Keep hearing about Syria and not sure what the fuss is about?
Or do you understand that Syrians are dying by the thousands, but not sure who is to blame and what all the fighting is about?
Or, have you been listening intently to President Obama’s plea to intervene with limited military retaliation (read war) as a way to punish President Bashar al-Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons against his own people?
Don’t think that’s a good idea, even if you understand the loss of life occurring an ocean away?
You’re not alone. It’s hard to grasp the complexity of the Syrian civil war which officially began a couple of years back but has been brewing for longer than some of us have been paying attention. And it’s even difficult to understand the Obama administration’s desire to intervene, or what role other countries may have played in this conflict.
But no need to be embarrassed. None of us know it all. But maybe this guide to the conflict in Syria will help us all gain a better understanding of the layers of conflict in the country.
Here’s a simple breakdown.
In short, what the hell is going on?
Okay, so Syria is in the middle of a brutal civil war between the government (President or dictator Assad) and the rebels. More than 100,000 people have been killed and two million have been displaced. But get this – more than half of the population are children. In other words, this war is very ugly, very deadly, and extremely heartbreaking.
Conflict within the dictatorship nation is common, but things hit the fan in April of 2011 (some say Syrians were inspired by the Arab Spring that toppled Egyptian, Tunisian and Libyan governments) when the peaceful protests started to turn up. And the government reacted with deadly force.
They started killing activists and their family members. They killed and tortured lots of children (see the brutal killing of Hazma Ali al-Khateeb). They opened fire on peaceful protests, killing thousands of Syrians. In daylight. But then the protestors, now called rebels, started to fight back. Enter the civil war.
Here’s a condensed version of what happened over the next two years, as reported by Max Fisher at the Washington Post:
Fighting escalated from there until it was a civil war. Armed civilians organized into rebel groups. The army deployed across the country, shelling and bombing whole neighborhoods and towns, trying to terrorize people into submission. They’ve also allegedly used chemical weapons…Volunteers from other countries joined the rebels, either because they wanted freedom and democracy for Syria or, more likely, because they are jihadists who hate Syria’s secular government. The rebels were gaining ground for a while and now it looks like Assad is coming back. There is no end in sight.
Okay, got that down? So you know they are fighting, but why?
This is a tough question that isn’t going to be fully answered in the short space that I have on this forum. There are many theories and layers of complex leadership, borders, religion and so forth that have aided in the push and pull that is going on right now.
But, here’s a stab at it anyway.
Reason 1: Basic power struggles between the citizens and the government that went up in smoke after the government overreacted to protests in 2011. Simple enough.
Reason 2: Colonialism and the rebalancing of power. Yeah, it gets tricky here. So there’s this theory (see here) that what’s going on right now is the effect of Syria’s “artificial borders” that were created by European powers. These borders forced together religious and ethnic groups (Syria is very diverse) but now we’re seeing a redistribution of power along those lines. Here’s another summation:
Most Syrians are Sunni Arabs, but the country is run by members of a minority sect known as Alawites (they’re ethnic Arab but follow a smaller branch of Islam). The Alawite government rules through a repressive dictatorship and gives Alawites special privileges, which makes some Sunnis and other groups hate Alawites in general, which in turn makes Alawites fear that they’ll be slaughtered en masse if Assad loses the war. (There are other minorities as well, such as ethnic Kurds and Christian Arabs; too much to cover in one explainer.) Also, lots of Syrian communities are already organized into ethnic or religious enclaves, which means that community militias are also sectarian militias. That would explain why so much of the killing in Syria has developed along sectarian lines.
That’s a lot to digest. But important to know if we are to understand why this is happening.
Reason 3: The government is failing and Assad doesn’t know what to do. So he does what his dictator father did – kill thousands. Except this time, the outdated tactics just aren’t working in his favor, basically. And that’s a really condensed version of that theory. Moving on…
Okay, so what’s this deal about chemical weapons?
This is important to know. While we may not understand the desire to intervene ONLY when Assad began using chemical weapons (and not when he killed hundreds of thousands with other weapons) there’s a simple answer. There are rules to this shit. And by shit, I mean war.
Basically the world agreed not to use chemical weapons because they kill a LOT of people…chemicals (like a bullet arguably) don’t have your enemies name on them. Look up the 1925 Geneva Convention for the deets on that.
So in short, chemical weapons are bad. Guns and missiles and bombs and such? Fair game in war. This all sounds really silly, huh?
And so Obama has to enforce that rule?
Pretty much. Long story short. And he might not have a lot of support, but the idea is that you have to contain the use of chemical weapons because if they are used frequently (or even at all) that rule may go out the war handbook. And then…what people would walk this green Earth?
That’s why you see him pleading with Congress to give him the green light on limited military strikes. It’s not going to end the war…but you see the idea here, no?
Doesn’t matter if you do or if you don’t, one thing is for sure. A military strike is not going to end Syria’s civil war.
It’s bigger than that. We’ve just scratched the surface. We haven’t even dealt with Russia’s involvement…but that’s another story for another day. These are just the basics.
For more information on Syria, Obama’s proposed strike or the chemical weapon attacks click the links below.
- Latest (as of Sept 6, 2013) on U.S. decision to strike
- All GlobalGrind news on Syria