Since the start of the current Syrian conflict in 2011 there are a number of times when I have been asked to appear on Christian radio stations that I am connected to in order to provide a basic understanding of what is happening in Syria, along with some thoughts on why it might be happening. Through my work with Tearfund it is a situation that I have followed and worked to educate myself on.
Knowing that the Syrian conflict is confusing to many people I have worked at presenting it in such a way that enables people to walk away with a better understanding. That desire to understand the conflict seems to be increasing, so this post is a response to that. It is not a scholarly piece as I am simply an interested person that wishes to help people think about the conflict in deeper terms than what headlines are able to offer. This piece will cover some big areas of information in a very sweeping manner, so I would encourage further exploration.
The current Syrian conflict began in 2011 but it has a context that in modern times, began with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. For hundreds of years the Ottoman Empire had controlled a vast area that included the Middle East as we know it. Over a period of time leading up to World War 1 its control had been eroding and events of World War 1 sped up its demise.
Through the demise of the Ottoman Empire other powers such as Britain and France took up control over vast areas of the Middle East and carved it up into nations based on negotiations with powers within the area and their own interests. Modern Syria was one of the nations that emerged from that time. After some conflict it was placed under French mandate by the League of Nations. It was recognised as an independent republic in 1944 and French troops left in 1946.
While the Middle East has an extremely long, well known history, most of its modern nations are very young. With that in mind it’s not surprising that conflicts would occur as nations jostle for position and power struggles play out. Europe’s history is full of such struggles as well. The emergence of modern nation states as we know them in the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire is a recent development in global history.
The decided borders of Syria pulled together a number of different people groups both ethnically and religiously, within a very large area. Syria was new and the nation became a place where various power struggles played out between those groups. The decades following independence were marked by this struggle.
In 1958 Syria united with Egypt. In response a number of Ba’athist Syrian military officials formed a secret committee that ended up taking control of the nation through a coup in 1961. The coup led to instability and in 1963, through another coup, the Ba’athist Party took over and instituted martial law, effectively suspending the nation’s constitution. The Ba’athist party had a political wing and a military wing. Disagreement between the men who oversaw those two factions led to the head of the military taking over in 1970. This was how Hafez al-Assad (father of the current President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad) came to power.
The rule of Hafez al-Assad was marked by the squashing of popular uprisings and conflicts with neighbouring nations.
Bashar al-Assad took power when his father died in 2000. There were hopes for large scale reforms, but that did not eventuate.
Under the Assads, for all their faults (the repression of any opposition through violent force), Syria became a reasonably prosperous nation that largely protected minority groups. When Bashar al-Assad took over he attempted to reinvigorate the stalled economy through a number of market reforms. He shifted attention from the agricultural sector to economic growth in urban areas. This hurt the many who relied on agriculture for their well-being.
This was exacerbated further by a drop in water access in agricultural areas during the second half of the 2000s. Some argue this was because of drought, while others argue that it was due to poor management of water resources to keep the agricultural industry humming prior to that time in a way that was unsustainable. In that view, the drop in rainfall sped up the fallout of the mismanagement of resources. Whatever the cause, it led to almost 1 million Syrians losing their livelihoods by 2009, thus causing a mass move of families to urban areas. The tinderbox of unrest was set.
The end of 2010 marked the beginning of what came to be called the Arab Spring, beginning with the December revolution in Tunisia. The revolution quickly led to waves of protests and revolts across the Arab world, including Syria in 2011.
Because of what had taken place in Syria in the few years preceding the Arab Spring, Syria was ripe for popular protests and indeed protests began in urban areas. I have no doubt that foreign entities took advantage of the discontent in Syria and were stoking the fires of protest for their own gain. Bashar al-Assad started to promise reforms, including the end of martial law, but also responded to some of the protests with military force. The spark of civil war was lit.
The Middle East Power Struggle
To understand how the Syrian conflict escalated as quickly as it did, it’s worth having a broad understanding of a power struggle that exists in the Middle East.
Broadly speaking there is a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. They are two of the dominant forces in the Middle East and both have opposing ideologies. Separately they represent the two strongest factions of Islam with the Saudis being Sunni and the Iranians being Shia. Both Sunni and Shia are complex groups with various factions within them. It’s much like the diversity and complexity of Christian groups that exist. Trying to concoct stereotypes of either is detrimental.
Because of Saudi and Iranian external political alignment they also represent the ongoing arm wrestling between the United States and Russia, both of whom have significant interests in the area because of natural resources. Saudi Arabia is traditionally aligned to the United States and Iran to Russia. The history of those alignments is an interesting one.
Nations and political groups within the Middle East can then, to a large degree, be placed within two camps that belong as alliances to those sides. This is an extremely simplistic view but it goes some way to understanding the current mess in Syria. It can also be seen in other tensions playing out in the area, including the conflict in Yemen.
The Escalation of the Syrian Conflict
Bashar al-Assad’s government was aligned to Iran and Russia so when protests started to occur, the other side in the power struggle within the Middle East had opportunity to try and push a sea-change of power within the nation. Foreign fighters from surrounding nations began to pour into the country. They were resourced and armed by external forces who had a vested interest in toppling the Assad regime and ending Syria’s relationship with Iran and Russia. True to political alignment, the United States backed the fighters opposing the government.
In response Iran involved itself in support of the government, as did Hezbollah, a Shia group in neighbouring Lebanon. Russia has also given significant support to the government.
The Evolution of the Opposition
Having followed the news of the conflict since the first glimmers of protest began, I am interested in how the telling of the Syrian conflict story has evolved. Initially reports given to the Western media talked of the government (Assad regime) and opposition ‘rebels.’ The broad picture painted was that the ‘rebels’ were disaffected Syrians who had taken up arms to overthrow the oppressive government. Over time the narrative began to change.
As the fighting grew and various groups got involved it became clear that ‘rebels’ being supported by external forces (including the United States) did not all fit the Western ideal of a popular uprising seeking to institute democracy. It became clear that some of the groups were extremely violent. In response the narrative shifted with some being referred to as rebels and some as extremists/terrorists. Any study of the various opposition groups will quickly show that the lines between them are very blurred.
One of the extremely violent groups that got itself involved in the Syrian conflict very early on was what is now known as ISIS. ISIS was originally an Iraqi group aligned to Al-Qaeda and comes with its own complexities that need to be understood in order to combat it. In Syria they gained power and prominence and were ultimately able to take control of important parts of the country, destroying lives and historical culture as they did. The magnitude of the threat they pose became very apparent as they started to take control of cities, strategically important supply lines and as they began to dissolve the border between Syria and Iraq, taking significant portions of the latter. For whatever reason Al-Qaeda severed ties with ISIS.
It Gets Complicated
The emergence of ISIS and a couple of other extremely violent groups significantly complicated the situation for external nations trying to topple the Assad regime. Now they had two forces they needed to be seen to be fighting – the government and the groups they had labelled as terrorists. The issue could be kept somewhat contained when it was in Syria, but when ISIS swept across large parts of Iraq, the significance of the problem became obvious and impossible to contain.
So the Syrian conflict has a number of things playing out now:
- The government is trying to maintain strength and still has control of much of the coastal area and areas inland from it, while trying to take back other parts of the country from ALL opposition groups with the support of Iran, Hezbollah (from Lebanon), and Russia.
- The United States, with a number of global and regional allies, is supporting various rebel groups within Syria, and carrying out airstrikes in support of them. It is also doing the same in Iraq. They are supporting these groups in the fight against the Syrian government but are not engaged in airstrikes against the government. They are also supporting them in the fight against ISIS and are engaged in airstrikes in that part of the fight.
- Turkey has now sent in ground forces within Syria to secure its border against groups it deems to be terrorists. Who knows how far Turkey will push as it also wishes to see the Assad government toppled.
- The Kurds in the north east of Syria have managed to carve out a semi-independent territory and have been backed by the United States. They are seen to be one of the strongest forces against ISIS. Turkey, an ally of the US, sees the Kurds as an enemy and acts accordingly. The Kurds exist in an area that covers a few neighbouring nations and have had nationhood aspirations for some time.
- Recent failed ceasefire attempts brokered by Russia and the United States have sought to get the government and rebel groups backed by the US to stop fighting so they can turn their attention on fighting the ‘terrorist’ groups – though not everyone is agreed on what groups should be included in that definition. In the meantime both Russia and the United States are trying to protect their opposing interests and therefore the interests of those within the country that they are supporting.
Syrian Conflict 101 101
It’s a mess.
The Humanitarian Crisis
We can pontificate about the complexities of the Syrian Conflict all we like, but the humanitarian cost is obvious. Thousands upon thousands have died. Millions have fled the country and become refugees, losing everything and placing a significant burden on surrounding nations. Millions more who are still in the country are living hand to mouth and are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. Aid is near on impossible to deliver and the list of atrocities grows daily.
The conflict continues to destabalise the whole region and that destabalisation is spilling into Europe as the flood of refugees seek a better existence elsewhere. People in Europe and other parts of the world are reacting accordingly. Fear and violence grows both in Syria and around the world.
I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s going on. I would encourage you to seek out more information.
In trying to envisage what might be down the track from the Syrian conflict, it’s hard to see how it’s going to play out and who the victors will be. Recovery from this conflict for Syria and the region will take decades.
While I struggle to see the outcome I have an unrelenting grip on hope even though I feel despair and grief over the crisis regularly. Though it may take a long time this can be made right, peace can reign, and healing can be found. My prayer is that people who hold to that unrelenting hope would be active at all levels of the mess and that voices of peace will ultimately win out over the sound of guns. My support goes to such people and to the victims of the Syrian conflict – the many refugees around the world trying to carve out new lives in places foreign to their homeland.