under Obama’s administration, fixated on carrying out air-strikes in regions where Assad had control over and was also planning to eliminate Assad. In 2014, after carrying out the air-strikes and almost killing Assad, the US quickly shifted its focus to fighting the ISIS, as it proved to be a threat to the entire world. The US launched special programs to train the rebels who are willing to fight against the ISIS and not Assad.
THE TURKISH PROBLEM
The Kurds or the YPG were among the rebel groups who were fighting against the ISIS. The YPG is a division of an internationally recognized terrorist group, housed in southern Turkey. Turkey happens to despise them.
The YPG made gains with the US and the US started funding them to fight Daesh. They also supplied ammunition to them. This infuriated Turkey. As a result, Turkey started bombing the YPG. In response to the Turkish attacks, the US renamed the YPG to Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and also included other groups rebel groups into it.
RUSSIAN INTERVENTION IN THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR
Russia has pretty diplomatic ties with the Assad government. Syria is a major buyer of Russian petroleum and other goods. Another reason was, Syria identifies itself as a socialist nation.
Russia intervened in the Syrian civil war on the pretext that it meant to fight the ISIS. It started providing the SAA its air-force and a lot of arsenals. However, Russia was found to support Assad’s forces rather than fighting ISIS. Airstrikes conducted by the Russians were mostly targeted at the regions where the rebels funded by the US were in control.
With the help of Russia, pro-Assad forces were able to bomb many notable places to put pressure on the oppositions. This weakened the FSA but gave the YPG, Daesh and the SAA the upper hand in the war. Thus, Turkey entered the northern part of Syria to eliminate the threat that Daesh and YPG posed to them.
At the same time, many rebel groups in Iraq and Syria, including the SAA, turned their attention to Daesh. Along with the foreign intervention, they could restrict Daesh to a small area in Syria. The US was successful in assassinating the Caliph, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in 2019. However, the war still goes on, with no signs of ever stopping.
The Syrian civil war is a classic example of what a country would endure if the government is dysfunctional. Civilians are dying at the expense of the powerful. Over 600,000 civilians have died due to frequent bombings, mass shootings and chemical attacks. Just imagine! How cruel can a person be who attacks his own people with nerve toxins? This war, unfortunately, is not going to end anytime soon. The only way it could end is the Assassination of Assad. But that would probably cause a third world war. All we can do is pray for and support the civilians in every way possible.