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11 Key Things You Should Know About the Bloodshed in Syria

A primer gives the key aspects of the Syrian uprising, from the international response to the legitimacy of the opposition.
 
 
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The Syrian flag.
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For the past year and a half, Syria has been convulsed by violence, with little indication of victory for either the regime of Bashar Al-Assad or the opposition looking to unseat the regime.

Despite the country’s apparent deterioration into civil war, the global response has remained ambivalent and unclear, with no clear solution to the many mitigating circumstances that surround the conflict. This is partly due to the interdependent networks that link Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey, countries that face their own longstanding political crises. But the situation is made even worse by the lack of clear, credible information coming out of Syria, and the overwhelming pace by which events on the ground change every day. 

1. What is the history of the Syrian conflict?

Though the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world have played a pivotal role, tensions have been high in Syria for a number of years. After the presidential inauguration of Bashar Al-Assad, the son of the previous Syrian dictator, many expected that he would usher in a freer, more relaxed political environment. But the short-lived “Damascus Spring” of 2000 was quashed as Assad reverted to the heavy-handed approach of his father.

More recently, severe droughts throughout Syria have caused a surge in poverty and famine, creating mass displacements and population transfers in the process. The simmering tensions brought about by these developments exploded with the start of the Arab uprisings, and most of the early hotspots in Syria were the same agricultural regions most economically affected by the drought. The leadership of the anti-Assad opposition largely drew its ranks from the disaffected intelligentsia of the Damascus Spring.

2. What is the nature of the opposition?

It’s been exceedingly difficult to gauge the composition, ideology and motives of the Syrian opposition, partly due to the lack of credible information coming out of Syria, but also in large part due to the diversity of movements operating under an anti-Assad banner.

The Syrian National Council is the most well-known opposition organization, with a significant international presence and a fairly robust organizational structure (complete with a parliament, executive council, and media/PR bodies). The SNC also ostensibly cooperates closely with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella term for armed anti-Assad militias. The other major opposition groups, including the Syrian Regional Council and the National Coordination Committee, have either failed to reach the same level of international recognition, or have explicitly rejected it.

3. How much legitimacy does the opposition have?

Several countries already recognize the SNC as an official representative of the Syrian people, but the council has struggled in its attempt to claim the mantle of leadership of the Syrian uprising. For one, no one has been able to determine the extent to which the SNC influences the course of events in Syria. The organization is primarily composed of expatriates, and has a number of questionable ties to autocratic governments in the Arabian Gulf. It has recently faced a stream of high-level resignations, amid accusations that the group is too heavily controlled by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and that its internal governance structures have been too autocratic. The SNC’s newly elected leader has vowed to tackle some of these problems head-on.

The SNC also loosely cooperates with the Local Coordinating Committees, the cells responsible for much of the ground-level organizing in Syria itself, but they quarrel as often as they cooperate, and competing media narratives make it difficult to determine just how much support the SNC actually has in Syria.

4. Why hasn’t the uprising been more successful?

The Syrian uprising has faced unique challenges that have prevented it from reaching the same critical mass as its counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt. The Assad regime has managed to maintain the support – or at least the silence – of a sizable portion of the Syrian populace, and has been largely successful in projecting an image of itself as the last line of defense for Syria’s heterogeneous ethnic and religious communities.

This problem is compounded by the increasing militarization of the conflict. As the FSA has gained prominence, the nonviolent mass demonstrations of 2011 have nearly vanished. There are reports of increasing disillusionment with the armed opposition, and many have complained that their revolution has been “hijacked” by the rebels.

The armed opposition itself has been overwhelmingly outmatched by Syrian security forces, which still enjoys far superior numbers, weaponry and organization. Many observers warn that even with accelerated arms shipments from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, it is unlikely that the FSA will develop the capacity to directly counter the Syrian security forces in armed combat.

5. What options are available for the global community?

As international opinion has coalesced against the Syrian regime, world actors have struggled to determine a course of action to bring down Bashar Al-Assad. The U.S. has convened a “Friends of Syria” group, but the various countries involved have largely disagreed on the extent and substance of international involvement. Some, most notably Saudi Arabia, have advocated direct military involvement to support the SNC. The U.S. and most other states have preferred to take a more moderate approach, supplying nonlethal aid to the rebels while working to undermine the Syrian government. Most countries have agreed, however, to the heavy sanctions levied by the United States, aimed at cutting off the regime’s ability to fund its repressive security apparatus.

6. How effective has international intervention been?

The results of foreign involvement in Syria have been mixed at best. Though it is yet to be seen whether or not the sanctions will effectively starve off the Syrian government’s resources, it has undoubtedly contributed to an acute humanitarian crisis in Syria, rapidly inflating the prices of basic necessities like flour, gas and cooking oil.

The scope of international intervention – particularly US intervention –has also been deeply compromised by widespread mistrust of foreign involvement. Syrians have watched the continuing violence in Libya, the chaos in Iraq and U.S. posturing on Palestine with a wary eye. Polling shows record low support for U.S. involvement in the Arab world.

The Assad government has also used U.S. involvement to bolster its credentials as a member of the “resistance axis,” and blames much of the violence on an international conspiracy to undermine the regime’s opposition to Israel. Though the Israelis themselves seem remiss to see Assad go, this narrative has proven surprisingly successful within Syria itself.

7. What is the status of the Annan plan?

The 6-point peace plan articulated by Kofi Annan is still officially the internationally supported mechanism by which to end to violence in Syria, but its future relevance is far from certain.

The recent rounds of regime violence, which have taken the lives of several hundred Syrians in the past two weeks alone, have intensified an already pervasive discourse in Washington that the Annan plan is dead, and needs to be replaced by a new course of action, presumably led by the U.S.

No one is certain what course of action Washington intends to take, but many have been speaking about a Yemen-style transition model, which would involve a safe exit for Assad and a temporary stewardship under a senior regime official, to pave the way for future elections.

Annan himself does not consider the original plan dead, but blames its failures partly on the unwillingness of international supporters to take it seriously enough. “The international community has united, but it now must take that unity to a new level," Annan said at a speech at the U.N. General Assembly. "It must be made clear that there will be consequences if compliance is not forthcoming."

8. Who is still backing Bashar Al-Assad?

From the earliest days of the conflict, Russia, China and Iran have solidly backed the Assad government, shielding it from tougher international responses. This is partly a consequence of the role China and Russia have played in the global political environment: checking American initiative while defending territorial sovereignty to avoid dangerous precedents for their own domestic troubles. But China and Russia are also deeply tied to the Syrian government for energy, arms and trade contracts.

The Russians have grown increasingly critical of the Assad regime as it has repeatedly failed its Annan plan obligations, but it remains to be seen whether they are willing to jettison their ally for the sake of regional stability. Moscow has been openly speaking about the possibility of a post-Assad Syria, which may be an encouraging sign.

9. How sectarian is the conflict?

There is little doubt that all sides of the conflict have used (and abused) ethnic and religious affiliations to serve their own purposes. Both the Assad regime and the main opposition bodies are quick to paint themselves as inclusive, nonsectarian groups with broad representation and a tolerance for diversity. In truth, it does appear that the government has been disproportionately targeting Sunni Muslim communities, and much of the opposition’s vitriol has been directed at Syria’s Shi’a communities in general, and Assad’s own Alawite sect in particular.

However, the conflict cannot be reduced to simple religious or ethnic cleavages; the reality is far more nuanced. One of the regime’s central pillars of support comes from the wealthy Sunni business class, and there are countless members of the opposition from various minority groups, including Alawites, Kurds, Christians and others. These ethno-religious identities often overlapped with systems of economic patronage that ensured the loyalty of key constituencies, and research by Bassam Haddad of George Mason University demonstrates that these spheres of inclusion/marginalization are far more accurate indicators of pro/anti-Assad sentiment than religion, ethnicity or class.

10. How bad is the spillover effect?

The violence in Syria has certainly spurred attacks across Lebanon, and unrest may be building in neighboring Turkey and Jordan as well. But these conflicts are not borne of the Syrian uprising. Existing issues and competing political factions have taken the Syrian conflict as a mechanism to frame their grievances, providing an outlet for simmering tensions based on deep-rooted political disagreements.

Spillover is likely, and as the conflict progresses it will grow increasingly prevalent, but only where existing conflicts are looking for an excuse to manifest themselves.

11. Is civil war inevitable?

There’s no way of knowing which direction it will take, but all signs point to the continuing deterioration of the Syrian conflict toward further militarization and fragmentation. As the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Turkey supply rebels with increasingly sophisticated weaponry and training, the conflict will almost certainly get bloodier before it has any chance of improving.

The current equilibrium is a fragile one, but that implies it can be tipped in a number of directions. A concerted international effort – that substantively includes Russia, China and even Iran – can possibly put enough pressure on the Syrian regime to agree to a compromise with the opposition groups, possibly paving the way for an eventual transition to post-Assad rule. It’s not a very palatable outcome – Assad has far too much blood on his hands to claim any real legitimacy in Syria – but compared to the alternative, it may be the only way to stave off total collapse.  

Samer Araabi is the government relations manager of the Arab American Institute, and a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus and the Inter Press Service.
 
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